Epiphanies in the Classroom

Whilst (a lovely word) discussing my college experience with my family, my brother Eugene suggested that Academe is a church where your principle responsibility is to bear your testimony about the truthfulness of what the professor is saying rather than to develop your own ideas.

He's right.

Yesterday, our professor (who, I should mention, is a nice guy and good man and who knows his stuff and how to explain it) talked about "discourse." We are reading minority New England literature for the next two weeks and the professor was trying to explain why this isn't the political correctness part of the course (even though it is). He said that he isn't trying to promote an alternate history but to examine the narratives of history, that is how people talk about history. Minority literature provides an alternate narrative in which the discourses of the dominant narrative are used by the minority writer against it. For example, William Apess, a Native American in the 1800s, wrote a diatribe called "Eulogy for King Phillip" in which he turned the assumptions of 19th century Americans about Christian Pilgrims against them, saying, "If they were real Christians, they wouldn't have behaved thus and so."

Okay, that's not bad stuff really. And other than some tut tutting over how William Apess could be so naive as to think the problem was bad Christians rather than Christianity itself (seriously, in another life cycle, these people would have to go in for sensitivity training), that's not a bad approach.

Here's where we get to the testifying stuff. The professor defined discourse. Discourse is the assumptions made by the master narrative or the master culture: ideas we take for granted. And then the professor defined "discourse epiphany" as the moment when a writer (or student) realizes the assumptions in a text. And he said, "And I'm hoping that at some point in the course, you each experience this." And I nearly fell off my chair. If he'd said, "I hope at some point, you gain your own testimony," it would have been pretty much the same thing.

As I've said before, it doesn't bother me at church because, hey, those are the rules. That's what you are there for. The rules and the expectations pretty much coincide, and you can pretty much figure them out. (If people don't just tell you.) But the "front" of academe and the expectation of academe are so far apart, you wonder how blind people have to be before they run into walls. That is, the front of academe is: WE are learning. WE are seeking the truth. WE are seeing things the way they really are. WE are tearing veils off the past. WE acknowledge history's REAL problems, not like those yucky conservatives/Red States/uneducated people who are too ignorant and naive to understand. WE are going against the popular assumptions of the culture. WE aren't bound by rules. Yet, the expectation is that all the epiphanies you have will support the "front," will be the ones that have already been decided on as "real" epiphanies.

But because of the "front," they don't tell you the latter. At church, they TELL you that your testimony is suppose to coincide with church doctrine. It's pass/fail. You either agree and are willing to put up with some of the stuff you don't like. Or you don't. It's not that problematic. But at school, there's this continual effort to obscure the fact that, really, they want you to agree with them and that your personal revelation should be in agreement with them even though they despise this particular attribute of conservative religiosity. I don't particularly mind a libertarian or agnostic saying, "Hey, nobody can tell me what to think." I do mind people who pour scorn on organized religion, but have the same desires and expectations.

Let's take discourse epiphany. I read William Apess, and I thought he came across as a self-absorbed and bumptious guy. So during class, I said, "I thought it was interesting that William Apess talked about being royal, and how royal blood shouldn't matter, but then made a case for his own religious experience as a young man, that he was special because of it." And the teacher said, "Hmmm" (which is what he usually says to my comments) and then went into a tangent about how, well, yes, Apess was borrowing from the spiritual literature at the time but his autobiography isn't a conversion narrative, and Apess was more concerned with "we" rather than "I" because he was a Native American and for Native Americans, the community is more important than the individual.


He's wrong. I couldn't argue with him since, after an incident in a different class, I'm a tad scarified of debating this guy. But he's dead wrong. Apess' "Son of the Forest" is very much a conversion narrative; I was thinking of doing my thesis on conversion narratives, and I underlined practically the whole thing. Moreover, it isn't a "we" document; it isn't even less "we"-ish than Jonathan Edwards (ultra conversion narrative guy). It's a very "I" document; it's all about Apess having to deal with himself as a Native American and a Christian. When he wrote the autobiography, I think he hardly cared about Native Americans in general. (He did later; like many people with a grudge, albeit a legitimate one, he found that the easiest way to feel better is to attach yourself to a beleagurered group and then yell at people about it.) In the autobiography, he is making the case for why you, the reader, should read his autobiography and why his Native Americanness shouldn't disqualify him (he was writing in the 19th century). This isn't rocket science, people; this is fairly obvious.

So did I have an epiphany? Does my epiphany count if I don't come to the same conclusions as the professor? (Who then went on to say that he'd expected people to have more to say about the book!) Does it count if I recognize that the professor was so busy making assumptions about how Native Americans ought to write that he couldn't recognize an "I" narrative when he saw one? Or am I only supposed to recognize assumptions that reinforce the badness of Caucasians, Westernized Society and the Christian Right? (Answer: Yes, I am.)

I wrote in my notes, "William Apess' style isn't too different from Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. Funny how people are only safe when they're dead." Which epiphany I would never share in class.

But I'll share it with you.


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