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.



  1. I agree.
    Maximum doubt outside the classroom; minimum doubt inside.
    Even if you don’t know, students must always believe that you can find out.

    Comment by Glennie — March 13, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    • Another marvellous little post, by the way.

      Comment by Glennie — March 13, 2010 @ 2:11 pm

  2. Very interesting thesis. If we accept the old saw that “teaching does not equal learning”, then this observation gives a sound reason for continuing the practice of teaching language learners: far from practising our two acts (that of teaching and that of learning) somehow in parallel but not in relationship, this suggests the teacher’s powerful but indirect role in the act of learning.

    But a comparison which might worry some is with the placebo effect. Here, the catalyst for change (the placebo pill or injection) is entirely devoid of active ingredients, yet its “mere” psychological impact effects a physical change. Interestingly, this occurs regardless of whether the patient is aware that they are taking a placebo or not, apparently.

    Your post suggests that the same is not the case for teachers – if we say “I honestly have no clue how to help you learn and I’m massively ignorant of the language subject”, our learners would not learn!

    A (perhaps depressing) conclusion from all this might be that teachers therefore are effective only as long as the learner views them as such – as long as they see the emperor’s new clothes, he is fully dressed. Another way of reading this is to conclude that teachers are less useful than sugar pills!

    Being serious for a moment, I have a question: do you think that one conclusion to be drawn from this is that charisma should weigh heavier than competence when evaluating what makes a “good” teacher, or do you think that charisma should be valued more as an essential part of a teacher’S professional competence?

    Thanks for the post!

    Comment by Anthony — March 13, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  3. Thanks Glennie and Anthony – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. As for whether charisma should weigh heavier than competence – I would prefer to talk of a teacher’s presence, and say that, yes, it should be judged as part of a teacher’s professional competence, at least if we think of that as being more than a set of functions, which I think we should.

    Comment by Sputnik — March 13, 2010 @ 11:43 pm

  4. If ‘competence’ includes the ability to engage, and charisma engages, then I guess it forms a part of competence.

    But if a teacher is naturally charismatic, can we say that their charisma forms part of their ‘professional’ competence if, by competence, we are referring to consciously acquired teaching skills?

    Comment by Glennie — March 14, 2010 @ 12:18 am

    • Hi Glennie,
      I didn’t particularly want to suggest that “professional competence” had to be composed exclusively of consciously acquired skills. But your interpretation raises the question of whether such ability to engage can be consciously acquired – or, in other words, learned. This raises the further question of whether it can be taught as part of initial training. This raises the (still) further question of how far current course programmes seek to do this. Engagement is probably generally seen in this context as a function of the tasks teachers set for learners, rather than a function of the teacher’s nature. We talk about “engaging learners in the topic” rather than “engaging learners in the teacher”, if you see what I mean.

      So as I work on initial training courses, I’m now asking myself the question: “how much does our current course design promote the development or nurturing of Presence? I’ll be giving this one some thought – thanks!

      Comment by Anthony — March 14, 2010 @ 12:42 am

      • A pleasure.

        I see what you mean about engaging students in a task. But I think it’s also true that there are teachers who can make reading the telephone directory sound interesting.:->

        Comment by Glennie — March 14, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  5. It would seem the teacher has the ungraspable phallus and tries to impart that which can never actually be gotten ahold of. Diarmuid, what does the Tao have to say on this one?:)

    Comment by Nick Jaworski — March 15, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

  6. Wow, never though I’d read the words “ungraspable phallus” in a blog about English teaching!

    My brain hurts now even more than it usually does after reading theteslacoil.

    This is a good thing!

    Comment by Nicky — March 25, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  7. Nick – only a Jungian would say that!
    Nicky – me neither. But I do apologise.

    Comment by Sputnik — April 3, 2010 @ 11:48 am

    • Jungian! I’m not talkin archetypes here. Jung is more interesting for his connections to mysticism I think.

      Always been a huge fan of Lacan. He’s hell to wade through, deliberately so, but lots of good stuff there. I think the phallus metaphor works great in teaching. It’d be a fun topic to explore on your blog I think.

      Comment by Nick Jaworski — April 3, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

  8. Yes, he was a clever bloke, old Lacan. He was a good example of someone always looking to reinvent his approach to the same subject. Personally, I could have done without the maths stuff at the end, but that’s more to do with my failings than his.
    As for the phallus and Jung – I think he said that even the penis is a phallic symbol, which always make me laugh, even if it is apocryphal.

    Comment by Sputnik — April 4, 2010 @ 9:55 am

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