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The Way We Teach Now: From Here to China

I’m sitting in the chilly ballroom where the Presidential Forum, “The Way We Teach Now,” has just begun. I was lucky enough to arrive in time to secure a chair; right now its standing-room only. So, it’s true: teachers really want to talk about the way we teach now.

Gerald Graff just heated up the room by suggesting that in some people’s view, professors make a distinction between their “own work” (research) and their “alienated labor” (teaching). Impressive, then, that the panelists on this forum are showing exactly how “their work” and work on teaching can be one and the same.

Amanda S. Anderson just gave a really cogent analysis of the differences between Stanley Fish’s and Graff’s views of argumentation. She used the term “charisma” to refer not to people but to arguments: what makes them compelling, reproducible, satisfying, and enduring. She claimed that writing about pedagogy is often seen as lacking charisma, but her remarks proved exactly the opposite.

Michael Bérubé talks really quickly, and he packed a thirty-minute presentation into about half the time. The best part is that most people can actually understand him at warp speed. His tales of teaching graduate students to negotiate the professional world today were spot on. Bérubé says that most of us think of teaching as what happens in class, but every time we communicate with graduate students in word, example, prohibition, exhortation, or other rhetorical gestures, we are in fact teaching.

Rita Felski believes in suspicion, or at least in the hermeneutics of suspicion. I loved hearing how she teaches students to read suspiciously or, rather, how texts induce paranoia in their readers. Suspicious reading generates its own pleasures, such as a heightened and sharpened understanding. Reflective reading, by extension, develops more comprehensive accounts of why texts matter to us.

A dazzling multimedia show provided the grand finale to this Presidential Forum session. Richard E. Miller’s presentation demonstrated how we now have the capacity to communicate instantly and globally. The kind of work he and his colleagues are doing has had a major impact in the digital world. I remember seeing his production on YouTube and thinking, “Wow, that’s smart.” Now there’s an argument for why we should be teaching the humanities—in new ways—from here on in.

Intrigued? There are three more sessions linked to this forum (320, 337, and 488) as well as a host of related session on the presidential theme. You can find them here.

I can’t be at all places I want to be, so I asked a colleague to fill me in on one session I really wanted to attend but couldn’t. Here’s her take:

Just about everyone seems to have a story about traveling to the convention, but few of us have journeyed as far as Mo Yan, the distinguished Chinese writer who has come from Beijing, China. Following a long tradition of writers who have attended our conventions—James Baldwin, Jorge Luis Borges, Allen Ginsberg, and Toni Morrison come quickly to mind—he has come to talk with us about his work. He began by reading a section from the first chapter of Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, then placed his work within its wide-reaching historical context, and finally took questions from the audience. The session was in Chinese, with English translations—and insights and humor came through in both languages.
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© 2015 Modern Language Association. Last updated 02/12/2014.