Teaching and Its Discontents
By President Emeritus William M. Chace
In the first years of teaching, I thought about the words of a student, Eric Cross, who returned punts for the school’s football team. When asked why he could run so quickly after receiving kicks from Stanford’s opponents, he said, “Fear. I run out of fear.
I don’t want to get caught. They’re fast and so I run faster.”
In lecturing on black literature for three years and later when I taught American Literature, 1917 to the Present, fear was my fuel. I wanted to get things exactly right and make no mistakes. That meant controlling, for fifty minutes, three times a week, the classroom. It was the arena of my pedagogical testing, my modest ordeal by fire.
The thought of my students waiting for me to deliver the material focused all my attention. I imagined them to be tough, critical, even severe. With them in mind, I wrote out my lectures, page by page. Everything got included. I wrote out the “spontaneous” asides; I wrote out the jokes.
I thought about the teachers who had taught me, recalling their way of talking, their strategies, the way they organized the hours they had in front of classes. I asked myself how they would teach a certain book and, in my imagination, could see myself teaching just as I had been taught. I filled lined yellow pads with everything I needed. For three years, this was my routine.
In the fourth year, I looked up from my work and stopped. I knew I couldn’t go on, year after year, that way. I reduced the yellow pages to three-by-five cards, lots of them, moving through them as I spoke to the class, adding here and there, interjecting remarks when I felt I could, reading less and speaking more. The asides and the jokes, not included on the cards, now were to come as they came. After a few more years of lecturing, even the cards themselves became less important, for their contents had been imprinted on the equivalent of cards in my head. And in this way, I became a lecturer—not an excellent one, but not a bad one. With a small sense of victory, I said to myself that fear was no longer my fuel. At last I had gained the confidence I needed to speak to undergraduate students.
But with this acquisition of skill came a peculiar, if wholly private, anxiety about the value of what I was telling those students. While I knew that my colleagues in, say, chemistry were imparting solid information about the structure, composition, and properties of the things of the world, and that the knowledge they were providing was not otherwise easy to come by outside such lecture halls, my lectures were, in fact, saying no more than what a reasonably attentive and responsive reader could get out of the books. Was there anything to understand about The Great Gatsby that needed my guiding hand? Was my assistance required in getting to the mysteries of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl? I began to think that instead of being a teacher I was more like a museum docent, politely pointing this way and that, friendly and engaging, ever the gentle hand by the elbow. But how essential was I?
I wanted to teach something else, something in which the knowledge I could give would exceed the turns of personality I could bring to the occasion. I wanted a subject that the ordinary reader would not read easily, or read at all, without help. I sought something wonderful, something astonishing as a work of art and yet, something true to life
and astute about the travail of being human.
I chose James Joyce’s Ulysses, rightly regarded as the most important novel in English in the twentieth century. It combines extraordinary technical ingenuity, moral force, and human wisdom. Joyce’s treatment of its plot (on
a given day, an unimportant
man leaves his house, meets a
variety of people in his city, helps
a young man in trouble, and
returns at the end of day to that same house—which, during his
absence, has been the scene of
his wife’s infidelity) is a powerful
reminder that much of human
life, while apparently “ordinary,”
is saturated with meaning if only we pay close attention to it. Yet, while everywhere praised, Ulysses is a book largely unread.
I could help my students explore something that, on their own, they might never read or read only in part and then discard in confusion and despair. So, for three months, I read the book, then read all I could find about it. I marked it with a density of marginal notations that made it my own; my scribblings became Talmudic. I assembled an entirely new set of three-by-five cards about Joyce and Ulysses, and committed them to memory. And then, in 1973, I taught the book for the first time. I believed that at last I had something genuinely useful to teach. Several decades later, I have not stopped teaching it, and my reasons for doing so have not much changed.
This is an excerpt from William M. Chace’s book 100
Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President, and What I Learned along the
Way (Princeton University Press, 2006).