Monday, May 17, 2010

Trade secrets of a pedagogue

Now that the semester is over—I filed my last grade early this morning—I have some peace and quiet in which to reflect upon teaching. I have been thinking about it quite a lot, since a few students took the occasion of my leaving Texas A&M University to remark that they enjoyed class. I was touched, but I am not sure that I trust them. It is far too easy to confuse good teaching with a lively classroom performance. On my last pilgrimage to Sudbury, shortly before I departed for graduate school, J. V. Cunningham warned me that he had learned the most from his driest professors, partly because he expected nothing else from them.

And he turned out to be right. Perhaps my best professor in graduate school was Albert Cirillo, now an emeritus associate professor of English at Northwestern, who taught a seminar on Milton in which I was one of only two students enrolled. Nevertheless, he lectured for an hour and a half, took a fifteen-minute break, and then returned to lecture for another hour. Later, studying with Gerald Graff, I was taught to be suspicious of his opposite number, the familiar campus type described by Graff as the “undergraduate spellbinder.” I recognized immediately whom he was referring to: I had taken a course with Norman O. Brown while an undergraduate at Santa Cruz.

Yet I suppose that I became something of an undergraduate spellbinder myself. I am perfectly at ease in front of lecture halls accommodating a hundred students or more, probably because I lack all self-consciousness. I never worry about making a fool of myself. And maybe that is the first piece of advice I would pass on to a young teacher. If you are committed to guarding your dignity, if you seek to command respect through rank and prestige, you will end up with dignity and self-respect and very little more. Early on in my teaching career I made it a practice to acknowledge frankly when I was ignorant of something, although I also made a point of supplying the knowledge at a later date. It is even more important, I found, to admit errors and confusions.

Although I teach by the Socratic method, which entails plunging the students into confusion before rescuing them with clarity, I am aware that the confusion wants to persist. I introduce a text by identifying its chief problem. (A “novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” —Randall Jarrell.) Then I propose and reject several current or notorious answers before settling upon a more adequate resolution. My apology is that students ought to be shown that the pursuit of truth depends as much upon refutation and falsification as upon assertion and corroboration.

Students do not always wind up unconfused, however. They have been drilled, over the course of long years, to return their teacher’s view unworn, with the original labels attached to it, and they are not sure what is being asked of them if their teacher enunciates multiple, contradictory views. To make matters worse, I low-mark them for spitting back their lecture notes. “I already know what I think,” I point out; “and what’s more, I can say it more coherently.”

That indeed is the problem with blue-book regurgitation. The students have no clear understanding of what they are scribbling. They are parrots without a clue. “There is nothing wrong with agreeing with me,” I tell them; “after all, I am trying my damnedest to persuade you that I am right.” But if they are to understand the knowledge that I seek to impart, the students must take it to pieces, reconstruct it in a different order (and in different words); they must make it their own. For this reason I am far more likely in class to praise the “brilliant but wrong” (a phrase for which I became famous on campus) than the dutiful response, the correct reply to the fill-in-the-blank question.

Independence of thought is humbug, though, unless it also shows evidence of care. There is no faking it: I want my students to care as passionately as I do about the books and authors that I assign to them, but I am resigned to the unlikelihood of their ever doing so. Most are just piling up credits toward a degree. But I can insist that they begin to take care—to make themselves understood; to get their ideas right, in phrasing and predication; to be unkind toward cliché and conventional wisdom; to quote instead of paraphrasing; to open themselves to criticism and correction; to develop arguments, connecting fact to fact and proposition to proposition as if they were mapping a local terrain, rather than coughing up reluctant one-word answers or dropping random sentences into a conversation that they are not really following.

In short, I try as much as possible to make class into a dialogue. I do not stand in one spot behind a lectern but roam the hall as if I were Jerry Springer bearing a microphone among a studio audience. And in twenty years of classroom teaching I have never once used an overhead projector, dedicated computer projection system, or interactive whiteboard. I want the students to look at me, because I am talking to them. The transmission of knowledge is a human exchange, not a multimedia affair. As a teacher who is also a scholar, I do not merely hand knowledge on; I embody it. And as long as they are in my class, I expect my students to participate, like me, in the life of the mind. My rule is that I may call upon them at any time, without warning, and they may say anything at all in reply, except for one thing: “I don’t know.” For anyone on a university campus who says such a thing is saying that he does not really care to know. He will get nothing of what I am trying to teach him, then.


R. T. said...

Thank you for generously sharing your thoughts about effective teaching. I recognize shadows of myself (animated Luddite and unreformed performance artist that I am--courtesy of the B.A. in Theatre prior to the M.A. in English), but I have a long, long way to go to master the Meyers/Socrates approach you offer your students. With your permission, I will print a copy of the posting, keep it as a reminder, borrow some of your pedagogical ideas, and hope for better experiences in my classrooms in coming semester; when I consider what you have written today, I can think of no better blueprint to emulate.

Claudius Vandermeer said...

"The transmission of knowledge is a human exchange, not a multimedia affair." This is so moving, and so true. Bravo.

mubashir said...

Thank you very much for for sharing your experience. Can I translate and publish it in Urdu
Literary Magzine.
Mubashir Ahmad Mir

D. G. Myers said...


With my gratitude, please do so.