Hey Teacher, Play Your Part!

I remember once, when I was a graduate student, speaking to some other graduate students who insisted that “you just can’t teach (fill in the blank) philosopher to ungrads.” At the time, I thought, no way. If you can’t teach something it’s because you don’t know it well enough; if you’re truly inside a thinker, then you can make that thinker speak to anyone, at whatever level. 

After a lot of teaching, I still agree with that thought. (Background: I’ve carried a pretty heavy teaching load for five years, the past four of them at two rather different schools—I teach religious studies at a liberal arts college, with a high concentration of majors in performance arts, and I teach philosophy a community college, with students representing over 150 nations.) But now I’d add something. I think teachers need to act. Not be practical, but be actors. What I mean is that teaching, while obviously about increasing students’ knowledge and developing their skills, is also about staging encounters. Or creating a space in which encounters may be staged.

This can only happen when teachers play a part. Of course one can’t get away from certain presumed relations of authority, but one can act in such a way that students are forced to imagine them in unexpected ways. There’s something Socratic about this, but Socrates was only ever the “asker.” He was never the fool, never the animal, never a body or a mind incommensurate with our own.

But teaching, I think, is about such “method acting” not only when it involves playing an obviously “false” role. I think there’s acting even when plays the teacher. To teach is not to express oneself spontaneously, it’s not to immediately follow whatever line of thought seems, at the moment, to be of personal interest. These are not disconnected from teaching, of course, but they come indirectly. What I think is directly at stake, when teaching, is playing the role of the teacher. Just as an actor is restricted by her/his role, so the body that’s in charge of a class is restricted by the role of the teacher. Not to think what the student thinks a teacher should be, but to think from—and beyond, or against, etc.—what the student thinks a teacher should be. And what I’ve just said about “teacher” is likewise true of “knowledge.”

To play the role of the teacher … it is for the students, and for their thought, but this supposed restriction is in fact the release of a power hard to find outside of the “pedagogical” context. To play this role is not for the others, it is to think before others, and this is to be for thought, as such.

I believe it was Cassavetes who, when telling his father that he wanted to be an actor, was told by his father that he better take it seriously. It’s a big responsibility to play a role. And, along the same lines, I read an interview somewhere with Harvey Keitel, who said that he became an actor in order to live up to his full potential as a human being. Similarly, I’m starting to think I became a teacher in order to live up to my full potential as a body that thinks.

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9 Responses to “Hey Teacher, Play Your Part!”

  1. Becky Vartabedian Says:

    I have always maintained that teaching philosophy requires stand-up comedy, sales, and a little acting (and usually all at the same time). Thanks for this post.

  2. dbarber Says:

    Becky, yes, absolutely! Glad you liked the post.

  3. marcegoodman Says:

    I’m reminded of Deleuze on Dylan (which I know you doubly appreciate!):

    As a teacher I should like to be able to give a course as Dylan organizes a song, as astonishing producer rather than author. And that it should begin as he does, suddenly, with his clown’s mask, with a technique of contriving, and yet improvising each detail. The opposite of a plagiarist, but also the opposite of a master or model. A very lengthy preparation, yet no method, nor rules, nor recipes.

  4. dbarber Says:

    I had forgot that one. That’s really excellent.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    After my first year of teaching, I seriously considered doing open-mic nights over the summer to help prepare for the second year. Laziness and social anxiety ultimately kept me from doing so, but I think the idea has legs.

  6. Craig McFarlane Says:

    My evaluations routinely note how hilarious I am. Comparatively few note how great of teacher I am, except when my greatness as a teacher is directed related to how hilarious I am. I find that well-timed “f-bombs” and poop tend to go over well–until you encounter a total prude (like the girl who wore her Salvation Army uniform to every class and complained about my swearing).

  7. erin Says:

    Reminds me of the thought that the greatest basketball players usually are terrible coaches because they can’t understand why people can’t do what they did; they are unable to act.

  8. dbarber Says:

    I find that very interesting (Craig’s comment). I was going to say, w/r/t humor, that humor seems always to be mentioned on the online professor rating sites but never in evaluations. So that there would be, in the students’ mind, a sense that humor is not “officially” important.

    I would say, as well, that though humor’s relevant here, what i had in mind with the post was that teaching is something closer to performance art. And, of course, acting. That is, humor can be seen as a means of communication. Whereas i’m imagining the teacher ceasing to be one who “intends to communicate,” and instead becoming an experimental character.

    Erin, yes — same in baseball with catchers becoming managers … they are in the practice of inhabiting the games on every level.

  9. El final de una época « Sagrada Anarquía Says:

    [...] que traten de ser simplemente como son en las clases. Si bien la enseñanza tiene mucho de performance y de juego de roles, nunca uno está más cómodo como cuando adapta ese rol a su propia [...]


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