Making space for bravery to grow is one of Alfred Guy’s classroom aims
In his writing and literature courses, Alfred E. Guy Jr. hopes the tentative students will become more bold and that the confident will move beyond their comfort zones to explore further. Awarded the 2014 Richard H. Brodhead ’68 Teaching Prize for Teaching Excellence by a Non-Ladder Faculty Member, Guy is gratified when students make leaps when he’s “out of the way.”
Courses: Writing Seminars — “The Good Life” and “Masculinity and Femininity”; “Creative Non-Fiction,” and “Science Fiction”
In his inaugural address, President Peter Salovey described students as one of the “treasures” of Yale. What excites you about teaching Yale undergraduates?
The most exciting thing to me about teaching undergraduates is watching students go, basically, from one place to another — and it’s not always the same place. I teach freshmen very often in the fall, and a lot of them come in very confident. I don’t try to ruin their confidence, but the first time that students have to reconsider something they feel very confident about — especially when it’s because it’s something another student has said — I really love that moment. Similarly, very often in the writing class I teach in the fall, a very quiet student in Week 7 suddenly recognizes that he or she does know what’s going on and begins to speak, and other students sit differently in the room as a result of this person coming forward. I don’t really take credit for bringing that person out, but I try to set up a class that makes room for that. Every time it happens — and it happens in 8 out of every 10 classes — it’s always a surprise and always a thrill.
Do you learn anything from your students?
There’s some kind of thing I learn every semester from my students. I teach a lot of recent cultural products — movies that are just out — or I teach a science fiction class and I try to teach recent texts. And one of the things I learn from my students is that I’m seven generations removed from them, so what I think is interesting is sort of lost cachet.
But I think what I learn from my students here is how hard it is to make space for quiet contemplation in light of all the expectations and credentials they’re expected to collect. One of the things I learn is how — even when students constantly have to worry about their position at Yale, what they’re going to do in the summer, what they’re going to do four years from now — they can make space just to explore, just to be surprised by things; how it’s possible to do that without giving up a connection to what we would call the real world. I don’t know that I’ve learned how to do it that well myself. I feel that my generation of academics had an advantage of having a slower life as 18-year-olds than our students have now.
What drew you to teaching, and what do you find rewarding about it?
What drew me to teaching was the sense that it was a work that I could do with a group of people, that I could help 10 people get something done that was very hard for them to do one at a time. It’s a kind of collective, collaborative inquiry, but one in which I’m also willing enough to back out of the way to make it move forward.
I didn’t actually plan to be a teacher. I think, like a lot of people who go to graduate school, I planned to be a researcher. Then, as part of being a graduate student, I had to teach, and discovered that making collective knowledge was more interesting than making private knowledge. I was lucky: I went to New York University for my Ph.D., and when I was there, there was a group of teacher educators who had all gone into teaching as an act of political protest in a way. They really believed in democratized classrooms and empowering students, and I feel lucky that I had my graduate training under people who taught you how you could lead the group without getting in the way. In a way, what I think I’m saying is it was a kind of work I didn’t expect to be good at, and I got just enough reward at the beginning to be willing to keep trying to work at it.
Is there a teacher who particularly inspired you?
Probably the all-time teacher who inspired me the most was a writing teacher named Barbara Danish, who I had in graduate school. At one point, I thought I was doing very well in the program, and she said, “You’re very clever, but you don’t know how to listen; so for the next two meetings, you’re not allowed to talk. You just have to sit and be quiet for the whole meeting and then afterwards you can come meet with me and tell me what other people were talking about. Once I can see that you can listen, then you’ll be able to talk once or twice, let’s say, in each meeting.” It was devastating in a lot of ways, but also so gratifying that someone had paid such close attention to me that she was coming up with a lesson that was just for me, that was just for my own development. I think other people got their own impossible charges from Barbara, but she had decided this was the thing I most needed and even if it was going to hurt my feelings, she was going to make me go through it.
I think that sense that you have an obligation to look at each student, and see where he or she is right then, and what’s the next thing that they need, has been a constant inspiration to me. It’s terrifying. Not only is it very hard work, it is sometimes daunting to confront someone with something you think they really need. But I honestly do feel that I cannot reflect well on what she taught me if I don’t try to live up to that.
If there’s one thing you’d like your students to learn from you, what would that be?
In my writing class, what I most want students to learn is how to have an idea in conversation with other people’s ideas. There are two things students initially think that they might do in my class: One would be to represent other people’s ideas fairly, and another would be to have their own ideas, come hell or high water. What I want them to learn is how, in an educational setting, having an idea that is genuinely responsive to other people’s ideas counts for more, has more weight, has more resonance, and makes you feel more like a part of the 10,000-year conversation of ideas that is the academy.
I think I care about that in my lecture classes as well, but I think there’s another thing I want students to learn in my literature-based classes, which is how to trust that if something bothers them in a text, that thing is probably important. One of the ways you learn what to write about a novel or a film is by paying attention to where you feel upset, frustrated, or disturbed. You can’t just write, “I didn’t like this moment,” but it’s one of the signs that something more interesting is going on under the surface of the text. So I think in my literature classes the main thing I want them to do is to learn not to think “What would Professor Guy think is interesting in this book?” but rather “What bothers me about this book, or maybe especially delights me? Where’s the place I feel a vibration, and how can I pursue that further?”
What advice would you give a Yale undergraduate about his or her time here?
I would tell a Yale undergraduate that the most important thing to do is to take at least one course every semester that feels outside your comfort zone. That means even when you have a major, even when you have a career plan, even juniors and seniors — the only way to really be here is to be working at the edge of your competence. If you are wholly within your comfort zone, honestly, you’re not really here. There are a few students who, I think, have a great time at Yale without doing that, but those are students who end up founding companies while they’re still here or becoming the business manager of the Whiffenpoofs and managing a world tour. Those are great accomplishments, but I’d say those are actually very rare opportunities, and the way to benefit the most from the intellectual atmosphere here is to take something where you feel uncertain or even daunted by the material, or the pacing, or the professor. Working in that space is basically why there is a Yale.
Is there a memorable classroom experience as a teacher you’d like to share?
In a random writing class, especially a freshman writing class first semester, students often write from anxiety or uncertainty. I don’t mean they write about their personal problems; I mean that they express some concern that they’re not ready for Yale, that they’re not ready like the other students. They put out an idea and they immediately try to back off from it. There are often moments where something about the other students’ reaction brings that student up and forward and makes them feel like “Yes, I guess I do belong here.”
But I think a moment that really sticks with me happened just this semester. I taught a lecture class, and we were talking about the Freudian idea called “the uncanny.” We were discussing a moment in class that many of the students said was an “uncanny” moment, and one student said, “This doesn’t seem uncanny to me; it doesn’t even seem disturbing, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be bothered by.” And one of the other students said, “I don’t want to tell you what to think or feel, but I think you must be denying something. There’s really no way for a 20-year-old woman in 2014 to not find this moment upsetting. So you don’t have to reveal anything if you don’t want to, but I wish you’d think more about it.” And the first student really took that seriously. She didn’t respond in class, but I could see she seemed not hurt but gratified that she had been attended to very directly. And I was very pleased that, even in a literature lecture class with 90 people, there was room to reach directly toward someone else and say something hard. I’d like to see that happen more often. It’s hard in a lecture class, because there isn’t really room to have a long, slow discussion in class, like you can have in a seminar. But it was pretty exciting to me to see that happen.