The Tesla Coil

March 13, 2010

What connects TEFL and psychoanalysis? – Part 2: le sujet supposé savoir

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 10:55 am

As Anita Kwiatkowski eloquently implores us to remember, professional development begins with the acknowledgement that we should harbour ignorance in our midst in much the same way a 16th century poet would keep a skull on his desk – as a memento of the futility of our endeavours thus far.  This acknowledgement is both chastening and a spur.  It is a spur because it enjoins us to persist in the likely endless endeavour to ameliorate our understanding of what we do and why.  It is chastening because, while, as teachers, we are proverbially masters of our classroom and our subject, we yet know so little about our practice.

Did Lacan know what you are supposed to?

The psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan affords us an instructive concept with which to reconcile this contradiction, that of le sujet supposé savoir – the subject supposed to know.  In psychoanalysis, the subject supposed to know is the analyst.  He is supposed to know the meaning of the analysand’s words and actions, and make sense of it all.  The trick of the psychoanalytic  session, however, is that this knowledge is an attribution by the analysand to the analyst.  The analyst’s knowledge is merely a function of his position qua analyst.  As Lacan remarks, ‘even the psychoanalyst put in question is credited at some point with a certain infallibility’. The analyst knows he does not know, yet, his seeming to know is central to the efficacy of the cure.  Indeed, the cure may be said to have been effected when the patient realises that there is more of the supposé than of the savoir about his analyst.

This model might be a profitable way of describing the status of the TEFL teacher.  That is to say, there is a split between the teacher as an individual who may acknowledge their own ignorance, and the teacher as the subject supposed to know.  A teacher has to inspire confidence in his students – they have to believe that their teacher knows the subject and understands what they are saying, mistakes included, otherwise there is no reason to have a teacher at all.  Embodying the function of the subject supposed to know, the teacher is the prime mover of any lesson, albeit one subject to the determination of the students.  The teacher’s presence guarantees there is learning in the students’ acts; in the same way, the psychoanalyst guarantees there is meaning in the patient’s acts.  Considered from this angle, then, it may well be that belief in the teacher’s knowledge is more important than the actual knowledge the teacher knows.


March 7, 2010

What connects TEFL and psychoanalysis? – Part 1: the obscene space

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 8:41 am

When we talk about trust in the classroom, what exactly is the nature of this fiduciary bond?  What does the student trust me to do and not do?  And why?

The first step to becoming a student is not filling out an assessment form, or handing over your Visa card; rather, it is willingly assuming the status of a dunce.  You declare, by becoming a student, that you are ignorant.  Ordinarily, this would be an embarrassment, but in the classroom it is not, or at least should not be.

Does this remind you of your classroom?

One reason for this can be found in the fact that the language lesson operates in an analogous manner to the psychoanalytic session.   In psychoanalysis there is only one golden rule, and that is that you must break the golden rule of the rest of the world: you must say what you think.  It is a form of reversion to childhood in which all the thoughts whose repression forms the foundation of a forbearing society are given full reign.  Indeed, the analysand is expected to give vent to the hideous majesty fomenting in their souls.  In the classroom, a similar mode of discourse holds sway.  The student, normally a model of poise and fluency, is reduced to a kind of babble, an incoherent stuttering wreck of humanity who makes less sense than a three year old – and who must do so in order to progress.

It is this socially transgressive behaviour which is the basis of the relationship between student and teacher.  It is, because it is predicated on failure, a form of intimacy.  Like most intimacies, it is founded on an agreement not to say what you think.  As a teacher, I neither laugh nor scorn when one of my students concocts a miserable sentence such as, ‘I can going at Saturday night’, even when they mean Sunday.  It would be like a psychoanalyst recoiling in horror at a patient who fantasizes about eating raw camel hearts in June.  It would be a betrayal of the very professionalism of the relationship, a professionalism in which normal human relations are somehow suspended so that the classroom can function as an alembic, filtering out the nonsense and thus leaving the integrity of the individual student intact.

If we accept the veracity of this analogy, there are several implications.  Not the least of which is that neither teachers nor students can be themselves. Ordinary people have very little patience for listening to nonsense; ordinarily, people have very little patience for producing nonsense.  There is, then, a kind of fictiveness built into the language classroom.  While many of us hanker after authenticity in the classroom, the classroom is not just a physical reality but also a metaphysical one, a contrived space designed to foster learning.  As with psychoanalysis, it is not the boy who dared to shout at the naked emperor with whom we should side, but the emperor.

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