Sunday, January 27, 2008

On Why We Teach What We Teach

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.


New Kid on the Hallway said...

I thought calling your post "odd" and your reasons "wrong" was pretty bogus, myself - not that people can't disagree with your reasons, of course, but they are in fact *your* reasons. It also seemed to miss the major point of your original post, which for me, wasn't just "this is why I teach," but "why I teach is NOT what the MLA panel came up with." I thought of the point about inconsistency, too (why *do* we have to be consistent?) and nearly commented that on the post, but since I never comment over there I didn't want to be one of those people who pops up only to be a crank.

Dr. Crazy said...

Yeah, that's the thing, NK. If people disagree, cool. In fact, I'm sure people have lots of reasons that wouldn't be in line with mine, and I think that's awesome. But to be dismissive in that particular way, well, I'm not sure how that furthers the conversation.

I've got to say, as I've been thinking more about it, I think there is a bit of a disconnect between what I wrote and how I came to write it and what/how people who happened upon the meme who don't regularly read me (which I imagine has to be the case for many)conceived of their pieces, which may have contributed to Kugelmass perceiving my post as "odd" and to me perceiving his criticism as, well, kind of missing the point of what I was trying to do.

People doing the meme were/are responding to a particular call with a particular focus, and generally are following a particular format for doing so, where, well, I wasn't working from a call nor did I have a format to follow. I was thinking out loud. I think it's different when one is writing with a prompt than if one is sort of doing the writing-as-thinking thing, which is really how I most frequently operate on my blog. That means I'm often inconsistent because it's not like I'm working from an outline or something or like I devise a carefully crafted or clearly focused argument. (Actually, it's quite frequent that I argue two or three different things over the course of a post because I forget what I was originally arguing or I follow a tangent and never return to the point.)

I think my regular readers know that (though maybe they don't and I just assume that they do?), but I think that less regular readers or new readers may sometimes give me more credit for formulating and polishing the ideas presented here than I really deserve, and that inspires a certain kind of critique that I find more confusing and/or baffling than anything else.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

But to be dismissive in that particular way, well, I'm not sure how that furthers the conversation.

Of course, this assumes that academics all want to further a conversation, rather than just WIN the conversation. :-P

But I think you're right about the difference between your post and the meme follow-ups. And I think that gets back to the different ways that people blog, and how some people continue to be completely baffled by an "academic" blog that's not producing "academic" writings. (Granted, this is a pet peeve of mine these days, so I may be reading too much into this. But I kind of read the Kugelmass thing as him being bemused because you're not writing the way the Valve does.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you're saying here about right and wrong. i also had a strong sense that kugelmass missed your point about social mobility. It isn't that the "rich" hang around talking about books. that isn't it at all. at least, when I read that part of your post and I thought YES! that isn't what I thought you meant at all.

I don't read the valve regularly because I don't find it compelling.

It seems, too, that there would be some use in jettisoning the grand conversation about Why Teach Literature in favor of a contextual discussion, recognizing that the reasons and the use will be different based on the immediate context of the discussion and the student population.

and I wish we could just get off painting "state school" with the broad brush of an underprivileged education.

Jonathan said...

I don't think there's any call to identify Joseph Kugelmass with the Valve, NK and anastasia, which has several contributors. I disagreed with the premise and the tone of his post, and I have almost the exact same background as Dr. Crazy, as far as I can tell (first-generation college student, working-class background, who teaches at a university with students largely from the same demographic). So, the ideas about class-mobility and the teaching of literature are things that I've thought about quite a lot myself, though perhaps more often when observing the narcissisms of minor difference with which many academics concern themselves rather than in pedagogical contexts.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Jonathan, sorry, I didn't at all mean to suggest that the contributors at the Valve are interchangeable. In my second comment I simply meant that the mission of the Valve (where I happened to read Kugelmass's post) is rather different from the mission of Reassigned Time, and Kugelmass seemed to be doing something I've seen some academics (in general, not at the Valve per se) do, which is to expect writing on blogs identified with academia to fit a particular academic mold (i.e. inconsistency is a weakness or failure - which it is in a scholarly argument - rather than a function of the way that people live their lives - which it is in a piece of writing that's about the way one person does something, and not presented as a scholarly argument). I apologize if I suggested this was something the Valve collectively was doing, rather than Kugelmass specifically.

Dr. Crazy said...

Jonathan: Point taken re: The Valve. I don't want to put words in Anastasia's or NK's mouths, but I perceived their comments as related to a difference between styles of blogging. The Valve tends, as a whole, to be more straightforwardly "academic" in the scope of its content and in the tone of its posts. While I tend to deal with academic issues here, and while I'm an academic, the "voice" of this blog is (consciously) a less formal and more personal one. So for what it's worth, I thought that Kugelmass's response to what I'd written was his own response, and not a response of every contributor to The Valve.

As for your skepticism about literature being discussed anywhere at all in the regular world, which you talked about on your blog, well, I *kind of* agree. I don't think that people are having scintillating conversations about Eliot or Pound when they go out for drinks with coworkers. (Though maybe some are and we just don't know it? Doubtful.) What I do think, however, is that my students don't like to feel stupid. They don't like it when somebody makes some kind of reference and they don't get it. It makes them feel intimidated and it shuts them up. And what I know from my hometown friends (one in sales, another in PR, another photojournalist, another who works as a headhunter) is that they do read and they do note things like whether they recognize who won the Nobel Prize in literature and stuff like that. And it can reflect positively on them if they can contribute a tidbit here or there in a casual conversation. They want to be able to have a cursory conversation about a book, and to have the tools to do so and to not look stupid, when they're involved in things like book clubs. So do I think that my students are going to go off into a future where talking about literature-capital-L in an in depth way will be the norm? No. But do I think that they do gain some confidence and the ability not to feel dumb when something from the realm of the literary comes up in everyday life? Yes.

Craig @ AFT said...

Just want to weigh in here and say that whether or not you intended to "inspire," you did and it was a great post. I think that the discussions that have developed, including debates about your reasoning, are evidence of that.

Chris and I over at Free Exchange had been talking about trying to start such a discussion for some time, and when I say your post, I knew it was the perfect starting point.

So now we are thinking about the next steps. We are hoping to engage more academics in talking about their work and promoting what they do in the public arena. There is a serious ideological attack being aimed at higher education and we believe one part of the response is doing more education of the public about what really happens n our college classrooms.

We hope folks will stay connected with us and we will continue to do everything we can to promote the great work all of you are doing out there in college classrooms everyday. I miss being in the classroom and appreciate all of the work you all continue to do.

Craig (cps @ Free Exchange)

Steve said...

I would be reluctant to identify The Valve as "academic." If I had the same visceral, regurgatory reaction to the properly academic stuff I read as I do to the valve, well, I would be selling widgets or something. I can barely stand reading it, even when people I like (Kuglemass & SEK, really) write there. I don't even know why I commented there, as I hadn't even darkened their URL in months. But you know, Dr. Crazy, it's a lot of crap that's not worth dwelling on.

the rebel lettriste said...

So one of the things that I loved about your post(s) on this issue, Dr. C., is that you talk about money, about class, about the incredibly strange gift of literature when it arrives for a person living in a context of hardship, suffering, hunger. THAT gift, and that hardship, is something that needs continued saying, in this here academy, and it's something that Kugelmass, et. al., are just somehow unable to see. But the fact that they can't see it doesn't make it any less real. They also can't see the fact that the whole question is kind of stupid--it's not so much that literature "matters," but that literature "means," I think. If literature mattered we wouldn't have adjuncts earning poverty wages for the privilege of teaching it. But despite that, despite the fact that I have students who don't turn in their papers because they ARE HOMELESS, literature and its teaching has meaning.