Thursday, November 14, 2013

"There is nothing to understand": Jacques Rancière & November's weary pedagogue

It's the time of year, as one Michael Nye writes, when teachers and students are sick of one another, and are mostly just tired (often also sick). It's also the time of year when, especially in my lower-level classes, I wonder if I've done any good work at all. Writing problems begin to seem intractable, and what to do in each next class starts to become more of a mystery. Time speeds up, but the mind slows. And it's not just in classes that these effects occur. Department meetings seem pre-scripted, the silences in the halls all too predictable, and the work to be done in navigating the academic life too difficult. But Jacques Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation arrived in the mail this week. After I posted several links to articles about adjunct labor in the academy, John Bloomberg-Rissman recommended the book to me. Then UHM philosophy professor, Joseph Tanke, spoke about Rancière's work, and my colleague John Zuern, responded to him, at a International Cultural Studies talk I couldn't attend, but listened to via podcast.The series is organized by another colleague, Ruth Hsu.

It arrived at a moment of crisis, if feeling fed up can live up to that word. I don't know if I'll have time, but tomorrow I'd like to present my students--at least those in English 100--with the following prompt: "I am in college because . . . " There's been a rash of plagiarism in that one class, some of it involving ideas borrowed but not cited, some the "total recall" method of cut-and-paste from the internet. Students in my honors class ask me every week what they should write about on the class blog, until yesterday I told them I hoped they would find something that interested them in the reading, or in the course more generally, and write about that! My middle class, which suffers both my indulgence and sometimes my neglect, is full of bright, creative students who never google anything they don't know. So, opening up Rancière to Chapter One's title, "An Intellectual Adventure," feels like a step back into that before-time of wanting to teach because you could have intellectual conversations all the time and enjoy "the life of the mind." Ha!

Rancière is telling me what I already know, but what the ordeal of a long semester causes me to forget: that learning is an activity; that I am not a conveyor belt of knowledge but a goad to it; that my job is to create the possibilities for knowledge, rather than offer neat packages of knowledge as fact. There is no before and after in Rancière, no moment before you learn and no moment after I have have taught you something. There is no sequel, in which you now know something I've taught you, but still lack the knowledge to know that next thing I will spring on you later!  His ideas, by way of Joseph Jacotot, whose intellectual biography he writes, remind me why I love to teach writing more than almost anything else. It's an activity, not a pit stop.

And it's an activity that depends not on "understanding" (as in, "I don't understand poetry," or "I don't understand how to analyze") but on letting go of that word in favor of other words, like "enjoyment" or "thinking" or "attention." Rancière is especially good on that last word, one that I find myself using more and more. "Power cannot be divided up," he notes; "There is only one power, that of saying and speaking, of paying attention to what one sees and says." The good teacher does not interrogate, like Socrates, asking questions that lead to an inevitable answer; instead, she points to a text, asks students to read it (even if it's in a language that she herself does not know). The teacher models the search, not the discovery. "Whoever looks always finds. He doesn't necessarily find what he is looking for, and even less what he was supposed to find. But he finds something new to relate to that thing he already knows." Finding relation is the intelligence he celebrates, and anyone can do that.

Those who embark on what he and his subject, Jacotot, call "universal teaching" realize that "it is a question of observing, comparing, and combining, of making and noticing how one has done it. What is possible is reflection." The other day I entered my Introduction to Creative Writing class and talked to the students about how to make a chapbook, since their final project is to make one for their semester's work. Then I handed out pieces of paper and stacks of newspapers, a few scissors, and some glue sticks. They formed teams of two and began immediately to cut and paste and arrange bits of paper on the table. I hadn't given them directions; had simply provided the means for an exercise that they recognized as they started to do it. "We've been well trained," laughed one student when I remarked on my own lack of directions. I take that as a pleasant irony, that training toward taking command of the exercise at hand.

So on the good days, I see the voyaging happening in my classrooms, that eager combination of social event with intellectual or creative activity. The sense of "I can't understand" gets replaced with "I am making something." But it's a struggle. As I get older, I'm inclined to talk more in my classes, to try to convey knowledge rather than feed the hunger that demands it. I get more impatient with what I see as pedagogy that demands affiliation rather than opening unexpected connections. I grow more doctrinaire in my desire to rid my department of doctrine. I get more frustrated with my students' apparent passivity, forgetting that I once let assignments drop, plugged myself in (in an awkward 1970s way). If only "an emancipated person" can be "an emancipator," then self-emancipation is not an easy task.

It's been valuable then, on a day away from teaching, to indulge in this book, and to be reminded of the truth of Rancière's perception that we are the "being" who "examines what he sees," and that the real question to ask is "what do you think about it?" Or, "what do you notice?" Or, "how can you make something of this, whatever 'this' might be?"


sr said...

Love this. Thank you, Susan.

1913 editrice said...

love too! thx so Susan...