I do understand the emotions that might have driven writing teachers to want to lay claim to content. The professors in the English Department, who rarely if ever taught composition, were nonetheless the bosses of those of us who did. Before the writing program moved off, at least bureaucratically, on its own, my classes were visited, for the purposes of review and rehiring, for a number of years by English professors.
I remember having been visited by a Renaissance Scholar who made me pretty nervous. He wasn’t a bad guy but I was pretty sure he was an elitist. He thought poetry was the highest form of literature and, how to say, the highest of all forms of experience. I was, that quarter, teaching the second course in the sequence, the one that featured, in the closing weeks of the quarter, a novel. I did Crime and Punishment for old times sake and as a tribute to my misspent youth (misspent reading Russian novels when I should have been out getting more well rounded). I broke the students into groups to consider directed questions. They kicked in and I felt the class had gone pretty well.
The professor, as he left, paused for a moment. He was smiling so I figured I had done OK. I guess I had, but he didn’t say anything about the class and the students or the quality of discussion. Instead he expressed mild surprise at my not having called students’ attention in a particular passage to an allusion Dostoevsky had made to Pushkin. Oh yea Eugene Onegan, I said since I figured he was really trying to see if I had caught the reference. I had but I didn’t let on that I had never read the damn thing and had no intention of doing so.
And that was it, really, for comment or response to the class. I had trouble not feeling his lack of response was a cover for a negative one. But now I don’t think that was it. I valued the way I had conducted the class, the way I had managed and elicited discussion, and he valued Crime and Punishment and my expert knowledge of it which I did have since I have always been an excellent reader. He simply saw a different class than the one I thought I was teaching.
I wasn’t trying to impart to students some esoteric knowledge about Crime and Punishment or to use it as a way to teach students about symbolism or the early forms of the naturalistic novel or about C and P as a sociological treatise on the alienating effects of the movement of persons from rural to urban environments. I didn’t want C and P to be about anything, but more a thing between myself and the students to be kicked this way and that and as offering a communicative scaffolding between the students and myself. So that as we looked into the book and wrote about it we might also look a bit into each other.
I rather doubt the English Professor would have appreciated the quiz I liked to give on C and P. We are going to have a quiz today, I would tell the students, and they would look downright shocked since I never quizzed them on anything. Take out a pencil and a piece of paper, I would say, and then, Oh, forget it, we can do this orally:
Question 1: what is the sex of Raskolnikov’s mother?
Question 2: what is the sex of Raskolnikov’s sister?
Question 3: what is the sex of Sonya the prostitute?
Question 4: what is the sex of the old lady that Raskolnikov kills with an ax?
Question 5: what is the sex of the mare in the horrible nightmare of the horse beating?
Question 6: what is Raskolnikov’s sex?