in which I wait for Godot in a room smelling of guacamole, and I consider how to teach things I don’t know

I taught two courses as a graduate student: Global Modernism and Its Successors: An Introduction and Children’s Literature. Both were full of useful screw-ups, but let’s focus on the louder failure.

Global Modernism and Its Successors, a course not of my choosing or design, was assigned to all aspiring English PhDs at my university. That syllabus included on its reading list some books I had never read and, in the case of Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera could not entirely read, alongside books I had read so many times their words skittered over my brain like marbles (hello, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and others I’d tried to read many times, stalling around page 50. That would be Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, which I’ve since navigated, and enjoyed, twice.

During that semester, prospective freshmen and their parents would occasionally visit Screen Shot 2019-02-10 at 5.34.33 PMmy class. At these moments I suspect my sparkling performance was meant to persuade skeptical-of-an-English-major parents that they should pay for their 18-year-old children to attend classes like this one. I remember a family sitting in the back while I labored through Beckett, feeling like I was not simply talking about but decidedly enacting the theater of the absurd. Looking back at my teaching notes for that day, I see a desperate question that I apparently leveled at my students:

Who is Godot? What is Godot? Is this an important question?

Oh bless your heart, past me.

The thing is, while I had been a TA twice before, I had never taught an entire course on my own. I had never tried to explain postmodernism, an endeavor I do not recommend to anyone, ever. I had never encountered a student who, pencil aligned perfectly with the edge of the desk, waited to write down every word I said while another came in 25 minutes late wearing headphones, only to sit in the front row and noisily de-foil a burrito. (Honestly, the note-taking student is scarier sometimes.) I didn’t know what I was doing, and most importantly, I didn’t know that this state of not knowingness is where I would remain. It is where I live today. There are gifs about it, so I assume I’m not alone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how English PhDs learn to teach, mostly because I am now officially the Director of Graduate Studies in my department and in frequent conversation with students preparing to lead their first literature courses. (Our graduate students teach first-year writing as soon as they arrive and take coursework in support of that assignment.) Those students have been thinking a lot about what they want to learn before heading up their own theater of the absurd and, like true academics, they want to learn a lot.

Mostly, like the graduate students in our program, I want to learn things about teaching, too, and I plan to do so alongside them. But in the spirit of leadership, I’ve been trying to think of the things about teaching, harvested from my failures, that I want to teach to other people. And I think my niche, predictably, is how to teach things you do not know to a room full of people who share your ignorance. (In fact, I bought this book just before I moved to Connecticut, anticipating that teaching things I don’t know would be my jam. It’s pretty good. I recommend it, even though upon arriving in Storrs I wondered if I should hide it. Would that book, sitting conspicuously in my office, breed any regrets in the hearts of the hiring committee?)

It turns out that if you get a job at a university, you will be asked to teach things you don’t know with surprising frequency. Can anyone make it through a literature survey or a genre course — much less one of those courses with titles like All Literature of All Time From Antiquity through Tomorrow, Mostly Written by White Men — without encountering a few unfamiliar texts and topics? I am unsettlingly familiar with every detail of Peter Pan, from Smee’s love of the domestic arts to Peter’s weird baby teeth, but I don’t teach it very often. I have, however, recently led a class on Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and another on the dynamics of emotional labor, territory much less familiar than Neverland. And both of those were in courses in my field.

[Related to this is teaching things you don’t like, both willingly – which I think is advisable now and then – and unwillingly – which is inevitable.]

So it’s often our job to teach what we don’t know, and yet in the degree leading up to that job we’re often trained to speedily fill any shameful gaps in our knowledge and hide those we cannot remedy. As graduate students in seminars and especially as late-PhD-program students taking exams and writing dissertations, we strive toward authority. I think this is true even in the friendliest of graduate programs, one of which I attended, so I can only imagine how intellectual blind spots are shamed in more cut-throat departments. You assume you are meant to Master Your Field, although inevitably that goal devolves into knowing about a corner of your field. Mastery is impossible.

And incredibly tedious.

Part of learning to teach, then, is learning to be comfortable with your incomplete knowledge, even in situations when some think you should know everything. I’ve written a little bit about this before, because I’m still working on it, but I’m trying to devise – in addition to sarcastic, self-deprecating blog posts – more on-the-ground strategies to use in those I-don’t-know classrooms.

Looking back at Global Modernisms, I realized that my flailing teaching plans are useful, although not in the way I intended. It turns out that my notes for that first class on Beckett are four single-spaced pages of questions like that Godot one above, each query followed by my own answer (written as a paragraph, which would be nearly impossible to read on-the-fly while teaching, especially if that distracting burrito student had finally sauntered in, filling the room with the aroma of guacamole). I wrote those questions in the sincere hope that my students would provide their own answers, and certainly not answers that mimic my own, but I didn’t trust them, and I didn’t trust my ability to fill the resulting silence without resorting to frantic, copious Knowledge. The last line of that day’s notes reads:

{SLIDE FIVE} is a link to a video of Lucky’s tirade, if we need something to fill the time.

There will be no time to fill, Present Me muses, aching with empathy for Godot Me, because I have filled the room to bursting with my words. All those words demonstrating everything I know about Beckett. All learned within the week.

It turns out that I should have stopped with the Godot question, which is the best one after all. Who is Godot? What is Godot? Is this an important question? I can’t tell if that last bit was meant to be asked of my students or if it is residue of self-doubt, but I probably could have paused there and filled the rest of the class period. Is that an important question? How do we know? How do we learn how to ask questions of the things we read that do not stop short at a dense paragraph of answers but instead fold and unfold into different shapes, like origami? How do we ask a question when we’re not sure which questions sound smart, which sound ignorant? Is that an important question?

Day one of my next class: planned. The days of four single-spaced pages are behind me, thank goodness.

Wish me luck, readers, as DGS. Wish me lots of important questions.

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