Recently, I spent about an hour parsing the distinction between sleeping and snoring. Well, at the time, technically speaking, I was delivering a seductively thrilling lecture on Marquis wheat and Canadian tariff policy at the turn of the twentieth century. This is always a big hit with undergraduate students, one of those lectures that really moves them (generally toward the door in large groups).
As the lecture progressed, an odd noise drifted forward from the audience. It sounded like loud but laboured wheezing, so as I deployed some prescient statistic on grain shipments by the bushel in 1911, I mentally reviewed my 20-year-old CPR training, learned for a long-ago summer job spent lifeguarding deformed ducks as they slowly strangled in raw lake sewage. Soon, however, the sound grew more distinct, rising out of the 300-plus audience like—well, my metaphorical abilities hardly do justice to depressing nature of these events, so let me be brutally literal—like an undergraduate snoring.
Snoring. This was surely a new career low. Any fool can induce a kind of light dozing. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve produced the head-bobbing effect my Uncle Ralph calls “doing the chicken”: forward-doze off, backward-wake up, forward-doze off, backward-wake up. That kind of half-asleep, halfawake condition is run of the mill stuff for a professor of my cosmic somniferous abilities. Heck, one use of the word “tariff” or “cod” or “statistic” is enough to reduce consciousness by almost one half. Pile one on the other and you’ve got naptime at the day care.
But only a truly skilled somnolator could induce a snore: that requires a depth of unconsciousness that is truly out of the ordinary. I guess I should have seen it coming. The very first student evaluation I ever got—top of the pile my first year as a TA—read something like, “T.A. is insane. This is not helpful.” You can almost picture the poor lad sitting there thinking I would take the first line as a compliment, so he had better clarify by adding the second. No doubt this kind of analytic precision flowed from my pedagogic focus on “critical skills.”
About a year later, I ran into a major suck up of a former student in a bar. He was always one of those hyperenthusiasts who stayed after class to talk historiography and sent email questions to clarify tiny details from the War of 1812. When he discovered that I had moved on to a course that more closely reflected my research interests, he kindly pointed out that I might be better at it. Zing!
Well, back in the lecture, the piglike snort of a snore filled the lecture hall and I moved on to a thrilling section on resistance to railways. Just then, it occurred to me that I had this issue all wrong. My research field is awash in articles recovering and celebrating the “agency” of ordinary people, who have apparently gone about their lives since “Christ was a corporal” (Uncle Ralph again) resisting power structures, negotiating hegemony, and subverting the dominant discourses of authority. I even have a whole lecture devoted to student resistance to 19th century compulsory education, which mainly took the form of staying home to milk the cows. The only thing more popular than critical skills in academia right now is the concept of agency.
Well, call it what you want— critical skills, student agency, counter hegemonic somnolatory strategies, whatever—it all adds up to the same thing. A large number of students don’t listen to me, and that’s probably a good thing. You can’t spend your career telling students to be critical and then complain when they exercise those skills by ignoring you.
Back in high school, I spent two emotionally painful years as the captain of the Rubik’s Cube team, so I have a pretty thick skin. I can’t imagine those hard chairs and folding half-desks are very cozy, so if students want to catch a nap in my class instead of at home in bed, it’s their aches and pains, not mine. But snoring? That kind of agency is a bit too active and explicit for my tastes. It’s like my Uncle Ralph used to say, “A thick skin doesn’t help when you get hit by a truck.”
Steve Penfold is Academic Matters’ humour columnist. He moonlights as an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is The Donut: A Canadian History (University of Toronto Press, 2008).