Cloning the Teacher

By Arnold Weinstein / September / October 2002
June 29th, 2007
We spend a great deal of time at Brown discussing teaching. We prize it and devise ways to measure and reward it. We have a center for studying and improving it. We constantly explore new forms of teaching, using recently discovered technologies and those just coming into view. But in all this discussion we seldom address the content of our teaching, particularly for the (many) undergraduates who never pursue their major beyond the A.B., and the massively greater number of students who simply graze in our disciplines before moving on to careers outside the academy. What have they achieved, what have they acquired?

I suggest that our entire model of instruction is held hostage to a disciplinary paradigm that reflects the research agenda of the professoriate. That sounds self-evident and innocuous, but it's not. Not only are our courses predetermined by the way the discipline defines itself and what it thinks is interesting, but their rationale and benefit make sense only for those who continue in the field. Do we ask what a nonmajor needs to know about literature? Philosophy? Physics? No doubt the best instructors do think about such matters - and you can be sure undergraduates do - but such concerns rarely influence the syllabus. And still more rarely do they interest the discipline itself. Hence, we have a strange paradox: we are (at our best) endlessly curious and inventive about teaching, but we are rather cyclopic when it comes to measuring our courses against the actual needs, interests, and reality of our students. Do we even know what role our courses (and fields) might play in the minds and hearts of all those young people who exit the academy with an A.B.? Research here could prove fascinating. And overdue, since the implicit scary question is: how meaningful is college? Do we perform something valuable as teachers? Could we do it differently, or better?

Now, you may ask: what's not to like in our system? My answer is: the system serves potential doctoral students wonderfully, but I am not sure what it does for the great unwashed. Put simply: is the disciplinary conversation really the best thing to teach undergraduates? Put another way: what does the model of professional competence (which underwrites our concentrations and offerings) have to do with education at large? Put more nastily: is the professional discourse not narcissistic, bent on replicating itself, staying in power? Professors who send their best students on to doctorates in their fields are, like it or not, engaged (at least unconsciously) in cloning themselves.

What should or could we be teaching if we were no longer bound by the professional discourse? We might begin by asking our students what they find meaningful in our courses. I realize this is heretical and smacks of an older "relevance" code. Yet, consider the way we do things now: in course after course, we (the older, the credentialed, the empowered) challenge the young to master the professional conversation - in which they can never, it goes without saying, catch up with us - and to prove it to us in the form of exams and essays. Are we concerned about what this material might mean to them? It is easy enough for us to say they are too young to know. I submit it is even easier for us to continue to display the bag of tricks that we have acquired professionally, and to measure our students according to how they stack up.

I realize my argument derives from the humanities and may not apply to those fields, notably the sciences, in which students simply must master progressively more difficult material and skills to move forward. But take an example from literature, my own field, whose courses should leave students with a heightened sense of how literature works, how it effects its peculiar "say" about life, how it refracts the living issues of both author and culture, how it might even school its readers, how much power, abuse, pleasure and excitement might be generated by these issues. None of these observations will get an undergraduate into a doctoral program in literature, but they might prove their mettle (or their silliness) in the long reading and thinking days ahead. My advice about other fields is suspect (another sign of our confusion), but I believe an art history course should sharpen a student's sense of visuality, of how various artists and periods saw and represented their culture and, where relevant, themselves, so as to deepen (rather than diminish or deconstruct) students' notions of what art portends. History courses should - as Brown's do - convey a richer grasp of how the past is constructed, what it is made of, as well as what the issues, voices, conflicts, and pulse of a period of time were like (for particular groups then, for particular groups now). And so forth. All these courses should be open-ended, aiming to instill a hunger for this kind of inquiry that will outlast the specifics of the course.

I believe all undergraduate courses should instill a sense of the pleasures to be had by remaining a student throughout one's life. We faculty don't do a great job, I think, of teaching pleasure as the modality of learning; workload is our term of preference, and often enough it connotes hair shirts and suffering as the only viable path to knowledge. There is a moment in Brecht's play about Galileo when the hounded scientist says learning is irresistible, innately seductive, and that is of course why it might be dangerous. Some seductions have no place in the academy; but this one does.

I am arguing, in a sense, for the value of amateurism as opposed to professionalism, and it is worth remembering the etymology of amateur: "one who loves." I don't find it at all mushy to say professors love their fields, and I'd be willing to go further: at some rarely articulated level faculty believe their particular field or discipline holds the key to reality, is the most valuable, illuminating, and pleasurable way to understand the issues before them. I don't claim this is teachable - it takes years before scholars themselves fully come into this view - but I believe it is communicated by example, by the spectacle of enthusiasm and belief that accompanies "knowledge." I have seen this fervor in every team-taught course I have participated in at Brown. This is our peculiar passion. This demonstration of belief has an ethical, almost religious dimension to it. And it is the (unscientific) core of successful teaching because it shows (not says) that literature or music or political science or biology is an enterprise of such intensity and scope that it captures the minds and hearts of those who practice or teach it. In my view - indeed in my own memory of faraway student days - this is what sticks in students' minds. In some ways, it is the signature of the university. In still other ways, beyond syllabus and exams, it will turn out to be indeed what we teach.

Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor and a professor of comparative literature.
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September / October 2002