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An Unexpected Discovery

by Vicki Mahaffey

During my four years as director of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program, I made an unexpected discovery about teaching: in order to encourage or legitimate intellectual risk-taking among students, teachers need to rely less heavily on routine. At a place like Penn, one of the more puzzling problems we face is that our students, while generally excellent, tend to perform below their potential. That doesn't mean they get bad grades; it means that their work, while competent, is often mechanical, tired, lackluster. When I assumed leadership of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program, which caters to the some of most highly motivated students at Penn, I saw an opportunity to use this experience to enhance student motivation more generally.

First, I encouraged honors faculty to discuss their own research with the students. One goal was to let them see how important it is for faculty to make contributions to their respective fields. Another goal was to see what would happen if we raised our expectations of the students' critical thinking abilities, assigning even more challenging material and respecting the potential freshness of their perspective.

The vision of a more respectful pedagogy inspired me to design my assignments in a more reciprocal way: in my discipline, students do analytical work and then present their findings in the form of a persuasive argument, which I carefully evaluate. With some trepidation, I distributed drafts of some of my work in progress related to the course material, inviting (but not requiring) students to comment and offering to acknowledge any contribution I decided to use. The payoff for this strategy was delayed and subtle rather than immediate: students seemed to gain a new understanding of the criteria I used to evaluate their work. Gradually, the grade assumed less importance and the process of learning returned to center stage. The teacher-student relationship became more cooperative, and the students began to express the kinds of thoughts I had formerly associated only with colleagues. Classroom discussions lost some of their hollowness, and I felt freer to discuss not only my answers about the material but my questions as well. In short, we shifted our collective emphasis to the process of literary interpretation, with the result that we no longer had to wonder about the significance of what we were doing; that significance was unfolding before us as we held increasingly more resistant and probing discussions. The pressure to acquiesce to a professional or disciplinary orthodoxy evaporated, and in its place was an absorbing drive to invent more unexpected lines of inquiry.

My experimentation with the honors seminar climaxed last spring when I agreed to teach James Joyce's most unreadable work of literature, Finnegans Wake. Finnegans Wake is based on over 40 languages, using as its touchstones all of human history and the geography of the world, as it mimics the unconscious movement of the human mind in sleep. Joyce spent 17 years adding layer after layer of references to this novel-without-a-plot, creating a verbal texture so dense that, at first, readers can only approach it as if it were music or code. Under the growing shadow of the Third Reich, Joyce labored in Paris to revise literature itself in the quixotic hope of fostering non-parochial, cooperative, transnational modes of understanding. Joyce's encrusted language directs our attention away from meaning itself and towards the mechanisms through which meaning is constructed. We learn to read backwards and forwards, acrostically, and anagrammatically; we attend to the shape and history of individual letters, to the macaronic puns across different languages. No one individual knows enough to read the book in isolation; so readers find themselves needing to cooperate with one another in order to generate understanding. The book is a strange, festive celebration of our own individual ignorance, which instead of being shaming fosters a fresh appreciation of how many pieces of human knowledge and culture remain unconnected, unassimilated.

What was most surprising to me was how this arguably excessive challenge affected the 25 students in the honors seminar. After the initial shock wore off, the students started to do precisely what one of the voices of Finnegans Wake recommends: to wipe their glosses with what they knew. These were not primarily English majors: they had specialized in rainforests, psychology, music, and mathematics. Our discussions became a wild hunt through the buried treasure of facts: how many people know that a male earwig has a spare penis, in case one breaks off? (In Finnegans Wake, the main character is based on an earwig.) Or that in Germanic creation myth, woman came from an elm and man from an ash tree? That in the Ogham alphabet, in which letters are associated with trees, the ash corresponds to the letter n?

The class discussions, however, were merely appetizers for the main event: in their papers, students began to draw on what they knew to illuminate what they didn't understand, and the result was nothing short of dazzling. One student showed how the main characters of Finnegans Wake, HCE and ALP, functioned like musical chords moving toward harmonic resolution. Another wrote about dirt; yet another focused  on  the molecular structure of water. Still another one explored the kiss, examining it on several levels: as a metaphor for cross-cultural communication (an exchange of tongues), and as an act that is simultaneously physical and spiritual. There were gripping, complex essays on such topics as time, law, doodling, sound, footnotes, the mating journeys of salmon, and love. The writing was so extraordinary, so original and so unlike the standard B+ essay I had come to expect and dread that I was stunned. Although I anticipate a skeptical response to this claim, I will nevertheless assert that most of the essays were built on more unexpected and stimulating constellations of facts than anything I heard at the international James Joyce Symposium in Dublin one month later. The essays were so extraordinary in the way they forged meaningful connections among different disciplines that, after much reflection, I decided to publish them on the web. Several of them are already posted at the following site: (link no longer available).

What can we conclude from these experiments? That students may react in surprising ways to an open dialogue, despite their relative inexperience in a given discipline. That specialization in a single field may not be as desirable as we once conveniently thought, at least not at the undergraduate level, because it limits inquiry and the understanding gained by synthesizing ideas. That we may need to reconsider interdisciplinary instruction, regarding it not as something to be taught by a team of diverse experts but as something to be viewed through multiple disciplinary lenses that admit the light of knowledge emanating from other fields. That our usual methods of teaching don't encourage intellectual challenge. That real learning is often best acquired by teaching. And that students who become part of the teaching process learn from what they teach us. If all this is valid, then what we need most are more sophisticated and creative formats for teaching one another.

Dr. Vicki Mahaffey is professor of English and a winner of the Lindback and Ira Abrams awards for teaching, and the former director of the Benjamin Franklin Scholars Program. This essay resumes the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See for the previous essays. If you would like to submit an article for this series, please contact Larry Robbins, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning,



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 3, September 14, 2004


September 14, 2004
Volume 51 Number 3


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