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.

Fistful of Film Techniques

M. and I are hard at work on our summer workshop, which we’re privately thinking of as “Personal Essay Filmmaking, 2.0.”  Last year at this time, we were trying to guide our students through the incredibly complex task of crafting a short personal essay film in two weeks.  This was complicated by any number of factors: mis-advertised course times and dates and lack of lab space being two of the unexpected ones.  On top of that, there were all of the difficulties of teaching a class for the first time, and team-teaching for the first time, to boot.  In short, it’s amazing that we—and the students—made it out alive.

This time around, however, we’ve streamlined the class considerably.  Based on our recent research, we’re also actively thinking about YouTube as a space in which personal essay films already exist, in a variety of manifestations.  For the last two days, we’ve been reading personal essays with the class, and using the written text as a starting place to discuss genre, and then we’ve moved on to examining a number of YouTube videos.  We’re keeping Jenkins and Juhasz in mind here, but we’re also asking our students to take seriously the potential to produce a personal film with larger societal/cultural meaning.  As if that isn’t setting the bar, try this one: they only have two weeks to do it.  (!)

My job in class tomorrow is to provide for them a handful of filmmaking techniques that will spur their creative process, and give them some ideas about the visual and aural possibilities available to them.  I’ve been assembling clips for the past hour, trying to decide which might be the most relevant to the types of stories they want to tell, but let’s face it: the language of film is infinite, and our time in class is shockingly limited.  The task of giving them an abbreviated toolbox of film techniques (and by this, I’m thinking particularly about shots, editing effects, etc.) is a bit like asking someone to build a house, but being told that they can only have three tools with which to do it.  A hammer, nails, and a saw?  A wrench, pliers, and PVC pipe?  Point of view camera, or low angle shot?  Non-diegetic sound, or discontinuity editing?

I can’t help but be reminded of the advice of dissertation advisors everywhere: you should have three different versions of your project on tap at any given moment—the 500 word version, the 200 word version, and the 25 word version.  Tomorrow, by necessity, we’ll be going with the 25 word version of film techniques.  Perhaps there will be time at the end of the week for a longer version.