I teach in two distinct performative modes. In the first, primarily used for social-science instruction, I am the INTIMIDATING KNOWLEDGE EXPERT. From the moment I take attendance—and you better be in your seat when I call your name, Chuck—we are on the clock. My clock.
speak drone on for about 75-80% of the class. The maws of my tense charges are sandblasted with facts, theories, counter readings, historical illustrations, and the occasional human interest story.
Don’t yawn, or appear to be texting because I will call on you. Oh yes I will. And you will stammer. And the pleasure will register on my face in the way that unsightly extras in a Kung Fu movie toothily smile and flail their arms at the Act Two thrashing of the Good Guy.
In the second mode, I affect a completely different teaching persona. I am now, to use a term I particularly abhorred from the 90s, a NURTURING KNOWLEDGE MIDWIFE. If my first teaching performance takes place on a symbolic Prussian military base, then this second iteration must go down in Paris circa 1972 at the Fontaine St. Michel.
Are you familiar with the iconic photo to which I refer? Like a thousand almost undressed male and female Sorbonne students—and probably a few professors to boot—are piled into that fountain. They revel under a bleaching sun fresh from an afternoon of insurrectionary lectures on Hegelian dialectic.
Each and every one of those kids (and scholars) is stoned out of his or her freakin’ mind; the entire scene feels like it was shot in a mushroom cloud of marijuana fumes. I imagine that the French/Greek/Jewish/Arab/Other/Communist singer Georges Moustaki is positioned just out of the frame. His Karlmarxbeard guitar-serenades those in the fountain with one of his sugary anthems about the coming Revolution (which would, undoubtedly, be a horrifically violent and bloody revolution. But Georges is a lover first and foremost and rarely factors that grim reality into his art).
This kinder, gentler Jacques II emerges, for some strange reason, only in literature classes. Here, I lecture for less than half of the period. I listen carefully to the students (who, inexplicably, see fit to call me Jacques). I never get as much as half way through my planned remarks because we, as a group, always mount our fictional ATV’s and do a little literary off-roading. (“Really? That scene reminds you of something in The Turn of the Screw/Heart of Darkness/the newest Lady Gaga video? Tell us about that. Have at it!”)
All this is the backdrop to the remarkable experiment I conducted a few weeks back in my seminar “Philip Roth: Secular Jewish Fiction.” Being Jacques II requires an abundance of lack of caution and for these reasons I suggested to one of my very best students that she teach the entire class. I have had students, in both Jacques I and Jacques II modes, lead discussions for part of the class. But a full hour plus? Is that even possible at this age?
The class in question was the third of four lectures devoted to Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. It’s a text that I have taught for 15 years. The more I read and teach it, the less I understand. The ample literary criticism on the work always leaves me musing “Yeah, what s/he said” only to have me reverse that estimation upon reading the next article in my bibliographical queue.
In preparation for the lecture, Zelda I* and Jacques II met to plan out the structure, identify the core issues, cite the relevant critics, and deal with whatever jitters or nervousness the student might have about embarking on such a daunting adventure.
She probably needed my mentorly advice. I recall the horror I experienced when I first piloted the plane—the metaphor Jacques I (but not Jacques II) uses for teaching a college class—as a 21-year-old graduate student at NYU. I was TAing for the philosopher James Carse. The iconic lecturer had assigned me Martin Buber’s treacly mystical treatise I and Thou.
I spent weeks in isolation reading and re-reading that peculiar work (I did not think to consult the secondary literature). On lecture day, I emerged from my solitary confinement/refinement as if launched from a crack in the earth. Over-caffeinated and strung out on Chowards Violets I delivered a dense, careening, quasi-psychotic 75-minute oration. Its intellectual merits aside, the address somehow managed to infuriate every Jew, Christian and Muslim in class and more broadly across campus.
But Zelda I showed no comparable angst prior to the big day. In fact, she was so relaxed that I spotted her a few minutes before class munching organic lettuce and feta cheese with a plastic fork out of a see-through container procured from the local deli. Wasn’t piloting the plane for the first time, Jacques I asked Jacques II, supposed to be equal parts Adrenalin, Exhilaration, and Terror?
If so, what was up with that salad?
TO BE CONTINUED…….
* A pseudonym meant to safeguard the identity of the undergraduate in question.