By James M. Kee
(The following is an excerpt from the address given by Associate Professor James Kee of the English department, upon his receipt of this year’s Distinguished Teaching Award. See Page 4 for coverage of the award ceremony.)
am much aware that I share a sentiment with many previous recipients of this award. There is simply no way to achieve a measure of distinction in teaching by oneself. Whatever the merits of my teaching, I know that I would never have grown as a teacher were it not that I have been part of an extremely dedicated teaching faculty. When I arrived at Holy Cross, four of the first 10 faculty members who would receive this award were colleagues of mine in the English department: Ed Callahan, Tom Lawler, Bob Cording, and Helen Whall. I had a lot of work to do if I were to come up to the standards set by them. And even now, when I can readily admit that I am a better teacher than I was 26 years ago, I know that, at my best, there are always some students I do not manage to reach. Fortunately, almost all students at Holy Cross eventually find mentors who make an important difference in their lives. I am thus grateful for the honor being bestowed upon me personally today; but I am equally honored to represent all of you as we celebrate and reflect upon what teaching means at this college.
… Finally, I want to thank the generations of Holy Cross students that it has been my privilege to teach. I am overwhelmed by the thought that there have been so many “yonge, fresshe, folkes, he or she,” as Chaucer describes them, who have allowed me to assist them in pursuing their hopes and dreams. I am indebted to them for calling forth in me the passion for teaching that animates my life. If I might assume the voice of experience and say something to the newer faculty here, it is this: do not become fixated on our students’ tendency not to speak in classes. Learn to look attentively at their faces. The narrator in Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Gilead, remarks, “Now that I am about to leave this world, I realize there is nothing more astonishing than a human face.
… Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it.” If you learn to look at our students’ faces, you will come to see that there are hidden depths within them. You will learn to evoke from them words spoken from these depths. And when they do speak, they will not just say something but have something to say.
I want to speak today about how a dialogue between literature and philosophy has shaped me as a teacher. I was drawn to study literature because of the powerful encounters with literary works that I had in my own undergraduate classes. I came to understand what was happening in these classes, however, because of a moment that occurred in a philosophy class. We were studying Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and one of the students asked the professor about Aristotle’s ideas about God. The professor grumbled for a few seconds—he loved to make fun of what he called our illiteracy—and said he hadn’t been talking about ideas. He had been seeking to unfold how the linguistic symbols in Aristotle’s text articulated Aristotle’s experience of divine reality. He insisted we first had to recast the question in these terms. He then read particular passages in the text and caught us up in a luminous movement of interpretive thinking. The experience was emotionally powerful, to be sure, but it also brought understanding—insights which, when reflected upon, become the kind of lasting knowledge one stakes one’s life on. What happened in that philosophy class on that day was the defining moment in my intellectual life. It presented me with matters that I think about every time I prepare a class.
These days literary studies is a multi-disciplinary set of practices that have a variety of different objects. But to the extent that acts of interpretation are still central to the discipline, students of literature are not just concerned with texts or works as any kind of object. Rather, they are concerned with the irreducible triad of experience, language, and subject matter that had guided my philosophy professor’s reading of Aristotle’s text. The terms of the triad are irreducible in that you can’t eliminate any one of them by reducing it to one of the other terms. You can’t reduce the work’s language to anyone’s experience, whether the author’s or reader’s; you can’t reduce the subject matter to the literary form, as happens when content is simply identified with form. You can’t attend simply to language and subject matter without acknowledging that an act of interpretation happens as an event and thus involves someone’s experience.
My understanding of these matters deeply affects how I plan courses and individual class sessions. My recurrent nightmare is that I will inadvertently destroy a student’s experience of the work for the sake of analyzing it. I know that analysis, carried out in ways that seek to develop a student’s initial sympathetic response into genuine understanding, is both a good and necessary thing. But what if there is no initial sympathetic response to develop? What can one do to bring about that initial opening? A metaphor developed by the literary critic Cleanth Brooks captures the challenge compellingly. Borrowing an image from John Donne, Brooks suggests that we think of the literary text as a well-wrought urn containing ashes. It’s beautiful, but it is finally, in itself, funereal. The ashes contained in the urn, however, are not just any ashes but the ashes of the phoenix. To interpret the text well, to make it happen as a work of art, one must figure out how to cooperate in the phoenix’s rising again.
When faced with such pedagogical challenges, I ask first about the relationship between the work’s language and its subject matter. The peculiar dignity of language is that it exists for the sake of something other than itself. There is thus a danger in collapsing the distinction between the language of the work and its subject matter. This distinction, however, is not a separation. The subject matter of a literary work isn’t lying around out there available for inspection independent of the work. It is only disclosed in and through the medium of the work’s words as these are interpreted. To carry out the work of interpretation, one does indeed need to analyze semantics, syntax, historical contexts, effects of textuality, ideological distortions, and the like. In the end, though, one also needs something more.
In Search of the Double Vision continued>>>