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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