A chat on Facebook yesterday got me thinking about swimming & teaching, two things I’ve been away from for a few weeks but will plunge back into soon. I’ve enjoyed the short winter break away from the classroom, though the holiday ailments that have kept me also out of the water have made this a strangely shapeless couple of weeks, punctuated by family visits, a couple bouts with different kinds of flu, and some pretty extraordinary back pain that’s just now getting under control. I’m looking forward to both the pool and the classroom.
Swimming is like teaching in that it begins suddenly, with a kind of transitional shock, the sudden icy grip of water on skin, and then you’re all wet, and moving, and the whole process has begun again before you know it, and it won’t be over for a long time. A 15-week semester, a 45-minute pool workout, 10 km around Harrington Sound — in any case, you’ll stay wet for a long time. And once you’re wet there’s no drying off before you’re done; that’s why I’m still anxious before the first day of the semester, and why most of the time I can’t sleep that night. It’s not about preparation — I prepare a lot for my classes, but I don’t have any illusion that preparation is what makes great teaching. It’s a catch-and-throw exchange, improvisational theater, a relationship built in real-time. As one of my first teaching mentors told me, back in Los Angeles in the early 90s, you can’t teach until you know what they are ready to learn — and you can’t know that til you see the whites of their eyes.
That was a joke, I suspect, but I still like it. It reminds me how much of teaching emerges in the encounter — it doesn’t live in books or notes or course outlines. It’s not an information transfer, but a human exchange.
Teaching should be like swimming, or at least that’s what I tell myself. I wish I could get from my students in the every-semester Shakespeare class the same sort of commitment, the same struggle with fear and physical discomfort that I used to get when I was teaching 8 year olds how to dive into the cold water of a Maine lake. Tuck your chin, I’d tell them, let the weight of your body carry you down toward the water, and then push forward and let your legs fly– and you’re in. I’d watch them struggle with it, sometimes pulling their heads up so that they’d land on their bellies with a red-making smack. Then get out and try again.
Water can seem an unforgiving tutor — the only way to learn to dive is to do it, eventually — but if you relax it floats you back up.
I’ve got some good classes coming up: an u/g Shakespeare class that will use the Henry VI plays, Richard III, and Antony and Cleopatra to think about performance and civil war. We might talk about “Lincoln” on the first day, to think about how Civil War gets memorialized in modern American culture, how such disunion both threatens and defines a national consciousness. I suppose I should go see the film first.
The grad class will be on early modern globalization, with at least as much of an ecological as a Shakespearean focus. I’m going with what seem to me the three essential places for globalization theory: utopia, Faerie Land, and Eden. That should be a fun one.
The week before class starts is like standing at the water’s edge, not yet sure of the temperature. In a short time it won’t matter — we’ll be in — but right now it looks daunting, and a little fragile. It’s important to get started the right way.