What You Do Does Matter

Full vitae confused teacher

Image: Blondinrikard Fröberg, Creative Commons

In the classroom, I am sometimes troubled by a dispiriting sense of being ineffectual and ignored. After teaching what seems to have been an unsuccessful class, I berate and belittle myself. I am a bad teacher, one of the worst. Students aren’t listening and don’t care. Literature, my subject, is passé — and people like me who are still foolish enough to be teaching it are a dying, if not laughable, breed.

Yet the dark mood passes, and I teach another day with renewed conviction — even if some students are apathetic, even if the cause is hopeless, even if the profession is dying. When I look around for people to thank for what I can only call my irrational faith in what I do, my mind turns to Samuel Johnson and, in particular, to a passage from his 1759 novel, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.

Granted, not the most obvious source of inspiration; but hear me out.

In the novel, the young Prince Rasselas is on a quest for "the choice of life." Accompanying him is his teacher, Imlac, who has traveled widely, seen life, and is, in addition, a poet. Rasselas has fled Abyssinia — a.k.a., "the Happy Valley," where life is idyllic but static — and begun, with Imlac, to explore the world. As they travel, Imlac tells the story of his life, which is exciting enough to hold the young Prince’s attention until chapter 10, when Imlac digresses to discuss his favorite subject, poetry.

Imlac loves poetry so much he can’t stop talking about it. He extolls it as the grandest of all vocations and runs through a breathless litany of its burdens. "To a poet," says Imlac, nearly overcome with emotion, "nothing can be useless." The poet must understand all the conditions and stages of human life; he must be able to express the great "transcendental truths" of human experience so well as to be clearly understood by others, so that the poet becomes, Imlac declares, in words that anticipate Percy Shelley, "the legislator of mankind."

In the midst of this paean to poetry, the Prince, unable to contain his impatience, breaks in with a shout, "Enough! Thou hast convinced me, that no human being can ever be a poet. Proceed with thy narration." And with that the discourse on poetry comes to an end.

It’s as if Imlac had been inflating a huge and lovely balloon, and the upstart Prince had stuck it with a pin. How humiliating, and potentially irritating. A lesser teacher might show some indignation, lash out — as I once did, years ago, when students said they were bored by my favorite poet and I responded by ending class on the spot.

You could say I reacted badly. But Imlac is a great teacher and shows it by what he does — and does not do — at this critical juncture.

First, rather than react defensively, he acquiesces in Rasselas’s demand and resumes the story of his life. And second, he does not retract one scrap or iota of his extravagant praise of poetry. Nothing in the text suggests that he is in any way ashamed or embarrassed by anything he has said. Far from striking back at his student and retreating into a shell of self-pity, as I did years ago, Imlac remains firmly on his feet for another 38 chapters — teaching.

Those two chapters of The History of Rasselas have moved and formed me for many years. I offer the following notes on teaching, inspired, in part, by Imlac’s example.

Note No. 1: Cultivate paradoxical vision. Pursue a vision in your classroom that embraces opposite extremes, simultaneously and with equal fervor. I view my work as extremely significant, and my egotistical self as extremely insignificant.

While Imlac’s praise of poets knows no limits, it would never occur to him to praise himself. He displays gravitas toward his subject and carelessness concerning himself, which is nowhere better shown than in his response to the Prince’s impertinent outburst. Likewise, when I enter the classroom, I teach as if I am doing the most important work on earth at that moment. I believe, truly, that I am. At the same time, I can never be conscious enough of my extreme personal insignificance. If I stumble — if I make a fool of myself or show my ignorance in some way — it’s quite likely no one will notice or remember. I strive to recognize myself as one little human being among billions who is destined, as Johnson once wrote elsewhere, "to fill a vacant hour with prattle and be forgotten."

Another paradox: In leaving the unchanging environment of Happy Valley and traveling the world, the Prince is emerging from a kind of slumber. Imlac seems to know it, and this helps account for his patience. I, too, find it helpful to believe that my students are profoundly asleep. That way, I am both spurred on by a conviction that they want to wake up to learn and not so upset if a student literally nods off in class.

Which brings me to the subject of electronics and literature. Many faculty members worry that students are too addicted to their phones to be interested in literature. Perhaps some students are addicted, but many others just haven’t been introduced to something better than phones. They may be asleep but want, subconsciously, to be awakened.

That’s why, for the past 20 years, I have required students in all of my classes to carry around a small notepad for recording their passing thoughts and observations — on-the-run, whenever and wherever thoughts occur. The goal is to improve their attention, collect ideas for further development, and build a personal identity. While some students initially grumble about the assignment, by the end of the semester many enjoy it, and a few become as attached to their paper notepads as they are to their phones. They discover that writing down their thoughts is a way for them to connect privately with themselves in a way that they cannot in the world of social media.

Note No. 2: Love your students. Imlac so loves his young charge that he can and will withstand any amount of abuse from the Prince. Rebuffs only cause Imlac to care more passionately. To me, loving students means two things:

  • Knowing their names.
  • Listening to their stories, oral or written.

Loving my students means understanding that they are people, with strengths and weaknesses — and one of those weaknesses may be no background in literature. When I learn about my students’ problems, my own problems pale and my precious ego along with them. That woman in the back row with her head on her desk works 60 hours a week. I’d be sleepy, too; and I’m overjoyed that she’s here, if only to physically occupy a seat. It’s a start.

Note No. 3: What we do matters. I need to rest assured that something I say or do will have effect, even if, most likely, I will never see it.

In taking on a young, naïve pupil like Rasselas, Imlac shows he has faith in small seeds of ideas and is content if even a few out of a thousand germinate. Small ideas sink in — they do — although it’s often impossible to say which ones, and into whom. I learned that from my own teachers:

  • At a parent-teacher conference nearly a half-century ago, my eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Sandway, told my parents that "Some people think so much that they can’t write"; and the idea has stuck with me ever since and has motivated me to try to think less when I write — or rather, to think less hard.
  • One of my graduate-school professors, Jarvis Thurston, described the poetry of Yeats as "passionate speech." Ever since, I have tried to infuse my own writing with qualities of passionate speech.
  • My dissertation adviser told me, when I was about to drown myself in the critical literature, "Don’t let anything impede your writing, John." He taught me a lesson that I, in turn, pass on to my students: Read; read all that you can — but also write; make your own mark while you can.

All of those teachers and mentors are dead now. None could have known they had planted seeds in my mind and that I would be describing them today as important influences in my life. I can only believe that I am also planting seeds in the minds of my students, although I am as unlikely as my own teachers to ever see the results for myself.

Johnson famously ends his book with a chapter "in which nothing is concluded." I will end my essay in the same spirit, inconclusively, with a thought and a quotation.

Each of us thinks, from time to time, I’m not having any effect. And each of us is wrong.

"The business of life," Johnson writes in No. 137 of "The Adventurer," "is carried on by a general co-operation; in which the part of any single man can be no more distinguished, than the effect of a particular drop when the meadows are floated by a summer shower: yet every drop increases the inundation, and every hand adds to the happiness or misery of mankind."


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