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.