My students informed me today that I am supposed to go on strike tomorrow. None of my supervisors have mentioned this, so it came as a bit of a surprise. I knew that they were threatening another transit strike for tomorrow, but those barely faze me at this point. Transit strikes don’t prevent me from getting to work, they merely make it a longer, harder, more frustrating commute. But now I’m worried that I’ll do battle with all the other annoyed commuters tomorrow, only to arrive on an empty campus.
When I asked them why I should be striking, they responded with the ambiguous explanation of “labor problems.” When I probed further, they settled on “employment issues.” I tried to change tactics and turn it into a discussion about the French proclivity for striking. But my students didn’t really have much of an opinion about striking. It’s like bad weather, one kid explained. It’s going to happen, there’s nothing you can do about it, and there isn’t any point in getting worked up. It half-occurred to me that they might be fucking with me in hopes that I would cancel my classes and tell the other English-speaking lecturers to do the same. At the same time, I think these students actually like me and might be trying to do me a favor. In these situations I can’t help but feel like the dumb American monkey that has been imported to France to provide these students with “a native speaker.” Unless someone tells me otherwise, I’ll schlep to work tomorrow, bring a book to read in case nobody shows up, and shoot the shit in English with the few errant students who do show up. I think that the last thing is basically what they are paying me to do anyway.
My cluelessness about the mechanisms of French bureaucracy was terrifying when I first moved here. Now I’m just pleasantly amused by the perpetual confusion that surrounds me. The French university system is a bona fide mess, but on the whole I’ve found the individuals that inhabit it to be well-meaning and generous to the hapless American. I will admit that I feel as though I’m playacting as a teacher here. When someone enters my classroom and uncertainly asks if I am the professor, I nod and smile, but it is always tinged with uncertainty. Yes, I am the instructor of record, but no, I don’t know if you can technically register for my class, or where room 407E is, or if the university is on strike tomorrow. But we are reading about shark hunting and learning funny idioms today, not because there is a curriculum that demands we do so, but because it was what I managed to come up with. Join us! English is fun for everyone! It reminds me of a passage in Don Delillo’s Underworld where he is describing the selves that we are at work:
“I noticed how people played at being executives while actually holding executive positions. Did I do this myself? You maintain a shifting distance between yourself and your job. There’s a self-conscious space, a sense of formal play that is a sort of arrested panic, and maybe you show it in a forced gesture or a clearing of the throat. Something out of childhood whistles through this space, a sense of games and half-made selves, but it’s not that you are pretending to be someone else. You’re pretending to be exactly who you are. That’s the curious thing.”
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Photo courtesy of the comely M. Starik.