My Teaching Mission: Keeping It Real

Umair Badar Saleem, “The Book Man”


As I look ahead to my final year of full-time college teaching, I also find myself looking back at how I developed as a teacher over the past 37 years. Above all, I have wanted my students to keep literary interpretation real. By this I mean that I want my students to have “something at stake” when they read literature and write their essays.

In retrospect, I realize that I try to get them to avoid my own mistakes. Many of my college and graduate school essays meant little to me. I still remember my first English essay, on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, where I combed through the play to figure out why Faustus doesn’t repent. I toted up the various reasons on index cards, sorted through them, and arrived at an answer that received an A. I can’t remember the answer I came up with, however. The entire project seemed little more than an empty academic exercise.

This happened over and over as I was more focused on writing academic-sounding essays than exploring issues that resonated. Occasionally I would stumble upon topics that I cared about—they invariably were about whether literature could impact lives—and those are the essays I remember fondly to this day. One was an essay in Medieval History about how Anglo-Saxon warriors might have responded to Beowulf. My college thesis, on whether the French Enlightenment caused the French Revolution, was another.

But for the most part, I just did the assignments. I still regret that I wrote my PhD on Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett, a writer that I have never particularly liked, rather than on how 18th century readers were responding to a “novel” form of prose fiction that was emerging. In that topic I would have invested all my heart and soul, not just my brain.

As a young teacher, I gained important perspective from an on-going 1980s debate about college writing between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow. Bartholomae argued that college students should be taught to “master the discourse” of their discipline. In other words, they should learn to talk as the experts talked. Peter Elbow, on the other hand, contended that students should connect the discipline to their personal concerns.

Both are right to a degree but, as one who once tried too hard to join the club of experts, I came to embrace Elbow. Literature, philosophy, and the other disciplines, I concluded, would be no more than intellectual finger exercises unless they spoke to deep concerns. For much of my career, therefore, I have required my students to figure out how their chosen work addresses those concerns.

It may sound coercive—forcing students to write essays that they are invested in—but I can do no other. When I receive an essay where a student appears simply to be going through the motions, something within me shrivels. I feel a vast emptiness and can barely read the paper through to its conclusion.

My students, bless their hearts, are almost always willing to take up the challenge, perhaps because I spend a lot of time and energy listening closely to them to figure out what moves them. I have them write essay proposals and also have a generous revision policy, which comes with an individual conference and the opportunity to replace a lower grade with the final grade. With many I have on-going e-mail exchanges.

Regular readers of this blog have seen the results as I have shared many penetrating student insights into challenging authors. To be sure, I require the students to engage in traditional  “close reading”—Bartholomae is correct in that regard—but because they are personally invested in the topics, they learn how to make that discourse their own. Like Elbow, I encourage first-person exploring.

I gleaned another way to talk about this from an article my wife alerted me to years ago. L. S. Finlay and V. Faith’s “Illiteracy and Alienation in American Colleges” uses Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed to explain why smart and privileged students at elite colleges do little more than parrot empty jargon. Shockingly, they compared American students with illiterate peasants from undeveloped nations, arguing that both engage in magical thinking rather than cultural thinking.

Freire, a key figure in combatting illiteracy in Cuba and elsewhere, believes that peasants who can’t read at first regard the world of print as alien, almost magical. To teach them how to read and write, a teacher must relate print to their experience, perhaps by teaching them how to read words and stories that they themselves have generated. Once they realize that writing is something that humans create, not something that descends from on high, they are empowered and learning happens.

Finlay and Faith argue that college students experience some of the same sense of alienation. For them, too, disciplinary discourse appears to descend from on high, and they use jargon to mimic how they think they are supposed to sound. When, however, they relate disciplinary subject matter to their own concerns, the path is cleared for authentic learning. All my efforts have been towards encouraging such authenticity.

I think back to how my Doctor Faustus essay would have been different had I been my own teacher. First of all, that teacher would have searched for the reason why young Robin Bates chose to write on Doctor Faustus. He would have helped me figure out that I was torn just as Faustus is: even while Faustus is exhilarated by the powers of the mind, he senses that somehow the mind isn’t enough. Even as I thought that Reason would allow me to accomplish whatever I wanted, at the same time I instinctively knew that Reason alone is a one-dimensional trap.

I have grappled with this issue for much of my life and, of course, I couldn’t have had my current understanding back then. But I wish my teacher had been primed to help me understand why the issues were important to me.

That’s what I try to do with every student that I have. The effort it takes leaves me exhausted at the end of every semester—the mental fatigue has gotten to the point that I have decided to retire next year—but going about my job any other way would have felt inauthentic and a betrayal.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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