Monday, June 22, 2009


"The teacher or lecturer is a danger. He very seldom recognizes his nature or his position. The lecturer is a man who must talk for an hour." (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, p. 83).

I've recently had a number of interesting conversations about teaching and instruction more generally. Next week, I'll be talking to a group of faculty members and PhD students about the quasi-literary business of writing ethnographic descriptions, and how we might be able to teach it. I had been resisting this idea until I met a lot of very interesting ethnographers (of various kinds) at a conference recently. Coincidentally, I bought the New Yorker in the Vienna airport and there was an article on creative writing instruction in American universities.

The basic question is, "Can we teach it?" In my case, can we teach writing? I have to admit that I go back and forth on it. The instructor can certainly provide an occasion for writers to develop their skills. I can also, of course, point out mistakes and suggest various all-purpose constructions. But can I really teach people how to write well? When compared to what the student/writer can accomplish simply by practicing, i.e., by sitting down at the machine and really struggling with the problem of writing down what she thinks, I think my contribution is rather minimal. But I can of course encourage them to practice.

This is something I disagree with some of our older faculty members about, I think. Most of them have seen their classroom time with students, and the relative weight of the courses or modules they teach, decline over the past, say, ten years. New subjects and new pedagogies are transforming both the form and content of the lectures. The students and the study boards are demanding changes and cutting back on hours. So you get teachers saying that it is impossible to teach a particular topic in the 2 or 4 hours they now have, though it had been, apparently, perfectly possible to teach it in 3 or 6 hours. They see classroom confontation as a substantial part of the learning experience, and every minute is sacred.

Whenever I hear this argument, I think of Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading—his attempt at a textbook for the teaching of literature. In what he calls "a private word to teachers and professors" (11), he makes a number of very sharp observations. "France," he says, "may possibly have acquired the intellectual leadership of Europe when their academic period was cut down to forty minutes" (83). If you really know your stuff, he argues, you don't need to tell your students very much. You can communicate your ideas in a few words, drawing their attention to examples they can examine for themselves. (In Pound's case, this means indicating examplary poems to read.) Some knowledge is available only to those students who are willing to actually look into the matter. To study the subject. Those who simply want to be told, are not going to learn anything from the extra 20 minutes or even whole hour you spend talking. And those who do intend to look will be mainly bored with your attempts to explain further.

"No teacher ever failed from ignorance," says Pound (84). That is an important point. The knowledge asymmetry in the classroom is very easily established. The teacher does not need to know everything in order to know more than his students when the class starts. The teacher who is afraid to know less than his brightest students about a particular subject at year's end should find another line of work.

Teachers fail because they cannot 'handle the class'.
Real education must be limited to men who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.

The metaphor I've been using is that of making a stew. Too often, teachers see the lectures as the source of the meat and potatoes and vegetables. The "substance". But a lecture is really just an occasion to salt and pepper and spice the material they have themselves but into the pot through their reading and discussions outside the classroom. To forget this is tantamount to thinking of teaching as the art of pouring knowledge into the heads of students. This is, of course, impossible.

It is also undesirable. The aim of Pound's critique of (some) teachers was "to make even their lot and life more exhilarating and to save even them from unnecessary boredom in the class-room" (11). His teaching philosophy is admirably simple:

If the teacher is slow of wit, he may well be terrified by students whose minds move more quickly than his own, but he would be better advised to use the lively pupil for scout work, to exploit the quicker eye or subtler ear as look-out or listening post.


There is no man who knows so much about, let us say, a passage between line 100 to 200 of the sixth book of the Odyssey that he can't learn something by re-reading it WITH his student, not merely TO his students. (85)

At bottom, I think the difference of temperament reduces to the difference between those who judge their success by teaching evaluations and those who judge it by student examinations. There are teachers who want to be respected by the students. They want the students to come away from the class with the sense that their teacher knows something. And there are teachers who don't care very much what their students think of them but are very concerned about whether they have learned something. These teachers read term papers and exams with interest, because it tells them something about the general state of knowledge in their area.

These are also the teachers who intend themselves to learn something every time they enter the classroom. They will win the respect of their students without trying.

No comments: