From an outside perspective, everything appears normal. Malik, a first-year, African-American student from Brooklyn, is sitting in the front row as usual. Today in our composition class before our workshop begins, I’m presenting a 15-minute lecturette on using signal phrases to introduce sources in a documented essay. As he listens, Malik’s piercing eyes are trained in my direction; he almost imperceptibly nods his head as I speak.
But everything is not what it appears. In the chilly classroom this January morning, Malik has his hoodie pulled over his small afro, hiding much of his face. And though he is pointed squarely in my direction only six feet away, I notice he’s not actually looking at me at all; instead, Malik is looking through me, past me. He doesn’t seem to be here in the room. Then I notice the nodding of his head is oddly rhythmic in nature—more like head-bobbing. It’s then I realize that underneath his hood, Malik is jamming to some Drake or Kendrick Lamar track on his iPhone, microscopic earbuds blasting 85 decibels of sound and turning my carefully constructed presentation into a C-grade pantomime. Don’t get me wrong: I like Malik tremendously, and he’s damn clever—after all, I can’t actually hear that music he’s listening to, and he knows it.
Now what I’m going to say next may seem anathema (or, at least, counterintuitive) to warm, welcoming literacy teachers like us. After all, my doctoral classes in post-secondary composition have taught me a wide array of student-centric, soul-sensitive, teachable-moment approaches to situations like these. And I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice those approaches over the last 20 years. As I’m sure you’ve discovered yourself, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. Personally, I’ve always been suspicious of prepackaged, highly marketed pedagogical “solutions” to “enhance student engagement” and “increase retention.” Blech. More typically, I’m attracted to willingly being in problems as much as humanly possible when they arise, purposely swimming through them though I feel like I’m drowning, carefully breathing them in although it burns—some of my colleagues even call me masochistic in this way. But I’ve learned that reactionary responses to solve problems or fix brokenness—in other words, rolling out some pedagogical panacea simply to make my life easier—hasn’t really enriched me or my practice in any way over the last couple decades. In fact, I might say that doing so has actually short-circuited learning and growth in some cases.
So, my anathematic suggestion is that maybe, just maybe, not every classroom issue needs to be immediately solved. Ask yourself this: Although an entire industry has arguably been created to help teachers eradicate problems and remove barriers so we can “get on with the important task of teaching and learning,” what might happen if we decide to loiter in the messiness of our teacherly lives for a while? How might we grow, teachers and students as human beings, if we refused to rush headlong into salving our wounds, however big or small? What could we learn from welcoming the inevitable, painful shortcomings inherent in any complex, dynamic environment like a classroom? Might we even be able to somehow mindfully honor these problems and the suffering they bring—like my heart sinking and my anger rising as I realize, in a flash, that Malik is enjoying his concert-for-one, confident he is slick enough (and that I am gullible enough) to pull it off. What would such a classroom look like?
Oh, there is one thing you should know: Although I talk a good game, ultimately I’m president-elect of the Cowardly Teachers Association of America. Nevertheless, when contemplating this student’s questionable decision to rock out during class, I tried my best to adopt a humble position—to become willing to be in the problem regardless of how much it might hurt my feelings, regardless of how angry or depressed I might get, regardless of how much I just wanted to yell out loud in front of everyone: “Enjoying the music, Malik?”
So instead, I decided to revisit Jerome Miller’s book The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. Miller’s book is a meditation on the role suffering plays as a spiritual teacher. The most important concept in Miller’s philosophy, and the one I hope to apply to this classroom situation, is the existence of the Other. Central to Miller’s world view, the Other is a person, force, or circumstance that, wholly separate and different from us, enters our lives to painfully interrupt our routines. The Other exists solely to abandon us to crisis, which, ultimately, might transform the way we live and think (and in this case, teach). The Other is “something foreign and strange, an alien reality intruding upon the settled time and bounded space of everyday life” (14). The Other can appear in the form of a critical tragedy resulting in great personal upheaval, or it may be experienced in the form of a spiritual presence. Likewise, the Other may take the form of a revelation, a sudden and deep understanding, or an entirely different perception that lays our previous worldview to waste. The goal of the Other is to leave us untethered, wandering in a new landscape without a compass. Essentially, the Other is an interloper who rips into our tightly controlled lives and cannot be wrestled to the ground. Also important: The question is not whether the Other will visit you; the Other will befriend every single human being eventually. The real question is: How will you respond when it comes knocking?
If you’ve been following my argument, you won’t be surprised who I’ve cast in the role of the Other. That’s right: Malik. I realize that it may seem disingenuous to characterize one student’s slightly annoying behavior as a perception-warping, life-changing event. And again, branding a student as “Other” justifiably seems anathema to literacy teachers who do everything humanly possible to create positive learning communities that embrace others—not potentially ostracize or reduce them with a label. I understand how pretty awful this might sound. But that is precisely what I’d like you to consider for a moment (not ostracizing students, of course, but viewing them through the powerful lens of Miller’s disruptive Other and how this perspective might positively transform teaching practice). The role of the Other (this week, played by Malik) is singular in purpose: to breach our boundaries, to radically adjust (and maybe even shatter) expectations, to interrupt the safe routines of our lives. And the point of that disruption is to transform us—personally and professionally.
I guess if I were an optimist, I’d end my discussion basking in this “Dead Poet’s Society” moment. Unfortunately, since I am still a card carrying member of the Cowardly Teachers Association of America, you can probably guess my gut reaction when faced with the Other and what it means to me as a teacher. I am fearful of what transformation might come, and I will do whatever I can to avoid, suppress, domesticate, or marginalize the Other and its power. You may not have this kind of reaction when staring into potential radical transformation. But for me? I see this rupture, I see Malik’s behavior, as painful and treacherous, and I willfully question if pondering it really has any worth. Why not just nip it in the bud, publicly ask him to leave, give him a zero on class participation, and enjoy my weekend? Sure, I’ve taken this purely reasonable approach in the past to punish students for texting their friends under the desk (or for disregarding any other classroom policy); maybe you have too. But when I take the time to sit gingerly in the middle of the problem, something very different happens. Strikingly, I hear Miller’s argument: When faced by the disruptive Other, our first instinct is to purposely build powerful routines into our lives that act as barriers against suffering and radical transformation. Anything can become a buffer that protects us from transformation, especially as teachers–the predictable and familiar way we structure our relationships with students, our nearly-legalistic classroom policies as stated on syllabi, the way we carry out our endless cycle of work: “(T)he very process of work itself makes it possible for me to impose a direction, a sequence, and thus a pattern, on my life. It is really the process of work itself which gives me the sense of being in control. To be ‘liberated’ from work would be to rupture the order which keeps chaos at bay” (11). Needless to say, any safe routine we follow in our teaching practice, or any predetermined pedagogy we use, might apply. Think about it: How many of your highly controlled, repeated, safe classroom practices exist to help you maintain the illusion that you are in control by pre-emptively disarming the Other? I’m not arguing that classroom policies aren’t needed, or that order isn’t necessary for learning to occur. But I am asking us to pay attention to what role these forces may also be playing in stunting our evolution as literacy teachers.
Beyond my teaching routines, there are other ways I avoid suffering that the Other might visit upon me. For example, I regularly “domesticate” the disruptions caused by the Other through sheer will. The easiest way to accomplish this is by labeling the Other as a “problem to be solved” and, as I mentioned earlier, I apply a quick, smartly marketed, painless remedy of some sort. As Miller says, “(W)e live in dread of being upset. At the basis of our ordinary world is an unwillingness to be disrupted. The very fact that we cannot bear to think of losing control shows how determined we are to avert that possibility” (14). When an Other, such as Malik, makes his or her presence known, “We cope with this by defining the Other as a ‘problem.’ A ‘problem’ is an interruption which, in principle, can be managed, an intruder which can be disarmed. Even if I never find a solution, even if I spend the rest of my life figuring out how to deal with ‘it,’ I have already robbed the ‘it’ of its power to rupture my life by imposing on it the role of a problem” (15).
In this case, once I am able to disarm the Other (by reducing Malik to a mere problem), I can fool myself into thinking that nothing can ever upset me again—the illusion of control is re-established. Conversely, I might simply avoid contact with the Other altogether; for example, I could decide to not welcome Malik into my tightly controlled existence at all. This could be materially accomplished in a few easy ways: For instance, I could tell him to drop the course, or allow him to remain while wholly ignoring him and his behavior the entire semester. If I opt for this approach, Miller says I’ve become the God of my own, constantly shrinking universe: “Insofar as I want everything to be manageable, I want there to be nothing infinite in my life, nothing that surpasses or exceeds my power to cope and handle. If by the divine is meant something radically Other, infinitely beyond my capacity to control, then I will exclude everything divine from my life” (20).
Suffice to say, there are many other, completely understandable approaches teachers might take when faced by the disruptive power of the Other. As I mentioned previously, it’s not if you’ll find the Other sitting in the front row of your class one day, but how you’ll react when you do. (Actually, if you are currently teaching, you’ve likely already established relationships with many Others; all you need to do is critically recollect how you reacted and in what ways this encounter or relationship enriched—or diminished–your practice.) Obviously, the approaches I’ve mentioned here—using routines to avoid the Other, labeling the Other as an easily solvable problem, denying the Other entrance into a carefully controlled existence–would not be labeled as “best practices” by a long shot. And, as someone who is leery of solutions in general, I’m not offering one.
But I’ve found that pondering the Other does present me with an interesting lens to view my practice—a lens that, I think, really wouldn’t exist otherwise. For Miller, avoiding the Other or attempting to make our lives more manageable when confronted by the Other is our worst possible response; we may as well be committing spiritual suicide. Conversely, Miller suggests that welcoming the Other (or the whole student) into our lives allows us to become fully human; welcoming the Other is an opportunity for us to relinquish our attempts at control. As teachers, we like to think we are in complete control; but in reality, we control very little. Usually, it is our tendency to control every aspect of our lives that keeps the Other at bay. However, by letting go of control, by not responding to the Other in reductionist ways, we submit to the reshaping process that the Other visits upon us, and we are transformed. A thoroughly scary proposition? For me, a resounding yes! But Miller says that this visitation of the Other is an opportunity for us to practice generosity. If we are to live and participate fully in the world, especially as people who want to help students grow, we must be willing to welcome the stranger, to welcome the suffering the Other might bring as a disruptive—but evolutionary–force. And just to make this entire prospect more formidable, Miller argues that there is no guarantee this process will be necessarily beneficial; assuming a positive outcome would simply be another way of plying our will-to-control. No, Miller argues that the Other is an “emissary from the wilderness” that brings with it an opportunity for us to experience the “true, freeing uncertainty of our very existence” (15).
I can’t leave Malik’s story unfinished. I apologize, but the ending is quite ordinary, which shouldn’t be surprising really. In the final hour, I didn’t say anything to Malik about listening to music during the lecture. After all, he was only disrupting his own learning, and no one else was being distracted. Seeing my dilemma this way helped me put the matter into perspective; generosity materialized as no action on my part, I guess. Maybe he was having a bad day; maybe he was able to understand the lecture anyway; maybe “showing up” was all he was capable of that day. In short, Malik passed the class, which was his immediate goal. Ultimately, I only know that I have gained much from contemplating his behavior and choices.
Maybe you, too, have gained something from reading about Malik’s presence in my life. Have you had an Other teach you a difficult lesson about your practice? Feel free to let me and other readers know about it below.
Keith Duffy is Associate Professor of English, Penn State. His research often examines how spirituality, broadly defined, might enhance post-secondary writing pedagogy.
Miller, Jerome A. The Way of Suffering: A Geography of Crisis. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1988.