Alex Cockain’s recent paper, “Identity Work at a Normal University in Shanghai,” documents the subjective dilemmas and blockages that are created when vocationalist higher education meets a bad labor market. Why force yourself to attend university when the prospects afterwards are unclear? Why value education in itself in an instrumentalist world? What happens when the educational self is torn by ambivalence and contradictory ideals? Cockain explores these questions through an intricate ethnographic analysis of student identities at his own former workplace, an unnamed non-elite (“normal”) Chinese university. The data essentially emerges from student interviews and written self-reports, along with some autoethnographic recollections of his own classroom encounters.
Cockain’s paper has four major empirical claims. 1) Students are generally disappointed by the impossibility of realizing their own educational ideals at the university. This stems from the social realities of “boring” and “useless” classes, frustrating bureaucracies, unintellectual classmates, the university’s low institutional status, the diminished social value of university degrees, and the unstructured anomie of everyday student life. 2) In such circumstances, cynicism can come to seem realistic while naive faith in education becomes “outdated” (320); some students then find themselves painfully suspended in “double binds” between incompatible idealisms and cynicisms. 3) Faced with a university institution that no longer reliably provides “symbolic and cultural capital,” some students develop a frenetic “spirit of self-help,” looking to outside institutions and activities to try, in effect, to make their self-investment a success. However, this “energetic individualism” (321) in turn produces half-concealed, competitive hostilities among the students. 4) Finally, students manage this social instability by developing “masks and hypocrisy” and at times by idealizing the retrospective honesty and simplicity (laoshi) of their pre-university selves. Cockain notes in conclusion that this cynicism resonates with the “ideal subjects of neoliberal philosophy” who are forced into the “free dom” of being perpetually autonomous economic actors (324).
Conceptually speaking, the paper draws quite broadly on modern theories of subjectivity and narrative, such as Abelmann’s notion of university imaginaries, Foucault’s technologies of the self, Sloterdijk’s cynical reason, and even Fromm’s 1965 account of capitalist dehumanization. As Cockain sums up this complex body of theory, identity is “multiple, and always in the process of becoming” (323), and the self tends to meet contradictory social circumstances with ambivalence, even as it strives to recover narrative coherence or to reconstitute some form of agency. For Cockain, importantly, this view of student selfhood is not just an a priori (generically postmodernist) stance, but is a reflexive accomplishment of his research. He began the project, he recounts, with a sense that his students appeared “reduced” or “passive” as he encountered them in the classroom (315). Yet he explains that “interviews enabled me to attain a degree of critical distance from frustrations associated with my teacher perspective” (316). One major accomplishment of the paper is thus to remind us that teacherly knowledge is a form of structural blindness, not least because students have a strategic interest in managing their teachers’ perceptions, and that teachers need some other form of knowledge (such as ethnography) if they are to transcend the epistemic limits of their own positions.
The paper does raise a few additional reflexive questions. We learn in passing that the student population here consists of future teachers in training; what difference might it make to the analysis that these cynical students themselves want to become teachers? And conversely, I wondered what the subjective impact of this research had been for its author. Has Cockain’s own pedagogical stance shifted as a result of his work? Finally, like Abelmann’s Intimate University (2009), this paper is based methodologically on self-talk — through interviews and written self-reports — rather than on in situ observation of everyday life. Would student subjectivity seem different if the research method had been based on real-time observation, along the lines of various American dormitory ethnographies? But then, as the paper reminds us, subjectivity always exists through narrative, which implies retrospection (towards pasts) and projection (towards futures). And again, Cockain’s own inferences about student subjectivity in classroom interaction are shown here to be structurally incomplete and partial. In that sense, one key implication of Cockain’s paper may just be that real-time observation is fundamentally inadequate, if we are interested in the interior life of human subjects.