By Homer Goldberg
R eflecting on the pleasurable unpredictability of classroom discourse in last October's issue of the Magazine, Stuart Sherman noted that "for all the teacher's preliminary mapping, the tracts of time remain territory uncharted until traversed....Cartography comes first, exploration after." Now that my last class at SUNY-Stony Brook is over and I am forced to clean out the office files, I am discovering just how difficult it is to reverse that sequence, to blow away the long-settled chalk dust and chart the territory traversed since I first grappled with Oedipus Rex in Humanities II 45 years ago.
As I try to winnow from the relics of many explorations those documents that really matter, I realize that when I established this set of files -- one for each class and each work I taught -- I thought I had already been careful to keep only what mattered. What mattered then was anything I might conceivably want for some future class, or some possible article. What matters now, I tell myself, is whatever might be useful for the book about teaching that I have threatened to write.
Shuffling these file folders, I begin to understand why I am so reluctant to purge them, even at the risk of leaving them to be unceremoniously recycled by others. So long as they remain undisturbed, they nourish, even now, the illusion of an unending future, with new chances to improve upon the past, to get it right, to teach the perfect course. Unexamined, they promise the impossible -- the permanent preservation of an essentially fleeting experience. Examined, they betray the difficulty of documenting a lifetime of teaching in a way that conveys the life in it.
Here are class lists, even fairly recent ones, of names mostly no longer recognized -- though I made a point of knowing every student by the second week of class. During the prolonged moment of the course, each of these now empty signifiers was a distinct personality, eager or reluctant to speak, thoughtful or impulsive, diligent or lax, compliant or combative, quick or thick.
Here also are often unreadable pre-class notes to myself, pinpointing issues so immediate that a scrawled word, symbol, or page number sufficed as mnemonic. Here are two pages of carefully laid-out questions (circa 1990!) on an Edna O'Brien story I can't even remember. By their very impenetrability, these notes suggest how intensely present and absorbing their little universes of discourse once were.
Like the files themselves, their contents represent my efforts to impose order on the essentially -- and to some extent desirably -- disorderly process of conversing with 15 to 35 students over texts susceptible to diverse interpretations: before, "study questions" and "reading helps" meant to clear out underbrush and focus inquiry on significant interpretive problems; during, handouts such as this solemn January 3, 1978, reminder of "Where we are" in our discussion of The Painted Bird and what "major questions raised...are still before us"; and after, occasional fits of post-exploratory cartography, efforts to nail down an interpretation when students have already moved on.
These endpaper maps of a problem and its solution, I tell myself, were efforts to supply the closure students crave. But of course they were really opportunities to perform, to show what I could do with a text, in-house vanity publications that I am sure never received the worshipfully attentive reading I knew they deserved. So it is unambivalently gratifying to find alongside these ex cathedra pronouncements evidence of some students' pursuit of our inquiry beyond the closing bell. Here are two handouts relaying to classmates their volunteered clarifications of a Hemingway story (1966) and an e.e. cummings poem (1986). Surely there must have been more than two such happy moments of after-class insight in those 20 years.
It is also some comfort to find that amid these pedagogical relics such "answers," whatever their source, are less prominent than the questions that begot them, for if I was consistently trying to teach my students anything, it was to ask profitable analytic and critical questions of what they read. The questions that loom largest in the files are those that I always committed to paper: the frequent writing assignments that articulated the spine of my courses in literary analysis and argument. When I began teaching, I looked forward with mild perversity to each new paper topic as one of the creative pleasures of teaching. In later years, as I came to understand the many ways in which an assignment could misfire, I agonized more and more in devising these
questions. Papers counted in ways that the day-to-day classroom could not. They called for more sustained reasoning and more detailed evidence than could be expected in the give-and-take of discussion; however passive or silent in the classroom, every student had to make his or her thoughts known in this forum; and, as immutable artifacts subject to reflective scrutiny, papers provided a more "objective" basis for assessing students' understanding. An ill-conceived assignment would frustrate students or put them through an empty academic exercise; a good question could generate the process of discovery at the heart of learning.
So some of the most satisfying contents of the files are copies of impressive student papers. It's not only that I take grandpaternal pride in these achievements for which I can legitimately claim no credit. In contrast to my own efforts to control the inquiry or to sell my interpretations, these examples of superior cartography please me because I learned from them. They showed me features of the terrain that I had missed. They are the culmination of a teacher's hopes: the unpredictable gift of new knowledge.
Like the assignments that prompted them, these student papers seem to proclaim the primacy of written discourse, an appropriate affirmation for courses focused on the study of literary texts. Yet so many documents in these files read like old playbills, or the unerased blackboard in a strange classroom -- uncommunicative vestiges of an incommunicable experience. Musing over them, I recollect the wisdom of Socrates' climactic speech near the end of Plato's Phaedrus, when he finds "in the written word ...much that is necessarily not serious" and concludes that only the give-and-take of spoken argument can implant a living idea in the soul of another.
I like to think that a comparable conviction underlies my own efforts to practice "the discussion method" or, more essentially, to conduct collective classroom inquiry. But Socrates is a very tough act to follow, and who can know the soul of another? So all these years I have hedged my bets with these crude maps of where the treasure is buried. Thus "published," surely my instruction shall not perish. Or so the files wistfully insinuate.
Homer Goldberg, AB'47, AM'48, PhD'61, distinguished teaching professor emeritus at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, taught English and humanities in the College (1950-60) and wrote "Returning to the Core" (August/92). He has five file drawers to go.