“Those who can, do,” so we often used to hear, “and those who can’t, teach.” Nowadays the situation seems to have transformed into something more like, “Those who can, do, at least in the occasional free moments when they don’t have to teach.” At first you just take a teaching gig on the side to supplement your real career, and before you know it teaching has usurped that real career almost entirely. We’ve all heard complaints from academic friends about the seemingly unbreakable cycle of lecturing, grading, and holding office hours, but how many have put it in terms as stark as Slavoj Žižek does in the interview above?
“I hate, I hate, I hate — okay, talks are okay, but I hate giving classes,” says the Slovenian philosopher-critic-showman at a 2014 University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning conference devoted to his work. “I’m proud to say, I did teach a couple of semesters here, and all the grading was pure bluff. I even openly told the students. I told them, I remember — at the New School, for example, in New York, ‘If you don’t give me any of your shitty papers, you’ll get an A. If you give me a paper, I may read it and not like it, you can get a lower grade.’ And it worked — I got no papers.” And so he solves the problem of grading.
But what of office hours? These he calls “the main reason I don’t want to teach,” because “students, they’re like other people; the majority are boring idiots, so I cannot imagine a worse experience than some idiot comes and starts to ask you questions.” In other countries one might find a way to endure it, but “the problem is, here in United States, students tend to be so open that if you’re kind to them, they even start to ask you personal questions, like private problems, could you help them, and so on. What should I tell them? ‘I don’t care. Kill yourself. Not my problem.'”
These teaching experiences led Žižek’s to one conclusion: “I like universities without students.” But not everyone cheers his pronouncement: “Whenever something like this pops up, I worry that some people will see it and say, ‘You see? That’s what I’ve been saying about those ivory tower types all along,'” writes one anonymous academic in response. “Žižek is an outlier, in terms of both his stature and his attitude. Most working academics can’t get away with being dismissive of students, and even if we could, almost all of us wouldn’t.”
Slate’s Rebecca Schuman argues that the “real problem with Žižek isn’t that he feels this way or that he says these things aloud. It’s that he does so and people think it’s hilarious. It’s that his view is, believe it or not, a common ‘superstar’ view of students — so common, in fact, that if you work at a research university and actually like teaching, you should maybe pretend you don’t, lest you appear not ‘serious’ enough about your research.” A semi-frequent critic of Žižek, most recently of his endorsement of Donald Trump (“after all, the two thrice-married, outspoken older gentlemen do have quite a bit in common, a fact that would surely horrify them both”), Schuman knows that the fault lies never so much with the provocateur himself as it does with our tendency to take his provocations at face value.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.