This is the model of the professor: literally, of one who professes. It is a priestly pyramid. The one with special knowledge acts a gatekeeper to the heaven of knowledge. He stands before the masses and, by telling us what we need to know, shepherds us through. It is a model of efficiency, to boot, thereby serving the capitalist goal of academia: one man at the podium showers it upon the many in the crowd.
His subject matter — Russian history — lent itself well to this model. He knew things we did not know; he told us; we wrote it down. He loved telling stories that were filled with facts and dates and motives. But he made this dry process a joy. Isn't this the image of the great professor we love — the patient expert who bestows his knowledge with passion?
When I became a teacher, I did not have this option as I had no facts to relay. In fact, I had no knowledge per se to bestow. Which afforded me the perverse pleasure of telling my students, I will teach you nothing. But it was true. There were no dates to memorize, no multiple choice quizzes I could give.
According to Roland Barthes, the author is
a) in a coma!
d) alive and well!
I was teaching rhetoric which, alas, is the theory and art of reckoning the particular particularly: before this crowd, this painting, this book what do you say? I didn't have the option of instructing my students about generalities— Never end a sentence in a preposition! — as I was trying to teach them the logic of the particular. So we did a lot of particular readings of things, which is what sophists have been doing for millennia.
But, at some point well after the fact, I realized that I was doing something else entirely. I never wrote lecture notes. I had a game plan but it was vague or, rather, it was nebulous. It could go any number of ways, all of which I was open to. I no longer saw the classroom as a pulpit (despite what many of my critics thought). No, I began to use the classroom as what Carlos Castaneda might call a site of power, a time and place to conjure live thought — to summon it, steer it, play with it.
The students and I would read the same small, potent passage from some book — Barthes, Nietzsche, Plato, Burroughs — and using my experience and the collective energy of that room, I'd try and stir the cosmos into a moment of confrontation and emergence. This could involve reading the text emphatically or launching off into some so-called real world example or playing music or a clip from a film. The goal was to engage these references to forge an emergent network of words and ideas, associations and references, all assembling themselves just so before our eyes and within our bodies. I was conjuring worlds both known and unknown in order to create a new world, a new way of going.
At the time, I believed I was trying to engineer that famous but elusive a ha! That is, I thought I was trying to help my students understand because isn't that what teachers do? But what, really, was there to understand?
I see now that it was less about understanding this or that than experiencing live thought, participating in the act of emergent ideas. I never cared if they commanded the content or understood anything (although that could be misinterpreted out of context!). I just wanted them to know that live thought was not only possible but delectable. And by moving through texts and people and experience, it was possible to think with the moment, to think lively rather than regurgitate the same old nonsense.
Oh, I'm not saying that I was always successful. There were plenty of times the experience fell flat, that I relied on my own stale thinking or that I ended up in an eddy of my own making, students looking on bewildered and nauseated. But there were sure times when the room was electric, as if in a séance when you feel the presence of ghosts and a chill runs up your spine. Only these spectral beings were not ghosts and were not, for that matter, beings. This was the very universe itself taking shape, realigning itself — as much for me as for them.
Why do this? What pedagogic purpose does this serve? No doubt, many people felt there was none, that I was drooling and babbling into the ether, that I liked to hear myself talk (a common comment). But my goal, I now understand, was to perform live thought, the actual act of thinking, with them rather than for them or at them (although I did plenty of that, too). I wanted to show them a certain life of the mind, a certain liveliness of mind, of mindful living and how they might achieve it on their own.
This is a different architecture of pedagogy, a different distribution of classroom, text, teacher, and students. The professorial mode, as I said, is pyramidal: a privileged singular point professes to the wide base. Then there is the seminar, the students of the round table. The idea here, I think, is that everyone is equal. But I never really had successful seminars. They mostly involved heated discussions in which everyone spoke past each other, albeit it with alternating condescension, anger, hostility. Seminars, for me, were inevitably odd and useless experiences.
The model I used involved a different architecture. I was neither expert nor equal; this was neither pyramid nor round table. I tried to position myself just to the side of the center, the texts within reach, experiences and students poised to join the mix. What I wanted to forge was a spiraling out, a wave of thinking that ran out of my interaction with the texts then swirled through the students, gaining momentum and changing shape as it wound through their minds and bodies and then back to the texts and me then out again to them forming a recursive feedback loop, a collective conjuring.
But all of this has me thinking about online education and the MOOC in particular — the massive open online course. Now, for me, without students in the same space as me, I found I just couldn't teach. I tried. I tried babbling into a microphone or camera, alone in my apartment. And while I was occasionally able to summon a live moment, these "lectures" just didn't work. Without the student nodes, without all these active minds working at the same time, it wasn't going to work. No conjuring was possible. I needed living flesh and active minds.
There is no doubt a kind of teaching and learning that the MOOC can do well — monumental teaching, the vast pyramid, the showering of information. But I wonder about the kind of occasional pedagogy that interests me and that drives a rhetorical education — that is, a reckoning of and in and with the occasion, with the now, a liveliness of this moment. It just doesn't seem possible online.
Perhaps I'm wrong and just haven't reckoned the possibilities thoroughly enough. Perhaps as interweb pipes get fatter and feeds get faster and interfaces develop, there can be a virtual presence in which energies fly across wires, even wider and more intensely than they do in the classroom. We can do it with love and sex so why not teaching and thinking?