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Dr. Johnson’s Profession

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By Paula Marantz Cohen


 

One of the great pleasures of teaching is talk. Most of the good teachers I know entered the profession because it gave them a forum for it. One of history’s greatest teachers, Dr. Samuel Johnson, author of the first comprehensive English dictionary and numerous other literary works, was mostly known for his talk. So enamored of his mentor’s talk was James Boswell, Johnson’s prize student and biographer, that he followed him around transcribing what he said. The result was one of the greatest biographies ever written.

But in teaching, talking too much is a danger. Just as a person who doesn’t like to talk probably shouldn’t teach, one who doesn’t know when to shut up is not going to teach well. In the classroom, as in most places, talk is most meaningful in conversation—it was Dr. Johnson’s conversational ability that Boswell praises most extravagantly:  “His conversation was so rich, so animated, and so forcible … that those who knew him conceived for him that veneration and attachment which [they] ever preserved.” The best talk is a provocation for talk from others—it creates a bond between teacher and student. Most novice teachers, and many of us seasoned ones, will occasionally default to monologue, but this generally means things are not going well.

I have often tried to describe what I like to call “a good class.” It happens periodically, though never consistently, because talk takes an unpredictable course. You nurture a class with interesting, well-presented material, then hope it will spark talk from the students, infusing the material with new life and extending it into new areas. When a class is bored or over-tired (whole classes can be fatigued for reasons that have nothing to do with lack of sleep), talk grinds to a halt. But when a class is relaxed and engaged, talk gushes; it is animated by laughter and woven through with feeling; it carries the class to a place that is both delightful and powerful.

To take pleasure in talk is to take pleasure in the rich, voluptuous lifting of the self through words that find an echo, an amplification, and an amendation in the words of others. Only when you learn that pleasure, I am convinced, is it possible to generate ideas alone—to engage in talk with yourself.

Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, will be published this spring.


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