A Premise of Generosity

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It has taken me most of my life to understand that it’s not only reasonable but necessary to expect a basic generosity in everyday relationships. That is, I now expect that people will not condemn each other for a simple mistake, or look for fault in each other, or reject those with whom they disagree. This does not mean that everyone has to be friends or that people must surround themselves with “positivity.” You can have people around you who offer criticism at times, who go through their ups and downs, and who are not always there for you in a literal sense. But just as they have their own limits and imperfections, they will allow for limits and imperfections in others. Most important of all, they will let the relationship–be it a work relationship, friendship, family relationship, or romantic relationship–continue over the long term, unless it comes to a true impasse.

In my early adulthood, and here and there later on, I lived with intense fear that people would reject or leave me, especially people within my general age range. (I was much more confident, say, in my rapport with professors and teachers.) There were various sources of this fear, but there was a blind spot too. What I didn’t understand was that I could set a standard of basic generosity, both for others’ treatment of me and for my treatment of others. That is, if someone were to reject me out of hand, for a small mistake or for something in my personality, then that relationship would not meet the standard and did not deserve my focus anyway. This doesn’t mean that the other person was unworthy. Rather, the relationship was.

Rejections and fallouts will still happen, even with a premise of generosity. Some people do not click. Some are so persistent with their destructive habits that they drive others past their patience. But a basic generosity allows you to get to know a person, to tolerate a range of personalities and quirks, and to be tolerated as well. There is a mutuality to it.

How strange that, now that I understand this fully, I see us moving into a culture of condemnation: where a teenager’s college admission can be revoked because of an obnoxious tweet, where someone can lose a top editorial position for publishing a poem deemed offensive, where people dig up dirt from others’ pasts just to ruin their reputations, or, short of all of this, where people just assume and post the worst about each other. Why are people so eager to hurt each other and so sure of their justification for doing so?

Part of this has to do with a rejection of contradictions. People are not allowed to have internal conflicts; if their words and actions don’t all line up, they get blasted as hypocrites. But contradictions make people interesting. At times (not always), they go deeper than consistencies, since there are questions, uncertainties, and discrepancies that we wrestle with–or neglect to wrestle with–our entire lives. Sometimes there’s even a larger consistency holding the seeming inconsistency together.

This morning I finished a new translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei. It’s the sixteenth of his poems that I have translated so far. It tells the story of one afternoon in elementary school when the principal visits the class–the one and only time she does so. She’s a rather grotesque figure–short, pudgy, old, with lipstick smearing onto her front teeth–and she begins by asking the children a question and turning it into a silly pun with a consonant change. But even as the children smile, and then laugh, they sense, with slight anxiety, that the principal has the freedom to do whatever she pleases: she can joke, smile, yell, anything. Poem-time passes by; the narrator tells us that he later teases his children with the same joke, and the thoughts about this lead into a surprising ending. I don’t want to say more about it, because it is better as a poem, and I don’t want to quote it just yet. But I thought about the narrator’s perception in this poem: how he sees his changing roles in time, how the poem’s mild villain, the principal (not really a villain, but a little bit scary all the same), could be any of us.

That is the contradiction that people don’t want to accept: that each of us is capable of being–or perhaps already is–many of the things we fear and reject. Not across the board, but enough to give a person pause. And if I am those things, I can allow them in others too.

I took the photo in Budapest on Thursday evening. Also, I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

 

The Precipice of Teaching

On a good day, when I go before one of my classes and give a presentation, students pelt me with pertinent questions. At least one of them stumps me. In some cases, I am missing a piece of information; in others, I knew the answer (or various answers) once but have forgotten. In others still, I haven’t considered the matter before—or find that the question topples everything I was saying, or at least a good chunk of it. Finding myself stumped is one of the best parts of teaching; for the students, much depends on how I handle it. Being able to say “I don’t know”—but also being able to hold my own—tells the students that adulthood is not just a realm of rules and answers, nor is education.

I could give examples galore, but I generally refrain from describing my classroom experience on this blog. I want to keep confidentiality, for one thing; for another, I don’t see this blog as a diary. I would not keep a public diary; it would be superficial. But closing off that option opens up others. I will look today at the precipice of teaching and how many of the educational fads aim to sand it out of existence.

You go before your students with the knowledge and understanding you have at a given time—what you have learned until now, what you have thought about, and what you can pull together for the moment and in the moment. You offer something to them and then start up discussion. They learn from you what it means to pull thoughts and knowledge together into something coherent. They look for missing pieces, contradictions, pitfalls in what you have said—and that’s exactly what they should be doing.

But teachers are under great pressure to abstain from direct teaching altogether—or to teach generic skills, which rarely provoke such questions; or to “individualize” instruction so that each student is working at his or her own pace; or to teach from a script, so as to preclude uncertainty or error. I will take a look at three of these tendencies. I have discussed them at length in other blogs and articles but not specifically in relation to the “precipice.”

According to proponents of “student-centered education,” a teacher should not do much talking. Instead, she should get the students talking as soon as possible—in groups, in pairs, in whole-class discussion—and refrain from passing judgment on what they say. She should not present herself as an authority figure, as someone who knows a subject; instead, she should indicate through every gesture that she and the students are learning together. Or else, if she does give a presentation, it should be very brief and should touch on the points that the students absolutely need to know before they begin their own work. Lecturing verges on crime, since it encourages passivity.

Now, that is nonsense on many levels—but I will address the question of lecturing. I wouldn’t dream of lecturing to high school students for the entire period, day after day. They need dialogue. But a twenty-minute presentation, at the start of a unit or topic, strikes me as entirely appropriate. If the students learn how to listen to me, and how to assemble and question what I am saying, then they will also be better prepared to listen to the books they are reading and to themselves. If they never have to listen to a teacher for long, then they never find the edges of what she is saying. Both they and the teacher drown in a bog of patness, where nothing gets challenged and nothing seems controversial. Even if the students debate questions, they respond to snippets, not ideas; they wield sticks, not dodecahedra.

Next, we have instruction that focuses on skills. Instead of leading a discussion of the nature of folly in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, a teacher might announce that the point of the lesson is to relate details to the whole—and might then read a passage, identify a detail, and show how it relates to the text’s overall meaning. Students would then practice doing this on their own, either with the same text or with a variety of texts. This approach has numerous problems and limitations; first of all, you miss out on a great deal if you do not discuss the actual substance of the work. You flatten it if you treat it as a means to a skill. (Of course one should encourage students to relate details to the whole–but it’s another matter to subordinate the text to this.) When it comes to precipice, there just isn’t any. Unless a student challenges your own “modeling” of the skill, there isn’t much at stake in what you are teaching. It can’t go very wrong, precisely because it can’t go very right.

I’ll skip over individualized learning, since the problems there are similar to those discussed above, and proceed to the last one, scripted instruction, which doesn’t get much publicity lately but has some diehard devotees.

Proponents of scripted curricula argue that such programs have proven results—so if you use a different curriculum and can’t show equal or better results, you are shortchanging your kids. I have entered many regrettable arguments over this (regrettable because they go nowhere) but will point out, first of all, that results have meaning only in relation to a goal. If you want students to learn what Plato and Aristotle had to say, that’s different from wanting them to show progress on standardized tests of reading comprehension. The two goals may not always be at odds, but at times they might. “Results” in the abstract mean nothing. You must explain what you are trying to do. Part of what I want to do is introduce my students to intellectual life. Can I do this through a script? Possibly, if the script is of high intellectual quality. I could take, for instance, a lecture by a scholar, work and think through it, adapt for my class, and present it with full credit to its author. But even there, I would stay open to the risks of posing and answering questions. If the script forbade such departures, or if it reflected poor thinking about the subject, I would not teach from it, period. I would rather leave teaching altogether than subject myself or my students to this. The safety here is of a deadly sort.

Some may say that a script minimizes the damage that comes from faulty instruction–and that it’s better to say things right than to use your own mind and get it all wrong. Well, if things are that bad, if my own knowledge is so poor that my lessons would mislead students, then I would want to gain competence or go do something else. To me, there is no point in pursuing a profession in which I cannot use my mind to the fullest. Give me a routine day job, with limited hours, so that I can then do what I want in my own time. If I am to work as a teacher, putting most of my life into it, then I should be able to create my own lessons. There should be room for that much joy.

Students look to a teacher not only for what they have to learn right now, but for what lies ahead, in the subject and in their lives. Consciously or not, they take cues from a teacher’s manner. If a teacher can go to those places of uncertainty, grapple with difficult questions, admit to error, or give a fuller and richer explanation than the initial one, then they start to sense that life does not get all packaged up as soon as they reach a certain age. They grasp that you don’t just learn a subject and set it aside. It keeps following you around and pestering you; it makes you turn around and say, “what, what, what?” and then it holds up something you’ve never seen before, something that makes you drop your hands and stand still for a little while.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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