The Opposite of Synedoche
The texts are all great (Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Howard Zinn's autobiography, a graphic novel by Charles Burns). But without understanding the neural connections of my colleague's pathway through the themes and subjects, I can't see how the course comes into a whole.
And that's the point, isn't it? A syllabus, a list of texts, some well-wrought assignments, all the proprietorial and tangible parts of a course do not make it whole. There remains the original connections made by a single mind that knitted some ideas together. In the end, the dancer is the dance.
Several years ago I tried to package up one of my courses so it could be taught by a colleague who was stepping in at the last minute to cover a new section. I didn't want to add a lot of prep time to her already heavy workload, so I put the entire course into large three-ring binders: the exercises, discussion questions, handouts, photocopied journal articles, essay exams, the works. I also used those handy separators with the acetate tabs and carefully labeled each item.
Even so, I still had to write a long letter explaining the logic of the course, which took me forever and made me realize how much of the material existed in my own head. When I was done, the well-ordered course notebooks looked very neat and professional, but I couldn't help thinking that they were bound to be an incomprehensible mishmash to my colleague. Sure enough, they were. She politely thanked me for them and then did exactly what I would have done in her position: set the damned things aside and begin to find my own way through the material.
A lot people fail to realize how idiosyncratic teaching is. This isn't entirely surprising. You expect some administrators to think this way. You expect legislators, business people and even the general public to think this way too. They look at teaching as a job like any other, which means it can be analyzed to identify strategies that will make it optimally efficient and effective. The problem is that teaching isn't a precise science. You can't control the variables or get uniform results each time.
And few people who have taught for long believe that a magic education bullet exists. The Oxford don and classicist Gilbert Highet wrote The Art of Teaching over 60 years ago, but it's still worth reading. In it he lamented the desire to think of teaching as a science. He wrote,
Teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are outside the grasp of science. A scientifically-brought up child would be a pitiable monster. A scientific friendship would be as cold as a chess problem. Scientific teaching, even of scientific subjects, will be inadequate as long as both teachers and students are human beings. Teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction; it is much more like painting a picture or making a piece of music, or on a lower level like planting a garden or writing a friendly letter... You must realize that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, and your pupils and yourself.I still have a copy of my own three-ringed pitiable monster. It sits in a closet in my office with a lot of other old stuff that I intend to toss out one of these days.