Sometimes there’s a moment in discussing a text where the teaching stops being a transaction and becomes an invitation.
Let me give an example. I’m currently teaching Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to a group of 14-15 year olds. Act I has been a slog; even though I’ve attempted student engagement via investigations, research, and “fun” activities, it’s mostly been transactional: me giving information to my students. “This line means X” and “make sure you don’t miss this key point.” And don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is bad; it’s part of the work of education. One of the reasons we go to school is because there are concrete things we don’t know. Some students might pick up these things on their own, but most need more direct instruction. This kind of teaching is necessary (and especially as a foundation), but it’s not life-changing.
What I work for with a class is the moment when transaction can give way to invitation.
Part-way through Act II of Julius Caesar, this happened. Just after Brutus (of “Et tu, Brutus?” fame) has finally decided to lend his hand to the plot against Caesar, Portia shows up on stage. She’s worried about Brutus and knows that she’s being shut out of whatever he’s contemplating, and she’s really, really angry.
Within the bond of marriage, tell me, Brutus,
Is it excepted I should know no secrets
That appertain to you? Am I yourself
But, as it were, in sort or limitation,
To keep with you at meals, comfort your bed,
And talk to you sometimes? Dwell I but in the suburbs
Of your good pleasure? If it be no more,
Portia is Brutus' harlot, not his wife.
We talked for a moment about vocabulary, and then I reread the line to my class substituting a more modern day slang for “harlot.” I paused, mostly for dramatic effect, and then asked the class whether they thought Portia was right. There was the strange silence of 30 young people deep in thought, and then a dozen hands. The rest of the period rushed by in heated conversation about what makes a healthy relationship, the risk of honesty and vulnerability, and the necessity of clear communication. We questioned together what it means to have the right to expect certain treatment from our significant others. Some wondered why women or men allow themselves to be treated as Portia was. We talked about power in relationships.
The class had been invited, by my question (and by the brilliance of a timeless text), to think about something real and difficult. The question that Portia raises here matters for the way that we live our lives. In asking my students a real and open-ended question, I was inviting them into this reality. I was inviting them to adulthood: the place where what we believe has actual consequence for our lives and the lives of those around us. In that moment, I invited them to become my peers, to think with me about a question that burned within me, too. I didn’t ask them to analyze Portia’s motivations or dissect her use of language (although it just so happens that we did a great deal of that along the way). We asked Portia’s question along with her, and it turned out to be our question as much as hers. We didn’t come to satisfactory answers, yet, as to why humans act the way that they do in relationship. But, we got better at understanding what we didn’t know.
And this seems a lot like adulthood.