Notes on Teaching

It is always a risk to teach what one loves. Often, I choose to teach works I like but do not love, or authors I prefer, but do not adore. It is one of the great privileges of my chosen craft that I can introduce my students to those with whom I’ve had longstanding, if uneven, affairs. This metaphor is necessary.

There are, of course, certain authors I will never teach. Edmond Jabes, for one, and I am increasingly reluctant to teach Essex Hemphill and Audre Lorde. I can manage when students don’t like or love Amos Tutuola or James Baldwin (barely). I manage less well when students disdain authors I truly adore.

We might well speak about the canon of the unteachable, an idiosyncratic canon, but a canon nonetheless.
What is it to risk teaching? What kinds of vulnerabilities are made visible, palpable, unavoidable during pedagogy and as part of pedagogy? What tropes do we have available to us to speak about what it is we do when we teach what we love? How do we teach “loving” and is that even part of our mission?

It is risky to teach what one loves.

It is risky because that love may not translate into the classroom. One attempts to formulate a plan and ends up with “I love this text. I love this text so much. Don’t you love this text?” And when that love is not shared, not transmitted, not acknowledged, and not ingested (phagocytosis is the metaphor that comes to mind, and it might be wrong), one feels wounded, wronged.

Sometimes, we cover that up with, “well, the students aren’t smart enough,” or “don’t have good taste,” or “are politically naïve.” Really, what we mean to say is, “they don’t love like I love.” And one not being able to love like another is big. Huge. Massive.

I am interested in the impossibility of this demand—that students learn to love like we do—and also in its inescapability. It is not a demand that is easy for us to handle, as teachers and as students. Explaining our passions is difficult, teaching them impossible.

It is as though we need students to be “spongy,” to absorb both knowledge and enthusiasm, even love. Sometimes it works. Some instructors have “contagious enthusiasm,” others inspire deep love for certain authors, a love that is often not explainable. The question of whether students love particular works or whether the form of attachment develops because of how individual students “felt” in the class is altogether too complicated to navigate right now.
In part, of course, I’m trying to think about the reasons we teach what we do, especially those of us in the humanities—and to narrow further, literature. Why teach this author over that? This text over that? What is the irrational reason?

For instance, I prefer Nella Larsen’s Quicksand to Passing. I have a whole host of reasons—it’s a first book; the focus on the individual is richer; it directly engages the politics of migration and immigration; the style is more lush. Many reasons. Whether these reasons precede my love for the text and are justifications after the fact I cannot know. When we love, we can rationalize.

But what is the effect of trying to teach “loving?’

A former professor would almost always begin class by asking if we had enjoyed what we read—he taught classes on the renaissance. If not at the beginning of class, then at some point he would ask how we “felt” about literature. It was a repeated question. And it taught me something about how to do what I do.

I ask my students if they enjoy what we are reading. I suspect that many of them find the question silly or irrelevant. My class is, after all, one out of several, and often not “the most important,” especially for non-majors. (Those “lovely” diversity requirements fill my seats!)

It is true, of course, that some students learn to “love” or “better tolerate” a text following class discussion. When this happens, it can be satisfying. But there is also a certain “magic” that happens when students “feel” or perform feeling the same way one does about a text. Perhaps this is just a long way of saying that we like to spend time with people who like the same things we do.

Of course, teaching is more than “sharing love,” though that plays a significant role, one that does not lend itself to easy assessment.

I am fortunate that at least 90% of the time what I like-love and what I teach coincide.

To write of “teaching loving” is to defer other metaphors: teaching as infection, for instance. It is also to acknowledge the range of emotions teaching engages: crushes and disappointments, fulfilled and unrequited passions, fear and indifference, apathy and passionlessness, warm fuzzies and insane jealousies.

It is to think of what one seeks to nurture and what cannot be controlled.
“Official” teaching protocols do not allow us to describe teaching as experimental. Modes of assessment and evaluation and demands for quantifiable results provide us with correct languages with which we can justify what we do.

It probably comes as no surprise that I am drawn to aspects of Stanley Fish’s argument about the “uselessness” of what we teach, about the non-instrumental nature of literature classes.

For instance, my current research project thinks about non-instrumental queer histories: histories that track unevenly, if at all, along the paths of resistance and futurity. These histories do not offer models for political action, nor are they necessarily germane to “how we live.” They are also not necessarily histories of how “we” have lived, for they refuse to enable “queer connections” across space and time. In fact, the histories that most concern me are too idiosyncratic to enable a “we” across time and space. I have no interest in finding queer Kamaus and Mainas and Njoroges and Wamuyus and Wairimus and Wangus. Instead, I am thinking of how to forge queer relationships with queer pasts, all the while figuring out how “queer” functions as a conceptual method/tool/orientation.

While I am enthralled, in thrall to, the conceptual density (impossibility) of this project, I also realize how “unteachable” it might be. (Long digression on teaching/research, and why I believe the two are inseparable, though kissing cousins.)
I have been trying to think about teaching as a “risk,” an “experiment” with uneven results, if any, and, sometimes, with “results” that don’t translate in any easy way. It’s difficult to “make a case” for “teaching loving.” And, following Fish, I have no desire to try. Derrida once claimed that if we dared to look into the heart of the university, we might find an abyss. It is that looking that concerns me.