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Beginning Again and the End of Teaching

What is teaching?  Is it conversation, community, correctness, conversion? Does it begin and end with the classroom, with students, with knowledge?

In my parochial vision, I think of teaching in terms of the Humanities, a project that, in one scholar’s words, aims to “make intellectual life more open and democratic by enlarging the circle of participants.” (That incredibly arresting phrase comes from Kurt Spellmeyer’s Arts of Living, SUNY UP 2003 but see the writing program he directs at Rutgers for an enactment of this idea.)

But don’t topics shrink, border off, outline rather than enlarge? This post is about opening and closing, ending and beginning.  And teaching.

I’m beginning this sabbatical by ending two activities central to my profession (listed here as 1 and 3, interrupted by something different, but associated):

1)   the end of teaching: last class of the semester for a year, English 330 “Fiction” with twenty-one presentations of Man Gone Down, May 15th, 2-4 40);

2)   a transporting visit to The New York Public Library: this past Monday, it was raining in midtown, I had tea, observed people being quiet… I actually felt something stirring in the silence…could it be a topic?;

3)   leading the last college-wide workshop as one of the coordinators at my campus’ Writing Across the Curriculum program: around twenty-five faculty members and administrators participated, May 24th, 3pm.

Amidst all of this, surrounded by it (in my bag, on my kindle, with me on the supermarket line, at the school pick-up place) is David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (Simon and Schuster 1996).  It is an account of returning to Columbia University at mid-life to take again two required “core” courses “Lit-Hum”(Literature and Humanities) and “CC” (Contemporary Civilization) he passed through as an undergraduate of the early 1960’s.  Denby’s book, I find, is immediately topical.

It’s about the past—the 1990’s and what was then the hot-button controversy about “the” canon: the tradition of Western literature and culture that survives in the curriculum of these two courses.  And it is about other pasts: Denby’s in relation to Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, etc, and whatever he (and we) can glean from the “actual” pasts as alive in the works of these canonical writers.

It is also about teaching. The book contains long passages describing (in very loosely understood ethnographic style) the Columbia undergraduate classrooms that Denby joined in 1991 and 1992.  Descriptions of students and teachers are captivating if somewhat filtered and idealized. There are heated discussions and awkward silences among students and professors, and there is a journalistic account of the inner life of the reader. But there is nothing of the extracurricular activity that so dominates teaching as I live it.  Where are the papers to read? (No drafts, no in-class writing, no blackboard…bless the 90’s.) Certainly, there is nothing about “outcomes,” “rubrics,” or “standards.”  And while a great deal of ambivalence is brought to bear on the choice of texts (and a hilarious riff on the word “texts” itself) there is nothing about the anxiety of teaching texts as something to do in the first, or last place. Or even at mid-life.

Of course the book is from the perspective of the observer, not a student, not a professor, not an administrator.  But can observation be a kind of teaching?  Can it enlarge “the circle of participants” in the thinking life?

This is what Denby says in response to one faculty member from the early 1990’s who thought the canon was both out of context and too difficult:

But wasn’t that the greatness of the course–that intelligent but untrained people hurled themselves at those gigantic works, struggled, made ‘errors,’ read parts of the books badly, learned something from their teachers and each other?

Is this a view of teaching to prepare students for the muddle of midlife?

I’ll end with a question:

I’d like to know what happened between Denby writing that about teaching and, some fifteen years later, Sidney I. Dobrin writing something completely different about writing, and teaching.  Dobrin’s 2011 polemic about discipline of Composition (PostcompositionSouthern Illinois UP) might be the antithesis to Denby’s meditation on the muddle of teaching:

In this way, ‘postpedagogy’ suggests a new mantra for writing studies: stop talking  about teaching.  This new mantra urges researchers to step beyond the limits of thinking about writing in terms of classroom application and observation, calling instead for research that begins to tear down the very boundaries of the field in order to develop more useful, accurate theories of writing.

Are there any limits to thinking about writing in terms of classroom application and observation?

So begins my year in the boundaries of no classroom.

About Jessica Yood

I am an Associate Professor of English at Lehman College, The City University of New York (CUNY). Composition and Rhetoric is my primary field and research into the history and emerging role of writing in our contemporary culture continues to broaden my definition of this discipline. Work for my book project takes me into the history of literary criticism in America, complexity theories, the culture wars and the intellectual crises of the 1990s, and the enduring complexity of first-year writing and writers.
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