Model Behaviour Outside the Classroom


How Should Teachers of Literature Behave?

We take it as given that teachers serve as models for their students and that they ought to behave accordingly. We assume, for example, that teachers impart daily lessons in socially acceptable conduct, not by way of explicit instruction but by refraining from things like cracking lewd jokes and dishing out verbal abuse. By comporting themselves in a way that is consistent with the way they want their students to behave, teachers offer themselves up as models for students to emulate. This is the idea at the heart of flipped classroom pedagogy, which maximises the class time available for modelling by shunting direct instruction activities into the homework slot. All too often, however, teachers serve as models primarily in social affairs and far less so in academic affairs. Obviously this is not to say that teachers don’t also impart academic advice. It’s to say that academic advice tends to be imparted by teachers acting in their capacity as instructors or guides, rather than in their capacity as models sending behavioural cues to the students observing them.

But what if that were not the case and the value of modelling academic best practices was equal to that of modelling social competencies? And if a teacher of literature wanted to model best practices in literary studies without reinforcing the classroom ghettoisation of the discipline, how would he or she go about it? My honest sense is that those two questions are not as distinct as they might seem to be. I think they are bound together in an important but subtle way. My sense is that the very act of modelling best academic practices outside of the classroom involves collapsing the boundary between the academic and social spheres, implicitly investing each of the two with equal value. My sense is also that a teacher of literature who wants to model best practices must be modelling a form of social behaviour which itself must, of necessity, be modelled outside of the classroom.

Okay, okay, I know: that’s a wordy and abstract way of putting it. Here’s what I really mean, though. It’s a problem that students of advanced literature do not read sufficiently outside of the classroom. It’s also a problem that this initial problem is compounded by the classroom ghettoisation of literary studies as a discipline. The modelling of academic best practices thus requires teachers of literature to demonstrate, in every available extracurricular context, that they are socially well-adjusted adults for whom privately engaging with a variety of literature is a normal, habitual, quotidian practice, and for whom the scrutiny of literature in a structured classroom setting may well be very stimulating but is, ultimately, an aberration from the norm.

By “every available extracurricular context,” I mean every context that involves a teacher occupying a space outside of a classroom but within the view of students. Every time a teacher walks down a hallway from one classroom to another, every time a teacher emerges from a faculty meeting room, every time a teacher enters an assembly hall, every time a teacher takes up supervisory duties in a common area, he or she should not be seen without a book that is totally unrelated to his or her teaching activities. The way for teachers of literature to countervail the ghettoisation of literature is to normalise it, and its normalisation involves, at minimum, efforts to make students aware that it is an essential element of everyday life for the normal people around them. It must be seen to serve as a reliable source of private pleasure, kept ready-to-hand at all times and indulged in whenever a momentary lapse in daily business allows it. It must stand as an easily accessible alternative to the smartphone screen whenever one wants to seek stimulation during a lull in the frantic ups and downs of modern life.

But of course the results are bound to be minimal if one teacher shoulders the burden alone, presenting himself or herself as a curiosity more than anything else. Colleagues need to be encouraged to follow suit, especially non-teaching colleagues and those who teach in other disciplines, and, looking beyond the structured learning environment, teachers should connect students as much as possible with adults elsewhere who personally find it necessary to engage with literature that is not taught in schools. Students should be directed towards reading groups attended by people they don’t know who have an interest in literature they’ve never heard of. They should be encouraged to attend talks on literature and question-and-answer sessions with contemporary writers, and they should have easy access to reviews and articles from broadsheet literary supplements. And of course teachers should also be participating in and orchestrating these events, reading and discussing and debating literature, in person and in print, outside of their educational duties. After all, someone modelling a particular kind of behaviour must do so authentically, without simply making a pretence of it.

Events like the Texts In the City series of talks at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas go some way towards providing students with the sorts of activities I think they need, but they don’t go all the way. Even those talks still focus on works of literature that students encounter in the classroom, and they still attract students en bloc rather than appealing to them as individuals. Ultimately, whatever it is that student participants in such activities may learn about a particular work of literature is, I think, less important than the development of their awareness that regular people, real people in their midst, find nothing unusual about engaging with literature in a very passionate way outside of a classroom. Indeed, they should ideally become aware that those people often feel that engaging with literature in the confines of a classroom, and in a largely dispassionate way, is an anomalous way to approach the substance of the discipline.