October 1, 2007
In this article, Elbow argues that it is not in avoiding the conflict of “hard” teacher versus “soft” teacher but in embracing the conflict, and more specifically, in giving each extreme its full due that makes for good teaching. He’s saying that it’s not when we care for little for either or for one over the other, but it’s exactly when we care deeply about both about helping our students, being their allies and coaches, and about our subject, about the benefit society gains from high standards in our subject that we can teach more successfully. When we care more for students than standards (or vice versa, more for standards than students), we end up teaching poorly. But it’s not when we show our care for both at the same time; it’s when we “go whole hog with one mentality” and then the other that makes teaching work (61).
I found this point fascinating and liberating. Fascinating because it does, as Elbow points out, apply to life in general, not just teaching. It’s the same way a good writer works: by caring deeply about the sound and feel and play of writing as well as caring deeply about form and organization and sense (though, again — not at the same time). It’s the same way a mature personality develops: by caring deeply about both sides of one’s soul, so to speak – nurturing one’s self as well as pushing one’s self. I love the way Elbow’s insight corresponds to a lot of the way the universe seems to work (at least the human universe, if not the inanimate universe). That makes his insight all the more believable.
I found it liberating because it means that the main thing I have to do in teaching is to care deeply about my love of writing and my love of students. And that seems almost easy, when put that way. I know the logistics have to be worked out – and Elbow gives some very sane and helpful examples of ways to emphasize both students and standards (alternately, not simultaneously) – but it’s freeing to know that it’s the caring, the energy I bring to both that makes it all work ultimately.
Finally, as a former divinity student, I especially loved Elbow’s use of Christ as a prime example of a teacher who cared deeply about “standards” and “students.” I’d never thought of his teaching style that way. But, come to think of it, I can’t think of anyone who was more willing to do whatever it took to fulfill both his “students’” needs and the requirements of a higher spiritual “law.” That’s a cool example, and one I’ll never forget. But I did find that it also raised a troubling question for me. It made me wonder how much charisma has to do with successful teaching. The more I thought about it, though, the more I think Elbow’s basic insight still holds true: it’s our love, our passion for writing and for students that generates the “charisma,” not vice versa.