The bad teacher

3PictureHelenKellerCenturyCoverA teacher must be selfish. While her classroom must be something other than her private laboratory, it must also be her private laboratory. In fact, her classroom cannot be something other than her private laboratory – something dynamic and good other than her private laboratory, I mean – unless it is also her private laboratory.

She must be selfish not because she will be more dynamic for it. I’m done with dynamic teachers: learning is dynamic enough. She must be selfish because she must be awake.

This past summer I learned more about why I teach metaphor the way I do. I do not say that I learned how to teach metaphor better. Being awake with my students over past few years taught me that. The three graduate composition courses I took this summer were flexible enough for me to walk my own intellectual paths, and one of my paths was metaphor.

Here’s what I learned, teaching. I want my students to write with metaphors, particularly implied metaphors. Stealing from Natalie Goldberg’s book Writing Down the Bones, I ask my students to list ten nouns in one column and ten cooking verbs in another. They combine them. “Dinosaurs marinate in the earth” is one of Goldberg’s combinations (87 – 88).

I want to show my students why metaphors work, so I break down how I think we experience them. Take Paul’s aphoristic implied metaphor “the letter kills.” First we’re in shock: letters can’t kill. Then we see that the writer speaks metaphorically. We’re relieved and open to him again, and we make the connection between sign and signified. The final stage of experiencing metaphor is meditative and results in our greater understanding of the metaphor’s subject – in this case, the written word.

I illustrate my three stages of metaphor with a viewing of “Metaphor,” a British ad for Tango, the European soft drink. An office manager watches as his Tango-sipping employee gets hosed by a fireman, cooled by a palm-wielding Polynesian, and dumped with ice by an Eskimo. She explains to the manager that the fireman, Polynesian, and Eskimo are “not really here. They’re just a metaphor.” She takes another sip, and the three repeat their actions, just as we’d reread a metaphor at this stage. By the end of the ad, the manager and the viewer have, presumably, a greater appreciation for Tango’s capacity for refreshment by having gone through the three stages of experiencing metaphor.

I learned this summer that, as Ann Berthoff puts it, “meanings are not elements but relationships” (Berthoff, Sense 36). She means that metaphors, analogies, allegories – something and something else, however they relate – are how we learn anything (Berthoff, Mysterious 129 – 131). The novelist and theorist Walker Percy equates metaphor with naming and therefore with the onset of language in general. He discovers “the delta factor” – the way we humans learn – from Helen Keller’s transformational moment at the pump house, the moment when she associates the water flowing over her hand with the word “water” that Anne Sullivan spells onto her other hand. Keller is seven, and her more-self-conscious age allows her the metacognition most two-year-olds can’t muster, though they learn speech the same way. Percy goes so far as to claim that Keller discovers what separated us from the beasts long ago: “the spark jumped, language was born, the brain flowered with words, and man became man” (Percy 42). Keller discovers how we make meaning, and how we became human.

Bertoff and Percy help me see how I often make meaning. I feel my way toward it in the classroom. Then I read and write to understand what I start to teach.

They also help me see what I’ve been up to these last few years. In teaching metaphor, I’ve been unconsciously extending to education what I had been learning in other fields. Over the past decade I had learned to put the reader at the center of Constitutional, biblical, and literary interpretation. Without the reader and the experience and spirit that animate him, we misconstrue text. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. We make meaning; we don’t receive it predigested from our teachers. The reader is the fulcrum of meaning-making, as Louise Rosenblatt posits in her transactional theory, and not an afterthought, as in New Criticism and structuralism. In the classroom, I had felt my way to how metaphor models this understanding. This summer, I merely fleshed it out.

The classroom had been my lab, then, and the papers I wrote this summer were my belated lab reports.

You can see Berthoff working the same way I prefer to – classroom as personal lab – but in the other direction. She theorizes first. Then, steeped in Charles Pierce’s triadic semiotics and I. A. Richards’s triadic rhetorical theory, she writes a freshman composition textbook, Forming, Thinking, Writing, as a means of testing her theory in the classroom. Forming is credited with introducing the world to the dialectical notebook, a tool I’m using in my own dual enrollment composition class. My students are making meaning, discovering how much they have to say through their examinations of overlooked organic objects, such as plums and sprigs.

I’ve read four of Bertoff’s books, so I can see where her textbook and classroom-as-laboratory fit in her intellectual and spiritual journey.

Bertoff teaches me that even some textbooks should be selfish, like teachers. Students should hear some of their authors think (we call it “voice”), and they should watch their teachers learn. Composition teachers may wish to journal beside their students and model their messy rough drafts. They may wish to send their classroom-generated writing to publishers, just as they may ask their students to do with their own writing.

Our selfishness in our professional practice can make us seem somewhat unprofessional, I admit. But I think one can be too professional. I practiced law before I began teaching, and sometimes I was my most professional in my sleep. On three or four occasions, I counseled in my sleep. I don’t mean that I was in bed asleep, dreaming. I was in my law office with my eyes open but lulled by my own voice into dreaming. Twice I fell asleep telling clients what to expect at their depositions and how, in general terms, to answer questions there. I’ve always wondered if those clients knew that I was talking to them in my sleep. My advice was necessary, honed, and rote. And I was learning nothing.

Teachers, like lawyers, must be conscious. Perhaps they should be conscious first of what teaching school has the misfortune to supersede – apprenticeship. Apprenticeship is the better model because we can teach only in the context of our struggle to work at our calling. Apprenticeship is the better model because we are the better models. Discipleship is at the center of apprenticeship because our struggle is at the center of our callings.

Classrooms are inherently silly.1 They don’t call, and they betray no signs of a calling. Teachers return each August to redeem them a little, to cover over the walls and the confinement. To rearrange the desks, at least. And many of them do silly work for maybe twenty hours a week as the price for spending at least twice as many hours on the important parts of teaching, including the selfish part.

I’ve heard an administrator call some teachers selfish, teachers who resist teaching in lockstep, teachers who lose sleep at night, working extra hours to keep from teaching in their sleep. They know that covering material for the sake of tests leads, metaphorically speaking, to dropping the fish predigested into their babies’ beaks. It is education completely stripped of apprenticeship. It is a bland, dyadic misapprehension of learning, and of what it means to be human.

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E., and James Stephens. Forming, Thinking, Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.

Goldberg, Natalie. Writing down the Bones: Freeing the Writer within. Boston: Shambhala, 1986. Print.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Helen Keller, 1880-1968.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One Has to Do with the Other. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975. Print.

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978. Print.

“Tango Clear Metaphor TV Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 27 Jan. 2010. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.

  1.  My view about a classroom’s inherent silliness may seem to denigrate my own profession. It doesn’t. I’ve come to believe that we teachers can’t teach well unless we know what we’re up against. Worse than the current public policy and budget cuts is the classroom – or, rather, what the classroom symbolizes and reinforces. Our educational system trains students to act like consumers receiving an “educational package” and not like sovereign individuals discovering things for themselves, to use Percy’s distinction. The classroom’s four walls are part of the package: the sonnet, for instance – Percy’s example closest to my own field – “is obscured by the symbolic package which is formulated not by the sonnet itself but by the media through which the sonnet is transmitted, the media which the educators for some reason believe to be transparent. The new textbook, the type, the smell of the page, the classroom, the aluminum windows and the winter sky, the personality of Miss Hawkins – these media which are supposed to transmit the sonnet may only succeed in transmitting themselves” (57). We struggle against a centuries-old mindset reinforced by the classroom – the environment and the system. Our struggle is to guide a student into his or her own sovereignty. Someone making a genuine discovery “is a person exercising the sovereign right of a person in his lordship and mastery of creation. He . . . could use an instructor and a book and a technique, but he would use them as his subordinates, just as he uses his jackknife” (57 – 58). But a student’s sovereignty over his or her own education is impractical, given our educational system, as well as essential. Thankfully, some districts and schools, including my own – and, more importantly, a great many teachers – are taking steps to avoid, to an extent permitted by the environment, “the educator’s direct presentation of the object” (59). Teachers may wish to model genuine discovery as a necessary but insufficient step toward returning sovereignty to students; hence, the personal laboratory.