Setting Free the Books: On Stepping Aside as Teaching

While film critics have offered mostly negative reviews of This Is 40, I have watched all and then parts of the film multiple times during its run on cable TV because I am drawn to the scenes that include the children (who in real life are writer/director Judd Apatow’s children with lead actress Leslie Mann).

In one scene, the older daughter, Sadie (Maude Apatow), charges into the kitchen and unleashes a profanity-laced diatribe onto her parents. Many years ago, my daughter did the same to my wife and me, and when the two of us burst into laughter, my daughter stomped upstairs to her room, doubly infuriated at our response.

Maybe This Is 40 isn’t a good film, but I am nearly 53 and my daughter is 24 and carrying her first child. And she and I are quietly emerging from many dark years between us so I admit viewing films and reading books through a sort of middle-aged nostalgia that allows me to appreciate things I probably didn’t recognize when I should have.

The dark years and incessant tensions between my daughter and me often included yelling, first by me and then by my daughter, who enjoyed accusing me of being bi-polar. Today, I recognize that throughout my life I have fumbled almost all of my close relationships because I have struggled with nearly paralyzing anxiety combined with a proclivity toward feeling things deeply, feeling things too deeply.

As a result, my love has often manifested itself as all-consuming, overwhelming, suffocating.

My only child, then, had little choice but to rebel, to seek freedom from the tidal wave that was my love. She is now an adult—working, married, and with child. I have been forced in many ways to set aside the worst parts of how I tend to respond to loving another, and thus, we are re-building now how a father and daughter can be.

While I have struggled with personal love relationships, I have had two other loves that provide different contexts, ones that have confronted me with challenges as well—my love of books and my love for my students. Because of these three arenas of my life, my life loving, I am in the midst of a journey as a teacher that involves stepping aside as teaching.

On Stepping Aside as Teaching

The film The Words presents a multi-layered narrative about writers and their relationships with people as well as words. One story examines a writer that Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) creates in his eponymous novel in the film; Hammond explains to Daniella, “You have to choose between life and fiction. The two are very close but they never actually touch. They are two very, very different things.”

In Hammond’s novel, the novel published by Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) but actually written by The Old Man (Jeremy Irons) explores a writer who comes to love the words more than the woman who has inspired him to write the words.

I think the film speaks to what happens when anyone begins to covet the extension of what one loves even when that displaced urge corrupts the original love. And thus, this film speaks to parents, lovers, and teachers who are all bound by their passions as essential to who they are.

This brings me to books and teaching—two of my greatest loves— and a foundational question about how books matter in my teaching.

Since I have been an English and writing teacher for most of my 31 years of teaching, books are the lifeblood of my classroom. But I have always been deeply conflicted about the use of books when teaching. Traditional practices such as assigning required books and meticulously analyzing books (from the historical dominance of New Criticism in English courses to the more recent obsession with close reading in the Common Core) have always felt as if the inherent dignity of books was being violated.

I feel much the same way about how traditional teacher-centered instructional and discipline practices deny students autonomy and even their own dignity.

Because I have always sought ways in which I can remain true to my love of books and my students, then, I have struggled in formal educational settings. My only recourse has been to create classes where both my students and the books we read are honored over me and my role as an authority (or realistically as the authority) in the classroom. In other words, I have come to view stepping aside as teaching (much as I have learned to view stepping aside as parenting).

Setting Free the Books*

I have returned recently to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, fascinated by both the enduring power of the novel and Bradbury’s own love affair with books. In the 60th anniversary edition of the novel, Bradbury (in the text of an audio introduction) explains:

I’m a library-educated person; I’ve never made it to college. When I left high school, I began to go to the library every day of my life for five, ten, fifteen years. So the library was my nesting place, it was my birthing place, it was my growing place. And my books are full of libraries and librarians and book people, and booksellers. So my love of books is so intense that I finally have done—what? I have written a book about a man falling in love with books.

Bradbury’s love of books as a learner, a reader, and a writer creates for me even greater tension in my roles as reader, writer, and teacher—especially in the context of  Charles Bingham, Antew Dejene, Alma Krilic, and Emily Sadowski’s “Can the Taught Book Speak?” The authors address three questions:

First, what does the banning, and the unbanning of books have to do with teaching? Second, what is the nature of a book, and do we honor the nature of books when we teach them? And third, is it possible for educators to let books speak for themselves? (p. 199)

Throughout the discussion, the role of the teacher—I would add the corrupting role of the teacher—is confronted:

If a book is banned because it is dangerous as a written text, then a book could only be un banned by letting loose the dangerous potential of such a written text. A book is only unbanned when it is let loose to be read by anyone, anywhere, any time. It is unbanned when it can be read in public or  in private, aloud or  in silence, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, without “a parent to protect” the book. When one teaches a banned book, one falls short of unbanning the book on a number of counts, but primarily on the last count. When one teaches a banned book, one does something different from unbanning the book. One parents the book. One stands against Plato’s fear of writing to be sure, but one also sides with  that same fear. One lets the book be read, but one makes sure there is a parent present at the reading. (p. 201)

Teaching a book, then, is the same as parenting that book—both the teaching and parenting here characterized as intrusive in the ways I have experienced and discussed above as both teacher and parent: “What Derrida thus reminds us is that the very act of teaching is always a parasitical act.”

Teaching and parenting as necessarily “parasitical” and destructive parallels the way writers and the their love of words above people is destructive in The Words:

This figure of the teacher vis-à-vis the book might be formulated as follows: A teacher teaches a book. However, the teacher is not fully a teacher unless the book is not fully a book. That is to say, a teacher needs a book, but she needs a particular kind of book: a book in chains, a banned book, a book that does not speak for itself. If a teacher were to teach a free book, a book unfettered by place, space, or human voice, then the teacher would not be a teacher. A teacher without a book to call her own —without a book to chain in some way, shape, or form — ceases to be , as a teacher.

To put this another way, as soon as a teacher teaches a book, then the book ceases to be a book. (p. 203)

As Bradbury’s own experiences reading in libraries and not attending college show, the book is its own reason for being, as Bingham, et al., explain:

A book, after all, is meant to be free . A book is written. It is written to be read. A book is a book precisely because it is meant to be read, and to be read by anyone. It is meant to be read by anyone who chooses to read the book. If it were not to be read by anyone, then it would not be a book, but would rather be a private communiqué. This bookness of the book signifies something important for educators. Namely, it is not in the nature of a book to be taught. Why? Because a book is, itself, language. It is language that speaks. If the book was not language, if it did not speak, then it would not be a book. A book is not intended to be interpreted into speech. A book does not require that people come to consensus about what it says. A book is itself  consensus. It already says something before any consensus. There is no book that requires or expects a teacher, just as there is no speaking person who requires or expects a teacher. A book speaks in and of itself. It speaks without the need of parasites, chains, or megaphones. (p. 203)

So what are we to do, we who are lovers of books and teachers?

Simply stated, the problem is this: the taught book cannot speak. Indeed, the solution to this problem would seem simple now that the problem has been identified. The problem would be solved if teachers were to leave books alone. (p. 206)

At the intersection of love, books, students, and teaching, I have come to recognize the importance of setting free the books by seeking ways in which I can practice stepping aside as teaching. Just as I had to understand that loving my daughter required me to leave her alone, I must leave books and my students alone—and thus the highest form of respect, the highest form of trust, the highest form of love.

The risks are high in this practice because so few adults trust children, so few adults trust books. And in our paternalistic culture, parenting is viewed as necessary and good—not intrusive and corrupting (in fact, we see books as potentially corrupting and childhood freedom as corrupting).

Ultimately, stepping aside as teaching is a paradox likely to be perceived as not teaching at all—by students, parents, colleagues, and the public.

But risk we must, in the name of those things we love.

* I had a long and wonderful love affair with the novels of John Irving, mostly in my 20s and 30s. Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, is intentionally alluded to in this subhead.

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4 thoughts on “Setting Free the Books: On Stepping Aside as Teaching

  1. Pingback: Setting Free the Books: On Stepping Aside as Teaching – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. This is a wonderful perspective on an ideal relationship with a book, or using Common Core terminology, with text. I taught middle level English for many years and often labored over which books to teach, or using your language, to parent. At the same time, middle school teaching, and perhaps almost all the teaching I have done through Masters level education courses, has an element of parenting, though it decreases as students get older. I am the adult guide in the classroom, tasked with exemplifying what an educated adult knows and how an educated adult thinks. So teacher are very much parents, if they are good teachers. We parent when we communicate culture, when we examine the ideas, themes, historic and literary references of the text, and attempt, (rightly or wrongly) to examine/illuminate the author’s thinking and intent for writing the book. Some of my best professors led or pushed us through a great text. Others, however, stepped aside and Socratically required us to explore the text on our own through questions that required us to consider interpretive directions we did not find on our own. Perhaps this is stepping aside, but perhaps it is also the most effective means of dissecting the text as well, and that’s not stepping aside at all.

    So, I’m not sure where I stand, but thanks for pushing me to consider other models for effective teaching. These are the discussions we need to have as educators, and they can inform how we approach the Common Core or Hirsh’s Core Knowledge, which is, perhaps, a philosophical precursor to the Common Core. Just as important, however, is the discussion of what American core knowledge actually is. Our forefathers lived in a Eurocentric society that was founded on religious freedom for those like you and separation of others seeking their own religious freedom into the neighboring colony. Today, we play around with religious freedom rather energetically and I’m sure far differently than our forefathers could have imagined.
    We have integrated millions of ethnic groups that were heretofore unwelcome, and we as a nation have multiple core experiences that we can claim as ‘the American Experience.’ As an aging white male, Hirsh and I have the same ideas of what we would transmit as core American values, but my Jamaican neighbors growing up in a racially hostile environment have lived a very different experience. We are both fully American–what Core Values should we teach? How do we understand Martin Luther King? Malcolm X? Robert E. Lee? Abe Lincoln? Westward Expansion? Colonialism? Sean Hannity? Barach Obama? Ayn Rand? James Baldwin? We don’t see eye to eye, so what is our Core? I don’t think we would agree. But can we simply stand aside from students and let cultural emotions and biases determine intellectual rigor? This will be exemplified in the divisive conversations that ensue as folks attempt to create Common Core US History Standards and we look at how different states decide to write the connected curriculum. And as teachers, we can’t simply step aside and let students interpret their history books on their own.

  3. Pingback: Free Reading Redux | the becoming radical

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