The Myth of the Ineffective Teacher

Over at the thoughtful, medievalist blog In The Middle, Eileen Joy has posted a response to Scott Eric Kaufman’s Valve post about teaching (which begins with Seung-Hui Cho, but I’m not going to revisit that). She writes:

But, over the years, I’ve also developed a hunch that we only really help students who are already hard-wired to embrace and open up to what we and literature have to offer….You can never teach morality. You can only model it. And maybe live it, in imperfect fits and starts, and only with the recognition that morality is more related to affect than it is to principles or rules or even final actions.As to the relation of pedagogy to leading students to the better sorts of lives, I stopped agonizing about that a while ago. I don’t mean to say I don’t care about pedagogy [I care a lot], but that I don’t anymore torture myself worrying about whether or not I am leading my students to liberalism or humanism [or, humaness (sic)] or any other political or philosophical mode of being/thought, either through hectoring or a more subtle and laudably non-ideological method. Is there a way we can merely “be ourselves” [?], simply modelling to our students our desire[s] to read and think out loud and wonder and be moved? More and more, I worry less about students’ moral bearings [and lack thereof] and more about their emotional affect. I worry about their ability to be enchanted and to feel–”to feel” in the sense of allowing themselves to be swept away by art and literature into the lives of other persons. There is some kind of predisposition, I think, to being “open” to that possibility, without which ethics, of any sort, cannot be possible.

As this blog grows and develops, I hope to find many ways of investigating an odd dissymmetry: what people advocate for as their own intellectual and ethical projects is often acceptable or even admirable, while what they advocate against or seek to limit casts them in a less flattering light.

For example, I can only applaud Eileen’s efforts to model morality, which she does despite being aware of her own imperfections, and (I would think) admitting the possibility that even her most exemplary actions will be misunderstood. It is intuitive for any teacher of literature to teach the relationship between morality and feeling, since the two are inseparable in works of art. One tries to share with students the feeling of expansive (but still determinate) sympathy that literature can provide. In fact, this ethics of imaginative sympathy is the basis for much of Richard Rorty’s pragmatist writings on literature and ethics.

That said, there is a blatant contradiction between Eileen’s assertion that one can never teach morality, and her concern for her student’s emotional responses. Their emotional responses, in her world, are their ethical judgements and moral attitudes. When she says that morality is “more related” to affect than to principles or rules, she means that the content of effective, adaptive morality is emotional, and has to do with the ability to sympathetically imagine another person’s life. When she is modeling her desire to read, think out loud, wonder, and be moved, she is modeling morality in a classroom setting. In other words, she’s teaching morality (or ethics, by the end of the passage). She’s just not teaching it as a set of abstract rules.

Certainly, the passage remains skeptical about whether this sort of modeling is possible, but it flatly refuses to allow that any other sort might succeed. This is rather similar to Scott’s approach. He first rejects the efficacy of teaching out of hand, then gradually returns to the notion of efficacy, but only through inspiring in students a constructive, critical disillusionment with sentimental and rationalizing discourses (for example, the myths of noble “Injuns”). All of which is just to say that Scott comes across as a teacher who’s good at teaching literature as a tool for critical thinking, and Eileen comes across as a teacher who’s good at teaching the ethics of imaginative sympathy.

Eventually, I want to write a post about difference, examining where the postmodern ethic of difference really comes into play, and tying it back to statements like “You can never teach morality.” I can easily imagine the student, probably male, who likes to discuss moral principles, and who would be very annoyed to hear that morality just doesn’t work that way. The last sentence I quote raises the disturbing possibility that Eileen thinks some people are more ethically predisposed than others, and that this is “hard-wired” into them according to their capacity for openness. But for now, let’s focus on the fact that what Scott and Eileen are teaching are fundamentally skills. These skills are ethical, not “practical,” if we define practicality in a very superficial manner. But they aren’t that different from teaching students to write clearly and effectively. Sympathy and skepticism are habits of thought, just like looking for the formal and symbolic elements of a text, identifying pertinent research data, or organizing an essay in a coherent fashion.

Almost no teacher in the fields of literature or composition would be willing to say that students can’t learn to write; somehow, often over a very short period of time, we bring students a long ways towards being able to express themselves. In the process, we necessarily refer to all sorts of moral principles: for starters, we expect them to be objective, and we forbid them to plagiarize.

I’m not suggesting that a teacher of literature should be blithe about teaching morality and ethics; actually, teachers of literature should doubt their own abilities as writers, too. But to describe such pedagogy as impossible, just because both critical thinking and affective sympathy are radical positions in today’s society, is both an act of surrender and a phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. I call it cognitive dissonance, because we know how hard it is to teach students to write well, to teach them the elements of style, and we do it anyway.

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