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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 173-178
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The Art of Teaching Teaching
[Works Cited for Roundtable]
One of the main things I can say to you is that every teacher, like every person, is different. You have to teach out of who you are. That is the only way you will succeed, as a professional, as a teacher and scholar, as a member of a community of scholars.
So writes Jay Parini in his Rilke-like "Letter to a Young Teacher" near the end of The Art of Teaching. I must say, reading a letter actually directed to a young teacher is refreshing. So many books in the autobiography of literary pedagogy genre seem to be products of a midlife crisis or end-of-career reminiscence of youth, with very little thought given to the young teachers who are actually reading the books and who need advice the most. Here, at least, Parini is willing to address those young teachers directly and to confront the difficulties they face. I can even forgive him for the section's opening sentence, "okay, you've got your first job," where Parini directs his advice to young professors, neglecting those graduate students, like me, who have been teaching for a number of years still hoping to land their first "real" job (105). And I can pass by his earlier assumption that students "will often have spent the previous year or two in the library, completing a dissertation: the worst preparation for teaching," when in fact many graduate students do not have this luxury and must find time both to teach and to write (61).
What I find more difficult to deal with, however, is Parini's claim that every teacher is different and that teaching is a process of self-discovery. If this is indeed true, then how helpful is any advice that Parini could give us? More specifically, how can the perspective of a professor who received his graduate education in Scotland, who teaches at Middlebury College, and who considers himself primarily a poet enlighten a young teacher completing his education at a large research university where he routinely teaches bloated introductory classes and is still trying to discover his personal and academic self?
Such questions are crucial to understanding Parini's pedagogy, which is necessarily colored by his particular experiences and the circumstances [End Page 173] under which he does his teaching. While Parini's pedagogical approach is ostensibly teacher centered, it is necessarily dependent on a command of his subject matter and a commitment to his students, making it a combination of the three general approaches to teaching literature that Elaine Showalter outlines in Teaching Literature (2003)—the subject-centered, teacher-centered, and student-centered approach. As the names suggest, the first approach gives primacy to the subject or the text, seeing the act of teaching as a transference of information from teacher to student; the second approach places less emphasis on the subject matter itself and more on the teacher's performance in the classroom; the third approach places the needs of the student(s) first.
Parini relates how, after having met with some initial difficulty teaching, he "began to think about teaching in a different way, as a conscious act of self-creation, as self-performance" (65). It would be easy to confuse this approach with a simple performance model of teaching attacked by such critics as Jane Tompkins in "Pedagogy of the Distressed" (1990). Tompkins dismantles such a model, whose goals, she argues, are to demonstrate to students how smart and prepared the teacher is and ultimately to teach them "how to perform within an institutional academic setting in such a way that they will be thought highly of by their colleagues and instructors" (170).
Parini's model, however, is more complicated and potentially more productive. In advocating a performance model of teaching, Parini relies on what becomes the book's central metaphor: the mask. He traces this trope from its early use in Greek tragedy as...