The Limitations of Cerebral Teaching

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips

Robert Donat as Mr. Chips

As part of my Friday “lost blog posts recovery project,” I am reposting an essay, slightly amended, that was written for January 19, 2010. It’s one of my more personal essays, describing the time in my life that I failed a course. I pull John Donne into the discussion. I wrote the post after exploring Margaret Edson’s W;t in a series of essays.

The new semester begins today.  Margaret Edson’s play W;t is a useful reminder of where I should put my priorities as I begin teaching.

When my career started out, I had a number of things in common with Vivian Bearing, the English professor and Donne scholar in W;t. I too reveled in the complexity of texts, how they both invited and resisted interpretation, how they slid away from attempts to arrive at definite meanings. Sometimes I valued this over the guidance they provide for living in the world.

But after getting too many cold and analytical essays from my students, who were just doing what I told them to do, I knew that something had to change. During my first sabbatical I examined what I wanted my teaching to accomplish and concluded that literature should make a difference in my students’ lives. I have spent the rest of my career exploring how I can help make this happen.

I now ask my students what is “at stake” in the works they are reading and in the essays they are writing. Why, I make them tell me, should somebody care? If they can’t answer that question, I work with them until they can.

Of course, one thing at stake is passing the course. But if that’s all that students cared about, then life would be a barren affair. In point of fact, even the most disengaged student wants learning to be more than a series of hoops. Most students, after all, are trying to figure the world out. They are on the cusp of adulthood and they want answers. I help them link the literature and their essays to their exploration.

One useful strategy is encouraging them to tell personal stories that relate to or are triggered by the literary works. To be sure, I insist that they enter into a dialogue with the work, not a monologue. That is to say, they are not to subordinate the work to their lives (that would be narcissistic) but must step outside of themselves. The work is both like and unlike their lives, and they are to figure out what that means. At its best, seeing the work in terms of their lives opens up new insights into the work and delving into the work opens up new insights into their lives.

In my blog I have told a number of stories (and will tell many more) about the rich student conversations with literature that I have witnessed. I sometimes wonder, however, if I pay a price for not being more of a Vivian Bearing, who dismisses the significance of her students’ lives. For her, the rigorous demands of literary interpretation trump personal considerations.

I have a colleague who is like Vivian, and students who take her courses wear them as a badge of honor. They feel that they are tested to the max and feel proud of the B or C they receive. There is no mushy sentimentality in these courses, no asking the students how they feel about a work (always my first question). The work has its own artistic and intellectual integrity, and the students either climb that mountain or they fall short. As Vivian says about Donne,

To the common reader—that is to say, the undergraduate with a B+ or better average—wit provides an invaluable exercise for sharpening the mental faculties, for stimulating the flash of comprehension that can only follow hours of exacting and seemingly pointless scrutiny.

To the scholar, to the mind comprehensively trained in the subtleties of seventeenth-century vocabulary, versification, and theological, historical, geographical, political and mythological allusions, Donne’s wit is . . . a way to see how good you really are.

After twenty years, I can say with confidence, no one is quite as good as I.

I admire students willing to take up the challenge thrown out by such a teacher. They are like monks undertaking an austere discipline. In the play, the doctor who is treating Vivian, Jason, once enrolled in her seventeenth-century poetry class out of such a motivation. “I made a bet with myself that I could get an A in the three hardest courses on campus,” he says.

But by the end of the play as she is dying, Vivian herself begins doubting this approach. It took a traumatic college experience to get me to doubt it as well.

While majoring in history at Carleton College, I took a class from a teacher who had the reputation of being hard-ass and demanding. I signed up because I was convinced he would root out my indolence and my penchant for procrastination, which I saw as my biggest flaw. (I now realize that I worked pretty damn hard but I didn’t see it that way then.) He would force me to be diligent.

There was something pathological about the whole situation. It was as though I wanted to deny feeling and submerge myself in a world of pure intellect. I was almost Ayn Randian in my quest.

No sooner had I enrolled in the course than I went into resistance. I was sullen in classes (and I am never sullen!) and, like Jack Burden in All the King’s Men, I began I began sleeping incessantly, taking four-hour naps and waking up exhausted. Then, perhaps to unconsciously provoke a confrontation, I quoted something the professor said in class in a newspaper article. It was innocuous enough but it broke an unwritten rule and was a rotten thing to do. In response, the teacher kicked me out of the class and gave me an F. He handled things badly but he was not wrong in his view that we had reached an impasse.

I took the class because I wanted to prove that I was a pure intellectual. Then a deep part of me, the emotional side that insists that there be balance, struck back with a series of symptoms. As I look back, I am struck by how I was able to orchestrate my victimization so that everyone saw my teacher as the villain. Instinctively I knew what it would take to set him off and I pushed his button. I’m not proud of myself, but I learned a lot from the experience.

For instance, I learned perspective: the earth did not open up and swallow me when I received the only failing grade of my life. Furthermore, I draw on the incident when I see my own students and advisees experiencing academic pressure. My Carleton advisor and the Carleton Dean of Students were at a loss, and I don’t want to be as ineffective.

When Vivian says, “I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality in greater depth than any other body of work in the English language,” I see, and eventually so does she, the arrogance and the blindness in the statement. Donne is indeed wise. But for readers to tap into this wisdom takes more than cognitive intelligence. That’s my quarrel with Vivian’s teaching approach: she makes it seem as if interpretation is only a matter of intellect.

In fact, if there’s one problem with Edson’s play for, it’s that it doesn’t give Donne enough credit for operating in the emotional realm.  His poetry involves more than just dazzling wit. In fact, he himself was terrified by death and the prospect of hell. Sometimes his wit functions as psychological cover.

I also think that Vivian could have resorted to something other than The Runaway Bunny at the end of the play. It’s as though all canonical literature—not just Donne—has has been tainted by her academic approach so that only a children’s story escapes. But her mentor quotes a lovely passage from Hamlet as she dies: “Flights of angels guide thee to thy rest.” If we combine our emotional life, our experiences, and our intellect in the reading of literature, it will reveal its glories.

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