Today was a good teaching day.
This doesn’t mean that my classroom activities were particularly successful or lively, but rather that by engaging in the teaching-learning relationship, the tight bind of procrastination was, for some hours, magically dissolved. Today, sitting and drinking tea with two of the women I am currently teaching after class proved to be one of the highlights of my week, and on the walk home I was buoyed up by the thoughts of all the things I wanted to research and write about following our conversation.
It was a salutary reminder to me of how much our interactions as students and teachers affect our tendency to procrastinate or, conversely, to have that expansive feeling of wanting to know more, to think deeper and to write about it all. During the walk home I tried to reflect on what those teachers did for me in order to try to understand something about the experience I had of being, once again, enabled to do my work–this time through an encounter with my students, rather than with my teachers. When I look back at my own history as a scholar, I see a person who slowly learned to procrastinate, not a person who was always ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’.
One formative scholarly experience for me was simultaneously taking a seventeenth-century prose and poetry class and an honours Shakespeare seminar with the same professor. I had probably never worked so hard in my entire undergraduate career as I did that year — learning to use the microfiche so I could read still unpublished seventeenth-century prose narratives, researching unfamiliar historical and literary concepts so that I could present them to my classmates, reading and re-reading everything I was studying so that I could do the analysis expected of me. It did not turn me into a seventeenth-century specialist or give me the best grades on my transcript, but I enjoyed that year so much because of the taste it gave me of being a scholar. I worked because I wanted to be able to take part in the conversation with my professor and my peers.
And that conversation took place everywhere. That professor invited us into his home and we ate treats that he and his wife had prepared for us. We also spent many an hour in his office outside class meetings, watching adaptations of Shakespeare–sometimes accompanied by his young children who were on campus for the afternoon.
I took that experience with me to grad school, where I thought that I would be entering into a permanent state of scholarly bliss–where still more work would be required, but the conversation about literature would also expand to fill the heavens of my little world. There were some wonderful experiences in grad school, but the climax of this scholarly bliss was probably the end of my years as a master’s student and the early years of my doctoral studies, after which things began to change again.
In the mid to late years of my doctoral studies I was, for various reasons, very much alone and without any contact with my peers or any other academics. It genuinely seemed to me that there was no one to have a conversation with. And the conversations themselves changed. Suddenly, every time I did meet an academic we talked about the job search, our prospects, where we were publishing, whether we had attended the right conferences and whether we were networking with the right people. The writing work especially became harder and harder as it became more and more disconnected from live, human relations.
When I began to teach I found it a tremendous relief to get back to talking about literature and literary theory. I enjoyed teaching because it, once again, seemed to open up the possibility of having long, slow conversations about books and ideas.
That is, I enjoyed it until I realized that, especially in North America, my students were not particularly interested in literature, or in examining the details of how a narrative is constructed. I am very fond of many of the young people I teach as people, but spending my days fruitlessly trying to convince them of the merits of studying literature does not leave much time to talk about the literature itself.
Somewhere along the way, the conversation I was so excited to join seems to have become difficult to locate. But just as a handful of my teachers cleared a space for the conversation–showed me what it could be–so too, a handful of my students every year show me that the space still exists. Every year, there are one or two faces that I recognize are longing to join the conversation too.
Days like today, when I have the opportunity to sit and drink tea and talk about the value and effects of literature on our lives, I feel incredibly grateful for the work I have. And I feel particularly grateful for the ways in which those live conversations with my students encourage me to keep trying to get back to the person I was when I first became a scholar.
For that reason, I want to say thank you to those whose teaching and learning has been invaluable to me. To my teachers, thank you for fostering in me a joyous sense of ability to join the conversation. To my students, thank you for generously allowing me to enter into conversation with you.
Thank you: Leigha Bailey, Greg Blue, Luke Carson, Jess Cloutier, Ron Cooley, Deleone Downes, Cameron Duder, Robert Eaglestone, Emilie Fournier, Joel Guillemette, Smaro Kamboureli, Mary Laur, Tad Lemieux, Yashoda Maharaj, Kristina Maki, Shannon McComb, Somdeep Sen, Emmett Turkington, Brendan Vidito, Elizabeth Vibert and Soile Ylivuori.