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.