[Milton-L] Thinking or Rehearsing?

Jason Kerr aelfric at gmail.com
Thu Feb 21 09:35:36 EST 2008

I want to respond to Michael Bryson's pedagogical question from the graduate
student's perspective of being on both sides of it at the same time. In
paraphrase, his question seems to be: what do we do when we teach? Should we
help students master certain critical discourses about a text, or should we
guide them in a process of trying to figure the thing out for themselves?

First, I don't think these are necessarily diametrically opposed. After all,
the point of graduate school seems to be to get a sense of the field (master
critical discourses) and then to make an original contribution to that
field. Merely cribbing Fish (or anybody else) seems off the table, or at
least unlikely to help one in getting a job. That said, I don't think the
best original contributions are made in a state of innocence--as envisioned
by the twentysomething guitar player I overheard as an undergraduate saying
he didn't want to listen to Nirvana because he didn't want to corrupt his
style with their influence. But I don't buy this; I think creativity demands
as complete a knowledge as possible of one's medium. To continue the musical
analogy, Coltrane might be an example here: all those hours the man spent
practicing (and devising!) scales gave him an extraordinary palette in the
moment of improvisation.

But undergrads aren't grad students, so what expectations ought we to have
of and for them? I'm still working through this for myself (and so welcome
feedback), but I don't think they can or should become dissertating
Miltonists at the end of the semester. So what are the alternatives?

I'm teaching a general studies lit. class (17 freshmen and 1 senior) right
now; I loaded the syllabus with texts I love, but not ones about which I can
claim much expertise. I told the students at the beginning that this wasn't
my field, but I listed the long years of school (and going on 30 years as a
nerd in general) as my qualifications (side note: maybe I should've voted
for Hillary). So now we're reading Berryman's Dream Songs, and our approach
to them has become one of admitting (on their part and mine) what we just
can't make sense of. Then we'll take the time in class to try and make sense
of it anyway. Frankly, I couldn't have been happier than when students first
began having the courage to admit their confusion. And my admission that I
don't understand everything has made the classroom a safer space for their
suggestions (mine probably end up carrying a little greater weight in the
end, just because I'm the teacher).

Granted, this gets harder when we know a text intimately, as list members do
PL and others. So I'll recast Michael's question in other terms: given all
we know (or think we know) about PL, how can we resist the temptation to
make our usual arguments (or those of others) to our classes so the students
can ask "dumb" questions about things that just don't make sense to them? I
think one answer is to withhold our knowledge at first and deploy it
strategically when the time comes. I'd be interested to know what other list
members do and think (even if you think I'm asking the wrong questions...).

Jason A. Kerr

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

—Czeslaw Milosz, from "Ars Poetica?"
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