A Digression on Digression

December 05, 2002

Jonathan Swift once wrote that "the public good of mankind is performed by two ways, instruction and diversion." Mankind, he continued, "receives much greater advantage by being diverted than instructed; ... there seems but little matter left for instruction." For Swift, the triumph of diversion was clearly the stuff of satire, but for those of us who have committed ourselves to the classroom, the choice is obvious.

Professors and instructors live and die by their lesson plans -- that daily formulation that is based at least as much on "plan" as it is upon "lesson." We prepare three or four hours for every one or two that we lecture and, through some often unusual calculations, we divide knowledge into time and determine exactly how much information can be transferred within a given class. If it's Tuesday, it's the Enlightenment; if it's Friday, it's World War I.

Under these conditions, diversion and instruction are diametrically opposed, and digression has no place in the classroom. Or does it?

No matter how hard I try or how much I plan, things still seem to happen in class that I never expect and cannot predict. Material that seems to capture students' interest one semester is dull and boring to another class. Teaching techniques that work in one course fall flat in a different one. Interruptions take place that always wreak havoc with my schedule. Students respond differently or raise different issues to the same texts. Even I am responsible for breaking rank, inasmuch as I make associations in class that I never factor in during those best-laid plans the previous evening.

It is a constant source of anxiety because I am always wondering how it all will go over; and yet, it is also a constant source of excitement because I cannot wait to find out. But it is all digression and diversion nevertheless, and that part of me that is a slave to my syllabus sees it as an obstacle to my primary goal.

If I really do want my students to read Updike by the end of the semester, then I should not allow these distractions to keep them from doing it or to turn one week on Poe into two. Digression is the enemy of progress.

But either Swift's nightmare has come true and "there is little matter left for instruction," or I am beginning to believe that diversion does play a role in the classroom and that "digressions," when properly applied, can be, in the words of Laurence Sterne, "the sunshine."

They are the unpredictable byproducts of the human element in teaching, what happens when that unique assortment of minds known as a "class" comes together. They are those free associations and extemporaneous illustrations that frequently make the lesson intelligible to, and intriguing for, students. And, quite often, they are what students will remember most when the semester is over.

Last semester, I was teaching a class on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's frequently anthologized short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," a horrifying first-person narrative of a woman spiraling toward a mental breakdown. As we started to discuss the various ways in which the narrator's relationship with her husband affected the outcome of the story, one student saw a connection between Gilman's troubled protagonist and Andrea Yates, the Houston woman who was sentenced to life for drowning her five children.

In a way, Andrea Yates and her husband, Russell, had nothing to do with the class, and I did not want to spend time talking about a current-events issue when we still had more of Gilman to consider. Yet a number of students suddenly perked up and wanted to know more about the particulars of the case. Some even suggested that Yates's husband was partially responsible for the crime, inasmuch as he continued to encourage the growth of their family in spite of his wife's mental instability. If a brief digression on Andrea Yates would make the story more immediate and more important to the students and if it would help them to take interest in the material, then wouldn't it be a tangent worth exploring?

Whether Russell Yates should have shared in the blame for their tragedy or not, the question of responsibility was also central to Gilman's story. Although the reader clearly recognizes the growing signs of the narrator's instability, her husband, a doctor himself, consistently patronizes her and blindly ignores the destructive effects of the "rest cure" that he imposes upon her. But I digress.

Given the nature of attention spans in this age of computers and multimedia stimuli -- while studies have consistently fixed adult attention spans at somewhere around the 15-minute range, a recent BBC News report maintains that "the addictive nature of Web browsing can leave [users] with an attention span of nine seconds, the same as a goldfish" -- some digression may be necessary in order to get the point across. In fact, it may even save time.

As the student's ability to concentrate is tested and strained within the confines of an extended class period, the effectiveness of the lecture is compromised, and the learning curve decreases. A "straight lecture" enables a professor to cover a substantial amount of material within a limited amount of time. But students are less likely to retain or understand the information that they have received through this method alone, and the professor may be forced to review or revisit the subject in question.

Not only does digression give students a chance to refocus on the topic at hand, but a well-turned anecdote or a pointed tangent adds variety to the lecture while simultaneously stimulating student interest and piquing student curiosity.

About halfway through a class on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem "Kubla Khan: Or, A Vision in a Dream, A Fragment," a fire alarm went off in the building. It did not seem to be a scheduled drill, and the students quickly filed out of the room, down the hall, and outside. We stood out in the cold, a huddled mass watching the fire trucks pull up and the firefighters run in to inspect the classrooms. We talked about the weather, about the readings, about when the next paper would be assigned. Some students wondered if there really was a fire. (It turned out to be a false alarm.)

After the building had been inspected and cleared, we made our way back up to the room. And I tried to pick up where I had left off in my lecture. But as I looked down at my notes, I realized that there was a point that I had wanted to make before the alarm went off. For some reason, it now eluded me. Yet, as I explained to my students, the whole episode with the fire alarm and my class, in a way, ironically illustrated one of the main themes of the poem -- memory -- more directly than my lecture alone might have.

As he explains in his introduction to the poem, one of the more famous literary backstories, Coleridge humbly offers "Kubla Khan" to his readers "rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merit." After reading about the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimage, Coleridge admittedly fell into a drug-induced sleep, where he dreamt up a composition of some two or three hundred lines. When he awoke, he immediately took pen to paper and wrote down as many as he could recall, but he was called away on business in the midst of his work; later on, when he tried to finish the poem, he was unable to remember the rest of his dream. And, within the poem itself, the speaker is unable to recall his vision of the "damsel with a dulcimer." Along the same lines, I was unable to pick up my lecture from the exact spot where I left off because of the sudden interruption from the fire alarm. But I digress.

For all of the stress that is placed on order and proper planning, educational theorists more and more have come to emphasize the value of flexibility and fluidity in the classroom. They increasingly uphold that "pedagogical sublime," the "teachable moment" -- that bit of classroom spontaneity where the challenged teacher turns a mishap or an intrusion or a distraction into a fortuitous learning experience.

Yet what is the great "teachable moment" but a digression that works? Scratch the surface of most "teachable moments" and you will probably find another lesson plan that was scrapped in favor of a more timely connection.

Classrooms do need to be organized; organization and method clearly are the keys to a successful academic environment. A classroom based upon digression alone would be anarchic and chaotic. And some digressions have nothing at all to do with the classes that we teach or with the discussions at hand. They are simply pointless, and every professor, teacher, and instructor must follow their own instincts in deciding which intellectual alleyways are worth exploring and which ones are dead ends. (Sometimes, even a dead end is worth a look for the sake of intellectual engagement.)

To the extent that no formula can completely account for the caprices of human behavior and to the extent that innate human curiosity will contemplate possibilities and make connections that go beyond the framework of any given lesson and any given syllabus, however, digression should and must be a part of teaching, and we should be flexible enough to invite it into our rooms. It brings variety and color and flavor to our black-and-white notes and, most of all, it brings some "sunshine" to our students as they prepare themselves for that larger digression known as life.

Douglas L. Howard is writing-center coordinator and teaches in the honors program at Suffolk County Community College in Selden, N.Y.