Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When teaching is like talking to the wall

After bragging about the great stuff my students are reading and discussing, I encountered a class determined to do neither. It was like trying to teach a doorknob or a potted plant, an overstuffed sofa or a blob of Jello--or like teaching a stone to talk.

Which is the title of a great collection of essays by Annie Dillard published in 1982. My copy was a gift from one of my college professors, an immensely erudite gentleman who practiced great patience with his students even when we were uninformed about or uninterested in what he was trying to teach us. I wonder how often I sat like a blob of Jello in his classes, nose to the textbook and unwilling to open my mouth? 

He must have known that I'd have days like that too and that reading Annie Dillard would be good therapy. The first essay in the collection, "Living Like Weasels," urges readers to "grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you," but today I'm looking at the title essay, "Teaching a Stone to Talk," in which Dillard discusses a friend who spent a certain amount of time every day devoted to teaching a stone to talk. "Reports differ on precisely what he expects or wants the stone to say," writes Dillard, but the teaching required "sacrifice, the suppression of self-consciousness, and a certain precise tilt of the will, so that the will becomes transparent and hollow, a channel for the work."

A transparent and hollow channel does not gripe over whether the work is well received or appreciated or even understood, so in that way it's very much like teaching literature. But Dillard takes the topic in a different direction, musing on the messages we seek in nature. "Nature's silence is its one remark," she writes, "and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block." Given nature's silence, she continues, all we can do is witness the world around us and welcome its meaningless hum.

Which is great advice for a walk in the woods but not so great for a classroom full of students who really need to learn the stuff I'm trying to teach them. I am not here to merely witness their silence; I have to motivate them to read, to write, to think, to speak--even when they prefer to sit there like mute and immutable stones.   

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