On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?

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Teaching Rhys

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I’ve taught Jean Rhys regularly for more than ten years: the quietly devastating story “Learning to be a Mother,” perfect for showing students how much you can say about something that seems at first glance so slight; the heartbreaking Good Morning, Midnight, with its hair-raising and endlessly discussable ending; and, most of all, my true Rhys-love, the marvelous Voyage in the Dark. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve taught this book, the third of Rhys’s five novels, but I know it’s never failed me yet. Even students who hate it get passionately caught up in our conversations. There’s a lot to talk about because Rhys’s fiction is such a challenge to how we talk about fiction.

Most of the things I have to say about Rhys come from the person who first introduced me to her, Molly Hite, now retired but when I knew her a professor of English at Cornell. The best courses I took in graduate school were the two I took with Molly. Anyone who’s been to graduate school knows that this could be faint praise, but Molly cared as much about her teaching as about the books she taught. And she cared about those a lot. Molly pressed Voyage on me the semester I was studying for my comprehensive exams. We were talking about an essay I wanted to write about representations of children in modernist literature. Molly said I had to add Voyage to my list. It’s about a girl who is eighteen, but none of the men she meets believe her when she says that, because, as one points out, women always say they’re either eighteen or twenty-two. This is just one instance in which Anna Morgan, the figure at the center of the novel, finds her lived reality butting up against dismissive patriarchal expectations.

Voyage isn’t obviously about childhood, but it turns out to be a smart way to think about the book. After all, Anna ends up pregnant, plagued by nightmares about the monstrous child within her that she desperately wants to abort, possibly at the cost of her own young life. After just the first few pages I saw how wonderful the book is. Molly was perhaps the only professor I knew in graduate school who really seemed to love reading, and I thrilled to that infectiousness. But I was also a little scared of Molly. Nothing unusual there, I was scared of most of my professors, but I felt it more strongly with her, probably because I cared about her opinion more than I did other professors’.

In my line of work, I often meet people who had very close, even nurturing relationships with their dissertation advisors. That was not my experience. Not that they were bad or hostile relationships. Just not close. But Molly was as close as I came to having a mentor. She cared the most about my writing, pushed me the hardest, and shaped my approach to reading most strongly. What she said to me about an essay I wrote on D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox has stayed with me: “You have to let the story be as weird as it is.” I say it to my students every semester, but these are words for every reader to live by.

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Although I didn’t know it at the time, this sentiment is expressed in Molly’s terrific essay on Jean Rhys, “Writing in the Margins” (published in The Other Side of the Story in 1989). Molly was modest enough not to tell me she’d written about Rhys, and in fact I can’t even remember when I read the article, not until I left grad school for my first job I think.

In an incisive critique of existing Rhys criticism, Molly says:

Both mainstream and feminist critics who admire Rhys’s fiction in effect try to settle her, accommodating her to [dominant cultural] presuppositions either by interpreting her as an alien and inferior sort of person who serves as an object of study (in the process sacrificing authorial empathy), or by interpreting her as Rhys’s own unexamined self-projection (in the process sacrificing authorial control).

The reason critics and ordinary readers alike feel the need to “settle” or domesticate Rhys’s fiction has everything to do with her particular, and to my mind highly experimental, conception of character. Molly says a lot of smart memorable things in this essay—you should totally read it, it’s quite accessible—but what sticks with me the most is her argument that our ideas of what fictional characters are supposed to be like are governed by an idea of voluntarism that simply doesn’t apply to protagonists like Anna Morgan.

By voluntarism, Molly means something like an unshakeable belief in willpower. The idea that characters—at least active, important, main characters, the kind E. M. Forster described in his engaging Aspects of the Novel as “round”—should change. They should make decisions, take charge of their actions, act on their wishes, shape the world around them. Rhys’s characters aren’t like that. But neither are they static, or minor, or clichéd or any of the things Forster says about what he calls “flat” characters.

What happens when a novel centers on someone who is unable to change or take charge or her circumstances? And not because of some kind of personality defect (she’s weak or stupid or passive) but because of who she is (a woman, young, poor, from a far-away place that most of the people who live in the country she’s moved to have never heard of and even when they have can’t take seriously: Anna, like Rhys, is from the Caribbean island of Dominica).

One of the first things I ask students about Anna is: what should we call her? Here I’m riffing off an anecdote Molly offers in the essay: a male student “remarked wonderingly that he wasn’t sure why we were taking a floozy so seriously.” I don’t think any of my students even know what a floozy is. But they have other names. Is Anna a pushover? A weakling? A depressive? A gold-digger? A space-cadet? An idiot? A heartless bitch? I’ve heard all these things. Most often, I hear some version of the half-plaintive, half-aggressive question: Why doesn’t she get her act together? As I tell those students, it’s quite revealing how Anna can upset us. The mostly privileged students I teach are deeply attached to the idea that those who work hard will succeed.

Ultimately, these conversations always turn on the question of whether Anna is a victim. As Molly puts it: “Rhys’s protagonists are victims who are fully aware of their victimization.” She adds:

Their awareness does not make them any less victimized, it serves only to make them self-conscious in their roles and thus alienated from the society that wants to identify them completely with these roles. Worst of all, because their situation as both marginalized and wholly conscious is impossible in the terms proposed by the dominant culture, the statements in which they express their awareness cannot have any acknowledged context.

They can speak in ways that are expected of them—but if they do they are dismissed. Or they can not speak at all. No wonder they are so unhappy.

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Yet Rhys’s characters are anything but inarticulate. The abiding interest of her novels lies in the presence of a distinctive consciousness that is pretty much unintelligible to the society in which she lives but possibly, if we’re willing to expand our expectations of literary character, intelligible to us. Especially in Rhys’s first person novels, this conundrum is expressed through narrative voice. I could talk for a long time about the many wonderful qualities of Voyage in the Dark—it’s a desert island book for me—but I don’t want to go on too long. Let me just give a few examples:

She can be funny and shrewd, as in this moment when the older man she falls in love with, a man who keeps her and later abandons her, leaves her some money:

I took the money from under my pillow and put it into my handbag. I was accustomed to it already. It was as if I had always had it. Money ought to be everybody’s. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly.

She is a fascinated observer of others—though what that observation is used for is harder to figure. Here she’s writing about how much she liked one of the women who worked in her father’s household in the Caribbean:

The thing about Francine was that when I was with her I was happy, She was small and plump and blacker than most of the people out there, and she had a pretty face. What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she had finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud—louder than you could believe possible. It was a ritual.

Is this ritual positive? A kind of repetition compulsion? Does the passage express female desire, or, on the contrary a way of curbing it?

Notice how in both passages Anna uses “you.” This is characteristic, but oddly enough it doesn’t always make us feel closer to her, as when she says:

 I didn’t say anything. I put my face nearer the glass. Like when you’re a kid and you put your face very near to the glass and make faces at yourself.

You might do this, and you might not. The attempt to universalize—or at least widen—the behaviour actually ends up seeming estranging, though it doesn’t mitigate the pathos of this attempted challenge to the overwhelming power of female appearance. (A constant anxiety in the novel is that when women age, men will replace them with someone younger.)

Some similar examples:

Being afraid is cold like ice, and it’s like when you can’t breathe.

After a while I crossed everything out and began again, writing very quickly, like you do when you write

I felt emptied out and peaceful—like when you’ve had a toothache and it stops for a bit, and you know quite well it’s going to start again but just for a bit it’s stopped.

Or, finally, this description of depression:

But I stopped going out; I stopped wanting to go out. That happens very easily. It’s as if you had always done that—lived in a few rooms and gone from one to the other. … You feel peaceful but when you try to think it’s as if you’re face to face with a high, dark wall. Really, al you want is night, and to lie in the dark and pull the sheet over your head and sleep, and before you know where you are it is night—that’s one good thing. You pull the sheet over your head and think, “He got sick of me,” and “Never, not ever, never.” And then you go to sleep. You sleep very quickly when you are like that and you don’t dream either. It’s as if you were dead.

Rhys’s prose is at once affectless, even artless, and affecting. It’s carefully shaped; I’m struck by how the repetition of “you” distances at least as much as it draws us closer.

It’s always hard to know what to make of Rhys’s tone, once again, I’d say, because of the way the characters are at once powerless without being stupid or unaware. On the contrary they are highly aware, but that awareness only lets them see more clearly the prison they live in. As in this example, when Anna daydreams about being back at home and feeling that everything that’s happened to her—abandoned by her lover, without any money or prospects, and now pregnant on top of it all—is just a dream:

She’ll smile and put the tray down and I’ll say Francine I’ve had such an awful dream—it was only a dream she’ll say—and on the tray the blue cup and saucer and the silver teapot so I’d know for certain it had started again my lovely life—like a five-finger exercise played very slowly on the piano like a garden with a high wall round it—and every now and again thinking I only dreamt it it never happened…

How could we read that “lovely life” as anything but ironic, especially as it’s likened to a doubled metaphor of control and imprisonment—the piano exercise, the walled garden? And yet it’s more lovely than her current life, which has the ominousness of a dream she cannot escape.

Although I don’t think Molly was appreciated by her colleagues or the profession as much as she should have been, I don’t want to suggest that she and Rhys were the same. Yet I’ve a hunch that they had a few traits in common—at once brash and shy, both seem to me to be people the world hasn’t always know what to do with. (I’m writing as though Molly were dead! That’s so weird; I’m sorry. As best I can tell, she’s enjoying retirement in the Pacific Northwest.) But it does seem fitting that I can never read Rhys without thinking of Molly. Both were fiercely committed to the idea that books are always more off-putting, more ready to wrong-foot us, than we think, especially if we come to them with ready-made ideas of how they should work and what they should mean.

When Molly leant me her copy of Voyage in the Dark in the fall of 2001, Rhys wasn’t read that often. Most people knew her only as the author of Wide Saragasso Sea. I never studied her in a class. Fifteen years later, Rhys feels firmly canonical. Even more than her critical or academic acceptance, I take heart in the way non-specialist readers have embraced her, as evidenced by ReadingRhys week. I suspect that wherever she is, whatever she’s doing, beachcombing near Seattle maybe, Molly approves too.