|The following is a working draft of an article which the author has submitted for publication. It reflects her experience teaching in the English Department at Bryn Mawr College, and is made available on Serendip as a contribution to continuing discussion of the meaning and significance of engaging the unconscious in the classroom. Your reactions and comments are welcome.|
Bryn Mawr College
|I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry you've only to
leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are asleep--also
while you are at work at other things and are quite unaware that this
unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of
material now, and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble.
Bernard DeVoto, Mark Twain in Eruption (1940)
My teaching to the unconscious found its impetus in the texts I was teaching, but was well fed by two contemporary streams of thought, generally understood as diametrically opposed: current theological understanding about the rich resources of the spirit, and current neurobiological explanations of the plastic, bipartite nature of the brain. Enacting in the classroom these shared, but very differently articulated understandings meant an experiential crash course on the ways in which a pedagogy which intends both to invoke and revise the unconscious is both terrifying and productive. I learned a great deal about the capacities for revision--not just of myself and my students, but of the world we all occupy--so this account of what happened in my classroom includes reflections on the larger implications of that experiment.
At a place like Bryn Mawr, which prides itself on offering a rigorous education, students are often particularly hesitant to speak out in class, afraid that they will "get it wrong" and so be publicly corrected; they are particularly hesitant to raise questions that have agreed-upon, politically correct answers. To address such hesitations and disinclinations, I tried to make "Big Books of American Literature" into a game, a space of structured play where, if such deliberative self-censure happened less frequently, we might arrive at some unexpected places, worth examining. Doing so meant, however, that we were inviting into the classroom the expression of disturbing, "monstrous," non-p.c.-categories constructed by the unconscious. A willingness to play in and with the world of the unconscious meant that we all needed to be open to discover aspects of the self, and ways in which it is influenced by the world in which it operates, which many of us might have preferred not to examine in detail--much less revise. Such revision most assuredly takes longer than a semester. That the project was largely unfinished when the course concluded meant that it was full of both possibility and risk.
However, a clear series of themes did emerge when I reviewed our work at semester's end. Certainly primary was the productivity of the interchange of conscious and unconscious understanding, of explicit and tacit knowledge, which can be given expression when a group of more than thirty people are willing to "think out loud" together in the classroom and, in the process, to interrogate both the presumptions and consequences of what they think they know. A particular application of that interchange was our construction of the classroom itself as an exploratory "playground" (rather than a site, of, say, contestatory performance). A second application was the use (and enormous usefulness) of on-line forums as extensions of the classroom, as playful spaces "inbetween" conversation and formal writing which allowed the students not only to revise one another's thinking-while-in-process, but also to become aware of their own. Being able to see themselves think aloud on web-based forums prodded my students to acknowledge not only the multiple ways in which their selves and thoughts were labile, porous, socially inflected, and revisable, but the concomitant importance--after years of having it educated out of them--of claiming that self, of saying "I."
The structure of this essay attempts to mimic the interactive nature of my classroom. Each section begins with the speaking of a student or colleague, which I respond to either by theorizing about the usefulness of play or with commentary from the "Big Books" themselves--before offering another question which these reflections have generated. The essay moves from a testimony to the importance of, and reasons for, taking "I" seriously; to an exploration of how a invitation into the "playground" might facilitate that process; though observations about why such classroom "games" are both generative and disturbing-with particular attention to the "muck" and "monstrosity" which they are liable to dig up, as well on as the complicated social dimensions which both fuel our thinking and need negotiation. I end with a few further reflections on why the whole process can be so generative, both in the college classroom and beyond.
At semester's end, one of my students wrote an extended testimony to the value of claiming, finally, the language she thought she had left behind at home: a religious script she had once refused to enact. In beginning with Rachel Wright's essay, a demonstration not only of why she had come, in this course, to finally take the risk of saying "I," but also an exploration of what the pedagogical, cultural and theological consequences of doing so might be, I join with her in the experiment of using the language of religion to describe what it is we are doing in the academy.
I. Rachel Wright, Meditations on the Non-Existent "I" in Text
I came to college to escape the circumstances of my own birth. I came to learn to approach texts with what I thought was distance or maybe even independence, trying to bear myself out of my familial context, a state of constant confusion between text and life, and into the sterile, bright world of higher learning. I pretended that, once initiated into this new world, I was not dependent on that former life for all that I gleaned. I forgot that the apparatus that I use to process ideas, the oxygen of academia, stems as much from the first ideas that my parents planted inside my head as my physical lungs developed from one small mother/father cell, once planted and nurtured in my mama's body . . . .
I was born bearing a certain amount of --responsibility. Though neither of my parents were yet serving congregations, churning out the weekly texts that they called people to live by, they chose to frame my life, from the very beginning, within the context of "the greatest story ever told" . . . . The first text I could be associated with, the first writing on my life, heralded not only my birth, but my own place in the most central Christian story, as a being that "magnified" the joy of Christ's existence and a gift that renewed my parents' faith. However, it was not enough that I find my individual script within the larger production of this text, but I needed [following Walt Whitman] to "effect more vital connections" to make myself a part of the "living word."
My second birth, my baptism, might have been more important to my father than my first . . . . Daddy took a more active role in my rebirth, playing scriptwriter in my more official entry into the Christian narrative . . . . in my baptism, my initiation into the Christian community, my parents completed the contextualization that Daddy began with my birth announcement. Whereas that document only drew my life into the greater narrative of Jesus' life, this act brought me into the death and resurrection of all believers. Whitman rejected the notion of text as a performance, but this ritual works on those who participate the way I imagine he wanted his texts to work on his own readers. The performance marks a life within a text and calls for the kind of multiplicity of connection that Whitman strove for by calling believers, not only into an individual relationship with Christ, but into a community of believers. I was claimed, not just by God or by the scriptures, but by crowd of witnesses. The story, no literary trope but a text that literally grabbed me and pulled me beneath the water, imposed itself on me. Those people, my mother and father included, enacted the text and made me one with the story, their story.
The operative word here is "enacted." Holding me, the infant newly initiated, out for the crowd to inspect and claim for itself, Daddy played the role of father/savior . . . . when I think of him dangling me out and away from himself to welcome me into the "body" of Christ, the crowd of spectators, I cannot help but think of Walt Whitman's cry of the slaveholder in the 1856 edition of "I Sing the Body Electric." Behold, Daddy might have said, "A woman's body at auction!" (Whitman 176). Though I had no way of understanding this as an infant, I quickly learned that being the preacher's kid meant that the crowd of witnesses that seemed so ready to fold me into their own body and story would continue to hold me up and away from them, inspecting me and judging my performance as such. '"Would I be fit enough" for work in the field, I imagine they wondered and continue to today . . . . Perhaps this is why I continue to be drawn to Little Women long after I should have been uncomfortable with the sisters' stereotypical gender roles. I read their performance of womanhood, not as a model for what women ought to aspire to, but as a development of the kind of daughterhood that they practiced, the kind necessary for any preacher's daughter . . . . They are a part of the production of faith that includes the idea of a more encompassing family that characterize the lives of ministers and their children . . . . like my mother, [Marmee] reads the lives of her children and exerts her influence to revise them, make their performance a more perfect execution of the text itself . . . .
In the quest for college acceptance at the beginning of the new millennium . . . I wanted to get away. Like Jo, I wanted a place where the people I met would be completely "separate from the rest" (309) of those I knew and where I would "see and hear new things, get new ideas" (310). In shedding my family, I hoped to shed the need for the kind of performance that I was forced into in my own house. I reveled in the academic process . . . . I wrote everything on time and with, what I thought was a great sophistication, and because my personality, my "I" never appeared in any of the texts that I produced, I honestly believed that I had escaped the performance. My mother has a sermon about unconditional love in which she brings, as a prop, the old security blanket--a blue square of material with a tattered and smelly bunny's head sewn on it--that I carried everywhere through my early childhood and continued to sleep with long after it was publicly acceptable to admit it. The bunny had no fur, she told people with relish, because I tickled my nose with its face. In high school, this story and the giggles that it provoked from the congregation always set my cheeks ablaze. Though my mother meant well, incorporating a sweet and funny story into her sermon so that the congregation could identify this small thing with the much larger (and harder) idea of unconditional love. Mama did not understand that this was my story, a private story that should have been off-limits, but my professors did. They encouraged, if not ordered, my life beyond the margins of the text and I thrilled at the chance to obey them. No stinky bunnies or embarrassing stories cropped up unexpectedly in the work I produced. Just the facts, ma'am . . . .
But, like I said, I know I am smart, and eventually, I understood that in the classroom discussions and even more familiar lecture format (in which professors stand behind a podium and proclaim a message that I sit and receive, just like I would a sermon on Sunday morning), in my short exams and long term papers, I was performing just the way I always had. As Alcott so aptly writes about Jo's dissatisfaction with her own writing, "She was beginning to feel rather than see this, for much describing of other people's passions and feelings set her to studying and speculating about her own" (328). In working out my arguments through other people's ideas, I never asked how I was affected by the text, knowing that this self-centered reading had no place in academia, just as it had no place in church service. I approached my professors and my writing assignments the way I would a parishioner-good naturedly and with enthusiasm, but always with great anxiety and a need to please that overrode the genuine nature of the act. In my academic life, I was not only performing again, but I was performing the same role that I have been doing all my life and just calling it by another name. There was no radical rebellion in that. There was no rebirth to end the pain and anxiety of the process . . . .
I feel incredibly vulnerable in this experiment in which I attempted to communicate about both text and life, to commune with both halves of my life at once. However, I have learned something else too. Just as this class has taught me that the power dynamics of a classroom can be reversed, if students choose not to resist such a revision of power, I have learned about the powerful revision of text. . . .
A professor, whom I admire and respect and whom I want to admire and respect me, said in response to my paralyzed fear of rejection as I approached the project of writing this experiment: "You will never get it right, but if you accept that and continue anyway, then you can always revise your ideas, come back to them later if you want. If you don't write, you can't revise." I was struck by the way this echoes, in a loose paraphrase, the way I think about the notion of grace in relation to faith. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, rejected "works' righteousness," arguing that the grace of God is not given to human beings because of the things that they accomplish or the goodness of their character. He said, instead, that humans must accept that there is nothing that we can do to earn God's forgiving grace because we'll never be able to deserve such a gift through our own works, but that God gives it anyway and all we must do is then accept it. In so doing, we allow for the possibility of true transformation.
In my faith life and my academic life, I hear strains of the same things. My work will never be perfect. There will always be something desirable missing, but in accepting that, I accept God's loving power in my life and my own power over my work, each striving to create something new out of the fragments that exist, each hoping for a moment or two of transformation. That's grace. That's revision. For the first time in a long time, I feel that the two halves of my life are not so distant from one another. The private familial world of my faith constantly informs my work and the public world of my academic life works on my faith. In revision, I find grace within the academy, and in grace, I find a chance to re-envision the self, myself. Somehow, that's enough today.
II. Anne Dalke, Well, not quite enough....
C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures (1959)
I ended this semester with an enormous appreciation of both the danger and the productivity of engaging with students like Rachel Wright in an exploration and renovation of the unconscious. But in writing up this account of the usefulness of this sort of teaching, thinking and writing I find myself making a much larger claim: that in inviting my class into the self-reflective process of moving back and forth between unconscious and conscious understanding, I was making a substantial contribution to the long-overdue breakdown of the two cultures divide first identified by C.P. Snow over fifty years ago (cf.Dalke, Grobstein and McCormack 2003).
The distinction Snow drew between the sciences and the humanities hinged on a mutual incomprehension of aims and attitudes toward change: in his account, the humanists were cautious, anxious to preserve what was, the scientists optimistic about new possibilities. In accounting for what happened in "Big Books of American Literature," I have come to realize that the "two cultures divide" actually represents a much larger and long-standing division in human activity than the one Snow identified as particularly acute at mid-century: a tension between a desire for breath and scope-a desire to leave nothing out, to conserve all that is; and an opposite impulse: the need for focus and precision-a need to abstract meaning and form out of multiplicity and variety, to create something new. My "solution" to the division has been to insist on moving constantly back and forth between the two impulses: to urge my class to shift from the full, unstructured business of the unconscious into the more spare and structured work of the conscious mind. I asked them repeatedly to generate stories, to "squeeze" their experience into a shape which of necessity left out some aspect of what had occurred-and so generate yet another story, yet another "reduction" that would be "productive" of further storytelling. There are a range of different languages available to describe this process, and I have chosen to highlight two of them here: beginning with an intentionally evocative and allusive religious account, but moving now into the intentionally precise language of neuroscience. Negotiating the space between them is my attempt to cross the two-cultures divide.
I think of this process, which Rachel Wright so gracefully articulates as "grace," as a kind of agnostic, a-dogmatic, unending searching that is, Buddhist-like, uninvested in any particular outcomes, but nonetheless firmly located in the conviction that learning can fruitfully be extended, for life, by attending first and carefully to what we know experientially, then systematically interrogating what we think we understand (cf. Dalke and Grobstein 2003). Asking my students to take seriously what arises from the unconscious and-drawing here on Rachel Wright's explicitly religious language--having faith in its productivity and potential, precisely because one is able and willing to engage in the process of revising it, was the invitation I extended in "Big Books of American Literature." Rachel Wright's essay, and others upcoming, suggest that it was an invitation many of my students both enacted and embraced.
If it is accurate--and both the neurobiological and religious understandings in which the course was grounded claim that it is--that there is a significant degree of indeterminacy in the processes which generate the activity of the brain and soul, and that both are continually being modified by input from the sensible and spiritual world within which they are connected, sympathize and correspond (cf. Floyd-Wilson 2003: 23; Grobstein 2002; Grobstein 2001a), then each member of each of my classes has a distinctive individuality, an infinite capacity to build and revise models of self and world, and an internal organization that continually promotes not only creation but evaluation.
III. Paul Grobstein, Variability in Brain Function and Behavior
I learned a great deal about how this process from collaboration with a colleague in neurobiology. My preparation for teaching the upper-level class on "Big Books of American Literature" was a first-year interdisciplinary writing seminar I had co-designed earlier with Paul Grobstein, a member of the Bryn Mawr Biology Department. A central component of the earlier course was the presumption that brain function is variable, not entirely controllable, and yet can be (nonetheless and productively) monitored, edited and revised. Because this concept was foundational for the pedagogy which guided my interactions with my students in both these courses, I quote here Paul Grobstein's detailed explanation of the variability intrinsic to the nervous system and the implications of that variability for classroom activities such as problem solving, exploration, and creation:
More generally, substantially unpredictable variability must necessarily underlie all genuinely creative processes, since by definition they represent ways of dealing with phenomena for which the underlying rules are unknown . . . . [A] general implication is that intrinsic variability is . . . an essential ingredient of successful behavior. Scientists tend to focus on the "adaptiveness" of behavior, on the underlying organization which yields an "optimal" behavior in a given context . . . . [G]ame theory establishes . . . that . . ."optimal" is . . . variable behavior. Even more importantly, however . . . is that much of behavior is fundamentally exploratory. Even when the task is known . . . the underlying neuronal organization seems to be organized so as to explore various ways of achieving that task. To put the matter differently, "play" (and its associated behavioral variability) is not purely entertainment or a luxury to be given up when things get serious. It is itself a highly adaptive mechanism for dealing with . . . reality . . . . the adaptiveness of behavior itself derives from an evolutionary process in which variability and play are absolutely essential (and . . . no more successful mechanism for creating adapted systems is known) . . . . playfulness is . . . not only to be enjoyed but to be accorded high value for its fundamental role in the success of all organisms . . . . (Grobstein 1994)
I built my course on Big Books, as Paul Grobstein and I had built its predecessor, on this (play)ground, with an awareness, increasingly pronounced as the class evolved, that acknowledging a productive variability in brain function and behavior called for a very different kind of pedagogy than that generally practiced at Bryn Mawr: one that substituted, for the more conventional positioning of one's interpretations within a disciplinary structure, a deliberative, intentional search for the serendipidous. In practice, this meant not giving my students a map to the territory, but inviting them to explore with me what the grand old books of American literature might tell us: not just why they were written, where they came from, but whether we should keep on reading them--and what stories we were telling about ourselves if we did.
Aiming to de-calcify these major writers, I asked my students how they felt, what they saw when they read them--what these books did to them. I told the students that we would be conducting an archeology into the ideology that produced these books, but asking as well how they had shaped-and how well they jived with--our own interests and tastes today. I began conducting this experiment by asking, in this world of multiple texts, which few the students themselves wanted to read.
In doing so, I was clearly placing myself in a long tradition of pedagogical innovation, best articulated in this country by John Dewey, who observed that "the word 'interaction' . . . assigns equal rights to both factors in experience-objective and internal conditions. . . .The trouble with traditional education was . . . that it paid so little attention to the internal factors which also decide what kind of experience is had" (1938: 42).
Key to this course, then, were three practices: first, the students and I co-designed the class; they chose which texts they wanted to read, which films they wanted to watch, and I filled in with background and supplementary material. Secondly, although I gave a number of short lectures, almost all of the classes were student-directed: they selected both the topics they wanted to discuss and the formats they wanted to use for doing so. We also made very good use of an on-line forum as a site to continue and expand our classroom conversation. The forum became a brainstorming, ruminating, talking space where the students could post additional ideas as they came to them (cf. Grobstein 2001b ). A number of the students found this invitation to play enormously generative; Brooke Lowder was the most articulate in explaining why.
IV. Brooke Lowder, Play and Restraint
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I stopped playing, stopped creating and inventing on my own schedule. It all started with homework. Homework was the destroyer of my childhood imagination. Melodramatic, I know, but so are most childhood memories. After pre-kindergarten, I began attending school fulltime. School began at eight in the morning and ended at three o'clock in the afternoon. Upon arriving home, the homework began. Dinner promptly concluded or interrupted homework. After dinner, if the homework was not complete, I sat down to finish the work. Bedtime arrived shortly afterwards. Everyday was like this. Even if I finished my homework early, it was usually dark and I was unable to play. One shining light continued to shine: recess. As long as I had recess I could continue my play and exercise my imagination.
The older I grew, however, the more the time allotted for recess diminished. Recess became physical education. Such a scientific name for something that should be fun. The teachers were once again able to convert play into a set of rules associated with education. This entire diatribe now leads me to the point of this exercise. This class has given me the most wonderful opportunity. The opportunity to reclaim my lost playtime. The opportunity to create and imagine . . . .
I wanted to use a form poem to demonstrate the often encountered disparity between creativity and restrictions:
Freedom: A Villanelle Variation --
inspired by Huckleberry Finn
A small child runs with speed
through the scenes of life. Racing time,
he never stops to question that innate need.
That small child, grown tall from greed,
still has that faded glitter in his eye
of a small child. He runs with speed,
Failing to cultivate that tiny seed
that lies dormant in his mind.
He never stops. To question that innate need,
to remember the exhilaration felt when one can lead,
escapes with every audible, adult sigh
that masks a small child, still running with speed
through his mind, without heed.
Why can't that child and that seed die?
He never stops. The question, that innate need
burns strong in the back of his mind. A seed,
once planted, only needs time.
A small child runs with speed.
He never stops to question that innate need.
Brooke Lowder's essay testifies to the pleasures of being invited into play, and to the ways in which institutionalized instruction had operated systematically to shut down such engagements. And yet her poem, which builds on one of the strictest and most demanding of poetic forms, that of the villanelle, takes a step beyond the claims of her essay, in demonstrating how fundamental it is to have a certain structure within which to be playful. That was the function that the classroom served for her and her classmates in "Big Books of American Literature."
In doing so, we were enacting again the logic of John Dewey, who observed that the playing of a game
Donald Siegel's essay on "Play, Games, Sports and Athletics," which updates Dewey's ideas, also enabled me to see that I had located this educational experiment on "a continuum anchored" at one end by "play," at the other by "work," at a place where the structure and rules of "gaming" invited the students into productive exploration.
Like Paul Grobstein, Donald Siegel observes that the experimental quality of play, an "original and basic. . . fundamental phenomenon of existence," both enables individuals to experiment with finding ways out of situations in which they appear to be "stuck" and serves "society's need for innovation." Its psychological rewards are intrinsic in the doing, rather than in the "exchange value" of what is produced by playing; when players are totally absorbed in a game, they (not so) paradoxically both lose a sense of self-consciousness and feel "in control" of what they are doing: "a sense of ego is lost but concentration is vastly increased."
When Siegel's analysis moves from "play" to the artificially created situations he calls "games," the critical distinction is rules, which structure play, in part, by placing spatial and temporal constraints on the activity. Rules are conceived in such a way as to make the attainment of ends "deliberately inefficient," in order to create challenges for those playing the game. Following Siegel's analysis, I came to understand, and attempted to structure, my classroom not as a space of pure "play," but rather as a site where a very particular sort of game was enacted, one that, when successful, avoided the "attentuated play" of athletics (with its "overemphasis on winning" and "exaggerated emphasis on efficiency of technique"), but also instantiated a set of rules intended to provoke the particularly inefficient, and insistently unending, communal "game" of thinking.
Having framed the trajectory of course in these terms, I was delighted to discover, en route, that the authors of many of the "Big Books" we read together as a class also valued precisely the sort of "child's play" described so extensively by Siegel. This was the way, for instance, Mark Twain understood his own writing process; it was also the way Huck Finn negotiated the world. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn highlights the activities of play, of making up games, and of playacting. The novel opens and concludes with the elaborate gaming of Tom Sawyer. Huck, who ends his journey by being "born again" as Tom Sawyer, uses his friend's playfulness as guide, model and standard throughout his adventures, most insistently at their (narrative) conclusion, when Tom stage-manages Jim's escape, by making it unnecessarily difficult, and so-as with his gang's attack on the Sunday School in the novel's opening scenes-gives himself and his companions thereby the satisfaction of surmounting artificial restraints.
But Huck also has his own motivations for playing. When the novel opens, he is bored, impatient with being in a rut. Finding life with the Widow Douglas "dismal regular and decent" (1885: 7), he says, "all I wanted was a change, I warn't particular" (8): "next morning I said it was getting slow and dull, and I wanted to get a stirring up, some way" (47). Huck's method of getting "stirred up" is to trust to the leadings of his unconscious: "I went right along, not fixing up any particular plan, but just trusting to Providence to put the right words in my mouth when the time come . . . for I'd noticed that Providence always did put the right words in my mouth, if I left it alone" (173).
In his own writing process, Twain similarly followed no "particular plan," was similarly open to spontaneous performance. Of course his art is very finely tuned (as in the challenge of timing the pause just right in a spoken joke or story), but according to Forrest Robinson, "it was the very lack of evident design in the mind's unmediated overflow that pleased him most." Twain delighted in "the methodless method of the human mind" (what he also referred to as its "abiding errancy" or "errant spontaneity"), and was convinced that literary inspiration is "independent, unpredictable, and largely unconscious in its operations" (1995: 363-365). He had a profound sense of not being in control of the productions of his unconscious: "man's proudest possession-his mind-is a mere machine; an automatic machine; a machine which is so wholly independent of him that it will not even take a suggestion from him, let alone a command, unless it suits its humour." Twain insisted accordingly that his role was that of "an amanuensis, a medium, even a mechanism, for the transmission of messages over which he had no conscious control" (Robinson 1995: 367-368).
I used Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, among other texts, to invite my class into, and challenge them to, the evocation of the unconscious that an engagement in play and humor provokes, as modeled both by Huck and his creator. But as Robinson also observes, one consequence of Twain's reliance on the unconscious is the prominence of "darkness and irrationality" in his fiction: "the irrational everywhere competes with common sense," as his novels penetrate "into the complex social dynamics, conscious and unconscious, racial and sexual, of village life" (1995: 378).
A paper written by another of my students at semester's end argues that only by deliberatively engaging in such exploration and the missteps inevitably attendant on it will we arrive, obliquely and serendipidously, at a range of important questions which directed conversation will not uncover, at the unexamined assumptions which underlie them--and perhaps even at means for revising them. Emily Elstad articulates both the psychological foundation for and possible social consequences of the sort of pedagogy she, her classmates and I spent the semester trying out in our classroom.
V. Emily Elstad, Slipping into Something [Less] Comfortable....
--John Street [Mayor of Philadelphia, addressing the NAACP, Spring 2002]
"You're speaking your mind and sometimes you slip. We all slip."
--Lucien Blackwell, in response to Street's comment
....When I was eight years old, my father read Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud to me. I remember the night he began reading; I sat next to him patiently and waited as he held the book solemnly before him and looked me squarely in the eyes. "I am about to read you a book," he told me gravely, "that has a word in it that I don't ever want to hear come out of your mouth as long as I live."
I never forgot these words, though I cannot remember whether my father actually read the "n-word" to me all 215 times it appears in the story. In a recent phone conversation my father said that he thinks he replaced "nigger" with another word like "slave" or "black person". . . . In 'giving' this inflammatory word to me, my father's fear was not that a poison innate within "nigger" would seep into my growing character, but that I might say the word "nigger" without grasping the volume and gravity of its meaning, resulting in a misunderstanding. I never disappointed my father by using the word "nigger," but this did not keep me from "slipping," that is, from making mistakes or saying '"the wrong thing" . . . accessing subconscious, childlike truths that lie beneath the "politically correct," which obscures and prevents meaning from arising . . . .
Some time after my father read Huckleberry Finn to me, my third-grade class was planning the performance of a lip-synch to the oldie "The Leader of the Pack," a song that tells the story of a girl in love with a motorcycle-riding bad-boy named "Jimmy." The crooning lover's father does not approve of Jimmy, and one day he tells his daughter to "tell [her] Jimmy [they're] through." I was (gleefully) cast as the lead-singer, and redheaded Benjamin was to play Jimmy. As we sat on the classroom floor and planned how Benjamin would ride off the stage on his cardboard motorbike to the sound of a revving motor, screeching wheels and the protests and wails of me and my back-up singers, an idea occurred to me. I raised my hand and was called on by our teacher, Mr. W.
"Maybe Paul should be Jimmy," I suggested. ""He's black, and some people don't like black people." The words, which seemed perfectly logical to me at the time, hung heavily in the air as both Paul's and Mr. W's faces dropped. Mr. W, who had always looked at me approvingly now looked stern and even angry. "Emily, if anyone thinks that way they are wrong."
Mr. W's words remain with me today just as my father's do, and I have spent a good part of my life reflecting on these words and my own. Was I a horrible, racist person for saying those words? Part of me wishes I could go back in time and snatch my words out of the air and swallow them before their sound reached anyone's ears. Only recently have I started to forgive my childish self for "slipping." The lesson I learned from "slipping" has stayed with me all my life, and I believe that it was at this moment that I learned the immense gravity and power of words. Thinking back on the situation, I believe that what I said was not an expression of my opinion but was rather a simple and unadulterated observation about my world. I wish that Mr. W. had taken that opportunity to deal with the issue of race in our classroom after I made that comment . . . . Doing so might have increased our understanding of each other and addressed the ways in which our society needs to be different, and it might have decreased both Paul's and my sense that we had done something wrong.
How does this anecdote speak to a discourse of "nigger"? I maintain that political correctness, or our fear of "mis"understandings, anticipates offenses that can never be predicted, and that if we do not allow ourselves to "slip," we cannot learn the truth about what we think or the truth about how others feel about what we think. "Slip" can mean "to slide or glide, esp. on a smooth or slippery surface; to lose one's foothold" or "to break or escape"--a person, the tongue, lips." These definitions imply that we bring to verbal "slippage" is involuntary, which suggests that in "slipping" somehow we access our unconscious, or what we "really mean." Other definitions of "slip" include "to fall away from a standard; to lose one's command of things," and "to pass out of, escape from, the mind or memory." These notions of "slip" posit a new state emerging from the act of slipping, a temporary loss of control that yields both a personal, subjective truth and a changed state that has moved away from "a standard" and into new thought and order. Instead of chastising people for "slipping," for describing the way in which they honestly think about the world, perhaps we should consider the meaning behind words spoken in moments of "slipping" and really think about how they speak to our world. Thinking metaphorically, sometimes only by slipping and falling to the floor do we notice that there is something down there that needs to be cleaned up.
The pedagogy that Emily Elstad describes retrospectively was grounded theoretically in the work of Paul Grobstein and Donald Siegel on play. Its more immediate experiential impetus was a weekend retreat sponsored by the Posse Foundation, in which I participated, and at which Bryn Mawr faculty, staff and students played together a sequence of games which allowed us to explore a number of troubling issues of diversity on to a degree that reasoned discussion might never have reached. Inspired by that experience, which took place at the beginning of the semester, I repeatedly introduced such games into our classroom, and encouraged my students to do the same. This disciplined sort of gaming invited us, for instance, to enact our initial reactions to a range of queries by assuming bodily positions, rather than articulating our thoughts in language. For example, we played "The Big Wind Blows" (calling out a particular identity category--those who have a religious life, for instance--and asking everyone to whom it applied to change seats); "Barometer" (in which students located themselves on a spectrum from "strongly agreeing" to "disagreeing," with a particular intellectual position--for instance, with James Baldwin's critique of Uncle Tom's Cabin); "Telephone" (in which a key concept from a text is "passed along" from student to student, so that we could all hear, when the message came out at the "other end," just what aspects of the novel they may have been attending to). I also asked small groups of students to enact scenes from the novels, which they could re-present in any mode they chose, scripting a materialization that would demonstrate what they could do with the book, how they might make it useful to themselves.
I was trying, in each of these games, to engage my students with the texts not through the kind of "professionalized reading" that is so often taught in college literature courses, but rather at the place that theorizing, rationalizing and analyzing often ignores (or, at the very least, so often short circuits): what moves us, what fuels our need to understand how these books affect us. In inviting such performances, I was guided by contemporary theory about gaming, by my own rich experiences of it, and by the "Big Books" themselves.
I began our discussion of Uncle Tom's Cabin, for instance, by asking the students to tell a partner how the novel made them feel. The next question (I often staged the class as a sequence of increasingly-large group discussions, each fed by a new question), was how the students thought about their feelings: Did they, for instance, feel manipulated by Stowe? Could they tell what she was doing? Did they resist that movement? Was there any internal dialogue? Was there any external revision of that conversation, based on hearing about others' experience? Walking through this series of questions, the students often encountered, like Miss Ophelia in Uncle Tom's Cabin, a sharp disjunction between what they "knew" they "should think" and what they actually "felt."
By posing such games and asking such a series of follow-up questions, I was attempting to facilitate a reciprocal, unpredictable interplay between (the itself unpredictable) tacit understanding of the unconscious and the more explicit conscious articulation to which academic study generally confines itself. That process began with intuitions and experiences generated in the unconscious of each of us, as we engaged ourselves with the texts in the course; it involved the self-conscious act of reflecting on and interrogating those experiences in a range of forums, both in-class and on-line; and it led finally to the experience of productively feeding back what we had learned and articulated into a revision of our initial understandings-which generated, in turn, a new round of reflections. This "feedback loop" was renewed in many encounters, in in-and-out of class conversations, in on-line postings during the semester, and in more formal papers. It was a process which certainly did not end when the course did (cf. Dalke and Grobstein 2003).
As the students and I came to realize the degree to which both our unconscious understandings and our conscious ones were heavily inflected, and continually altered, by the world in which we found ourselves, we recognized that we were actually traversing three "loops": we perceived and experienced the texts; engaged in the self-reflective process of moving back and forth between our own unconscious and conscious understandings; and we also moved between our individually variable understandings and those of others in the class.
Enacting scenes from the novel in the classroom meant, for instance, that we enacted precisely such negotiations for ourselves and one another-often an uncomfortable thing to expose and acknowledge. For instance, when one group of students performed a scene from Aunt Chloe's kitchen, in which they evoked their own fond memories of times spent with their grandmothers, the class found itself examining the racial dynamics of plantation "comfort" which had been so insistently--if not surprisingly--elided in the staged presentation.
The classroom is of course not unique as a site for the exploration and renovation of the unconscious. It is distinguished, however, by its insistently social quality: our exploration involved the input of more than thirty participants. As one of them demonstrated, many of the difficulties of our shared study had to do with our fears of (if not more simply our disinterest in) taking seriously, not to mention accommodating, the productions of the unconscious not only of ourselves, but of others with whom we were traveling.
VI. Caroline Boyd, Polyphony
Why were we now, in a sense, fleeing from this important work? Had the study of polyphony become boring? Had it become so imbedded in the analytical and discursive traditions of our classroom that it was now the interpretative standard--a norm, a cliche, an authority, to be escaped? Had our search for suppressed voices and hidden transcripts in these big old books (an effort so informed by the political desires of our own time) proved as pinching and constraining as Huck Finn's school shoes?
In retrospect I'm not sure we were really attempting to escape the voices of the books, and the cultural and political work involved in trying to listen to them, as much as we were fleeing the voices of each other. After all, our self-identified "rut" as a class has seemed to reflect more our disappointment with our own ability to foster open and edifying discussion, to challenge and enjoy each other, than any disillusionment about the books themselves or our general interpretive approach to them. Rather, the former has been the real challenge, the real discomfort: the polyphony of the classroom. Weeks ago, while preparing for our presentation on Moby-Dick, [I heard that] . . . a group of disgruntled students . . . had come to you concerned about the excessive and perhaps intellectually unpolished participation of freshmen in class discussions. By the time the story got to me . . . it was third-hand and probably unreliable. Yet I was immediately, unstoppably furious. I was angry that the "upperclassmen" with those views . . . had chosen to seek your intervention rather than facing the class with the issue; disappointed that distinctions about college class had been introduced to judge students and the validity of their contributions; frustrated that in a class so preoccupied with the limitations and potential violence of social categories that age and educational experience would be put to this use . . . wary of breaking other students' confidentiality, I kept the story to myself. It's been upsetting me ever since. For that reason, I think, I was so troubled by the discussion of the "ten people who talk" a few weeks ago, partly out of my own self-consciousness about talking too much, mostly because I saw in the description an intention to silence fellow students.
Why, when we were spending so much time trying to let fictional characters speak "for themselves," to coax them through the fissures of authorial intent and historical context, were we distrusting our own polyphony? And if the unsaid is indeed as important, as evocative, as the syllabus directly stated--an assertion we have made many times while analyzing big books--why have less vocal students been accused of not speaking enough in class? Of course I am making accusations of my own now, participating, I suppose, in what [my classmate Miriam Jones] calls "the damn witch hunt that is figuring out pedagogy." Indeed, part of the polyphony I long to celebrate in our class derives from the very expressions of dissatisfaction that trouble me. My challenge exists in admitting the value of voices that sound disruptive or disrespectful to me. Miriam writes, "As we sit in our American Lit class we are in a big American story." We are grappling, in a small way, with the problems of inclusion that have always churned beneath our alleged national project, the conflicts produced when the "multiplicity of voices" dislodges and destabilizes as much as it unifies and elevates.
For me one of the most evocative scenes in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes place at the beginning, just after Huck's escape from Pap's pernicious fathering. From Jackson Island he hears
Even though we know Huck is safely alive (freed, in fact, by his faked death) the scene powerfully suggests the darker, double nature of the river. It is both idyllic and violent, distingushed by both its natural beauty and its role as political and social frontier: an unstable zone of human conflict. Who knows what will float to the surface of the Mississippi? What hides beneath its depths? Here I briefly flash to countless comic scenes in movies and television in which a fisherman reels in an old tire or a tin can rather than a wriggling fish. The joke lies in the humor of the unanticipated find- the object out of its own place, the current surroundings redefined by the bewildering presence of the dislocated object. Yet what interests me about this scene in Huck Finn are not so much the possible contents of the river but rather the collective effort on the part of the ferry-riders to uncover them, and it. I identify with their insistence--however comically fruitless--on sounding the murkiness of the river, on disrupting its smooth, deflecting surface and reclaiming from it what is theirs.
Perhaps the image resonates with me because it reminds me of the work we are doing in this class. Together we are taking a cannon to the canon. The pun is groan-inducing but, I think, ultimately useful. I see us as "ferry-boat full of people," jumbled together, sometimes uncomforted by the forced intimacy of our shared space. (Even from the beginning, Miriam Jones asks, "were we ever 'getting along'?"). Yet we have collectively dedicated ourselves to prodding past the surface of the books that composed our childhood reading and high school curricula. We came to the class prepared to interrogate the "cultural work" performed by these texts and in response to our findings, a number of things have floated to the top and come into view. The omissions of our previous readings, spurred by youthful oversight or official censorship. Or, the revealed foreknowledge of new texts, the strange familiarity of previously unfamiliar characters, like Topsy and Uncle Tom, written on us before us before we read them. The simultaneous experience of humor and violence, disgust and enjoyment produced by a single word, phrase, or scene. The unevenness of our own critical response; as [my classmates Brooke Lowder and Laurel Hankins] have both pointed out, the particular distrust of a largely white, largely female class toward the author that most resembles us. Our tendency to see the most intentionally fictional work as necessarily the most authentic, the most deliberately political as the most contrived, even as we perform our own political work with these texts.
Generally, I think we have succeeded in identifying the complexity of what has come to the surface, both dislodged from within the texts and contained in our sometimes contradictory responses to them. This literary and personal work has proven to be less difficult than the task of making the journey together. I don't think we respect and value each other's voices as much as might be possible. We haven't yet created a space in which all voices are likely to be heard, or acknowledged as existent despite their momentary silence. Though I understand some students' frustration with our focus on pedagogy, which does take time from the "real issues" of literary analysis, I feel a far greater intellectual and emotional commitment to this second challenge of making our classroom a functional polyphonic space. To some degree, it already is. Susan Bordo writes, "It is impossible to be 'politically correct' . . . all ideas . . . are condemned to be haunted by a voice from the margins . . . awakening us to what has been excluded, effaced, damaged" (1990: 138, 154). Indeed, our discomfort and "touchiness" about the failures of our classroom reflects the multiplicity of dissenting, questioning, unsatisfied voices already present. The musical definition of "polyphony," the harmonious blending of sounds imagined by single composer, neglects the inevitable cacophonies and silences produced by the sonic blending produced by multiple contributors, multiple minds, lives, and voices. Our polyphony will remain unpredictable, disconcerting, even unpleasant at times--it should be, even as we work to make it richer, fuller, and louder. Our polyphony will probably continue to produce escape fantasies. I'm sticking around, though, to hear what comes next. I'm still challenged by the sound of my own voice coming back to me as it complements and clashes with others'. I'm still enthralled by the possibilities of this greater sound.
The "Big Book" which most marvelously demonstrated "the possibilities of this greater sound" was Moby-Dick, which begins with what the students could easily identify as nineteenth-century versions of a "Google" search-the Etymology and Extracts. By questioning the validity of a single definition of a single word, Melville plays unrelentingly with the human propensity to organize and categorize the multiplicity of the world. As generations of literary critics have observed, Melville's attempts at precise definition and classification, his simultaneous running joke at the difficulty-the impossibility--of arriving at them accurately, his testimony to the inadequacy of books to describe life's most profound experiences, his whole long "anatomy" of "multiple choices" calls any comfortable or final resolution into question. More specifically, in his delight in hetereogenity, in mixing up discordant kinds of writing, Melville refuses to acknowledge any literary protocol, any traditional restraints on what might be said in print. His acts of playfulness invited us, in turn, not to places limits on what we might say in the classroom, in the forums, and in the final papers.
What Caroline Boyd's essay makes clear, however, is not only the communal nature of the process of playfully exploring the unconscious in the classroom, but also its profoundly destabilizing quality. "Uncomforted by the forced intimacy" of the class meetings, surrounded by a "multiplicity of dissenting voices," by the "unpredictable, disconcerting" "sonic blending produced by multiple contributors," not all students were enthralled. At least in part they were resisting the acknowledgement that their individual experience was in great part influenced by the educational, social and cultural practices in which they participated. The students were invited to see and experience themselves as porous, radically labile creatures, lacking a certain fixedness, and radically prone to alteration (cf. Floyd-Wilson, passim 2003). The experience of "inwardness" to which this class invited them was constantly open to change by its culture, insistently under renovation because of interactions with its environment.
This insistently social process of self-alteration was most insistently and publically performed on Blackboard, the on-line forum area we used for the class. Kris Rice described there her emerging realization that she had been thinking all along; the class forum area materialized and archived an interior process that she had been engaged in for many years: the intellectual work we all are always doing--in conversations with others, as well as within ourselves, conversations which might otherwise be ephemeral, and for which otherwise there would be no record:
Using Blackboard (for all the pain of being required to do so) had given Kris Rice an acute demonstration of her own process of thinking: the way in which she had been "talking to herself." She testified in this posting to her increased awareness that she had been doing this sort of work all along, to her increased awareness of her innate ability to do it--as well as to possibility of cultivating it further.
I was particularly delighted with the Blackboard portion of this course, because it functioned as a rich extension of what was said and done in the books we read, in the films we viewed, and in the conversations we had together in the classroom. Making classroom forums publically accessible on the web encourages us to acknowledge the on-going process of self-reconstruction; it can also invite others to enjoy and learn from the process and productivity of this sort of ongoing and ever-revisable conversation. Blackboard became an open and constantly edited record both of the conversations we were having with one another and those we were conducting with ourselves, within our own heads; it gave many of us a profound sense-and a record--of ourselves as thinking, re-thinking, ever-revisable beings.
Bringing together thirty-some such explorers, thirty-some such nervous souls, inviting Rachel Wright, Brooke Lowder, Caroline Boyd, Emily Elstad, Kris Rice and their classmates into a conversation that attends to the different styles and different perspectives of each on our common story, we found ourselves capable not only of elaborating on, but enriching and revising the whole.
Now, that's grace.
In gratitude to the students, named above, in whose work this essay is grounded, and to the Bryn Mawr colleagues who were engaged by, listened to and help me revise earlier versions of this account: Kim Cassidy, Jody Cohen, Alison Cook-Sather, Paul Grobstein and Katherine Rowe.
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