Teaching is like sex

A million things to write, most of them still inchoate. But in the meantime I’ve been reading more articles about critical pedagogy and one of them is by Jane Tompkins. “Pedagogy of the Distressed,” it’s called, in College English from 1990. She comments at one point on her long inattention to her own pedagogy, and on what she views as academia’s distaste for education as a discipline:

“In this respect teaching was exactly like sex for me — something that you weren’t supposed to talk about or focus on in any way but that you were supposed to be able to do properly when the time came. And the analogy doesn’t end there. Teaching, like sex, is something you do alone, although you’re always with another person/other people when you do it; it’s hard to talk about to the other person while you’re doing it, especially if you’ve been taught not to think about it from an early age. And people rarely talk about what the experience is really like for them, partly because, in whatever subculture it is I belong to, there’s no vocabulary for articulating the experience and no institutionalized format for doing so.”

I’m most struck by her description of the public solitude of the teacher. As if teaching were a kind of isolation among others. (She doesn’t ask herself whether being a student is like this too, but it often can be, of course.) Tompkins thinks that this kind of isolation is the product of an institutionalized system of value in which professors fixate on the excellence of their own pedagogical performance as the sole criterion of the success of their class. In the “performance model,” as she terms it, all that matters is that ((the teacher recognizes that) the students recognize that) the teacher was well-prepared, was smart, and was knowledgeable about the material. As Tompkins points out, such a pedagogy is ultimately deeply self-centered for the teacher, and teaches people to value their students’ and peers’ opinions of themselves above all else.

This actually strikes me as a case of a very typical inversion that occurs in systems of value and evaluation — where the objects of evaluation cease to be valued as such, and become mere means for the attainment of high prestige, value, etc. And the initially valued objects, whatever they were, are generally distorted by a process that values the prestige of a high evaluation rather than the content of what’s evaluated. This, by the way, is what the advocates of standardized educational tests like No Child Left Behind never seem to get: that in teaching the test rather than the material, the material becomes nothing but a instrument for getting good scores on the test, and is distorted in the process. The same might be said about various forms of scholarly research assessment, especially the more quantified ones.

Tompkins tells us that she eventually started teaching along more participatory lines, making each class taught by a group of students, trying to bring her expertise to the table without aspiring to produce a great pedagogical performance. Eventually, she taught a course on emotion. (I note in passing that reflexive topics like this, ones that are experientially accessible to the students, seem to lend themselves particularly well to reflexive pedagogy: pedagogical form and content can resonate together.) In describing the course, which was apparently tense and in some respects a nightmare, she also produces a memorable description of her pedagogical utopia:

You see, I wanted to be iconoclastic. I wanted to change the way it was legitimate to behave inside academic institutions. I wanted to make it OK to get shrill now and then, to wave your hands around, to cry in class, to do things in relation to the subject at hand other than just talking in an expository or an adversarial way about it. I wanted never to lose sight of the fleshly, desiring selves who were engaged in discussing hegemony or ideology or whatever it happened to be; I wanted to get the ideas that were “out there,” the knowledge that was piling up on shelves, into relation with the people who were producing and consuming it. I wanted to get “out there” and “in here” together. To forge a connection between whatever we were talking about in class and what went on in the lives of the individual members. This was a graduate course, and the main point for me was for the students, as a result of the course, was to feel some deeper connection between what they were working on professionally and who they were, the real concerns of their lives.

This may sound utopian. Or it may sound child-like. But I did and do believe that unless there is some such connection, the work is an empty labor which will end by killing the organism which engages in it.

So the idea is to institutionalize a more experimental, affectively rich pedagogical situation, one which leads (in C. Wright Mills-esque fashion, since he also advocated this sort of joining) to a “deeper connection” between the professional and the personal, and whose stakes of failure are death at the hands of “an empty labor.” As if only the personal could “fill up” one’s labor with meaning, and its absence left things empty.

2 thoughts on “Teaching is like sex

  1. I really enjoyed this blog post. This week I wrote a short (rather bad) poem (technology/Internet ‘penetrating’ Africa) about the sexual imagery embedded in the language of Internet technology-as-development-tool in Africa. After posting it, I have been plagued with a sense that I made a mistake bringing this sexuality to the heart of the matter. I’ve been browsing blogs by tech lovers who are creating and implementing tech projects in Africa, from cell phones to laptops to software. All these things just ‘penetrating’ Africa from every possible direction. And no one talks about this rather one-sided kind of electronic sex. 🙂

  2. eli, thank you for your comment and for stopping by my humble blog. i am rooting for our essay collection, just getting those new perspectives out and talking about the great grad students in anthro that we all know. personally, you are the best of those great grad students in anthro, and i thank you for the grad/anthro socialization project. it gave me a reason to write when all seemed lost. many thanks. ~V

Comments are closed.