The Times on “Teaching”

Reading the New York Times Magazine’s College Life issue this morning was nothing if not a reminder that representations of cultures are seldom analogous to the material realities of those who live in them.  I’ve written here before about popular representations of professors (and how those resemble approximately 2% of my colleagues), but the Times today expands its reach to include not just professors, but teaching and writing as well.

It begins with an article titled “Those Who Write, Teach.”  The title suggested to me, as it would to many in the profession (particularly those of us at teaching institutions), the long-standing conversation about the connections between scholarly work and teaching.  In essence, how does your research inform what you do in the classroom, and vice versa?  How might you address the very real difficulties of carving out time to stay current in your field while attending to your students’ learning processes?

Instead, “Those Who Write” is a first person piece by David Gessner, in which he describes the plight of the writer “in captivity”—i.e., trapped by an academic job that slowly sucks the wildness out of him and his writing.  To be fair to Gessner, there’s not a teacher alive who doesn’t fantasize about what she could be doing if she weren’t grading papers, fielding student questions, preparing for class.  But I can’t help getting my feathers ruffled by two things here: first, the ambivalence of the title worries me.  Is it referencing the old inspiring saw “those who CAN, teach,” and thus making writing (here strictly defined as creative writing) the equivalent of ability?  Or is it more insidious, calling to mind instead the insult “those who CAN’T, teach” and thereby insinuating that writing within the confines of the academy eventually leads to a lack of ability?

Second, Gessner’s image of the work of teaching troubles me.  Even as he critiques an earlier era of creative writing pedagogy (“learn by osmosis” from the “great man or woman”), he cites his love for teaching as one that’s grounded in sharing his work, in being a great entertainer, in being surrounded by people committed to writing.  On top of this, the job provides a stable daily structure, a “badge” of legitimacy, and the aggregate of all of this moves toward balancing the ways in which he must trade “reading great literature and communing with writers of the past” for “apprentice writing.”

There’s something crucial that’s missing from Gessner’s description of teaching, and that is arguably it’s most important characteristic: the one where you learn from your students, and learn to teach them to learn.  I’m in deep cliched water here, I have no doubt, but it’s very simply true: there is great joy and daily reward from the surprise of what students see that you’ve missed; in experimenting with various approaches to connect what they already know with what you hope they’ll take away from any given text.

The innate reciprocity of teaching is also missing from the Times’ second article: Virginia Heffernan’s study of professors on YouTube.  I’ll spare you the close textual analysis here, but suffice to say that as she ranks and assesses the available videos, she constructs a very particular equation:  virtuoso teaching=charismatic lecture=box-office gold.  I have no interest in rehashing ye olde lecture vs. seminar debate.  A great lecture is all of the things that Heffernan so closely observes in the videos she cites.  Yet I can’t help but flinch at such a medieval definition of teaching.  A “sage on the stage” is still that, even if the stage has become an international and digital one.  There’s a special irony here too, of using one of the most popular forms of Web 2.0 technology—a designation that highlights the interactivity of the medium—to relay content without reciprocity.

The “college life” issue is one of many recent representations of college life (see Smart People, Elegy, the movie College for god’s sakes).  Any more, and a careful cultural critic might begin to suspect that we’re hell-bent on representing a single professor and his/her well-wraught pedagogical urn in order to distract ourselves from all of the other types of college experiences out there.

Wallace Elegy

I just peeked at the New York Times for a moment, and was absoutely shocked to see the latest AP news that David Foster Wallace is dead.  According to the very short AP story, Wallace’s wife discovered that he’d hung himself.  What a tragedy.

I read Infinite Jest in 2000, in the month between finishing my qualifying exams and getting married and moving to a new city.  It was the perfect novel for that moment: utterly diverting and weird (buried heads and cross-dressing CIA agents), surreal and sincere by turns.  It was the perfect distraction from the endless details and free-roaming anxiety of moving, of beginning the dissertation.  It was nothing like what I had crammed in my brain for the preceding months, but an excellent test of all of the theories and interpretive strategies and thus reminded me why I wanted a career in English Studies in the first place.

Infinite Jest is a novel that begs you to read it again the minute you finish it.  Wallace peppers the novel with spot-on characterizations of contemporary American life (corporate sponsorship of years, negotiating national ownership of toxic waste, television taken to its logical conclusion), but witholds their narrative origins, hiding them deep in the text.  In the weeks it takes to finish the book, you develop a relationship with it (as well as a significant bicep muscle from carrying it around).  It makes you a careful reader, an almost paranoid interpreter, a bit desperate to skim through scenes, but afraid that you’ll miss something. Making it to the end is the perfect ambivalent moment: a relief that you’ve made it through, and the simultaneous realization that the conclusion makes the rest of the novel clear, and that you need to begin again.

I’ve since read some of Wallace’s other works (The Girl with Curious Hair; The Broom of the System; his unbelievable, replete-with-footnotes essay on grammar for Harper’s Magazine ), but none of them were able to replicate the same reading experience for me.  Periodically, when I’m fantasizing about the perfect class to teach, I imagine that a semester spent with Infinite Jest would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for students—a kind of contemporary literature boot camp.  Of course, then reality sets in: can I really justify dragging undergraduates through 1100 pages of weirdness on a whim?

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the idea, or at least to revisit the novel myself.  It seems like a fitting tribute to an brilliant author dead long before his time.

***updated to add: Here’s a lovely farewell to Wallace from Times book doyenne Michiko Kakutani.