I’m not going back to school in the way that “back to school” meant as a child (new shoes, new teachers), or as an adult who, after experimenting with life decides that she wants to go back to finish a degree, start a new one. I’m going back to school as I have for decades–to teach. My problem is not what to wear for the first day of class, though I’m sure I will try on several outfits. I am wondering, though, how I’m going to teach what I’d decided to assign more than six months ago.
In “Why Teach: In Defense of a Real Education,” Mark Edmundson meditates on the state of undergraduate teaching in the United States. Much of Edmundson’s view of what makes a “great teacher” in a four-year college doesn’t really describe the challenges of animating a graduate seminar. But one comment in the review of the book seemed apt: that the task of the teacher is to introduce students to books that have changed their own lives in order to inspire the students to change theirs. (Naturally, this assumes that students want to be transformed.)
“Experimental Selves, Graphic Subjects,” the course I’m teaching this fall, is about learning to read books, memoirs in which the authors write and draw the self and, in the process, perform an exemplary transformational act. Here’s an instance of what I mean:
This image comes from Bobby Baker’s extraordinary visual memoir, “Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me,” which transmits the experience of Baker’s struggle with years of treatment and hospitalization in the UK, from which she emerged in a state of health.
The text reads: “The idea of giving myself two mouths suddenly popped into my head. This is one of my all-time favourites and the first of many self-portraits.”
I have no idea what I’m going to say about this portrait, about the two mouths. But I hope that together the students and I will find a way to enter Baker’s project and be touched by it. I’m not at all sure that this is what Edmundson means by “transformation,” but it’s what I hope to make happen. Can we begin to see ourselves in a self-portrait other than our own?