Teaching as Therapy

There was a time — a wonderful time, Joseph Epstein insists in a recent Wall Street Journal article — when English professors were “bad cops” and students quaked in their shoes. It was a time of “tough guys” who dispersed “productive shame” upon their pupils, profs who would bare their teeth on the first day and never conceal them until the end of the semester. But today, Epstein laments, the classroom no longer has a place for fangs. It has, to him, become “pedagogical equivalent of psychotherapy,” where students are hand-held, coddled, and even worse, where our construction of unmanly “inclusive” and “antiracist” spaces not only deprives students of an education, but leads them towards progressive politics.

“Therapy,” to Epstein, is a bad word. But to me, therapy is a good word—a very good word. As someone who has experienced its personal rewards, I have also seen ways in which its precepts can benefit the students I teach. In my work as an English professor, I have realized that in its potential to create moments of self-discovery, and in the way it enables students to connect the emotional and the intellectual, the classroom is a therapeutic space. Instead of denying it, or even worse, to revert to the days that Epstein praises, let us see instead what the therapist’s office and the college classroom have in common. Both, after all, are spaces of human striving. And both, after all, are spaces where people practice the art of being people.

**

Once a week in the early evening I walk up the stairs of a building that was once a Methodist church. I open the heavy doors and walk past the old bingo equipment strewn about the lobby floor and pass the dusty hymnals that sit at the ends of the pews, waiting for their parishioners to return. In the wood-paneled room that used to be the Minister’s Office, there is a circle of chairs. Seated: a medley. There is a woman whose daughter abuses her. A man who every morning rehearses his suicide. An EMT who has finally seen too much. An information technologist who is slowly realizing his marriage cannot be reduced to code. A manic-depressive who, when she is up, floods the room with talk so fast I have to hold onto my chair to steady myself. There’s me. And there are two therapists: one who knows that I am immune to the tricks of the trade and another who keeps lovingly plying me with them.

We come from different walks of life, each with our own pasts and with presents that are often indecipherable to us. The only thing we have in common is that we arrive having done the same homework assigned to us the week before. For ninety minutes each week, we dismiss the roles the world has put onto us. We listen to each other, we joke, we cry, we vent, but we neither lecture nor preach, for we have come to learn that the repairs we suggest say more about our own issues than the problems of others.

The pioneer of group therapy, Irvin Yalom, calls this insight process illumination, and its consequences, much like group therapy itself, are simple yet revolutionary. Group therapy has a liberating premise: that people with similar dilemmas can, by being present with each other, work together to become healthier. There are therapists in the room, but much like a seminar, their comments are few. The work of healing is transferred onto the group. And it is hard work, the most difficult form of reading I know: of the buried traumas that come and go in sporadic dreams; of the plots we use to conceal what we don’t want to see in ourselves. But as we do our work together, a community is formed, a community for those who, in their own painful way, have never experienced community before.

**

The classroom is a group. I don’t know what Mr. Epstein would think of this notion. He wants students to feel incoherent, isolated, helpless: to him, that’s pedagogy. But for those of us who have spent the past four years watching men who think they are mountains salt the earth of our national civic and intellectual life, we know more than ever before that care and thought must go hand in hand. Yalom’s theories of group dynamics can help us make this possible. His Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, soon to be in its sixth edition, offers twelve precepts: here are three that have an immediate positive impact in the classroom.

Cohesion. By cohesion, Yalom means the potential that one can be accepted by others merely by being in their presence for a set period of time. Students, for the most part, see themselves as isolates. But I think that too often we presume that students cohere and the synecdoches that faculty use, like the “Mindset List,” categorize students in ways that are convenient for us but derivative if not condescending to them. Thus facilitating genuine cohesion in the classroom is an elementary but remarkable salve.

Let cohesion occur in its simplest ways. A few semesters ago, a group of students came to me with a strange request: that I let one of their peers eat in class. They had realized that the student’s schedule was so tightly packed that she was forgoing lunch. So they offered to each sneak out an item out of the cafeteria which, put together, would make a meal. When I asked why they had agreed to do this, they responded: we’ve been there. They saw themselves in her, though they did not know her well, and they cohered as a group to help her. Instead of passively allowing another to go hungry, they worked together to feed her—the most basic form of nurturance.

Universality. This does not mean the erasure of difference. For Yalom, it means a person’s realizing that they are not alone. Depressives, in particular, often feel that they are unique in a particularly hellish way, locked away from others, perhaps even from the positive aspects of themselves. At the same time, higher education encourages a highly damaging form of uniqueness which leads to imposter syndrome on the one hand or a grandiose ego on the other.

Giving students a sense that they are on a common mission which each pursues individually allows universality to occur. In my medical humanities course last year, we were in the midst of discussing a powerful essay by Roxane Gay when a student began to weep. She said she was reliving the days of her youth when she was heckled as a black girl whose body did not match the shapes and sizes she saw on television and film. As I was caught up in her tears, a hand reached out to her. A white male student-athlete, who had said nothing in class so far, began to talk about how he too had been bullied as a boy for his weight, and how that bullying led him to athletics, something that he did not pursue out of love but out of fear. He put his hand over hers and we were quiet for a moment. It was a profound moment of sharing to witness, and all I had to do was sit there and let the universality unfold. In that moment, the entire class felt the relief one has when one knows you are not alone among strangers.

Hope. This is the most difficult one for me, as I have written of the politics of hopefulness and its role in perpetuating facile ideology. Nor is it in any academic’s nature, in the year 2020, to have hope as we find ourselves publicly abandoned and, particularly for us in the humanities, restructured into forced insolvency. But Yalom noticed how hope redefines itself to fit the moment. Hope works best not when it is magical but when it is incremental: in the world of education, the hopes that the course content can be mastered, that help will be given when it is asked for, that one will not be judged for who one is.

Never underestimate the hope that dawns when you give the help you have promised. Those of us who frequently teach general education courses understand that the hostility that students bring with them is often premised in hopelessness—that they will never write well, or calculate the equation correctly or put the formula to proper practice. They have been told by some former teacher, likely of an Epsteinian variety, that they’ll never be good at it. Even worse, as I have discovered in my literature of mental illness course, some students have been told that they are broken people who will never mend and should never have gone to college in the first place. Yet hope can be easily scaffolded: at the beginning of each semester, I ask students to give me three goals they have for my particular course. These become the drivers of their final projects: an exam, an artwork—in one case, a song. Set goals and celebrate their achievement, and when things seem too big, set smaller goals and celebrate those. They build over time like a composite into a portrait of hope.

**

These three principles are not exclusive to the psychotherapist’s élan—to employ them is not to play therapist. But they require taking the therapeutic potential of the classroom seriously. They require the understanding that students are not passive abstractions that wander in and out of our lives like shadows, but are living, breathing, feeling and thinking people who are as human as we are. Epstein’s sham masculinizing reminds us that this is a terrifying conception to too many in higher education.

And of the progressive politics that Epstein wants us to think a symptom of too much coddling? Think of the serious topics our courses study: race; class; gender; disability. To talk of these without simultaneously creating a therapeutic space only perpetuates the distance that power relies upon. If our goal is to build a progressive political space, we must realize that we cannot build politics without care. Care builds solidarity. And it builds insight.

**

Group therapy is a world of small epiphanies. You listen to others and sometimes you hear yourself in them. You hear other’s issues recur every week, ostinato, and realize that you are your repetitions. And through doing the homework with others, you make minor fixes to your self: a slight fortification of the spine, the admission of a grain of happiness. You begin to see, despite your sardonic wit and scoffing countenance that casts a cloud on every ray of sunshine, that there are people who care for you. After every session, I descend the stairs of the old church feeling that I have been given a gift just by being there, and what I do with that gift is up to me and the sum of who I am.

Is it possible for our students to leave our courses with such insight — and with such agency? With a little human work, I think they can.

Douglas Dowland is associate professor of English at Ohio Northern University and the author of Weak Nationalisms: Affect and Nonfiction in Postwar America. He can be found on Twitter @profdgd.