Teaching, Creativity and Interpretation; Or, What I Learned from D.W. Winnicott and Nell Irvin Painter

January 12, 2012, 11:15 am

Donald Winnicott, 1896-1971

One of the many reasons I was happy not to go to the American Historical Association annual meeting is that I am starting a new job at a very different institution than the one at which I have worked for two decades.  More than I usually do, I needed the time between terms to put together courses for students I have never met and who may also be very different from those I have known. I have had help in making my transition:  new colleagues have sent me their syllabi, and they have been generous in critiquing drafts of mine, as well as answering the specific questions that help locate us as teachers. How much will the students read?  Is the syllabus understood as a contract?  Where is the writing workshop? What kinds of writing assignments work best? What type of guidance and support will my new students want from a teacher?

These are questions of strategy new hires usually ask me; asking younger professors what they know about teaching was a refreshing reversal.  The whole process also brought me hard up against a far more existential thought that I have been turning over in my head:  you can’t ever really know who your students are before you meet them, even if you have taught at the same place for many years.  An unexpected feature of changing institutions in mid-life is that I am confronted with, and must reflect on, the invisible assumptions that have structured my teaching practice. One of these is that I should never presume knowledge of who I will be teaching, how they will learn, and what they will expect from me. Much of the work of a class may depend, in fact, on giving students the space, skills and materials to explain who they are and what they know.  The idea that students learn from us may be a fatal detour:  in large part, learning may depend on the access students have to their own capacity to teach themselves. Our role may be in freeing them to learn, cultivating their creativity, and creating an atmosphere that promotes self-confidence in their capacity to learn.

Nell Painter (photo by Robin Holland)

I am reminded of a story told in public by a former student of Nell Irvin Painter’s about having arrived at Princeton for her first year of graduate school.  The student came to believe, as she attended class after class, that everyone in her cohort was better prepared than she and that — despite having had an excellent education — she did not “belong” at Princeton. Discouraged, this young person who had been told by her undergraduate mentors that she was so promising had come very close to deciding to pack her suitcase and go home. But because of one brilliant pedagogical moment she did not.  Painter, who is a legendary teacher, opened her first class on Foucault by displaying a book bristling with post-its.  She then mused aloud about having thought that many intelligent people might try to read such a book, be utterly mystified by Foucault’s language and syntax, and become dismayed.  So, Painter concluded, this was where the class would begin:  they would all learn the words. Together. So that they could speak to each other about Foucault.

Painter’s excellent assumption was that she didn’t know her students — and that she couldn’t possibly know what they didn’t know (the logical corollary here is that she also could not possibly know what they did know until, as individuals and as a group, they had a common language.)  Hence, Painter made the shrewd and self-abnegating gesture of not beginning the class in the place that might have pleased and amused her, might have solidified her position of power over the students through displays of knowledge, and reified pre-existing power dynamics among the students.  Instead, she began by insisting that everyone in the room be in the same place, together. This small but significant gesture kept this young woman in graduate school, and she has subsequently flourished in her field.  Furthermore, by telling this story about herself, this younger woman also taught me a lesson about teaching that I will never forget.

There are many places to learn a lot of important strategic knowledge about teaching. But often it is an approach like Painter’s, which demonstrates an ethic more than a technique, that helps me re-think my actual teaching practice.  Currently, because of a set of essays by psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott published as Playing and Reality (1971) and republished in 2005, I am thinking a great deal about how school can enhance or inhibit creativity.  Winnicott is most famous for his development of object-relations theory, and for his pioneering work with troubled adolescents.  But he also has a great deal to say about creativity, and the extent to which responding to the needs and desires of powerful others can be inhibiting and even destructive.  Creativity, he argues, “makes life worth living.

Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance….Compliance carries with it sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living. In a tantalizing way many individuals have experienced just enough of creative living to recognize that for most of their time they are living uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine. (87)

This passage struck me because teaching is, to a greater or lesser degree, an exercise in demanding compliance.  We create lists of things that must be done; we insist that our students be in a certain place by a certain time and remain until we allow them to depart; we give grades in the expectation that those things will be done by a certain deadline and to a specific quality; we create rubrics so that everyone will receive a grade that hews to a similar set of standards, regardless of what any given student is interested in thinking about.  We attend to “coverage” of a subject, hoping to ensure that students will be able to advance to the next level with a set of competencies that will allow them to learn more.

And yet, by doing this, do we ensure that students have really learned what we teach — or even more important, that they have made sense of the materials in some way that connects to the reality they inhabit?  All kinds of research suggests that it is often not the case. Here I find that Winnicott’s attention to the therapist’s often over-eager desire to display interpretive prowess to be a useful critique of the professor’s felt need to convey mastery over (and shape students’ understanding of) a particular body of knowledge. “It appalls me to think how much deep change I have prevented or delayed in patients,” Winnicott writes, “by my personal need to interpret. If only we can wait, the patient arrives at understanding creatively and with immense joy, and I now enjoy this joy more than I used to enjoy the sense of having been clever. I think I interpret mainly to let the patient know the limits of my understanding. The principle is that it is the patient and only the patient who has the answers. We may or may not enable him or her to encompass what is known or become aware of it with acceptance.” (116; emphasis mine.)

The correlation of teacher and therapist is not an exact one, and as a history professor I am not a fan of just dumping the “facts” on the table as if they told their own obvious truths.  This latter strategy is one conservative intellectuals urge on us as properly counter-interpretive and unideological, as if facts were not themselves generated and chosen through ideological and interpretive apparatuses.  However, I think there is something to be said for recognizing that students are intellectuals prior to their appearance in our classrooms, despite the fact that their lack of access — or inability to convey — their own creativity might make it difficult for us to “know” them in the way, say, historians “know” each other through common languages, literatures, methods and signs.

Students know a great many things, despite the fact that sometimes they can’t say what it is that they know because they don’t have the words yet.  It’s no wonder that this is the case: much of their education is geared towards reflecting authority back at itself.  In papers, examinations and class discuss, the interpretations and hierarchies of fact that teachers have insisted on are recycled in such a way that they can short-circuit creativity altogether.  This has become even more of an unseen burden for all of us in recent years because of an increasingly test-driven secondary school culture; and a political atmosphere in which college and university teachers are being corralled into declaring and meeting desired “outcomes” of courses and majors that disregard what students might come to us wanting and needing to learn.

Winnicott might suggest that we replace this model of teaching as commodity exchange:

teacher –>  student —> testing company/employer

with a pedagogical model based on what he calls “mirroring,” (160) by which the teacher provides a set of materials, and then assists the student (or a collective of students) in understanding what s/he, or they, knows.  The desired outcome (which is paradoxically achieved by displacing a desired outcome) would be the student’s growing capacity ”to move from dependence to autonomy” (146) that is nurtured in an atmosphere of respect and affection. Pedagogy would then look more like this:

(teacher <——> student) = learning > creativity/society/culture

In the following quotation from Winnicott, I have inserted the word “teaching” for psychotherapy and “student” for patient.  See how it reads, and whether it resonates with what you imagine might happen in a classroom that attended to the latter model:

[Teaching] is not making clever and apt interpretations; by and large it is a long-term giving back what the [student] brings….if I do this well enough the [student] will find his or her own self, and will be able to exist and feel real. Feeling real is more than existing; it is finding a way to exist as oneself, and to have a self into which to retreat for relaxation. (158)

In addition to being a touchstone for thinking about how to teach the students I do not yet know, this may also be the best ethical basis for the political and social rehabilitation of liberal arts curricula that are being diminished and eliminated under neoliberalism.   Putting student creativity at the center of our pedagogy also reveals the intellectual barrenness of current education policies, in many elite private institutions as well as in public institutions, which are thinly disguised strategies for training competent and docile workers at all levels of the economy, rather than cultivating citizen/laborers who are critically in touch with their own humanness.

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