When Is a Singing School (Not) a Chorus?
The Emancipatory Agenda in Feminist Pedagogy and Literature Education
by Deanne Bogdan
A shorter version of this paper was presented to the WILLA co-sponsored session, "Feminist Pedagogy in the Increasingly Complex Classroom" at the NCTE conference in Louisville, Kentucky, November, 1992. This version was presented at the meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, New Orleans, Louisiana, March, 1993, and will appear in the Proceedings of the Forty-Ninth Annual Conference of the Philosophy of Education Society, ed. Audrey Thompson, NORMAL, ILL Philosophy of Education Society, 1993. It will also be published as a chapter in Lynda Stone, ed., The Education Feminism Reader, New York: Routledge, 1993.
This paper addresses the conundrum of why, for some of us, the more we become sensitized to the imperatives of democratic education and student ownership of their own learning, the harder they can become actually to accomplish in a classroom. This is especially true in literature education and feminist/critical pedagogy, where personal and social transformation are implicit and explicit goals. Underlying the ethical aims of feminist pedagogy and literature education is accepting the Other on the Other's own terms.1 In classrooms full of real readers reading, this principle, which informs what Elizabeth Ellsworth has called "a pedagogy of the unknowable,"2 plays itself out in the interstices between authority and trust, academic rigor and personal empathy, community and fracture, professional and political responsibility. Recently Deborah Britzman has analyzed her student teachers' attempts to implement critical/feminist pedagogical methods in English educa tion at the secondary school level, detailing the complexity of the tensions and contradictions which mark "not just what it means to know and be known, but how we come to know and come to refuse knowledge."3 To expose a liberatory agenda is often to embark on a "pedagogical encounter," which, in Britzman's words, is simply "scary."
More often than not, things do not go according to plan": objectives reappear as too simple, too complicated, or get lost; concepts become glossed over, require long detours, or go awry .... In short, pedagogy is filled with surprises, involuntary returns, and unanticipated twists.4
My reflections arise out of my more recent experiences teaching at my home institution, which is a Graduate Department of Education. In contrast to Britzman's grade ten class, our students are mature adults, many of them seasoned, successful teachers in their own right, who bring to the learning environment highly diverse personal, professional, and disciplinary backgrounds. But even within this milieu, the very heightening of consciousness about the changing intel lectual and political premises of English studies, heavily influenced by critical/feminist pedagogy, can threaten at any given moment to break down into solipsistic world views and group alienation.
References to "the Singing School" in my title (with apologies to Yeats and Northrop Frye)5 and whether or not it is a "Chorus" signal the tension between what an instructor perceives to be happening and what may in fact be happening with respect to the learning taking place. For me, "the Singing School" has become a metaphor for what we might think of as a "dream class," that is, one in which achieving the objectives of a course becomes seamlessly incorporated into the process itself, and where the joy of teaching is indistinguishable from being a student of the students' learning.6 The apotheosis of my dream class was my women's literature and feminist criticism class of 1988, which accepted my invitation to embark with me on a collaborative experiment to explore the feminist critique of Romanticism, a subject in which I am not a specialist. In thinking and writing about the sheer exuberance of that experience since then, I have tried in vain to isolate the factors that might account for what had seemed so successful to us all in working across difference. Was it that the more democratic collaborative setting had allowed me to comfortably shed my role as "expert"? Was it the carefully sequenced readings and exercises? Was it that the students enjoyed reader-response journal writing, for most of them a "first" in graduate education--or, were we all just nice people?7 And -- how accurate, in any case, is the absence of factional strife or the presence of a mutu ally reinforcing class dynamic as a barometer of produc tive learning?
By contrast, the first time I taught women's lit erature and feminist criticism (in hindsight probably the most transformational event in my professional life), the tenor of the class was totally the reverse of that of the Singing School. It was no euphonious chorus! Bent on taking literature personally and politically at any cost, that group of highly sophisticated, but combustible read ers literally mutinied against the strictures of the tradi tional culture of literary critical interpretation in repudi ating the offensive sexist bias in John Updike's short story "A&P," becoming what at the time I thought were literary "illiterates" -- by reversing the norms of what was deemed "naive" and what, "educated."8 Yet, in my discussions with those students since then, we've concluded that, in the depths of all that anguish, none of us ever stopped thinking feelingly or feeling thinkingly about what we were doing and why. Psychic suffering can be a powerful condition of learning, but it's not that simple either. That incursions into the inner life are necessary effects of any coming to know does not give teachers license to perform the "god trick and all its dazzling-- and, therefore blinding -- illuminations"9 on unsuspecting students. Professorial hubris, an occupational hazard of al teaching, which by its very nature invokes change, is especially pertinent to English studies and feminist ped agogy, whose mandate espouses liberation, whether that liberation be from the "hegemony" of The Great Tradition to the "freedom" of discourse theory, or simply toward a more egalitarian classroom.
Over the twelve years that I've been teaching at the graduate level, in both feminist literary criticism seminars and in "mainstream" philosophy of literature courses, I have moved from a performance pedagogical mode and a fairly tightly structured curriculum to a more decentered classroom and a syllabus constantly open to revision. But that doesn't mean that I can tell any better when a class is "working" and when it isn't. How do I know that what looks like everyone riding our communal bicycle is not really a coercive regime masking silences and erasing hostilities? And conversely, given that my role is so fraught with paradox, especially in a feminist class, where I am invariably cast as "the bearded mother" (expected to be both supportive emotionally and rigorous scholastically)10, how do I know that something quite wonderful is not happening to someone? What am I, for instance, to make of the remark of one of my best students who sincerely thought she was paying a compliment with, "I really love your class. It makes me sick to my stomach"? By this I take her to mean that she was involved in what Shoshana Felman calls "self-subversive self-reflection,"11 a process in which her presuppositions about the conditions of her own learning were continually being thrown open to question by herself and by others whose intellectual training, political temper, and disciplinary affiliations differed markedly from hers. Though this polylogue can be productive, it can also precipitate dialogic impasse, especially in an interdisciplinary class, when one hears statements such as, "I understand where you are coming from, but have you read X?" (a book or article intended to correct what is presumed by the questioner to be Other's misguided ideology about what should count as knowledge).
Accepting the Other on the other's own terms entails self-subversive self-reflection about our own paths of identification; it also foregrounds the ethical importance of what Northrop Frye called the "direct" or "participating" response12 -- to literature and to fervently held assumptions about one's own life. In the literary education enterprise there is, of course, no substitute for knowledge about texts and their theoretical implications. What people say, how they respond, is doubtless important; but, that they do in this or that way is in some respects a prior consideration. That is to say, performative utterances situate students as moral beings, who in turn form the social fabric of the classroom community. This is a crucial point when dealing with the personal and the political implications of response to literature, inasmuch as the pedagogical importance of cultural codes cannot claim epistemic privilege over students' affective lives. While discourse strategies may improve conceptual understanding, they do not necessarily alter autobiographical significance, which I suggest is an educational value in need of further theorization within both feminist pedagogy and the philosophy of literature edu cation. That is to say, while my literary interpretation may be "better" than yours, and my analysis of class room dynamics possibly more astute, I, nevertheless, cannot make you mean.13 The ontological force of this dictum is a logical extension of politicizing and privileging "direct" literary response at the same time (a contra dictory endeavor, as we'll see).
It was this problematic of re-educating the imagination, which I consciously undertook when I returned to the classroom after a year's sabbatical during which I completed a book addressing issues related to canon, curriculum, and literary response.14 In designing the course (a "mainstream" course dealing with literature and values in education, also taught for the first time), I wanted to replicate the structure of my own argument in the book as well as to let the phenomenology of my jour ney in the feminist critique of Frye's concept of the educated imagination unfold, as I intended that it would for my reader. Since the book was still in press and I felt uncomfortable about distributing the manuscript, I combined sequenced ancillary readings that had informed my own thinking in writing the book with class discussion and twenty-minute lectures from the text of my manuscript. The class (twelve women and three men), composed mostly of high-school and community college English teachers, began as another "dream" Singing School, and ended, if not in a nightmare, in the purgatorial twilight zone of bruised identities and painful oppositional stances between the majority, who "got" it, and the minority who "didn't." I focus on this in order to highlight the complexities of how bringing the personal and the political simultaneously into the discussion of response to literature might help us think about the discrepancies between what we think is happening in front of us and what in fact might be going on. When, indeed, is a Singing School not a chorus? When is feeling sick to your stomach an indication, not of the "natural" part of coming to consciousness, but of the oppressive effects of too much consciousness at the wrong time and in the wrong circumstance? And when might it be producing what Teresa de Lauretis calls a "genuine epistemological shift"15? When does honoring the Other on the Other's own terms bridge the intrinsic and extrinsic value of literacy education and when is it simply the arrogant admonition by those who presume to "know" of those who would know better? And -- does it matter whether it is one or the other?
Let's first look at what made me think last year's Singing School was tuneful. My sense of it as a "dream class," the feeling that it was going swimmingly or that the class was teaching itself, was confined to the first half of the course, where the students quickly took hold of my clear-cut conceptual framework. (The course examined the interdependence of the why, what, and how of teaching literature under the rubric of a "meta-problem," which juxtaposes the issues of justifying the teaching of literature [why], canon/curriculum/censorship [what], and the classroom treatment of reader response [how]). The promise of seriously working across difference came early when one of the men, Kevin, signed up to do a seminar on Julia Kristeva's concept of abjection later on in the course.16 As time went on, I consulted with the students about revising the balance between new content and digesting what had gone before. At about the half-way point, another student, Ellen, conducted a lucid account of my taxonomy of Frye's developmental theory of reader response. Here she used a tape of John Updike reading his "A&P," the "invidious" piece that had been the site of the previous rebellion in my women's literature and feminist criticism class. Now, however, reactions were multiple: some students were chuckling with obvious enjoyment; others were grim; still others, pensive. No one, it seemed, was unengaged. The presenter herself had intentionally adhered to Frye's structure, a hierarchy of pre- to "post-critical" response, with "autonomous" at the top; describing her initial feminist response to the story as an "angry," and therefore "negative" and "lesser" stock response, she acknowledged that it had become more ''refined'' to a "fuller" more "literary" one as she saw herself moving through her "raw experience" to an understanding of the story as a whole in a "greater appreciation of the human condition." (Later, after reading Sandra Lee Bartky, she observed that she was probably able to do this because she was a younger feminist, and had not experienced "the double ontological shock" Bartky describes.17) As people began to discuss the conditions of their responses more openly, I had the feeling that this was just about the ideal class. They were doing double-takes all over the place, but really communicating. What possibly could have been better?
There was, however, a nagging doubt that just maybe the class was beginning to feel being set-up by the agenda of the course, which remained largely hidden from them. Ellen's presentation had in a way become a perfect foil for the following week's seminar, in which we dealt with my feminist subversion of my taxonomy. But the effect on her of that reversal and indeed of the feminist cast of the rest of the course was for some, quite emotionally devastating. I began to ask myself whether, in the actualizing of my pedagogical project, I had helped produce at least one casualty of its very efficacy. If so, what did that mean about my respect for my students' learning? Shouldn't students be subjects, not just objects, of their own transformations? Who is responsible for the psychological cost of such transformations? And -- what right did I have doing what I was doing at all? I went to the next seminar convinced that my book manuscript would still be the informing principle of the rest of the course, but the controlling principle. That is, I resolved to reserve more discussion time in order to diffuse any latent hostility generated by my possibly manipulating the students into enlightenment (I had to "give them" more power), to loosen my hold on the structure, stop lecturing, and focus on student presentations of the secondary material without my intervention except as "just" another member of the class.
This proved to be yet another paradox of decentered teaching. There was no way I could divest myself of my authority, already established by the heuristic I'd set up at the beginning and reinforced by my own invisible manuscript as a major component of the course content. Even more worrisome to me was the fact that I was increasingly becoming identified with a more rigid ideological stance toward the course material than I in fact held. As well, coincident with my decentering, the majority of the women and one of the three men had begun to evince their profeminist concerns more overtly; others complained that in the second half of the course there was a loss of continuity in the conceptual framework, which, of course, only I could provide. Little wonder that I felt the class was polarizing badly and that its exploratory intent seemed to have become submerged in a "search for answers." The Updike episode had opened up the possibility of a poetics of refusal that had taken seriously the negative effects of the close proximity of some literary content to the lived lives of readers. These students had extended that discussion to include how being very close to the bone of real experience also affected their critical temper and their own teaching practices. Though the positive exchange in the class, as well as the students' final papers, persuaded me that the self-subversive self reflection of most of them had indeed produced heightened sensitivity to the Other, anger, silence, and denial also surfaced. These came to the fore when another woman, Clare, did a forceful reading with the grain, of Robin Morgan's The Demon Lover: The Sexuality of Terrorism.18 Clare's intent was to "put on" Morgan's polemic in relating social and cultural processes to systemic misogyny. That seemed to tap into the deep but covert rage felt by some of them, until, more "detached" feminists, who now were able to recover their voice -- and did, with vehement recognition scenes. Ellen, however, did not join that chorus, but became noticeably upset, excusing herself in tears at the break. A few days later she confessed her anxieties about remaining in graduate school: the course had triggered in her feelings of futility about academic work, and she thought that perhaps she should return to high school teaching. Having become alienated from literature as a living force in her life through doing an M.A. in a highly conservative English department, she had relished the prospect of our trek into theory; but now she had second thoughts about its value if such negativity as was being expressed in the class was still rampant after so many years of feminism. A staunch feminist as an undergraduate, she'd expected that by now feminism would have "moved ahead to something more inclusive." This, in face of the fact that figuring in her present crisis was that she was mourning the murder of one of her own female students. Ironically, though, Ellen's path of identification, which she confirmed in her final paper, was with the two "outsider" men in the class, both of whom were feeling embattled. One was Kevin, who told me that he was surprised to encounter so much feminist content in a course that wasn't advertised as such.
Kevin was also full of contradictions. In his seminar on Kristeva, while he bravely grappled with her complex notion of abjection, something which he acknowledged he could understand only intellectually from his privilege as a white, heterosexual male, he ended his presentation by bringing in Robert Bly's Iron John,19 thereby positioning himself as victim. And -- in the discussion period, he deliberately interpolated the term "terrorist" to describe what he referred to as "militant feminism." This, he said after class, was a strategic move to address the by now palpable feminist agenda of the course. When another woman, Jennifer, rewrote "A&P" from the viewpoint of "the witch about fifty, with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows"20 as a way of expressing her "epistemic privilege,"21 her feelings of being Othered by Updike, Kevin simply dug in his heels, insisting that the portrayal of the males in Jennifer's rewrite didn't remotely resemble him or any guy he knew.
Perhaps Ellen and Kevin were in part both trying to find their own "safe house" in face of their loss of a certain conceptual security, which had been provided by the structural framework of the course set-up at the beginning, and of their pedagogical loss of the bearded mother. It is worth mentioning that in this class these losses coincided with the introduction of explicitly feminist content, which complicated the meta-problem with what we might call the "feeling, power, and location problems."22 What seems clear about Ellen and Kevin is that they were both thrown up against their own resistance -- Ellen as one who already knew too much and perhaps wanted to know less, at least for now; and Kevin as one who couldn't cope with his own awareness of what he didn't yet know. But by the end of the course this playing field looked profoundly unequal: whereas Kevin was voluble, Ellen fell silent. It's difficult to assess here who "got" it and who "didn't"; moreover, what is the "it"? Did Ellen "get" "it" and just couldn't bear to feel "it," yet again, in her solar plexus? Did Kevin have to fill up the space because he couldn't hear "it," or because he could? Does he remain an "unreconstructed male"? Is that my business? What I perceived was that Ellen was experiencing Bartky's "double ontological shock" more or less alone, and that Kevin's feelings were being taken care of by me and the rest of the class. When is honoring the Other on the Other's own terms truly emancipatory and when might it mask a false integrity?
This year, when I teach the course again, the students will be in possession of the text of my book; my feminist project will be more visible to them from the start; and my pedagogy will consist almost exclusively of small groups reading and writing each other's short papers in response to the primary and ancillary texts. That might mitigate, but will not eliminate, the incessant transferring and withdrawing of powerful psychic projections that necessarily abound when the personal and political contexts of literary response form part of the agenda of a literature classroom, in grade ten English or a graduate seminar in literature education. Once we credit transformation of any kind as a legitimate goal of our teaching, literature ends up with more relevance to life than many of us who entered the profession as a partial escape from life originally bargained for. One can only be where one is in literary criticism, but to be wherever one is today is indeed a "perilous undertaking,"23 in which the resistances of students like Ellen and Kevin have become a new body of content -- inchoate, untidy, but nonetheless sacred, matter.
Does this mean that teachers of literature are the unwitting "mental health paraprofessionals," which Clara Park (in Uses of Literature, one of the volumes of the 1973 Harvard English Studies) said back then, that we perforce become?24 As someone professing to be a philosopher of literature education, not a clinical psychologist or bibliotherapist, I can't say that I'm really up for this.25 But as a practitioner of feminist pedagogy, I don't find the alternatives wholly satisfactory either. Returning to uncritiqued notions of "literariness" and universalist paths of identification, innocent of political awareness, is certainly no option for me. That only makes it easier for some to move from pre-feminist or pre-colonial unconsciousness to appropriation without ever having to pass through comprehension. Even abandoning transformational agendas altogether -- teaching the theory wars or navigating students through endless textual undoings and remakings -- cannot blanket over the still monumental significance of the intervention by "words with power"26 in the emotional lives of people who really might be changed by what they learn in school.
Felman suggests that "the most far-reaching insight psychoanalysis can give us into pedagogy" is the realization that "the position of the teacher is itself the position of one who learns, of the one who teaches nothing other than the way [s]he learns. The subject of teaching is interminably -- a student; the subject of teaching interminably -- a learning."27 And, she argues, this knowledge is a fundamentally literary knowledge in that it is knowledge "not in possession of itself."28 Within this context, students' resistance to knowing is perhaps one of the best teaching tools we have. As Felman, Frye (and others before them) have observed, teaching is impossible; that is why it is difficult.30 What, then, are we to do? In coming to solutions, we might keep in mind the thoughts of the young Polish pianist Krystain Zimerman, who gave a master class in Toronto last spring. In concluding his remarks to the audience and to the five students whose sparkling performances he'd unabashedly acknowledged his admiration for, he said, "Of course, we study the text, and then improvise around it. The rest is up to you. But the most important thing is to do [sic] mistakes, as many as possible and as soon as possible."31
Ellen did decide to remain in graduate school, and even won a scholarship. In her final paper, she reflected on our various mistakes when she responded to the optional question I set about the experience of the course as a whole:
My unusually emotional response to this course was of considerable concern to me, hence the amount of time spent analyzing my feelings and discussing the situation with friends. I have concluded that mine has been a rather ironic and yet educational experience. What I have encountered, I think, is a very real feeling, power, and location problem within a course where [these problems were] not only recognized but apparently sympathized with .... What I am left with primarily are not feelings of alienation ... or cynicism ... (although these feelings do exist still); rather, I have become more profoundly aware of just how complex perception, communication, and inter [personal] relations are and just how difficult it is not to make assumptions, to disempower someone or to silence opposition in a group setting. I am also much more aware of how emotions, social contexts, and personal meanings and experiences affect learning, which has been traditionally seen as [only] an intellectual activity.
Here Ellen has named for herself what David Bleich has called the "affective [inter]dependency" of the classroom.32 Perhaps a Singing School can still be a chorus, if dissonance be part of resonance.
1. Contemporary literary theory has propelled the profession beyond unproblematized Arnoldian or Leavisite assumptions about the liberatory nature of English studies. But teaching to or for theoretical under standing does not erase the question of the powerful impetus for personal change inherent in all teaching. This is especially true of literary reading. Shoshana Felman reminds us that any "reading lesson is ... not a statement; it is a performance. It is not theory, it is practice ... for (self)transformation." Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987) p. 20. The rapprochement between English studies and feminist/critical pedagogy has been underscored by numerous authors, including Janice M. Wolff, who introduces her article, "Writing Passionately: Students Resistance to Feminist Reading," with the assertion that "ideological consciousness-raising is very much part of [her] faculty's concerns." College Composition and Communication 42 (4) (December 1991): 484. I read this paper after having completed my own, and would like to note the resemblance of its themes to this one, in particular, resistance as an instrument of learning, the gendered character of students' resistant responses, and the teacher as one who does not know.
5. "The Singing School" is the title of the second chapter of Northrop Frye's The Educated Imagination (Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Company Publications, 1963), pp. 12-33. The original citation is taken from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" (quoted in Frye, p. 12).
7. See Deanne Bogdan, "Joyce, Willie, and Dorothy: Literary Literacy as Engaged Reflection," Proceedings of the Forty-Fifth Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, San Antonio, Texas, April 14 17, 1989, ed. Ralph Page, Normal, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990, pp. 168-182.
8. See Deanne Bogdan, "Judy and Her Sisters: Censorship, Identification, and the Poetics of Need" Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Meeting of the Philosophy of Education Society, San Diego, California, March 25-28, 1988, ed. James M. Giarelli, Normal, Illinois: Philosophy of Education Society, 1988; John Updike, "A&P," in his Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, (New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 1962).
13. See Susan Leslie Campbell, "Expression and the Individuation of Feeling." Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation (University of Toronto, 1992), p. 291; also Felman, Jacques Lacan, p. 119. In her response to Charles Taylor's Inaugural address to the University Center of Human Values at Princeton, Susan Wolf makes a related point about the justification for widening the canon. See Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition: An Essay by Charles Taylor, With Commentary by Amy Cutmann, Editor Steiner C. Rockefeller, Michael Walter and Susan Wolf (Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 79-85.
17. Bartky defines the "double ontological shock" as "first, the realization that what is really happening is quite different from what appears to be happening; and second, the frequent inability to tell what is really happening at all" (1979, 256).) Sandra Lee Bartky, "Towards a Phenomenology of Feminist Consciousness, " in Philosophy and Women ed. S. Bishop and M. Weinzweig, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishers, Inc., 1979), p. 256.
23. Clara Clairborne Park, "Rejoicing to Concur with the Common Reader: The Uses of Literature in the Community College," in Uses of Literature, ed., Monroe Engel, Harvard English Studies 4. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973, p. 231.
25. Toronto high school teacher Brian Fellow, in an article titled "Sex, Lies, and Grade 10," describes his reader-response approach to a literature lesson on the poem, "Lies," by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. According to Fellow, the theme of this poem is "Do not lie to the young." As a way of exploring its meaning with his class, Fellow wrote on the board three columns: "The Best Lies, The Best Liars, and The Best Liees." The result was not an interpretive discussion about the poem as what we might call a "greater appreciation of the human condition" in the abstract but the palpable and painful coming to terms with the social problem of sexual pressure experienced by the girls from their boyfriends, some of whom, as attested to by one of the girls, tell the worst lie -- "I love you." Such was the gravity of the unspoken crisis in that instance that the girls in the class ended up proposing the startup of a support group "like Alcoholics Anonymous." The Globe and Mails, Toronto, Ontario, October 20, 1992, p. A32. Surely, Percy Bysshe Shelley would be surprised to see this particular context for poets as the unacknowledged legislators of the world. I am not suggesting that this poem not be taught according to a reader-response, and that it has always claimed to have.
DEANNE BOGDAN is Associate Professor, Department of History and Philosophy of Education, Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. She is author of Pre-educating the Imagination: Toward a Poetics, Politics, and Pedagogy of Literary Engagement, Portsmouth, NH Boynton-Cook/Heinemann. Currently Chair of WILLA, she is also co-editor with Stanley B. Straw of Beyond Communication (1990) and Constructive Reading (1993), also published by BCH.
Copyright 1993, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Bogdan, Deanne. (1993). When is a singing school (not) a chorus? The emancipatory agenda in feminist pedagogy and literature education. WILLA, Volume II, 19-23.