Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Teaching, Learning, and Enthusiasm

Albert Sands Southworth, Classroom in the Emerson School for Girls,  1850.

I have been on a brief “blog break” in order to better manage the start of the new spring semester. With the various demands of teaching and learning on my mind, I have been wondering about the ways in which education might be a field for fan-like behaviors. Obviously, this is move that stretches common definitions of “fandom," but perhaps it’s useful to ponder for that very reason.

What does teaching and learning have to do with the history of audiences and fandom? Well, one of things most teachers know is that, at some level, leading a classroom is always a performance. I don’t mean that it is simply entertaining--it can be, but teaching is more often ritualistic, which is another side to performance (see Richard Schechner for more on that kind of distinction). Instead, I mean that teaching involves “display enactment for the benefit of an audience.” In other words, teachers stage learning for students, who must attend to what’s happening.

In particular, I’ve been reading an early journal on teaching, The Massachusetts Teacher: A Journal of School and Home Education, from June 1851 (vol IV, no. 6). I actually found issues of this journal from the 1860s under the hay in my barn (a teacher used to live in my house, perhaps…); copies may more readily be found on Google Books. The June 1851 issue fascinatingly addresses pedagogy and student attention with the emotional language of enthusiasm that was simultaneously being used with reference to the world of arts performance. It is this kind of thing that makes me wonder whether “fandom” need be resolutely tied to 20th century media at all and whether fandom might be more accurately described in terms of a broader framework of enthusiastic audiencing. (Working that out is the whole point of this blog, of course!).

Here are two excerpts to consider from The Massachusetts Teacher:
It is a remark of an experienced teacher in another State, that no day should be allowed to pass without seeking to make the pulse of the whole school beat in unison. This remark seems founded in reason. No teacher can put it in practice without perceiving the force and propriety of it. Such exercises tend to create a general interest in the affairs of the school-room. They create a love for the school, for the fellow pupil, for the teacher. They appeal to the strong feeling of sympathy in our nature. It is natural for us to enter with interest into what we do in concert with the many. Be it a religious service, it is a common remark that a full meeting is a good one; be it a parade day, the sight of a great throng will animate most men, and kindle the flame of glowing interest in what would soon tire, if viewed only by a few; be it a mob even, the dictates of reason, and the voice of conscience, and the sense of right, frequently will all be hushed by the voice of the many, and the most timid will unresistingly follow “a multitude to do evil.” 
The teacher will wisely avail himself of this principle, and as often as he can, make the voice of the whole school rise in concert in the strains of music, in the mutual reading of the sacred word, or of some secular lesson, or in some exercise prepared expressly for this purpose. As already remarked, no day should be allowed to pass without some exercise of this kind. Some teachers are fond of a mutual exercise as one method of reaching reading; but this seems to be as much recommended by the show and sound as by its utility…No person, however, can doubt the propriety of this exercise occasionally, as a method of making the great arteries fo feeling in the school-room throb in unison…”  (139) 
The teacher can interest his classes only by becoming himself interested even to enthusiasm. A successful man in any calling must be an enthusiast. Nothing can supply the place of this in the school-room. The best methods and the most stimulating expedients will fail in the hands of an indifferent teacher. If the “Goddess of Dulness” presides over his brain, her drowsy influence will soon extend over his little kingdom—the school-room. 
Enthusiasm is quite as contagious as gaping. You see it flashing from the eye of the orator to the soul of his audience. You see it spread like electricity from the heart of a Bonaparte, and kindling every heart in his vast army. You may sometimes see its enkindling influences in the school-room. An enthusiastic man guided by truth will always interest. It is impossible to resist the charm of earnest enthusiasm. 
…We ever become heated by earnest pursuit. With what absorbing interest does the chemist pursue his processes of composition and decomposition, while the mere spectator or mechanical operator regards them with entire indifference. How completely engrossed does the mathematician become among his diagrams, formulas and abstractions. There are few subjects from which the mere looker-on would turn away with more indifference. It is a law of the whole creation, that action produces warmth. The head and the heart of the schoolmaster are not exceptions.  
The teacher should work in the daily preparation of his lessons. He cannot begin every recitation promptly and say and do just what he ought to say and do, without forethought. With it he will save time and do more finished work. But he will derive a greater advantage than this. His inventive powers will be aroused. Clearer explanations, new processes, and better illustrations will be discovered for every class. Let the teacher once begin to invent, and he is sure to be interested. Inventors are always enthusiasts. (174)

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