Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Optimism of Teaching

Canadian designer Bruce Mau begins his essay "Imagining the Future" by observing "I am a designer, which means I cannot afford the luxury of cynicism."  The language is loaded, I know; I'm not sure I would ever suggest that cynicism is a luxury, as if it were some kind of warm, deep bath that we'd all like to immerse our aching bodies in from time to time.  If I could imagine cynicism as something available to our senses, it would be sour lemonade or lukewarm coffee.  All the same, I take his point:  there are some occupations that don't mix well with cynicism.  First, Mau's historical horizon is something he calls the "Long Now."  If we don't make our judgments of the current moment simply based on our impressions of that very moment and the few months leading up to it,  but appreciate the way our own time is simply the crescendo that's been building for quite a number of years, we can see how much life has improved.  As he points out, fewer people in the world are either hungry or sick from preventable diseases; child mortality rates have dropped while life expectancy has grown.  Second, as a designer he solves problems, perhaps with air traffic control systems or with machines that make kidney dialysis possible at home, and there is something inherently optimistic about solving problems and building new things.

I am a teacher, which means I'm not inclined to cynicism:  that's how I'd revise his sentence to fit me.  There must be some cynical people who teach; or people who teach may have parts of their lives that they're cynical about.  I can easily get cynical about politicians and about the whole political process.  I can certainly be cynical about how capitalism is shaking out in the early twenty-first century, particularly when "free (and hopefully unregulated) markets" are touted as the cure for everything.  I'm with Mark Kingwell on this one:  we're happier with more time to reflect, to spend with friends, to form supportive communities than we are with the latest gadget or fashion.  I'm not so much of PollyAnna that I don't realize that some students will try to play me, which is okay because there are natural consequences for missing classes or missing deadlines:  those students won't do well in my class, though the next time I see them in the hallway I'm still a friendly face.  I've just let the universe unfold as it will.

In some ways, it's particular groups of students who inspire my optimism.  Students in writing classes, whether it's "Introduction to Creative Writing" or the seemingly more drab "Expository and Persuasive Writing" always make me feel hopeful.  I've got fourteen remarkable young people in my Expository and Persuasive Writing class, which I I began by telling them that I want them to develop their own "credible voice." This means creating a voice that sounds like them, with its own individual cadence and vocabulary and world view--but that's just the "voice" part.  Being credible also entails paying attention to details like learning to use semi-colons rather than simply and blithely committing comma splices.  Being credible means using precise language and getting your Works Cited page right. They're more than willing to work to achieve this kind of credibility.   In this class, I have students who make films and students who are involved in dance.  I have students who do volunteer work with people with disabilities, but who can see beyond those disabilities to the spirits and wisdom of their clients.  I have students who work at Dojack because it makes them feel good to help others.  I have half a dozen people, at least, who should be in creative writing classes:  so vivid are their ideas about anxiety or happiness or depression.  I have students who are intensely curious about how society works, students involved in the political process.  I also have young people who are simply cheerful and curious.  Every day is an adventure with them, and rather than dreading my marking, I look forward to it:  spending time with their minds and words is an adventure.  How could I not be optimistic about a world where young people care about ideas--about exploring and expressing ideas?

The other class I'm teaching is Jane Austen.  There, my 24 fellow travelers will read 1,663 pages of some of the clearest, most exquisite yet workmanlike prose in English.  They will all write better after they finish the class.  They are curious about the historical period that gave rise to Austen's novels, yet they see that some elements of those novels echo their own circumstances.  Elizabeth Bennet and Catherine Morland and Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood are caught between two ideas of marriage:  the older generation believed that marriage ought to be a contract that improves the position of the family as a whole either economically or socially, while the younger generation hoped to marry for love and companionship.  Similarly, my students are aware of the way in which a particular historical moment limits or shapes the possibilities of their lives.  History isn't something "out there," visible in battles and elections.  The individual is often strangely and inextricably touched by it.

We have just begun Pride and Prejudice, rightly everybody's favourite.  I've taught Austen enough to know that once they've waded through Sense and Sensibility (we begin with Northanger Abbey, which is simply a fun spoof but gets us used to Austen's language and syntax), they seem to simply understand the rules of Austen's plots and worlds.  We proceed mostly with questions and answers, and create a lively conversation in the classroom.  Today, as a prelude to a discussion of the relationship between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, we talked about the world views and moral assumptions of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and dear generous Jane. My students are insightful about the way such worldviews blind or betray some of the characters both morally and practically.  Were Austen to suddenly appear in my classroom, ready to chat with them about her novels, she would be delighted with their observations.

The first batch of essays is due in the Austen class tomorrow, so the romance may wane a bit.  I may grit my teeth over paragraphs that aren't coherent or my 23rd comma splice over the last hour.  But I've often thought that it's just as rational to think the glass is half full as to conclude that it's half empty.  That seems about right to me:  there just about as much stupidity and greed and cruelty in the world as their is generosity, curiosity, and happiness.  I'm lucky, though.  My students make it much more difficult to just give in to despair and hopelessness.  Yes, much is wrong with the world, but I see the growth of a generation that is insightful, thoughtful, and compassionate.  I want to spend as much time with them as I can.  Fortunately, they put up with me.


  1. "there just about as much stupidity and greed and cruelty in the world as their is generosity, curiosity, and happiness."

    There is way more generosity, curiosity and happiness in the world than there is stupidity, greed and cruelty. Way more!! That's what I see in the people around me, anyway. It's only the news that makes it appear otherwise.

  2. If I am looking at the friends I've gathered around me, I see the same thing you see: generosity, curiosity, and happiness. I'll also admit that I believe the news skews our perceptions. But if I look at the way people behave in elections, as the way shopping is seen as a road to happiness, at corporate CEO salaries, at the way many of our leaders are willing to destroy the environment (just refusing to protect it is bad enough), then I see stupidity, greed and cruelty. Here in Regina, we've decided that a building a football stadium (which will help the constructions industry and serve a small slice of Regina's population) is more important than affordable housing. How stupid is that?

  3. I agree Kathleen that there is plenty of B.S. that leaves any sensible person hornswoggled. What are they thinking? Not straight, that's for sure. Stupidity, greed and cruelty surely exist and do get their way all too often. The results get the media attention, while the good, natural stuff does not ... because it's too everyday. My conclusion is that there is way more g, c and h in the world than s, g and c. Otherwise the latter wouldn't even make the news.

    I'm not saying that people don't disappoint. They often do, eventually.

    The above has an essay on the origins of cynicism, which I thought interesting, and connected to the dicussion on your blog.

    I agree with your frustration over city politics. For the first time in my life I see money in this province, and it would have been better to use it to take care of needs, rather than indulge in wants of a few. The good times won't last, not with non-renewable resources providing the source of this wealth, and there will come a day when affordable housing will be needed even more that it is now. This is poor planning, and I applaud the candidates and voters who chose their priorities more wisely.