In Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel, Mrs Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Rezia are engaged in a common creative act:
What had she got in her work-box? She had ribbons and beads, tassels, artificial flowers. She tumbled them out on the table. He began putting odd colours together – for though he had no fingers, could not even do up a parcel, he had a wonderful eye, and often was right […].
‘She shall have a beautiful hat!’ he murmured, taking up this and that, Rezia kneeling by his side, looking over his shoulder. Now it was finished – that is to say the design; she must stitch it together. (104)
This particular passage from the novel resonates with me, among other reasons, because I think it sums up concisely the prerequisites of genuine collaboration: attentiveness, openness and humbleness. Rezia, the professional hat-maker shares the contents of her toolbox with her clumsy and mentally ill husband, who despite having ‘no fingers’ takes an active part in the process of hat-making. He matches colours and textiles with uncommon sensitivity, while Rezia watches him with care and curiosity, ready to ‘stitch together’ the selected materials.
The above-mentioned scene from Mrs Dalloway cropped up in my mind at the 2017 BAMS Postgraduate Training Day, organised at De Montfort University, Leicester. This year’s topic was modernism and pedagogy, which gave us the opportunity to reflect upon teaching methods, current challenges in higher education, and most importantly, teacher–student relationships. In what ways can teachers of modernism – be they well-established lecturers in the field or graduate teaching assistants with minimal experience – rethink their approach to pedagogy, modernist fiction and students? And ultimately what can modernist texts themselves teach us about teaching? The lectures we listened to, followed by lively and intellectually fulfilling discussions raised many exciting questions.
Nowadays, especially in western countries it has become widely accepted that teachers are not mere providers of information but they are rather facilitators, motivating and helping students on their intellectual journey. This might sound very democratic and reassuring but what does it actually mean for the educator (in particular for graduate teaching assistants who are somehow suspended in the liminal space between student and lecturer status)? One potential answer was offered by Dr Claire Warden’s thought-provoking presentation on the role of failure in higher education. Warden’s lecture was inspired by Carrie J. Preston’s Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching (2016), which explores the influence of Japanese noh theatre on modernist poets and playwrights, such as Pound, Yeats, Brecht, and Beckett. However, as the author states in the Preface, the book was written not only from a scholar’s but also from a teacher’s (and student’s) point of view, Preston’s explicit aim being to share with her readers the lessons she learned as a trainee noh practitioner in Japan. The book argues in favour of a pedagogical model that interrogates western lionisation of success and instead seeks to embrace the notion of failure as a painful but necessary step in the learning process. Admitting failure in our capacities of teachers of modernism can ultimately lead to a more humble and open-minded attitude, and thus create a shared space with students, where we can momentarily un-learn rhetoric and master the art of respectful listening.
Obviously, acknowledging failure is not easy, primarily because it makes us exposed to forces beyond our control. But is vulnerability indeed such a scarecrow? Does it necessarily have to imply that we are weak, incomplete, never-good-enough? Many scholars seem to disagree with such views. In a 2010 article in Teaching in Higher Education, the authors have stated:
If we ask academics to hold students in a space of vulnerability and uncertainty in which they can embrace their own beings, it is necessary that we create the kind of environment where academics can explore their own vulnerability and uncertainty. (643)
Neither educators nor students are programmed machines designed to automatically process and transmit sets of data. We are human beings, with a limited amount of knowledge, individual backgrounds and emotions, which undoubtedly make us fragile and contribute to our increasing sense of uncertainty. But, after all, are these not the preconditions of our ability to ‘embrace’ our ‘own beings’ and that of others? The prerequisites of forming a community where everyone is given the chance to speak and listen, fail and stand up in their own time and rhythm?
We can turn to many excellent academic and non-academic guides when encountering dilemmas regarding our teaching practice, and by no means do I suggest that we should eliminate these from our reading list. But what if we also took inspiration from the very material we are teaching? Modernist fiction is fraught with passages similar to the one discussed at the beginning of this blog entry. By reading the hat-making scene in Mrs Dalloway we can learn, together with Rezia, how to ‘kneel’ by the ‘side’ of our students, looking not down on but with them, because as Woolf wrote in another novel: ‘looking together’ might, after all, create unity… (To the Lighthouse 106)
Blackie, Margaret A.L., Jennifer M. Case, and Jeff Jawitz. ‘Student-Centredness: The Link between Transforming Students and Transforming Ourselves.’ Teaching in Higher Education 15.6 (2010): 637–46.
Preston, Carrie J. Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching. New York and Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2016.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs Dalloway. 1925. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited. 2003.
—. To the Lighthouse. 1927. London: Penguin, 2000.
Written by: Imola Nagy-Seres- Second year English Literature PhD Student
Imola Nagy-Seres is a second year doctoral student in English literature at the University of Exeter, UK. The working title of her thesis is ‘The Tremors of Sympathy: Affect Sharing in the Modern and Contemporary British Novel’. She is particularly interested in questions related to self, autonomy and the role of the body in creating interpersonal bonds. She holds an MA in Modern and Contemporary Literature from the University of Leeds and a Joint Honours Degree in Hungarian and English from Babeș-Bolyai University, Romania. As part of her BA Degree she also completed a two-year pedagogical course and gained a PGCE in secondary education. She takes delight in writing about her research for a wider audience: her most recent blog entry entitled ‘Virginia Woolf and Ballet’ can be read on The Virginia Woolf Blog. Her latest critical review is due to be published in The Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) later this year.