Pedagogy 1.3 (2001) 449-455
[Access article in PDF]
CommentaryTeaching in Public:
A Modest Proposal
It is a truth universally acknowledged that English studies in our era rewards research, ignores teaching, and bestows stardom on those who work "the sexiest areas of cultural or literary study, and in the flashiest way" (Levine 2001: 9). Moreover, teaching is secret, personal, and intimate. According to Parker J. Palmer (1998: 142):
Teaching is perhaps the most privatized of all the public professions. Though we teach in front of students, we almost always teach solo, out of collegial sight--as contrasted with surgeons or lawyers, who work in the presence of others who know their craft well. . . . When we walk into our workplace, the classroom, we close the door on our colleagues. When we emerge, we rarely talk about what happened or what needs to happen next, for we have no shared experience to talk about.
I would like to challenge both of these axioms and suggest that teaching has never been more public in English studies than it is today, especially among the successful, but that our intellectual formation, social conventions, and professional habits have blinded us to its presence and prevented us from using it to begin the discourse on pedagogy that George Levine so rightly demands. I would like to offer a modest proposal about changing our professional culture in ways that would foreground teaching and open a conversation about its significance to our reward system and personal development.
First, however, I must concede that for most of us, teaching literature (and I use that phrase to stand for what we do that is not part of a writing program) feels intimate and personal, because, unlike surgeons or lawyers, we believe that what goes on in the classroom reveals the deepest aspects of ourselves. No matter how dry, matter-of-fact, distant, or cerebral our teaching may be, we regard it as more than a recitation of facts or a chant of theoretical [End Page 449] mantras, more than performance or persona; it feels like an externalization of our mind and personality and psyche. Thus, in reading teaching evaluations, we feel that we ourselves have been judged, and we do not like others to examine the interaction that takes place in a classroom between ourselves and our students. At Princeton University in the 1960s one professor wanted to bring his psychotherapist to his seminar to analyze the dynamics of the group; the administration refused the request, to the faculty's huge relief.
I have always regretted that the therapy seminar did not take place, because I suspect that it would have been a fascinating case study of misunderstandings, transferences, and countertransferences from which I, for one, would have profited. On the occasions in my own teaching when I have been able to decipher some of these mysteries for myself, they have been illuminating as well as embarrassing. Teaching a large undergraduate lecture course on the fin de siècle in the late 1980s, for example, I suddenly developed a case of nerves and had to steel myself each week to walk into the classroom I had been assigned--the astronomy lecture hall, a round, windowless room like the inside of an igloo. I was teaching material that would become my book Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siècle, about the subtexts of decadence, degeneration, colonialism, and homoeroticism in writers of the 1880s and 1890s, including Kipling, Stevenson, Haggard, Stoker, Conrad, and, of course, Freud. In the back row of the auditorium, with its own exit, sat the tallest male students with a body language of extreme resistance--folded arms, stony faces--snickering and whispering. (One of these students, who has gone on to become the editor of the men's magazine Maxim, recently told the Princeton alumni magazine that he still wants to prove that I am wrong about women in slasher films.) As the semester went on, I became increasingly anxious about lecturing, even about losing my voice.
About halfway through the term, an undergraduate friend who was an actor recommended that...