The Myth of the Ineffective Teacher

Over at the thoughtful, medievalist blog In The Middle, Eileen Joy has posted a response to Scott Eric Kaufman’s Valve post about teaching (which begins with Seung-Hui Cho, but I’m not going to revisit that). She writes:

But, over the years, I’ve also developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer….You can never teach morality. You can only model it. And maybe live it, in imperfect fits and starts, and only with the recognition that morality is more related to affect than it is to principles or rules or even final actions.As to the relation of pedagogy to leading students to the better sorts of lives, I stopped agonizing about that a while ago. I don’t mean to say I don’t care about pedagogy [I care a lot], but that I don’t anymore torture myself worrying about whether or not I am leading my students to liberalism or humanism [or, humaness (sic)] or any other political or philosophical mode of being/thought, either through hectoring or a more subtle and laudably non-ideological method. Is there a way we can merely “be ourselves” [?], simply modelling to our students our desire[s] to read and think out loud and wonder and be moved? More and more, I worry less about students’ moral bearings [and lack thereof] and more about their emotional affect. I worry about their ability to be enchanted and to feel–”to feel” in the sense of allowing themselves to be swept away by art and literature into the lives of other persons. There is some kind of predisposition, I think, to being “open” to that possibility, without which ethics, of any sort, cannot be possible.

As this blog grows and develops, I hope to find many ways of investigating an odd dissymmetry: what people advocate for as their own intellectual and ethical projects is often acceptable or even admirable, while what they advocate against or seek to limit casts them in a less flattering light.

For example, I can only applaud Eileen’s efforts to model morality, which she does despite being aware of her own imperfections, and (I would think) admitting the possibility that even her most exemplary actions will be misunderstood. It is intuitive for any teacher of literature to teach the relationship between morality and feeling, since the two are inseparable in works of art. One tries to share with students the feeling of expansive (but still determinate) sympathy that literature can provide. In fact, this ethics of imaginative sympathy is the basis for much of Richard Rorty’s pragmatist writings on literature and ethics.

That said, there is a blatant contradiction between Eileen’s assertion that one can never teach morality, and her concern for her student’s emotional responses. Their emotional responses, in her world, are their ethical judgements and moral attitudes. When she says that morality is “more related” to affect than to principles or rules, she means that the content of effective, adaptive morality is emotional, and has to do with the ability to sympathetically imagine another person’s life. When she is modeling her desire to read, think out loud, wonder, and be moved, she is modeling morality in a classroom setting. In other words, she’s teaching morality (or ethics, by the end of the passage). She’s just not teaching it as a set of abstract rules.

Certainly, the passage remains skeptical about whether this sort of modeling is possible, but it flatly refuses to allow that any other sort might succeed. This is rather similar to Scott’s approach. He first rejects the efficacy of teaching out of hand, then gradually returns to the notion of efficacy, but only through inspiring in students a constructive, critical disillusionment with sentimental and rationalizing discourses (for example, the myths of noble “Injuns”). All of which is just to say that Scott comes across as a teacher who’s good at teaching literature as a tool for critical thinking, and Eileen comes across as a teacher who’s good at teaching the ethics of imaginative sympathy.

Eventually, I want to write a post about difference, examining where the postmodern ethic of difference really comes into play, and tying it back to statements like “You can never teach morality.” I can easily imagine the student, probably male, who likes to discuss moral principles, and who would be very annoyed to hear that morality just doesn’t work that way. The last sentence I quote raises the disturbing possibility that Eileen thinks some people are more ethically predisposed than others, and that this is “hard-wired” into them according to their capacity for openness. But for now, let’s focus on the fact that what Scott and Eileen are teaching are fundamentally skills. These skills are ethical, not “practical,” if we define practicality in a very superficial manner. But they aren’t that different from teaching students to write clearly and effectively. Sympathy and skepticism are habits of thought, just like looking for the formal and symbolic elements of a text, identifying pertinent research data, or organizing an essay in a coherent fashion.

Almost no teacher in the fields of literature or composition would be willing to say that students can’t learn to write; somehow, often over a very short period of time, we bring students a long ways towards being able to express themselves. In the process, we necessarily refer to all sorts of moral principles: for starters, we expect them to be objective, and we forbid them to plagiarize.

I’m not suggesting that a teacher of literature should be blithe about teaching morality and ethics; actually, teachers of literature should doubt their own abilities as writers, too. But to describe such pedagogy as impossible, just because both critical thinking and affective sympathy are radical positions in today’s society, is both an act of surrender and a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. I call it cognitive dissonance, because we know how hard it is to teach students to write well, to teach them the elements of style, and we do it anyway.

Published in: on April 25, 2007 at 1:41 am  Comments (7)  

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  1. […] original posts, at In The Middle and The Valve, respectively, René Daumel [a pseudonym] at Coffee and Critique [and cross-posted at Literature Compass here] had this to say: As this blog [Coffee and Critique] […]

  2. I think what René writes here is an important corrective [and even a “tonic”] to my original post, and I can’t disagree with any of these points, which I think are beautifully put, and I wonder if the “disymmetry” detected in my post has something to do with a conflict that often inheres whenever we talk about teaching—the conflict between our postmodernist [slash/“pessimistic scientist”] and humanist selves. While, on the one hand, my postmodernist self has no illusions about her inability to inculcate a “morality” that, at its very core, is already “rotten” [compromised, in other words, by a history that has made the idea of the force of any kind of morality, or morality-in-art, in “how things turn out” a kind of always-thwarted dream and perhaps even a delusion in the face of biology and anthropology and various other knowledge realms, not to mention all the ways in which poststructuralist thought has shown us slippery and even oppressive-of-the-free-individual everything supposedly “moral” is], on the other hand, my humanist self believes deeply in the critical relationship between literature and other arts and what might be called a techne of the ethical self, without which a truly liberal and radically pluralist polis isn’t possible. This brings up the inevitable question of politics, of course, and whether or not, as teachers [but also as scholars] of literature, a commitment to politics should have a prominent place in our work. This is a question that seems to scare everyone, especially in the humanities. In medieval studies, especially, this question becomes a kind of anathema from which pretty much everyone turns with either a mainly unconscious indifference, haughty disdain, or active resistance. Over at The Valve, Tony Christini’s multiple responses to Kaufmann’s original post have admirably raised the prickly question of how we could not pay more attention to our role as political actors without some serious self-delusions. I will excerpt here some of what he wrote:

    [beginning of excerpt]

    “It seems to me that there are so many very effective (and needed) ways to teach progressive/humane knowledge that are not typically considered to be “advocacy pedagogy” by the status quo power structure, . . . ways that fall under the standard of academic freedom, that far, far more could be done along these lines than currently is being done, without potentially being confronted by any but the most extreme right wing zealots like [David] Horowitz.

    The third issue here, it seems to me, is what happens when teachers take advantage of such vital progressive/humane teaching possibilities, so that there is a greater cumulative libratory effect than currently, and/or what happens when certain teachers go beyond whatever the status quo powers accept on a case by case basis? Well, then you have real struggles for real power and real education and real action that should exist wherever illegitimate authority is imposed. That’s essential to progress.

    Otherwise, if we don’t push the boundaries of what teaching and creation is appropriate, we get a culture that, well, we may contribute to some of what Edward Said describes in Culture and Imperialism:

    ‘The modern history of literary study has been bound up with the development of cultural nationalism, whose aim was first to distinguish the national canon, then to maintain its eminence, authority, and aesthetic autonomy…. [There has been] an absolute requirement for the Western system of ideology that a vast gulf be established between the [ostensibly] civilized West, with its traditional commitment to human dignity, liberty, and self-determination, and the [supposed] barbaric brutality of those who for some reason—perhaps defective genes—fail to appreciate the depth of this historic commitment, so well revealed by America’s Asian wars, for example.’

    Now Middle East wars, etc. I see it strikingly in my area of creative focus: we wind up with a culture that fails to produce a flood of overt antiwar novels, and many other so-called partisan novels about other crucial issues.

    If professors and students don’t take such stands, in teaching and learning (that they are perfectly entitled to take, if not under certain laws, or certain interpretations of certain laws), then everyone contributes to Nazifying the country and beyond, actively or by omission. Nobody knows what the ‘tipping point’ is, or might be; nobody knows how many war debunking novels, for example, need to circulate in classrooms and without, be ‘taught’ and read, how many plays like ‘Lysistrata’ need to be put on, how many women need to stop sleeping with men, and/or how much else elsewhere needs to go on before students and others on campus, say, call a ‘college strike’ that avalanches into labor strikes, and a general strike altogether that shuts the country down for a period of time that thus forces the end of the Iraq occupation, or cuts the military budget in half, or more, etc.

    The problem is – not enough people resist the illegitimate, thus – slaughter. The problem is, too often, I think, we don’t see what we are doing and not. We’re conforming to the extraordinarily ideological status quo, habitually obedient, in thought, in action – which is the only way a country as otherwise free as the US could wind up with a government that carries out such crimes against humanity and other violations. What could be more truly educational in especially virtually any contemporary humanities or social science course, at least, than teaching in such a way that is ideologically and factually and aesthetically and socially and politically and educationally, etc, liberating? Again, this is what the status quo often calls simply, ideological, as Eagleton notes. It seems to me we have an obligation to resist, though we must each choose our own way. The same goes for soldiers in the military, and citizens in general. These are often hard choices, hard decisions (though sometimes not; sometimes we just have to recognize the real possibilities). We can think of options that are suggestive in various ways. But to give advice would seem almost worthless. It’s hard enough just to try to “advise” one’s own self. Each person has to make his or her own call, in face of problems real or perceived.”

    [end of excerpt]

    In my own case, troubled and frightened by the state of world affairs and wanting to believe that, yes, René, teaching morality and ethics is not only possible but imperative, I find myself turning more and more often to work in postmodern [or “weak”] theology as a way out of this impasse—especially the work of Levinas, John Caputo, Derrida [the Derrida of “The Politics of Friendship,” “Without Alibis,” “Of Hospitality,” “On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness,” and “On Touching”], Robert Gibbs, Richard Kearney, and Edith Wyshogrod, among others. An excellent resource on the latest and ongoing critical work in this vein is the weblog The Church and Postmodern Culture: Conversation. And probably the best text to consult related to our conversations here and elsewhere, in my opinon, would be Caputo’s “Against Ethics: Contributions to a Poetics of Obligation with Constant Reference to Deconstruction” [Indiana University Press, 1993].

    I would also say here, and by way of shamelessly plugging my own work, that my own scholarship [and also teaching] is directed to a present-minded medieval studies that seeks historical conjunctures between medieval literature and history and contemporary “crises,” such as the wars in Chechnya, the massacres in Gujarat, India in 2002, the Iraq War, the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Rwandan genocide, etc. But I also think this kind of work needs to be done as collectively as possible, which is why I and some other founded the BABEL Working Group [], and we are trying to work on books and journal issues that bring together medievalists [but also scholars in other areas] who want to address contemporary issues [and the contemporary world] in their work as well as help me confront what might be called the troubling dismantling of “the human” in a posthuman humanities. Next December, we have a book coming out from Palgrave, titled “Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages,” that comprises essays on the intersections between medieval texts and history and reality television series, the war on terror, the Bush White House, the torture of “enemy combatant” prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Hurrican Katrina, and female suicide terrorism in Russia. But in any case, I am grateful to René for pointing out some of the ways in which some of us are always “hedging our bets” when it comes to “speaking” our moral [and other] commitments as teachers. This is a conversation we should never stop having.

  3. I want to correct an oversight in my previous comment, as regards what I would call exemplary work in a present-minded medieval studies. Outstanding in this regard, and representing a kind of avant-garde in this respect, is Jeffrey J. Cohen et alia’s “The Postcolonial Middle Ages” [Palgrave, 2000] and Steven Kruger/Glenn Burger et alia’s “Queering the Middle Ages” [University of Minnesota, 2001]; also noteworthy is the forthcoming book by Bruce Holsinger “Neomedievalism, Neoconservatism, and the War on Terror” [University of Chicago, 2007].

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful and voluminous response! I agree that medieval studies can intervene in contemporary political debates, and appreciate these citations.

    I’m looking forward to continuing to pursue postmodern versions of the ethical, particularly in the late Derrida. I have some familiarity with Levinas, but I dislike the “ontological” method as he borrows it from Heidegger, meaning the insistence on a divide between ontology on the one hand and poetics/praxis on the other. Though he tries to put it out of bounds, one has to read his writings on the “face” poetically, with reference to real faces and the imagined scene of dialogue.

    Tony Christini’s contributions to the recent threads at the Valve have been of mixed quality; you have excerpted him in a way that shows him to best advantage. Some of his goals are impossible — a war with limited American casualties is not going to produce a general strike across the nation — and some of them are strangely out-of-touch with contemporary art. A flood of anti-war and anti-imperialist writing has, in fact, appeared in recent years. It just doesn’t meet the criterion of literalism, and there’s no good reason why it should. The effort to inform contemporary political conversations through medievalist interventions is a perfect example of the allegorical, rather than literal, politics of literature.

  5. Thanks for your further comments, Rene. Keep this blog up, please–it’s wonderful. When did graduate students start getting so smart and interesting? Cheers.

  6. Eileeen, thanks so much! While the pseudonymous experiment may be over for the time being, it renewed my interest in blogging generally, and I’m greatly enjoying what I read over at In the Middle. So I think we can try to keep these exchanges going.


  7. And I will become a regular reader at the Kugelmass Episode as well.

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