Or, the accurate but revealing title, How Moments Lead to Life Time Prejudice, Unmoved by Research
I loved literature classes. My general fecklessness led to reading 17th century prose on night duty at the mental hospital when I was 20, absorbing little. My choices were seldom sensible – at first I had the excuse of being 17, of hitting college when the world changed fast – but still, I matured slowly. Few I knew experimented with drugs, but we successfully screwed up our lives without them. Simply put, my judgement was lousy in men, jobs, and energy/time management. But I loved going to class (not, mind you, always doing the work – I often hadn’t read the assignment). But in the hot world of adolescence, especially in the sixties, the cool calm of walking into a classroom ordered my days, gave me a separate peace – quiet, cool and cerebral. It challenged my mind as the world outside my emotions.
That’s why I keep distance. My friend describes my teaching as cool – well, yes. I address students by their last names. I’m not their friend nor entertainer; I don’t want to offer me but the work – deep and textured and lovely. That’s where our eyes focus – on the text. So, that old model persists. Harvey Mansfield’s address notes that formality has its place, signals respect.
I’d pulled myself together sufficiently to be reading criticism as well as primary works by my senior year and then started part-time graduate work. That year, however, my first somewhat sensible (I had low standards) relationship fell apart. So mid-spring, I set out to find myself in Chicago. I worked in the library for 16 months, then left for Europe. Chicago offers much. But my grades wouldn’t have gotten me in to the school – and that wasn’t my goal, anyway.
I seemed to think finding myself was subjecting myself to bizarre – and rarely wholesome – situations. Arriving in the south side two weeks after King was assassinated, I found what seemed chaos. And alienation – in Lincoln as you passed someone on the street, your eyes met. That wasn’t true on 53rd Street. The halls outside the reserve room were filled with chants & protests. Eating lunch, my eyes widened as the elevator doors opened and police brought out Flacks on a stretcher, covered with blood. He survived. Everything seemed hot – and I needed cool. Nor did this pursuit of self fare much better as I hitchhiked around Europe. I thought I’d find myself in strange places and with strange people. What was I thinking?
But, during those years, memories would arise of those voices in those classes. I lurked in the used bookstore down the street – run by an older guy who would chat about the books; he got me through that year – that, and a big helping of Camus. (Of course, I misread much – if I took the advice of those authors I wouldn’t have ended up where I did.) I was homesick of course – I remember James E. Miller, who seemed a bit nostalgic as well – he observed, as Wright Morris said, Nebraska isn’t a state as much as a state of mind. My eyes misted. And the next year, I read Greek tragedies by the side of the road and in tavernas in Greece and D. H. Lawrence (banned) in an Irish hostel.
Nebraska was remarkably and quietly generous – they took me back and let me finish my master’s. And I hope I lived up to that trust. That year, I really did work. But, if that generosity and those great classes were still a part of my days, so, too, was a changed department.
Some teachers were caught in the zeitgeist. I had gravitated toward 17th century poetry and signed up for Milton. We sat in a circle: our topic Paradise Lost. But a classmate brought in the New York Times, starting class by listing the Viet Nam dead. When an older-than-average woman (whose son had died in a freak football accident the year before and desired, I suspect, the same calm I sought) commented that she’d thought we’d talk about Milton and his critics, the newspaper reader said she sent a cold chill down his spine. Well, this response to theory might be refreshing today; then, it was opting for sentimentality. And an approach to Milton (like many today) so indirect it never reached the text. Such approaches spread through the 17th century for at my next try, I found a teacher who divided us into groups, then announced he wouldn’t attend the next classes because he didn’t want to influence us.
Influence us! I had little trouble enjoying Donne, lonely in Chicago. I’d begun reading secondary sources. I was still cocky and irritating but now more aware of how much I needed guidance: to study under a scholar. I didn’t need someone to influence my politics or encourage friendly chatter.
And friendship wasn’t going to happen in that group. One young man entered this mode fully, cheerfully giving his responses. But he’d only taken a couple of classes in English. Another intended to write her dissertation on one of the poets – taking the course to review for orals. She was grumpy. She felt she’d been asked to teach. The disdain of the naïve youth didn’t help her mood. Lectures or class discussion firmly led might have mediated. But we had none of that.
I felt betrayed. Those years of knee-jerk radicalism and free love and head shops gave us ersatz liberation. We threw out much that was useful and some that was good. In those classes I saw the beginnings. Such thinking reached fruition in the following decades as any issue of Academic Questions and many of City, New Criterion, First Things and Commentary record today. We betrayed and were betrayed a good deal – though perhaps nothing was (and is) more betrayed than common sense.
That was a transitional time and I’m grateful for great classes. Some teachers led firmly – and led me to a sense that in these books I could find myself – or more properly lose myself productively. I left for Austin comfortable with my choices. Lincoln gave me much. Sometimes I am surprised by who and what I remember, in the midst of an explication: surprising insights stuck and still reverberate. But I also suspect this was an early sign. Discipline was breaking down and soon so would the discipline.
I’m grateful for a consequence: this made me an Americanist. Without that, I wouldn’t have taken history and literature classes that broadened my understanding; most of all, wouldn’t have been teaching American lit in the late nineties, finding in it after 9/11 my heritage, pride, and solace.
That solace was real – in the texts of the Puritans and founders, in Winthrop and Adams and Douglass. That old discipline helped us burrow in to their thinking. Surely, such reading prepares us for those who lie to us. Your sensible response may be that many trained in liberal arts seem bothered by neither lies nor deaths. I don’t think that is the flaw of lecturing – it’s a betrayal of close reading, of the old discipline, but most of all of what is closely read. And that’s a topic for another time.
So, I lecture. I tried to give my customers their money’s worth in my business and now I try to do the same for my students – at least my idea of money’s worth. A lot of lectures, several tests, multiple papers – and comments. Age changes us; I prefer history to literature now – but in part because it enlarges literature. And it’s useful at giving context in those “potted lectures” on-line. Reviewing for the final, I see what they’ve picked up, how they connect. Identifying passages is central – and generally they do it well. Such understandings are necessary before interpretation stands a chance of being sensible. And that review means they leave the course with those writers’ words in their ears.
For now, I’ll record lectures every couple of semesters, mark up papers as mine were marked. Surely irritated at sloppy thinking and superficial interpretations, grammatical mistakes and mixed metaphors, our teachers paid us the great compliment of reading us closely. My teaching is my way of passing that attention, too, on to my students – ones I can’t see. If others doubt this works, well, they may well be right. But what my students know by that final gives me hope – they seem to be reading, thinking, and listening.
And the great old standard – what works – is my defense. I do it because it worked for me. Sure, it’s an anecdotal fallacy – small and unrepresentative. But it’s the sample, the evidence, of which I am most sure. I know what worked for me. I still hear those voices.
I’m open to critiques, but I’m prejudiced. I don’t have all that much faith that discarding old methods leads to better or deeper learning. Besides, I like to listen. And, talk.