December 16, 2012

Teaching, Violence, Enticement, Performance

Teaching, at first glance, may seem simple: it’s just a matter of moving the student from one state to another. Show the student a map, tell him how to get there, and voilà: the student is taught.

But, alas, the situation is much trickier — and much stranger — than that. Because it’s not a matter of moving students from, say, San Francisco to Lima. It’s matter of moving students from the very people and world they think they know to an alternate dimension of space-time that they not only never imagined but never could have imagined. And where what it means to be and the very ways of knowing the world are, well, different. There is no map teachers can give their students — at least not one that’s legible.

Learning is impossible and actual. It involves an infinite movement from one state of being to another. And yet this infinite space is traversed — maybe not all the time but often. I remember my son muttering nonsense and then, behind everyone’s back, speaking words. It was a miracle of sorts — a miracle that happens for babbling human idiots, more or less, every day. Still, I am completely overwhelmed by this: how can “da da da da” become, “Dada”? One is a series of sounds; the other is a conjuring of concepts, history, human beings. (For the moment, I’ll avoid the complexities of learning one’s first language. I always found Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations smart on this subject.)

There are no clear steps that can lead the student from point A to point B. Sure, there are signposts along the way. But, at some point, signposts disappear and the student must take the leap — Carlos at the end of Tales of Power leaping off the cliff: “Then a strange urge, a force, made me run him to the northern edge of the mesa. I felt his arm holding me as we jumped and then I was alone.”

And then I was alone: this is the requisite state of learning. It happens alone. You can only be lead so far before you have to make the jump on your own.

What, then, is the teacher to do? What is his role? How does he have the student take this jump?

There is the so-called Socratic method. But Socrates had only one goal: to have everyone recognize that they know nothing. His method leads to zero. After all, his model is premised on a suspect assumption: that we already know everything and hence learning is just remembering. I, on the other hand, believe learning is overcoming oneself and one’s knowledge to become — and know — differently. So let’s put aside Socrates for the moment and look at teaching methods.

Well, there is the common approach — violence. That is, force students to jump. Give exams. Pop quizzes. Try to make students take that leap. Scare them into it with police action: Learn or be punished!

Of course, this often backfires as students learn how to master the test without making any leap at all.  Just because you can pass a test doesn’t mean you’ve learned a thing — other than how to take the test. Which is not a completely irrelevent skill. Nevertheless.

At some point in my college career — mid-junior year — I refused to take any more exams. I’d write papers, gladly. But I would not take any tests. When I was given tests in required courses, I’d flip them over and write essays. And, because there is such a fear of failing students at Ivy League schools, I’d pass. (I tried to fail a couple of times but, uh, failed.)

And then, when I became a professor, I refused to give exams — at least exams that tested students’ ability to memorize facts. My exams, when I had to give them, asked things like, “In Phaedrus, is Socrates serious or not?” This drove a certain kind of student crazy. “What do you want, Professor Coffeen?” I want you to think differently, to think as you’ve never thought before. And, in the process, try to teach me something I’ve never known. 

But the question remains: How does a teacher get students to move from their present state to a state of being they never could have imagined?

Well, I think believe there is always a certain violence to pedagogy. For me, violence took the form of repetition: I’d say the same thing over and over again as if, through sheer force, I could drill the ideas into their minds and bodies. And, come to think if it now, I may have used a kind of intimidation, putting students on the spot, taking their comments and questions to task in front of the class — a whiny Jewish version of John Houseman in “The Paper Chase” (in my no doubt megalomaniacal imagination).

But I believe there is another technique:  to make this new world look and sound and feel so tempting that students want to take the leap, want to leave behind their tired old ways of doing things. That is, to seduce them, to entice them. Now, I know I’m opening myself up to all kind of jokes, criticisms, and, were I still teaching, law suits. Please note, however, that I’m not talking about physical coitus. I’m talking about enticing students to take a leap — a leap that is scary, unsure, and disorienting.

So why make this leap?  Because there is the promise of something better on the other side. John Houseman, in his way, tries to entice students with the promise of nobility. When you know as I know, he implies, you too will be wise and grand. His teaching is more than an imparting of knowledge; it is a call to become otherwise — in his case, wise and noble.

But while we tend to think of knowing — of learning — as a duty, pedagogic enticement need not promise nobility. We tend to neglect the sheer pleasure of knowing — and, even more, the pleasure of modes of knowing.  It’s not just the knowledge that delights us but the very manner in which we know. We imagine that knowledge is something we have rather than something we are.This is Nietzsche’s great lesson: the way we know, the very manner in which we make sense of the world, is who we are. Knowing is not something extraneous to our becoming; it is constitutive of it.

And so rather than say, Come hither and be wise, as Houseman does, the teacher might say,Come hither and play. It’s so sumptuous over here — to know like this, to live like this. To know in this way is so alluring, so delicious, so delectable, so pleasurable that students are willing to be confused and risk getting a C on a paper.

This no doubt demands something strange of teachers. They are no longer gatekeepers to a certain knowledge but proxies for a certain way of living.  Which is to say, the teacher is no longer a conduit of knowledge but is himself a body that knows — and hence lives a certain way. And teaching becomes a matter of performance, of living through a mode of knowing.

In some sense, teaching is impossible as it turns on students learning — and learning is something done alone. Which leaves the teacher is a strange position. Try to make students learn. Or entice them to learn. And enticing in turns, demands the teacher to teach more than data: it demands he put on the life he promises. TC mark

Image – The Paper Chase

Daniel Coffeen

Daniel is an independent writer, reader, teacher, and philosopher. Follow him on Twitter here.