Teaching inside the moment

Dale Salwak on the sudden realisation that knowledge of his subject had become intuitive understanding and lecture notes could be put aside when teaching

April 4, 2013

Source: Getty

I tell students to resist the urge to dash through; they should slow down and consciously use those precious hours to read until the voice of the author blots out all other concerns

One autumn morning in 1985, when I was 12 years into my teaching career, I had an experience that transformed both me and my professional life.

I was leading my class through William Wordsworth’s The Prelude when suddenly I realised that I was not relying on my carefully prepared lecture notes. I was not thinking about what ideas or questions should come next.

For the first time in my career, I felt, with utter calm and clarity, that I “owned” the material, that I was inside the poem itself. To borrow from William Butler Yeats’ Among School Children, the dancer and the dance had become one, affording me an intimacy with the text and the author’s meaning that I had not known before and that continues to this day.

This feeling is like that of many musicians who speak of growing increasingly close to the art they love. Finally, they reach that exquisite moment and experience a perfect congruence of artist, audience and music, as if all roads had led to that one complete performance.

Having learned to trust the flow of the moment, the performers effortlessly inhabit the music they are playing. Some arrive there early in their careers; some, later; others, never at all. But as for the musician, so for the teacher and the student.

My transformation did not come early. It could not be forced or hastened. Since childhood I have been an avid reader, and so a delight in the printed page, with a fondness for words and what could be done with them, were already deeply rooted long before I had begun to teach.

But, like many teachers at the beginning of their career, I was an outsider looking in. I could communicate my appreciation for the texts and their creators, but knew I was teaching very little that was truly original about what my students and I were reading. I could address the words but not the spirit of the piece.

Graduate school at the University of Southern California had taught me what to say about novels, plays and poems, and how to say it. I had become familiar with the subject matter, the social and cultural contexts, and most of the theoretical approaches to reading deeply.

But in the classroom I was imitating my wise and considerate professors and rarely trusting my own insights or speaking my own words. No matter how much I studied I felt limited, stuck at the surface, confined to enjoy and admire, but from a distance.

All this, I now realise, rang false with me. More importantly, my students may also have found it superficial. There is a difference between reading the material and knowing it, between understanding the material and living inside it, and I could sense the difference but not pierce the barriers.

Thinking back on that period, perhaps my increasing awareness that I was missing something made me look harder for it. As my intimacy with the text and its creator deepened, and as my confidence in the classroom grew, I sought out nuances to free my mind from the bonds of the standard interpretation and look for all possibilities of understanding.

I began to take intellectual chances by coming to The Prelude on the author’s terms and allowing myself to be drawn into his world as if I were born to it. I imagined myself as Wordsworth. What would it be like to be him? How would it feel if I adopted his beliefs? What qualities of him do I find in myself?

In other words, I found ways to befriend the text, and discovered that, as in all good friendships, removing my narrow expectations was both liberating and fulfilling. I heard and understood more than ever before.

What I learned from that experience with Wordsworth I now try to apply to every class and to every reading. No matter what I teach or how many times I teach it, the material at hand is always fresh, always alive, because I am discovering new interpretations of the work, more details about the author’s life, and greater insights into my students and myself as we examine the piece and work together towards a deeper understanding of it. In other words, the process itself supports the quality of the illumination - the more we look, the more we see.

I’m no longer tied to a sheaf of notes. Now, when I walk into the classroom, I bring with me the text and a card or two on which I’ve written in sequence some bullet points, perhaps a couple of questions. Although I want to add to my students’ understanding, to the precision and clarity of their thoughts, I don’t know in advance how I will achieve that. A lot depends on their responses, their questions and the flow of that day’s discussion. This approach is risky, but I want them to feel we are making discoveries together.

My professional life has been revitalised as a result, and during every semester I encourage my students to dive deep into the text, and into their own thoughts. They have come to expect that of me, and of themselves, and most of them believe that anything less than the challenge of total engagement - whether it’s reading at a deep level or climbing a mountain - can limit both their education and their lives.

Music conductor

The highest goal of teaching is transformation. The best teachers, through their knowledge, enthusiasm, insight, encouragement and high expectations, catalyse in their students a desire to ask questions and to seek answers and, in the words of Marcel Proust from The Prisoner and the Fugitive, “to possess other eyes”.

And so, after telling students about my epiphany as described above, I make the following suggestions about how to prepare themselves for the golden moment when they, too, will step beyond self-imposed boundaries and tap into the passion that drove the author to create the work we’re studying.

First, I suggest, they must find a way to focus their attention, both external and internal. I point out that there is bred in our society a cynicism towards interiority, and our education system resists the slow, methodical exploration required to achieve real insight. When classes are primarily focused on results, on the usable - and perhaps marketable - end product, they fail to deliver the less tangible but no less valuable understanding that true learning represents. There is something desperately wrong about that idea.

I tell students to resist the urge to dash through, to get one task finished simply so that they can move on to another. Instead, they should slow down and consciously use those precious hours in the classroom or in personal study to read until the voice of the author blots out all other concerns.

One method I use to establish an atmosphere conducive to deep thinking is rather simple but highly effective - I quite literally dim the lights so we can “see” the light.

Ironically, it is easier to hide from ourselves in brightness than it is in subdued lighting. Shadows, the slightly obscure, the subtly veiled - all invite deep talk, reflection and honesty, whereas bright lights may encourage superficiality and banality and deceit.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that most of what we now consider the great classics of literature were penned in the shimmer of candlelight. Darkness is primal; it soothes, invites and relaxes. Voices lower. Thoughts emerge with greater care and ease and openness.

But the real change comes only if readers surrender themselves to the authority of the text they are studying. Only when we immerse our whole imagination utterly into the scenes, the sensations, the ideas, the language, the emotions of a text - into its soul - can we establish an intimacy with its contents and its creator.

There are risks in any intimate relationship. I caution my students not to be surprised to find that part of their mind may rebel against surrendering to the text, for becoming one with the material requires a certain degree of submission to the authority of another.

Our culture promotes individuality and striving for leadership; we are taught that making our own way and determining our own system of values is inherently good. Thus it can be disquieting to submit to another’s control of the information, ideas and emotions expressed within the book’s covers. Engaging an author on his or her own terms requires an exercise in trust, and it can be hard to take our hands off the wheel, intellectually and otherwise.

My wish is that students might find enough patience within themselves to endure any temporary discomfort, and enough innocence to have faith that in the end, their journey will provide immense rewards no matter how difficult the passage itself.

When teaching Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, I tell how, years after I first read the novella, its brooding message about human depravity came home to me in a piercing assault on my spirit when I met a man like Kurtz whose insatiable hunger for power drove him to selfishness and brutality. I invite students to enter and bear the weight of their own fears or doubts or sadness if a work leads to that place; with luck, the text can illuminate their own heart of darkness and lead them away from it.

I also point out that by submitting to the author’s world, they can experience the brilliant flashes of a Shakespeare comedy or the transcendence of Dante’s triumph over death and despair. Inviting students to use the text to explore the fabric of their own lives can open the way towards a new appreciation of both the darkness and the light within.

As one student wrote to me: “When we studied Paradise Lost, I failed to grasp even the briefest, seemingly most straightforward line. But I vowed to try again. And again.” She then concluded: “For me to read this poem and be reminded of my own pride, my own rebellion against God, is really frightening. Although a long path to full recovery lies in front of me, I am journeying in the right direction. Thank you for assigning it.”

The main point of teaching is to direct a student’s attention towards a text that at first exceeds his or her grasp, but whose compelling stature and fascination will ultimately draw the learner in and carry him along.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was correct when he observed in his journal from 1834: “The whole secret of the teacher’s force lies in the conviction that men [and women] are convertible. And they are. They want awakening.”

Ultimately we teach because it can awaken both teacher and student by opening their eyes, maybe even their hearts, to truths about themselves and their world. “What we have loved others will love,” wrote Wordsworth to his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Prelude, “and we will teach them how.” That is and always has been the challenge, the fun - the thrill - of our profession.

‘Learning to read in Russian helps me to identify with my students learning English’

It’s that I can’t sweep over it, breathe it in and rush on. I can’t rush with Russian.

When I do, I fail as miserably as some of the students in my remedial reading class. They miss a multitude of clues! Tenses, endings of all kinds, plurals, prefixes, roots, punctuation. They confuse hairpin with harpoon, were with we’re, patients with patience!

Just as I do, in Russian.

So I have to be really humble when it comes to Russian and pretty sympathetic when it comes to my students.

For the past five or six years I’ve been gauging my progress in reading Russian by comparing it with my students’ reading in English. Sometimes I’m way ahead. Other times, especially in the classroom, as we read aloud, for instance, one of Firoozeh Dumas’ sharp, funny essays about growing up in an immigrant Iranian family in California, I realise Liza, who will probably not pass the reading exams this semester, is beaming, beaming! She laughs at all the right places - and that is indicative to me that the state-wide reading exams are too crude to appreciate Liza’s real comprehension.

I see also how well my students understand and use conversational English. Reading a story aloud with them they really get it, much better than I could if it were in Russian and a native speaker were reading it to me. I would be seeing it only in flashes, a glimpse now and then, through fog.

My students like stories - they appreciate comprehension as much as I do - and while we both experience frustration when for grammatical and vocabulary reasons the stories resist us, I know that I have an appetite for understanding words on a page that’s greater than my frustration. I’m sure if I looked at a Chinese or Arabic translation of Pride and Prejudice long enough, I’d eventually get it (yes, I’m deluded about that, but my hero Tolstoy did it. He learned a foreign language by poring over the book he knew by heart in Russian, the New Testament, in Greek.)

Many of my students, on the other hand, wouldn’t care if my clever choice of a New York Times article was written in the sky or on the wall or in the language of their choice. For some, reading in any language is as dreary an exercise as shovelling a hill of dirt that’s blocking their way to their mobile phone. All they want is for it to disappear. Who cares what you could find in that stuff? Just get it out of the way!

I set myself to learning Russian because I wanted to read Anna Karenina in Russian, and now I’ve done it and have begun wending my way through Chekhov’s stories. I’m sometimes ashamed of myself for how proud I am, but it’s partly because it’s in contrast to how I feel when I read a book in English. That is, I feel almost no sense of accomplishment. It would be as if I felt a sense of accomplishment for eating my dinner.

I review books for newspapers, I edit anthologies, I burrow through books like a gopher through a lush lawn. That’s just what I do. So I’m not conscious of reading any more unless I’m reading Russian. There is so much resistance, for instance, in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Reading it cold, having read it only once in English (I had read Anna Karenina in English 20 times), how am I to know what’s going on? I am continually bewildered, fighting the cave-ins of my gopher hole.

Or another image: reading in English is like knowing that the mountainside in the distance that looks nice and smooth is actually, if not exactly smooth, completely hikeable. It’s like knowing from experience that I can even read Sir Walter Scott with ease, if not a little pleasure. Yet when I’m climbing a novel in Russian, I experience how steep and shifty it is, how crumbly here and there, how precarious my hold is, how slick the surface, how hot and then cool the air is. Stumbling, finding my footing, regaining my balance, I become so alert, my attention is so fully demanded, that I feel alive.

There are moments when I’m so focused I’m like a child again - slowly, slowly seeing the meaning crack through the hard crust of language - and then the dawning of understanding: “Before me stood…beauty” (a beauty? the beauty? I hesitate and go on) “and I understood this from glance” (must be a glance) “in same way that I understand molniyu…”

What’s that word? It’s not “prayer”, is it?…oh my gosh, it’s “lightning”!

I gape and gawp. I’m struck by lightning. In English I get this line from Chekhov’s The Beauties so fast, it almost doesn’t register. Russian makes me read words and even though I see them hazily before the fog clears, when one meaning of the phrase coalesces, the others start to sharpen too, and the picture develops the way English used to for me. When I’ve managed to engage my students, they have that same glorious experience too. I read Russian because it makes me read, gives me something that English less often gives me any more, the slow shock of understanding.

When I see my students in the classroom break into smiles or snort at a sarcastic remark by Firoozeh Dumas or Langston Hughes’ fast-talking comedian Jesse B. Semple, I know just what they’re feeling - and we’re equals - and I envy them.

Bob Blaisdell is professor of English, Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York.

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