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The Real Transformers

The Real Transformers
Spring 2010 | Volume 33, Number 1 | Features

Teaching as a Subversive Activity

A good course leads students to see “Not only where they have been but also where it is, tomorrow, that they might go.”

Abraham Lincoln
In his Marston Hall office, Luke Reinsma offers personalized advising and “tough love” editorial insight to students.

By Luke Reinsma, SPU professor of English and Director of the University Scholars Program
Photos by Mike Siegel

The other day, I taught a “History of English” class that went badly in all the usual ways: the guys slouching in the back of the room; the sound of my voice beating, like ocean waves, against a wall of irritation and boredom.

Now, I’ll be the first to concede that a lecture on Early Modern English is a tough sell. But I love the idea of the English pirating words from across the globe: concert, madrigal, oratorio, and aria from the Italian; hashish from the Arabic; ketchup from the Chinese; raccoon, opossum, moose, moccasin, and more from the Native Americans.

What magic is it that removes the barrier — that allows teachers to converse with, rather than to talk at, our students? It’s my private theory that the solution is analogous to writing itself: that good classes, like good papers, need a thesis, a plan, a problem, and, finally, a sense of larger significance.

First, then, the thesis. All teachers know what I mean by a thesis, if only because our hearts grow fonder by their absence. Too many of us read too many papers that fill up the requisite number of pages with neatly edited, spell-checked paragraphs without having anything, really, to say. How often have we begged our students for an argument — not just a paper about, say, shields in Homer’s Iliad, but an argument that these shields are the badges of an honor society; not just a paper about the war in Afghanistan, but an argument as to whether and why the war is necessary.

A good class, too, needs not only a topic but also a thesis. What is it that we really want to say in a class period? What’s our argument? It’s precisely when we reduce our class periods to information dumps that we confuse knowledge with understanding, memorization with learning. So, for a start, like a good paper, every class needs a thesis — a sense, not just of where we are, but of the path we need to take.

And next a plan, a strategy: a good, clear reason for talking about Latin words first, before Italian or Spanish. How often have our students offered up heaps of paragraphs, leaving it to us to figure out why the third paragraph comes before the fourth, rather than after? Your paper reads like a heap of stones (I say nicely) that have yet to become stepping-stones, each paragraph advancing the argument, each a step on the path.

To use another metaphor, how often do we as teachers offer our students a rich shopping bag of information — peas, ice cream, potatoes, and peach cobbler — leaving it to them to turn what we have brought into a menu and then a meal? So a good class needs a plan.

And then, thirdly, a problem, a puzzle, a riddle, a question, or an obstacle — something that rubs against the grain of our students’ casual complacency, like the time a couple of summers ago my son and I hiked the 50 miles of trail around Glacier Peak that was closed to the public because all the bridges were washed out. If you think of papers that really work, they’re often those that overcome seemingly insurmountable objections. Or they’re often articles like those of one of my favorite essayists, Stephen Jay Gould, who was fond of posing questions, then offering an answer that was followed hard on the heels by another question — until we finally arrive with him at the essay’s conclusion, with a strange and wonderful sense of having traveled on this path, of having reached this mountain top, together. These are the papers that do not so much talk at us as with us, engaging us in a conversation.

And that is why my class on Chaucer’s English worked so well. Quite by accident, I came to class not with a pocketful of answers but with a good question: “Having rubbed elbows with the French for centuries, why did England raid the French language for words only after its triumph in the Hundred Years War?”

In contrast, it was the class on Renaissance English for which I had all the answers. This was the class whose path ran as straight and flat as a highway in Kansas, leaving my students nodding off at the wheel. So good classes, like good papers, need to pose questions or problems that put a bend in the road ahead, that tear out a bridge or two along the way in order to encourage, even compel, our students to think for themselves, so that they will learn, not despite us, but with us.

And then a final word about this thing called “significance.” Once an effective paper reaches the top of the mountain, it is good to look not only backward but also forward — to see what’s on the other side. Or, as a former colleague of mine used to write at the end of his students’ papers, “Now that I know that, what do I do?!” Or less charitably, “So what?”

Well, students ask the same question of us, daily, and they have every right to! At any rate, we teachers are obliged to make some attempt to connect our immediate and peculiar interests to the larger lives of our students, to suggest to them why the class matters, to fit the puzzle piece of a class period into a larger framework.

So what would I do differently, when I teach “Renaissance English” again? It might go something like this. I might start with the story of an English lad who grew up in the latter half of the 16th century in the sheep country to the northwest of Oxford, in a little town called Stratford. I would tell the story of how he made quite a name for himself on the English stage; of how his characters speak words (as Frank McCourt writes in Angela’s Ashes) as if they were jewels in their mouths. I would turn to the school­master Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, who is incapable of looking upward without turning the word sky into the Latin caelo, then the English welkin, then heaven. “This is a gift that I have,” says Holofernes, speaking for his creator, “a foolish, extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions” (4.2.61–63).

The playwright, is, of course, William Shakespeare. The thesis of my second draft of this class? Perhaps, that — much as even today we look to Paris and Italy for our fashions — even so the English of Shakespeare’s age suffered from a linguistic inferiority complex, driving them to raid the globe for words.

The plan? Perhaps we might use the journeys of Shakespeare to the Globe Theatre in London and of Sir Francis Drake around the globe itself as an opportunity to talk about the goods piled high on the docks of London at the height of the Renaissance. Coffee from the Middle East; molasses, tapioca, and tobacco from the New World; soy from Japan; ketchup from China — all of these, words that entered our language during the English Renaissance. The problem, I’ll have to think about. But the significance I know. And sometimes you don’t have to say it. All you need do is leave a hint of it hovering in the air.

If the course goes well, what happens is that students discover that our language has not been carved, like the Ten Commandments, into blocks of granite. It is, rather, like a river endlessly flowing, threatening to knock us off our feet. Studying the history of the English language, then, is like surviving an earthquake: The ground — “terra,” Holofernes calls it, “the soil, the land, the earth” — the ground beneath our feet never seems quite as stable again. Which is, I think, a good cure for both complacency and arrogance.

Like a good paper, a good course, too, needs to be written in the company of our students; needs to make an argument; to plan its daily, weekly, and monthly moves; and to rub against the grain — so that when our students have completed their journey, having written their final paper, their final exam, they have seen not only where they have been but also where it is, tomorrow, that they might go. This, come to think of it, is perhaps also true, not only of a good paper, not only of a good class or course, but also of a good life.

Read testimonials from Reinsma’s students

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