On Teaching


        My earliest professional approach to teaching and writing was to treat them each as different theaters, suitable for acting out different versions of my self. The epiphany that they needed to be connected in a more fundamental and philosophical way, however, came just few years ago, after I had already been teaching for some time, during a USC Writing Program orientation talk given by the linguist, Jim Gee. Gee admonished us not to think of composition instruction as "merely funding for our graduate instruction--incidental to (even a distraction from) our other 'more important' work." He passionately argued that literacy was transformative, and cited the example of early Dutch protestants who had initially learned to read for the sole purpose of reading the Bible, but who wound up revolutionizing themselves and their society as a result. Whatever our theory of literacy was, he said, it should be integral with all the rest of our philosophical, political and academic thinking--and treated that way in the classroom. It was a connection I had previously failed to make; I certainly enjoyed teaching and took it seriously, yet I thought of it as categorically distinct from the more solitary work of scholarship. Indeed, the joy of teaching was partly social, a way to counterbalance the lonely aspects of scholastic life; or, in finer moments, an opportunity to rehearse some of the things learned during those private hours of reading and writing. But, as a practice, I did not regard it as an extension of my explorations of literature or philosophy, or as a way of actually "thinking-by-practice." Still, Gee's comments struck a chord because they resonated with my own experience:

I came to the study of language and literature in my late twenties--later, no doubt, than most. I had no apparent talent for writing, and nothing in my rather average academic past suggested that I might develop one. Indeed, apart from a vague desire to express my own inchoate emotion, I did not truly want to write. What I did want was to be a writer, to live in a romance, to escape the confines of a sterile and limited life. So I quit my full-time job, bought a small electric typewriter, and began my "new career." It was, by all reasonable standards, a desperate and delusional choice. Nevertheless, I determined to make good on the decision and so set about the task of teaching myself to write. I began reading voraciously, not for enrichment, of course, or even pleasure, but to learn technique and to soak up the styles of writers I thought were good. I experimented endlessly. I became absorbed in the process--and absorbed with myself in the process. Hence, the self (myself), and abstract notions of selfhood became my primary material. It is here that I connected with Gee's Dutch Protestants: Though I had begun my self-education process for narrow careerist purposes, and had treated writing as merely a skill one learned in order to communicate pre-existing thought, I could not fail to see that writing, and especially the process of learning to write, was transforming me; that by bringing the "terms" of my existence to the writing table where they could be examined and revised, I was not only reinventing myself professionally, but philosophically, ethically, and spiritually as well.

Gee's comments that day prompted me to realize that the transformative aspect of my own educational experience was far from unique, that it was in fact quite consistent with the best definition of a liberal education. And that, moreover, effective teaching means understanding and nurturing that process. This is to say that self-transformation through a literary engagement and the practice of writing is not something of merely subjective value, another self-help regimen; I have come to think of it as a social, political and moral process as well. Indeed, a fundamentally democratic practice. John Dewey once drew a distinction between "education as a function of society" and "society as a function of education." In brief, the distinction is between a view of education as a "normalizing" process whereby students are, in effect, programmed to reproduce the society they were born into by learning all the skills and values that that society depends upon--and, alternatively, a view of education that sees human life as infinitely open, values as historically contingent, and society as a product of invention. The latter view holds that education is responsible for equipping people with the kind of critical skills that will allow them to enter into an enlightened engagement with that past that comes to us in the form of words and books, to distinguish between that which is usable and meaningful from that which is not, and by so doing, create their society and themselves anew. It is a view I share and try to bring into the classroom. When teaching literature, it has meant exploring with students the ways writers struggle within the constraints of form and against the ideological limits of their age to resolve real human problems. And when teaching composition, it has meant presenting the writing process as a process of moral definition and an exercise in social responsibility.

An approach to teaching that stresses the essentially democratic function of education is not, of course, particularly dependent upon diversity--but certainly, a diversified classroom can illuminate that process in rather striking ways because of the special problems and opportunities it opens up. Here, my own experience has been my best teacher. Since 1990-91 I have taught on three very different campuses: The University of Southern California which, though far more diverse than its reputation suggests, still attracts students from some of the most elite families in the country; California State University, Los Angeles, a campus mostly populated by middle and lower-middle class students from an extraordinary range of ethnic groups; and Los Angeles City College, an educational Ellis Island, where it is not uncommon to find undocumented Mexican aliens, highly educated Russian emigres, and the occasional ex-con sitting next to each other in the same English class. These three institutions have brought me into contact with students who are not only diverse in terms of race or ethnicity, but also in terms of class—very distinct categories with very different demands on, and opportunities for, the education process. I might illustrate with two examples:

For me, confronting the issue of race or ethnicity in a diversified setting has most often meant sensitizing myself to the multitude of different cultural attitudes, values and perspectives that students bring in to the classroom, and then providing a language and structure that will help them negotiate those differences. And because both literature and writing courses invariably foreground the problem of "values," a potential conflict over competing value systems and their racial or ethnic meaning is ever present. Sometimes this conflict takes the form of seemingly irreconcilable notions about justice. In a Composition class several weeks ago, for instance, I assigned a paper on "class" as a public policy dilemma. As is my practice, final drafts were to be delivered in a workshop setting, with each student reading their paper to the class for critical review. On this particular day, one student, a shy, "30ish," Vietnamese man who feared embarrassment over his broken English, approached a classmate, a young African American, and asked him to read the paper for him. The reading went well until he reached the part in the paper that argued that Black poverty was largely a function of financial incompetence and a predisposition for conspicuous consumption. Upon hearing this, nearly all the class nervously chuckled or groaned—except for the writer, who, unsure of the joke, just smiled anxiously. In the response session that followed, many students seemed torn between a feeling that the young African American reader had been humiliated, an injustice which demanded some redress, and feelings of sympathy for the writer, who seemed to them more "stupid" than racist. It seemed to me that it would have been inappropriate to casually dismiss the sense of injustice that many students felt (particularly on such condescending grounds); and so when it came my turn to respond, I capitalized on some of the more insightful student responses concerning the essay's problems with audience awareness and use of evidence, and pointed out that the paper did not exemplify a defective heart or mind, but rather, some important errors in the writing process. I argued that the incident illustrated the kinship between an effective and moral writing process—one that deepens understanding by structuring the ways we navigate the strange and unfamiliar terrain of experience—and the democratic values that organize our engagement with other peoples and other cultures.

The issue of class presents another set of poignant challenges. In the Winter of 1992 I decided to use the same assignment on identity formation in both my USC and Cal State L.A. composition courses. Using the works of writers such as Erik Erikson, Adrienne Rich and Walt Whitman to frame the debate, I asked students to consider whether their own personal identity was something determined for them by a constellation of inherited qualities, or if even those seemingly iron-clad biological givens could be considered mutable and subject to reconstruction. And I challenged them to bring these rather opaque abstractions to life by using them to organize the forces at play in their own experience. The responses of the two student groups could not have contrasted more sharply: Generally, the USC students found little to interest them in the assignment; and when they wrote of change, predictably (although I did not predict it), they relied upon the imagery of mechanical, sequential processes. They tended to write of themselves as being in the process of completing a vague but tangible, preexisting plan. The Cal State students, however, were surprisingly alive to the assignment. In varying degrees, their language evoked imagery of struggle; it seemed charged with an overdetermined faith in their own inevitable success that was often, however, belied by an unmistakable undercurrent of anxiety. Many of their essays were clearly and deeply conflicted between, on the one hand, loyalty to the various social and class-charged symbols of racial and ethnic identity on which they grounded their sense of themselves, and on the other, the individualist, upper-middle class aspirations that threatened the hold of those symbols. Upon reflection, it seemed to me that many of the most interesting essays were also the most mechanically troubled; they were written by students who cared less about their grade than they did about the chance to experiment with some conceptual and methodological tools that might help free them from inherited and class-bound definitions of their own lives. They were educating themselves.




"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most horoughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . that Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective .

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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