The Opposite of Synedoche

So much of how a course is put together exists only in a professor's head.  Case in point: I've been reading the texts for a colleague's capstone seminar this summer because I will be teaching it in the spring. 

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.

Comments

Anti-Dada said…
I really like this entry. I could feel the humanity of teaching as I read. I had a discussion with three good friends just a few days ago. We were talking about Foucault and how aspects of his methodology unhinge the firmaments of science as comparatively infallible discourse (in this epoch). I had been reading a book on psychology and there were a few paragraphs about the emotional struggles Darwin mentioned in his journals in relation to publishing "The Origin of Species." I shared with my friends what I had read, that Darwin, after traveling widely as a field biologist and becoming something of an anthropologist, had come to feel that courage was the most significant factor in allowing individuals and tribes to survive and propagate their culture even in the remotest places and extreme conditions of isolation and loneliness. He held back the nontheistic origin of species for 30 years while struggling with cycles of confidence, fear, and isolation while amassing overwhelming evidence for his theory. He had nightmares about the murder of God, the destruction of his father's wellbeing, and the destruction of the deepest convictions of his culture that might occur after publishing (given his influential stature). Everything he feared came to pass, but he wrote that his courage to persevere came only through the force of circumstances during his lifetime and (I love this) his friendship with a group of naturalists turned street fighters. So we find in Darwin, easily one of the most important and influential scientists in history, evidence of the supreme importance emotion plays in the practice of science itself even as science might, on the surface in published journals, deny that emotion plays a role in scientific endeavors. I don't understand how something so simple and obvious could be lost on anyone, but even the most intelligent can be duped by narrowed belief structures (and the supremacy of science above all else is certainly a belief).
Steve Snyder said…
Perhaps postmodern attacks on the "certainty of science" are a bit of a straw man. Science doesn't actually deal in or even claim to deal in certainty. Quite the opposite if you accept Popper's ideas on falsification as the only thing science can show. And few scientists ever claim to be objective. It's their method that aims at objectivity. I once heard science described as a set of rules or procedures that attempt to keep scientists from lying to one another and themselves.

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