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On the Spiritual in Teaching, 1997 (b)

A. D. Coleman, selfie, 8-20-17[This is the complete text of the keynote address delivered to the annual Southeast Regional Conference of the Society for Photographic Education on September 19th, 1997, at the Penland School of Arts, Penland, North Carolina. It was published in Exposure, the journal of the Society for Photographic Education, as part of a special “Teaching/2000” issue devoted to pedagogical concerns (Exposure 32:2, Jan. 1999, pp. 3-10). Part 2 appears below; click here for Part 1, and here for Part 3. — A. D. C.]

Toward the Empty Place:

On the Spiritual in Teaching (cont’d)

… The second teacher who mattered was Professor Leonard Albert: Hunter College in the Bronx (now Lehman College), fall 1960, age 16, my first college English class, required of all entering freshmen, English Lit 101. I was already widely if eccentrically read for my age, and had been writing — poetry, fiction, political speeches — since starting high school. Much of that I owed to my parents’ gifts to me: a love of words and books, a respect for writers generally, the examples of themselves as readers and writers and editors and publishers. But when I stepped into Prof. Albert’s classroom he handed out to all of us a clear understanding of the origins and evolution of the very language we spoke and wrote yet in so many ways took for granted, and in doing so changed my life.

He didn’t hand this out as a mimeographed schematic or cheat sheet. He made us internalize it by forcing us to hear it and feel it coming up out of our own chests, through our own mouths, off our own tongues. Let me interrupt my tale here to note that I use that terminology deliberately. Yes, he made us do this work, and the force, if implicit, was no less real. We were given no choice in the matter, were offered no alternative assignments, did not have our preferences consulted or considered, could not have inquired why we had to learn this stuff whose relevance to our lives was less than apparent. In that theater of education we constituted a captive audience, in every sense of that term, and our only option was to leave it entirely — which, at least for the males of draft age, was no choice at all.

"Beowulf," first folio, in the West Saxon dialect of Old English. Part of the Cotton MS Vitellius A XV manuscript, British Library.

“Beowulf,” first folio, in the West Saxon dialect of Old English. Part of the Cotton MS Vitellius A XV manuscript, British Library.

He started us off on “Beowulf,” the impenetrable original alongside a respected translation, and then gave us Chaucer. No translation or “modernization.” Chaucer in the original Middle English, all that weird spelling and guttural Saxon and vaguely familiar but strangely accented words with the stresses on the most unlikely syllables. He helped us decode its meaning, laid out the basic rules of grammar, syntax, spelling and pronunciation over a few class sessions, then gave the two dozen or so of us a weekend in which to memorize the first twenty lines of the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales.

The following Monday morning, in alphabetical order according to last name, we began reciting, and Prof. Albert began patiently correcting. I was up early on, obviously. Some of us got it down better than others, but none of our efforts were less than embarrassing. Our teacher said nothing to shame anyone who’d clearly made the effort to fulfill the assignment. When we weren’t reciting, we listened to each other, and to him. The next morning the recitals from memory continued, with the first day’s slackers retested. Thursday he put Tuesday’s slackers to the test, and we began collectively working our way, in class and out loud, through the “Prologue” and into the tales.

Geoffrey Chaucer as a pilgrim, from the Ellesmere manuscript (ca. 1400), Huntington Library, CA.

Geoffrey Chaucer as a pilgrim, from the Ellesmere manuscript (ca. 1400), Huntington Library, CA.

A few people dropped out — pointless, really, except as teacher-shopping, since the course was mandatory and the curriculum fixed by the department. By mid-semester the remaining twenty or so of us could read any passage selected at random in passable if halting Middle English, and explicate what it meant, more or less, without Prof. Albert’s help and with only the glossary to guide us. Without realizing it, I’d learned something about how to learn, had even sniffed something about how I learned. And, as a writer and speaker, I’d been given an insight into the DNA of my medium, a gift that, though I can’t speak for all my classmates, was received in that room by others as well.

Finally, of course, I had twenty lines of Chaucer engraved in my brain. Over a third of a century later they’re still there, and I can launch into them at the drop of a hat, as I’ve done in tandem with old friends at class reunions and even here at past SPE conferences with colleagues — yes, photographers and photo teachers and curators and historians — who went through the City University system during the same era. Did none of us any harm, so far as I can tell.[1]

Bear with me, please. I’m not making some E. D. Hirsch or Allan Bloom stand here in favor of DWEM — dead white European males — or a fixed canon or rote learning. I’m just trying to convey something about the context in which I found myself, for the first time I could remember, cheerfully and eagerly setting out to learn something unfamiliar and difficult whose beneficial value to me I had to take on trust.

Hunter College logoSo I must also tell you something about the setting, and the teacher. By today’s standards, the City University of New York (of which Hunter was one division) was appallingly regimented. Jeans and T-shirts were not permitted anywhere on campus. Women who wore slacks instead of skirts or dresses to school on any day the thermometer did not read 30 degrees Fahrenheit or below at 8 a.m. according to the city’s official radio station were refused admission to the campus. (My cohort successfully fought for an end to that particular idiocy, I’m proud to say.) Three full absences from class meant an automatic failure; a lateness of ten minutes counted as half an absence. Of course we addressed all our faculty, and the administration and staff, by their titles and last names. We, in turn, were Mr., Miss (this was pre-Ms.), or, infrequently, Mrs.

I couldn’t tell you if Prof. Albert was likeable as a person; though I took every course with him the curriculum allowed, we never had a private conversation. Teachers and students then never socialized off-campus, and hardly ever on — no departmental holiday or birthday or farewell parties, no coffee klatches, no bulletin boards with postcards from old grads, no counseling from faculty on your love life, fights with parents, drug usage. I seem to recall there was a school psychiatrist — one — and I never met anyone, no matter how troubled, who visited him or her.

Hunter College (Bronx), ca. 1960. Foreground: Library designed by Marcel Breuer. Background: Student Union (previously the original headquarters of the United Nations). Photographer unknown.

Hunter College (Bronx), ca. 1960. Foreground: Library designed by Marcel Breuer. Background: Student Union (previously the original headquarters of the United Nations). Photographer unknown.

Prof. Albert clearly didn’t care whether any of us liked him, and made it just as clear that he wasn’t concerned with liking us. He played no favorites, though his pleasure in those who put effort into the class was discernible, along with his irritation with those who did only the bare minimum to get by. He wasn’t by any means sour or bitter, but I never heard him laugh and rarely saw him smile; his humor was dry, manifesting itself in occasional puns and oblique references mostly available to those who kept up with the readings.

So far as I could detect in four years of studying with him, he had no hidden agenda in relation to us as individuals or as a group — only the overt, declared intention of helping us achieve an adequate grasp of the material and the broader subject. Some people then — and certainly most people in the academic system today — would probably consider him overly formal, if not cold. I found that enormously liberating. He himself knew the material forward and backward, could recite most of it — all of Othello, for instance — from memory, knew the critical literature inside and out as well. I saw in him a major resource, and greedily took from him everything I could, which he freely gave to all who asked; like one of Chaucer’s characters (I’ll translate here), “gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.”

I don’t say this to wax nostalgic about the old days and the old ways. I’m trying to describe a theater of teaching and learning that had enormous impact on me and in some important ways shaped my own sense of the dramaturgy of the classroom, though I never taught like Prof. Albert did, my own style having turned out much more improvisational and informal.[2] And when I speculate that no English department today would hire this man or his equivalent, I don’t mean it accusatorily; he’d simply seem like a superbly trained Edwardian actor plunked down awkwardly in a Living Theater production.[3] My main point is that I internalized that version of the classroom as theater just before a series of major stylistic changes in education began — changes which generated new kinds of teachers and students as well.

San Francisco State College brochure, ca. 1955

San Francisco State College brochure, ca. 1955

I saw that as soon as I entered the graduate Creative Writing program at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) — the Bay Area, January 1965, with me just turned 21. Jeans were permissible, slacks for women anytime. Smoking was allowed in the corridors (we didn’t know any better). Both graduate and undergraduate classes were much more dialogic. Everything was more casual. In quonset huts thrown up on campus as an “alternative university,” anyone who could draw five students could teach a course on any subject — rock and roll, comic books, Maoism, Black history. I thought a lot of those changes were for the better, still do, and when I started teaching I incorporated many of them — including the very idea of teaching a previously untaught subject — into my own work.

However, what I’m calling the dramaturgy of the classroom continued to change fairly steadily from then till now. And I stopped keeping up with the changes. Not consciously; I just fell into what felt like a viable form for me and worked for my students, until one day I looked up to find that it wasn’t working at all for any of us. At first I blamed poor administration, lackadaisical students, careerist faculty, lowered standards, television, all the usual suspects, and there’s doubtless some truth to that. But, though the students no longer knew how to behave in the classrooms we shared, nor had much of an idea as to why they were there in the first place, I see now that I didn’t either, had fallen asleep at the wheel only to awaken in unfamiliar territory. Among other things, photography is now an insider art, and there’s money to be made in it, and, as Cindi Lauper sang, “Money changes everything.”

University of the Arts, Philadelphia, PA, logoSo here I am, coming back to teaching this fall; I’m conducting a seminar for undergraduate seniors at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and offering a private adult-ed seminar and several short workshops in New York City. And I find myself with no appealing model for how the job is to be done — little from my experience of being taught, and little from my years of teaching, that I can identify as aspects of a viable methodology. That being the case, I’ve decided to invent from the bottom up a new way of proceeding, in collaboration with my students. To prepare myself for that, I’m reconsidering my own history as a learner and as a teacher, and also as an observer of both those activities. Furthermore, I’m reading and, in some cases, re-reading a variety of commentators on education and art whose writings seem resonant and pertinent to the present moment. I thought I’d take a bit of time to tell what I’m finding there as nourishing food for thought.

I began by returning to what — at the risk of implicating him in a position not at all his own — I’ve long taken as an eloquent defense of what you might think of as the Albertian position, in honor of my former teacher. This is the 1973 diatribe Fellow Teachers by Philip Rieff — yes, father of the writer David Rieff, and former husband of Susan Sontag. Unapologetically mandarin in his position, Rieff in this text prefigures by several decades the polemics of Hirsch, Bloom and others, denouncing the spread in academe of the lowering of the basketball hoops that he attributes to the embrace of an uncritical feel-goodism, a tendency he’d already excoriated in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, his savage attack on Jung, Reich, and those others he saw as betrayers of Freud’s discipline.

Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers (1975), coverRieff willfully takes positions that were already unpopular a quarter-century ago. “If the university is not the temple of the intellect, then it is not a university,” he writes. “In the temple, as its servants know, there are no students’ rights, except the right to be well-taught. A university is neither a political democracy nor an oligarchy; it is an intellectual aristocracy.” And “Fighting attitudes do not mix well with analytic. … Our duty is to hang back, always a little behind the times.” And “We cannot be advertising men for any movement. Herald nothing.”

Yet he surely echoes many of us in the field when he laments that today “few students know how to read a book and fewer come out of families still blessed with oral traditions, upon which abilities to read build up. … How do you teach totally unprepared students? The American universities are now producing tens of thousands of failed intellectuals and artists of life; this mass production may lead to the destruction of culture in any received sense.”

Yet his authoritarianism and conservatism are (in my opinion) far from malign, and surely neither absolute nor unself-critical. In the same chapter Rieff also writes, of the classroom, “To preside is not to rule; here is the hairline that makes all the difference in the world between culture and politics.” And “Messages and positions are the death of teaching. As scholars and teachers, we have a duty to fight against our own positions.” And “Denial, the discipline of double-crossing your own position, is an ancient tactic of exegetical teaching.”


[1] To my amazement and delight, after I gave this talk no fewer than four of the teachers in attendance came up to me to recite those same lines — in passable Middle English — from memory.

[2] There were, however, many things I’d learned from him and his colleagues; and, in their honor, throughout my entire teaching stint at New York University I always wore a tie to work — though loosely knotted, and often paired with jeans.

[3] I did run into a brilliant younger version of him during my doctoral studies — Prof. Philip Hosay of New York University — who taught in much the same way and offered a superb course for doctoral candidates on the methodologies of historical research. The students he found himself stuck with were, for the most part, unqualified to study with him, and I predicted to myself that he’d take early retirement.

(Part 1 I 2 I 3)

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A. D. Coleman, Critical Focus, 1995Special offer: If you want me to either continue pursuing a particular subject or give you a break and (for one post) write on a topic — my choice — other than the current main story, make a donation of $50 via the PayPal widget below, indicating your preference in a note accompanying your donation. I’ll credit you as that new post’s sponsor, and link to a website of your choosing. Include  a note with your snail-mail address (or email it to me separately) for a free signed copy of my 1995 book Critical Focus!

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