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.
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.