The Invisible Syllabus

“Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.”

–Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Brief thoughts on a phenomenon I haven’t seen addressed; perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough. Sometimes, a course – the partly structured, partly unpredictable combination of syllabus, students, instructor(s), and moment – resonates strongly in a way that affects one’s teaching but cannot itself be taught. This has happened to me a few times, and it is happening now. Superficially, I could blame Calvino, as if it’s his fault that I am responding so strongly to Invisible Cities. By the nature of the thing, this is hard to put into words. It’s subterranean and won’t yield to full excavation.

In the present case, Invisible Cities – a first reading for me, although my colleague has taught it several times – calls up far too much: the destruction of New Orleans, and the unspeakability of that grief; learning of a friend’s death when I was in Salzburg, the memory of whose streets are now welded to a terrible knowledge unrelated to them except by that circumstance; a major life decision made at the corner of 115th and Broadway in New York; Jerusalem last summer. Yet I find myself unable to speak of, or from, any of this in class. When I try, I either stutter or resort to allusion. The threads would take too long to weave and then would not form an image that could help the students. Beyond that immediate fracture between my own response and the classroom performance, I am aware of other places – topics, texts, events – where the personal evocation is both powerful and unteachable.

It’s also hard to explain in a blog post, although I can indicate what I don’t mean. I don’t mean questions of identity or disclosure. Stable parts of ourselves that strongly position us socially and vis-à-vis our fields do get robust and warranted discussion in academic discourse. In religious studies, religious commitment or lack thereof leads the pack, along with the others that our colleagues in other fields share – racial or ethnic identities, gender and sexual orientation, disability, and so on. On these points, I think personal comfort and pedagogical effect are the major questions to consider. But these are cases where one can utter a word or phrase, provide a brief personal gloss, and call up a cultural category, or at least a map on which the category can be placed for those who don’t already know the address.

But that’s not what I mean. There are affects or experiences that are still too complex even for discomfort or concealment. There, disclosure, if possible, would not parse into pedagogy but seems more like Derrida’s account of the secret: “For the secret of secrecy about which we shall speak does not consist in hiding something, in not revealing the truth, but in respecting the absolute singularity, the infinite separation of what binds me or exposes me to the unique, to one as to the other . . .”* Try to talk about it, to “use” it, and one will feel — steep plunge in cultural register ahead — like those out-of-phase aliens in some Star Trek episodes. Or how I imagine they feel. Not by concealment, invisible.

The other thing I don’t mean is a personal crisis or elation that affects one’s teaching because it affects everything: a birth in the family, or a death; getting married or divorced; moving. In other words, life. These events influence teaching and perhaps scholarship, but the nature of the influence doesn’t reach down into and re-arrange our relationship to the substance of what we teach, study, or write.

When I was an undergraduate at Northwestern, my advisor, Leland Roloff, told a story in a performance studies class about his college years. He recalled a middle-aged professor whom the students viewed as rigid and unemotional, until the day in class when she was reading Byron to them and wept. They had no idea why. By Roloff’s account, he then grasped something of how much we don’t know about other people, and how narrowly social roles capture any of us. And I, telling a story of my undergrad years about my advisor telling a story of his, do not recall what his point was. I only remember the anecdote. Whatever moved that prof to weep reading Byron surely informed her response to the poet’s work, in ways that she did not and perhaps could not communicate as textual explication, assignment, Socratic question, or lecture. That’s what I mean.

One of the few times I nearly lost it in class was when I read aloud the passage in Ezekiel where, from exile, he sees the Presence leave the Temple and knows that Jerusalem has been destroyed. It was 2006 – after I knew directly what it was to undergo the destruction of one’s city. Fortunately, I caught myself, but Katrina and its aftermath have radically altered my relationship to certain biblical texts. Other texts, too: Aeneas trying to get his father out of burning Troy. More texts than I could list, in fact. Sometimes the associations take me by surprise.

This sort of experience isn’t always so dark. Sometimes the syllabi and conversation in several classes combine, in an effect only the prof will experience, and life itself adds some additional voice to the fugue. One’s first awareness of the larger structure may seem intellectual or academic, but further thought opens out on emotional depths and highly specific experiences. I wish I could name this better than I have. It’s a sense of something implicit across syllabus readings, discussion, and whatever precise regions of one’s psyche join with these, something that can be said only (if at all) by the arrangement of other linguistic acts, but cannot itself be put into words. Perhaps it’s the place from which we say words, make categories, apprehend anything.

I cannot tell you how to use it because it can’t be used. I’m convinced that it is valuable and grateful when it comes. But there’s nothing to do but be in it. Sometimes you might feel this way. Sometimes it might seem like you should try to bring it in overtly – to tell students or devise an assignment or attempt to disclose the deep, specific moorings of your responses to those public acts we call syllabi, discussion topics, and assignments. Just don’t. That’s not what it’s for.



*Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret, translated by David Wills (Chicago, 1995), pp. 122-123 — a book which itself calls up for a specific time, place, and moment deeply implicated in the surface references above. (Thanks, Rick.)

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