A Teaching Philosophy Draft

This is an initial draft of my teaching philosophy statement, which will be part of my applications when I go on the job market in just a few weeks. The aim here is lay out, without jargon or jokes—my typical approach—the beliefs, values, and practices that underlie my pedagogy. Because today was my first time returning to the front of a class in a few years, I figured that it was as good a time as any to take a moment and reflect on what teaching means to me.

When I was an undergraduate there, St. Edward’s University had a slogan that the school used in its marketing materials at the time, promising that in their classrooms, students would “learn to think.” This motto, simple though it may be, ingrained itself in my mind at the time, and continues to impact how I understand the role of higher education today and shapes how I approach teaching rhetoric, writing, and theory at large. As opposed to believing education to be a practice of knowledge transfer, imagining students as empty heads that need filling with novel jargon and scrupulous facts—forgotten as quickly as they were learned, a hollow mind being a rather porous thing, after all—my pedagogy aims instead to teach students not what to think but what it means to think. What matters to me as a teacher and theoretician of rhetoric is to stoke an enthusiasm for critical thinking skills and a celebration of cerebration, encouraging students to look anew at their everyday symbolic practices and communicative environments, learning to better articulate, and in due course reevaluate, their unique assumptions, beliefs, and convictions.

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This process necessarily entails understanding students to be so much more than vacant vessels eagerly awaiting their teachers to impart new knowledge; rather, my pedagogy is grounded on the recognition that the names on my roster are people first and students second, coming to the classroom with their own personal histories, singular sets of experiences and expectations, individual dreams and desires. First generation students without familial support either emotionally or financially, legacy students who come unawares from places of profound privilege, foreign exchange students struggling to get the hang of American norms and standard English: Even in my short time teaching so far, I have encountered students from a wide variety of backgrounds, challenging me to constantly adapt my own pedagogical practices and aspirations to meet these students where they academically already are, and not where a predesigned lesson plan or codified syllabus assumed they were. When I discovered one semester that not a single student in my first-year writing and argumentation course could (or felt confident enough in their own schooling to) name the three branches of American government, I immediately tabled whatever lesson plan I had devised for the day to address the needs of the class in that moment, letting their questions and uncertainties dictate the direction of our discussion.

At all turns, my pedagogy is driven by an ethic of listening and a belief that students are often much brighter, genuinely more creative, and more receptive than they are given credit for by traditional top-down didactic methods centered on a teacher’s expertise. Rather than end up limiting the curiosity of my students by confining classroom conversation to a strict script or by assigning them rubrics where they only would need to mirror back a set of tasks for a passing grade, it is frequently my goal as the instructor of record to sit back and let the students lead, to follow their diverse interests and concerns. In this sort of classroom free association, I conceive my job not as attempting to curb their enthusiasm or keep their inquisitiveness in check, but to assume the responsibility of tying the threads of their digression back to wider rhetorical themes while fostering their speaking and writing freely and openly. Hence when giving writing homework, I will urge students to approach the prompt creatively, to try and surprise me in a way that will set their work apart from their peers, often by using digital tools we have explored in class. Embracing this all too rare freedom, some students in the past have used animated reaction GIFs to provide peer review feedback, while others have used Twitter for discussion threads instead of platforms like Canvas or Blackboard.

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In asking students to take ownership of their educational experience by reconsidering the course as an opportunity for creativity, for thinking differently, for finding ways to make the shared material matter to their personal interests, one further pedagogical goal that I am trying to achieve is to break students from the habit of unconsciously presuming that learning is reserved for a formal classroom environment. Like much of what I have already said above, this is a lesson I have learned in large part from research in psychoanalysis, which I believe has profound yet untapped insights into the processes by which minds (which is to say, psyches) are molded and changed, whether in the classroom or in the clinic. All too often, and rarely aware of it, students have been conditioned to assume that the work of critical deliberation and symbolic imagination occur only in the rarefied space and time of the class—which is tantamount to thinking thinking likewise only takes place when dealing with official academic business, while doing homework or while in class, but not at the bar over the weekend.

Against this attitude, my pedagogy works to help students realize that critical thought and rhetoric writ large are practices vital to both public and private life, that the time for deliberation happens not only when sequestered in a classroom, but that the wider world around them is ripe for rethinking, too. This posture is reflected in some of the assignments I give, which regularly prompt students to investigate their own ambient rhetorical situations, such as when my students must put together a scrupulous rhetorical analysis of their own social media presence based on the personalized advertisements in their digital feeds. The point here is that rhetoric, thinking, and learning can happen anywhere, at anytime, but above all, learning comes about when we least expect it or when we stop paying attention—just as, when trying to remember a word on the tip of the tongue, if we give up the effort of memory, the word often seems to magically appear—that is to say, when the defensive assumptions of the ego lay dormant and the symbolic imagination of the psyche is vulnerable.

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Essential to the pedagogical comportment outlined above is the practice of composition, in all its diverse forms across different technologies and genres, which I attempt to make into an everyday exercise for students otherwise accustomed to seeing writing as stiflingly scholastic and reserved for official classroom activities. Whether my students are composing traditional argumentative essays, multimodal digital texts, or more plastic works of creative artistry like sound or visual collages—all assignments I have given to my classes at one point or another, to illustrate this point or that—my teaching positions the process of writing as part and parcel with the act of thinking. What I am trying to suggest in my pedagogy is that when we take up a habit of writing as something simultaneously commonplace and strange, when writing becomes not rarefied and resisted but rather routine, writing can become revolutionary for students, opening up themselves and the world to novel ways of knowing. By thinking through composition, by understanding writing as a process of invention and imagination rather than a polished or procedural product, by encouraging students to treat the blank page as a space for critical experimentation, play, and blameless failure, I always hope to help students cultivate their own idiosyncratic structures of thought and new rhetorical worlds.

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Pynchonopolis

In Pynchon’s view, modernity’s systems of liberation and enlightenment — railway and post, the Internet, etc. — perpetually collapse into capitalism’s Black Iron Prison of enclosure, monopoly and surveillance. The rolling frontier (or bleeding edge) of this collapse is where we persistently and helplessly live. His characters take sustenance on what scraps of freedom fall from the conveyor belt of this ruthless conversion machine, like the house cat at home in the butcher’s shop. In Joyce’s formulation, history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. For Pynchon, history is a nightmare within which we must become lucid dreamers.

Jonathan Lethem, reviewing Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013)

Annotated Bibliography: Lacan and the Logic of Structure

Ragland, Ellie. Jacques Lacan and the Logic of Structure: Topology and Language in Psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Trying to follow the twist and turns of Lacan’s ever-shifting thought can at first glance seem maddening, although Ragland contends that the topological dimension typically seen as part of his final period in fact informs his project as early as the mirror-stage (22). According to Ragland’s text, the structure of the barred subject, the subject of the signifier, was always “already topological, multidimensional, spatial” (19), insofar as it “is always open and changing because fading away into the primacy of the meanings that have already constituted it, always forms a part of it” (20). Thought of as a logic of places, Lacan’s topological account of unconscious points to “how body, language, and world co-exist, intertwined in contradictory ways” (45), constituting the intersubjective social discourses within which we occupy dynamic positions. Moreover, Lacan’s topology aims not only to trace the transformations of structure, but to actively imagine the impossible Real of jouissance that motivates the complex interaction of the drives, signifiers, the split subject, and the social Other. “Topology shows structure, then, the real of structure which cannot speak itself. Topology situates the subject in a place of the Other, toward which the subject is supposed to orient itself,” says Ragland, and hence “Lacan’s whole teaching concerns this place in the Other—a common site” that “might be thought of as a cultural dimension—a place where egos can collect and identify” (124). This can perhaps most clearly be seen in writing, since “Lacan described the lettre as a place where being (l’être) resides between the unconscious and language, calling the lettre a localized signifier that one can recognize as language converging with the unconscious,” where “the unsymbolized real finds a place within language” (136) whenever “a repressed part of jouissance…returns into the symbolic to disrupt the consistencies of language” through the play of lapsus and a nongrammatical jouis-sens (13).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Re-Inventing the Symptom

Thurston, Luke, ed. Re-Inventing the Symptom: Essays on the Final Lacan. New York: Other Press, 2002.

There are fustian epistemologies and eremetic jargonauts, and then there’s Lacan, whose use of neologisms and arcane allusions only increased—many might say, worsened—in his final seminars, Le Sinthome being the most symptomatic. The authors gathered in Thurston’s collection provide here not “an endless multiplicity of singular” definitions and perspectives on the final Lacan, “but a limited multiplicity—a severality—that traverses” interpretation as such, just as the sinthome does subjectivity (106). Radically particular in its evental structure, to each analysand her own, at the very least the sinthome “signals that the endless repetition of symptomatic compensations for the lack in knowledge is halted and replaced by an acknowledgment of ignorance. Whereas the symptom originates in a desperate attempt to know and control oneself, the sinthome is—literally—a locus of illiterature” (34), the knight exemplar of course being Joyce, who effected the end of analysis, crossing the fantasy and identifying with his sinthome, by “discovering a more fundamental relationship to the body in lalangue” (154), which is the nonsignifying, purely phonetic “fluidity of the mother tongue as it flows over the subject” (144). In the synaesthetic chaosmos of Finnegans Wake, Joyce transformed his “symptom as cause of suffering,” his inability to recognize the Other as authority, to a “symptom as knotting of identity and enjoyment,” becoming author of himself by constructing in his writing “a way of relating to object as drive-object, divested of the burden of the fantasy” (119); rather than writing “function[ing] as a deferral of jouissance—a stalling strategy…writing itself circulates jouissance” (123). In this, Joyce-the-sinthome sheds the Symbolic skin of his symptom in order to identify with the “Real kernel of jouissance” the symptom formerly and formally conceals and displaces (60), a jouissens or enjoyment-in-meaning that, like McLuhan’s medium or Poe’s letter, “is not concerned with the meanings produced, but with the activity of production itself” (11); hence the sinthome is both “the ultimate support of the subject, and at the same time the source of the subject’s openness to or production of meanings…Your ultimate identity, the ultimate support of your being, is the particular way in which you enjoy meaning: your sinthome” (12).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Seminar XXIII

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XXIII: Joyce and the Sinthome. Translated by Cormac Gallagher. Unpublished.

If Lacan, both here (xi 12) and in Encore (37), calls Joyce “unreadable,” one can only wonder how he might perceive this translation—in sore need of an editor to pin down the punctuation and point out the puns. Of course, it does not help that Lacan has here as his focus two “little bits of writing” by which “we have entered into the Real, namely, that we have ceased to imagine” (iv 9); that is to say, in his turn toward topological knots and Joycean paronomasia, Lacan believes that he has found a means to think through bits of the Real which necessarily escape ordinary symbolization, for, as he explains in Encore “[s]omething true can still be said about what cannot be demonstrated” (119). His name for such half-truths is the enigma, written as Ee, which “consists in the relationship of capital E to small e; namely, why the devil such a statement [enonciation] had been pronounced? It is a matter of stating [énoncé]. And the stating, is the enigma. The enigma raised to the power of writing, is something which is worthwhile dwelling on” (iv 8, xi 15); “the writing, then, is a doing which gives support to thinking” (xi 3), to thinking something new, which leads to an athinking “against a signifier” (xi 18). Hence, as with Seminar XXII, Lacan uses the Borromean knot to articulate the relationship between the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary, as well as the psychical instances that emerge at their intersections—i.e., meaning occurs between the I and S orders, phallic jouissance between R and S, and the enjoyment of the Other of the Other which ek-sists, but is not possible, between R and I (iii 12). Yet with Joyce, for whom the Imaginary order failed to tie together—evidenced by the meaninglessness of Finnegans Wake and his “relationship to his own body as foreign” (xi 11)—Lacan sees a fourth ring holding the whole structure together: “if they have preserved themselves free among themselves, a knot of three, playing in a full application of its texture, ex-sists, which is well and truly the fourth, and which is called the sinthome” (iii 13). The sinthome, then, is “a way of repairing,” is “not what allows the knot, the knot of three, to still make a knot of three but what it preserves in such a position that it seems to be knot of three” but plus one (vii 5). According to Lacan, “Ulysses, bears witness to the way in which Joyce remains rooted in his father even as he disowns him; and it is this indeed that is…his symptom,” his sinthome (iv 12)—as such, Joyce is a psychotic and a pervert (version ver le père, i 13) who only accepts castration inasmuch as he disavows it, so that, like Origen, another saint homme, he can only castrate himself. Because the non-du-père of castration equals, according to Lacan, accepting likewise the nom-du-père, Joyce’s sinthome takes on the form of nominalization wherein it is to his (im)proper “name that he wanted there to be paid the homage that he himself refused anyone…the proper name which indeed does everything it can to make itself greater than…the S1 of the master” (vi 14). Joyce accomplishes this, says Lacan, by “the forcing of a new writing” as his invented sinthome, a “writing which, through metaphor, has a bearing…that must be called symbolic” beyond the Imaginary meaning foreclosed by him (x 4); as such, this sinthomatic writing which touches the Real for Joyce, beyond meaning and beyond the Symbolic law of the father (x 14), became “altogether essential for his ego” (xi 7). We read as much in Steven’s admission (and so Joyce’s) in A Portrait of the Artist that he “require[s] a new terminology and a new personal experience” (v 1271); as such, Steven’s non serviam, his promise to “not serve that in which [he] no longer believe[s]” (v 2576), points to precisely what he will serve: Himself in his writing.

The majuscule sigma on the far right stands for the sinthome.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.