From the Novel Readings Archives: Since I started this blog almost ten years ago, one of its most important roles for me has been as a place for me to reflect on my teaching, which is the part of my professional life I value the most and that takes up, usually, the majority of my time and energy.
Universities talk a lot about the importance of teaching, but in practice, as we all know and are frequently reminded, in big ways and small, it’s of secondary — possibly tertiary — value when it comes to our professional advancement. A lot of the discussion about teaching at the higher levels of administration seems to turn on the lure of new technologies or the promise of impersonal kinds of efficiency. To those of us who stand in the classroom every day — at least, those of us in the humanities — much of that discussion misses the point entirely. What we want is to engage with our students in ways that are at once rigorous and profound, that serve both the head and the heart.
Standing in front of my students this morning, talking with them as passionately as I could about the final sequences, and the beautiful Finale, of Middlemarch, I hoped I had gotten better at combining the intellectual and what, for want of a better word, I’ll call the spiritual. If I have, it’s partly through the work I’ve been doing outside the classroom (indeed, outside the university altogether), including here on this blog, and including especially the kinds of thinking out loud I did in this post from 2010. I’m so grateful to everyone who reads and comments for helping me sustain and improve this ongoing project of finding (and sharing) both meaning and inspiration in literature.
Standing in Chartres Cathedral Unmoved
I’ve been thinking more about this passage from May Sarton’s The Small Room that I quoted in my earlier post on the novel, from Lucy’s irate speech to her students on returning their woefully inadequate assignments:
Here is one of the great mysterious works of man, as great and mysterious as a cathedral. And what did you do? You gave it so little of your real selves that you actually achieved bordeom. You stood in Chartres cathedral unmoved. . . . This is not a matter of grades. You’ll slide through all right. It is not bad, it is just flat. It’s the sheer poverty of your approach that is horrifying!
I’ve been marking assignments myself (in my more benign moments, I call it ‘evaluating assignments,’ which sounds less adversarial). But that’s not actually what has had the line about standing in Chartres cathedral unmoved running through my head. Instead, it’s our recent class meeting on James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which I know I am not alone in finding one of the greatest pieces of modern fiction: smart, patient, subtle, powerful, poignant. My very smart talented teaching assistant led the class, and as always happens when I hand over the reins, I learned a lot and was reminded why I ended up where I am today, namely, because I loved being an English student. (I had the same treat today because another of our very smart and talented graduate students kindly took over the class on T. S. Eliot. Boy, we can pick ’em!)
Because I was sitting among the students, I couldn’t see their faces, so I had less than my usual sense of whether they were engaged or listening, but there was certainly not a flurry of responses in answer to Mark’s questions about the story. Now, it’s not a hugely forthcoming group anyway, and for that I partly blame both the style in which I have decided to teach the course (basically, lectures, with some Q&A, which seemed to fit the purpose of the course) and also the room we were assigned (quite a formal tiered lecture hall, narrow but deep, which exaggerates the distance and difference between the front of the room and the back and makes the prospect of throwing up your hand to volunteer an idea more intimidating, I expect, to any usually reticent students). Anyway, I sat listening to Mark and looking at the moments on the page he called our attention to and filling up with the old excitement–but also simmering a little at what seemed to me an undue lack of excitement in the rest of the room. ‘Aha!’ I thought. ‘This is what Lucy was talking about! Here they are, in Chartres cathedral, unmoved!’
But the more I’ve thought about that moment and my reaction, the less satisfied I am–not with them (though come on, it’s “The Dead”!), but with myself and with the unfair lose-lose situation I am (silently) putting the poor students in.
The thing is, my classroom is nothing like Chartres cathedral. And I don’t mean just in the look and layout, though here are some pictures so you can imagine the scene for yourself:
No, the dissimilarity I’m thinking about is one of atmosphere. Or, perhaps more accurately, attitude. As I remarked in my write-up of The Small Room, Sarton seems to me to be appealing to”an old-fashioned view of literature as a kind of secular prophecy,” imagining a world in which “the professor’s scholarship giv[es] her the wisdom to speak ‘from a cloud,’ a ‘creative power,’ a ‘mystery.'” I wasn’t–and I’m not–lamenting that this is not my academy. I’m not a secular priest; I have no special creative power, no authority to speak to them from some mysterious height– no interest, either, in evoking spiritual revelations. That’s not my business. We can’t just stand there and emote, after all. There’s not much point in their bringing their “real selves” to their work in the way Lucy seems to want it: what would I grade them on? Failure (or success) at having their own epiphanies, rather than failure (or success) at explaining the concept of ‘epiphany’ in the context of Joyce’s fiction in general and “The Dead” in particular? As Brian McCrea writes,
People who want to become English professors do so because, at one point in their lives, they found reading a story, poem, or play to be an emotionally rewarding experience. They somehow, someway were touched by what they read. Yet it is precisely this emotional response that the would-be professor must give up. Of course, the professor can and should have those feelings in private, but publicly, as a teacher or publisher, the professor must talk about the text in nonemotional, largely technical terms. No one ever won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant by weeping copiously for Little Nell, and no one will get tenure in a major department by sharing his powerful feelings about Housman’s Shropshire Lad with the full professors.
And as I wrote in response to McCrea in a (much) earlier post,
While we can all share a shudder at the very idea, to me one strength of McCrea’s discussion is his admission that marginalizing affect, pleasure, and aesthetic response is, in a way, to be untrue to literature, and that the professional insistence on doing so also, as a result, marginalizes our conversation, alienating us, as McCrae says, “from our students, our counterparts in other academic departments, our families [unless, he allows, they include other professional critics–otherwise, as he points out, even they are unlikely to actually read our books and articles], and, ultimately, any larger public” (164-5). (In Democracy’s Children, John McGowan makes a similar point: “There remains a tension between the experience of reading literature and the paths followed in studying. . . . To give one’s allegiance to the academic forms through which literature is discussed and taught is to withdraw [at least partly] allegiance to literature itself” ).
They aren’t standing in Chartres cathedral unmoved. I’m slamming the door of Chartres cathedral in their face. They might well have been feeling all the excitement I could hope for, or at least those who actually did the reading for the day might have. But it wouldn’t be their fault if they thought the CIBC Auditorium was no place to bring it up. It wouldn’t be Mark’s fault either, or mine. We do show enthusiasm and appreciation for the literature we’re covering, to be sure, but it’s not of the viscerally rapturous variety, or even the aesthetically transcendent variety. It’s a heavily intellectualized variety, and while I don’t think that makes it inauthentic, it isn’t something they are quite ready to emulate, not yet. I want them to feel the readings, and to show that they feel them, but there’s really no appropriate way for them to express that feeling in the ways they would find natural.
But what are we to do? I’m not a fan of the unreflexive response, and taking down the nets would open up our class discussions (at least potentially) to a particularly banal and subjective kind of verbal tennis (“I really like this” / “Can you say more about why?” / “Not really, I just thought it was nice / beautiful / relatable”). Nobody learns anything from that. I usually just hope that my enthusiasm (however peculiar its variety) catches their interest and makes them read more, and more alertly, then they otherwise would. I try to give them tools to notice and think about their more personal responses, too: how they might have been achieved by the formal strategies of the work, and what their implications might be. I was remembering, though, a conversation of my own with one of my undergraduate professors. We had been reading Matthew Arnold, including “To Marguerite–Continued,” at a time when a lot of emotionally difficult things were going on in my life, and after our seminar (in which, as I recall, we talked about things like faith and doubt, and modern alienation, and verse forms, and metaphors) I very tentatively went up to the professor–one of my favorites, a wry 18th-century specialist who always looked faintly sardonic (as is only fitting, of course, for that period). “But don’t you think,” I remember saying (and those who know me now would not, probably, believe how nervous it made me even to stand there and ask this kind but intimidating man anything at all) “don’t you think that life is like he says? that we are isolated like that?” “Perhaps,” was his only reply–that, and a quizzical lift of his eyebrow. Well, what else could he say? What did my angst have to do with his class?
But (I’m full of these equivocations tonight, apparently) I can’t help but think that, for all the gains involved in professionalizing the study of literature, one of the reasons our students don’t graduate and go out into the world and absolutely trumpet the value and significance of the work they did with us is precisely that we have given up that prophetic role. We stood with them outside the cathedral, perhaps, and told them it mattered, and explained its history and architecture and social role and so forth, but left them to stand inside, moved, on their own. To be sure, they might have ignored it altogether if it weren’t for us (how many of these kids would pick up Joyce on their own?), but no wonder they are left thinking that when it came to the things that really mattered, we weren’t there for them.
Originally published in Novel Readings November 10, 2010.