Thursday, November 30, 2006

Emotion in the classroom

Such a class I had last night.

I wish I could reveal my discipline and the topic of last night’s theory class; it would make it easier to explain and ask for feedback on what went on last night. But I’m not going to do that (even though I’m sure some of you have figured it out).

At any rate, last night a student – one of my favourites – cried in class. That might often signal the devolution of a class into personal narrative and an abandonment of the intellectual project. In this stellar class, it didn’t mean that at all. The crying didn’t take us off course. The student spoke through it, made the point, and if anything, the tears hammered home the relevance of the intellectual work at hand. Many disagree, I know, that emotions have any place in the classroom – but I feel strongly that they do. That they are always present, and that in some disciplines, with some topics, they are simply given more space to emerge into. That our knowledges emerge from people's lives.

There was also some emotionally charged, but silent, staking out of positions. I could see this happen as I surveyed the class – someone reacting strongly, as if attacked, to what someone else had said. The student didn’t say anything, but I was strongly aware of the discomfort – and the fact that it might point to others’ discomfort.

I left the class very upset, shaking, knots in my stomach. On my long walk home from the bus station, I tried to figure out what had me so worked up. In one way, it was simply that there was crying and conflict “under my watch”. I feel somehow responsible for these people. If they are emotionally wounded during their time in my class, how am I complicit in that? Or am I, at all?

In a broader sense, I don’t feel equipped to deal with the emotional dimensions of some of what we study; I don’t have the skills. In this class, because the level is so high and the discourse already very familiar to many of them, it’s not a huge problem. Members of the class can guide their peers in productive directions; they barely need me (and that is a good thing, because I was really no help at all last night). But this is an exceptional class; most of them aren’t like this. And yet there is undeniably this emotional element to what I teach, sometimes. I just don’t know how to position my self in relation to it, what to do with it.


Bardiac said...

Wow, sounds like an amazing experience for your students. I know what you mean about feeling responsible, though. It's hard to deal with. My worst experience with it was teaching women's studies, because a class full of women pretty much all at once realize how screwed up things are, and boom, frustration and sadness. It was painful to work through, but better than them expecting a fantasy.

Unsane said...

Emotions are important -- but it is even more important for thinkers to realise just how much emotional reactions influence their thinking processes.

Hilaire said...

Bardiac - you got it. :)

Unsane - Absolutely. And that was part of what we were talkng about.