Subject outline

Above their heads, whether the visitors are sleeping, dreaming or making love, the laws keep watch.

Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality

Heather Paul, ‘Dead Body Outline’, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s that time of year when the deadline rears up for next year’s syllabus. Where I am, we call this a “subject outline”, and I’m momentarily stuck on all the ways we could take this. Who is the subject outlined here?  Whose subjectivity are we trying to confine?

There’s a template, of course. It’s there to assure compliance with codes of practice and national standards for quality in higher education. The template fixes the parts that have ridden the updraft of committee approval right the way to the top: descriptions, assessment tasks, subject learning outcomes mapped to course learning outcomes mapped to the appropriate level in the Australian Quality Framework. The very few sections that are open to change have been highlighted in yellow; and the rest is fixed.

It’s easy to chafe at it. The wording is, as someone said to me last week, “uncivil”. I’m sure it’s a singalong in the policy divisions, but to the rest of us the tone is one of deficit and threat. Its small aggressions are couched in the passive voice; it speaks of students in the third party as though they’re bystanders to the whole process; and the vocabulary is frankly unreasonable for anyone struggling with English. “Pursuant”? Really?

But at a busy time of year it’s also a very fair effort to speed up a process that requires every outline to be signed off. There isn’t time to read them all, now that they’re all so long. So there are about about ten closely typed pages worth of quality assured policy words that are exactly the same in every one. In fact, there’s a whole section covering nineteen separate policies and guidelines.

No one can say they weren’t told.

Thanks to this bulking up, we no longer print outlines to hand out to students in the first week of class, torching whole forests in the process. Our cunning plan is to upload each one separately as a 20 page PDF to a different subject specific LMS site—thus doubly missing the point of the internet as a place where information can be managed centrally, and accessed conveniently.

And the result is exactly as you’d expect. It’s not just that students don’t download them, let alone scroll through them. Our method of distributing them is actively training students not to read them. Compliance is satisfied by their having been written, approved and made technically findable; for anyone to read them is a perversion of their unreadable form.

2

In Of Hospitality, Derrida has things to say about the prospect of achieving unconditional hospitality in a world in which the encounters between self and stranger are already managed by hospitality’s conditional laws. He makes use of Les lois de l’hospitalite (1965) by French philosopher and de Sade translator Pierre Klossowki. This story involves house rules handwritten and hung under glass over the bed in the guest room of a home that anticipates a stranger who might—who would be expected to—substitute himself for the host in the most intimate way. (It’s not for the faint-hearted; Tracy McNulty has more details about the story in her 2005 essay ‘Hospitality after the Death of God‘.)

What matters to Derrida is the placing of these laws of hospitality. Because of where this manifesto is located, both hung above the bed in the story, and separately printed at the front of the book, “one ought to be unable not to make acquaintance with it, and yet one can always omit to read it.”

This feels familiar.

So if the laws of hospitality represent an inevitable failure of communication, where do they succeed? To Klossowski, and perhaps Derrida, they succeed transactionally by being written, not read; they work to codify the transformation of strangers into visitors. A bit like the Innkeepers Act that manages the legal transformation of travellers into guests for the purposes of staying in a pub, the laws of hospitality outline a space for the visitor to occupy. But precisely by accepting the invitation to sleep in the guest bed, the subjects of these handwritten laws also can’t comfortably remind themselves what’s on offer, or what’s prohibited, because the laws are literally hanging over their heads.

Inevitable and inaccessible, intangible, these “handwritten pages” are placed above the bed, like the law, certainly, but as threatening as an epic above your head, in this place where the guest rests, but also where he won’t have been able, where he wouldn’t have been able, where he won’t have had to fail to read the texts of a law of which no one is deemed ignorant.

It’s wordplay, for sure. But it’s also apt. It’s how we try to regulate our relationship with all the imagined strangers in our futures, whether through university syllabi, software terms and conditions, or border protection: the laws that are placed where you can see them but may avoid reading them outline the shape of a stranger to come who can only be anticipated in the most generic way.

3.

What Derrida lays out here is that even if this comes from a playful source, a libidinous story, it’s a game of the highest stakes. The rules of hospitality protect themselves by limiting the risk that we pose to each other in a classroom, at a border, in the street. In education, they codify the transaction we most need to understand, which is the transformation of stranger into student through the act of paying money (or taking on debt) in order to submit to being taught.

If we want to do this better, and write expressions of welcome and inclusion that students will actually read, what should we say?

Earlier this year, I heard Sara Goldrick-Rab speak about our failure to acknowledge the real living and working conditions of college students. Her focus on food and housing insecurity is framed by this exact moment where I’ve become stuck:

I thought the syllabus was finally finished, having just added the series of requisite College of Education policies (on things like plagiarism, attendance, etc.), when suddenly I realize that something was missing. And then I began crafting a statement on basic needs security, appending it to the set of policies. This was a first for me, but it felt necessary and internally consistent with the course. Here’s what it says:

Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

This has cheered me up quite a bit. The rules and policies are still there—Sara’s not pitching for Derridean unconditionality, and honestly, I’m not either. But together with Derrida, today she has really helped me think through the perverse unreadability of our usual outlines as not so much a failure to communicate, but as a successful covering of the transactional cost of college.

By exposing the possibility of students experiencing food or housing insecurity, Sara opens up a new and more respectful conversation about this cost, and about all the things that students have to balance in their lives. She imagines not just students in general but “any student”, whoever they are, and she redesigns her syllabus for a more generous pedagogy in doing so. She signals that she acknowledges and respects their identity, and she makes room for their agency (“if you are comfortable in doing so”).

In writing my own outline as an educator—which is really all this blog has ever been about—I realise I want to think much more carefully about pedagogy as a practice of compassionate hospitality. I want there to be a way of teaching that owes policy its due but also holds a space between the conditional and the unconditional. It’s a pedagogy that’s tentative, optimistic and governed by care; and it’s constituted in listening to all the strangers-as-students whose vulnerabilities might be shared with us if they are comfortable in doing so, but aren’t ours to outline.

A post for Kris Christou.