Catherine Nicholson reminds her students to pursue pleasure and celebrate the difficulty of learning in equal measure
It’s fitting that one student described her course with Catherine Nicholson by saying, “I left every class feeling as though I had climbed a mountain,” as Nicholson urges her students to pursue the classes and fields that give them the most pleasure, while not shying away from the risky or difficult. Honored with the Sarai Ribicoff ’75 Award for Teaching Excellence in Yale College, the Yale faculty member reminds her students that learning can sometimes feel challenging and even uncomfortable, but that the rewards at the end of the experience are worth the hard thinking that is often required.
Courses: “Major English Poets,” “Early Modern Theaters of Strangeness,” “Ovid’s English Renaissance,” “Spenser,” “Minor English Poets,” “Shakespeare: Comedies and Romances”
What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
I think that being a Yale professor is a little bit like what I imagine a grandparent is like, in that when I have coffee or lunch with my colleagues, within three minutes the conversation always turns to our excitement about what our students are doing.
They bring so much energy and enthusiasm and talent to the classroom. Obviously, they are incredibly smart, but they have an intelligence and wit that’s married to joy. I think that’s part of my job as a teacher: Sometimes that joy is right there on the surface and I just ride it like a wave. Other times, I am able to help students find joy in a place where they weren’t expecting to find it. That moment when their eagerness to learn is married to pleasure is just kind of magical. It happens in the classroom — not every single day but most days — and there’s nothing more exciting.
What do your students teach you?
One of great things about teaching in the humanities — though I imagine there must be a version of this for people who teach sciences — is that I learn from my students all the time. Even in a basic introductory seminar like the “Major English Poets” sequence, what I’m communicating to my students is not so much a fixed body of knowledge as a set of skills and techniques which they then very quickly learn how to apply to the texts. The texts themselves have so much in them, and the students have so much in their minds, it’s almost impossible for me not to learn new things along the way.
Every single class conversation, someone will say something that makes me think, “Oh, of course! Of course you’re right. Of course that’s what’s happening at that moment in the poem.” And that, to me, is a real blessing of teaching in the humanities. It’s a routine experience in the classroom to have students show me things that I’ve never seen before in a poem I’ve read maybe 20 times, a poem that I read annually because I teach it every year. Every January, when I teach “Paradise Lost,” I’m so excited because it’s a poem I love so much, a poem I know really well, and I am about to get to know it better. It’s one of the huge perks of being an English professor: Teaching is a kind of ongoing collaborative research.
What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
I often want to give students two pieces of advice that can seem contradictory, although in my mind they are complementary. The first is: Pursue pleasure. Pleasure is instructive. Pleasure is your brain’s and body’s way of telling you what you’re meant to be learning.
Students come into my office to have conversations about whether or not they should be an English major, and, almost always, at the bottom of that question — but also at the bottom of their uncertainty about it — is pleasure. They’re not sure if it is okay to do something because it gives you joy, because you love it. So the first thing I tell students and want to tell students is “Trust your joy,” because joy and pleasure are the most sustainable fuels for learning.
The other piece of advice I often give is “Err on the side of risk and difficulty.” Students work so, so hard to get to Yale and when they are here they continue working hard, and I am so grateful to them for that effort. I thrive on it. But from my perspective it’s easier to see that the stakes are sometimes lower than the students think — that they have more room to do hard things and fail at them than they think they do. So one of the things I repeatedly tell students, something that I tell myself in doing my own work, is that the feeling of difficulty — the feeling of doing something that you’re afraid you can’t do, or the feeling of doing something and knowing you are doing it badly — is the feeling of learning. And if you’re having that feeling, that’s not a sign that you should quit and go find something else that you’re better at. The feeling of working at, or just past, the limits of your capability is a feeling to embrace and cherish and cultivate, and also to reward yourself for.
If there’s one thing you’d like your students to learn from you, what would that be?
The value of attention: Attention is a life skill, although I mainly think about it in relation to texts. It’s actually something that helps brains and souls, whatever they are doing.
What I mean by attention is being willing to go slowly, to look at something closely, to look at it again, and to pay attention to your own attention even.
When I have students, as I often do, who are being confronted with materials that they are not naturally drawn to — that they are afraid of, that seem weird to them, alien and difficult — one of the things that I tell them is that boredom and dislike are useful reactions to a piece of writing. So if you’re reading a poem and you suddenly look up from your book in your dorm room and realize that the past 10 minutes have gone by without your absorbing a single word of what you’ve been reading, that is a valuable response. Let’s talk about that in class, because perhaps the difficulty you were having reading is actually telling you something about the poem. Responses that can feel to students like failures of attention or failures of comprehension, those can count as forms of attention or even as forms of understanding.
So I’m teaching my students how to pay attention but also to define attention more broadly than they might have thought they could. I want them to know that there are all kinds of ways of paying attention to a piece of writing, and understanding it and liking it are not the only two that count in the study of literature.
Tell us about one of your most memorable classroom experiences.
When I first came here, my very first fall semester back in 2008, I was signed up to teach the first half of “Major English Poets” and I had five students show up. We were in a big, beautiful Linsly-Chittenden seminar room with this giant, spacious oak table and we were shouting at each other across this cavernous room. I thought, “Oh, this is never going to work.” So I said, “Alright, stick with me — but next time, on Thursday, come up to my office.”
For the rest of the semester we met twice a week in my cozy little office. We put pillows on the floor and I sat on the floor with my students and we talked about poems. It was such an act of faith on their part to stick with a new, untested teacher in a class that was so small, where so much was going to be riding on them. As a new teacher, my instinct was to perform a kind of mastery: “I need to show that these students are getting their tuition’s worth and I’m a real professor.” But we were sitting on the floor on cushions, and I thought, “I can’t be performing mastery here, I need to perform other things, like curiosity and an eagerness to learn, and happiness and pleasure in their company.” And actually, those things count for so much more in a classroom than mastery does. So that class transformed the way I teach: It made me less anxious about authority and more invested in shared vulnerability.
I no longer have classes in my office, although I’d like to. Now I’m back in the big seminar rooms with the fancy oak tables, but I still always remind myself at the beginning of every semester: “You don’t need to perform mastery for these students. You don’t need to establish your authority. You need to model intellectual community for them.”