The Art of Teaching

“Something’s missing from the Ranciere,” I told my advisor, referring not to a page I’d forgotten to photocopy, but to an aspect of experience, a dimension of pedagogy that his work couldn’t account for. My many, many years as a student—I think I’ve been a student longer than I’ve been anything else, except maybe a human—have taught me that education does more than “reveal an intelligence to itself” (28). “Your job is to figure out what that is,” she replied.

What follows is the conclusion from a seminar paper I wrote last semester for Wayne Koestenbaum’s graduate course on “Punctuation.” In that paper, I used an unpublished play, Beneatha’s Place, by contemporary British Afro-Caribbean playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, to think through my sense of what’s missing from Jacques Ranciere’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. The result was not quite a unified, cohesive statement of teaching philosophy, but some reflections on teaching as an art form, more similar to the genre of artistic manifesto (see, for example, Andre Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism). When I taught my course on creativity, I asked students where they expressed, or drew on, creativity. Their answers ranged from the soccer field to the kitchen, from coursework to their careers (and live action role play). When they turned the question on me, I surprised myself by answering without hesitation: teaching. Teaching is my art form, and the task that requires the most creativity.


In contrast to what Walter Mignolo calls modernity’s pretension of “‘true and objective time,’ without parenthesis,” (170) Beneatha’s Place teaches that time is, in fact, punctuated by all kinds of pauses: captive hyphenations, devastating dashes, lingering ellipses—interruptions, interjections, asides. The play invites us to consider how time gets pushed, pulled, melded, welded, distorted, erased, ignored, brandished, and disavowed in the process of becoming history. Kwei-Armah’s repeated use of “beat” as a stage direction indicates the painfully-felt experience of time, and the pauses he hopes will be performed in each instance. His play invites us to act differently.


In The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, Jacques Ranciere tells the story of Joseph Jacotot, an early 19th-century French instructor whose “intellectual adventure”—asking Flemish-speaking students to teach themselves French—results in a pedagogical epiphany: we can teach what we don’t know. More specifically, education based on “explication” and mastery produces, rather than alleviates, mystification and ignorance through a process Ranciere calls “stultification.” Instead, he argues that education should be emancipatory: it should “reveal an intelligence to itself” (28). Beneatha’s Place has taught me what emancipatory pedagogy can’t account for, something that has to do with both “rememory” (Toni Morrison) and what Mignolo calls “the decolonial option.”

“Whoever teaches without emancipating stultifies,” writes Ranciere, “And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He learns what he wants, nothing maybe” (18). Although I love much of what Ranciere offers—especially that education can only begin from the “supposition” of the equality of intelligence (46)—it is these last two sentences that make me bristle. To teach social justice and perform the critical work of rememory, we have to worry about what the emancipated student learns. Being okay with a student learning nothing is grounds for reproducing the unjust, neoliberal status quo. It means letting Harriet and Mark teach ethnic studies as white history rather than African-American studies. As Kwame Kwei-Armah teaches us, time matters. History matters. After all, a “decolonial” rather than “liberal” arts education is only one among many “options”—for it to work, it must be chosen and enacted. I’m grateful to The Ignorant Schoolmaster for helping me see how myths of “progress” produce vulnerable zones of backwardness, but I’m more compelled by Kwei-Armah’s figure of the playwright-pedagogue: an instructor who seeks to contour scenes of learning, reveal the structural inequalities that reside beneath the surface, and inspire an understanding of the present that is thickened by the past. It’s worth the risk of stultification.

Works Cited

Kwei-Armah, Kwame. Beneatha’s Place. (2013)

Mignolo, Walter. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987/2004.

Ranciere, Jacques. The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.