Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Leading Readers

I once received a prestigious award to study for a doctoral degree. The foundation that funded the grant, which was offered to students in all fields (I concentrated in American Studies), used three major criteria to determine who merited an award: academic achievement, passion for the value of education, and commitment to teaching as a career.

In addition to a generous sum of money, the award was an invitation into a fellowship. The foundation gathered my group of fellows for a week-long conference to meet one another and fellows from previous years. When the family that founded the program decided to shut it down, the foundation invited all fellows present and past to a last conference.

Many fellows went on to illustrious academic careers. I did not. Unable to find a suitable academic position after a time of contract teaching, I changed careers. Though there were understandable and compelling reasons to leave teaching, I felt at the time that I had betrayed the fellowship.

Although I did not understand this until recently, an invitation four years ago to lead a reading class at Richard Hugo House provided another chance to fulfill the intent of the fellowship. The invitation came from the Hugo House program director, who had peg me as a candidate for leading a class on Proust’s novel Swann’s Way. It would be an experiment for us both. The writing center was offering a couple reading classes for the first time. Although I had taught, I had never led a reading group.

Eight readers signed up for the six-week class. Discussion was lively. I asked the readers to make a short presentation on anything relevant to our reading, if they would like. No pressure. Each week I presented material I thought would clarify the reading. At the end of the six-week session, the class asked me to go on with In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower. The class changed—several people dropped out and several new readers joined—but after some shuffling the group went on to read all of In Search of Lost Time.

A group that reads Proust can have heady discussions. Who are the different Marcels? Which is narrating? Why does Marcel Proust name his protagonist “Marcel”? Is Proust a Platonist or a Nietzchean? I raised topics, but let the group make its way through discussions. Readers were avid, open to ideas, engaged with one another. Each class seemed to bring new insights. I learned to hold back, allow the group exchange ideas, argue, commiserate (“I could kill Marcel.” “Isn’t he a jerk!”).

Since that multi-year session on Proust, I have gone on to lead groups in Moby-Dick, Henry James (an ongoing project), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. By leading, I have been teaching in a way very different from my experience in the college classroom, reminding me of Elizabeth Hardwick’s observation that reading “consoles, it excites, it gives you knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination.” For both readers and leader.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Tony Judt on Social Democracy

“Why is it that here in the United States we have such difficulty even imagining a different sort of society from the one whose dysfunctions and inequalities trouble us so? We appear to have lost the capacity to question the present, much less offer alternatives to it. Why is it so beyond us to conceive of a different set of arrangements to our common advantage?”

In the current New York Review of Books, Tony Judt explores the history of our apparent inability to discuss social problems in moral terms. More here.