I teach a class in subversive American literature for Ashland University at PCHS. In the course, we read texts whose themes focus on nonconformity, undermining authority, and protest, including Chopin’s The Awakening, the poetry of Langston Hughes, Kerouac’s On the Road, Heller’s Catch-22, and many more. Among the “many more,” is Melville’s classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” which provides a master’s class in passive disobedience.
The story is set in the mid-19th century. Bartleby works as a scrivener (copyist) in a law office. It is dull, soul-sucking work. One day, when asked by his employer to copy a document, Bartleby calmly responds, “I would prefer not to.” He shows no further disrespect or acrimony, but as the plot continues, he repeats the phrase, “I would prefer not to,” to every request his employer makes of him. I can’t help but believe everyone of us would love – just once – to respond, “I would prefer not to” to our bosses’ or our lives’ demands. Ultimately, things don’t end well for Bartleby, but at least he took a stand and willingly faced the consequences for doing so.
Whenever I discuss the themes of nonconformity or “fighting city hall” with my students, I emphasize that both of these choices come with repercussions. The nonconformist is typically marginalized by society and the subversive punished by an authority figure. In other words, I warn them to exercise either at their own risk. In the end, most of us most of the time choose to go along in order to get along.
Now, you need to understand that this class is full of the academically best and brightest of our senior class. They are teacher-pleasers all. Some of them could probably rattle off their cumulative GPA down to the one thousandth of a point. I’d be surprised if any of them have ever served a detention, and prior to last week, their next act of nonconformity or serious subversion would be their first. I have to admit, somewhat ashamedly, that what’s left of the teenage rebel in me occasionally reveled in rubbing their faces in their “Goody Two-Shoes” reputations. All of which leads me to the question found in the title of this post.
Last week, I assigned a take home test for their semester exam grade. For an hour, I labored while composing a question that required two complete paragraphs to pose and demanded a minimum of five hundred words in response. It was a summative assessment of rhetorical beauty. Although I was not looking forward to spending the succeeding Saturday grading the exams, I was looking forward to the students expressing their understanding of subversion and nonconformity and the place of both in America’s past, present, and future appropriately supported by references to the various texts we read and my accompanying lectures.
You can imagine my stupefied reaction when I opened the first exam doc., and instead of finding the five hundred+ words I requested, I saw four: “I’d prefer not to.” I proceeded to page through the remaining fifteen exams. They all read, “I’d prefer not to,” which left me in a quandary. If I chose to assign them failing exam grades, each of their final grades would have fallen two complete levels. An “A” would have become a “C,” and a “C” would have become an “F.”
My first thought was to write on their exams, “Great! “I would prefer not to” have to grade all of these exams on a Saturday anyway. Instead, I awarded them each a 95% and wrote, “Well Played!”
My reasoning for arriving at this assessment was threefold. Firstly, they illustrated that they had learned and fully understood the risk inherent to subversion. Remember, this was their college transcripts that these students were playing with, not some measly unit test. After fifteen weeks of long readings, essay assignments, and lectures, they were willing to throw all of that away in this one act. Secondly, at a time in our society when it’s nearly impossible to convince sixteen people to agree on just about anything, they impressively managed to build a unanimous bloc that acted in complete concert with one another; although, they are not necessarily a group of close friends. Thirdly, they knew me well enough and trusted me enough to believe that I would appreciate the bold brilliance of their play and not punish but reward them for it.
Going forward, I hope that they will always remember the risk they took and that it was worth it. I hope that, in the future, should circumstances ever require them to act subversively in the furtherance of a good cause or in the attempt to stop an evil one, they will have the courage to do so. I hope that – even if they lack the courage to act subversively when justly called for – they will appreciate the efforts of those who do, always with the knowledge that dissent is not the same as disloyalty.
As for me, the more I thought of their act of subversion, the more proud of them I grew. They had actually put into practice what I had preached. Not to brag, but what better affirmation of my own effectiveness as a teacher? They really had been listening!
I know one short story, however, that will NOT be included in next year’s syllabus. “Fool me once . . ..”
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7 thoughts on “A Lesson Learned or A Teacher Tricked?”
This is awesome, Ty! I’m so proud of your students and SO proud of you for embracing what they did. I know that had to take a lot of courage for them and that they all did it with their GPA’s on the line – wow! That, again, shares the value of what you taught them and the trust they have in you to take such a risk. I wish every teacher did this and every student had the opportunity. My heart is so full.
Made my day already!
Thanks for reading LaVonna. This means the world coming from you!
As the mom of the student that came up with this idea. It was the longest 3 days I have ever had to share with her waiting for you to open them up to grade. Although it was the greatest for me being a mom of a goody-two-shoe to see her finally risk her perfect gpa to show you that she really learned a lot from your teaching. I’ve always taught Averie consequences to your actions, so if you do something always be prepared for the consequence. And boy the yell of YES!!!! YES!!! He wrote Well played. Mom he gave us a 95%, had me smiling from ear to ear. I was very proud! Thank you for being such a influential teacher.
This is great! Thanks for sharing, Billie. I was very surprised, but proud, when I heard who was the ringleader. They’re all such great kids. It has been an honor and a pleasure to have them in class.
As a former teacher, I cannot express how much I appreciate your passion for teaching! You have taught Lucas so much more than you will ever know. Because he is an “out of the box” thinker, he struggled on whether to follow the crowd on this assignment. He really contemplated his choices and consequences…another great life lesson learned. Thank you for all that you have done over the years to engage his brain… you are a true asset to PCHS!! I trust he will take these valuable lessons to do great things.
As Rebekah and Andy’s mom I want you to know that you are the teacher that has had the most influence on my kids. Thank you for being more than just a teacher but instead a positive influence who has challenged them intellectually. Being a risk taker myself I am incredibly proud of Rebekah for taking a stand and being willing to accept whatever consequences were associated with that risk.
I have always been this subversive person. Looking back it began during my college years. (1970’s Viet Nam era.) Always able to discuss and debate politics et al with my dad and instilling this in my policy debater daughter (now grown and married) makes for an interesting family dynamic! We do not always agree, but we do listen. I always appreciated teachers like you, expanding my mind to not always follow the easiest path. You are truly a “teacher”! Your students are truly quite fortunate! Bravo!!