Saturday, November 10, 2012

Duking it in dark corners

I'm teaching the comedies and romances half of the Shakespeare sequence this semester, and one of the issues that this particular batch of students has found most fascinating is the number of rulers who assert control ineffectively or unrealistically, attempting to set limits to human emotions or behaviors that simply can't be legislated. Maybe it's the fact that it's a election year, but my students seem endlessly interested in characters like the King of Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost (who pledges himself and his friends to three years of fasting, study, and isolation from women); the King of France in All's Well that Ends Well (a well-meaning but simultaneously autocratic and impotent ruler who imagines himself as a maker and enforcer of marriages); and Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure (who, among other things, manipulates characters into excesses of grief, repentance, and forgiveness).

This pattern interests me, too, though I'm less compelled by the spectacle of bad leadership than by the way that Shakespeare dramatizes the failures of self-knowledge and the mania for control that often accompanies those failures. Frankly, it's an impulse that I recognize in myself. I'm not a "controlling" personality in the usual sense of that term, but I do have a hard time letting things lie. I want to fix everything, immediately, and that includes interpersonal relationships.

Indeed, I'd say that my greatest weakness is a belief in my own rectitude and rationality--the conviction that I understand my motives perfectly, that they're entirely justified by circumstances, and that any other interpretation of my actions is wrongheaded, misinformed, or rooted in some mysterious and inexplicable personal hostility. (This admission will, I realize, come as a total surprise to readers of this blog.) As I've gotten older, I've gotten better at recognizing and curbing this tendency, and I'll readily acknowledge that my narrative of a given set of events is only partial and subjective. Still, it remains difficult for me to accept that other people might have their own, very different interpretations of events that involve me--and that their interpretations, and whatever emotions result from those interpretations, aren't wrong.

Oddly enough, teaching has been helpful in training me away from my impulse to correct other people's experiences of the world. You might think that being in a position of structural power over my students would be a license for the worst forms of this behavior--forcing my views, ideas, and methods upon others--but in fact the structure of that relationship means it's easier to recognize my students as entirely other. They're my juniors; they're at an earlier stage in their processes of intellectual and self-discovery; and I've been teaching for long enough now that I know it's impossible to predict who they'll become and what changes they'll undergo. It can be mind-blowing how different a student can be in her senior year compared with her sophomore year.

So when a student doesn't understand or agree with something I'm saying, I listen. I take his ideas seriously, and explain my own. I lay out my best case... and then I let it lie. And when a student is angry with or seems to dislike me, I don't take it personally. I get that I may be misreading her, that she may be dealing with shit unrelated to me, and that, in any case, it's not my job to get her to like me. My students' emotional responses, like their intellectual responses, are their own.

It's harder to let things lie with the other people in my life--my friends, my family, my colleagues. But until I'm appointed Duke of Vienna and find an usually fetching friar's robe, I'm working on being more laid-back. And possibly cultivating more self-knowledge.


moria said...

We share this thing. I hate thinking about it, because I hate sacrificing positions of righteousness. But you've made it a lot easier for me to be critical by putting me in a position to identify with the likes of Vincentio. Yikes.

And I love what you say about teaching: doing it well requires learning a lot about how to do certain forms of empathy. You can't get anywhere by force and righteousness, when it comes to pedagogy. Good teachers learn that fast, and bad ones never do. Figuring that out has made me a much better person. Now: if only I could do the rest of my relationships as well as I do my relationships with my students... (Vincentio, eh? Hmm.)

Flavia said...


Glad I'm not the only one!

This is something that has, oddly enough, come up in a LOT of my classes this semester--as well as in a bunch of different conversations/situations with friends: the ways that people exert or attempt to exert emotional control over others. Just Thursday I had a student suggest that Eve's excessive apologizing to Adam in Book 10 might be manipulative. . . and though I don't agree with that reading, I do think it's a more powerful and assertive move than it's often read as.

That student's reading made me think about how apologizing or admitting wrongdoing IS a means of asserting control. Usually that's a good and even vital thing, a way of healing--but sometimes the rush to apologize can be more negative, even narcissistic, rooted more in a fear about how the other person feels about you than in a desire for mutual understanding. Sometimes you've just got to let people feel the hurt or anger they're entitled to.

(Duke Vincentio, take a memo.)

Bardiac said...

Anti-racism training really helped me with that, the impulse to think I can accurately interpret someone else's experience. It's an important lesson, for sure. But it's not something that's always easy, at least for me.

I think you should keep your eye out for a fetching robe, but skip the tonsure, okay?