The Professor Upstaged: Shifting Authority in the Classroom
by John D. Tatter
Birmingham-Southern College


In Five Readers Reading, Norman N. Holland describes five very different mental images developed by five of his students after reading a passage in William Faulkner's "A Rose For Emily." The passage describes Emily Grierson, the central character of the short story, and her father, and the narrator's words are these: "We had long thought of them as a tableau, Miss Emily a slender figure in white in the background, her father a spraddled silhouette in the foreground, his back to her and clutching a horsewhip, the two of them framed by the backflung front door" (459). One of Holland's students imagined Emily as a small figure, seen through her father's spread legs. Another imagined Emily's father as sprawling weakly against the door frame. A third pictured him sitting in a chair with Emily standing behind him. A fourth saw Emily dressed in dark clothes rather than white ones. Holland's point was, of course, that in spite of the detailed description in the text of the short story, each reader "recreate[d] the literary experience in him [or her]self " (1234). In other words, each reader reinscribed Emily within the scene according to his or her own vision.

I have always been fascinated by the variety of responses students have to literary texts. For three or four years now in my introduction to fiction classes I have assigned what I call the "what-how-why" paper--an essay due early in the term that encourages students to account for the unique aspects of their response to a text. After explaining what his or her response was ("I loved the main character" or "I was frustrated with the way the story turned out") each student must examine how the story evoked that response (using textual evidence) and why her or his own response was unique (using personal evidence--experience, education, values). The why part is always the most difficult for them. Not only is it often hard to pinpoint the source of an emotional reaction, but to many students--brought up to repeat "correct" readings of texts on exams and in papers--the sources of their responses are irrelevant. It is not that they have no opinions; quite the contrary, they hold tightly to the right to their own opinions. But having rarely been asked to express and defend them, they have rarely looked at their opinions critically.

Assigning this paper early on in my classes has helped me establish the ground rule that each of us in the classroom must work toward being able to account for our own reactions to a text and that, likewise, each of us must be willing to listen to each other's reactions. When I say "each of us" I include myself. The assignment also establishes the fact that the one thing we may have in common as readers is the text as it appears on the page, so being faithful to that text is essential. Outright misreadings, like the some of the ones Holland describes, have become rare. So rare, in fact, are they that my experience with upper-level students misreading in unison key passages from David Mamet's Oleanna this past fall came as a surprise. I expected the play to engage their interest because it concerns the relationship between a college student and her professor, and I expected a range of opinions on character and incident. I did not expect, however, to be the only person in the class to express a dissenting opinion, yet that is exactly what happened.

Oleanna is, among other things, a play about sexual harassment, political correctness, and power politics. As Act One opens, Carol has come to her professor's office late one afternoon in hopes of discussing her grade on a recent paper. John, though irritated because 1) she has made no appointment and 2) he is late for his own appointment with a realtor, nevertheless takes the time to discuss not only her paper but also the ways in which the two of them might work together to improve her final grade and her overall learning experience. He explains passages of his book, which he uses as a text in the course, and he explains material from her class notes that she is having difficulty with. He often uses metaphors and personal examples to help clarify his points. She takes careful notes on what he tells her, though she does not always seem to understand what he says. At one point near the end of the Act, Carol becomes frustrated to the point of tears, and John comforts her by putting his arm around her. Several times during the Act, John receives telephone calls from his wife and his lawyer about the house he is in the process of buying (he has just applied for tenure and expects it to be granted). These interruptions make the conference awkward, but they provide material for conversation that is less threatening to Carol than the subject matter of the course or the topic of grades.

In Act Two, Carol and John are again in his office for a conference, this time because he has asked her there. He wants to discuss the report she has sent to the Tenure Committee about their previous meeting, a report that accuses him of sexually harassing her by asking her to meet him after hours in his office and offering to change her grade if she does so, by telling pornographic stories, and by embracing her--unasked. Carol explains passages of her report that John says he does not understand, and she makes her position clear by referring often to the "group" that supports her. She wishes the Tenure Committee to decide between their different versions of what went on at the previous conference. This solution is not acceptable to John. As they argue, he tries to restrain her physically from leaving his office, and she cries out.

In Act Three, the two are again in John's office for a conference, again because he has asked her there. The Tenure Committee has met, and John has been denied tenure. In addition, Carol is considering filing attempted rape charges against him. In the course of their heated conversation, Carol offers to talk to the Tenure Committee and withdraw her complaint if John will meet a list of demands, including one to remove his book from the reading list for the course. John goes into a rage, ultimately beating her with his fists and knocking her to the floor, screaming "You vicious little bitch. You think you can come in here with your political correctness and destroy my life?" (1324). At the very end of the Act he stops just short of hitting her with a chair that he has picked up and raised above his head.

The play would seem to invite an audience to side with either Carol or John. The drama anthology I used for the course printed a series of reviews of the play, and the majority of them described audiences siding with the professor. Though some reviewers admitted that John was shallow, self-absorbed, and insensitive, all of them suggested that Carol's charges were thoroughly out of proportion to the alleged acts of harassment appearing on stage. My students mirrored these responses. After reading the play, we viewed a videotape of a local production, in which the parts of John and Carol were played by a professor and student from the college. The next day, during our discussion, each member of the class described Carol as a misguided pawn of her radical feminist group, and they all felt that she deserved John's anger, if not his abuse, at the end of the play. One man in the class consistently referred to Carol as being "sick." Another used the phrase "emotionally unbalanced." One woman was convinced that Carol was out for revenge for her low grade and that she gave women, particularly feminists, a bad name.

I was a little surprised that my students were unanimous in their response, particularly since they took the professor's part against the student. I assumed that they would express a solidarity with the character in the play most like them, and I assumed that they would think Carol most like them. My assumptions were obviously incorrect, so I asked them to cite particular details from the play that led them to side with John. To my even greater surprise, they made claims about Carol that were not supported by the text. For example, the woman who was convinced that Carol was out for revenge had somehow either blocked out of her mind or simply disregarded the speech in which Carol says to John, "You think I want 'revenge'. I don't want revenge. I WANT UNDERSTANDING" (1323). The same woman also claimed that she was surprised and disturbed by Carol's attempts at censorship in demanding that John's book be banned from the university. When we went back to the text and re-viewed the videotape, we saw clearly that Carol never demands that John's book be banned, only that it be "removed from inclusion as a representative example of the university." John is the one to use the phrase "ban my book" (1323), and his words are what all of the students in the class remembered being said.

Holland notes, in the case of his own students, that "conceivably, one could 'teach' or coerce these five readers into consensus, but even so, whatever in each person's character originally colored his [or her] perception of [Faulkner's] tableau would go on coloring his [or her] perception of every element in the story" (1234). Such was the case with the woman in my class who misread Carol's lines in Mamet's text: in spite of reviewing the text, and in spite of the efforts of several of her classmates afterwards to persuade her otherwise, she persisted throughout the term in seeing Carol as a vicious "feminazi" out to destroy her professor just because he had made a few careless, sexist comments. My student had reinscribed Carol differently from the way she is inscribed in Mamet's text, but--and here I should not have been surprised--not at all differently from the way John had inscribed her as he spoke to and about her within the university culture.

Stanley Fish, writing about interpretive communities, takes Holland's ideas one step further. Fish explains that the situation in which a text is read helps determine the text's meaning. In particular, he suggests that an academic institution has a set structure of relationships that helps to form a shared understanding of language. "That shared understanding," Fish says,

is the basis of the confidence with which [students and teachers] speak and reason, but its categories are their own only in the sense that as actors within an institution they automatically fall heir to the institution's way of making sense, its systems of intelligibility. That is why it is so hard for someone whose very being is defined by his [or her] position within an institution . . . to explain to someone outside it a practice or a meaning that seems to him [or her] to require no explanation, because he [or she] regards it as natural. Such a person, when pressed, is likely to say, "but that's just the way it's done" or "but isn't it obvious" and so testify that the practice or meaning in question is community property as, in a sense, he [or she] is too. (236-37)
My students--all of them at first, and one of them throughout the term--sided with John against Carol not because they were trying to make points with their own professor, but because John's point of view seemed natural to them. John's point of view is the institution's point of view, and as members of a similar institution, they found more sense in John's position than in Carol's.

This similar institution at which I teach is a private liberal arts college in the deep south. My students have been brought up to respect authority, and even though their politeness is sometimes a thin veneer, it is something they defend vigorously. It was clear that they had trouble with Carol's aggressive bad manners after Act One, and her impoliteness was worse for them because she's a woman. Because I suspected that Carol's bad manners weren't the entire problem, however, I asked my students to ponder a hypothetical situation and give me their response. "Imagine," I asked them, "that you have inadvertently plagiarized material in a research paper for one of your classes and that your professor discovers it." (Plagiarism on our campus is an honor code violation that, according to college policy, must be referred to the Honor Council, a jury of students that hears cases and imposes penalties when it finds a defendant guilty.) "Would you prefer your professor to call you in to his or her office and deal with the situation privately, or would you prefer to follow college policy?" To a person, my students preferred that their professor decide the case privately, no matter what the outcome. When I asked why, they claimed that a professor is naturally more understanding than a group of fellow students.

From outside, however, the system may seem anything but natural. I asked my students how they would feel finding out that someone else in their class--someone they consider careless and lazy--had struck a private deal with the professor in a case of alleged plagiarism. They were less comfortable with that scenario. Likewise, I asked them how they felt about the shadowy "group" that Carol often referred to. Carol must have been brainwashed by her "group," they decided, and beginning with Act Two she must have been doing what the group had told her to do. What else could have changed Carol from the inarticulate, whining schoolgirl of Act One into the eloquent, assertive woman of Acts Two and Three?

But we never see Carol with her group. Why? Obviously, because the playwright has decided what we shall and shall not see. As surely as John's own book provides the material for his course, Mamet's script provides the material for our response. Or, to put it another way, members of an audience watching a play are members of another institution who "automatically fall heir to [that] institution's way of making sense, its systems of intelligibility." What are some of these systems of intelligibility? First, the staging of the play supports John's position. The entire play takes place in his office. He is the insider, and she is the outsider. Carol arrives at an inconvenient time in Act One--she invades his privacy, yet he stays late to help her. She is frustrated and inarticulate, yet he is patient. Second, costuming supports John's position. Later, in Acts Two and Three, Carol seems an invader of a different sort: dressed more neatly and professionally than before, as John becomes more disheveled, she seems almost predatory. Third, and perhaps most important, the physical placement of the audience supports John's position. Sitting in the dark, watching the brightly-lit action, the audience is a collective voyeur, and because the audience watches John and Carol in the space that belongs to him, the audience automatically assumes a greater interest in him. Were the play to take place in Carol's dormitory room, the audience's sympathies might very well be different.

Because my students' sympathies were with John, however, they were predisposed to see the action of the play from his perspective and to reject the ways in which Carol, in the notes that she took during the office conference in Act One, described the events. Those notes literally re-inscribe John--from kind teacher to sexual harasser. Unwilling to accept Carol's version of the story, my students in turn reinscribed Carol as John comes to see her. At one point in Act Three, Carol says to John, "You think I am a frightened, repressed, confused, I don't know, abandoned young thing of some doubtful sexuality, who wants, power and revenge. Don't you?" John answers, after a pause, "Yes. I do" (1322). The exchange between the two characters can easily serve as an indictment of John as a male chauvinist, by indicating that Carol fully understands John rather than vice versa, but my students preferred to read it as a vindication of John's indictment of Carol. To side with Carol and to believe her inscribed notes to be a true representation of the events of Act One would be to undermine the entire structure of education as they have come to know it. It would place the text for the course in the hands of the student rather than in the hands of the professor. It would be, as Carol's demand states, to remove the professor's point of view "as a representative example of the university."

Traditional teaching consists of the professor professing. The professor chooses the texts and reinterprets them during his or her lectures, and then corrects the students' interpretations to conform to his or her own during class discussion. It seems to me, however, that true learning takes place in the classroom only as authority shifts from professor to student, only as the focus shifts from the texts chosen or inscribed by the professor to those inscribed by the student. Oleanna has taught me the importance of focusing on learning rather than on teaching. At one point in Act One John tells Carol that he went into teaching because he hated the artificiality of his relationship with his own teachers, and he hoped to become something other than the "cold, rigid automaton" that he had encountered as a student (1317). John's problem, as I see it, is not so much that he's a sexist as that he is so focused on becoming a better teacher than his own teachers that he forgets what it is like to be a student. What he does not realize, as well-meaning as he may be, is that he is still focusing on himself as the center of the classroom and the originator and arbitrator of what happens there. Mamet is actually the better teacher, because he designs his script to be re-inscribed by the audience and then disappears so that each audience member feels free--perhaps even compelled--to justify his or her own reinscription.



Works Cited

Faulkner, William. "A Rose For Emily." The Story and Its Writer. 4th ed. Ed. Ann Charters.
Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1995. 457-63.
Fish, Stanley E. "Is There a Text in This Class?" Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge:
Harvard U P, 1980. In Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1994. 226-37.
Holland, Norman N. "The Question: Who Reads What How?" 5 Readers Reading.
New Haven: Yale U P, 1975. In The Critical Tradition. Ed. David H. Richter. New York: St. Martin's, 1989. 1232-39.
Mamet, David. Oleanna. Stages of Drama. 3rd ed. Ed. Karl H. Klaus, Miriam Gilbert, and
Bradford S. Field, Jr. New York: St. Martin's, 1995. 1310-24.

This paper was presented at the International Conference on Literature and Film,
Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, January 1996.