On Teaching, part 1

I have no desire to make people experts. I never want to be the teacher that professes mastery over a subject (of course, I am not a master over any subject, so, well, there's that). I don't give a flying fuck if my students are down with every pedantic point of Deleuze's critique of phenomenology.

Of course, I don't want to simplify the material for them—and I don't think I do—but I sure as shit don't care whether they grasp every fine point. I am not training 19 year olds to be scholars, to be academics. Undergraduate education is not professional training for the academy—that's what grad school is for. Fuck citation.

No, what interests me, what I try to teach, is a relationship to ideas, to texts, to the world. The focus of my teaching is not as much the material per se as it is how one stands towards the material. I want people—my students, sure, but everyone—to enjoy reading Nietzsche and Borges and Nabokov. I want them to be generous towards the world, to find the best thing in this or that film, this or that book, this or that work of art.

I don't want to create a bunch of nay-sayers, hermeneutic cops who roam libraries in search of ways this or that text fails. I want them only to read texts that set them on fire, that get their hearts pounding, that twist their brains and bodies into new postures, origami-like.

I never taught a text I didn't feel was great. Why would I have students read anything I didn't think was astounding, something worth at least one hurrah, a hallelujah, a wooopeeee or three—or at least a wow and perhaps a huh? Why read the shit of the world? Why read the mediocrity of the world? Life's too short—or too long, depending on how you look at it.

And so I've always tried to teach a way of going with ideas, with books and film and art. Ideas are not distinct from a life lived. When I teach, I invoke my life, often. While this may be narcissistic I do it purposefully with a certain pedagogic goal: to show how an idea plays itself out in a life—how ones talk to his wife or child, how he interacts with family, friends, foes. Ideas are not distinct from life (I learned this from Kierkegaard—thanks, Soren).

College is not a job. College is not training for work—even for work in the academy. College is the time to take on different approaches to this life. When I was in college and first read Nietzsche, then Foucault, I was liberated from the contraints of myself—from my banal understanding of politics and power, from my staid assumptions about how the world works. Reading these texts, life yawned with opportunity, with possibility, with excitement. This is education.

A tip from McLuhan: education is exposing, and perhaps destroying, one's environment, the invisible structures that keep us doing the same old shit.

For many students, undergraduate life is their one concerted exposure to inellectuals, to the life of the mind. So when I have them in my classroom for 16 weeks, I want to show them a lit up life of the mind—a life that not only is not dry but, on the contrary, is passionate, sensual, practical, personal, that the intellectual life has rewards that exceed getting a fucking A.

And, of course, I want to change my students—irrevocably. I want them to see the world, see themselves, see school, see ideas in fundamentally news ways, in ways they never thought possible. I don't want to let them keep ideas separate from their lives; I don't want to let them segregate their lives between school and life, as if class was something they had to clock in, clock out. I want the ideas I teach to bleed across their classes, across their lives.


Naadir Jeewa said...

Reading this makes me wonder if you're right about the vampirism of our world. It sounded great that you were liberated from your own constraints when you were in college. Contrast with my first experience, studying in a department which had already decided that college is training for work-the most stultifying, constraining experience I ever had.
Things are different now, at my new college. But I'm a lucky one, having got in before the government intervenes and declares that university is about "Innovation and Skills," fucks all those who want to see the world "in fundamentally new ways".

Anyway, thanks for keeping our aims, hopes and dreams alive.

Lisa said...

It's funny that you bring up this topic, because just yesterday I discovered a really great interview with my other favorite disembodied-pedagogical-internet-voice, Hubert Dreyfus, which was mostly about teaching and not being a boring lame-o (link below).

You, via McLuhan
"education is exposing, and perhaps destroying, one's environment, the invisible structures that keep us doing the same old shit."

Dreyfus (later he talks about his teaching as his calling, about teaching being something that you "learn by doing", connecting it with this idea)
"Heidegger took up from Kierkegaard this whole idea of a calling and of the holding on to anxiety, which for him (he gets everything from Kierkegaard; that's already in Kierkegaard) means seeing that nothing has intrinsic meaning, that there are no guidelines that you can follow. You can follow them, but then you will have a life that is banal and standard and routine. Kierkegaard calls it leveled. But if you're going to respond in an alive way to the particular situation you're in, then you've got no guidelines. The guidelines will level you to the standard way of doing it. Heidegger takes that up and calls it being authentic."

On a completely different note for this incredibly long comment:
In podcast-teaching, for me there is another quirk of the medium: when I listen to Dreyfus's lectures and your lectures, I am in general doing something else. I'm cleaning my room, painting, falling asleep, etc... You can do all those things in a lecture hall, but they're generally frowned upon, plus you're surrounded by people in close proximity, so there's this peer-social element that personally weirds me out most of the time. I think that many people, Dreyfus included (he refers to us often as "those podcast people") think that the lack of social interaction with a professor is a huge detraction, and in some ways it is. But I find that I can absorb teaching and ideas so much better when I'm freed from the constraints of sitting in a room full of people being observed by my peers, when I can express my feelings by walking around, or distract myself in such a way that indirect connections make themselves apparent.

This is really an attempt to find a connection between the two professors that have really had the most impact on my intellectual life (you and Dreyfus, not that this is such a compliment, I've only taken engineering classes otherwise) and the two connections I can see are 1) these "similar" thoughts on destruction of guidelines and intrinsic meaning and 2) the medium of podcasting.


Daniel Coffeen said...

I love the version/vision of learning you give—education leaking in through the pores of the everyday. I do think that you are right—there is so much crap that goes along with being a student sitting in a classroom that it often gets in the way of learning. There is, indeed, a palpable anxiety.

I have truly enjoyed having a widespread and invisible student body—people who don't feel college is an extended high school, who listen because they WANT to listen.

As for Dreyfus, I never studied with him. You are not the first to invoke him in a positive light and so I fear I missed an opportunity. I love what you quote here from him—and it does seem uncannily related, all the way down to the Kierkegaard. Hmn.

thanks for the note.....

Candice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Candice said...

We may never meet, as I am still on my way to Berkeley and I hear you are on your way to un-Berkeley.
But I have been one of your unseen students for several months now.
Indeed, my life and thinking have been exploding in so many new directions in these past months.
I don't know exactly to what extent that is attributable to your podcasts, but they have definitely made an impression.
They are interwoven in the crawling, tickling culmination that is my almost-twenty-year-old brain.
Thanks ;)

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thank you kindly for the note, Candice. I am indeed un-Berkeley: they shed me like so much sloughed skin. I do hope your Berkeley foray is a good one and perhaps our paths'll cross somewhere here in the Bay Area.

The Posture of Things

You're shopping for a chair. As you browse the aisles, you note the variety — from backless computer chairs to high bar stools to plush ...