. . . . . . . Supervalent Thought

A Teaching (III)

The days were long and the weeks were short during the term that has ended, the rhythms of which extend like a membrane across the late weeks’ email exchanges and hastily arranged furtive-seeming encounters with student beings suddenly stunned and muddled in the face of writing something now.  In the middle of all that I left to give a talk, and talked with my hosts about another scene of the university ordinary that I find baffling:collegiality. On this trip I asked a former colleague to tell me how she maintains such grace when the relation of structural to affective dynamics so often induces a mess involving lots of disavowal of aggression and vulnerability. She said that there’s no helping it, collegial mistrust is structural, and therefore so are abreaction and dysfunction. But I swear it isn’t:  only inequality is structural. The rest is an ineducation for which we are constantly paying intuition.

The day I returned, though, the fog lifted for a minute.  My friend Sarah Schulman visited town to do a reading and promote her two new books.  Her confidence in her truths thrusts me back into myself constantly, as I tend to think of multiple explanations for problems for which she has found genuinely beautiful clarities. I have only been in the same bodily space as Sarah four times in the last two decades: but each time has had an impact because she moves me, she too is constantly knocking her head against the wall of her objects so that they might move a little and she too always seems a little surprised that the optimistic returns leave her bruised and frayed. But she enjoys her victories.  She is not afraid of the return, more afraid of not having the encounter than of having it. Me too. And yet, there is the question of resilience.

I can’t remember what we talked about at dinner, except that I felt like I was the child learning moral lessons and she the impatient teacher calling a thing a thing and telling my noise of “what if” speculative pleasure to shut the fuck up. She didn’t really do that, but as things unfolded my sense grew that my capacities are also defenses. As we were leaving, she asked me what I wanted out of life, and I said, at the moment I am trying to learn how to write.  She said, do you have 20 minutes?  I could teach you to write in 20 minutes.  I started laughing, but she was serious.  So we sat in the car outside The Knickerbocker Hotel and she taught me how to write.  Here is a picture of what she drew.

sarah s

I was a terrible, stupid, stuttering, defensive student. She very nicely pushed me to get with the program–a more or less Aristotelian program dedicated to teaching narrative causality starting with an action that leads to a consequence that impairs a desire that threatens to be thwarted after which there are consequences and then an adjustment and then a resolution.  [She later told me that it’s not Aristotelian, but derives in part from Maria Irene Fornes.] She tosses questions to me:  who’s your character, what does he want from another character, how does that fit into a world, how do they try to get what they want, then what happens?  My point here is that I was so bad at doing the fundamental thing she teaches about character, agency, action.

To the protagonist of this story, writing is all about the drama of action in relation to objectives/consequences and in the middle the threat of a reversal of action that would take people out of the story.  I kept saying, “I don’t know, I don’t know,” when she kept saying, so what do you want, what happens next? After stuttering and being utterly unimaginative for awhile, I said, I am interested in taking things slower, in watching someone veer from the impact of a consequence, in the slow story of how people unlearn and adjust and feel out their relation to intention, action, causality, and their others. Maybe what happens is that on impact our protagonist gets distracted or confused, throws himself at encounters in a passionate dissociated way, has conversations he doesn’t understand, or becomes a drama queen making the interlocutor pay emotionally for being an obstacle to his clarity, or self-medicates and creates consequences from within impaired action and then is forced to be responsible for it as if we all agreed that we are all sovereign; or maybe he talks to strangers on busses about their clothes, his childhood, the smell of fast food, and then gets to work and forgets what wasn’t yet or maybe ever much more than a passing event. Maybe it wasn’t dissociation and the drama was the distraction. It may turn out that some things can’t bear the weight of a symptomatic reading, and is writing always the elaboration of a symptom? The jury is always out even as judgments are being streamed everywhere.  Splayed consequentiality may not be that interesting, or else there isn’t a genre for it yet.

She seemed exhausted by me.  (She says she wasn’t.) Action drives the world:  of course an activist/fiction writer thinks that.  But her bad student did not think that yet, she had thought that people were in the middle of a situation for which the writing could feel out and provide new rhythms and outsides, and she never could write fiction precisely because she could describe things but couldn’t induce an action that would have just one consequence that would lead to one next one. Drama, chains; the ordinary, rhythms of cluster and spray.  The funniest part was that Sarah just assumed that when I said I wanted to learn how to write that what I wanted to write was fiction.  Our whole master class in the car was based on a misrecognition around what writing is, and apparently I misunderstood everything she was trying to teach me, and yet: I am still learning something from the encounter, about what’s out of control in the scene of a teaching.

More on this (impossibility of teaching) in the next post, the last one of this series.

5 Comments so far
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The end of the arc says, I think, ‘You’re diminished.’ Maybe not.

Comment by Greg

It’s always hard to be bad at something, and I was a bad student. I felt small and ridiculous, but not unhappy–interested. S and I have different talents: she can pursue an argument and consequentiality whereas I am interested in making openings for action by opening up the object. In this sequence on teaching I wanted to make sure to write about how there’s nothing heroic or principled in being non-sovereign in the scene of teaching, that sometimes one is just stuck and can’t talk/learn, even when one wants to, and it’s hard. So I am trying to stage here not having learned and yet trying to learn from that, without pretending that my not having learned was a good thing about me, which it wasn’t.

Comment by supervalentthought

In “Is A Pedagogy of Healing Possible?,” Georges Canguilhem writes about the possible link between the doctor-patient relationship and the teacher-student. He uses the work of Kurt Goldstein’s research on men suffering from cerebral lesions to conclude “the activity of the doctor is compared to that of the pedagogue.” Canguilhem writes:
“A healthy organism engages with the environing world in a way that enables him to realize all of his capacities. A pathological state is the reduction of the initial latitude of intervention within the environment. The anxious endeavor to avoid situations generative of catastrophic behavior, the tendency simply to conserve a reside of power is the expression of a life in the process of losing its “responsiveness.” If one understands a cure to be the set of processes by which the organism tends to surmount the limitation of its capacities that comes with disease, then it must be admitted tat to heal is to pay the price of the effort necessary to retard the process of degradation. “The patient frequently has the choice whether he wants to accept – according to the change caused by the disease – a limitation of the milieu and the resulting limitation of freedom, or less limitation and more suffering instead. If the patient bears more suffering, he will gain in possibilities of performing since therapeutic measures may be apt to reduce suffering but at the same time diminish the performances.” Under such conditions, what attitude should the doctor assume?…The doctor who decides to guide the patient along the difficult path of a cure “will be able to do so, only if he is completely under the conviction that the physician-patient relationship is not a situation depending alone on the knowledge of the law of causality but that it is a coming to terms of two persons, in which the one wants to help the other gain a pattern that corresponds, as much as possible, to his nature…This is why, if a pedagogy of healing were possible, it would consist in the equivalent of what Freud called “reality testing.” Such a pedagogy should exert itself to obtain the subject’s recognition of the fact that no present or future technique or institution will guarantee the integrity of his powers in relation to men and to things. The life of the individual is, from its origin, the reduction of the powers of life. Because health is not a constant of satisfaction, but the a priori power to master perilous situations, this power uses itself up in mastering successive perils. The health that comes after being cured is not the same health as before” (16-19).
This claim about a health that is never there but the result of a constant adjustment makes me think about the way that ‘resilience’ is often a fundamental feature of your discussions on teaching/learning/writing/thinking. The choice between limitation and degradation versus freedom and suffering resembles, I think, the choice of the student in so far as learning is a scene of confronting one’s limitations. The non-chosen nature of limitations imposed by disease corroborates, I think, your focus on the “non-sovereignty” of the scene of teaching.
I’m also wondering what it means for the doctor to be a pedagogue as it relates to the work of teaching and learning. Canguilhem’s attention to the doctor/pedagogue’s need to develop “a pattern that corresponds as much as possible to his nature” makes me wonder about what this means for teaching. Specifically, is the emphasis on a subjective pattern of cure a potential alternative to being a bad vs. good student, insofar as it replaces the emphasis on any fixed criteria of “health” – what would be “knowledge” in teaching – with a focus on how to generate new patterns of adjusting one’s capacities for bearing one’s limitations in such a way that develops new forms of “responsiveness” even as it produces new possibilities for anxiety and suffering. The focus on creating health anew (because it never existed a priori) liberates the concept of cure from any notion of achievement in a way that might make it easier to think through the process of learning as the continual pressure to choose even as choosing marks one’s constitutional inability to choose.
I think the difference this reorientation makes could potentially be linked to the “different talents” you refer to between you and S, as “pursue an argument and consequentiality” vs. “making openings for action by opening up the object.” I wonder then if there is a difference between the method and the lesson. How does the active “pursuit of consequentiality” make space for the detours of breakdown and stoppage and the “making of openings” produce a net beneath and around the apertures it makes?

Comment by ashtor

Wow, thanks. I’m supposed to be grading papers now (see: safety net beneath and around apertures) but here are a few thoughts.
1. The whole drive behind this post was to say that her method brought into the foreground the way my talents can be blockages and my capacities anti-tools for (learning) action. So your final point about the difference, one might say, between the method of the lesson and the lesson of the teaching was the one I intended to induce here. This seems to correspond to Canguilhem’s model of the two persons coming to terms with a pattern that corresponds to a reality that exists, an adjustment that might be made, and an adjustment of the imaginary of adjustment given the patient’s “nature.” Except there was no coming to terms except in the most formal sense, and I hope not to have a “nature” that produces absolute constraints. In a slapstick mode, I was demonstrating adjustment disorder as an equivalent to “having a personality.”
2. You might think more about why you move from the possibility/impossibility of teaching to the drama of the student’s choosing or not choosing. Perhaps that’s your particular relation/blockage in the scenes of teaching/learning/therapeusis that you’re trying so hard to make non-plural?
3. In other words, it’s hard to follow your post in some ways, because you keep slipping from/within the perspectives of the teacher/doctor to the perspectives of the patient/student. I would surmise that the blockages a teacher can face in mobilizing desire and intention are quite different from the student’s confrontation with alien idioms and a language stream that saturates an atmosphere already suffused with so many other vectors of desire, ambition, living on, getting by, getting credentialed, belonging, being inattentive, and being sentient. You don’t think so? Not all non-sovereignty is the same, not all contingency is built from the same scene of activity even when the participants are in the same scene, and the angers are quite different though overlapping too with respect to who determines the terms of recognition and how. We’re trying to figure out here the ways that transference relates to intention, in part, but also the insitutional location of the interlocution and interlocutors matters a lot.
4. “Such a pedagogy should exert itself to obtain the subject’s recognition of the fact that no present or future technique or institution will guarantee the integrity of his powers in relation to men and to things.” Yes, this is the psychoanalytic claim as it merges with my version of a pedagogical one, anyway, but not all pedagogies are trying to teach with an eye to what they can’t provide permanent housing for. Yet this statement isn’t enough for me as a credo for teaching. It blandifies contingency and brackets the anxiety and loss that push on the walls as a teacher tries to stage and move a problem somewhere, and to give people skills for intention amidst the processes that make disintegration synonymous to whatever answer one might give to the ordinary question, “How was your day?”

Thinking on the page here, if you can call it thought.

Comment by supervalentthought

Excuse my intrusion on a wonderful conversation, but I’ll take the publicness of the blog medium as an invitation to engage, if I may?

I wonder what Canguilhem would say about pedagogy/ healing if doctoring happened in group settings, such as the ones we work in as teachers?

There is a way in which I see my teaching practice as spiritual work – not as ministering, right? – but as the work of a self committed to putting into a pedagogic praxis the unfinished and unanswerable question: what is just? I have found that one prong of my ongoingly (sp?) imperfect practice is my willingness to embrace the Bad (I almost typed bed there): the bad question, the bad subject, the bad teaching day, the bad work of art, and to understand those moments of Badness as psychic knots worth untying together with my students. Which is not an excuse for bad teaching but rather – I hope I’m not writing this too quickly – a reminder that the warty text/person/ feeling is for me the most pedagogically productive one.

I’m not sure what that has to do with healing, not least because I like to leave those intellectual-emotional warts where they are. But I will say – and perhaps this is specific to the particular institutional pressures of the Small Liberal Arts College – I am a little unwilling to embrace the healing metaphor uncritically, particularly as a woman teacher teaching women’s studies. In order to push my students to work at their highest intellectual capabilities sometimes I begin my classes by saying: this class is not about healing work. Because I’m not sure that what passes as healing work in the culture – usually as facilitated by minoritarian subjects, nurses, moms, physician’s assistants, orderlies and so on – is something I want to let into my class. And I don’t want my students to overlap their desires for healing upon their fantasies about what my bodily presence signifies for them.

On the other hand, when I call their highest intellectual faculties into the room, a very different healing project may – I hope, I plan, I pray – in fact happen in which we as thinkers come together to open up some useful questions, which we may never answer, but which may lay down some first steps of an evolving praxis for living, if not the good life, then at least the intellectually humble life.

The final question about pedagogy is always: does it work? And as you are telling us Lauren, and as your discussion of Eve Sedgwick’s pedagogy essay tells us, one doesn’t ever entirely know. But I’m interested in what you think of the teaching evaluation as a guide to the pedagogical process. I ask because this discussion reminds me of an argument I had with a wonderfully brilliant student about the problems of standpoint epistemology, which I teach as part of a feminist theory survey, and which I often think of as feminist theory’s adolescent moment. He – a transgendered student of color – was asserting the classic SE conclusion that certain truths can only be spoken to from the point of view of experience. There are some very good reasons, attached to certain kinds of psychic survival, for embracing SE at different points in our lives.

But, as a skeptic of the political and interpersonal implications of SE, I also had to ask: do you think that you know everything there is to say about yourself? Do I have anything to say to you that you don’t yet know about yourself? Do you have anything to tell me? Hence my question: what about the teaching evaluation? We know it fails, but does it ever work? Can it be made better, made dialogic perhaps?

I have been trying to develop a teaching/research project, perhaps a digital project, which might better approach this question.

Rather blathery, sorry.

Kyla Wazana Tompkins

Comment by Kyla

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