- Teaching and Presence
What I have in mind here is not presence in the sense of “poise” or “confidence,” but simply the condition of being present. Of being fully present.
Without presence, teachers are like guides in a theme park who tell the same joke a dozen times a day. We’re there, but we’re not there. With presence, teaching lives; it may or may not be good teaching, but it’s alive.
Since I’ve been in this profession, I’ve had the opportunity to sit in the back of many classrooms. I’ve watched TAs teach, visited other professors’ classes, watched students give presentations, and (in a Teaching Literature class) watched them do teaching exercises as well. Some people, when they teach, are right there with the rest of us in the room; others seem imprisoned in their own space, on the far side of an unbridgeable gulf. And of course there’s an abundance of positions in between. From where I sit at the back of the room, these differences in the degree of presence seem so obvious, so tangible that you would almost think there could be an instrument that would register them, not only from one teacher to another, but even, with a single teacher, from one session to another or even one moment to another.
It may be there are subject areas where a more disengaged, “prepackaged” sort of teaching will suffice, but, if so, literature and composition are not among them. Typically, what we want is a full, multileveled engagement from our students; we want their full presence — but we’re not likely to get it if they sense that we ourselves are not entirely, genuinely, there with them.
But even for those of us who value it, presence can be an extraordinarily elusive goal in teaching. It is precisely what you can’t count on. Much of what we strive to attain in our teaching is ground that we can hope to win, and hold. Over time, you get to know Emma very, very well, and not only Emma, but its literary and historical context, and the history of its critical reception [End Page 215] as well. You acquire a repertoire of ingenious pedagogical approaches to this novel. Well and good. But the great antagonist here — what shall we call it: absence? distance? automatism? lifelessness? — is a void toward which teaching, to the extent that it becomes habitual, is continually falling. The approach to Emma that was so enlivening and productive two semesters ago is already starting to die. The adroitly phrased question about Austen’s narrative structure — the question that was once so fresh and authentic — is starting to feel like part of a memorized sales pitch.
But, of course, new teachers have their problems too. We have only to imagine someone at the very beginning of his or her teaching career, coming into a class session so nervous, so insecure, clinging so desperately to the teaching plan that he or she was up late working on the night before that a sort of glass wall descends and the teacher and the students remain as remote from each other as though they were in separate mediums. (I still have the pages of meticulously printed, practically word-for-word notes for my very first lecture, given in some senior professor’s advanced composition class. Interestingly, though, the actual memory of giving that particular lecture would appear to have been stricken from the neural record.)
When we’re absent, when we’re there but not there, this, in effect, excludes the students, who are reduced to the role of mere onlookers (in lecture) or objects to be manipulated (in “class-centered” activities). If their motivation is strong enough, they may be able to involve themselves actively in what is happening, but they are less likely to do so — and what occurs is less likely to stay with them — than when there is a sense of presence in the classroom.
Defamiliarizing the Classroom
The degree of importance we attach to presence will depend on how high our goals are and what our understanding is of the classroom’s potential as...