Teaching Mohammed Ghandi at CUNY

Indira Gandhi, a CUNY undergraduate recently wrote on his final exam, was the wife of Mohammed Ghandi. This startling bit of information reached me in the same week that a friend who teaches at Princeton raved about brilliant screenplays and short stories his freshmen had just written about Bahadur Shah Zafar and communal riots.

I reacted somewhat ungraciously to my colleague’s joy. Taking pleasure in the excellence of one’s students is only natural, of course. But the week of final exams, for professors no less than for students, can have overtones of Hum ne maana, yeh zamaana, dard ki jagir hai. (For non-aficionados of filmi shairi, that’s “I accepted that this age is the fiefdom of pain.”) Needless to say, the pain is worse in the trenches. In those circumstances, for Princeton faculty to exult “Where do they make these kids?” is a bit like buying a car at a Mercedes dealership, exclaiming about what a nice car it is, and asking (rhetorically) where it was made. But mostly, my dard had to do with the discovery of Mohammed Ghandi in my classroom.

To be fair to CUNY undergraduates, howlers like that are rare. We usually get one per class per semester. (“Buddha? Have we heard of this guy?” greeted me in my first year.) And usually, there is a prosaic explanation. The student answering the question about Mrs. Gandhi, for instance, had not come to class very often. Nearly every other student knew who Indira Gandhi was (although one did try to cover her bases by describing her as “the daughter of Nehru Gandhi”), because they had not been absent the day I lectured about Indian politics in the mid-1960s. Nevertheless, a missed lecture is not much of an excuse, since anybody who has finished high school can reasonably be expected to have heard of Buddha, and even to know that ‘Mohammed Ghandi’ is not an alternative spelling of ‘Mahatma Gandhi.’

To say that the public schools of urban America have major problems is to understate the obvious, and I will not get into those issues in this short essay. I will limit myself to noting that at CUNY, where training schoolteachers is a large part of our mission, we contribute to those problems by taking in, and then sending down, people who are sometimes shockingly unqualified to teach. Still, bad teachers and poor funding are not adequate explanations for the crisis of secondary education in this country; if the institutions are at fault, so are the clients. I am not talking about problems of ‘intelligence’ or even about learning disabilities. I have in mind a more diffuse problem of culture that is laid bare at an institution like CUNY, which seeks to provide – or rather, confront – the products of urban high schools with a standard liberal-arts university curriculum.

The symptom of this culture is a pervasive indifference to academic work that sometimes reaches the level of hostility. Its commonest form is not mistakes on examination papers, but missing class. On the first day of every semester, I make an earnest – and, I hope, frightening – speech about the importance of regular attendance, the correlation between attendance and grades, and so on. Students look surprised and skeptical, and many do not shake that skepticism even after the results of the midterm examinations have driven my point home. Come to class every day? What an idea. In one class, I encountered a sardarni complete with turban (something you rarely see on Sikh women in India, but immigrant subjectivities often call for overcompensation): highly intelligent, reasonably well-informed, confident, articulate, entirely promising. The A was there for the asking. Yet she displayed a curious habit of skipping class every once in a while, ignoring the polite warnings. On the final exam her luck ran out and the missed lectures caught up with her. Schade.

Examinations themselves become rituals of cultural revelation. Students will simply fail to show up for an exam, without prior notice or subsequent anxiety, and expect to be given a make-up test. During any two-hour final examination, some students will stroll in half an hour late, not looking the least bit flustered. During the same test, a few will hand in their blue-books thirty minutes into the session, so that some students are leaving while others are still walking in. Nobody cries, hyperventilates, goes into convulsions or faints, in the way that thirty or ninety minutes of forfeited examination time might trigger at, say, Princeton, not to mention an Indian university. It’s just not that big of a deal.

There are, of course, gratifying exceptions. In general, there are two kinds of exceptional students at the CUNY colleges. One is the exceptionally diligent. In the past semester, I had two young women in my class who had taken the course, and failed, the previous year. They came back, as failed students sometimes do, to try again. But unusually, they tried very hard, beginning with identifying where they had gone wrong the last time. One contacted me before the semester began to ask for reading assignments, and did not miss a single class. The other, sullenly silent last year except for occasional displays of ‘attitude,’ was impressive with her eager participation this time around. (She began the semester by sending me a note reading “I’m back! Boo!”, but I refused to take the bait.) Both students finished the semester with B’s.

CUNY is, indeed, a mecca of second chances. It is a place where people who have made a mess of their initial encounter with higher education, but become more determined and disciplined, can start over. They include faculty with burned fingers and broken ladders, but mainly it's the students: the public-school teacher's aid who has realized she can do better, as well as the Olympic-level show-jumper, so academically driven that I would tease her about it in class (she was one of the few who did hyperventilate about the clock during exams), who writes an essay on gender and class identity that is so good that I read it aloud to my mother, herself a former professor. When they are aware of their limitations, they tend to rise above them. Teaching such students is in some ways more satisfying than teaching the ones that shine immediately and effortlessly. But even the easy shiners – the other exceptional type at CUNY – have a tendency to stumble at the finish line, tripped up by the limitations of what we have been able to do for them, and by the culture of Mohammed Ghandi.

It might be argued, not without merit, that the ‘culture’ that I have in mind is nothing more or less than a culture of poverty: that absenteeism and tardiness are bread-and-butter realities for a student body that comes substantially from the working class and small-business backgrounds. Many students have jobs that necessarily take priority over classes, and/or must take care of children or other family members. But it quickly becomes apparent to the professor who those students are: they are slightly frantic, apologetic, and will almost always explain the problem. They are rarely the casual late-comers and no-shows. One of my best, most serious, students this past semester was a mailman, who would – as often as not – rush into class late, postal uniform soaked in sweat, mumbling with a wry smile that he had not been able to get away from work in time. Another student, after having missed a couple of classes, waited sheepishly in the corridor with her little daughter for permission to enter the classroom; she had not been able to find a babysitter. She wrote a fair paper analyzing Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night from a Gandhian perspective, comparing (Mahatma, not Mohammed) Gandhi’s utilization of the press in the Salt Satyagraha with the handling of the media by anti-war marchers in Washington in 1967. No CUNY faculty member that I know is unsympathetic to such students or unwilling to accommodate their needs, even if it means turning an indulgent eye to a seven-year-old in the classroom. (The children, I should say, are almost always impeccably behaved.)

The majority of the absent and the late, however, have no excuses beyond dead grandmothers. (“I had to go to Guyana for the funeral,” said a student who had missed an exam and was demanding a make-up. I asked for a boarding pass stub or ticket receipt, which was not forthcoming.) They don’t come to class because they have better things to do; the notion that school is the most important thing in the life of a college student is not a part of their cultural make-up. The dynamics of a commuter school, which is not one’s home like a residential college but a place that must compete with the obligations of home, come into play. Their families are often struggling but they are rarely destitute. Families do, however, become a problem in ways that are unimaginable at Princeton or Berkeley. They are often profoundly ambivalent about university education. In an abstract sense, they ‘support’ it and want their children to have the degrees that come from it. They typically make the necessary financial sacrifices. But at critical moments, they fail to provide the necessary push, or actively get in the way.

It is, for instance, a ubiquitous experience for faculty at Queens College, and presumably the other CUNY campuses as well, to find themselves trying – and failing – to persuade their best students to look beyond New York City for graduate school. Queens may be New York’s most ethnically diverse borough, but it is also, paradoxically, highly provincial. (The other boroughs are no different, for the class of New Yorkers that goes to CUNY.) The world beyond the bridges and tunnels might as well be Uranus. Parents balk, and not just with girls. Last year, one of my students was accepted into the Ph.D. program in history at the University of Edinburgh. His India-born parents refused to let him go, although they would have been quite willing to finance his studies had he been accepted into the CUNY Graduate Center. Another student – a vivacious, sardonic, absurdly promising young woman, also of South Asian origin – was, likewise, given to understand that while marrying ‘out of state’ was acceptable, studying ‘out of state’ was not. A brilliant Orthodox Jewish girl who could, potentially, have entered any doctoral program in the country was told firmly that she would remain in New York City and study accountancy.

These restrictions are, to some extent, the peculiarities of immigrants who come from outside the university-educated upper classes of their old countries. Having been dislocated, dispersed and stripped of social status once by emigration, they are reluctant to see another dislocation, dispersal and demoralization, brought about this time by the prospect of children moving away to ‘find themselves’ at distant universities, beyond the cultural oversight of parents and husbands. What is liberating to the ‘model minority’ at Stanford and Columbia is deeply threatening, and not quite as important, to the classes – often from the same ethnic backgrounds – that sell the model minority their ethnic groceries. For the latter, higher education is not just about upward mobility, it is also disruptive: a place and a current where one can tread gingerly, but not become immersed or swept away.

For professors in the classroom, this ambivalence on the part of the clientele poses all kinds of problems, which I flippantly summarized as dard. Faculty in the CUNY colleges come from the same undergraduate and graduate programs, and usually the same class backgrounds, that feed any other university in this country. Dealing with a student body that does not share the standard priorities of university education – manifested in very basic things like coming to class, taking notes, and taking examinations seriously – is almost inevitably a shock, and it would be disingenuous to represent this as something other than a type of culture shock. (I would add grinning inanely at your cell phone to the list of shocking behavior, but I suspect that happens at Princeton too, and that my horror is generational rather than class-based.)

Beyond culture shock, and far more serious, are the problems of pedagogy. There are, I think, two issues here: one tactical, the other strategic. Tactically, it becomes very difficult to teach the serious and the semi-serious, the capable and the severely underprepared, in the same classroom and from the same syllabus. Mohammed Ghandi inevitably imposes restrictions on what can reasonably be assigned and what questions can be asked, either in discussions or in examinations. There is no point in assigning a book or article that two students will read and one will understand. For the sake of Mohammed Ghandi, readings are cut to the bone, which necessarily undermines the education that we might offer to those who can – and would like to – read, discuss and write at a much higher level. These students, like the young Indo-Guyanese-American woman who wrote this paper on Orwell and Kipling, then become lost exceptions, awkwardly stranded in classes where nobody else is on the same page. Strategically, it becomes difficult to answer the question of just what CUNY’s undergraduate programs are supposed to achieve. If the goal is to train university graduates of a recognizable standard, then the current arrangement is seriously flawed; those of our students who reach that standard do so in spite of the system, not because of it. If, on the other hand, the goal is merely – as one colleague put it – to ‘make them a little better,’ then is it reasonable to deploy the title, curriculum and credentials of the university? There are no answers – nothing practical, at any rate.

There are, of course, all kinds of imaginable institutional fixes. CUNY is a sprawling, bloated structure that (except at the level of doctoral study) desperately prioritizes quantity over quality, so changing that would be an obvious place to begin. We can call, quite reasonably, for significantly higher standards for admission, a clear separation of missions between the community colleges and the four-year colleges, the early and aggressive identification of the severely challenged and the promising, and their separation into discrete academic tracks, smaller classes for seminars and writing workshops, and the provision of discussion sections for all lecture courses. When grading papers, I am often struck by the phenomenon of the half-understood concept, which is also, ironically, a gateway into unexpected insight. Answering a question about nationalist thought in India and Pakistan, several students wrote that while Hindutva is incompatible with secular democracy, the Two-Nation Theory is not. It was clear from their answers that they had only a partial understanding of the Two-Nation Theory, and the fault is undoubtedly mine to share. But it was also evident that they were not entirely wrong and had stumbled into a complex analysis. The only way to unearth and unpack these things in time is discussion in a small group, in addition to the usual three hours of lecture each week. But additional hours of instruction and the small-group format are expensive, beyond the financial reach of CUNY in the age of budget cuts. And other reforms – higher admission standards, for instance, or the dismantling of CUNY altogether to restore the autonomy of the individual colleges – are politically untenable.

The political aspect of the problem is, of course, inseparable from the financial: CUNY is paid for with votes just as much as it is paid for with money. As an institution, it is curiously representative of post-colonial democracy, in which the Brahmin institution of the university has been taken over by Dalits – and the notorious Mohammed Ghandi – for their own purposes and imaginations, creating a hybrid that is necessarily somewhat painful for the pundits. But that pain is inseparable from unusual compensations that are also hybrids: turbaned sardarnis, rebellious girls in hijabs, intellectually inclined mailmen anticipating the demise of the postal service, retired dentists who remember Kissinger’s stance on the Bangladesh war, a brilliant young feminist who asks, worriedly, if there is a lot of violence in the Mahabharata before she begins to read Vyasa's poem. CUNY is a backwater, but it is also a frontier, the Deep Space Nine of higher education, and sometimes it becomes necessary to remind ourselves of that.

May 25, 2012