by Sonam Kachru, University of Virginia
“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony”–Lou Reed
“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” –Edward Gibbon
It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Of Richard Feynman’s legendary undergraduate lectures in physics, a treat required of all Caltech freshmen and sophomores (of all majors) between 1961-1964, some reported that it was like going to church. Not the solemn and somber kind, but the joyous, effervescent, in-your-bones variety of energizing spectacle you might carry with you through the week after.
Others, however, reached for different if no less pious fictions of foreign worlds to essay more sober assessments:
I found the lectures exciting and understandable in the hall, but they were Sanskrit outside [when I tried to reconstruct the details].
(Between us, Sanskrit—it is not so hard, whether you’re in or out of a classroom; it’s cognitive music, I find, and not at all like the study of Anglo-Saxon, the forced study of which Guy Davenport declared he would not forgive on Judgment Day, one of three pedagogical catastrophes, in fact, he was determined to begrudge the Maker: Philology was right up there along with having to learn how to abandon a sinking ship, and having to learn how to crawl under live machine‐gun fire. To each, you see, their own very personal nightmarish figures for the halls and hells of learning.)
The thing that interests me here is that the student for whom physics turned to Sanskrit (and life, presumably, a little like the Lou Reed song quoted above) was in a position to agree with Feynman’s own considered thoughts regarding his pedagogical experiment.
In June 1963, Feynman offered the following assessment, one which he admitted to be widely at variance with the conclusions of the majority of his students and colleagues:
“I don’t think I did very well by the students. When I look at the way the majority of the students handled the problems on the examinations, I think that the system is a failure.”
That’s a simple enough criterion: can students solve the problems? If not, what would it mean to “know” the concepts introduced in the lectures?
It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Here’s one reason. To generate, and to maintain, the interest and enthusiasm of students for a subject is one thing; to convey what you need to “get around,” or, at least, to “know your way around” in a subject, where such skill is assessed by the professional standards of a discipline, is quite another thing entirely. Thing is, at least Feynman had a criterion. I don’t.
I used to think I had one. I recall the first time I read Feynman’s comments. I was sixteen. It sobered me right up.
Here’s why. In an India of a less global-market-friendly time, I had access to the three much-faded black-and-white photocopies of the originally unmistakably red volumes of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a treasured and much used hand-me-down my elder brother left behind when we went off to college. It was an indulgence of time as well as of money. I read them greedily, and furtively. You read them at night for inspiration, for orienting clarity and insight, for “the pleasure of finding things out” and the kind of entertainment some found in MTV in the houses of friends when their night-shift working parents were away. Feynman’s lectures were not on our school syllabus. They were neither assigned nor recommended in the long, brutal, trench-war-slog for the entrance examinations that determined where you might end up in this world. (Ha!) In the trenches, you “read” (meaning fought, ducked under, wrestled with, threw, slammed head against, pencil in hand) books like this, then available to us only in samizdat form:
Feynman was for after-hours entertainment for some of the reasons he himself discerned. It got your blood flowing, ideas forming, changed your breathing even, showing you things in a light you could not have imagined possible. It was orienting, providing context and explanation. It taught you how to think, and why it matters. But it did not help you solve problems. Or, at least, it didn’t on its own.
What it means to “know” a concept, my instructors and tutors for my teenage years of failed rebellion repeatedly said, is to be able to recognize occasions where it could be applied, and to know how to apply it. Which meant: learning a rule, an exemplary problem, and then hacking through the undergrowth of proliferating cases till you got the feel of it in your bones. Were my teachers right and never mind Aristotle? Was “wonder” a dish best served after more nutritious fare and long labor? Is understanding (in the big-picture, orienting variety) for after-hours? (Vasubandhu, meanwhile, believed wonder came after long analysis and argument. But that’s another story.)
Feynman, I would now say, is not an example of, shall we say, how to read, but how to re-read. What he offered was a master-class reintroducing material we only thought we knew. A teacher of materials twice-removed from my students, in time, and tradition, I am rarely in a position to offer such classes. Typically, I must introduce. And by what criterion shall I judge my successes or failures?
I’ve found that learning a language, learning poetics, or even poetry, philosophy certainly, mythology sometimes, or more grandly, other human worlds, can, and ought to, really, require of one a discipline a lot closer to the kind of crawling through Irodov I begrudged then than it does the engagement Feynman seduces you into feeling. But where is our Irodov for humanities?
Sure. We in the humanities don’t have the neatly defined paradigms of problems or solutions (much less paradigms of problems and solutions). But this is in part a function of decisions. I’m with Anthony Grafton (among others). It was not always the case that scientists and scholars have always been good neighbors forever sundered by the fences of methods and sensibilities. Here’s a riddle for a learned lore-master in an age of suspicion: how do you connect a wizard (Gandalf), a detective (Sherlock Holmes), a doctor (Sigmund Freud), an art critic in disguise (Giovanni Morelli), and the wonderful (perhaps, only seeming) anachronism of a Franciscan nominalist on the threshold of a new paradigm? With the help of a literary critic, a philologist, a micro-historian, and an impossibly learned semiotician, of course.
We do have a zoo of quixotic objects (in the mathematician’s sense of “object”), and these exemplified at different scales; we have a battery of methods, disciplines, skills, and, more generally, varieties of craft-honed sensibilities we had better be in a position to pass on or at least to make less idiosyncratically and unreliably available than they currently are. (Must you really still apprentice with a doctor-fater-wizard to learn discipline, skill and craft in the humanities?) For the most part, we neither drill students on the premodern ‘cognitive technologies’ of argument, memory, attention, nor exhaustively test (in Irodov’s sense of “test”) students on their grasp of the modern (and premodern) tools of our trade, the comparison, the field-note, the time-line, the list, the tree-diagram, the genealogy, the ‘humble’ description…
Perhaps my longing for an Irodov for the Humanities is inflected by accidents of biography. (I would have loved to have been tested on my ability to read, and to produce, kinship diagrams, a variety of tool which I am now, sadly, entirely unqualified to use.) Certainly, I am not advocating for the pedagogy of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, man of realities, fact, and calculation. I do not believe with Gradgrind that what is called taste is another name for fact; I do not advocate seeking mechanical substitutes for their tender young imaginations. And I disagree with Feynman, who at times could speak as if what we do in the humanities is a little like unjustified confidence in search of eloquent obfuscation. Why should beauty reside in this dimension of one centimeter, Feynman once asked of the flower reserved for poets, with the idea that the virtues of inquiry need not be confined to one discipline. That is so. But why, then, should rigor reside only at some scales, for some variety of objects, and not others?
For a certainty I believe that there is room for more pulling-up-your-sleeves and hewing-wood-and-drawing-water variety of in-class work than the model we’ve now got going in the humanities. On the current system any class with fewer than thirty students and which is not a class constrained by the demands of being responsible to a work in a foreign language, seems destined to descend into free-form (only apparently spontaneous) conversational séances from which truth or meaning (or whatever it is we take ourselves to exemplify) is expected to leak out of the ground like oil in Dehran. Not so much a Socratic chin-wag as the conversations Amos Bronson Alcott made the model for children at the Temple School in Boston in the nineteenth century: experimental, bold, innovative—all the things administrators love, and which are, often enough, like big-drilling, wildly self-defeating. For at the end is rarely discovery, too often only the broadcasting and search for confirmation of entrenched commitments from those already far too comfortable with their own voices.
At least in religious studies, home to every discipline and none, we outsource too much of craft and training, believing learning to be the same thing as finding your own voice, or some such, or after the kind of big game only found in conversation (as if thought were always and only the same thing as conversation). We leave too much of our teaching for those last, hastily scribbled comments on the margins of papers few will ever pick up again.
Of course, you’ll want both, skill-sets and virtues like curiosity and the wonder of the Big-Picture Stuff, the reverberating and clarifying joy of the revealing detail. I don’t know how to make magic in a classroom and transmit essential skills in a single class with the one set of students I’ll probably only see once. Well. That’s not quite it. I have, in fact, no criteria for knowing whether or not I have successfully done either.
I’ve begun experimenting with lectures. (More about which in my next post.) And I have begun trying to generate tasks, not conversations in class, an attempt to find that sweet poetic median between silence and incoherence. But I remain tethered at the other end to the variety of assignments second-nature to the humanities, the essay, the reading-response, the multiple-choice exam.
Part of that is lack of experience. I’ve been at this only three years. I have neither sufficient experience of teaching, nor any evidence of particular distinction therein. Seriously. None whatsoever. To adapt the sage Spike Milligan: no fear of awards, no time soon. Partly my befuddlement is surely because of the truth in Dickens’ saying of a more principled and worse instructor than I: “if he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might taught much more.”
But it’s not all grim news. I’ve newly learnt that an assignment need not be an assessment. And I’ve had good fortune with assignments designed to invite the engagement of students with materials with which they have no prior acquaintance, either in their lives or in the classroom.
Listen to this, for example:
This is a final assignment produced by a freshman student in his first semester of college: a musical transposition (and condensation) of the entire lyrical narrative of Aśvaghoṣa’s Life of the Buddha as it survives in Sanskrit and as this student read it in the translation of Patrick Olivelle. I like to think of it as a series of musical illustrations of the life of the Buddha. At least, that was the assignment: illustrate, in any medium, at least three episodes or scenes from the Life of the Buddha, and think of the illustration as a particular kind of vehicle joining translation and commentary.
You’ll want to bear three things in mind when judging this assignment. First off, this is from a student who has decided to commit to the study of commerce despite his love for music, with zero exposure to Buddhism, or indeed, any religion in an academic setting. What the hell, let’s be honest. This student did not produce a single piece of writing the entire semester that involved more than two sentences or the use of much punctuation at all. He said almost nothing in class. He only once approached me outside class. And that was to ask if he could write a piece of music for his final assignment.
Here’s the second thing. As was made clear in this student’s accompanying note briefly outlining his process of composition and the aesthetic principles governing the work, this student has recapitulated, without knowing it, the discovery in South Asian literary criticism of the possibility that moods can serve as principles for the unity of a composition. He even confronted a problem that exercised literary critics in South Asia, and T. S. Eliot at the beginning of the last century: how do you unite a succession of disparate moods in some culminating and contextualizing aesthetic state?
Now for the kicker: This transposition involves a finely considered act of judgment. Unlike Aśvaghoṣa, my student believed that the story required as an aesthetic context an intimation of the long background of the Buddha’s past lives. But he did not articulate this at first in words. It was only when asked for the function and value of a musical prelude I did not at first understand that it was made explicit that Aśvaghoṣa, as my musician-accountant averred, wanted improving—“It just doesn’t work otherwise.” I disagree. But if I do, it is only because he had given me something with enough shape and reach to disagree with. It wasn’t one more case of something “not even wrong.”
Clearly, this is cognitive engagement of a high order. This not-verbally-blessed student has worked his way into Aśvaghoṣa’s narrative. A+ I gave him. He was dignified. “Cool. Thanks,” he said and walked out of my office for the last time.
Such a blessed marriage of assignment and assessment is rare. I’ll be frank. My typical attempts at engaging the students with #unessays, or non-traditional assignments, produce little you could dignify as knowledge. Some enthusiasm. Not a little ingenuity (if a little too much like American high-school projects for my taste). And yet, little learning. And the traditional writing assignments? They have produced monsters born of the pairing of a teacher’s lack of invention and the abysmal high-school “education” of students that has taught them to call anything longer than fifteen pages a novel, and anything under, an op-ed.
Exceptions? Sure. I have had the pleasure of teaching one undergraduate, a first year, in fact, who reliably, consistently, and brilliantly outperformed my graduate students, producing finely-crafted argumentative prose for every writing assignment, with clearly formulated and insightful questions, well-weighted conclusions, the whole-thing balanced on a delicately arranged garden of references. Give her the name of a book and she’ll have read the shelf on which she found it in the library by the time you next meet. I have had nothing to do with her success. And my pedagogical ambition with respect to her is to try as much as I can to not get in her way.
It’s a little like parenting, I suppose. We may own only the inevitable failures. (The quote from Edward Gibbon in my epigraph was lifted from Feynman’s preface to his lectures—in failure, we may at least expect to keep good company.)
At least we can try and fail better.
And take comfort in failure. And then, particularly with failures of assessment. That’s where I’d like to leave things. There is one failure which I repeat to myself like a catechism this time of year. (Non-Hindus, you may read that to say “like a mantra.”)
Take that all-rounder in education, the good citizen and specialist in medicine, Dr. Watson. Do you recall his assessment of his singular roommate? It went something like this: Knowledge of Literature—nil; Knowledge of Philosophy—nil; Knowledge of Astronomy—nil; and so on, not without excluding this gem: “Knows nothing of practical gardening.” Holmes was no good as a liberal arts student, you’d deduce. Nor, I take it, a good citizen, at least not of the kind we are trying to produce.
It is not just that you’d rather spend time with Sherlock. Dr. Watson was a poor assessor. Holmes had Latin, Shakespeare, Goethe, and markedly unlike our current crop of citizen-parochials, Hafiz even. As Watson was to own to later, he didn’t just play the violin, but composed for it. Sherlock’s mind, self-bestowed by a singular commitment to his own course of study, eluded all but self-assessment. In the third week of November 1895 he devoted himself to the music of the Middle Ages, the “Polyphonic Motets of Lassus [Orlando di Lasso—I had to look that up].” You can’t play such music. To write the book on them, as Sherlock did, one would have had to “read” these pieces or at least “hear” what was written for multiple voices (and no other instrument) in the echo-chamber of one’s mind.
Mightily idiosyncratic, and formidably difficult to assess, requiring a lifetime to know, may young Sherlock be the patron saint of our grading season. Or so I mutter to myself, especially when I come across works like that my inscrutable and mute accountant-musician produced. I should have entirely overlooked him but for the happy accident of assessing him on the basis of an entirely idiosyncratic assignment.
I recall what I have learnt from Hugh Kenner (RIP), a geometer in prose, and a gentleman who remained almost, but not quite, utterly unintelligible in the lecture hall. A Victorian arithmetic of persons would have us add up Sherlock and Watson to exactly one: a single person, one half of which is a calculating machine, the other all beating heart. One creature lives in the mind of Charles Babbage, and the other in Tennyson’s In Memorium.
If you persist in such Victorian divisions of labor, you’ll forever need the pair, even if both halves ever after slander one another in perpetual friendship. Sherlock accused Watson of betraying what ought to have been an exemplary lecture for a tale, logic for romanticism. Watson, wrongly I think, would not believe the general public—the fabled citizenry we continuously invoke in our manifestos to administrators—ready for Sherlock’s style of incarnating thought in language. The success of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces suggests that Watson was too quick in his dismissal of the fabled common reader, even as the awful pedantry of Holmes’ own attempts at prose, and the limited success of Feynman’s Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, suggests that entertainment is not the only virtue narrative (and other imaginative pedagogical devices) might claim in a competition with logic and analysis.
We might not get away teaching only as the Sherlocks of this world. But even as we teach as the Watsons, let us not forget that we must surely, then, not only aim to teach the Watsons. (That is a sentence that might have suggested far more wit and eloquence in Sanskrit with the possibility of its music of cases. Sigh.) Handicapped we might be, but we might exercise enough freedom and judgment to discern that we ought not to calibrate our successes and failures by only such standards the Watsons so nobly and helpfully extrude into this world. This season of grades and otherwise good cheer let us not forget those who may slip through the nets of our vexed assessments, those who may sit among the indolent and the blank-eyed, the slouchers and the seemingly indifferent, stubbornly and idiosyncratically learning what we cannot always know.
My new year’s resolution: continue to refine the #unessays, while sitting down to develop problem sets for the humanities.
But there is also this. I might not give my daughter Irodov for her fifteenth birthday. But I am sure to give her my non-cyclostyled proudly red copy of Feynman’s lectures. Not without William Dwight Whitney’s A Sanskrit Grammar: Including both the classical language, and the older dialects, of Veda and Brahmana.
Along with my apologies, naturally. As with parenting, you never really know where you are with teaching.
 As the essay is a gem, a triumph of detective-work with an improbable protagonist, I’ll cite it here: “Hobbits in Kentucky,” The New York Times, February 23, 1979.
 Read Guy Davenport’s “Tolkien, R.I.P.” for the October 3, 2005 edition of the National Review alongside Carlo Ginzburg’s better known “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” followed up by a re-reading of The Name of the Rose.
 How do you pass on “ways of seeing” rigorously and engagingly, beyond assigning John Berger’s book of that name? The next time I teach the necessarily ill-fated comedy of errors called THEORY & METHODS, I’m going to dial back the so-called Theory in order to bring up METHODS into the mix. Methods like comparison, or translation, or description—to help put that last on the table, for example, I’ll be assigning “Cloud Physiognomy” by Lorraine Daston (Representations, Vol. 135, No. 1, Summer 2016: 45-71) alongside Guy Davenport’s “reading” of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, from Geography of the Imagination. Homework will involve choosing a single object dug up from the ground and describing it in 250 words, then 500, then 1000 (with footnotes), the larger piece taking into account other relevantly similar objects, and take up for evaluation the student’s first attempt.