Thursday, October 11, 2007

Studenting Redux

I was very pleased to see all of the interest in the To Student, or not to student post! The discussion, much of which was sparked by an initial distinction between a student-who-learns and a student-who-students (a la Sartre's garçon de café) seemed to concentrate on the "inauthenticity" of the latter. I thought it might be helpful, then, to revisit Sartre's café waiter from Being and Nothingness and see how close he is (or isn't) to the studenting student.

(That's the lovely Jean-Paul Sartre in the photo above. If one could transform the noun "French intellectual" into a gerund, that is what Sartre seems to be doing in that Parisian cafe, in black and white, with his pipe and MontBlanc pen, looking pensive and slightly perturbed... which reminds me of an insight by John R. that didn't make it onto the last discussion board. John reminded me that we should also consider a parallel category for the teachering-teacher, who is more concerned with learning the tricks of authority and perfecting the teacherly-image than in facilitating learning.)

To review, we will recall that Sartre's café waiter is described in a section on "Bad Faith." Sartre argues that human existence has two modes-- facticity and transcendence-- and we are ever negotiating a kind of "metastable" oscillation between the two. One is in bad faith when one tries to exclusively occupy a single pole of that pairing; either one "flees his or her freedom" and acts as if s/he was an object, or one "denies his or her facticity" and pretends to be unencumbered by the givenness of his or her situation. The café waiter, as Sartre decsribes him, is guilty of the first. He believes that he can "be a waiter" in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell. Sartre describes the waiter "waitering" in the following:

"His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the persons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer... He returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightrope-walker by putting it in a perpatually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand... He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café." (Being and Nothingness, 101-102)

When I teach this section to my students, I always ask them to imagine the affects and movements of a TGIF or Applebee's waiter, which I think is the closest American equivalent to the French café waiter. The point is, of course, that the waiter is in bad faith because he is "fleeing his freedom." He is trying to realize the being-in-itself (en soi) of "the café waiter." But he can never simply be a waiter in that way because he always has the freedom to transcend that situation (even if he denies it). As Sartre points out, there is nothing stopping him from waking up one morning and deciding not to go to work, or not to perform his job so eagerly and solicitously, save his denial that such actions are real possibilities.

Sartre's point is to emphasize the instability of this facticity-transcendence relation. We are what we are in the mode of not being it. Everytime we attempt to reduce ourselves to our facticity, we immediately realize that those facts can be transcended. Correspondingly, every time we pretend that we are unencumbered by our facticity, we find ourselves confronted with the limits of our freedom.

Back to the "student": I don't think studenting is (exactly) an instance of Sartre's bad faith. That is, I don't think that the student-who-students is simply "faking it" or "playing at being a student." I think studenting is a whole other activity than learning. That is not to say that one can't also "play at" studenting, but that wasn't the point of making the distinction between the student-who-students and the student-who-learns, as I understand it. Studenting isn't necessarily in bad faith in the same way that the waiter-waitering is, because the student-who-students isn't merely attempting to achieve the en soi of a student, but is trying to achieve a host of ends for which studenting is a means. Hence, studenting invovles a kind of pour soi.

On some level, I think we want to believe that studenting is "inauthentic" because we want to believe that our students should only be learning. But isn't that just objectifying, in a way, our students by expecting them to be "learners" in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell?


eavesdropper said...

Is it worse to be a teacher-who-teachers or a student-who-students?

anotherpanacea said...

well, I'm sure i've failed the Sartre test of authenticity a number of times, not least of all as a teacher, but I don't really find the Sartrean model of authenticty persuasive. I don't begrudge the students their instrumental relation to knowledge so much as I'm seeking an escape from that instrumentalism myself. The studenting students aren't waiters, they're patrons who aren't enjoying their meals. As the waiters in this equation, it falls to us to trick or tempt our clients into recognizing a sublime culinary experience when it's on the table.

But the real question is : what's so bad about inauthenticity? It's not like food service is an existence worth embracing with one's whole being!

Chet said...

I made a longer comment on the last post, but then deleted it in a fit of whim.

As it happened, I made copies of the original passage and brought it to my ACS students (Augustine and Culture Seminar--a liberal arts great books kind of course, yes, regretfully oriented towards our patron saint). The conversation I had with them was uninspiring. I suppose they were merely studenting.

They immediately jumped to the assumption that what learning meant (the definition was opaque to them) was doing it for oneself, learning through passion and dedication. For them it reflected the only opposite to all institutional structures, the idealized individual ...

I find this an interesting substitution. Of course, it wholly misses teh actual definition of "learning," which actually means becoming part of an institution named by each individual discipline.

I am as skeptical about their concept of authenticity as I am of Sartre's, but I find it interesting that the discussion immediately headed this way (particularly since the original author of the passage really doesn't underscore transcendence or freedom whatsoever).

Doctor J said...

I'm not sure if this is the time or place to make this point... but Sartre doesn't really have an account of "authenticity." You'll remember that, in the section on "Bad Faith," Sartre says that even "sincerity" (which, I suppose, is what Sartre thinks most of us would consider "authentic") is also in bad faith.

Daniel said...

This is a small point, but perhaps of interest. John Dewey preferred gerunds to emphasize the ongoing transactional processes that we too readily substantivize. That is, both "to student" and "student-who-students" are nouns, which returns us to the implicit essentialism Dewey wants to avoid. Really, there are no "students" but rather people who engage in "studenting" more or less often.

Another point is that these substantive assignations are often comparative - Melanie is a "runner" because she is a person who engages in running more than I do.

So the question about "teachers-who-teacher" and "students-who-student" is tricky because there is perhaps the presumption that both classes engage in the respective activities too much (i.e., more than I do or think is appropriate).

Daniel said...

Archaic Definition Time!:

Student: "A person who is engaged in or addicted to study. Const. of, in, or with defining word prefixed, indicating the subject studied. Also with adj. of degree, as close, deep, good, great, hard student."

[Am I the only one who finds the examples of adjectives of degree a bit dirty?]

Teacher: "That which shows or points out; an indicator; the index-finger. (Obs. rare.)"

Professor: "A person who proclaims or publicly declares something. (Obs. rare.)"

Doctor J said...

daniel: Interesting point about Dewey. (Though, for the record, "to student" is an infinitive, not a noun.) I think that this gets at the point I was trying to make when I insisted that there is a difference between the student-studenting and Sartre's cafe waiter. What Sartre emphazies about the cafe waiter is that he is trying to go from verb --> noun, rather than in the opposite direction. That is, he thinks that if he "waiters" in a particular manner, he can achieve "waiterness", that he can "be" a waiter in the static sense.

And what dictionary are those definitions from? They're weird!

Doctor J said...

Also, I wanted to say that I think it's worse to be a teacher-who-teachers... at least inasmuch as we understand that in the way that John R. described, which makes it seem very much like Sartre's waiter.

Daniel said...

Yes, but infinitives often function as nouns because they are the "names" of verbs - e.g., "To student is bad" has "to student" as the subject. Of course, gerunds can serve the same function - "Learning is good" - so they do not necessarily avoid the implications of substance.

As for the archaic definitions, I pulled them from the OED. Here is bit more on the relationship between "teacher" as "pointer" and as "educator":

O.E. tæcan (past tense and pp. tæhte) "to show, point out," also "to give instruction," from P.Gmc. *taikijanan (cf. O.H.G. zihan, Ger. zeihen "to accuse," Goth. ga-teihan "to announce"), from PIE *deik- "to show, point out" (see diction). Related to O.E. tacen, tacn "sign, mark" (see token). O.E. tæcan had more usually a sense of "show, declare, warn, persuade" (cf. Ger. zeigen "to show," from the same root); while the O.E. word for "to teach, instruct, guide" was more commonly læran, source of modern learn and lore. Teacher "one who teaches" emerged c.1300; it was used earlier in a sense of "index finger" (c.1290).

[I pulled this from which is pretty reliable.]