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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Traum time

Regular readers are aware (probably all too aware) that I’ve been flogging my forthcoming book, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? (W. W. Norton, this September) over the past year or so.  I’ve been dropping dark hints about critiques of postmodernism here and Horowitzian smear campaigns there, suggesting that my footnotes will be explosive and that no one will remain seated during the thrilling final ten pages.  And for good reason!  I’m just waiting for Paul Haggis to pick up the film rights, and then it’s Oscar City for my little book, folks.

But I haven’t done quite as thorough a job of flogging my other forthcoming book, Rhetorical Occasions (University of North Carolina Press, this fall).  And you know how I hate to fall down in the all-important “Most Relentlessly Self-Promoting” Koufax category.  So, then, with gracious permission from my editor at UNC Press, here’s one of the thirty-something old, new, bloggy, and revised-and-updated essays that will appear in Rhetorical Occasions.  A slightly different version of it appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education four and a half years ago.

________

It’s the class of my dreams. We’re just beginning a new semester; I’m going over the syllabus, term papers, midterm, final, and so on when, suddenly, a secretary pops her head in the door to say that the class has been moved to a different building, effective immediately.  Puzzled, my students and I gather our bags and belongings and begin the hike to Zzyzzych 304, a room in a building none of us has ever heard of.  It’s about a 20-minute walk, and, before long, almost half the students disappear.  I begin to get worried and start talking to the remaining students about the assigned novelists and poets, trying to keep them entertained; that works for a while, until we enter a construction site and find ourselves shuffling through a makeshift plywood corridor whose ceiling seems to be getting lower as we go.  More students bail out.  By the time we reach the dank basement entrance to the Zzyzzych Building, I’m left with a class of twelve students, eight or nine of whom leave while I’m discussing the grading policy.

Another tableau:  I wander into the English Department office as the semester begins to find that my course on 20th-century African-American fiction, meeting later that day, has been changed to “Avant-Garde and Representation:  The Problem of the Holocaust.” I have no syllabus; nor do I know anything about the topic.  Nevertheless, terrified as I am, I manage to bluff my way through the first class meeting by asking students for their reactions to Schindler’s List.  Thankfully, they are less annoyed by my incompetence than by the fact that the classroom has window ledges seven feet high—and no chairs.

Anyone who’s had an anxiety dream about teaching knows the psychic landscape:  the mysterious building, the spectral students, the surreal classroom, the sheer suffocating terror.  This is the class that will expose me as a fraud, you think.  Or: This time they’ll know I didn’t prepare all summer.  Even: When this is over, they’ll fire me on the spot.  From what all my friends and colleagues tell me, it doesn’t matter how experienced or accomplished you are: if you care at all about your teaching, you are haunted by teaching-anxiety dreams.

They come in all genres and feature all forms of torment, and they afflict graduate students and emeriti alike.  My wife, Janet Lyon, despite having won numerous teaching awards, begins each year with some variation on a dream in which she walks into the room, discovers that she must lecture to 500 students on a short story she’s never read, and promptly pretends to faint at the lectern.

And then there are the related anxiety dreams, so often triggered by the advent of classes, in which you imagine yourself back in college under some terrible dispensation—you have to write 100 pages by dawn to graduate; you’re told on the eve of your Ph.D. orals that your B.A. has been investigated and found to be invalid. I’m sorry, intones the lugubrious, 16-rpm voice, you will have to leave the graduate program by midnight tonight. Bats whirl in the light of the moon as the ancient clock on the quad strikes 11.

That last nightmare (minus the bats and the tolling bell) was actually related to me by the late W.T.H. Jackson, the renowned medievalist, whom few colleagues would have suspected of a moment’s doubt about his skills or his credentials.  It was May 1982, and I, then a senior at Columbia University, had appeared at Jackson’s door in the kind of cold sweat that one associates with . . . well, with nightmares.  I was frantically explaining to him that the R (for “residence credit") that he had given me in his class on Tristan and Isolde was preventing me from graduating.  “I’m not a graduate student,” I said, “and I can’t take classes for R credit, and the registrar’s computer reads it as an F, and my parents are flying in at 4, and. . . .” Professor Jackson graciously explained that he had mistakenly given my B+ to some bewildered graduate student and given me her R.  Then he told me that, without a doubt, this experience would stay with me the rest of my life if I pursued a career in academe, where I would periodically dream that someone would declare my B.A. invalid and fire me on the spot.  He knew.  He’d had the dream many times.

In my case, you see, anxiety dreams are kind of like conspiracy theories—every once in a while, they have a basis in fact.  Remember that dream about the course you didn’t know you were taking and, therefore, didn’t go to all semester?  That’s the Ghost Course dream.  I have it three or four times every year, just as classes begin.

About half the time, it’s the foreign-language requirement that gets me.  Sure, sometimes I dream that I’m supposed to be taking Geology 801 or Intro Entymology or some other subject of which I have remained almost completely ignorant my entire life, but most of the time the Ghost Course concerns a subject close to me—and yet not close enough.  French is a perfect psychic magnet for my free-floating sense of inadequacy.  It doesn’t help matters that I really did fail my second semester of French as a college sophomore, because I transferred from one section to another without completing the appropriate forms:  I signed up for a 9 am section, then got a job cleaning a local restaurant from 7-11 am weekdays, then switched to the 11 am section without properly dropping the 9 am section.  I finally got the F removed, although not before spending the spring semester on academic probation.

The experience might have been mildly traumatic—particularly for a 19-year-old who had spent most of his conscious life jumping through the requisite academic hoops, usually with the greatest of ease.  But why should I replay it over and over in my dreams to this day? Why should it be linked to the start of classes?  And why do I bother obsessing about little anxieties of 20 years ago, instead of about the much greater ones that have dotted my adult life since?  I’m actually not terribly worried about academic matters in my waking life.  Bad book reviews, rejected fellowship applications, stinging student evaluations—those are annoying or discouraging, no question.  But one severely asthmatic, repeatedly hospitalized toddler, then another child with Down syndrome, now that’s serious.

Or so one would think, in one’s waking moments.  The unconscious, however, has a mind of its own.  And so every semester, when anxiety strikes in the still of the night, I don’t dream that I have to cancel a class because of my children; no, I dream that my course descriptions have been changed, that my students get up and drift away as I’m in midsentence, that I’m three hours late to a classroom that doesn’t exist—or that I forgot to attend “French for Reading Proficiency” last term and will not be allowed to teach the novels of André Gide.  I’ve never taught the novels of André Gide.  But it doesn’t matter; there’s something about teaching that rouses all the gnawing fears that have accumulated over our academic lifetimes.

My dreams during the summer of 2001, as I was changing institutions, were particularly intense.  For the first time in twelve years, I really didn’t have any idea where my classrooms would be, and I really hadn’t filled out the book-order forms for my contemporary American literature courses.  I arrived at Penn State with much to learn, threading my way through what seemed to be an especially opaque and unnavigable campus.  Many things about Pennsylvania are opaque and unnavigable—it appears to be impossible to register a motor vehicle in the commonwealth, for example, without a blood test and a note from your college French teacher—but my unconscious worries about moving to a new place seemed to concentrate exclusively on what would happen on the first day of classes.

As I prepared my opening handouts, unaware that the English department was changing my office phone number (they eventually changed it twice), and that I’d forgotten to include Flannery O’Connor on the survey syllabus (now, how did that happen?), I realized why professors have anxiety dreams at the start of the academic year: teaching is really hard to do.  If you’re doing it in classes of 15 and 40 students, as I am, you’re teaching in a setting where the students will find out not only what you think about x and y, but also what you are like, in some strange and intimate way.  They’ll get a sense of how thoroughly you prepare, of course, but, even more, they’ll see how you respond to the unexpected—to the savvy young woman who wants to know whether you’re using the term “postcolonial” in a cultural or an economic sense, to the curious junior who wonders aloud why Don DeLillo gave the name Simeon Biggs to a snappish African-American character in Underworld. For such moments, you simply can’t prepare—except by accumulating years upon years of teaching experience, and weathering night upon night of anxiety dreams.

Because on that first day of class, truly anything can happen:  your students aren’t going to love you just because your last three semesters went well, and it’s a fair bet that none of your undergraduates (and almost none of your graduate students) will have come back from the summer freshly impressed by how deftly you handled that ludicrously unfair book review in the June issue of Crank Quarterly. Amazingly, none of your students will arrive on the first day having heard anything you’ve said to other students over the past twenty years; amazingly, you’ll have to make a first impression all over again, for the twenty-first time.

If it’s a course you’ve never taught before, you may wind up rewriting or scrapping the syllabus in midstream; if it’s a course in a fairly new area of study, you’ll have no idea what kind of knowledge base to expect from your students.  And, of course, if the window ledges are seven feet high in Zzyzzych 304, how will anyone be able to close the windows when the motorcycle gangs roar by?

Buddhists speak of learning to see the world with “beginner’s mind,” and that’s precisely what you have to do every semester:  begin again, from scratch, knowing that anything can happen—seeing those 10, or 50, or even 500 students, like the 2,000 students you’ve seen before, with beginner’s mind.  Our anxiety dreams, surely, are the index of our secret fears of failure and inadequacy.  But they’re also the measure of how very difficult it is—and how very exhilarating—to begin each semester with beginner’s mind.

Posted by Michael on 03/14 at 11:47 AM
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