The Tesla Coil

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.



  1. All very interesting, but we must remember that language teaching/learning is not simply knowledge transfer like maths or science (cue lots of mathematicians and scientists jumping on my back) but perhaps also an encouragement of skills. We should be siding with anyone who dares to shout, emperor, boy or otherwise.

    Comment by Mike Harrison — March 7, 2010 @ 9:47 am

  2. I suspect there are no mathematicians or scientists reading this Mike, so I wouldn’t worry unduly about upsetting them. As for your main point – I agree; I merely meant by the naked emperor analogy that the classroom operates by virtue of a number of symbolic agreements, and that if we abandon them in the name of greater authenticity we risk destroying the most basic of the foundations upon which we teach.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 7, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  3. I’ve always seen myself as a benevolent dictator more than empress 🙂

    I think what you say about trust is really important–students trust us to make class a safe place to look foolish–whether teaching young learners or businessmen.

    Teachers hold the power to make students feel great about themselves and their learning, or just as easily, to make them feel small and insignificant. Important that we use our power for good!

    Love your blog, by the way!

    Comment by Barbara Sakamoto — March 7, 2010 @ 5:49 pm

  4. Hi Barbara – thanks for the kind words. I have no doubt your dictatorship would be benevolent – and very well presented too! I agree with you about the value of trust in the classroom. Being able to create and work in such an atmosphere is one of the things that make teaching such a fabulous job.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 7, 2010 @ 10:51 pm

  5. “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”

    Well, if we chose to be teachers, we won’t feel like laughing at a “miserable sentence”, so yes, we shall be ourselves. And the students, who can usually speak fluently in his own language, will have to come to grips with himself as a student. The reality of the classroom *is* a reality, even if it’s different from the reality the students may know, and yes, everyone can be oneself within the reality of this learning space. But the space is not given, it is created by every single actor in the room.

    Comment by Alice M — March 8, 2010 @ 12:01 am

  6. Hi Alice – I agree with you that the reality of the classroom is one created by every single actor in it; however, I don’t subscribe to the notion that the classroom is a simulacrum of everyday life – it is a very particular environment which provides a context for learning. For example, you only have to compare live listening with plain old listening to see the difference between ostensibly the same activity in the classroom and in real life.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 8, 2010 @ 10:34 am

  7. Lovely post. Might there be more aspects of trust in the classroom to add. eg Maybe trust is eroded:
    1. when we don’t do what we said we’d do
    2. when we gossip or turn a blind eye to gossip about others behind their back
    3. when we renege on decisions we’d agreed to
    4. when we spin the truth rather than tell it straight.
    5. when we hide our agenda and then work it behind the scenes (but of course sometimes students like surprises – think a lot can be forgiven if all becomes clear in the end.)

    Comment by vicki hollett — March 9, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  8. Hi Vicki, and thanks for that – yes, I think, as you suggest, that I’ve only scratched the surface of trust. Keeping our promises always seems to me to be of primary importance in establishing the proper space for learning, especially with children, but with adults too. I also like your idea of not hiding our agenda. I’ve discovered that, up to a point at least, the more I tell students why we’re doing what we’re doing, the more they are engaged by their own learning, and the more they trust me as a professional teacher. This, in turn, is because I am learning to trust my students more in the spirit outlined in Mark Andrews’ wonderful post.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 9, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

  9. Hi Teslacoil,

    Lovely post. The importance of pyschoanalysis and symbolism is indeed neglected in the classroom. Could we, however,pose the question differently and ask, is it the the failure to recognise the limits of language outside the classroom, and the limits of “sanity” which often make a good classroom and a warm couch so much more appealing than the outside world. I am sure many students (like their teachers) are “better” human beings inside the classroom.
    A piece of music, a smell, a smile can all reverbate more dramatically than the confusion of language. Something about when a teacher and student laugh together about the difficulty/impossibility of linguistic expression which makes expression more authentic. So much more touching than the best joke your colleague (even if they are the next Bill Hicks) can tell you.

    Just a thought,
    In comradeship.

    Comment by marxistelf — March 10, 2010 @ 12:46 am

  10. Hi Marxistelf – thanks, as ever, for an interesting thought. I hadn’t considered it from that angle but there is definitely, to borrow a word you use here, a sense of comradeship in the shared plight of learning a language which is pre-linguistic yet not atavistic, and which both helps establish and promulgate the bond of trust.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 10, 2010 @ 10:33 am

  11. I get your point, but I believe reacting unnaturally to student errors is breaking the trust they have in you, along with talking so slowly that they always understand you, etc. They are trusting us to prepare them for communication outside, and being too teachery doesn’t achieve that. Of course, there’s a difference between reacting naturally to funny errors and mocking them, and the line is very thin and perhaps impossible to teach teachers

    Comment by alexcase — March 14, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

  12. Yes, maybe the students have to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief – they know our reaction is unnatural, but they overlook that because they are in a classroom, in the same way we overlook the impossibility of omniscience when reading a novel.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 15, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  13. Fantastic post. The analogy is true and the classroom, although it is artificial, provides room for trust but more importantly respect. The more the student is respected valued , the more he/she get engaged in the learning process. Students come to the classroom predisposed to learn, considering themselves as “ignorant” but they require to be respected and valued as human beings.

    Comment by nNightwalker — April 23, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

  14. […] Sputnik of The Tesla Coil on trust in the classroom (I’d recommend reading the other posts in the series as well – What connects TEFL and psychoanalysis) […]

    Pingback by Who would do a job like this? | Mike Harrison's Blog — April 25, 2010 @ 12:08 am

  15. […] a strange and interesting place and/or construct. Sputnik over at The Tesla Coil blogged about this here. It’s occurred to me that this is the second time I’ve linked to this post – […]

    Pingback by I’m a teacher, get me out of here! (guest post at Oxford University Press – ELT – Global Blog) | Mike Harrison's Blog — June 27, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

  16. […] teacher development tasks for web 2.0 Nik’s interesting web 2.0  links for teachers.What connects TEFL and psychoanalysis? -Part 1: the obscene space An analogy between the classroom and psychoanalysis. The similarities between the psychoanalyst and […]

    Pingback by Best teaching blog posts | My English Pages — June 4, 2012 @ 8:49 pm

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