Teaching What It Feels Like To Be Alive

… it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

That is how David Foster Wallace, in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, contrasted traditional literature with its coherent narrative and a satisfying sense of closure, to experimental or avant-garde literature which typically exhibits neither.  I’ve been thinking about that contrast since I posted the passage a few weeks ago.  Writing that is experienced as a relief from what it feels like to be alive and writing that reflects what it feels like to be alive — I’m wondering if that same distinction could also be usefully applied to teaching.  Can teaching, in the same way, reflect what it feels like to be alive, rather than be a relief from it?

Literature and teaching are both components of the ongoing, ramshackle project we call our education.   When I am most hopeful about what a teacher can do, I see it as not unlike what a very good book might also accomplish.  We might describe it as the opening up of new and multiple vistas into both the world and ourselves.  A good book offers a challenging engagement with reality, rather than the mere escapism that some literature proffers instead.  To borrow a line from Bridge to Terabithia, good teaching, likewise, pushes students to see beyond their own secret countries, to see and to feel what lies beyond and within.  Of course, on my less hopeful (read, more curmudgeonly) days, I feel that convincing students that a book can work in that way is itself the necessary task.

What, then, might it mean to teach so as to reflect what it feels like to be alive?

For one thing, it involves feeling; it is affective.  It reaches beyond the transfer of information to the mind, and seeks to move the heart as well.  This matters principally because while we go about the work and play of living we tend to lead with our hearts and not with our minds (for better and/or for worse).

But in order to move the heart, the heart must be susceptible to being moved.  The numbness that threatens always to settle on us as wave upon wave of stimulation washes over us gently massaging us into a state of mildly amused indifference to reality must be overcome.  This numbness itself might be self-protective, but, while self-knowledge has a distinguished place in the history of education, self-preservation seems a less noble aspiration.  Teaching that leads to feeling must find a way to break this through this self-protective numbness.  Of course, that numbness is itself part of what it feels like to be alive, but it is the part that must first be encountered, acknowledged, and transcended in order to feel all the rest.

Like the artist in Wallace’s view, the teacher has the license and the responsibility

to sit, clench their fists, and make themselves be excruciatingly aware of the stuff that we’re mostly aware of only on a certain level.  And that if the writer [or teacher] does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader [or student] of how smart the reader [or student] is.

The teacher, like the writer, must themselves be sensitive to what it feels like to be alive so as to teach to that feeling and help students understand it, understand themselves.  Perhaps it is precisely here that teaching has failed students, in the inability to enter into the student’s world so as to speak meaningfully into it.

The trick, of course, is also to do so without falling into the equivalent of what Wallace calls “shitty avant garde,” literature that tries too hard and ignores the reader in its effort to be profound. Trying too hard to achieve this effect without authenticity is fatal.  Likewise with teaching.  Watching Lean on Me or Dead Poet’s Society one too many times will likely do more harm than good.

Good writing and good teaching are both grounded in a deep respect for the reader and the student, not in an inordinate desire to be inspiring.  This is what finally stuck me most forcefully in Wallace’s comments.  His work, his estimation of what literature could do, flowed from a remarkable confidence in the reader.  Perhaps then this is also where good teaching must begin, with an equal respect for and confidence in the student.

4 thoughts on “Teaching What It Feels Like To Be Alive

  1. I agree that literature has to not merely distract or entertain, but to propel the reader into consideration of himself and his experience of the world in response to what is presented in an artwork of writing.
    But have you as a teacher of literature had an occasion to demonstate your strong response to a piece you were reading with a class, which may have caused you unbidden emotion and hence, embarrassment – sort of a psychic “my slip is showing” moment? Sometimes such an occurrence can happen and it is an opportunity for profound sharing with students of a very personal reaction to what is presented in that moment. Perhaps it is a form of modelling behavior, however it might be easily misconstrued as eccentric teacher behaviour, or even a form of craziness. Teaching is such a complex activity, one not for the faint of heart or tentative, but one with risks that are sometimes wise to take.

    1. This is exactly right. There are risks to be taken and a certain vulnerability to be chanced in teaching, not for the faint of hear at all. Perhaps it is an unwillingness to take the risks that leads to lackluster teaching at times, or perhaps it is a lack of passion that might lead to those moments in the first place.

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