Sunday, September 16, 2007

Walled in

Sorry, no update yet on that teaching philosophy. Give me a few days.

For now, movie reviews.

I just finished watching The Paper Chase, James Bridges's 1973 film featuring John Houseman in his Oscar-winning role, Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., the tyrannical Harvard Law professor.

Which question does the film answer, "How does one teach well?" or "How does one not?" Kingsfield is bombastic, insulting, abasing, flippant, and shows utter disregard for his students' persons and personalities. Nevertheless, his embrace of "the Socratic method" (loosely construed), an inchoate problem-based learning method, over and above flat-out lecture; and his remarks on the uselessness of memorized yet unanalyzed data, show a genuine concern (if not fully expressed) for his students' intellectual development.

What I find most interesting about the film is the use of space: fittingly both the classroom and the library become places for reverent worship of knowledge and learning, while in the end even a hotel room is transformed into a makeshift chapel of sorts, its walls repapered, its floors recovered with note after note on case law and legal commentary.

On at least three occasions James Hart, the film's hero, finds himself alone in the lecture hall in which his course on Contract Law (Kingsfield's course) is held. His demeanor is always one of awe: the hall is a place of solemnity and numinousness. There, the wisdom of the Judges is passed down, from generation to generation; there, the law is received worshipfully.

The sanctum sanctorum is the "Red Set Room," a special section of the Law Library reserved to hold the personal notes of the school's faculty members, including the notes Prof. Kingsfield himself made in the class he took on contract law nearly fifty years before the film takes place. To gain entry to this hallowed place, Hart and his sidekick must resort to simple breaking and entering, stealing peeks at their professor's notes by flashlight in the dead of a dust-covered night.

I won't go on, there's probably a film school dissertation written on it somewhere: Paper walls, paper halls: the academic setting in the work of James Bridges. I'd only like to draw a parallel with my own experience.

On the evening before the first meeting of the first course over which I had complete control (calling all the shots on classroom activities, homework, quizzes, exams, projects, grades, the whole shebang), I walked from my apartment about a half-mile from Stevenson Center at Vanderbilt University and let myself into the building. At our building's far east end lay my classroom, a spacious room walled by glass on three sides, looking out onto the South Quad to the north, towards the library to the east, and to another of Stevenson's wings on the south.

When I arrived that night was ten o'clock, perhaps, and it was dark outside. I hit the lights.

The room was empty, clearly. I was alone. The board, two sheets of brownish slate, one which could be rolled upward on a wheeled track, was clean. The floor was uncluttered, every desk untouched.

The silence was electric. I was in awe. Learning (I was convinced) would soon happen there.

Even now, this very semester, when I slip into the calculus classroom in Rhoades Hall at 6:45 in the morning in order to set up for my eight a.m. section, I pause to appreciate the immensity of what will transpire in that room in little more than an hour: learning (ideally) will soon happen there.

Why do I feel this way?

It's a humbling feeling: it's part of my job to cause learning to transcend those walls. It's important to help the students to see that learning cannot be confined by any barriers of plaster or brick, no more than it can be locked away by an enlightened cadre of practitioners with strings of letters after their last names.

But transcending the classroom, that Holy of Holies, is a tough task. Why is such a powerful pull exerted by the classroom? Is this gravity merely a remnant of the human penchant for compartmentalization, or is there more to it, a psycho-philosophic connection drawn between religious devotion and academic erudition?

To be continued, perhaps.

Readers: thoughts?

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