| Fall, 2010

John Hanson’s Statement of Teaching Philosophy

Socrates statue

[Fiction]

Most statements of teaching philosophy outline the ways in which the candidate thinks he is a good teacher. I could say that I am good at encouraging students to talk and helping them find their inner passion for a literary or philosophical text. It is true. But I have decided to come at the question from a different angle. I will tell you about the great failure I had as a teacher, how I overcame it, and what I learned about the art of pedagogy and the revolution that can occur in the classroom. My motivation for this is not to be clever, but to write the kind of teaching statement that I would appreciate if I were reviewing applications for the Rhode Island School of Design. I hope you appreciate this effort.

When I first began teaching at the Missouri State University in a freshman Western Civilization survey course, I quickly realized that I was a natural at teaching, a kind of “noble savage” of the pedagogic art, as Dryden might say. I had the class read aloud scenes from Shakespeare’s or Shelley’s immortal verse, had them “dramatize” passages from Plato’s flat and often one-sided dialogues, and I would give them notes about their diction and stress. My résumé attests to my strong grounding in theater both as an actor and a director, and many at MSU already knew of me because of my notorious 2002 production of Dracula Hamlet at the Springfield Arts Center, in which I merged two of the greatest stories in Western literature. For these reasons, I found the task of teaching freshmen dull. These young, open, eager minds offered me their trust as an authority figure, a trust I barely had to earn, and I eventually took it for granted. Suffice to say, I made the classic mistake of any young teacher—the same mistake I made in the second week of Dracula Hamlet—I began to sleep with my leading lady, as it were—in this case, an eager eighteen-year-old with a troubled past whose passion for Augustine’s Confessions she confused with a passion for me. My office hours became her office hours; our long discussions about the art of confession extended into late night telephone calls, then nights at the Whiskey Barrel, and, finally, into passionate lovemaking. Luna (for that was her name) misinterpreted this physical extension of our collective fervor for Augustine as the guarantee of a good grade. Knowing that I was already skating on thin ice, I decided (again, in the spirit of Augustine) to punish her infidelity (turns out she already had a boyfriend) with crippling grades— despite the fact that her writing was drastically improving. This strategy had a miraculous effect on Luna overall, for she worked even harder, and I am proud to report that she was accepted into the Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University in Sociology this year. But we are speaking of the past, and the human heart is a mystery. Luna became resentful and eventually told her classmates about our affair. During the sixth week, I was accosted during my office hours by one of my Chinese students (whoever said Chinese people are quiet and polite have never met Shirley Yu!), who accused me of both sexual harassment and sexual exclusivity. What began as an act of coitus just to prove to Shirley that I was not giving Luna special attention, turned into a night of group sex with Shirley’s boyfriend, Tommy, and another woman whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Now I was in hot water, for Tommy had taken pictures.

You can piece together the rest of the story from my transcripts: I was “impeached” by the dean at MSU and expelled from graduate school; I found a new home in distance education at the University of Saskatchewan, where I am completing my Ph.D. entitled, “Second Best Bed,” which argues that all the classics of Canadian fiction are derivative of other national literatures and at least one hundred years behind their times. I will earn my Ph.D. most likely by July. But I learned many things from this experience. Most obviously, that the sexual relationship is at once the ideal (Platonic) model of pedagogy, but at the same time the undoing of effective pedagogy. One of my goals as a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design will be to never be seduced by the effect my own fervor has on the youthful mind. I hope, if anything, this has given context to the comment from the enclosed teaching dossier, “He was totally gross and turned out to be a total creep and raped three girls in the class.” I also ask you not to gloss over the comment, “I thought he was briliant,” just because “brilliant” is misspelled. Knowing what a thing is and knowing how to spell it are two different things. Shakespeare often misspelled words, including his own name.

I believe the classroom can be a place of revolution by recreating the experience of what Walter Benjamin called “shock.” To that effect I offer one more short, but integral anecdote because it speaks to a pedagogical experience that changed my own life. During the winter of 2007 my grandfather died, I was fired from my job at the Deer Lake Golf and Country Club for what was termed “incendiary vandalism” (in fact it was important research for my novel), and I began drinking heavily. Because a history of alcoholism runs in my Icelandic blood, and my father ended his life in an asylum, I normally set a strict limit on my alcohol intake of no more than a half quart of rye a day, even if that means drinking non-alcoholic beer in the mornings and relying on sedatives at night. But during this time, when my only hope, my magnum opus, Golfing With Apollo, was failing in everything but a graphic scene of coitus between a man and an Olympic god (which has since been published in the e-zine Babel Fruit), my friend Karl told me of a health and wellness retreat in the Indiana Dunes. It was structured on the model of a “Radical Thinkers Retreat,” an idea that became popular after Harvard invited Jean Baudrillard to speak on the Gulf War for the 2001 Harvard Lectures. The topic of this year’s retreat was “An Introduction to Lacan.” I read widely in Lacan before leaving, filling the texts of the Écrits with comments and questions, or often just exasperated doodles, as this text is completely incomprehensible to me. What made this course so effective was that it was nothing like I expected; the topic was a red herring. Lacan, Dr. Tom- Tom declared the moment we arrived, was a charlatan, and we had nothing to learn from him. Dr. Tom-Tom’s course, rather, would be about expanding one’s consciousness. We read Philip K. Dick, Peter Levenda, Texe Marrs and the first installment of Dr. Tom-Tom’s extraordinary autobiography, I Live in 3007. But it was mainly this rupture between expectation and event that made Dr. Tom-Tom’s course so revolutionary. I returned to Springfield a changed man; my consciousness had evolved in ways I am still only discovering today. Dr. Tom-Tom restructured my brain. How could I have known, exasperatedly reading the Écrits in my little ground floor apartment, that a week later I would be playing contact volleyball in a school gym completely naked with thirty other people? Or that I would be learning the secrets of Isis wrapped in tinfoil burrowing in the sand during a terrible thunderstorm? Or that the true nature of God could be revealed to me after ingesting nothing but sugar for 48 hours? As David Mamet once said, in Three Uses of the Knife, the best day of school is a field day: a state of exception. My teaching incorporates ruptures and shock; I will lecture on unassigned readings; I will surprise rather than illuminate. I will light the fires of imagination; I will light real fires. I will burn the Rhode Island School of Design. Consistency, I learned from Dr. Tom-Tom, does not activate the learning channels of the mind, and all “consistent” people will languish for eternity in the second belt of Ra’s belly, the entrance to which is 500 kilometers northeast of Reykjavik. At first, I didn’t understand Dr. Tom-Tom’s strange, personal stories that went on and on, or why we would have to humiliate and berate one person in the center of a circle until they broke down in tears, or the terrifying “Test of the Third Night,” when I was abruptly woken up at four in the morning and had to fend off a vicious dog. But now I do. I never stop learning from my students, and they will certainly never forget me. For the sake of brevity, I will end here. Thank you for considering my application.

Jonathan Ullyot teaches literature at the University of Chicago. He is the screenwriter of Crime Fiction and Mulligan. View all posts by Jonathan Ullyot → This entry was posted in Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Tags: ,
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