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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 165-172

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Primus Inter Pares, and Other Contradictory Convictions

[Works Cited for Roundtable]
The Art of Teaching. By Jay Parini. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
People often ask me how I did all of this [teach, write, edit, parent], and I will try to speak frankly about my approach to writing and teaching at the same time. It wasn't easy, but it was fun.
—Jay Parini

In The Art of Teaching, Jay Parini maneuvers through a series of theoretical paradoxes and practical challenges, excavating his past in order to advise "young teachers, those who must thread their way through the complex maze of [a] system" that Parini himself has spent thirty years navigating (x). A "personal academic memoir,"1 The Art of Teaching is both reflective and suggestive. The first half of the book, "Beginnings," "My Life in School," and "The Teaching Life," reads like a love letter to the teachers of Parini's past, his own strong mentors. "The anxiety of influence affects teachers as well as writers," he claims, invoking Harold Bloom, one of the many illustrious academics [End Page 165] who color his text (68). But whereas Bloom is only indirectly present, other giants—Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sir Kenneth Dover, Philip Hobsbaum, and Alastair Reid, for example—are more immediately knitted into a narrative that draws, in part, on an impressive graduate career spent observing great scholars in the act of teaching. The second half of the book, "Nitty-Gritty," which takes the form of a "Letter to a Young Teacher," is a compilation of "the things I wish somebody had said to me at the start of my career" (x). Despite Parini's underlying conviction that "there are no shortcuts to becoming a good teacher," that it is a process of "trial and error" (51), that on the journey "toward self-knowledge [one must get] lost in order to get found" (105), he has crafted a book that is if not a shortcut then certainly a road map for the neophyte academic, an attempt to make her "passage a little easier" (116).2 For The Art of Teaching is not only about good teaching; it is also about good scholarly habits and a commitment to writing.

Chief among the paradoxes that drive Parini's book is his belief that "having a firm identity as a writer provides a teaching persona that works rather well in the classroom" (48). Teaching and writing need not be either intellectually or practically at odds with one another because fundamental to both is "clarification, classification, and persuasion" (81). Citing Dover as his source, Parini asserts, "both a class and a critical essay are very similar in that each requires powers of formulation; each draws on the analytical intelligence" (95). Not only does Parini insist that teaching and the other rigors of academic life can be balanced successfully, he argues that "teaching and scholarship are integrally related, and . . . they reinforce each other" (114). Parini's attempt to rescue teaching from its secondary status, without demoting scholarship, is valuable. What would be more valuable—and, unfortunately, remains elusive in this text—is an actual description of a viable plan for weaving the two together so that neither is sacrificed. While Parini succeeds in demonstrating teaching as showing, through the articulation of the process of thinking itself, he fails to enact the possibility of prioritizing. For this passionate writer-teacher, everything seems to matter most, and everything can, at once, be true. The Art of Teaching is an eloquent testimony to the struggles and joys of teaching, but it is as much a manifestation of the competing claims on our time—a reflection of the impossible tasks required of us—as it is a declaration that these claims can be managed. Thus the young scholar at whom so much of this revelatory, compelling, but occasionally frustrating book is directed remains unclear not only about how to read Parini's many contradictory convictions but, more critically, how best to handle her time. [End Page 166]

Another paradox central to the text...


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