Tag Archives: Personal history

Mysteries of the classroom

What happens when we teach? It’s a more peculiar process than you might think.

To illustrate, here’s one of those True-Stories-That-Are-Also-Parables we writers like so much: My first term in graduate school, I landed in a research seminar taught by an old guy nearing retirement. Apparently he’d been hot stuff back in the 1930s, but in 1968, not so much. He hadn’t published anything in years, and from our fifteen weeks together I can remember only two classroom moments. One came when he hauled out from his desk some photocopies he’d made years earlier, of a seventeenth-century ship-building contract– he thought maybe he could publish the details in a model-ship-building magazine. The other time, he showed up twenty minutes late, wet from the rain, and mad because he couldn’t find on-campus parking. It was like a laboratory demonstration of Clark Kerr’s joke about the duties of a university president– to provide football for the alumni, sex for the undergraduates, and parking for the faculty. There were only four of us students. We crammed into his office for a couple of hours every week, listened to him ramble on, then went home and did our research.

So this was about as hopeless a teaching set-up as you could find– yet the seminar turned out to be quite the big deal for us students. All four of us wrote seminar papers that turned into dissertations, and all the dissertations became respectable university press books; we all got decent academic jobs, though one of us bailed out of the profession (and into law school) before getting tenure.

Every parable needs a moral, so here’s mine: we see part of what goes on in a classroom, but there’s lots we don’t see– invisible forces swirling around, electrical charges sparking and fusing at subatomic levels, multiple temporalities colliding and redirecting one another. Had there been teaching evaluations back then, we’d have given Professor X F-minuses, and the deans would have packed him off to teacher remediation boot camp. But then, check out his “learning outcomes”– meaning, did the course give us students what we signed up to get? That’s the big metric now in vogue among administrators, and according to it Professor X belongs in the Teaching Excellence Hall of Fame.

Now, I understand the objections to making anything much of my story. It’s just one example, and graduate school is a peculiar business; we were bright, proto-professional keeners, not disaffected freshmen. Anyway, it was a long time ago, when the world had more room for ineffectual bumblers like Professor X.

All fair enough, but I’ve encountered less dramatic examples of the Professor X story all my life– bad teachers from whom I learned a lot, certified teaching stars who left me bewildered and/or scared. Of course some of those stars were the obvious fakes, the bombastic performers with nothing to say, but some were the real deal– I just wasn’t ready for what they were offering. I see the same things happening these days among the students I encounter.

Obviously that explains some of the subatomic interactions going on in the classroom. People need different teaching at different moments in their lives. Sometimes a conscientious and brilliant instructor overpowers and discourages; sometimes the chance to feel snooty and superior about your teacher (as we did with Professor X) is just what the doctor ordered– it encourages intellectual adventurism, or just helps you survive a difficult stretch like the first weeks of graduate school. And then there are all the other logics– lucky encounters with the right mix of fellow students or with the right topics and books, no matter who’s teaching them.

But when we’ve said all this, there are still plenty of classroom forces at play whose logics elude us– and some that we don’t even see. Which is just to say, the classroom is a site of human interactions, much like other human interactions only moreso than most: more compact and intense, with more at stake, with more layers, more moving parts.

You don’t have to be inside the university to know this human-interaction model of teaching faces challenges nowadays– from online education, from students who feel they’ve already got too many human interactions in their lives, from shrinking university budgets, from measurement-besotted administrators.

All I can say is, check out those learning outcomes!

Daughter of the sixties

My mother died just before Christmas, and of course there’s sadness about her being gone. Since the mid-eighties, we’d been spending a lot of time together, and we’d become way closer than when I was a kid.

But mostly this is not a sad story. Instead, it’s a story about what makes a good life in these weird modern/post-modern/pre-apocalypse times.

Certainly my mother had a good death, the kind we all dream of: in her sleep, at age ninety-seven, in the apartment she’d occupied for the past dozen years, surrounded by her favorite objects and furniture, following an afternoon of chatting and joking with her good-natured, affectionate, and effective caretaker. She’d been bed-ridden for the previous year, after a bad fall, and her mind had faded somewhat. But there was no pain, and the cognitive short-circuits were limited and mostly funny–to her as well as the rest of us, because although she lost some real memories, she also gained a set of vivid fakes, which she would humorously defend against my critical queries. Many had to do with driving, a skill she learned late and gave up early, without complaint. Who knew that all the while it had such a central place in her psychic life?

But otherwise she wasn’t that different, even in her last bed-ridden year. She still enjoyed her friends’ visits and news, had questions and opinions about world affairs, and indulged her appetites for dark chocolate and creme sherry. Anyway, she’d been playing the twinkly-eyed eccentric-little-old-lady role for years, so the last, bed-ridden version of it wasn’t really such a big change.

The course of her life had the same exemplary quality as her death. She was born at her grandparents’ farm in the southern tier of New York, and except for a couple of brief interludes lived the rest of her life within ninety miles of that spot– first at the farm her own parents bought in the same town, then in Rochester, where she became a nurse and worked at the main local hospital. Even then she remained connected to the farm– her parents lived there until they died, and she kept it for another decade after that. Various cousins still live in the area.

My father provided the only big disruption in this long tranquility. He was a non-practicing Ethical Culture-ethnic Jew from New York City who arrived in Rochester for medical school, fell for her, and insisted they get married. She thought it was a mistake, as did her future mother-in-law, who lived on Central Park West and prided herself on big-city sophistication– and of course they were right. In the end the marriage lasted fifteen years, but they’d already split up once before the final ending. My sister and I moved away with my father and his new wife, and my mother went back to work at the hospital. The next year she moved into a nearby duplex, which she bought when the owner died, and she lived there for the next fifty years; the retirement home where she died was a half-mile away.

You get the idea: farm childhood, strong family ties, decades of meaningful work for a single employer, a tranquil old age, a half-century in the same house — could you get any closer to an archetypal American life? Of course my father’s arrival and departure shook up the picture, but even they fitted one of the great American story lines. It was World War II, lots of people were being thrown together who otherwise would never have met, the ensuing relationships could be seen exploding all over the 1950s landscape. After it was all over, my mother’s life resumed its tranquil course, with the unexpected addition of her ex-mother-in-law. They became great pals, and spent a month together most summers.

So there’s an American Archetype version of my mother’s story, but it leaves something out, namely, the 1960s–because NYC-meets-farm girl wasn’t the only fault-line in her life. There were also the fault-lines that came from coping-in-suburban-America, and they may have been the bigger deal. Not for my father, who eagerly engaged with all aspects of suburban life, and never considered returning to the big city, even when that would have been the sensible move. But my mother could never quite make it work. She never got the codes, didn’t dress or talk like the other wives, became stiff and shy at strange moments, did too much at others. She was trying, but she just didn’t look or think like the others, and there were occasional meltdowns when she sensed my father’s dissatisfaction with her performance.

And then there was the question of work, which she gave up on marrying and only took up again after the divorce. Of course that’s what marrieds did back then, and she never expressed regret or talked of going back, at least in my hearing; probably both she and my father would have seen that as a humiliating sign of failure. Which in fact was strange, because her backwoods parents had a completely different idea– her mother was a teacher, kept teaching all through my mother’s childhood, and believed strongly that her daughter needed a profession of her own. It was my big-city father who took my mother out of the workplace and locked her up in new-growth suburbia.

I only understood what all this meant when I saw her back in the worforce after 1960, both at the hospital and hanging out after work with her fellow nurses. Of course they were a pretty rowdy crowd, having spent their days with naked bodies and big-time physical troubles, and my mother fitted right in. After fifteen years as a klutz-out, slightly off-kilter suburban wannabe, she had returned to competence and to socializing on her own terms. It was much the same back home at her duplex– not that she ever stopped being a little weird, but once she was out on her own, she started having a good time with it. (My daughter gives a terrific description of this mixture here.) The meltdowns had been a regular feature of her fifties life, but they pretty much disappeared after 1960.

I’ve made it sound like a feminist morality play, and that’s pretty much how I came to see it. My mother lived out many of the sixties liberationist themes, and she benefited from all of them. Her work, her own house, her own rowdy friends– suddenly she was a happy person. But the interesting thing is how she used all that sixties liberty– mainly, to get back to the life-tracks that had been laid out for her early on and that fitted her ideas of comfort, fun, and competence. In her life, it was the great fifties suburban enclosure that was the weird deviation; sixties radicalism allowed her to reconnect with her oh-so-traditional-looking past.

Were her experiences and emotions typical? Certainly not– suburbia keeps growing, faster than ever and world-wide, so people must be getting something out of it, as my father did. But maybe my mother’s experiences were typical in another sense, in what they show about the real dramas of the suburban/American way of life. We’re so accustomed to seeing suburbia as an effort to recreate small-town life that we don’t see its revolutionary force, the many aspects of ordinary life that it disrupts and reconfigures.  The standard labels–   preserving versus transforming, conservatives versus radicals– are even less help here than they usually are.

For my mother at least, the American Archetype story and the feminist morality play were pretty much the same thing.

On books

My last post made gentle fun of us humanities professors and our research. We spend years writing our books– all the while knowing that only a few fellow-specialists are going to read what we turn out, and that the world isn’t going to change because of it.   Researching and writing, I claimed, actually just provide the framework for the more important work we do. We can live without another book on French social history, however brilliant. But we can’t survive as a culture unless someone is keeping alive our texts and other cultural artefacts– by reading, performing, and thinking about them. In contemporary America, that mainly means us professors of humanities.

And yet here I am ten days later beaming with pride and pleasure as my own new book nears its publication moment. It’s a project that’s occupied me since 2005, and now the absolute final version of the text has just gone to the type-setter. In preparation for the actual launch, the publisher has just sent me two possible versions of the cover.

Suddenly this thing is morphing from MS Word documents on my computer to a real book, and the transformation has me seriously excited.

Which suddenly hit me as worth thinking about. I mean, it’s not my first time on this particular carnival ride, and I’ve got no illusions about where it ends up — namely, back at the starting point. My book will impress some fellow scholars, vex a few others, and have no effect whatsoever on everyone else. In a year or so, even I will think think I made some weird choices in how I put it together. Anyway, today in 2014 we have other, in many ways better ways to put our ideas before those who might be interested in them– this blog, for instance.

So why does a book still have a special kind of power?

Partly, I think, it’s just because books remain beautiful objects, in some ways more beautiful than ever. (New technologies have allowed publishers to do lots of things that were once impossible or wildly expensive.) We respond to the beauty, and also to the multiple ways that beauty connects us to bits of the past. Our own, highly specific past, with its trails of books encountered in public libraries, trashy bookstores, and college seminars, and our collective past; as physical object (we’re not talking content here!), my book won’t look all that different from books Erasmus published in the sixteenth century. There’s an excitement about plugging into all those various histories.

But I think there’s also another dimension to the thrill of book publishing, something that’s absent from any other kind of writing. It’s that writing even a narrow-gauge, scholar-oriented book like mine requires creating a self-contained world, populated with its own characters, moved by its own motives and forces, marked by certain kinds of emotions and relationships. The thrill of book-publishing is the thrill of world-creating.

Now, historical study being what it is, our newly-created worlds are supposed to be “true,” or at least true according to the conventions of our discipline. Unlike gods and novelists, we’re not allowed to create a world from nothing more than our own thoughts and imaginings. Everything we say has to rest on some trace created by others– on documents from the past, discoveries by other scholars, and the like.

But that doesn’t change the basics of the world-creating work. Just like novelists, we select our characters and sketch out the terrain where they act. We give them emotions and attitudes, many of which we’ve had to intuit from mere fragments and hints in the historical record. We reconstruct the after-effects of what they’ve done, again on the basis of our own intuitions rather than from any direct evidence. Throughout, we have to give the readers who visit these scenes a sense of the rules that apply there, how things work.

And we have to do all this within the 300 pages of a typical book– in other words, we can’t just report everything we’ve found. We’re constantly choosing between what matters and what doesn’t, making decisions about the guidance new visitors to this particular world will need. Some things we have to explain; others we can leave out because vistors will already know them from their other travels.

Of course we don’t usually put it this way. We talk instead about the craft of writing, gauging our audience, the trivia of editing. Is there too much background, or not enough? Has a character been properly introduced in earlier chapters? Do the explanations I offered in chapter 1 apply to the events in chapter 6, or do I need to rethink my characters’ motives?

That common-sensical language is just an acceptable way to talk about what’s really a magic show. We’re calling a dead world back into some semblance of life.

No one has spoken more eloquently about the process than the great Russian-German-American-Swiss novelist Vladimir Nabokov, in a literature course he gave at Cornell in the 1950s:

“The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says ‘go!’ allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. It is now recombined in its very atoms, not merely in its visible and superficial parts.”

Nabokov certainly didn’t intend for his description to apply to people like me. He was one of the all-time culture snobs, ready to dismiss even some heavy-hitting novelists as mediocrities. He left his university job the moment he had the money to do so. But his image applies to all us authors, because that’s what putting together a book is like, for ordinary writers as much as for Nabokov’s greats.

Cool, huh?