Ok, while I've been under the weather, lo, these many days, people have been very busy responding to a call to write about why they teach what they teach, a meme that came out of this post that I did directly after MLA, at the suggestion of Craig over at Free Exchange On Campus. I've been reading people's responses - responses that range across disciplines - with interest, while consuming vast quantities of tea and feeling sorry for myself. A few responses.
1. First of all, I am unbelievably flattered that anything I wrote served to inspire such an interesting conversation that crosses disciplines and types of institution and academic bloggy readership. I'll admit, when I wrote the post, I didn't imagine that it would inspire much of anything. I was letting off steam more than anything else. So, to all of the people who engaged with the question, and to Craig who spurred the broader discussion across the academic blogosphere, just wow. I feel like I should thank all of you, as I feel like it's a huge compliment for people to have run with something I posted off the cuff and to write such thoughtful pieces from their own perspectives.
2. Second, at least one person had a problem with the logic of the reasons that I listed, thought that my last couple of reasons in particular - that the study of literature aids in class mobility and that it gives students space for pleasure that they wouldn't already have - were wrong-headed. What's interesting to me about this is that I'm not certain about why all of one's reasons for anything have to be consistent. I think it's possible to have reasons for any action (from why we teach to why we write to why we choose what to have for dinner) that are contradictory or that lack consistency. As I noted, when I wrote that post I did so off the cuff. I really didn't think much about what the post would or wouldn't inspire, nor did I see the reasons as intrinsically linked - it was more that those were the disparate reasons that came to mind when I thought about the question. In other words, I wasn't writing a conference paper or something that I thought of as a coherent whole so much as I was jotting down what came to mind. Any one of the reasons that I listed probably could have served, more fully developed, as an individual post. Now that I've read some of the criticisms (on blogs, in the comments to my original post) I see where the criticism comes from, but I don't think that it's entirely fair to call my post "odd" or to indicate that I was attempting to "justify error on personal grounds." First, I don't really think I have to justify *my* reasons for why I teach what I teach to anybody, nor do I think that because my experience is different from that of a graduate student teaching at UC-Irvine (or from the panelists on the MLA panel to which I originally responded) that I'm "wrong". Perhaps it's not about "wrong" or "right" but rather about different. Second, just because my reasons aren't identical to those of others, I don't think that makes them or how I wrote about them "odd." I'm not claiming that my reasons are universal, nor am I claiming that my reasons are the Only Valid Reasons for teaching literature. My point (to be clear) was that there are many reasons beyond those that generally get the most publicity in the discipline, and that reasons vary based on student population, institutional context, region of the country, etc. And our reasons for why we teach what we teach may be different at different times or with different texts. For that point to be elided, and for the discussion to be turned into a competition for what are the "best" reasons or the "valid" reasons for teaching, seems to reinscribe the very hierarchies that I was interrogating in the original post.
3. Also, in sending the meme around, Craig asked people to address why academic freedom is integral to their teaching, something that I didn't really discuss in my original post and which I did want to address after seeing the meme. In my context, academic freedom has meant everything to reaching the students that I teach. Underlying every one of my reasons for teaching literature is the basic necessity that I make literary texts accessible and interesting to my students, and for me that enterprise depends on being free to experiment with what I assign and to present material in ways that make difficult theoretical and literary texts most accessible. Because I have almost complete freedom (I say almost because obviously one has to comply with accreditation standards, etc.) in the classroom, it means that I can take risks in my teaching and pursue conversations with my students that cross certain kinds of boundaries. In order to teach the material that I teach, the classroom must be a free space - both for me and for my students. In fact, I would argue that academic freedom is perhaps more central to my enterprise as a teacher than it is to my scholarly work, in that a lot of what I tend to teach really challenges the values with which students enter my courses. If the freedom to challenge students in that way were limited, or if students weren't free to explore ideas that they might not see as "proper" in the context of my courses, there would be a limit on their potential to learn and to engage with things that might make them uncomfortable. In some respects, I think academic freedom is really about the freedom to pursue those things that make us uncomfortable and to try to deal with those things intellectually. While it's true that this is a cornerstone of scholarship as well, there is something about the immediacy of the classroom experience that makes such freedom there even more crucial for me. The classroom needs to be a safe space in which to have conversations about all kinds of ideas - a safe place in which to play devil's advocate and a safe space in which to enter into debate. It needs to be a space in which one can try out ideas without fear. When that freedom is curtailed, it forestalls the production of new knowledge.
But so if you've not read the responses to the meme, you should check them out. And if you'd like to contribute to the conversation, consider yourself tagged.
1 year ago