Magicians, Strippers, and Sherpas: A Teacher reflects on Roles of a Lifetime at Year’s end

This is a lengthy (2000 words) and uber-nerdy piece on teachers, what else?

Roles of a Lifetime: Magicians, Strippers and Sherpas

 Teachers play numerous roles for students and their families, for colleagues, and for alumni. We don’t play the same role for each student or each colleague. But there are three roles we should embrace, they are: the Magician; the Stripper; and the Sherpa. Sometimes when I do this presentation with a faculty they only want to play one of these roles–or they assume that one of these is a “better” or “more privileged” position or “more desirable.” They are all necessary–and, good Jungian that I am, they all have their shadow side. *There is a description of the “Shadow” at the end of this blog.

Take a look at the questions below, answer them, and then we’ll have some fun with the various roles (when I do this as a workshop I show movie clips of teachers).

1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college.

2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years.

3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.”

4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me.

5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house.

6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic.

7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.”

8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice.

9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students.

What is the value of thinking of teaching as being a Magician, a Stripper, or a Sherpa. Well, we all think by analogy (see my prior post on horror movie monsters and teaching styles at https://pulpteacher.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/the-horror-the-horror-there-are-monsters-in-the-classroom-all-horror-movie-monsters-are-derived-from-teaching-styles/) for another example of analogic thinking.

When Aristotle developed the formal rules of logic he gave analogy a place as a method of inference—though he noted that analogies could not be formally demonstrated.

One of the GREAT analogies in all of history is that of the “Body Politic”—used by Aesop in the fable of the belly and the members, Plato in The Republic, and St. Paul in 1st Corinthians. In each case one might emphasize the importance of cooperation, of teamwork, of valuing all of the parts. The “body politic” is deeply ingrained into our language—Head of State, long arm of the law. There is a “shadow” side to the body politic analogy–almost universally the “body politic” argument is used to reinforce a hierarchical order where some members are required to “obey” others. Is the state an organism? Interestingly, the body politic analogy diminished greatly with the rise of democracy—replaced by “social contract”—but came roaring back with Herbert Spencer’s Principles of Sociology, “A primitive society evolves into an industrial nation just as a small, simple form of life becomes a large, more complex organism.” (And it shows up in all sorts of social darwinian thinking and language even now.)

Analogic thinking is important and creative—and revealing! Educational philopopher Parker Palmer tells a story that he often asks workshop groups of faculty to complete the following: “When I am teaching at my best, I am like a ____________” He tells them to do it quickly and go with the first image that arises. He sees himself as a Border collie: all business, keeping the space safe, bringing back strays, keeping out predators, when the grazing ground is depleted he moves the herd to another space where they can be fed. There is a “shadow side” of this: students are sheep—with all the Orwellian and invidious meaning that has—the dumbest of the barnyard animals, mindless, docile, bleating “4 legs good, 2 legs bad.” Palmer knows he must stay on guard against seeing students like this–or they will forever be sheep and never be autonomous.

Try the following as ways to encourage students to think analogically:

Spanking a child to teach obedience is like…

Building low-cost housing for poor people is like…

The effect of American fast food on our health is like…

The personal gain realized by people who have committed questionable or illegal acts and then made money by selling book or movie rights is like…

Cramming for an exam is like…

Keeping wild animals in zoos is like…

Earlier this school year (more self-reference!) I talked about students and teachers as: Vacationers, Business Travelers, Tourists (or Tour guides for faculty), and Pilgrims. In that entry (https://pulpteacher.wordpress.com/2012/08/21/go-as-a-pilgrim-opening-talk-to-the-faculty-2012/), I did encourage people to think of Pilgrimage as the highest or best form of journeying. Not so here, all three roles–Magician, Stripper, Sherpa–have their place.

There are many times when a Teacher is a Performer–as both the Magician and the Stripper are. (The Sherpa is a companion.) The Magician practices a “concealing” art designed to inspire awe or wonder, to celebrate mystery, to engage in misdirection, hide the “process” until the “reveal,” and perhaps to shock. The Magician can be particularly appropriate in Introductions, beginnings of classes/units/subjects. An attention-grabbing act–something to inspire curiosity, is always a good opening. When I present at conferences, or do presentations or demonstrations, I often adopt the Persona of the Magician. Another benefit to the Magician–he or she will travel to you. The weaknesses of the Magician: the Magician, not the subject being studied or the student, becomes the object of attention, the “process” is never revealed (like not showing your work or not seeing any drafts of a paper), the performance may be dazzling but not deep, the Magician may adopt a refinement that is distant or alienating (or a combative persona such as Criss Angel or other street Magicians). In its most pathetic incarnation, this is the person who hides behind the teacher’s edition of the book (having access to all the “answers” but concealing them–not letting them out [see Shevek’s physics’ teacher, Sabul, in LeGuin’s brilliant The Dispossessed]).

What of the Stripper? The Stripper practices a “revealing” art designed to inspire desire or passion. The Stripper demands the focussed attention of the audience and often crosses boundaries or taboos. Both Magicians and Strippers feign intimacy with the audience while keeping their distance. (Think of the Magician who invites people on stage, banters with them, makes them prop in the performance, etc–all of it is fake intimacy; the Stripper–well that should be obvious). What are the advantages of the Stripper: to inspire desire, to communicate passion, to convince/seduce, to entertain, to show off, and to subvert. Like the Magician, the Stripper will travel to you. The weakness of the Stripper: the performer IS the object of attention, the Stripper creates hunger or desire but offers no real connection, genuine passion can be debased and become crude or coarse. In its most glaring abuse it often manifests as the attempt to indoctrinate to political or personal views. (Anyone else notice that these two roles–Magician and Stripper–have gender connotations. Most, not all, Magicians are men; most, not all Strippers, are women).

What of the Sherpa? The Sherpa is appropriate for graduate students, for graduated students, for long-term relationships built on genuine intellectual intimacy. The Sherpa is a fellow traveler and, unlike the Magician or Stripper, understands his or her anonymity–everyone remembers Sir Edmund Hillary who climbed Mt. Everest–virtually no one remembers the Sherpa who accompanied him–Tenzing Norgay. But Hillary never forgot Norgay and our great students never forget us and we never forget our great teacher-companions. The role of Sherpa has weaknesses, however. The Sherpa is isolated–he or she lives in the rarefied Nepalese air of biomechanics or the world of string theory or narratology and might never leave his or her own province to “recruit.” You can order a Magician or Stripper–and they will come to you–but you cannot order a Sherpa.

Back to our questions at the beginning. I’d suggest that they reveal the following–but you may have your own ideas:

1. I keep in touch with a teacher I had from high school or college and/or I keep in touch with a student or students I have taught after they graduated high school and college. The Sherpa is valued as a role or you are conscious you have had a Sherpa in your life.

2. I have a couple of terrific lectures that I have developed over the years. The Magician is ascendant here–strong performances that one can go back to (though someone might make the same argument for the Stripper).

3. I would be comfortable saying something like the following: “I fulfill a central function in my life when I teach my subject at the highest level I can.” The Magician again–more the focus on the subject than the relationship with the student–again, the Stripper strikes me as a secondary choice.

4. My passion and enthusiasm are things students immediately know about me. The Stripper. Passion (even feigned) is central to the Stripper and is revealed right away.

5. I have taken my students on cultural outings (restaurants, plays, movies) or had them over to my house. The Sherpa cultivates particular relationships (“appropriate relationships” I guess I have to say nowadays–I have utter contempt for those who abuse their POWER and teaching is ALWAYS about POWER relationships). The Sherpa loves to share expertise and is more than willing to help carry the load. My own learning has been shaped and helped by several superb Sherpas–Robert Ducharme and Verlyn Flieger in particular. I hope I have been Sherpa to a few.

6. Social issues and social justice issues have a way of working themselves into my classes—almost regardless of the topic. Very often the Stripper–the idea of peeling back the workings of things so that others can see them is prevalent.

7. I have watched Randy Pausch give his “Last Lecture.” Rarely have I seen the Stripper so powerful as he “undresses” himself to a point where his individuality has become universality–spectacular.

8. There are a couple of faculty members I go to for advice about pedagogy or content–and I feel comfortable asking for advice. I recognize that while I am Sherpa for some, others are Sherpas for me.

9. I’m comfortable with my students’ unease as I narrate a series of unexpected connections that eventually make sense to my students. The Magician–things are unexpected but eventually make sense. If I do not provide the student with the “wrap up” then I have failed.

All great teaching springs from relationships that need to be cultivated. I hope that in whatever role we are most comfortable: the Magician, the Stripper, or the Sherpa, that we will honor the role we play for our students–and honor those who played those roles for us.

Parker Palmer: “A subject is available for relationship; an object is not.”

*On the “Shadow,” here is a brief aside from a worksheet I give my students to understand Persona, Ego, and Shadow:  “The shadow is the inferior being in ourselves, the one who wants to do all the things we are not allowed to do….” Fordham, 49. The shadow is in the personal unconscious.  The collective aspect of the shadow is expressed as a devil or witch or something similar. “In choosing the word ‘shadow’ to describe these aspects of the unconscious, Jung has more in mind than merely to suggest something dark and vague in outline.  There is, as he points out, no shadow without the sun, and no shadow (in the sense of the personal unconscious) without the light of consciousness.  It is in fact the nature of these things that there should be light and dark, sun and shade.  Superstition holds that the man without a shadow (using the word in the ordinary sense) is the devil himself, [Dracula famously casts no reflection] while we ourselves are cautious with someone who seems ‘too good to be true,’ as if we recognized instinctively that human nature needs the leaven of a little wickedness.” Fordham, 50. from A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, ed. by Andrew Samuels, Bani Shorter, and Fred Plant.  London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. “the shadow: ‘the thing a person has no wish to be’ (CW 16.470).  In this simple statement is subsumed the many-sided and repeated references to shadow as the negative side of the personality, the sum of all unpleasant qualities one wants to hide, the inferior, worthless and primitive side of man’s nature, the ‘other person’ in one, one’s own dark side.  Jung was well aware of the reality of evil in human life. Over and over again Jung emphasizes that we all have a shadow, that everything substantial casts a shadow, that the ego stands to shadow as light to shade, that it is the shadow which makes us human.” From Jung himself, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.  If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it.  Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications.  But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness.  At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions” (CW 11.131). CW stands for Collected Works of Jung.

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2 Comments

Filed under books and learning, close reading, critical thinking, education, inferential skills, magicians, pedagogy, popular culture, sherpas, strippers, teaching, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Magicians, Strippers, and Sherpas: A Teacher reflects on Roles of a Lifetime at Year’s end

  1. Your students are lucky! I love your posts.

  2. Thanks John! I have two good ideas for next year as a I teach: 1) I am going to make about 25-30 ten minute or less videos of me explaining some particular thing and then once a week or so the homework will be for them to watch that and I can use the extra time in class for something else (close reading maybe). My second idea is that for at least one text (Invisible Man?) I intend to keep a “public” teaching diary of all 30 or 35 days we are on the book. You continue to inspire me!

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