Some Thoughts on Teaching: Violence, Seduction, Love

The teacher's task — to have a student be reborn, repeat — is impossible. What, as a teacher, can I possibly say, possibly do, to move students from point A to point B — where point B is an insane world they never knew existed and to get there entails surrendering everything they've ever thought or known?

A certain violence is necessary. Students need to be pushed. For me, this took several forms. I kept the ceiling moving. That is, I never let a student think he or she got it and was done. Rather, I'd always say: good, now did you consider this? And this? And this? I kept pushing rather than giving out medals. After all, there is no there per se to reach, no actual point B — especially when point B is the position of all positions, a place that is not a place because it keeps moving, folding, winding, doing and undoing itself.

I have to say, when it comes to teaching a 7 year old, this tactic of perpetually raising the ceiling might not be the most effective technique. I'm not sure if it's effective for 19 year olds, either. One pedagogic strategy I never tried was infinite parental patience — stern, but loving. Don Juan does precisely this (among other things) for Carlos. (Castaneda's books give us one of the great pedagogies.)

And I'm not sure what "effective" even means in pedagogy: How do I know if a student has learned something? What counts as learning? What counts as something? Teaching is strange, frustrating, work — and fantastic precisely for those reasons.

Anyway, back to the task at hand: How, as a teacher, do I get students from point A to a point B that is not a point?

Repetition: I'd repeat myself relentlessly, repeatedly. I'd say the same thing, verbatim, over and over again. And then I'd say it in a different way, verbatim, over and over again. This, alas, is a kind of violence: I was trying to drill ideas into the heads, into the bodies, into the becomings of these students. I wanted the repetitions to be like a nail gun.

Violence, however, has its limits. Pushing, drilling: these will only take a student so far because, finally, that student has to make the jump, take the leap. Being pushed doesn't work. I suppose I also wanted the repetitions to be a kind of mantra that might transport them on their own to another place, to another way of thinking, to another way of being.

Still, how do I get a student to take that leap, to do as Carlos Castaneda does and jump off that cliff when everything he's ever known says that he will, without a doubt, fall to his death?

I know I run certain risks and open myself up to a variety of jokes and criticisms for saying this but: seduction. As I teacher, after pushing students, I'd try to flip to the other side and beckon: Come on, it's nice over here. It's exciting and cool and beautiful and enlivening. Come hither. Come play — the water's fine.

So, yes, I'd try to seduce students to the rhetorical posture, to the position of infinite play. I tried to make the ideas appealing — no, alluring. I tried to make the ideas so freakin' alluring that students wanted to come and play.

I wanted those ideas to be so alluring the students would fall in love. And love is what it takes to move people, to have them give up their comfort to enter the unknown. If only I could make students fall in love with an idea, they'd follow that idea over the cliff. They'd take the leap.


Daniel Schealler said...

Here's a thing that pisses me off: I've kept up with your blogging since Rhetoric 10 a few years ago. Every now and again you put something up that kicks ass.

So I start to write something in response in the comments.

Then I pause to re-read it just before I hit send.

And I frikkin hate what I read there. It sucks.

Just now, before sending this, I was trying to make some droll witty retort about Phaedrus having a scroll under his robes and how you claim not to be Socratic. But then I read it back to myself and it was really, really terrible.

You make what I can do not good enough.

I hate/love it.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Well, fear of being less than brilliant has never stopped me from holding forth. To wit, 90% of this blog. It's one reason I like blogging, one thing I'm exploring: the published conversation. I write in blogger, do one quick edit, hit publish.

Try it. It's liberating.