POST #27 :: On Saying the Same Thing a Thousand Times

Teachers often have to repeat themselves. There are at least three reasons for this. Sometimes they do it because some students don’t listen very well. Oftentimes it’s because the teacher isn’t all that clear or coherent a speaker. But most often, teachers repeat themselves simply because they are, for professional reasons, placed in a situation where there really is no way to avoid saying pretty much the same thing to different people than they said it to before. It’s surprising how easy it can be to forget this, or to confuse one form of repetition for another. The student you spent half an hour explaining subject-verb agreement to is not the student you’re talking with five minutes later about subject-verb agreement. The course policies you enumerated for your 10:00 class will need to be enumerated for your 12:00 class, or your 2:00 class, or your 6:00 class. The thing you must say but hate having to be put in a position to say will probably have to be said again, when you’re saying it to different people; and the thing you love saying will have to be said again too. But there is some part of the mind that has a hard time always remembering this or deriving sufficient strength from it.

If there is such a thing as teaching well, there’s an art to it, and it often involves the cultivation of a set of habits and practices that inevitably place the teacher in a position where she finds herself saying what she had already said before: sometimes a decade ago, sometimes five minutes ago. This can produce in the speaker a very specific kind of dread, as if one had shouted into a canyon, heard her echo, and then continued to hear the echo ringing in her ears, far down the road, even after she’s turned away and moved on to other things; even into sleep.

It’s probably a bad thing that we seldom really hear ourselves talking in everyday conversation. We’re conscious of what we’re saying to whomever we’re saying it to (one hopes), but the words and the moment usually don’t allow for any kind of deep reflection on the words coming out of our mouths, because some of us are too concerned with being heard by the people we’re talking to. As every teacher, server, dentist, and customer service rep knows, hearing yourself say the same thing a thousand times short-circuits this normal process of speaking freely, outside of the conditions of the workhouse. At work, as professionals tasked with doing a certain set of things over and over, the blandest bit of information begins to take on a bizarre and unsettling aura when uttered one too many times. The most hard-won nugget of wisdom begins to feel like a lump of cement drying in your throat. The worker can begin to hate the sound of her own voice, which is no longer her voice, exactly, but her voice mingled with the terms that make her profession intelligible to others.

Because the profession of education is often treated as an elite vocation that places a premium on effective communication, free inquiry, and intellectual acumen, some teachers might bristle at the notion that, at the level of utterance, their profession more or less resembles that of the assembly-line worker, tasked with a specific set of duties that manifest themselves in a repetitive, if necessary and sophisticated, set of gestures and mental processes. But this would be to misunderstand the prevailing mode of education, which, for all its modern transformations, still depends to a fair degree on the continuation of classical Fordist labor processes. One can stand in foursquare opposition to the pedagogical ineffectiveness or the dehumanizing effects of teaching as piecework, but it’s still the dominant mode throughout the majority of primary and secondary educational institutions. One can be doing worthwhile work and still feel a sense of creeping dread each time she is compelled to utter whatever pedagogical shibboleths help her get the job done.

People who unwittingly become their parents have reported a similarly jarring and disquieting feeling. Though we are certainly influenced by family, friends, and environment, some of us like to believe that we are our own person, living a rich and complex and (most of all) individual life. Sometimes this is true. But saying the same thing a thousand times in the performance of a job also alerts you to the possibility that this may not be the case as much as you would like. It’s possible that you may have elucidated some key arguments or ideas through the perfection of certain reliable phrases that convey meaning sufficiently well, and you’re now wedded to them, and not all marriages are good. If you have made modifications in tone, vocabulary, and such from time to time, these alone are not always sufficient to keep away the nagging suspicion that you are in danger of becoming, at least in part, a machine through which the profession speaks.

There are few if any workers in modern society who have not experienced some version of this phenomenon, but it can be harder for some teachers in particular to bear because some of them were under the impression that theirs is not a service profession, exactly. It isn’t the same as being a server at Olive Garden, but it isn’t as different as some people might think. (To be clear, the world needs education and breadsticks in roughly equal measure.) There is something demoralizing and exasperating about hearing yourself forced into situations where you must habituate yourself to the process of repeating yourself. This is the case even if you are doing something you love, or claim to love; even if its content is engaging and interesting to you; and even if the stakes are real and consequential for you and everyone else involved. Whoever holds fast to the talismanic allure of ‘the life of the mind,’ whatever their status or profession in the modern social order, runs the risk of seeing this process of repetition as a bothersome intrusion rather than a fundamental component of what you are being paid to do.

It’s possible that the astonishing longevity of certain antiquarian rock musicians is due at least in part to their ability not to be driven to madness by the endless repetition of songs they’ve been compelled to sing in their youth, through their middle age, and into their twilight years. But then, unlike the person toiling at McDonald’s or in the classroom, those guys make a lot of money doing it.

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