I got hit in another game of blog tag earlier, as I mentioned. I now hereby do my part as “it” in the game of blog tag, except that I don’t know if I know anyone who teaches literature who hasn’t already been tagged. Aw fuck it. I tag Mike, Negatron, and Tzuchien.

So anyway, why do I teach literature?

I don’t.

I did once teach a literature class. I taught at a private two year college in Chicago which grants associate’s degrees. Most students there are bilingual and are returning to college after being out for a while and most work a lot, often full time, while taking classes. I taught Latin American fiction. I taught that because I was asked to. I was taking Spanish language classes because Spanish was useful for the social justice work I was doing and wanted to do. I became friends with my teacher. He called me one day and said “do you want to teach a Latin American fiction class?” I objected, “I have a degree in philosophy.” He said, “oh you have your degree, that’s even better.” He was trying to do a favor for a friend of his who worked there who was trying to get him a job as well. For some reason he couldn’t take the job, I think because his English wasn’t up to it. I got paid $120 or $90 per class session, I can’t remember. The sessions were three hours one day per week. I was working two other jobs at the time. I taught out of the Vintage Book of Latin American Fiction, which I had never read before. I read the stories the week before the class did. I know nothing about how to read literature. With my other commitments and the job, I decided I would do about 3 hours of work per week for the class outside of class. I made the students write a response paper for every class, I can’t remember how long. They learned from that simply by virtue of writing more and getting very basic feedback. The only asset I brought to class was my enthusiasm and/or sincerity. The high point of class was when a student came in with a collection of Borges stories. I made the students go to some book related public event and write a report on it. This student went to one at a big chain bookstore and saw the Borges collection. We had read a Borges story in class. He said at first he didn’t like it, he didn’t understand it and thought it was stupid. Then we discussed it and it made more sense and seemed more interesting, so he re-read it and liked it. So he bought the collection and started reading it. After the class ended he told me I was the best teacher he had ever had and that he really was glad he took that class. That is primarily a testament to the poor quality teachers he had had before, though I didn’t say that.

I don’t teach literature but I do teach. I currently teach in a cultural studies program as part of my PhD deal. I teach because I am required to. I teach cultural studies because I am in this department. I am in this department because I got accepted here; when I was looking to go back to school I wrote to programs and cultural studies/comp list programs were the most encouraging. At the time I wanted to work on Negri and Virno and other post-operaismo stuff that I have since come to disagree with on a lot. I wanted to go back to school because my previous economic life course had reached a dead end and I didn’t know what else to do with myself.

I want to end up a teacher, preferably at the college level. If not that, then high school. This is in part because I need a job and I can do that one. It pays okay (sometimes great, sometimes poorly, depends on circumstances, which is kind of scary). I think I’m reasonably good at it.

In my class I teach a lot of Marx, at least for first year students. It’s all from Capital v1. It’s enough Marx that I’ve had to do a bit of finagling with my superiors. I teach Marx because I like to read Marx. I also teach Marx because I like the types of conversations that come up with students as a result. I also teach Marx, and in all honest this is most of it, because I really like to teach hard material and this the hardest material that I’m most qualified to teach. I like to teach hard material because I love ideas and intellectual pursuits and particularly when they’re not in a solitary fashion. I particularly like being part of someone else’s intellectual life. My students in the fall started out mystified by the beginning of volume one. Then later they were totally getting it, using the material to argue, and arguing with the material. I posted a bit about this before, here and here.

I don’t see a political content in my teaching. That is, I don’t see my teaching as something which changes the world in a political sense. It can in an ethical sense, but that’s compatible with the world as it is, in a sense, and is not radical. That’s not to say it’s not worth doing, far from it. I got into a bit of a discussion about all this a while back with Rob here. I do see positive things about teaching. Like I said, I like being part of people’s intellectual lives. I particularly like helping people become better writers, and being part of people becoming intellectually excited. As I said above about the one time I taught a literature class, my chief virtue is enthusiasm, and sincerity. I really like being part of others’ develop intellectual enthusiasm.

I’m going to be transferring from the cultural studies program to history. This is not because of what I want to end up teaching but because of the other parts of the academic work. I want to do work as a historian, not a theorist. Professionally, I mean. I still have a love for philosophy, but I’m not in a philosophy program (though I sometimes wish I was); I’m in a cultstudies/complit program which is very heavily theoretical but that’s different, and I don’t want to do that sort of work (with only a few exceptions, like Marx). I’m very intimidated about teaching history because there’s so much more that I don’t know, and because history deals with facts more than cultstudies (of the sort I’m up on) does. And the facts in history are not facts about theorists and arcane matters, but about people’s lives, and important events in their lives, which I think deserves a level of dignity and respect more than theorists’ lives does – like, one should not get people’s lives wrong. Getting theory wrong is more forgivable in my opinion. While nervous, I’m excited about teaching history. In addition to the being-part-of-someone’s-intellectual-life stuff, I like the idea of being part of people learning about the past and perhaps some coming to be excited about learning about the past or researching the past. And I like the idea of helping students see that the world as it is today came from somewhere rather than being eternal. I like being part of people developing that sense of “things could be different than they are, they were once, and maybe are in some places now.”

I also like teaching because I like the interaction with students. I’ve taught mostly classes of 25 or so. That’s a lot of people for a discussion, but it’s manageable. I like the interaction with students as a group and individually. It’s a bit of a performance – cracking jokes and so on – and a lot like running a meeting: manipulating people’s participation, pushing people, trying to get people to certain points in a way that feels as much as possible to them like they got there on their own – they figured it out rather than I told it to them – and trying to build ties to people and between people. I’m pretty good at that stuff, having done a lot of it in other contexts. (I’m also old enough [and look it] and I’m a guy of decent size, so I think I have a pretty easy time being taken seriously.) I like that stuff about teaching, regardless of the subject matter. I liked that about teaching college placement test test-preparation classes a few years ago. I also like working with young people and building relationships with them.

And I like that I learn things from teaching, both from having to sort out how I want to present material to my students, and directly from my students. Aside from the teaching I get paid to do, I help train organizers on a volunteer basis, and have done so before a bit on a paid basis. I like that for most of the reasons above, and because I think it’s worthwhile and can help make a real impact on the world.

That’s why I teach. I don’t teach literature.

When I did teach literature I told my students that I thought literature was valuable as a way to get a sense of how others experience things, a way to try on a different set of eyes in a way. I read very little literature myself (except song lyrics, which I read and even more so listen to a lot), and my approach to literature is entirely gustatory. I like literary books to taste good and I don’t like to have to work to chew them or digest them. One thing that I think I might like if I were teaching literature or any other art form would be that I like the idea of introducing people to beautiful things. I remember being introduced to beautiful (and challenging) photography in my photo classes in college; I would like to be part of that. I would also like to teach people photography if I had infinite time and money and could get back into photo – it’s the same with writing, I like teaching people something they can go on to use to do things with in a tangible way, like writing papers.

Advertisements