Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How do you teach when the world is ending?

There would seem to be two possibilities. The first is that you don't teach, and the second is that you teach exactly the same way you always have. My preference, I guess, is for the latter--on the principle that the motherfucking sonnet must go on--but I don't really find either solution satisfactory. The first strikes me as an abdication of responsibility: a statement both that normal life is no longer possible and that whatever one teaches is not, in the final analysis, particularly important. But to go on teaching, as if the world weren't ending--well, that seems insufficient.

Obviously, the world has not ended or even threatened to end during my teaching career; neither have I taught in the wake of a natural disaster or period of civil unrest (though some of my readers surely have). But while I realize how offensive it is to imply that feeling like the world is ending is comparable to living through even the shortest and most localized of crises. . . I do feel like the world is ending.

I can't really say why; I felt this way for months or a year after September 11th, and then the feeling went away. Some awful things have happened since then, and I've known people who have fallen into despair at various points along the way--so I guess now is my moment. I'm sure it will pass. But I'm not sure what to do in the meanwhile.

I teach Renaissance literature. And while I resist the idea that my subject is irrelevant to or divorced from contemporary reality (whether that sentiment is meant as a criticism or as a compliment), I'm equally reluctant to suggest that we can learn--from the past, from art--anything that has a straightforward bearing on the present. In my classroom we may discuss the different leadership styles of Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. We may analyze the ways history and language are manipulated for certain ends in The Faerie Queene. And I hope that those things allow my students to make similar analyses in other contexts. But I would never encourage them to find contemporary parallels to the things we read--and when they suggest such parallels themselves, I usually shut them down as quickly and politely as possible.

That's responsible pedagogical behavior for a lot of reasons. And yet on my own time I'm always seeing parallels and even actively seeking them out. "Omigod!" I'll tell a friend. "Listen to this passage from King James! Is he or is he not George W. Bush?"

It's one of the great joys of reading and of knowing other periods as well as most of us do--the ability to find and make those connections. They may be reductive or tendentious, but they feed our basic desire to make meaning out of our world. This isn't something I can teach my students, though I hope they experience it.

Myself, I started high school in the fall of 1989, just before the Berlin Wall came down. Then there was the first Gulf War. But after that, through the rest of my teens and my mid-20s, nothing much seemed to happen. I felt that I was living outside of history, and I hated it. For a while I was obsessed with Watergate, and then for a much longer while with World War II. I started collecting popular music from the 1940s--mostly unremarkable stuff, musically, but I loved it. I listened to it over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a time where things mattered, where even minor decisions played out against a backdrop that gave them weight and meaning.

I was wrong, I guess, about what living inside of history would be like; for the past seven years I've been pretty sure that that's where we are, but the experience hasn't brought the clarity I expected: I don't know what anything means any better now than I did before, and I'm no better able to categorize life into Things That Matter and Things That Don't; everything seems either terribly unimportant or so very important that I don't have the energy or the resources to deal with it.

So maybe it doesn't help to prepare us, knowing history and knowing literature. But when we keep on teaching the sonnet as the world is ending, maybe what we're teaching is both that it isn't actually ending--and that it's done so plenty of times before.


Susan said...

It would take a lot for me to interrupt my normal teaching. I took some time at the beginning of the first Gulf War for students to talk; but then for (say) September 11, I was on leave, so it didn't come up. As an early modern historian, it seems to me exactly what you say - -the past offers some perspective, if not necessarily comfort. Today I was teaching feudalism, and I said something about chivalry as the Geneva convention of the middle ages. After class, one of my students said to me, "but people just ignore those" and I said "recently".

But I don't think the students (mine at least) have a clue how any of the current stuff will affect them -- and I don't either. I'm pretty sure they will graduate into a very different financial world than that of two years ago, but beyond that? I don't think anyone has a clue. So maybe a sonnet is the best answer!

Anonymous said...

This is very much discipline specific. DH teaches econ and right now has a class of Money and Banking. He is having one hell of a time keeping to the syllabus. But, if he can't tie in the daily events, what kind of a teacher is he? In fact, if he can't get his students' worried minds to think critically about current events in his intro class, what kind of a teacher is he?

I am in more of an urban politics arena. Not as direct. But, there are now things popping up in mainstream media (NY Times comes to mind) about municipalities not being able to borrow money, requiring revamping of short and long term spending strategies. You can't really ignore that in the classroom either when you are going over the basics of municipal finance.

Dr. Crazy said...

Your post made me think about how things went when I was teaching in the days following 9/11. I came into that first class with two plans for what we'd do - one that brought in the Events of the Day, and one that was the regular plan on the syllabus. I asked the students what they wanted. They wanted to stick with the syllabus. What I realized then was that they were talking about the Events of the Day in all of their classes that more directly related to what was going on, and that they looked forward to my class because it was a break from that. That's not to say things didn't come up, but the syllabus didn't get thrown out the window.

At the end of the day, I felt like your conclusion with your last sentence is the right one.

Dr. Virago said...

maybe what we're teaching is both that it isn't actually ending--and that it's done so plenty of times before.

That's why I read Auden's The Musee des Beaux Arts aloud in class on this Sept. 11, on the day we were discussing the final part of Beowulf - the most elegaic and doom-laden part of the poem.

Flavia said...

Crazy, what you say about 9/11 is interesting. I was TAing for the first time that semester--though section meetings hadn't yet begun--and the professor made a remark at the next lecture to the effect that, well, we'd be continuing class as usual--though understanding if students had personal or family-related absences--but that we'd have a lot more to discuss toward the end of the semester, when we got to Samson Agonistes, since Samson was, arguably, the first religious terrorist.

When SA rolled around in November or December, though, he gave the same lectures he'd given when I took the class years earlier, and I was disappointed; I think I was looking for someone at least to raise questions that might allow me to look at the work in a new light, and I felt the failure to do so must be a failure of nerve on his part.

I don't feel that way any longer. Now that I teach, I can't imagine myself doing anything too much different than what he did; I also don't imagine that the undergraduates (who had, of course, never read the work before) cared one way or the other. But it's interesting to me that that's what I thought I wanted, at that point in time.

Sisyphus said...

I hear ya ---- this post really resonated. But as someone who loved reading both _How the Irish Saved Civilization_ and _Fahrenheit 451,_ I have to say, you _have_ to go on teaching this stuff --- tell them it's up to them to preserve it!

life_of_a_fool said...

Yeah, I was about 2 weeks in to my first class on 9/11. I think I asked them what they wanted to do, and they wanted to continue on with the class. In that case, I'd bet a lot of that had to do with a lack of rapport (that first class, it was a struggle!) but I think it can be valuable, as Dr. Crazy said, to get a break from everything going on around them.

But, I also agree with anonymous that it is discipline specific. When the Virginia Tech shootings happened, I felt I couldn't *not* talk about it, given the subject matter of the class. Even then, they needed structure to talk about it in a meaningful and relevant-to-the-class way, which I also thought was important.

Shane in Utah said...

I would never encourage them to find contemporary parallels to the things we read--and when they suggest such parallels themselves, I usually shut them down as quickly and politely as possible. / That's responsible pedagogical behavior for a lot of reasons.

I'd like to hear those reasons elaborated, Flavia, b/c my immediate reaction is intense, passionate disagreement. What could possibly be the point of studying (for example/in my case) the history and literature of colonialism if it doesn't help students to think critically about empire-building in our own time? One of the best, most intense teaching experiences I've ever had resulted from students explicitly making the connection between the torture scenes in Coetzee's *Waiting for the Barbarians* (and the larger questions of complicity and responsibility that arise in that novel) and the revelations that had recently emerged about Abu Ghraib. Students told me afterwards that the course changed the way they see the world. What more could we ask from a college education?

To teach the material without giving students a space to think through its implications for the contemporary world strikes me, not as responsible pedagogy, but as lazy or fearful pedagogy. But maybe that's why I teach and write about contemporary lit...

e. fiction said...

Earlier today, I taught selections from The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. While I'm quite skeptical of (and, frankly, hostile to) presentism, I couldn't help myself from saying something about the presidential race in class. I ranted about how nice it would be if we were able to invalidate votes that had been cast as the result of factual error. And I don't regret it either. Milton's basic ideological impasse of wanting to political power in the hands of the people while having a deep fear of the people's propensity for wrongheadedness IS our problem.

Later, of course, I watched the VP debate. Maybe I should bone up on my Hobbes.

Flavia said...

Hi Shane. It's a good question, and maybe my attitude reflects either the specific matter that I teach--or my reluctance to be partisan or ideological in the classroom. The thing is, I want my students to be able to make connections to contemporary events, but I don't want to make them for them. Part of that is about not turning my Renaissance lit classes into inappropriately politicized spaces, but most of it is about how absurd and reductive it would be to imply that 17th C. Thing X is exactly like 21st C. Thing Y.

So for example, when introducing my students to Shakespeare's history plays and asking them why an audience might be interested in and entertained by events that happened hundreds of years earlier, I might indeed say something about how we're always looking to the past as a lens through which to view the present: is the Iraq war WWII--by which we mean an attempt to rid the world of a genocidal dictator? Or is it Vietnam--by which we mean a quagmire, and a war that isn't ours to fight? That's perfectly useful and appropriate. But I wouldn't try to relate, say, Henry V's mixed reasons for going to war with France to ours to going to war with Iraq.

I do indeed frequently point out how other general questions or issues that come up in our works remain with us still (and e.fiction is right that Milton lends himself to this, especially). But you know: Renaissance ideas about gender, or religion, or political rule, or whatever, are not ours. They're not (to my mind) all that foreign or unrecognizable, and they can add sophistication and depth to our thinking about those issues in our own day--but I find that my students are much too quick to try to assimilate and domesticate the things they read to their own beliefs and assumptions--"Oh, look! Donne is advising his friend that he shouldn't marry just for looks! That's so true!"

It's a lot of work, already, modulating between emphasizing the familiarity and emphasizing the stragneness of Early Modern life (not to mention continually revisiting poetics and issues of genre and form). And in the end I have faith that spending a semester working through issues of gender, or the way political power manifests itself, or whatever, in the 16th and 17th centuries leaves at least some of my students better able to talk and think about those things in their own day--and on their own time.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

About Shane's comment - I think teaching premodern/medieval/Renaissance stuff requires a certain degree of historicism, and as a historian, I completely agree with your take on parallels. My problem with making contemporary parallels is that it short-changes the historical, by reading it in light of modern events. Dick Cheney is NOT like a Machiavellian prince, because he does not live in the Renaissance. Period.

That doesn't mean that learning about politics/gender/war/whatever in other eras doesn't give students tools for thinking about those things in our own time. Studying gender roles in the Middle Ages provides, I hope, a case study for thinking about gender generally. Looking at how medieval culture manipulated religious symbols to reinforce particular gender roles, I hope, helps students learn to see the manipulation of symbols to reinforce gender roles more generally. But like you, what I studied/taught was just too far from the present for me to be comfortable with the parallels. That is, the parallels are usually an excuse for anachronism, or for some kind of wild leap that overlooks the many centuries between then and now (I had a student once who liked to say things like, "so, because the church in the twelfth c. did X, the religious right today does Y." Grr. Argh!).

If I were teaching contemporary stuff, I'd probably feel differently. But as a medievalist, I agree with you entirely.

Doctor Cleveland said...

To agree with what many have already said: isn't it the differences between then and now that we have to offer? If history doesn't give us perspective and a sense of distance, what can?

One of the best things that studying an earlier period gives us is a chance to step away from the contemporary stakes, and consider questions outside the chalk lines of today's debates. It's hard for students to imagine that "left" and "right" positions were not eternal and natural, and that neither the contemporary left's not the contemporary right's set of ideas naturally go together. Modern parallels don't just short-change the historical, and NKotH rightly says; they also short-change the contemporary. Teaching students to think about history without anachronism means teaching them to see the present clearly.

Part of what's great about Milton is that he's not a modern conservative or a modern liberal, or that he's both and neither. We're all Milton's children, but none of us look much like him anymore.

And I find, to my distress, that questions I once considered neutral and non-controversial have been overtaken by events. I've always taught that accusations against Marlowe by people being tortured can't be taken seriously; this has come to seem partisan to some of my students. I've always talked about The Spanish Tragedy as an illustration of a political hierarchy resistant to facts (the King of Spain needs everything he sees spun for him); suddenly I'm talking about contemporary leaders. This week I have to talk about how the Elizabethan conception of "Moors" conflates Muslims and what we would call "black" Africans: God knows, that point has no topical application of any kind.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Dick Cheney is NOT like a Machiavellian prince, because he does not live in the Renaissance. Period.

While this particular parallel is certainly not one that I'd ever draw in the classroom (if only because I teach at a state school in the deep South and I don't want to get fired), I think it's absolutely possible for a post-Renaissance individual to be like a Machiavellian prince, at least in some respects. People are still reading Machiavelli; some of them, in all probability, are self-consciously imitating Machiavelli.

Personally, I think pointing out places in contemporary society where the same issues and ideas are in play enriches the older texts rather than cheapening them, as long as it's done thoughtfully and non-reductively. (But then, I'm a Shakespearean, and I think the dynamic is different with drama; it makes a lot more sense to ask how a text can speak to us when it is, in fact, still being performed and adapted.)

hck, said...

Yep: "Dick Cheney is NOT like a Machiavellian prince, because he does not live in the Renaissance. Period."

Yes, I tend to leave that sort of connections to my students, and prefer to point out differences between 1513 Florence and 2008 Munich. But: I admit to hope to get some of the students to think about 2008 Munich by pointing out differences to 1513 Florence.

And: Perhaps it is relevant to remind oneself that Machiavelli himself did find enough similarities between 1513 Italy and ca. 1280 France to make heavy use of Aegidii Romani De regimine principum.