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]