Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

No Children, Only Tasks: Reflections on Cruel Pedagogies

I had not heard of ProctorU software until October 1, 2020 when I noticed that several folks on Twitter, whom I follow for their thoughts on pedagogy, had retweeted and responded to the same upsetting TikTok video I had come across earlier that same day. The video shows a young woman, crying, explaining that she had just failed an online exam not because she had been unprepared but because her professor’s surveillance software flagged her as “talking” out loud while taking the exam. She was just “rereading the question, so that [she] could better understand it”; and though she had earned a B, the professor gave her a zero with no justification other than a ProctorU Review+ alert. This appalling incident illustrates—like so many other anecdotes of unethical teaching—the consequences of pedagogies that begin with a deep suspicion of students: namely, the amplification of student distress, fear, and anxiety; the casual devastation and erasure of student effort and interest; and the normalization of cruelty in the repeated use of purportedly practical or purportedly necessary tools, policies, conditions, and powers.[1]

Joyce: Pedagogical Cruelties

For many (though not all) of us, it may seem so needless and gratuitous for teachers to treat students the way this instructor did, and yet the correlation of pedagogy and cruelty should not surprise us readers of modernist literature. In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), James Joyce shows that pedagogy can be quite hospitable to—even incubate—cruelty. A primary lesson of Stephen Dedalus’s childhood, after all, is that people regularly inflict harm, pain, and suffering on one another in/at moments of great and precarious promise. In other words, people regularly sabotage the well-being of others whom they are supposed to be caring for and watching over.

Familiar cruelties saturate Joyce’s portrayals of institutional, religious, and domestic pedagogy across Stephen’s young life. The first chapter of the novel weaves together Stephen’s growing fascination with the sound and sense of words with lessons that work against his flourishing and sabotage his aesthetic development. Dante’s lesson on the importance of apologies, for instance, both feeds Stephen’s sonic interests (he arranges a lyric from her threats: “Pull out his eyes, / Apologise”) and establishes a link between physical impairment (visual or otherwise) and habitual, self-reflexive guilt.[2] In the very next section, Stephen wishes he could rest in front of a warm fire and “think on [the] sentences” from his “Spelling Book,” but this fantasy is interrupted with the chills brought on by his earlier fall into a “square ditch” of “cold and slimy” “water” (Portrait, 8). A boy, Wells, had shouldered him into the ditch, and rather than ask for help from those who should be attending to him, he remembers his father’s final lesson as he departed for Clongowes Wood College: “never . . . peach on a fellow” (7; cf. 17). Instead of seeking help (which would entail a potential peaching on Wells), Stephen suffers through his day and trembles through his evening prayers, “He had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died” (14–15). Faithful to the routines of the school and church, steadfast in his compliance with his father’s lesson, deviant in slight and private ways (during sport or spelling lessons), Stephen’s feverish body only gets attended to when his roommates notice and alert the school to his condition in the morning. This coincidence of Stephen’s nascent aesthetic interests (how words sound; how their meanings slide and shift; how they obscure as much as they express) and the cruel pedagogies of home, school, and church anticipates the awkward Christmas dinner battle between, on the one hand, Dante and, on the other, Simon Dedalus and John Casey. The traces of this coincidence extend further: to the “unfair and cruel . . . cruel and unfair” pandying of Stephen at the hands of Father Dolan; to Simon’s patriarchal flexing in Chapter 2; to the retreat and sermon in Chapter 3; to Stephen’s learned and worshipful misogyny in Chapters 4 and 5 (41–43).

Clongowes Wood College class (Joyce seated in grass)
Fig. 1. Clongowes Wood College class (Joyce seated in grass); Misterio y Sociedad de Aventuras Literarias; licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Every time I reread Portrait or assign it in my courses, I grow more tired of the insufferable teenager and young adult Stephen becomes, bored by the formalization of his dull aesthetic, and frustrated/enraged at the violent obstacles that confront him—maybe all children and students—as he tries, with some urgency, to develop values, find interests, and discover something relatable and reparable in the stress and strain of school, home, and church. I cannot shake the terrible feeling, when reading the diary entries that conclude the novel, written with a sense of deluded hope about the succor or opportunity that Europe will bring, What have they done to him? And when I crack Ulysses (1922), the feeling intensifies. If “[t]here is something sinister in” Stephen, as Buck Mulligan claims, this “something” is the result of a lifelong process of competing and crisscrossing pedagogies that are amplified by the cruelties of instructors and fathers and priests and fellows and religious/political/national/colonial powers.[3]

A familiar affective combination connects and rhymes my rereadings of A Portrait with my reaction to the TikTok video. In both instances, I feel ashamed: as a teacher, I have been plenty cruel to plenty of students. I also feel sad: it did not have to be this way. And I feel angry: how could no one have noticed Stephen’s condition until morning? Why aren’t teachers more careful with their lessons and warnings? Why put so much trust in punitive impulses (to pandy knuckles; to fail exams)? Why stick so faithfully to rituals and technologies that direct trained impulses to discipline and punish? What’s with the need to control conditions of learning and high-stakes examinations so strictly and tyrannically? Why don’t more pedagogies begin from a place of trusting students rather than suspicion?[4] Why are so many teachers so quick to assume that their students are “lazy idle little schemers” (Joyce, Portrait, 41)? Why are so many of them—so many of us—so ready to respond, defensively, Because they are?

Lawrence: Pedagogical Conditions

I can already hear it: well, in my experience, students will take full advantage of you if you let them . . . Yes. Let them. I may sound naive—a little too much like Ursula Brangwen, perhaps, when she first committed to accepting a teaching post at Brinsley Street school. Though she knew it “was a school in a poor quarter,” she

dreamed how she would make the little, ugly children love her . . . She would make everything personal and vivid, she would give herself, she would give, give, give all her great stores of wealth to her children, she would make them so happy, and they would prefer her to any teacher on the face of the earth.[5]

Ursula may be naive and, no doubt, patronizing to the children she imagines, and yet we do D. H. Lawrence a disservice if we read her later experience at this school—terrible and demoralizing—as a parable about how teaching should be or inevitably will be tough and traumatizing. (This would be the kind of parable Joseph Epstein would seem to approve of.)[6] The Rainbow (1915) dissects the “hard and impersonal” pedagogy Ursula encounters at school (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 341). Moreover, the novel studies how the kinds of spaces we make available for teachers and students can sour pedagogical relationships.[7] It dramatizes how a void of ethical mentorship isolates early teachers.[8] It illustrates how the overcrowding of classrooms drains a teacher’s pedagogical energy and encourages inflexible methods.[9] Lawrence sees how institutions obscure their poor preparedness by locating the blame for poor scores, abnormal behavior, or ruined/missing tools with 1) the teacher and 2) the students.[10] He tracks how these conditions encourage teachers to emphasize breaking wills and stirring fears.[11] Indeed, hostility between teachers and students so often appears natural to our pedagogical spaces.[12] The Rainbow relatably reflects this naturalization as well as the refusal of powers to prioritize support of educational institutions, a refusal that makes it so damn hard to address what students really need—especially in conditions where it comes to feel natural to think they need punishment.[13]

Miss Elsa Miller, a schoolteacher in her classroom
Fig. 2. Miss Elsa Miller, a schoolteacher in her classroom; Archives of Ontario.

The correlation of cruelty and pedagogy is as ancient as the Platonic dialogue and as historically consistent as the allure of wealth and power and patriarchy. While instances of unethical and hostile teaching in Portrait or on social media tempt me to shift my pedagogical suspicions from students to teachers (i.e., to me), The Rainbow clarifies that “the teacher” as we know it is caught, impossibly and cruelly, between the needs of many students and the demands of a hierarchical chain of supervisors, regents, and legislators. This isn’t to deny the culpability of teachers—or students—in the many cruelties of school but to amplify the need for careful ethical planning and reflection in the composition of our policies, the execution of penalties, the use of edtech, the expectation and extent of control, the allure of discipline, the complexities of our punishments, the choices of assigned texts, the design of assessments and examinations, and the susceptibility of teacher–student relationships to blame and vindictiveness.


[1] I’m indebted to Matthew Cheney, whose work inspires much in this piece. See Finite Eyes (his teaching blog), his presentation on the “Cruelty-Free Syllabus,” his interview on the podcast Teaching in Higher Ed, and his study Modernist Crisis and the Pedagogy of Form: Woolf, Delany and Coetzee at the Limits of Fiction (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020). I’m also indebted to the brilliant “Cruel Modernisms” seminar at the 2016 MSA Conference, organized by Josh Epstein. The wonderful participants included Bridget T. Chalk, Jennifer Mitchell, Anne Cunningham, Cara Lewis, Rebecca Cameron, and Leah Norris. I’m grateful to all of them for the wonderful conversation during our MSA seminar and for much more. It’s been wonderful seeing and working with many of them at later MSA conventions as well as at The Space Between conference and the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900.

[2] James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ed. Jeri Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 6.

[3] James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 5.

[4] See Jesse Stommel’s #4wordpedagogy/ as well as Beckie Supiano’s interview with Stommel, “Forget Grades and Turnitin. Start by Trusting Students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 27, 2019.

[5] D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow, ed. Mark Kinkead-Weekes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 341.

[6] Instead of reading Joseph Epstein’s recent Wall Street Journal article, read Douglas Dowland’s response, “Teaching as Therapy,” Avidly, Los Angeles Review of Books, October 11, 2020.

[7] “The whole place seemed to have a threatening expression, imitating the church’s architecture for the purpose of domineering, like a gesture of vulgar authority” (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 343).

[8] “Harby’ll not help you . . . he’ll let you go on, getting worse and worse, till either you clear out or he clears you out . . . Oh, you have to keep order if you want to teach . . . An’ you’ve got to do it by yourself . . . You’ll get no help from anybody” (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 353).

[9] “She saw . . . all the schoolteachers, drudging unwillingly at the graceless task of compelling many children into one disciplined, mechanical set, reducing the whole set to an automatic state of obedience and attention, and then of commanding their acceptance of various pieces of knowledge. The first great task was to reduce sixty children to one state of mind, or being” (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 355).

[10] “There were not enough pens to go around the class . . . ‘Am I to have you thieving, besides your dirt and bad work and bad behavior?’ the head-master began . . . [She] was drawing near a crisis. She could not tell [the head-master] because, while he would punish the class, he would make her the cause of the punishment, and her class would pay her back with disobedience and derision” (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 366, 367).

[11] “She must, during the next week, watch over her books, and punish any fault . . . She saw no children, only the task that was to be done. And keeping her eyes there . . . she was impersonal enough to punish where she could otherwise only have sympathised, understood, and condoned.” (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 365).

[12] “You’ve got to make them do everything. Everything, everything has got to come out of you. Whatever they learn, you’ve got to force it into them—and that’s how it is” (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 355).

[13] “She wrote another sum on the blackboard. She could not get round the class. She went again to the front to watch. Some were ready. Some were not. What was she to do?” (Lawrence, The Rainbow, 361).