Sunday, September 18, 2005


Never let it be said that sites like ratemyprofessor have no utility...I use them all the time to get candid feedback (especially from the angry students who don't feel like they can object to my teaching methods or course content directly), which
I can then use to be a better teacher. Every once in a while, however, I get a response that just cuts me up.

I teach colonialism. A lot of what I do is looking at the ways in which indigenous peoples organize their societies prior to colonial incursion (including the power relations and trade relations in a particular region) and then looking at the ways that societies mutually change in relationship to each other in the wake of contact and pandemic collapse. Most students (mostly white, such is the composition of my school) get a little sick of hearing about Indians all the time when they think the main story should be our conquering European heroes. I work hard on balance, though, and up to now, I imagined I was doing a pretty good job of setting aside "noble savage" or "murdering barbarian" stereotypes to get at the historical experience of peoples in process. It's not a utopian wonderland before Europeans arrive and indigenous peoples are resourceful, but vary in their range of responses (from collaboration with Europeans to hostile resistance to a mix of accomodation, diplomacy, and physical resistance). The challeges they meet are multiple: ideological, physical, material, political, economic. And so, I try to be true to that complexity and I thought I was doing ok.

But not so for one exceptionally angry student. She felt personally insulted, as an American Indian, by my lecture on the Aztec empire and subsequent European domination of the Central Valley of Mexico. She calls me a bitch and a liar,
ignorant, a racist of the first order, absolutely unfit for my job, a hazard in the classroom. It was torture to have to sit there and listen to me go on. Now I am scrambling through my notes trying to figure out what it was that prompted this heartfelt outburst of cultural wounding. My take on the Central Valley is that it's a very tense place in the mid- to late-15th century. The Aztecs have been fighting a series of wars to expand and control their empire. Although they have managed to build an exceptionally complex society that is arguably more sophisticated than the big empires of classical antiquity, they've made a lot of enemies. Many of their tributary subjects are eager to collaborate with Cortes to throw off Aztec domination (military alliance being the way of doing diplomacy in the region). Montezuma is not a particularly effective leader. Pandemic collapse, rather than superior Spanish military force, throws Aztecan military efforts into confusion. Chieftains (caciques) often choose to collaborate with the Spanish rather than be killed and they continue in their position as the managerial class, directing labor and producing tribute for the new encomenderos in the immediate post-conquest period. The aftermath of conquest triggered a massive depopulation and social reorganization of the Central Valley, and the Spanish treated Indian peoples and their lands pretty horribly. And so forth. I've spent the morning checking and double-checking this lecture. It represents what historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists feel they know about the period. I use Nahuatal slides and documents in the lecture to let indigenous people speak for themselves about what was happening and the way they saw it. It's backed up with research, artifacts, Nahua and Mayan oral histories, and post-colonial indigenous writings. So what the hell did I say that angered this student so much?

In an ideal world, the student and I could sit down and we could commence a difficult dialogue about the multiple ways of knowing a people's past, about the ways in which pan-Indianism is a product of colonialism (I really doubt the student was Nahua, more likely he or she's a member of the Six Nations), and about what I don't get about what she or he is reacting to. With humility, we'd figure out a way to walk together and learning would happen all around. But this isn't an ideal world. The student by now either has dropped the class or has withdrawn into his or her shell (convinced of my utter worthlessness). And so I'm left with nothing but this blistering retort, a failed teachable moment, and a whole lot of questions.


...jg said...

Unless she's got some facts to offer to show that you are, indeed, wrong, it sounds to me that she's reacting out of some kind of unintentional racism (um...maybe "misdirected racial pride" would be better-phrased). If she's not willing to tell you why she thinks you're wrong, I wouldn't take her all that seriously. Not that it's not valuable for you to double-check what you're teaching, of course...but I wouldn't wreck my week over one malcontent who couldn't be bothered to stop by your office, or even e-mail you, to try to tell you that you were offending her, and how.

imfunnytoo said...

Yes, what I'm missing here is where is that request for a few moments in your office so they could vent their spleen (and perhaps document with specificity what struck them wrong.)

It's too bad. Both for the student and for you.

Poppy Cede said...

Hi Bridgett, I found your site from Tiny Cat Pants and saw this post about the negative comment you received at Back in my day as a college student the web was so new nobody dared touch it, except me and all of my geeky friends, so such things as ratemyprofessor and facebook didn't exist quite yet.

Having gone to college in a different era, I am frustrated at how easy it is for students to spit poo all over the world without any thought of the impact their hurtful comments make. Obviously the student who left the comment under your name at ratemyprofessor thought you had done this very thing to him/her, but it would have made so much more sense for that student to have approached you directly rather than hiding behind anonymity and giving you no opportunity to present all of the class with the student's constructive assessment of your lesson. (Well, I say constructive assuming that students are still respectful of their teachers, but I've heard that the number of disruptive and just plain rude students is quickly increasing.)

Anyway, I really have enjoyed reading through your blog. Your words resonate well with me because you aren't posting about your rich life with a beautifully ornate light fixture, a husband who dotes on you, and 2.4 children who are perfect.