Subjective Correlative

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is evoked." T.S. Eliot, 1919

Location: Academia, NJ/NY, United States

Overeducated educator seeks part-time position as novelist, essayist, pundit, hack, comic, and/or laughingstock.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Things You Should(n't) Say to Students

There's sex at the end. I promise.

My full-time teaching job involves playing mother hen/muse to 45 freshmen while allegedly teaching them to read and write essays. This group and subject have their ups and downs: the primary up being that they are still new enough to fear me, the primary down being that they still ask permission to go to the bathroom (which never fails to stun me). Needless to say, no matter how cool they claim to be, they are easily shocked, especially when I make unexpected forays from my undeserved (and unwanted) pedestal to address the real world: Cream vs. Derek and the Dominoes, added shorts on "The Incredibles" DVD, Kate Moss on coke, etc. Eventually, like 8th grade health class pre-abstinence only, we get around to sex, and I get to see exactly how many parts I play for them.

I teach three sections right in a row, beginning at 8 am and getting out at 12:15. For some reason, my last class is inevitably my coolest ... the ones who can lure me into shooting the shit, actually bring up interesting issues, debate each other productively, and, eventually, hate for the semester to end, and plan reunions that never happen. Maybe it's because after three hours on the same material I'm starting to riff even more than usual and need to keep myself entertained, but that's when my personal life starts leaking through. They hear about my kids, my friends, my own college years; for better or for worse, they get to know me. My class is a workshop, so I always ask them to share their writing, and they comply with varying degrees of enthusiasm. (The first rule of teaching is to become comfortable with uncomfortable silence; one of them will talk eventually, either because they have something to say, or because they can't take it any more.)

Today, one student volunteered, then immediately started to explain how he thought he had done the assignment wrong, he would probably rewrite it (why? I sure as hell ain't gonna reread it!), yadda yadda. And before I could stop myself, I was shushing him with an imperious wave, and I stood, and I spoke: "OK, listen. You're all grownups, and I'm going to give you the best analogy I can think of for what happens when you prematurely point out your own insecurity to your audience. Issuing a disclaimer before reading your writing is like issuing a disclaimer before sex -- it just gets in the way, and creates more problems than it solves. Your reader WANTS to enjoy your work; it will be better for both of you if you enjoy it with them, instead of worrying about the literary equivalent of whether your ass is fat."

Reactions to this were varied. By the time I got to the part about the ass, one student had his hands over his ears and was saying "LALALALALA" softly to himself. A few laughed, felt self-conscious, and blushed. Others were visibly aghast, on two levels: "She's had sex!" vs. "She knows WE have sex!." The virgins weren't hard to spot; they were looking earnestly at the floor, feigning indifference. And there I was, proclaiming to 15 18 year olds that writer and reader are first time partners in some sort of erotic act. The fact that I was their primary reader hit them with varying degrees of speed and comprehension, as I stood there, having essentially announced that I wanted them to fuck me, unselfconsciously, with their words, that I was waiting to know them in some sort of sensual way. The essays we had read dealt with beauty, love, and body image, so the physical analogy was maybe less out-of-line than it sounds. I stand by it, but I'm still not sure what effect it will have on the chemistry of the class. I have one ear peeled for the academic paddywagon, its officers armed with 15 separate charges of sexual harassment. Wednesday will tell.