For years as a college teacher, I thought I knew my subject. When it came time to creating the syllabus for my introduction to Russian literature class, I did what most professors do: I decided which novels, stories, and poems I needed to cover in a matter of fourteen weeks, divided the total number by how many weeks we had and assigned roughly the same number of pages each week, amounting to something like three or four hundred pages.
My students balked at the amount of reading, but this being their introduction to the classics of Russian literature, I convinced myself that one couldn’t possibly consider oneself introduced to Russian literature without having read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, itself fifteen hundred pages, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, five hundred pages, and the list of required reading went on…and on…and on.
I designed my syllabus this way because, first of all, this was the way most of my professors in college and graduate school had done it. And why did they do it that way? Well, because that’s how their professors had done it. I also honestly thought I was doing the right thing because, fresh out of graduate school with a hard-earned Ph.D. in hand, I was pretty confident that I knew what Russian literature was all about, and therefore was certain what my students needed to know in order to understand and appreciate this discipline I myself loved and had worked so hard to master.
From one perspective, perhaps I was correct. Yes, I had more experience than they did, had read more, had spent many years studying my field, and therefore had a better understanding of my “field” as it was defined by others, well, in my “field.”
But in retrospect, I now see the serious blind spots in my assumptions as a teacher.
First, I was teaching to the 1% of my students who were bound to become future Russian literature scholars, but that was hardly fair to everyone else who’d enrolled in my class because they were hoping to find something of value for themselves. My rather elitist approach had the unintended result that students felt resentful at having to do all that reading, which after a while came to seem like Dostoevskian punishment, leaving them with a bitter taste toward both the subject and their teacher—not exactly what I’d wanted for them or me.
I was so intent on cramming in essential content that I failed to give my students time for exploration, for letting the imagination run wild, for meandering along down kinds of interesting, unexpected paths, which is where true insights come from. I failed, as well, to take seriously the many other kinds of learning that could have been taking place for students that had nothing to do with content coverage at all: like the ability to think critically and deeply; the ability to make connections between what we were reading and other courses and aspects of their lives; the capacity to use the literature not merely as an end in itself but as a vehicle to self-reflection and self-discovery, community-building, and the development of empathy, imagination, and wisdom.
I was so focused on covering the material as a teacher that I failed to help students uncover it in all of its countless, inexhaustible implications.
This became strikingly clear to me the day that I went to Virginia Beach Correctional Center many years ago to teach a workshop of Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, about a nineteenth-century careerist judge who lives on autopilot until he is diagnosed with some mysterious fatal illness and must come to terms with the terrifying meaningless of his life. Sitting there in that prison classroom, dressed in my sport coat and penny loafers with a group of fifteen inmates wearing orange jumpsuits, I came armed with a well-organized discussion plan containing all the content I wanted to make sure I “covered.”
Instead, I left utterly humbled and transformed by a much wider awareness of what a classroom learning experience can be.
As these men were making connections between Ivan’s stories and theirs, opening up to me about people they’ve watched die, their own brushes with death, and bad choices they’ve made or opportunities they’ve squandered, suddenly a conversation about Russian literature had become a conversation about real life. The questions Tolstoy poses about freedom and moral responsibility, human nature, cultural alienation, and finding one’s place in the world, were not abstract to these men.
They were real issues with significant consequences for their own lives.
“I had to come to this jail, you know, this situation, to see what I did,” said one inmate in his mid-twenties. “But I learned something from this story I can use when I get out.”
Another man, around fifty, added: “If we take this time for granted by not growing our relationship with God, we’re not going to be able to change our lives. It’s too late for Ivan, but it’s not too late for us.”
Now more hands shot up. “People don’t think inmates can read or comprehend this,” says one prisoner. “But we can.”
Then a man in his forties spoke: “How you treat people—you know, how he treated people as a judge—that’s how he was gonna get treated as a patient.”
Then another: “It speaks to me. We’re all gonna die. It speaks to human beings about real issues we all deal with.”
Yet this was not the sort of content you were “supposed” to cover in a classroom; these were not the kinds of questions I’d learned early on as a teacher to talk about in my classes. In fact, when I attempted to bring them up in graduate school, these questions were dismissed as too personal, not sufficiently academic, and irrelevant to the more important material we were supposed to cover.
I followed dutifully along, all the while nagged by a seed of doubt and confusion: If Tolstoy, I thought quietly to myself, considered the human questions—Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?—as important enough to frame one of his greatest stories around, then when did we, as literary scholars, decide that such personal concerns were not applicable to our task of understanding this writer, or any writer, for that matter?
And, if my goal as a teacher was to educate the next generation of not only Russian literature scholars but citizens and human beings, then why would I want to leave out of the conversation the sorts of deeply personal questions raised by Tolstoy that are perhaps more relevant to them than anything else we could talk about?
In my years of researching and teaching Russian literature, few classrooms have been more instructive than the one I experienced on that day at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center. For years I had been reading and researching Ivan Ilyich. I was intimately familiar with the intricacies of the text, the ideas put forth, the historical and social context in which it was written, the biography of its author.
And yet by moving outside of my comfort zone as a teacher, by experiencing the work in a radically unfamiliar context, with a group of inmates unafraid to go straight to the heart of the matter and make the story their own, I was able to rediscover its power and relevance for myself.
Once I’d had that experience, as unsettling as it was exhilarating, I couldn’t un-have it.
“You have learned something,” says a character in one of George Bernard Shaw’s plays. “That always feels at first as if you have lost something.”
What I lost on that day in the prison was my confidence that I knew exactly what students needed to know in order to appreciate the true depths of Russian literature, as well as my confidence, too, that my own knowledge of my field was as thorough as I’d once thought.
What I gained in return was both humility and a sudden awareness of what an alive, urgent, raw, beautifully human place a classroom can become when the teacher lets go of his rigid assumptions of how things are supposed to go and instead allows them to unfold in the way they are meant to—when he allows himself to become a student once again.
I may have failed to cover Tolstoy’s entire novella as I’d planned to, spending the entire class session talking about only twenty or so pages of the 120-page work.
But what the inmates and I uncovered together that day was invaluable, and would forever change my life as a teacher.