Thursday, February 26, 2009

In total despair

Kazimierz Brandys would tell his classes in Polish literature that “they are in front of a man who is in total despair,” according to Patrick Kurp, who quotes Pierre Ryckmans quoting him. Earlier today, in my class on Jewish literature, I knew exactly how Brandys felt. Oh, not for his reasons. Brandys claims that it is an “absurd task” to teach students to “understand the work of literature.” Since that is not what I try to do in my classes, I do not share his sense of the absurd.

But I was in total despair nevertheless. The class was scheduled to discuss Pirke Avot, a small miscellany of Tannaitic maxims, the closest thing in Jewish literature to the Greek Anthology, except in prose rather than verse, a tractate of the Mishnah tucked into the section dealing with courts and the legal system because the rabbis did not know where else to tuck it. It was also the first post-biblical text that the class had tackled—the first thing, since nine-tenths of them are devout Christians, which might have struck them as deserving the special name of Jewish literature. Avot is a strange work. It contains some famous sayings from Hillel, Jesus’s contemporary: “If I am not for myself who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone then what am I? And if not now, when?” But this is immediately followed by the dull and homely wisdom of Shammai, his great rival: “Make your learning of the Torah a fixed obligation. Say little and do much. Greet everybody cheerfully.” (And pull up your socks!) Avot goes on like this for five chapters, mixing the trivial and exalted, before ending with Ben Bag Bag and Ben He He (the names are part of its strangeness). I cannot imagine what I would make of it if I were a young Christian first encountering it with an Orthodox Jewish professor. In any event, I came to class prepared to be assaulted by confusion, some frank boredom, perhaps even outrage.

Instead, out of a class of thirty, I was confronted by more than half who did not have the text with them, had not purchased it for class, and had not read it in advance. I stared at them. My mouth opened but no words came out. For the first time in my professional career, I had absolutely no idea what to say to them. If Brandys thinks it is absurd to teach people how to understand the work of literature, then what is it to stand in front people who are unembarrassed to have no literature with them to understand or not or whatever. It is not as if Pirke Avot is difficult to obtain. Even if they could not get their hands on the course text they could have found it elsewhere—here, for instance, or here or here or here or here. You can’t teach anything at all about books, their refuge, their nourishment, their flickering light, to people who can’t even rouse themselves to pretend an interest in something they haven’t bothered to look for or pick up.


Anonymous said...

As someone who teaches literature at a university, I have experienced the same kind of despair induced by the same kind of student indifference. Every now and then, though, a few students can make it all worthwhile, and I feel less like Sisyphus. We who work in university classrooms see the problem of student apathy too often. I wish I could share a solution with you. Perhaps someone else has a balm that will mitigate our shared despair.

D. G. Myers said...


The indifference I can handle. As you know, we must—on a daily basis. But this is something different. Pre-indifference. An apathy toward indifference. Not caring enough even not to care. What do such students expect from their education? You can’t even say, “The credit.” For surely they are not so stupid, are they, as to think that they will get credit for a course in which they don’t get obtain the required texts.

M said...

Wow. I certainly don't doubt this happens, but I'm surprised they dared to be so apathetic, and I'm with you on the amazement that they have no shame about it. I know I wouldn't even have bothered to show up for your classes if I hadn't read the material!