L'essence de la parole est la relation, et c'est ainsi qu'elle est la clef, l'incarnation de tout ce qui est relatif. Toute parole engendre une parole qui la contredit, toute parole est relation entre une negation et une affirmation. La relation unit les alterites mais ne resout pas les contradictions.
O. Paz (1970: 181)[ftn 1]

"Do You Know John?"

It will not come as any surprise that the most common subject of talk among teachers was students. I mentioned earlier the reluctance teachers displayed towards talking about each other. It almost never happened in semi-public situations. It was only with the greatest difficulties that, even under the cover of confidentiality, we could ask teachers specific questions about their colleagues. No such reluctance was evident when the subject was individual students. We did not have to elicit comments: To talk about students among themselves seems to be one of the most "natural" things for teachers to do. After all students are one of the few things all teachers have in common. Teachers evaluate students and are evaluated through the effect of their behavior on the students' behavior. They have a vested interest, which they all share, in controlling the students' behavior, not so much for the students' sake as for their awn. It is in their best interest to cross reference their personal impressions of students to warn other teachers of potential dangers, to justify their friends among the students to other teachers who might not know them well, or to investigate what is the status of a child whom they have to deal with for the first time. How do teachers do all this?

Text 69

As we were talking in the hall outside the steps of the cafetaria, Mr. Tower stopped by and mentioned my following Robert Peat and said that he enjoys talking with Robert because he can take the kidding that Tower gives him like a game. When questioning me as to why I was following Robert for the day, I said that I felt he stood out and was a little bit different from the other students and Tower said: "You noticed."

The fieldworker had "noticed" a "difference." Peat, for one reason or another, stands out. He is not the same as other students and Tower "enjoys" talking with him because Peat "can take" the style of behavior which Tower fancies: Very sharp, almost mean "kidding." There is a fit between Tower and Robert Peat.

At another extreme of undifferentiation we collected many remarks of the style:

Text 70

Right before lunch started, Mr. Boles came over to me. He had been picking up paper and he told me that I ought to eat there all the time. He said "these are good kids but they tend to leave the tables rather dirty." He referred to them as being somewhat "slobs."

"They are..."—no particular student is referred to, no specific act. The general kind of behavior mentioned may demonstrate negative aspects of the students' personality, but it does not seem to matter. They may be "slobs," they are "good kids."

Boles is a young teacher, sympathetic towards students, particularly those students with whom other teachers do not like to deal. He is the teacher around whom the freakish "drama" clique organized (see Chapter X). His general opinion of the students may be more rosy than that of many teachers. The interesting thing here is the attempt he makes to give a general qualification of the students: "They are..." This should remind us of our discussion of the processes of identification among teachers. Like them, students can be treated as separate and unique individuals. They can also be treated as an undifferentiated group. However, while most occurences of /they/ in teacher/administration discourse were expanded into "conflict" utterance—"The teachers are...upset"-- many occurences of /they/ in the adult discourse about students were expanded into more positive utterances. Why should this be so?

The historical context of T70 is interesting. Boles was on lunch room duty, one of the least appreciated jobs that the teachers were asked to do beyond regular teaching (the only worse job was patrolling the bathrooms to control illegal smoking). The cafeteria was a large room though slightly too smallfor the 250 students who were supposed to eat there during each of the three lunch periods. Regularly, students ended by eating sitting on the floor much to their delight and to the dismay of the more conservative teachers. It was a noisy, chaotic, 20 minutes over which the one teacher on duty could only have minimal control. We were told by another teacher:

Text 71

"Last year, I had to watch one lunch period. The first days I always was on the intercom blabbing away. Then I realized it was useless and I might as well let them do what they wanted. They don't want somebody to watch food going down their throats."

Whatever order existed in the room was thus a matter of student self-regulation. This worked well enough from the adults' point of view. Few behaviors took place that demanded intervention. There were no serious fights, no destruction of property. There was a lot of loud talking and laughing, movement, some practical joking which often involved the teacher, some food throwing. A teacher would normally intervene to stop food throwing as soon as he noticed it and he generally dampened practical joking after a while.

After the students left, the scene was of overturned chairs, spilled food, paper on the floor. The custodians went slowly through it straightening up and mopping. This was when Boles made the off-the-cuff remark that is T70. The fieldworker was there, as another adult. Boles' remark was not an answer to an enquiry. It belongs more to the realm of phatic conversation: What could be said then? "They are good kids" is affectionate. It is acceptance of the situation and/or recognition of the impotence of the teacher to change the behavior even if he so desired. In other words, and congruent with what we saw earlier in the discussion of the rhetorical handling of the structure of evaluation, the teachers see themselves locked in a "class" struggle with the students perhaps even less clearly than they perceive they are in such a struggle with the administration.

The students do not have much power over the teachers in those areas in which the teachers' material interests are directly involved.

However, the students have another type of overwhelming power. This power is so legitimate that the teachers cannot strike back with any sort of efficacy. For instance, smoking was forbidden (except for a few students in a small area). Students did not smoke in public areas. But some of them did smoke extensively, in the bathrooms particularly. The adults knew this, they knew who was involved, they even attempted for three weeks in the middle of the year to "solve" the problem. They did not succeed for they consistently refused to wield the type of arms that could have been effective.

Most teachers did not think smoking, noise and rowdiness were a serious problem. In T70 Boles also told the fieldworker not to be shocked into thinking that the state of the cafetaria after the lunch periods meant that these were not "good kids." It was fully accepted by most teachers that overall, and by comparison with most urban high schools, the students of Sheffield High were "good," "better than average."

Obviously, that the students are "good," as a group, does not mean that all students, as individuals, are as good (as far as the teachers are concerned...). And, if the mode of identification is shifted, they are not equivalent: T69 made this clear. Indeed, the wealth of individual identifications is staggering, all the more so because many of them are not absolutes but relative to particular teachers. Here are a few examples:

Text 72

"Like one fellow named Carl Dubcek. He's very fine and he's not what you'd call an intelligentsia in school. He's a normal kid and it really pleases me to be able to work with people like this."

Text 73

Mrs. Manning said she thinks that Singer, Stevenson, and Parsons are especially immature. She told me a story about how Stevenson didn't want to go get milk one day and how he said a freshman should have to get it. She told him that in her classes there is no difference between freshmen and seniors and she made him go get milk.

Text 74

Emily Licht said that Purdue's proposal was rejected. She talked about him as "slippery and oily." Jane Staffer said that she'd originally had a lot of faith in Bobby but that he had really let her down and now she did think too much of him. Jane Staffer then began to talk about Rose Lyttell. There was a lot of nasty joking about Rose and about her brother. Some of the things mentioned about Rose were that she wasn't smart, that she's not liked, and that she is obnoxious.

Text 75

Mr. Forsdale said that Bates was a good kid and Wally Kelvin said that he's also a pain in the neck, but that he's also capable.

The preceding is but a small sample of the range of qualifiers used by teachers. If the negatives seem richer and more numerous than the positives, it is because they are even more so in our notes. Fran a series of eighteen evaluations by a teacher review committee, I collected the following qualifiers: "Slobs, warped mind, perverted, poor, spoiled brat, obnoxious, not smart, operator, immature, strange lover, blah kind of kid, full of baloney," but only "good kid, not a bad kid, serious, nice, very smart."

Let us examine the contexts of use. T72 and T73 were addressed to a fieldworker in an interview-like situation where the teacher was attempting to explain his behavior towards certain students. T74 was recorded in an official meeting of the review committee I just mentioned. 775 was recorded in the teachers' lounge where a lot of such discussions about individual students took place. In all cases the context is one of teacher-to-teacher talk. It is "shop-talk."

T74 is most illustrative of the function of these identifications: Students were making requests which had to be evaluated. The teachers had to make a decision and they felt the need to justify it. They were not simply behaving, they were acting, improvising an oral and dramatistic expansion on individual identifications in what I call the /I/ mode. Teachers had to make such decisions continually. They had to decide whether to reward or reprimand a student for some extraordinary behavior. They had to grade papers and tests. They had to consider whether to grant privileges.

Most of this was done automatically and somewhat unreflectively, but there were occasions when anxious reflection became necessary, as in committees when the process had to be externalized. Such a setting can thus give us a concentrated case study where features are highlighted. We could not observe teachers grading. At best we could interview them about theirgrading. By observing an evaluating committee we could see the historical process unfolding more naturally. Let us now look at such a committee, the "Senior Projects" review committee.[ftn 2]

The "Senior Projects"

The "senior projects" were in their second year. They consisted of a four week period at the end of the school year during which students in their senior year could get credit for doing a project of some sort that would take them out of the school for most of the day. The teachers considered this last month as, in any event, one during which seniors did not accomplish much academically, and when absenteeism ran particularly high. The senior projects were seen as a way to join the attraction of the outside with some sort of educational development. In a certain sense these projects were a last ditch attempt by the school to extract its dues from the seniors in a "If you can't fight them, join them" spirit. The projects were conceived as an educational endeavor for which a student had to apply by writing a proposal and by obtaining supervision from both the person with whom the student was going to work outside and from a faculty advisor. The proposal had to include some sort of work to be evaluated. Of particular interest to us, the proposals were reviewed by a committee of teachers who gave the final go ahead.

The faculty were generally considered to know what was involved in the senior projects. There was talk about making the standards tighther than they had been the year before: Then, most proposed projects had been accepted, and many students did not accomplish what they had said they would. How this tightening would be done was not clear. There was talk of elaborating stricter criteria and not letting students do "mundane" projects. One of the stories that was circulated to illustrate these points went like this:

Text 76

Mr. Servanti pointed out that unfortunately last year, students' projects were chosen not according to their worth, but according to the students' past reputation in the school. A particular student whose landscape gardening project was turned down, is a student who has hair down to his shoulders and other characteristics which a lot of teachers frown upon. Other students who are big jocks got to do projects like painting houses and driving trucks. Mr. Servanti said that he hoped that teachers had learned from this experience.

It was also said by the administration that "last year," "the teachers" had disapproved of the senior projects for various reasons. These centered on the teachers' mistrust of the students. On top of this, one dissatisfied student whose project had been refused, wrote an obscene graffiti in large letters on the wall of the school. The graffiti was against one of the teachers on the evaluating committee. There were jokes about the possibility that it might happen again. Some teachers were reluctant about getting involved. There were some difficulty in forming the committee. Several notices appeared in memos to the faculty asking for volunteers. The ideal number was considered to be eight or nine; eventually only seven persons participated.

The senior projects were introduced by the principal with an enthusiasm that remained suspect. Foster was attached to the idea but he also knew about the resistance. Consequently, there was little direct talk that we could collect about the principleof the affair. Most talk was about the mechanics. The official memorandum to the teachers from the assistant principal announcing the initial step towards telling the students about the possiblity open to them began in the following manner:

Text 77

"To: All faculty members
From: Lloyd Ervin

The seniors will be receiving the attached bulletin regarding Senior Special Projects. Following is additional information which teachers should have:

1) Typical projects may include
   a- school aide—here or in another school
   b- lab assistant—veterinarian, doctor, etc.
   c- local business—not merely a "job" however
   d- apprentice—bank, lawyer, etc..."

Three other points were presented, all of a purely administrative nature (need for advisor, recommendations, check for completeness).

What went out to the students contained a more interesting statement under the heading "introduction:"

Text 78a

"The purpose of a Senior Special Project is to give an opportunity for some seniors to have a learning experience outside of the confines of the school. Approved seniors will have an opportunity to explore the resources of the "community" including institutions of higher learning, commerce and industry. This project gives the student the opportunity to pursue a subject in his own unique way..."

This is one of the most explicit documents we collected about the nature of education in general:

  1. Learning is an "experience," something that happens to an individual;
  2. The school organizes education so that the student can learn "in his own unique way;"
  3. The school reserves the right to "approve seniors."

The last is probably a stylistic slip. What the school approves are proposed projects, not the person, except of course in so far as the project is the student's own thing, which makes the slip significant. The rest of this memo is about procedures and dates.

Of particular interest is the greater generality of the announcement to the students vs. the announcement to the teachers. The latter opens with examples, exceptions and exclusions, the former contains those, but only as appendices. For example, it is said in the memo to the teachers that typical projects may include "c) local business--not merely a 'job' however." In the memo to the students this appears towards the end, under the heading "Miscellaneous:"

Text 78b

"Significant learning must be promised by the project. The purpose of Senior Special Projects is not merely an opportunity for a senior to get a head start on the job market."

Beyond the place of this statement, its style varies (even though it does stay in the /it/ mode of administrative discourse). The statement in the memo to the teachers is briefer and colloquial. The corresponding statement to the students is longer. The syntax is more elaborated, the words are more abstract: "Not merely a job" has become "not merely an opportunity for a senior to get a head start on the job market."

The shift in style was probably intentional. The informality of the memo to the teachers may have been intended by the principal to imply his lack of involvement in the thing, to stress its routine character. Furthermore, the memo to the students was stapled to the other so that the teachers did get to read the formal statement. I may be wrong in this psycho-political explanation.[ftn 3] The stylistic variation, however, does emphasize that an event such as the institution of the senior projects is never simple. First, the senior projects were a conspicuous attempt to put into action some of the highest ideals of the school—it was an aspect of the implementation of "individualized instruction." Second, they were a skirmish in the continuing battle between administration and faculty. They were, in any event, an eminently possible solution to a perennial problem.

Finally, the projects were a skirmish in the battle between "the school" (administration and faculty) and the students. The senior projects played on the seniors' desire to be out of the school building, and the direct supervision of teachers. Through this obvious yearning, the projects were an attempt to regain some sort of control by making the students dependent on a particularly cumbersome process of evaluation which included the need to have completed all incompletes up to the time of the project and the regulation that "all grades would remain open until the project is successfully completed."

In one way or another, all these points were raised in the discussion of the committee whose task it was to make the decisive evaluation of the projects. It was not obviously biased towards any of the factions of the school, except possibly against the physical education faculty who was not represented. But there were teachers identified with the "liberal" factions and others with the "conservative" ones. The committee met many times before and after school hours. For them it was extra work for no extra pay--except possibly a more favorable evaluation—though this was of real import only to the two untenured teachers, and, plausibly, the assistant principal.

Proposals were submitted by the students. Members of the committee could look at them ahead of the time when they were to be discussed. At the meetings of the committee, a routine was established. First Ervin read passages of the proposal. It was either accepted on the spot, or—in quite a number of cases—after extensive discussion which sometimes led to rejection. Rejection was rarely outright. Most often a proposal was returned because a necessary paper was missing. Often also a decision was made that the proposal was "imprecise," "badly written" and needed revision. In all these cases the student was invited to resubmit the proposal.

As a case study of this routine, let us look at what happened during the first half of one meeting:

Text 79

Staffer asked if they should go over the leftovers from last week. Ervin said no. Williams then said, "Let's avoid responsibility as much as possible!" There was a lot of laughing and kidding as there had been at other meetings.

Next they went over the proposal of Dorothy Bell. Dorothy wants to go to a suburb of Los Angeles to live with a family. She said she wants to compere the high school there to Sheffield's. At one point, Ralston said that he likes the idea of kids travelling, even if they give educational ex-cuses for why they want to travel. Ervin then read the full report. He added jokes and everybody laughed at them. Licht made many comments on Dorothy's spelling. The decided to hold onto the proposal and wait until they get a letter from a person in the school in California.

Next was Mill Haldeman. She had an interest in special education and working with neurologically impaired learners. Green referred to her proposal as "gorgeous: Let's not waste time on it." It was quickly approved.

Next, Amy Clark, who proposed to work at the children's hospital. She is interested in occupational therapy as a possible career. The teachers felt that her afternoons were not fully accounted for. So, in order to get approval, she will have to account for the afternoons. Otherwise the project is o.k.

Next came Bonnie Saxon's proposal. Bonnie wants to work at the same hospital as the other girl. She said that she is going to major in early childhood education at Wheelock and this will be a perfect experience for her before she starts college. Ervin again made jokes while he read her proposal. All the teachers said it was a good proposal. Williams asked if she said that she was going to meet with her advisor. They all agreed that this was a really good question. Ervin checked and in some kind of triumphant voice, he said, yes, she had mentioned that.

The following three proposals were from a student who wanted to work in the elementary school; from another who proposed to work in "T.V. and radio at a local college"; and from someone who wanted to do a study of "employee morale" at a restaurant where she would be employed. This last one was a "shoe-in" as Ervin said. "Let's do it quickly." The second one raised an administrative issue which was settled in the following way:

Text 80

Ervin said: "I don't know Hal Calswell well. What is he like?" Licht said "He's a good boy." Ervin answered, "He seems like an operator."

They finally approved the proposal. A similar exchange concluded the time given to the first proposal:

Text 81

Ervin commented that he likes the idea of a kid like Charles Moreno working with little ones. None of the teachers reacted to this at first and then Licht said, "Yes, Chuck is a good kid."

Let us concentrate on a few of the most salient and repetitive features of these texts:

  1. It was extremely common for the teachers to joke and make fun of the students and of their own efforts at being "rigorous;"
  2. Relatively little consideration was given to what was labelled the "educational value of the projects" in formal memos;
  3. Much attention was given to administrative propriety (whether all letters of recommendation were in, whether everything was signed, whether all time was accounted for, etc.).

The proposals were greeted by the committee with three different reactions. The most common was joking. Indeed, the meeting was begun with jokes about what could be considered the basic responsibilities of the committee: See for example Williams' comments in T79. Closely related to this joking were jokes about aspects of proposals: Jokes about spelling, about style, about perceived naivete or about transparent attempts at fooling the committee. The joking was not a preliminary to rejection of the proposal. On the contrary, many times, it seemed that the teachers joked about things which they were not going to consider in their final decision. Dorothy Bell's proposal is a case in point: There were jokes and remarks about her spelling and other matters but the proposal was held up because of a missing letter. Subsequently, the letter was received and the proposal accepted.

Another reaction to the proposals was concern about a particular student. Ervin's concern about Hal Calswell's proposal was with Calswell himself, not the proposal: "I don't know him well," "he seems like an operator." It was a personal thing between Ervin and Calswell which the other teachers did not pick up. Eventually, the proposal was accepted. There were no jokes. It also seems that the proposal was in more serious jeopardy than any of the others and that what saved it was a difference of opinion among the teachers as to whether Calswell was really a "good kid." Charles Moreno's proposal was discussed using the same pattern: No reported joking, insistence on the correction of procedural matter (how is he accounting for his mornings and Wednesday afternoons?), lack of enthusiasm for Moreno himself but support by one (Ervin) recorded by Licht's final "good kid!"

Still another reaction was the one which greeted Mill Haldeman's proposal: "Gorgeous proposal. Let's not waste time on it." This was rare. And yet there is something about the way her proposal was accepted that is very similar to the way all other proposals were evaluated: No rationale was expressed. On that morning only two comments relating directly to education were made: Ralston's comment about travel and Ervin's about Moreno's "working with little ones."

Whether a kid is seen as good or bad seems to be the most direct determiner of the amount of time the committee is going to spend on the student's proposal. It is not, however, the determiner of eventual acceptance: Almost all the proposals were accepted. Being good, however, is not enough. A proposal must also be administratively correct. Many "good kids" were asked to resubmit, generally because of missing documents. An administrative irregularity was often seized upon as an easy way of expressing the teachers' displeasure towards an unpopular student who was proposing something that would eventually be accepted. Still, this was not a deliberate strategy. It was not mentioned directly even in the "private" setting of the committee.

The problem of evaluation thus goes beyond favoritism. The students are not divided single-mindedly into "good" and "bad" kids. Neither are rewards distributed regularly among them. Not only may there be differences of opinion among the teachers, it may also happen that a "bad" kid will present a formally irreproachable proposal. Conversely, "good" kids may present proposals which are "lousy" or of a suspicious nature.

All this suggests that the teachers are operating in terms of a symbolic system that makes it more legitimate for the school to evaluate the administrative form of a proposal rather than its content.

Evaluation and Education

The memos to the students talked repeatedly of "significant learning," and of learning "experiences." The committee almost never explicitly referred to such matters. We could easily discuss the memos as so much hot air. I would rather take the thing more seriously. It is not so much that the formal statements are irrelevant to what the teachers are doing as it is that they are foregrounded in the context of memo-writing, and backgrounded in the more concrete context of a discussion of a student's proposal. It is also that each statement (the memos and the historical development of a particular evaluation) is a different stage in the expansion of the fundamental ordering of the school. Rather than seeing any stage in the development of the senior projects as "purely political," I want to look at all stages in terms of one another as various realizations of the same structure illustrating various aspects of this structure which may remain hidden in certain of the realizations.

At the simplest level, the teachers did not have to produce elaborated statements of educational value as they talked about each proposal: We may assume that they had a working consciousness of what this value was. As all research on language use in naturalistic settings has emphasized, no full elaboration of all the knowledge necessary to decode an utterance is ever given when it can be assumed that the audience already has access to this knowledge. There may have been reduced cues to educational value in the committee's discussions which the fieldworker simply failed to notice or record. It is probable that a mere mention of "travel to California," "working with neurologically impaired learners," "working in a children's hospital," "teaching in an elementary school," etc., triggered in the teachers a clear enough image of what might happen there of an educational value that the only thing they had to consider was whether the student would actually be in that environment.

We can go even further. It can be said that the whole performance of the committee is directed by the same type of script as the formal statements. The major rhetorical differences are in the medium of expression, dramatistic vs. written. I show presently that the dramatistic transformation also confronts the actors directly with a set of existential problems from which they are shielded in the purely written expansions. Let us first consider the importance the teachers placed on "who" the student is and on bureaucratic checks to insure that the project will actually be performed. These two aspects of the procedure are very much related to the understanding the teachers have of their action on the students.

Why would a project like "working with neurologically impaired children in a hospital" be accepted with so much enthusiasm? The student did not present this as an occasion to learn about neurological handicaps in an academic or scholarly fashion. The goal was to experience hospital work. The educational value of the work resided in this experience itself, the fact of being in the situation. The value resided only minimally in a reflection about this experience. This was true of all the projects. All of them had to end on a "final report" to the faculty advisor but little emphasis was put on it and one suspects it was intended more as control than as a thesis-like paper.

How such a situation could arise becomes clearer when we look at the extreme variety of the proposed and accepted topics. Everything seems acceptable, from work in a political campaign to the reconditioning of old cars, to a multitude of voluntary service projects. The only thing that is missing on a large scale is academic projects. A very few students do go in this direction. But most go elsewhere. And yet, however diverse the content of the projects, they seem to conform to the general understanding all those involved have of the projects: They have to be about "having a learning experience" as it is written in the introduction to the memo to the students (T78a).

To highlight the distinctiveness of this understanding, let us imagine briefly a view of learning or education that does not stress "experience" in the participatory sense, but rather reflection, withdrawal. From such a point of view, the school becomes a place and organization which allows for such reflection by insulating the learner from experience and providing models to help him perform extraordinary operations which "real life" could not prepare him to do.

Some of this approach to education can be found in the school. But senior projects go in a very different direction. "Experience" and participation are stressed and the supervising has to remain passive. The school can do no more than provide an environment where experiences can be had. The school is a vehicle, not a structuring power. This explains why the apparent content of the projects is so varied and why the teachers spend so little time considering this content: As long as it is clear that the student will be in a situation where he will have an experience he would not otherwise have had, the terms of the contract are fulfilled—the spelling mistakes become irrelevant, an occasion for joking. A bona fide experience is necessarily of educational value. The issue is thus whether an experience is being had.[ftn 4]

The basic principle to be used in determining what is a learning experience is not gained by simple participation in routine everyday life. Hanging around with friends, painting one's parents' garage, these are experiences. They are not "learning" experiences. A regular job is not a learning experience either. A learning experience is one which involves an element of novelty in relation to routine experiences. It can be something the student may want to do in the future but has never experienced yet. It can be anything he would not have a chance to do, or "experience," otherwise.

The teachers' responsibility is to explore this distinction. Note that the distinction is not based on the content of the experience but on its relationship with the student's regular experiences. The evaluation has to involve a consideration of the student's personal life. It has to do this in two ways. First, the teachers have to be sure that a project does not involve something he would be doing anyway. Second, they have to be sure the student will actually have the experience desired. This is obviously a matter of controlling the student's behavior not in its content, but in its range. It is a matter of establishing boundaries and safeguards which insure that he will not trespass these boundaries. This necessarily requires not only a strict application of bureaucratic controls but also a consideration of the possiblity that, in spite of everything, the student will find ways to escape the net, trespass out of the boundaries of the "learning" experience, and defeat the purpose of the project. This is an intangible possibility. It is beyond direct control but must be considered.

The consideration of "who the student is," beyond his pure academic performance as measured against abstract scales of excellence, is even more fundamentally necessary because, as mentioned earlier, an experience only starts to involve learning in its interaction with a particular individual: "Learning" is a potential of any experience that is triggered by its novelty for the individual who sutaits to it. Being a part of a youth gang may be a "learning" experience for a student social worker, it is not such an experience for the members of the gang. The senior project committee thus spent significant amounts oftime ascertaining in all the dubious cases—and there were many--whether the proposed experience differed significantly enough from one the student would have in any event to be considered proper for a school sponsored event. This necessarily involved dealing with the student's life outside the school, or rather with whatever impressions the teachers had of it—for they generally did not have any hard data. The "I don't know him's" that were so common, and may seem so irrelevant to the mission of the school, are in fact expressions of the central responsibility of the teachers: "If 'I' don't know this student—personally—how can I decide whether he will be learning something?"[ftn 5]

Discipline and Individualization

The senior projects were an extraordinary case. They were a rare moment in the school's curriculum when the principal was essentially free from other pressures, from the State to the parents, and could attempt to create something that could remain detached from the weight of sociological pragmatism. The projects were a pure rhetorical act, an expanded version of one of the most fundamental myths of progressive education, the myth of "learning through experience."

Most learning at Sheffield High was not experiential. In fact, if we insisted on a strict definition of such learning, very little of it was allowed. Most American observers would classify the pedagogy there as "conservative." The students were submitted to a large array of academic, reflective and non-experiential learning. They were required by law to take a series of courses (in English, Science, Social Studies, etc.). Legitimate performance in these courses ("actual" performance is something else altogether) was determined not by a report that a student had attended class but by a test designed to measure the extent to which certain contents had been assimilated. Since many parents were bent on sending their children to the "best" colleges, they often insisted that their children take many more such courses which, they hoped, would give the children a better chance of acceptance. Courses without any other learning content than participation were not considered of the same value, "for the future," as courses in calculus or nucleonics.

And yet, I believe that the senior projects, perhaps precisely because they were so far removed from other pressures, provide a prototypical situation where purely rhetorical pressures can surface most clearly. The senior projects were an extreme case of the "new pedagogy" the principal wanted to impose: "Individualized instruction." But they were also a reflection of something much deeper which pervaded even the more "conservative" areas of the school.

A consideration of "who a student is" was at its most visible, routine and controversial, in the disciplining of students. There too a whole set of problems generated by the rhetorical structure came to the surface. Let us first look at what often happened when a student was sent down by a teacher after some infraction:

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Mr. Taylor seemed quite upset. He said that he had kicked Moro out of his class and that he was furious with him. He said that he was sending Moro to Ervin's office. Moro came into the office and noticed that Ervin and I were talking and then stayed in the hall. Ervin, after a minute or so, called Moro in and Moro didn't cane. Ervin finally went out to get him. Ervin sat down at the table and told Moro to do likewise. Moro refused rather hostilely and said he'd rather stand up. Ervin that that was fine with him and seemed to be quite calm. Ervin discussed Moro's problem in Taylor's algebra class quite sensibly and coolly. Ervin seemed to show great concern for Moro and asked him what was bothering him, what was really going on. At first Moro was reluctant to talk, but then finally did. Ervin tried to figure out some way that they could take Moro out of Taylor's class because, as Moro said, he and Taylor had a personality conflict. He said that he wished that he had not been placed in Taylor's class again this year because it was evident from last year that he and Taylor did not get along too well. Ervin got up and looked at the scheduling board and he found that there was no way to get Moro into another geometry class. He suggested that perhaps Moro would take geometry next year or perhaps drop it. Moro was very vehement that he stay in the class. He said that his cousin had told him that he needed geometry in order to go to college. This surprised Ervin. He mentioned to Moro that it wasn't necessarily true that he needed it. But Moro kept insisting that his cousin had told him that he did and he seemed to trust his cousin's opinion. Ervin and Moro finally decided that he would stay out of the class for a few days and they would see what happened.

Terry Moro had trespassed the limits Taylor put around acceptable behavior to such an extent that he sent him to Ervin for Ervin to do something about it. The situation is the same as the one examined at the onset of this work, in Tl, when we had a retrospective report from a teacher about sending a student to the office. In T82 we see what happens in the office.

Ervin did not attempt to ascertain what the event was that caused the student to be sent to him. We can suspect that he did not do so with Laughlin. He did not weigh the seriousness of the act or the possible arbitrariness of the teacher: He assumed the act. The act, apparently, is not relevant. It is not dealt with as if it were central to the resolution of the conflict: Terry Moro or Dick Laughlin are not going to be disciplined simply because they have performed this particular act. In the case of Taylor vs. Moro, Ervin's initial approach is to quiet the student and to ascertain "What was bothering him," "What was really going on." His solution, initially, is an attempt to separate the two protagonists by shifting Moro to another class. Moro argues that the problem lies in the "personality conflict" between himself and Taylor. One can wonder whether it is not Ervin himself who has allowed for this formulation by trying to solve the problem through separation as if its underlying cause was the very encounter between the two persons. This is all the more possible since Moro's own formulation of this anxiety dealt primarily with his belief that he needed geometry to get into college. Ervin was surprised: Geometry is not a college requirement and Moro himself may not be college material (as we were told later). Moro's fear was that he would fail geometry and not get into college. That he would fail geometry, personality problems aside, was considered probable by Ervin: He suggested that Moro drop the course.

The eventual solution was obviously a non-solution, a postponement at best. But such a non-solution is a significant act, as far as we are concerned. The behavior that had triggered this discussion had been forgotten. The original act was dealt with as no more than symptomatic. To react to it mechanically does not seem to have been possible in this atmosphere.

From all we could observe, the pattern of Ervin's interventions is very stable. Sometimes, as we see in T83, the tone of the discussion can be sharper and the outcome more serious to the student:

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Mrs. Ross entered and complained about Elsa Little who has been cutting school a lot recently. Ross asked Foster if she should use the college system or the high school system, meaning the following: On the college system, Little, as long as she does all her work, can cut class as much as she wants, but on the high school system, she has to come to class and do her work or else she gets a failing grade. Ross said she's tired of giving into Little, that she gets her way all the time. Ervin piped in that "You can't deal with the father on this issue. He's so soft, he treats her like a 7 year old." He then added, "She is no honey." He added that Little will have trouble graduating because she has some incompletes. He said she did not deserve any more breaks. Foster suggested that Ross could just tell Little that she has failed and to throw her out of her class. Ross answered that she wants to torture her a little by not giving her the satisfaction of roaming the halls. Finally, Foster noted that it's probably not just Little but that a number of students were slacking off because it is the end of the year.

Mrs. Ross is more violent than Ervin or Foster whose tendency is to "explain" Little's behavior by family environment and general senior slacking off at the end of the year. However, they do not try to impose an outcome. Their solution, again, is a non-solution, though they won't try to enforce that either. They suggest separation but do not protest Ross' decision to keep her in class as the most relevant form of punishment.

There is something strange in a school considering it a punishment to be forced to stay in class. But the protagonists do not see it that way, so intent were they in finding an appropriate punishment for this particular student having committed this specific infraction. Punishment is not automatic. There were constant discussions among the teachers and administrators about proper answers to infractions. Traditionally the choices were suspension and detention after school. A more recent development was required study hall (in place of being entitled to go to the "Commons" during free periods). As part of his "innovations," the principal offered one student the choice of doing janitorial work in the school for a period of time, or pay for damages. A student who was caught urinating on an outer wall of the school was required to clean the soiled area.

Not all students were let go as easily as Moro and Little were. Almost everyday lists were published of students either suspended or banned from the Commons. The most common offenses were smoking in forbidden areas, being where one ought not to be, absence or tardiness. It is not that these acts, even when done in the presence of a teacher, would necessarily lead to punishment. Smoking in the bathroom was a perrennial issue but enforcement went through many cycles. The reaction of a teacher sent on "potty duty" when he encountered direct evidence of smoking, ranged from sending the student to the office to sterner or milder "Now girls," to shrugs of the shoulders andwithdrawal as if nothing had been happening.

The above makes it clear that the teachers were party to the tayloring of discipline. Let us look at another case:

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I stepped into the AV Room. I saw Marty Hobson with Marylin Dolby. At this point, Mr. Lyons walked in and I heard Marylin call him "Hi, kiddo" We talked for some time. Upon leaving Marylin said to him, "Bye, kiddo" Lyons turned, and in what I would describe as nothing less than rage, asked her where she was supposed to be. When Marylin said, "In here," his response was, "Like hell you are." He told her to leave and go to the library. Marty later told me that he was surprised that she got away with it the first time and I wonder if this was because I was there.

Mr. Lyons was one of the toughest teachers, in outward appearance at least, and he did not seem one who would easily be taken advantage of. But even he regulated his reaction to what we must assume was his perception of the seriousness of the act. His reaction was double: He first reacted passionately (“like hell...”). Then, chose an administrative response ("Go to the library"). Clearly, the second is the interpretation of the first into a proper "school" language which excluded insulting the student back or hitting her. But this school language, though it may exclude certain responses, does not prescribe the content of the response. Lyons could have walked away, either forgetting about it or filing it for future reference, or he could have sent the student to the office where he could have pushed the case more or less. The particular response is but a possible one within the system of indeterminacy in discipline that is typical of all the cases we have examined.

Overall, there was little dispute about the overall disciplinary policy of the school. Many teachers liked to make fun of Foster for stating the kind of idealistic things he put in his memos, but they were not in a position where they had to do something like write formal statements to parents. Lyons's handling of Dolby is as "typical" as Ervin's decisions. It is not that rules were not enforced but that there were no rules prescribing reaction to specifically defined acts. Whatever rules there were, they were treated as exemplary, indicative of a possible response, not a necessary one. The only fast rules were the ones stated negatively: The State law reads "No person employed or engaged in school or educational institution, public or private, shall inflict corporal punishment upon a pupil attending such school." This was typed as such under "Miscellaneous" in the Teacher's Manual along with other "reminders" and encouragements such as "Please refrain from using scotch tape on painted walls." The two pages titled "Discipline" contained no prescriptions, only general statements about the importance of a "well-conducted school," "a pupil's way of behaving is as much an object of teaching as anything else," etc.

Discipline thus has to be continually renegotiated between individual teachers and individual students. Let us look at a few cases of such ad hoc arrangements:

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The students told me that Mr. Williams always let them talk and do what they want unless they become too noisy. I told them that I remembered that Mr. William had disciplined them when I had observed his class earlier in the year. They said, "yes, he did discipline us when we got too noisy." They seemed to think that Mr. Williams had every right to quiet them down because they also believed that they were too noisy.

There appears to be here an implicit agreement between Williams and his students about the extent to which each would behave: He would not discipline all noisy behavior, they would attempt not to be "too noisy" and would accept remarks from him on these occasions. In T71, we had a teacher telling us how he decided not to try to control lunch-time behavior. He did not think he had lost control. Like Ervin, he "understood" the students. These agreements could, in fact, go all the way to the establishment of absolute discipline in the old sense of the term: Mrs. Washington, the business teacher, maintained an iron order and complete silence in her typing and shorthand classes. She was the only teacher who could keep her students working through the end of period bell.

Any one type of disciplining is rare, if not unique, but they all occur and prevent us from characterizing "the school" in terms of one kind of discipline except to say that it is extremely varied and that both students and teachers knew it. They are the same students who sing with Mr. Bowen, drink with Mr. Boles and sit still with Mrs. Washington. What is interesting in this variation is not only that it exists and that there is an underground recognition of it. It is rather that it is an aspect of the dominant structure of the school.


1) The essence of speech is relation. This is why it is the key, the incarnation of all that is relative. Each speech engenders a speech that contradicts it, each speech is a relation between a negation and an affirmation. Relationship unites differences but does not resolve contradictions.back to text

2) For an excellent further discussion of the process of evaluation making, see Goldman, 1982.back to text

3) It may also have to do with the fact that the memo to the students would be read by the parents.back to text

4) B. Bernstein makes the same analysis of the corollaries for teacher behavior in the shift to an "invisible pedagogies" in British infant schools (1975). As the emphasis is put on play and personalized experience, the role of the teacher becomes one of placing the child in situations where experience is possible and one of making sure that the child is active ("busy").back to text

5) Some recent ethnographers of 'open classroom' elementary school organization have also noticed the tendency of teachers to use strategies of direct regulation and control more than teachers in traditional classrooms do (Borman, 1978; Wilcox, 1978). They consider this paradoxical given the emphasis placed on 'freedom of movement" in the literature both pro and con the open classroom. I suspect that the logic that leads to such a paradoxical situation is the same as the one we just analyzed. It is the logical progression foreseen by Bernstein (1975).back to text