How to Love Your Students

Let’s create some contrast and tension at the outset and first say how not to love your students. Or, put otherwise, let’s say:

How to Hate Your Students

Hate: from Proto-Germanic hatis, to treat with hostility.

That’s easy: lecture; grade; assign papers; offer the scantiest of feedback on assignments; break down the student’s “performance” into percentages; limit contact to office hours; stand at the front of the classroom; dominate discussions; make the students sit in tight little desk-chairs; create an atmosphere of emotional discomfort and verbal silencing; foster competition between students; give midterm and final exams; make students call you “Professor” or “Dr;” do not respond to emails, or, if you do, only cursorily. And did I mention: lecture? In short, at all times maintain an authoritarian bearing. You are, after all, only exercising the rights and privileges granted you by the university in your role as professor to place yourself apart from your students.

Is labeling these actions “hostile” not a bit overblown? After all, these practices are commonplace in college classrooms. In fact, they seem definitive of college teaching. As such, they are performed in good faith by well-meaning actors. So, what are you talking about? That’s just how it’s done!

Well, I am interested in ideas that challenge basic assumptions about the very nature of the college classroom. So, much will depend on whether you are willing to consider the merits of a given challenge. Here, we are challenging the assumption that the college classroom is necessarily a place apart from everyday life; one that, as such, requires a sui generis social relationship like that of professor/student.

A down and dirty way to see where you stand in relation to this challenge is to ask yourself questions like the following: Would I treat these people like this outside of the classroom—would I lecture to them, for instance, and evaluate their performance if the encounter were occurring in a bar or at a dinner party? How would I convey my knowledge in those settings? How would I respond to them there? How would I conduct myself there; what would my bearing be? Do the projects of teaching and learning necessitate the particular relations and practices sketched above? Might a more natural relationship to our students better accomplish our aims as teachers?

The Revolution is in Everyday Life or Nowhere At All

If such a thought experiment shifts your view, then you just might begin to perceive the hostility inherent in the status quo classroom relationship between professor and student. If so, we are ready to talk about what such a “natural” relationship might look like. In other words, we are ready to talk about love.

In The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem writes:

People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have corpses in their mouths.

This quote is relevant here for several reasons. Vaneigem (b. 1934) was a member of the Situationist International, a group that, among other socially transformative events, “detonated” the student protests of May 1968 in Paris and beyond. (“We will only organize the detonation,” proclaimed the Situationists.) In the above quote, Vaneigem is condemning institutionalized leftists (read: liberal and progressive professors), who are content with radical-sounding theories and piecemeal reforms that ultimately serve to perpetuate the status quo, to defer fundamental change, and, of course, to leave their careers intact. Vaneigem argues that unless we act directly within the sphere of “everyday life,” where life is actually lived, then we are dealing in lifeless gestures.

As a life-giving revolutionary action, Vaneigem recommends “the refusal of constraints.” I understand this to mean a refusal to respect and abide by the endless rationales for caution among “reformers” and other “sensible” people. No grades? You can’t do that! No syllabus? You can’t do that! Most intriguingly of all, he insists that vital action must include “understanding what is subversive about love.”

The quote from Vaneigem is used as an epigraph in the Introduction to Richard Gilman-Opalsky‘s recent book, The Communism of Love: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Exchange Value (AK Press, 2020). As a way of crafting an applicable resource for educators (and for x-buddhist leaders), I will present Gilman-Opalsky’s treatment of love in this book.

(One parenthetical matter before I do. I feel that Gilman-Opalsky’s “communism” is pervaded by the same spirit as Peter Kropotkin’s anarcho-communism. What is this spirit? It is the spirit of “love,” love as the animating force of what Marx called our Gemeinwesen, our shared, communal life. This spirit is “the beating heart of communism.” So, for both Gilman-Opalsky and Kropotkin, “communism [is] understood as a human yearning and way of life, not as a form of government.” “The communism I speak of,” he clarifies, “is always about forms of life, not forms of government. The communism I speak of aims at revolutionary transformations of life, including and especially the creative production of new forms of life.” I don’t see how anyone who embraces anarchist values would have the slightest disagreement with Gilman-Opalsky on this point.)

Love as a Practical Resource for Higher Education

Now, let’s create a practical resource. Here’s how you might proceed. First of all, start viewing your college classroom (or x-buddhist sangha) as what Gilman-Opalsky calls “a precarious little commune.” View it, that is, as a “refuge for love and community in a liquid, chaotic world.” Do the classroom features sketched above not reflect the values of our hyper-accelerated techno-consumerist capitalist world? Of course they do. Rather than replicating that, can you image creating a refuge from that world? Can you imagine creating an atmosphere, relations, and values that prefigure a saner world? Both this imagining and this doing begin with love.

So, what is “love”? Let’s first say what it is not. Saying so, we will also allay some of the anxiety that, I imagine, must arise in reading a title like “How to Love Your Students.” Love is not “wingless Eros.” This term is used by Alexandra Kollontai in her 1923 article “Make Way for Winged Eros.” Although Gilman-Opalsky ultimately finds Kollontai’s views on love “in various ways markedly outdated and wholly unaware of the issues of the twenty-first century,” he nonetheless finds value in her reflections on the socio-political ramifications of a “communism of love.”

Kollontai takes up her reflections on love because the prevailing notion, that of “wingless Eros,” “contradicts the interests of the working class.” We can adapt this claim to our purpose and say that our current societal notion of love contradicts the interests of a re-imagined higher education.

In the first place [wingless Eros] inevitably involves excesses and therefore physical exhaustion, which lower the resources of labor energy available to society. In the second place it impoverishes the soul, hindering the development and strengthening of inner bonds and positive emotions. And in the third place it usually rests on an inequality of rights in relationships between the sexes, on the dependence of the woman on the man and on male complacency and insensitivity, which undoubtedly hinder the development of comradely feelings.

“Winged Eros,” Kollontai insists, “is quite different.” Essentially, it is different in precisely the social and political consequences flowing from communist, communally-oriented, love. It is different primarily in the fact that “the person experiencing love acquires the inner qualities necessary to the builders of a new culture—sensitivity, responsiveness and the desire to help others.”

The only stipulation is that these emotions facilitate the development and strengthening of comradeship. The ideal of love-comradeship, which is being forged by proletarian ideology to replace the all-embracing and exclusive marital love of bourgeois culture, involves the recognition of the rights and integrity of the other’s personality, a steadfast mutual support and sensitive sympathy, and responsiveness to the other’s needs.

Kollontai actually begins this quote with the claim that “Obviously sexual attraction lies at the base of ‘winged Eros,’ too.” But Gilman-Opalsky makes it clear that this feature is, in fact, not at all obvious and not at all necessary to communist love. So, let’s turn now to what he does say about it. We will do so by enumerating several points he makes concerning “what love is against (and what is against love),” and conversely, “what love is for (and what is for love).” Gilman-Opalsky’s statements stand in for a tight, overly determinant definition of “what love is.” I will offer some brief input to each point based on my own classroom application of the principle. But I hope you will use these statements to give thought to how you might enact such a communism of love in your own “little precarious commune” of the classroom.

What Love is Against (and What is Against Love)

1. “Love is against the isolation of the human person.”

What practices do you engage in that serve to create a sense of separateness in your classroom? Obviously, the mere proximity of bodies does not mitigate isolation. What, then, is standing in the way of a sense of togetherness? I would suggest as basic, relatively easily-fixable culprits such elements as technology, harsh lighting, and classroom configuration (with the professor at the head). What else? How about isolated reading and preparation? Why? Might, for instance, communal reading of a text better accomplish the aims of comprehension and discussion? To actively work against the isolation that seems to be endemic to the college classroom is an act of love.

2. “Love resists its common reduction to sex.”

One of the reasons that I imagine the reader might be reading this post with a certain caution is that we “mistakenly think that the locus of love is in the sexual relationship,” as Gilman-Opalsky writes. Not so with an anarchist/communist conception of love. A good reason to dig further into The Communism of Love is that Gilman-Opalsky offers a sweeping survey of love across disciplines (philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminism, political science, the Black radical tradition, etc.) in order to recover lost resources and to construct a more inclusive synthesis of what might count as “love.” So, rest at ease that you may speak of, indeed, may feel, your classroom actions as “love.”

3. “Love works against the privatization and commodification of life and relationships.”

My post “The Perverse and the Generic” offers thoughts on this issue. The seemingly intractable fact is that such commodification is woven into the very fabric of the classroom. After all, your classroom is inseparable from the university itself; the university is inseparable from our capitalist economic system; and that system is inseparable from the neoliberal policies and values that have infected virtually every facet of our lives. The degree to which you work against this collusion is the degree to which you enact love for your students. Remember, we are viewing our classroom as a “little precarious commune,” a temporary shelter from the storm.

4. “Love acts against the complex hierarchies of white supremacy, nationalist imperialism, and sexism, as well as their normalization in society and politics.”

This might seem like an obvious facet of every twenty-first century classroom, right? But I don’t think it is obvious at all. I will have to refrain from going on too long here because this point touches a major nerve with me. Probably the most exasperating of all my frustrations with college professors, born out of conversations and observations, is this: Virtually all of them sincerely see themselves as champions of social justice. And virtually all of them replicate the oppressive hierarchies above. This is so predictably the case that I have simply concluded that the normalization referred to is a mode endemic to liberal and even progressive pedagogy. Leaving it at that, I ask you to reflect on how you might lovingly upset this normalization in your classroom.

5. “Love works against insecurity by establishing other securities.”

On course evaluations, students commonly report that they don’t “feel comfortable” speaking up, offering their opinion, taking a chance. The classroom becomes just another insecure space in an insecure world. I always address this issue directly with my students, and work with them on making everyone feel welcome to speak their mind. The material we are reading (philosophy, critical theory) is dangerous enough in that it often leads to serious doubts and reevaluations of life on the student’s part. So, we establish the nourishing security of open communication and shared vulnerable risk-taking.

6. “Love is opposed to alienation and to the passivity that comes from depoliticization.”

Another exasperating moment in conversation with college professors comes when they inevitably insist that “politics should not enter the classroom.” Education is never politically neutral! Yes, you may avoid literal reference to the political issues of the day. But what unfolds in your classroom, what sorts of practices you engage in as a teacher, what kinds of relations you form with your students, yes, even whether or not you lecture, all have profound political ramifications. The classroom is permeated by, infused with, saturated in, the political. There is no escape! (This argument is a major feature of How to Fix Education.) The illusion of political neutrality ultimately serves to obscure the political nature inherent in every educational act. If, as Henry Giroux insists, “Education, in the final analysis, is really about the production of agency,” then let’s consider, for instance, what kind of political agent is being created when you subject your students to one-directional lectures; when you incessantly “evaluate” them via exams and points; when you have them use a title in front of your name, and so on. By perpetuating the illusion that their classrooms are politically neutral, professors exacerbate students’ alienation from precisely the inevitably political nature of whatever it is they are learning. By the way, contrary to the dogmatic assertions of STEM professors, this point applies to them no less than it does to the humanities.

What Love is For (and What is For Love)

1. “Love is for the Gemeinwesen.”

Acting out of the “common being” (Gemeinwesen in Marxist terminology) that is, or that should be, the college classroom, is, by our emerging definition, an act of love. Current practices, such as those listed at the beginning of this post, are, by contrast, for the “individual being.” Those practices are designed for students to measure themselves against one another, in individualized differentiation. And at the end of the course, professors themselves are evaluated for their individual “performances” and pitted against one another in the marketplace of course registrations. Might we rather create an atmosphere of togetherness? I spend a good deal of time discussing this issue with students. Over the course of the semester, it becomes apparent that they have developed heightened consciousness of how and when they are or are not contributing to the common being that is the class. Given students’ all-too-common experiences with dull, uninspiring classes, it takes surprisingly little to impress on them the idea that excitement and stimulation increase in proportion of their active engagement.

2. “Love aims for the supersession of sex.”

GIven the ubiquitous equation of love with romantic love, hence with sex, this point bears repeating, this time as a positive value. “Love” as you are being asked to consider and practice it here, necessarily supplants sexual love. As Gilman-Opalsky puts it: “every durable being-together that supersedes sexual bodily pleasure is for love” (emphasis added). As an example, he notes that it is love that holds a relationship together long after sexual desire has waned. It is this quality or binder of togetherness that we are calling “love.”

3. “Love makes value beyond exchange value.”

In today’s university, it is, of course, impossible to disentangle ourselves from the capitalist logic of exchange value. What does it cost a student to sit in your classroom? A couple of thousand dollars? To attend your university? Tens of thousands? And what does the student receive in exchange? Knowledge? Well. In terms of the economic value that is bound up in a diploma, the answer is: credits. A credit is a kind of cryptocurrency whose value fluctuates with the reputation of the minting institution. (When I taught at an “elite” East Coast college years ago, students were up in arms because the college had fallen from #4 to #7 in one of the ranking guides. Students literally talked about this “decrease in value” using the language of the stock market. ) Educational practices that replicate this exchange mentality are, simply put, hateful. They reveal hostility toward the values that capitalism cannot commodify. The “value” you will be creating in your “little precarious commune,” then, is like that of friendship or of playing the piano in your living room or of spontaneously aiding a stranger in need. Its true value is impervious to economic exchange.

4. “Love is for health, yours and mine.”
5. “Love is for radical equality.”
6. “Love is for the creation of precarious little communes.”

Here’s what we are generating in our little precarious commune: open conversation; courageous dialogue; responsiveness; a sense of belonging; a relaxed atmosphere; engagement for the sake of others as well as for oneself; participation for the sake of learning and growth in of themselves; non-hierarchical relationships based not on titles and degrees but on on mutual respect and a desire to learn; a culture of self-care that is interdependent on the care of others and on the whole (Gemeinwesen); the creation of values that, like friendship, cannot be quantified or commodified. Just imagine such modes of being extrapolated out to the social-political whole. This is what health is, health for both the individual and for society.

7. “At a social level, love seeks the abolition of alienation.”

How might a professor actively seek an end to the sickening alienation that pervades the halls and classrooms of higher education today? And let’s be clear, we are not speaking here of a mere alienation for the products of our labor. We are speaking of a far-reaching alienation: alienation from one’s own passions and abilities (art, philosophy, etc., are too impractical!); students’ alienation from one another (the competitiveness inherent in grading); the professors’ alienation from students (egalitarianism is wholly inappropriate!); the class’s alienation from social reality (no politics!). Indeed, based on my own interactions with discipline-bound academics, I believe we can even speak of an alienation from creative thought itself.

Because love seeks the abolition of alienation, my recommendation for how to get going has proven as effective as it is simple: present these new classroom values to your students, and open a discussion about how to best realize them together. It really isn’t that hard. All it takes is love.

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