The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

The Private Personality of the Public Classroom
by Jason Tougaw

It was the second class meeting, and we were assembled around the seminar table. "How can we have a conversation about anything that matters with the door open?" the professor asked. He got up from his seat, a simple but theatrical gesture, and gave the door a firm push, until we all heard the click of the latch. The question and the gesture were rhetorical. They set the tone for the course. Without articulating it, our professor was reminding us that the classroom is a private space within the public sphere. He was giving us a taste of how he would shape the public-private dynamic. The suspense created was palpable: what kind of private space was this going to be? We waited for the professor to show us.

The professor was Wayne Koestenbaum. It was my fourth year of graduate school, and I was auditing the course, "The Poetics of the Letter." This was the first semester of his appointment to the faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center, and he had to know we were looking him over. That day we discussed Keats's letters. Koestenbaum started by setting parameters, on himself. He assumed the position of a passionate, attentive reader, and he emphasized his lack of expertise - as a Romanticist, an expert on life writing, or Keats as a literary figure. The move was disarming. After all, we were 15 graduate students in manic pursuit of professionalization, of expertise. We had a riveting conversation that day ranging over subjects like the aestheticization of disease, Romantic notions of masculinity, whether or not Keats and Fanny Brawne ever consummated their relationship, the voyeurism entailed in reading words intended for a single intimate, the titillation that accompanies entering the sick room of a legendary poet, violating his privacy, examining his bloody phlegm, and analyzing his declarations of love.

After class, some of us talked and some of us just thought to ourselves:

· Wayne's smart - it seemed appropriate to call him Wayne
· He's captivating; he's showy; he's so queer theory
· He's a great teacher, but what does he really know?
· He can only disown authority because he is in a position of authority? Can you imagine what would happen if a grad student stood up in front of class and said "I don't really know what I'm talking about?"
· I felt a chill when he read the last lines of that last letter to Charles Brown: "I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow."

The material we read was intensely emotional, albeit tempered by the distance of time. We talked and thought about it like graduate students, eager to give intellectual voice to our emotional responses. My own contributions to these conversations were suffused with anxiety I couldn't have identified. I was anticipating my quest for a job - a real job, as a professor, like Wayne. I had been trained on queer theory and feminism but had taken a recent turn toward Victorian literature. I was getting serious. I was impressed by Wayne, but what can his approach, I wondered myopically, provide in the way of serious scholarship? How can it help me in my quest for expertise? Questions like these lingered for the duration of the semester, but only under the surface, dwarfed by the excitement I felt in his classroom. Wayne's was the model of a classroom unbound by disciplinary convention, where ideas and experience were emphasized knowledge (or facts exchanged like capital) and methodology (or rules for what constitutes knowledge) became secondary. Not every classroom can follow this model, but the experience convinced me that we could do with more like it. By exposing in himself what we students feared in ourselves, Wayne crafted an exhilarating classroom.

I couldn't have articulated it at the time, but I was rediscovering what had drawn me to pursue a Ph.D. in English in the first place: the power of black marks on a page, chosen and arranged just so, to elicit emotional and intellectual excitement. The course worked because Wayne presented himself to us as a living body with a personality, a brilliant reader of texts with a theatrical wit, a vivid sense of style, intense curiosity, and genuine interest in our ideas and our idiosyncratic ways of thinking. He made himself available to us, as a person with a very particular emotional and intellectual disposition. We each had a personal rapport with him, our dispositions bumping up against his. He had the confidence to let the ensuing dynamics between private feelings and public thoughts take shape.

There are innumerable barriers between the minds of teacher and student. Wayne, I'm sure, could only guess at the dialogue that went on about him outside the classroom door. If it even crossed his mind, he could certainly only imagine the contents of my internal dialogue. I couldn't know - would I want to? - whether he was nervous about his new job, about our response to his disavowal of expertise. The intimacy of the classroom only goes so far. What he had crafted was a pedagogy that could accommodate the feelings of his students, without having to predict our responses or witness all the emotional undercurrents that gave rise to our intellectual responses.

[Read correspondence between Jason Tougaw and Wayne Koestenbaum in the Appendix]

Emotions in the Classroom

As university teachers, even in the humanities, we have traditionally trafficked exclusively in reason and intellect. Recently, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the fact that the classroom is a space dense with intense emotion, one whose status as public or private is constantly shifting. This is not a brand new idea. Aristotle recognized the emotional undercurrents of teaching, and so did William James; but it is an idea that has remained, and still remains, more theoretical than practical. Theory has seldom become practice, it seems to me, because there is a simple and obvious oversight in most of the theory, a practical hurdle: the personalities of the teachers and students. How can a theory account for the personal and idiosyncratic dispositions of actual teachers and actual students that determine the emotional dynamics of any classroom? The answer may be that it cannot - not always.

No matter what the course material, no matter how decentered or how traditional the approach, the particular dynamic between public and private in any classroom is shaped most forcefully by the disposition of the teacher at its center. And the shape of that dynamic determines both the kind and degree of impact of the course material on students. The personal dimension of emotion - the interpersonal peaks and valleys among students or between students and teachers; or the boredom, confusion, titillation, or inspiration elicited by course materials - passes just under the radar of most theories of pedagogy.

Some of the most interesting work that has attempted to tackle the question focuses on transference, borrowing the psychoanalytic term to describe the often unacknowledged emotional undercurrents that shape intellectual exchange (see Felman, Finke, Penley, Jay, Briton). In the words of Laura Finke, "An analysis of transference may enable us to unpack the workings of authority - both real and imagined - in the classroom by moving our attention away from the content of teaching - the exchange of signifieds - and toward the dramas of identification and resistance that accompany the exchange of signifiers" (130). This is exactly what Wayne did, eschewing the ritualized exchange of signifieds and focused instead on inspiring his students to think for, and, most importantly, as themselves. Transference is not the misattribution of emotions experienced in the past onto present experience - mistaking a teacher for a parent, for example. It is the mechanism through which we shape present experience when we approach it as people shaped by previous experience. Transference is not a problem to be avoided or overcome but an inevitable aspect of emotional experience, particularly when relations of authority or power are involved. Finke is describing a feminist classroom, and I believe feminist classrooms have come closest to acknowledging the personal dimension of emotions that suffuse intellectual exchange. I am ready to be persuaded by her suggestion that a productive theory of pedagogy ought to focus on "dramas of identification" - on making transference a productive element of classroom exchange. After all, it seems at least anecdotally true that students tend to remember the teacher more vividly than what is taught. But in my own education, the teachers who managed to combine course content with course dynamics are the ones who inspired me. When I look back on Wayne's course, I recall morbid or moving details from Keats's letters because I associate them, almost uncannily, with my professor's vivid sense of style. You can teach classroom dynamics on a theoretical level - you can ask teachers to be attentive to their own and their students' moments of transference - but the lesson pales in the face of the actual emotional and intellectual disposition of the person shaping the classroom dynamic. You can't teach personality.

Teaching as Testimony

Recently, testimony has been offered as a model for the intellectual and emotional exchanges that shape classroom dynamics. As a metaphor for teaching, the testimonial is compelling because it requires an intimate rapport between intellect and emotion. In her book Feeling Power: Emotions and Education, Megan Boler advocates a testimonial model of teaching she calls "a pedagogy of discomfort," which aims to get students reflecting on the emotional underpinnings of the ideological assumptions they bring to the classroom. The implicit aim here is that students' ideologies need to be transformed. Boler's writing is astute and sensitive, and I imagine her teaching is too. As I read her, though, I started to worry about the complexity of modeling the classroom on the highly charged and unpredictable genre of testimony. Boler anticipates my objections:

A pedagogy of discomfort does not intentionally seek to provoke, or to cause anger or fear. However, as educators and students engage in a collective self-reflection and develop accountability for how we see ourselves, and as we question cherished beliefs, we are likely to encounter such emotions as fear and anger - as well as joy, passion, new hopes and a sense of possibility. . . . Again I emphasize "educators and students" because a pedagogy of discomfort is a mutual transaction. The educator's own beliefs are by no means immune to the process of questioning and "shattering." Similarly, it is important that the educator explore what it means to "share" the students' vulnerability and suffering. (188)

This is easier to write than to put into practice. A testimony-based pedagogy would, of course, be a "shared transaction," with both teacher and students confronting their fears, their anger, their unexamined assumptions, in short, their transference. Teaching shares some of testimony's fundamental dynamics: they are both "shared transactions" that, ideally, make new understandings possible. But while testimony is a productive metaphor for classroom exchange, most teaching is not testimony, at least not first-hand testimony. To use testimony as a model for teaching is to forget that testimony involves speaking from a first-person perspective about experience that is at the very least life-changing and very often traumatic. Testimony is a transaction that brings emotionally-charged experience into coherence by building an interpersonal, and eventually, an intellectual framework around it.

In a description of his own method of eliciting testimony from Holocaust survivors, psychiatrist Dori Laub begins by describing a situation that sounds a lot like teaching: "I observe how the narrator, and myself as listener, alternate between moving closer and then retreating from the experience - with the sense that there is a truth that we are both trying to reach, and this sense serves as a beacon we both try to follow" (Felman and Laub 76). Much of my own teaching feels like this. I offer a text or idea to the class and we pursue it - moving closer, retreating, driven by a shared sense of purpose. But we are after an idea, not an experience, certainly not an experience that is elusive precisely because it caused one of us so much psychic pain when it first occurred. The teacher and the therapist have some common responsibilities, but there is a vast difference between their aims. Laub's retreats and movements closer stem from the horror of the experience around which his therapeutic work centers:

The traumatic experience has normally long been submerged and has become distorted in its submersion. The horror of the historical experience is maintained in the testimony only as an elusive memory that no longer resembles any reality. The horror is, indeed, compelling not only in its reality, but even more so, in its flagrant distortion and subversion of reality. Realizing its dimensions becomes a process that demands retreat. The narrator and I need to halt and reflect on these memories as they are spoken, so as to reassert the veracity of the past and to build anew its linkage to, and assimilation into, present-day life. (Felman and Laub 76)

We are not in the classroom anymore. Where would we be if, as we taught Shakespeare, or the history of the novel, or queer film, we also had the job of reframing our students' traumatic experiences and finding room for them in "present-day life"? How responsible would we be, as educators, if we suggested to them that a classroom full of people they will spend 12 or 15 weeks with is a good place for examining such experience? The testimony model of pedagogy, it seems to me, has a tendency to aggrandize university teaching and miss an opportunity to examine the texture of learning, so much of which occurs through the more mundane emotional dynamics that we face when we teach Shakespeare, the history of the novel, and queer film.

In what is probably the most well-known example of the teaching as testimony argument, "Education and Crisis: Or the Vicissitudes of Teaching," Shoshana Felman chronicles a collective intellectual crisis among her students. (The essay opens Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Psychoanalysis, Literature, and History, the collection Felman collaborated on with Laub.) The crisis results when she screens the video testimony of a woman - "in the informal privacy of an apartment" - who survived the deaths of her entire family, except, miraculously, her new husband. The testimony is as profoundly disturbing and disarming as you would expect Holocaust testimony to be. Her students are shocked by what they see on the video screen, shocked into silence at first and then into interminable speech. They can think, it seems, of nothing else. Using her own experience as teacher of the course, testimonial style, Felman builds to the following conclusion:

I would venture to propose, today, that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely though a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience - the recipients - can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust precisely did with information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read, or put to use.

Looking back at the experience of that class, I therefore think that my job as teacher, paradoxical as it may sound, was that of "driving the students crazy" - without compromising the students' bounds. (Felman and Laub 53)

By placing the essay at the beginning of their collection on testimony, Felman and Laub present it as an act of testimony itself, aimed at other university teachers, designed to stimulate a collective rethinking about the ways we teach. The essay initiates an internal dialogue: Do I send my students into crisis, intellectual or otherwise? Am I that powerful? That brave?

It's a set up. This was the unarticulated sentiment fueling my resentment when I first read Felman's essay. That resentment, I now realize, was defensive. I still believe the essay's rhetoric exceeds its content and that few teachers could pick up the gauntlet Felman throws down. Few courses would warrant it. Felman is distracted by the elegance of her own ideas - and this, I think, should be a warning to us all. I have no doubt that Felman's students experienced powerful feelings, nor that they were consumed with thinking and talking about her course, but when I read the following words from the course lecture she reprints, I still grimace: "I will suggest that the significance of the event of your viewing of the first Holocaust videotape was, not unlike Celan's own Holocaust experience, something akin to a loss of language; and even though you came out of it with a deep need to talk about it and talk it out, you also felt that language was somehow incommensurate with it" (Felman and Laub 50). Incommensurate is the key word here. Felman's essay is artful. It builds to its inevitable conclusion through a series of dazzling analogies: trauma, like Modernist poetry, involves broken frameworks; Modernist poetry is like language in general, performative; testimony, a special instance of language, is performative; witnesses are performed upon by the testimony they listen to; in a course on testimony, students are witnesses; it is the role of the teacher to push students into crisis, to break the framework of the course and their assumptions and perform a change in them, to drive them crazy, without compromising their bounds.

How do you know when your students have been driven crazy? And how can you gauge when their bounds will break? You can't. Beneath the surface of Felman's elegant theory, there is the description of an intimate encounter: among students and between student and teacher. Felman herself - the woman, complete with personality - is the essay's missing center, her experience with her students lost in the gaps between one analogy and the next. She is subsumed by her theory. There is no sense of the particular dynamic between public and private, intellect and emotion, that she establishes in her classroom. She makes all the right moves, but we don't see the texture of these moves. We don't know how she felt making them. We only know what she thought. It shocks me to think anyone could lay down a challenge as extreme as hers - to suggest that teachers push students to their breaking point, to suggest that no teaching is good teaching unless it does so - without preparing them for the vicissitudes of emotion such a move will make. When she recognizes the crisis among her students, she seeks Laub's advice. He directs her to address the crisis head on and to provide students with a framework for contextualizing their trauma, integrating it into "present-day life." She does, and it works. Right on schedule, according to theory. But the point Laub makes in his own work is that testimony is a messy and unpredictable process, one that he must chaperone, monitor, and help shape. For Felman, Laub's model becomes a tidy formula for instilling crisis and then tying up its loose ends.

Felman reports the successful results of a difficult encounter, the transformation of potential disaster into an opportunity for intellectual development. But based on what she has written, the model she offers is not applicable to other classrooms full of other students taught by other teachers. Her essay chronicles the evolution of very specific types of grand-scale politically-inflected emotion, the types that can be subsumed by her analysis. Most of the work of the classroom is inflected by much more mundane emotional intercourse - the worry of a teacher scanning the faces of students to gauge their interest, the sting of a student confronted with a low grade, the mutual satisfaction that comes when a student successfully deploys a teacher's advice or methods with grace and invention. Classroom crises tend to be smaller, most of them individual rather than collective. These moments are not much discussed. They're below our radar. We deal with them locally, which is appropriate, but Felman's essay indicates to me, as do innumerable works of theory, departmental meetings, and discussions with colleagues, that we are still a profession afraid of our local selves. We too often replace people with ideas.

We are hired to teach because we are experts in our fields well-versed in "the exchange of signifieds," but in the best of circumstances also because we are passionate, attentive readers. Every moment in the classroom involves negotiation between these two roles. To walk into a classroom and declare that we are ready for a transaction in which our most fundamental beliefs will be thrown into question is not what our students are expecting from us. They rely on our authority. It's up to us to set our parameters so that they can accommodate - rather than ignore - the emotional dynamics of the classroom; so that they allow us to recognize - rather than aggrandize - the emotional work of intellectual exchange. In my own teaching, I am ready to see my own ideas challenged, but not to the point of crisis and not to the point of ignoring the difference between my intellectual experience and my students'. Teaching is a transaction, but it's not an entirely equitable one.

In One Classroom

Recent work on emotions and teaching, on transference, and on teaching as testimony attempts to counter the assumption, still held by many, that emotions have no place in the classroom. This is a productive first step, but most of this writing - already a disembodied form of public expression - is too purely theoretical, offering formulae where nuance is needed. Understanding or even practicing a theory of pedagogy, no matter how brilliant, does not make a person a good teacher. You have to start with the person, the one with the emotions and the ideas. The emotional undercurrents of a classroom cannot be anticipated in theory. They are spontaneous, and very often surprising, and they require quick decisions and careful responses.

Let me give an example from my own classroom. Twice now I have shown Darren Aronofksy's film, Requiem for a Dream, in a writing seminar I teach at Princeton.[click here to view another site for the film.] The topic (and title) of the seminar is Consciousness. Eventually students will write essays about the film, using a philosophical or neurological theory as a lens for illuminating an aspect of consciousness it portrays - perception, hallucinations, the unconscious, memory. Before we can get to the intellectual task, though, we have to confront the fact that the film is an intensely disturbing chronicle of degradation, following four characters as they plummet toward their respective rock bottoms of drug addiction. The intensity of the film is in large part the result of Aronofsky's aesthetic choices; he confronts his audiences at the level of the senses, not the intellect. The sensory overload of the film tends to short-circuit intellectualization and makes for a very uncomfortable viewing experience.

I'm not there when the students see the film. A projectionist from media services shows it, and students have the option of seeing it with the group or on their own. I watch the film myself, at home, the night of the group screening. I get nervous every time I watch. The elegance of Aronofsky's technique throws the brutal images he conjures into stark relief. Watching Requiem is disturbing and disorienting even with repeated viewings. There are scenes and shots that I can't stomach - for example, a shot of Harry (played by Jared Leto) injecting a needle into his gangrenous arm. I've managed not to avert my eyes only once. How are students going to handle this? Will they see any connection between what they're watching and consciousness? Are more conservative students going to launch a protest, go to the Dean and complain that I am subjecting them to pornography? My anxiety comes in part from my recognition that by asking students to watch what I can't stomach, I am initiating a classroom experience shares a great deal with Boler's "pedagogy of discomfort" and Felman's pedagogy of crisis. No doubt my anxiety about teaching this film is intensified and exaggerated beyond reason by the transference I bring to it, particularly to teaching it. There's a great deal of drug addiction in my family. My profession - and intellectual endeavors more generally - has always set me apart from that, but the barrier is artificial in some ways and teaching a film like this disturbs the distinction between my present and my past. No question: the moment is overdetermined, as are so many teaching moments.

The first thing I ask students to do is post a gut response to the film, as soon after seeing it as possible, on our course website. I want to give them an outlet for the feelings the film elicits, one that begins to give those feelings collective shape. The following response, posted by Katie Daviau, is fairly typical:

This is, by far, the most profoundly upsetting and disturbing movie I have ever seen. It left me feeling literally sick to my stomach, but not due to the graphic nature of the film. My sadness and distress stemmed from the pathetic and hopeless nature of the characters. My immediate reaction was to wish I had never seen the movie, angry that I had subjected myself to such a depressing and disconcerting experience. Walking back to my room, I searched for the lesson that I learned from watching it, the message I was supposed to take away, and I could come up with nothing. Yet I could not write the movie off because I did have such a strong reaction to it. Perhaps this is the purpose of the film - to force us to realize that some people actually live like this; pathetic, strung out, disengaged from reality. The cinematography and music worked together so well to give the viewer a sense of the point of view of the characters, I could not help but be pulled in to the story. Maybe that's why I was so disturbed. I couldn't distance myself from the story because I really saw life through the eyes of the characters, at least for brief moments. It wasn't just a movie about junkies. It is a movie about people, as sad and pathetic as their situations may be, and this makes Requiem For a Dream impossible to ignore.

Students consistently report visceral responses to the film: nausea, tears, tremors, chills. Many of them are flummoxed, looking for a message - they're watching the film for a course, after all - and seeing only degradation. Typical also is the recognition that her powerful response is a sign that the film itself is a kind of testimony: this film transforms viewers in a way most do not. I worry a little when I read the line "some people actually live like this, pathetic, strung out, disengaged from reality." My own bias, both personal and political, drives me to get students to see that Requiem for a Dream is not an anti-drug film. To see it that way is an oversimplification, I tell them, seeking refuge in the lexicon of intellectual analysis; to drive the point home, I bolster my case with a nod to authority, quoting Aronofksy saying that to read an anti-drug message in the film is to stop at a "top level reading" (xv). These are typical classroom moves, and there's nothing wrong with them, but there would be something wrong if, as the teacher, I did not pause to learn from Katie's response. She's right. These characters are "pathetic, strung out, disengaged from reality." To deny this because of my own personal or intellectual biases would be its own oversimplification. It's a minor revelation, but it's the kind that can transform a teacher from a demagogue to a person participating in the intimate activity of crafting ideas in a collective setting. Moments like these lurk behind every corner of classroom dialogue. If teaching is anything like testimony, it is in the sense that the transformations it induces are unpredictable. The teacher must be brave and flexible enough to allow that unpredictability to shape the intellectual discourse that ensues.

Lispeth Nutt's response was the first posted, three days before the group screening, and established an interesting dynamic between emotions and analysis for the discussions that ensued:

As probably the most emotionally sponge-like member of the group, I have to say that I like Mary Poppins much, much better. I've watched part of Requiem before, and that time it left me crying for no particular reason. I wasn't upset specifically at the movie, just upset . . . left feeling empty, incomplete, and utterly flawed. I recall wishing to purge myself of every unclean thing within my own head. This time, I didn't cry; however, I still experienced the same feelings. Decomposition of hope - I think that's what one critic called this movie. Draining, emotionally exhausting, headache-inducing, libido-killing - all of those should be added to the list.

I think it's quite significant that all of the characters at the end are left literally in the fetal position. I found myself wanting to do the same - curl up and go to sleep.

On a side note, the gangrene images are still haunting my thoughts, as I currently have an infected belly button, and I can't help repeatedly imagining that my poor stomach will suffer the same fate. I keep getting flashes of swollen, black skin. However, I've been reassured that the belly button cannot be amputated, so I guess I'm okay.

Lispeth's response is typical in its expression of horror, but it's distinctive in its self-consciousness ("as probably the most emotionally sponge-like member of the group") and its humor ("I like Mary Poppins much much better"). The humor is pure Lispeth - a very clear reflection of her interwoven intellectual and emotional style. The path from the film to the student's own body - via her infected belly button - is recognizable as another visceral response to the film, but it's more intimate and more unsettling than tears or nausea, not least because the visual image is so vivid and so particular to her. The detail, I admit, gave me a start. The belly button of a student is not something I am sure how to reconcile with the work of the classroom. On the other hand, if I am committed to a pedagogy that takes advantage of the unpredictable and emphasizes the stakes of course material in the lives of both student and teacher, then I must be prepared for the real life details that don't fit tidily within my notion of what classroom material is. By the time I have this thought, the posting is already published on the discussion board. I'm certainly not going to censor it. If it comes up in class - it did - I'll handle it with the easy humor with which it was presented, use it as a moment of social glue that supports the classroom dynamic. I did - at least I tried.

The students' postings do a lot of my work for me. Notice the interweaving of emotional response and analysis in Lispeth's response: "I think it's quite significant that all of the characters at the end are left literally in the fetal position. I found myself wanting to do the same - curl up and go to sleep." While they watch, students report again and again, they are frozen intellectually, but when they articulate their gut reactions, they begin to craft an intellectual response, even before they realize they are doing so. We begin our discussion by examining some of their postings, briefly, highlighting common denominators - emotional shock, bodily responses, tentative steps toward intellectualization - and acknowledging differences - one student felt little but boredom. Then we talk about plot and characters. How do they work? How do they make us feel? How to begin making sense of them? Once they've slept on all this, we view one short scene and one long one in class, paying close attention to experimental uses of sound and image that shape the sensory responses to the film. Over the course of the following two weeks, students read several theoretical essays, sleep on them, and begin making connections between theory and text. They write journal entries that range from purely informal and emotional to highly formalized and theoretical. By the time they come to write a draft of the paper, their emotional responses to the film have generated complex intellectual arguments.

Take Katie Daviau, for example. She was the student who called the film "the most profoundly disturbing" she had ever seen, ending her posting with an attempt to work through Aronofsky's method of eliciting audience identification for his characters' degradation: "I couldn't distance myself from the story because I really saw life through the eyes of the characters, at least for brief moments. It wasn't just a movie about junkies." In her essay, Katie uses the neurological concept of "mental noise" as a metaphor for the film's sensory overload. In neurological terms, "mental noise" is excess synaptic activity, resulting in a chaos of experience. Katie argues Aronofsky simulates mental noise to force viewers to receive his film at a sensory level first, blocking intellectualization and therefore eliciting identification for characters many viewers would prefer to disavow. Katie's paper indicates to me that with regard to this particular film, she has crafted an intellectual response suggested by her emotional response. In the words of Kathleen Crown, a colleague of mine who teaches a course on witnessing and testimony, "I want my students to feel comfortable with discomfort." She hasn't explained away her discomfort; rather, through intellectualization she has become comfortable with it.

I have only a sliver of knowledge about the details of my students' personal histories, the fears and anxieties or the hopes and thrills that informed their responses to the film. They don't know mine - at least not before reading this article. Just as I didn't know Wayne's, nor he mine. Aronofsky's film provokes extreme discomfort and leaves it at that. But a teacher is not a filmmaker. I can't leave students wrestling with their discomfort the way Aronofsky can with audiences. My job is to use the discomfort productively, as a means of creating knowledge and stimulating the intellectual development of my students. Getting there does not require spurring students into crisis, but it does require teachers to be comfortable with not knowing what responses our challenges will elicit. The "shared transaction" of our classroom experience is also a reshaping of what's public and what's private. If we conceive of teaching as a form of testimony, even second-degree testimony, the personalities of teacher and student are the unknowns that the classroom unpredictable and volatile.

With Wayne in mind, I always teach with the door shut.

Works Cited

Aronofsky, Darren and Hubert Selby, Jr. Requiem for a Dream. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2000.

Boler, Megan. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1994.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Psychoanalysis, Literature, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Jay, Gregory S. "The Subject of Pedagogy: Lessons in Psychoanalysis and Politics." College English 49 (1987): 785-800.

Penley, Constance. "Teaching in Your Sleep: Feminism and Psychoanalysis." In Theory in the Classroom. Ed. Cary Nelson. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Todd, Sharon, ed. Learning Desire: Perspectives on Pedagogy, Culture, and the Unsaid. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

Briton, Derek. "Learning the Subject of Desire." 45-74.

Felman, Shoshana. "Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable." Felman 17-44.

Finke, Laura. "Knowledge as Bait: Feminism, Voice, and the Pedagogical Unconscious." Penley 117-140.


When I had finished a draft of this essay, I sent a copy to Wayne Koestenbaum, to be sure that my memory of his words seemed accurate to him. As a result we began an e-mail exchange, which I reprint here because his responses about teaching are an eloquent indication of the kind of teacher he is, but also because his insights about teaching seem applicable in many of our classrooms. (The references to Wayne's reading refer to a panel I moderated at the Graduate Center, titled "Undisciplined Criticism.") -Jason Tougaw


Hi Wayne. I'm quoting you in an essay I'm publishing, in The Scholar and the Feminist (an new online journal at Barnard) - a special issue on "Public Sentiments" (edited by Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini). Keep in mind that it's a draft. I wanted to be sure my memories of the class rang more or less true for you. Let me know if you have trouble opening it and I'll put a copy in the mail.



hi Jason.

I enjoyed your piece, and am obviously moved by your evocation of that long-ago classroom.

A few thoughts.

The disavowal of 'expertise.' I consider such a disavowal to be a necessary gesture in an interdisciplinary or post-disciplinary classroom; and also necessary in any course that, like the 'poetics of the letter,' does not privilege "field specialty" but a broader poetic project of learning how to read in order to learn how to write. In other words, the expertise I was disavowing was not an expertise in reading or writing; in fact, I don't imagine I ever made any gesture toward disavowing that I felt myself to be an "expert" reader and writer, an expert connoisseur of textual nuance, and of the psychodynamics of the reader/text relation. It's interesting that you heard my disavowal as a larger one than I'd meant it to be - also that the disavowal resonated so deeply with you, since, for me, it was a rather casual, necessary, preliminary gesture, to clear the air before we got down to the business of serious reading.

I remember thinking that you seemed quite distant and guarded, in the classroom; suspicious? Not quite "at home." As if you were surprised to find yourself in this classroom, not sure it was the place for you. That reticence, I recall, puzzled me. It didn't perturb me, in the least. And I might be misremembering it. I chalked your reserve up to the often weird dynamic between gay male teacher and gay male student: the assumption that somehow it should be "different" (warmer? easier?) than between straight male teacher and gay male student, and the surprise that it is often just the same.

My memory of that class is tempered by the fact that I had already taught that same course already, a couple of years earlier, to undergraduates; and so I had a slightly bittersweet sense of retrospect, of re-enactment: As if to say, this is the second time I am reading Keats's letters with students. And it is not the same experience as the first time. A small part of me was therefore not present in the room with the current CUNY course but a few years back in time in the other classroom. Two superimposed classrooms.

I guess the most important thing always to me in my teaching is that I can only honestly present myself to students as someone who has internalized language, who has crafted (through his own writing practice) his own individual relation to the body of language; and that my job in the classroom is to demonstrate as honestly as possible my relation to language's body. What perhaps allows me to "disavow," in such a cavalier way, traditional academic "expertise," is that I have confidence in my primary relation to language, in that relation's rigor and self-consciousness. So what I "profess" in the classroom is simply that: a committed regard for words and their history and their power. I strongly feel that that is an important thing to pass on to students, to show as a possibility, an attainment, a practice and process - much more meaningful to me, in the long run, than the specific "knowledge" of a field, a knowledge that can too easily be divorced from language's nourishing (and, I daresay, prior) ground.

Hope these reflections help.

With gratitude -


This helps a lot, actually. It helps me see that I haven't been quite clear enough. I meant to explain the disavowal in exactly the terms you do here - that you disavowed expertise for good, productive reasons, emphasizing expert reading and writing instead. The latter is so much more interesting and valuable. I didn't actually hear your disavowal as a larger one, but I was trying to cast myself, retrospectively, as an unreliable narrator. I'm going to have to look at those details and make that clearer.

What you read as my guardedness was really just my anxiety - mainly about the fact that I felt I had to get serious and figure out how to succeed in the academic world, on what I thought were its terms. I'm over this now, but it was a big deal for me then. I was freaking out about it. And, actually, there was something weird going on with the fact that when I chose to go to CUNY, it was partly because it advertised itself as a place where lots of lesbian and gay work was happening. This turned out not to be true, at least not in English. If you had been there earlier, I'm sure I would have wanted to work with you. But that turns out not to have been fate.

Your last paragraph here - where you describe your teaching - is so eloquent. And very familiar. It's what I try to do also: present my relationship to the material as honestly as I can and encourage students to craft theirs. Princeton students are fixated on knowledge, as a sign of status. I probably was too when I took your course.

Anyway, thanks.



hi Jason -

Thanks for your warm and eloquent clarifications. I'm grateful for your clarity and intellectual resourcefulness.

With best wishes,

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