Teaching Survival in Auschwitz (I)

This month I’m reading and writing about Primo Levi. Here’s the first of two posts on my experience teaching his most famous work.

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Along with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only book to have remained constant on my Holocaust Literature syllabus is Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz. It sounds grandiose, but Levi’s memoir is one the most important books in my life. It drew me to the field of Holocaust literature in the first place, but it would be a desert island book for me even if I didn’t do what I do for a living. One of the key testimonies of the 20th century, it is the book I recommend when people ask me what they should read to learn about the Holocaust.

I’ve taught the book often enough (12-15 times, I’d say) that I thought it might be worthwhile to offer a sense of how I teach it, usually over three 50-minute class periods. Not enough time, but what can you do, there’s so much other material to get to, plus I typically spend two more days on two important essays by Levi, which gives me some extra time to squeeze in a few more bits of the memoir. By the way, the book I am calling Survival in Auschwitz is really called If This is a Man. (Readers in the UK know it under that title.) Unfortunately, for all the predictable reasons (sales, expectations of what American readers want from a text, etc), Levi’s US publishers changed the title. It’s one of the great publishing travesties, but since that’s what it’s come to be known in the US, that’s the title I use in class. Plus we can have a useful conversation about the differences implied by the titles.

What follows is likely more useful for those who have read the book. If you haven’t, I hope you will. It’s not long, and it’s really powerful.

Over the years I’ve varied my teaching approach, partly to keep things fresh and partly because my ideas about the book have changed. (Not fundamentally, but the more time you spend with a book the more clearly you see how its parts fit together.) But despite those refinements, I’ve always spent a lot of time on two chapters. They are central to Levi’s project, and they’re what I’ll talk about in this post, adding a second one about some of the other topics I like to get to.

The first of the two chapters is called “The Drowned and the Saved,” which is Levi’s way of distinguishing between two types of prisoners. For whatever reason, the alpine Levi, born and raised in Turin, always used water metaphors to conceptualize the fate of the Nazis’ victims. He uses the terms sinking and touching bottom when speaking of death in the camps. He gives the name “the drowned” to those who are not dead yet, but will be soon. Even if physiologically alive they are mentally and spiritually dead. They are barely human. In the argot of Auschwitz, the drowned are Musselmänner, Muslims. (The term in no way refers to actual Muslims; scholars still don’t know where the term came from, though some speculate it is connected to the concept of submission that is one of the pillars of Islam. But this would be a terrible distortion of what Muslims mean by that term.) No prisoner could live much more than three months on the rations they were given without succumbing, without drowning. Only those who could find a way to cheat the system, to gain some small privilege that will result in an extra half slice of bread, an extra ration of soup had a chance of surviving.

When he talks about “the saved,” Levi does not mean the elect. The saved are not better than the drowned. In fact, in an essay written much later, Levi argued they were in fact worse, because they had to have compromised their morals in some way. He does not exempt himself from this charge. (Students struggle with this. They really want Levi to be saying that the saved are morally superior: in this way, they reflect our culture’s poor understanding of Darwin, who was describing not prescribing when he spoke of the survival of the fittest.)

We spend a long time on Levi’s distinction, not least because it preoccupied Levi his whole life. I want students to figure out Levi’s attitude to the drowned. To that end, I ask them to close read this sentence:

All the musselmanns who finished in the gas chambers have the same story, or more exactly, have no story; they followed the slope down to the bottom, like streams that run down to the sea.

I’ll begin by asking, What are the implications of this metaphor? If that doesn’t generate anything useful, I’ll break it down. Why do streams go to the sea? Gravity, someone will say. That’s just the way it is, says another. It’s the nature of the universe. It’s natural. What, then, is the implication of these answers for our understanding of the drowned? Is it in their nature to drown? Is Levi describing something like fate? Is the universe just made for them to succumb? If so, what about Levi’s many claims that chance was the main determination of who survived? Is Levi judging the drowned?

Later passages make it clear that he is not. Take this resonant, stern assertion:

If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.

What he judges is the universe in which it is natural for the drowned to sink to the bottom, which is to say, the universe of the camps. That last sentence is further evidence of a tendency we will by this point in our conversation already have talked about, namely, how highly Levi values thought and reason. To be able to reason is to be human. But to reason in the camps is painful—it reminds the prisoner of all he has lost. That is the ambivalence of the camp infirmary: it spares prisoners from the back-breaking labour for a time (assuming they recover), but it gives them the opportunity to reflect on what has happened to them.

An even more complex consideration of the double-edged quality of reason lies at the heart of the book’s most magisterial chapter, “The Canto of Ulysses,” the second I emphasize. (In recently learned from Ian Thomson’s biography of Levi that he wrote it in a single 30-minute lunch break at his first job after returning home to Turin.) Here Levi submits reason to the most intense and consequential scrutiny.

“The Canto of Ulysses” concerns Levi’s relationship with his work kommando’s Pikolo, a young man named Jean. A Pikolo (also known as a Pipel) was a kind of messenger boy/mascot selected by the Kapo or head of the commando. (Kapos were themselves prisoners, but almost always criminals or sometimes political prisoners.) A Pikolo was typically a teenage boy, who was often used sexually by the Kapo; either way, he had a higher status than ordinary prisoners and received certain privileges. Jean’s full name was Jean Samuel: after the war, he and Levi maintained a decades-long friendship. Jean, an Alsatian, speaks French and German equally well. Mindful of the importance of languages in the camps, he asks Levi, on a day when he has selected the older man to accompany him from the work site to the kitchen to fetch the day’s cauldron of soup, to teach him some Italian. The chapter describes what counts as an idyll in Auschwitz. The task takes about an hour, in which the two men are free from hard labour and the threat of punishment.

Levi makes the unusual decision—which Samuel later said bemused him at the time—of granting Jean his wish by reciting for him a canto from Dante’s Inferno. He readily admits he does so more for himself than for Jean: being able to turn his mind to the foundational text of Italian literature imbues him with new life. But the canto Levi chooses—in class I pass out a copy of the relevant section, as only some lines are quoted in the chapter, and in the process offer a quick summary of Dante’s aims and achievement in the Divine Comedy—is surprising.

In the poem, Dante is surprised to find Ulysses in Hell (as opposed to in Limbo with other virtuous pagans). What, he wonders, has Ulysses done to deserve this fate? Ulysses answers by telling the story of how, having escaped the enchantments of Circe, he goaded his men into sailing across the Mediterranean, through the straits of Gibraltar and past the edge of the known world. He trespassed the boundaries of human accomplishment—and was punished for that audacity. Levi makes a clear parallel between the expedition he and Jean are making and Ulysses’s own, which the wily Ithacan launched in a rousing speech: you are men, and thus made for wisdom, he tells the sailors, mere beasts of burden. The canto matters to Levi because the story it tells “has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulder.”

They are not the oxen they appear to be. In using the phrase “dare to reason,” Levi echoes the Latin sapere aude, dare to know, the credo of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Even this early in the semester, students hunger for a positive moment. They welcome the message that humanity can’t so easily be destroyed.

To complicate this wishful thinking, I assign an activity in which half the students make connections between the excerpt from Dante and Levi’s chapter, and other half close the chapter’s final paragraph in order to figure out how it’s related to what’s come before. In pushing them past the obvious comparisons between the rousing Ulysses and the valiant camp inmates, I focus on how Ulysses gets his men to do what he wants. (They are rightly reluctant.) The poem says that his speech about how knowing is central to being human is an example of zeal. We consider the ambivalence of this word, which can be used as much to condemn as to praise. Zeal is almost always too much. It’s irrational (think of the way we use “zealot”). What I want students to see how reason is compromised by the very intensity with which it’s upheld. Ulysses is irrational in his praise of reason. Think about our own culture’s unreasoning and often unreasonable belief in the importance of science and technology, of progress, of improvement. It’s not that these are fictions. It’s that they are hollowed out when they are fetishized. This contradiction is important, because too often the Holocaust is taken to be an aberration from Western culture, when it is, if not its logical conclusion, completely in keeping with the way the West has thought about the world.

That’s why the chapter’s final paragraph, which is set off from what’s come before by a break, is so important. Levi and the Pikolo have reached the kitchen before their language lesson can be completed. Their idyll is over; the reality of camp life returns:

We are now in the soup queue, among the sordid, ragged crowd of soup-carriers from other Kommandos. Those just arrived press against our backs. ’Kraut und Rüben? Kraut und Rüben.’ The official announcement is made that the soup today is of cabbages and turnips: ’Choux et navets. Kaposzta és répak.’

‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’

The last line is Ulysses’s description of his expedition’s fate. This language resonates with the references to sinking and drowning I mentioned earlier. Levi’s language (“sordid, ragged”), his description of the crowd that swallows the two men, putting paid to their conversation about Dante, and his use of foreign languages to talk not about poetry but about food combine to return is to reality. What matters is what’s in the soup today. But what about that final line from Dante. Should we read it as a final irony, a dismissal of what Levi and Jean have achieved? Or as an insistence, however faint, that poetry (and human accomplishment more generally) can persist? What does it mean to describe the press of starving men in the language of Dante? Does it elevate the scene? Does it denigrate Dante? Does the scene even need elevation?

Our difficulty in answering these questions—a result of the text’s complexity, nuance, and appreciation of paradox—challenges any consoling beliefs about the human spirit.

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Next time, notes on some of the other questions I ask in teaching Survival in Auschwitz.

On Teaching Anna Kavan’s Ice

Like all teachers, I’m always tinkering with my syllabi. Sometimes I’ll add texts I haven’t taught before. More rarely I’ll do something even more outrageous (exciting, foolish: choose your adjective): I’ll assign something I’ve never even read.

Before you get too excited (is he crazy? What a charlatan!), know that when I say I’ve never read it I’m not saying I’ve simply plucked the book off a shelf at random. It’s possible to know quite a bit about books we haven’t read—maybe we’ve glanced at them, paged through them, read snippets and summaries of. But I still couldn’t say in any meaningful sense of the term that I’ve read the book.

(Why do such a thing? Setting aside laziness or chronic over-commitment—academic summers are pretty full and it’s not easy to get to everything you mean to read—the main reason is to mimic students’ experience: it’s never a bad idea to remember what it’s like at the other side of the seminar table. (Answer: hard and stressful.) Teaching something for the first time, although always kind of a cluster, can be exciting and an excellent way to reckon with a book in a pretty intense way.)

This past semester I taught one book I’d never read before: Anna Kavan’s Ice, first published in 1967 and recently reissued by Penguin Classics. I assigned it in Experimental 20th Century British Fiction, a class I’ve taught many times (this was probably its sixth or seventh iteration). As I said, I don’t pull this trick of teaching something brand new too often, but whenever I do I choose something I am pretty sure I am going to like. Well, there’s a first time for everything. I did not like Ice. But my struggles teaching it taught me some things, especially about I value in a book, and, not unrelatedly, about what kind of book is easiest for me to teach.

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First a few words about the course. My idea is that in Britain in the last century, at least, the idea of experimental literature is best understood in terms of Freud’s definition of the uncanny. Writing in the wake of his experience with shell-socked soldiers in WWI and on the cusp of the dramatic revision of his thinking that was first developed in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), the essay “The Uncanny” (1919) is part of Freud’s increasing fascination with unpleasant and traumatic experiences. In that sense it fits in with the trajectory of his thinking. In another respect, though, it is quite unusual: it is Freud’s most sustained act of literary criticism.

Reading E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Romantic/Gothic story “The Sandman” (1817), Freud comes to understand the uncanny—in German, das Unheimliche—as “that species of the frightening that goes back to what was once well known and had long been familiar.” The inextricable relationship between comfort and discomfort inheres in the very etymology of the word: unheimlich contains within it Heimlich, which, Freud notes, means both cozy/comforting and secret/stealthy. Only that which we think we know can truly disturb us. What most has the power to terrify us—to freak us out, even, as in the case of the Hoffmann story, to drive us insane—is the revelation that something or someone close to us is not what we take them to be. The strangest things don’t, at first glance, look that strange. But when we look at them more closely we see how strange they are. And that is unsettling.

I think this idea of strangeness helps us understand 20th Century British literature, which, especially in its post-war manifestations, is often taken to be conventional, formally unadventurous and pedestrian in its subject matter. (The exciting, experimental stuff is thought to be happening elsewhere: France, America, anywhere but at home.) But this is a misreading. After all, the “experimental” only makes sense in relation to the “conventional.” The strangest textual effects, the riskiest narrative strategies, the most disquieting subject matter—these indicators of the experimental might be all the more pronounced when they appear in seemingly straightforward guise.

Having taught the course many times, I have a few fixed points on the itinerary. I start with D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920) and end with J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973). (Yes, mine is a short century—I’ve added more recent texts into the mix before, but this arc seems to work best.) I always teach Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And Beckett’s Molloy (I know, not British). And either Henry Green’s Loving or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. (It was Green this year, and I think I’ve really finally figured out how to teach him: went very well.) The past couple of times I’ve taught Barbara Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter and often I include Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, as I did this year. Doris Lessing is usually in there too, though this year I took a break. That’s what opened up the slot for Kavan.

I knew Ballard admired Kavan, and I thought Ice might work nicely with Crash. But I’m not sure we made much of the pairing. Both are about violence, and oblique about how they understand that violence. But the books didn’t have as much in common as I’d suspected.

Ice is set in some ill-defined apocalyptic landscape. (Some say it is modeled on New Zealand, where Kavan spent part of WWII. But it feels like nowhere.) The narrator is a former soldier and explorer. Now he is “home,” driving through an isolated landscape in an ice storm to visit the girl he had once planned to marry and her husband, a painter. In some complicated fashion that is probably metaphorical, the girl is abducted by a sinister figure known only as the Warden, with whom the narrator is also infatuated, though he professes to despise him. It is even possible that the Warden is just another aspect of himself—after all, the narrator admits on the second page, “Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me.”

The book is an extended chase scene (if you can imagine a chase in which the setting is inconclusive and the mechanisms of the chase unexplained—it is not, in other words, an exciting chase scene): the narrator searches for the girl, who doesn’t want to be found by him (until, perhaps, at the end, though the narrator’s description of their final reunion is so self-serving I’m unconvinced), and no wonder, since most of his fantasies about her involve her violation. (The Warden is equally violent towards her; more so, since his fantasies actually seem to be realized. It is hard to tell for sure.) At the same time, the planet is threatened by an encroaching ice age; the breakdown of civilization engenders further violence. Although climate change as we know it today couldn’t have been on Kavan’s radar, the way the narrator talks about the coming apocalypse mirrors some of the rhetoric you might hear today: “The ultimate achievement of mankind would be, not just self-destruction, but the destruction of all life; the transformation of the living world into a dead planet.”

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Ice is short: straightforward prose, less than 200 pages. So I allocated only two class periods for our conversation. I was scrambling to prepare for our first meeting: it was three-quarters of the way through the semester, pressures mounting on every side, plus I was having trouble staying motivated to teach this group. Lots of smart students, but reticent, and, what’s worse, afraid. They worried a lot about saying the right thing, I could tell, and that sort of attitude is terrible in a discussion-based class. I’d tried all semester to loosen the atmosphere, but nothing had worked and by this point I’d mostly given up. Worse, their tenseness had affected me, which made me a less effective teacher. I didn’t particularly enjoy meeting with them, even though all the interactions I had with students one-on-one were absolutely fine.

So the situation was not ripe for success. And I was down to the last minute preparing for that first class. We had the first third or so of the novel to consider. I was wary of both my own uncertainty about the book and mindful that the first day on any novel is usually a bit halting. So I offered a few remarks on Kavan’s remarkable life—most of which I pilfered from this fine New Yorker profile, along with the information that her life-long heroin habit began when she was introduced to it by a tennis pro on the French Riviera, who thought it would be good for her serve!—and then passed around a handout with questions I’d prepared. I split the class into groups and assigned each a question. (I thought about including them, but decided that was overkill. Leave a comment if you want me to send them to you.)

The exercise worked okay: we got at some of the novel’s concerns, but I found it hard to get students to point to specific passages in their answers. It’s always hard to get students to do this—they’re always happier with generalities. But the problem seemed more intransigent this time. The reason, I realized, concerned the nature of the book itself. Ice doesn’t lend itself to close reading. The style is flat, with little texture, grain, weirdness. Even the narrator, so problematic, seemed less complex than I’d hoped. Certainly, he is untrustworthy, but he isn’t seductive in the way of Nabokov or Ishiguro’s narrators, for example. Class discussion felt aimless: we didn’t know what to do with this book.

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As I was preparing for the next class I realized I was bored. I resented Ice, hated having to read it. I found my attention even more fragmented than usual: my thoughts wandered away from the page; I was checking Twitter and hockey scores even more than usual. The last hundred pages were killing me. Now, it is true that sometimes I am resentful of having to re-read books for teaching because doing so takes me away from reading other things, things I’ve never read before, but I’m never bored or resentful. I leave that to the students! I like the books assign. Most of them I even love. So what was going on? And why was I the only one (outside my classroom, I mean) who seemed to feel that way?

I’d decided to assign Ice in the first place on the basis of conversations with readers I trust, all of whom were enthusiastic about the book. And as I prepared to teach, I read what Grant and Max and John Self and others had written about the book (I think Jacqui likes it too but I can’t find her review). They all loved it. But I just couldn’t see what they saw.

Finally, I had an insight that offered, I hoped, a way to think more productively about my resistance. I was reading a passage in which the narrator, who has, for reasons too obscure to go into here, joined a group of mercenaries ultimately in the pay of his nemesis the Warden, decides he needs to meet him face to face. But his immediate superior, the only person in the unit with even occasional direct dealings with the Warden, refuses, fearing that his own privilege will thereby be undermined. So the narrator comes up with a scheme:

For days we had been attacking a strongly defended building said to contain secret papers. He [the leader of the narrator’s unit] would not ask for reinforcements, determined to get the credit for taking the place unaided. By a simple trick, I enabled him to capture the building and send the documents to headquarters, for which I was highly praised.

My mind snagged on that “by a simple trick.” Quite possibly we are to take that as another sign of the narrator’s unpleasant character—look how boastful he—but in that case wouldn’t he want to tell us all about the trick so that we could see just how clever he is? It seems more likely that this is an example of everything Ice isn’t interested in. I imagined the kind of novel that would make much of that offhanded phrase. In that novel, a thriller, say, the mechanics of the trick would matter a lot. But Ice doesn’t care about plot, or plausibility, or cause and effect (its logic, if it can be said to have one, is dreamlike). It also doesn’t care about character, at least not as an expression of a complicated psychology or interiority.

So what does it care about?

I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why my attempt to teach it failed. Pressed, though, I would say it cares about the repetition and re-arrangement of certain images and motifs. But if so, its interest in repetition is totally different than Lawrence’s. We’d spent a long time at the beginning of the semester looking at how Lawrence repeats himself—the most noticeable, and, to his critics, most annoying aspect of his style. But in Lawrence, repetition always leads to difference. When he repeats himself, he seldom uses exactly the same word; he offers slight variations (adjectives become adverbs, for example). When repetition leads to difference, the prose becomes propulsive, befitting his fascination with change. Kavan’s repetition didn’t inhere in her style (she doesn’t repeat the same words); it inheres in her structure (the girl is trapped in one way, then another, then still another).

Thinking about that difference helped me—if not my students—clarify my own values. I care way more about experiments at the sentence-level rather than at the book-level. The flatness of Kavan’s prose offered me no handholds. If, to return to the passage that snagged my attention, the prose could be likened to a strongly defended building, it is one whose slippery surfaces repel me. I cannot grapple with them. The prose offers me no traction, nothing to grab hold of by resisting. At the sentence level, it’s just not weird enough. The book’s weird as hell, don’t get me wrong, but at any given moment it feels so ordinary. In this sense, Ice is the opposite of the books we’d been reading all semester, perhaps exemplified by Loving and The Vet’s Daughter, books that seem straightforward at first glance, but get stranger and stranger the more we look at them, specifically because of their deceptive style. With these texts, we think we know what we are getting (“ordinary” realism—keeping in mind that realism actually ordinary at all, that’s just the straw position it’s held for many 20th century writers and readers) but once we get into them we find ourselves in a stranger place than we’d expected.

Having had us look at that phrase “by a simple trick,” and having broached the question of what Kavan’s novel values, I asked the class: Is this novel boring? The students were reluctant to answer, sensing some kind of trap, but I wasn’t having them on. I told them I found it very boring. But what was boring about it? Was boredom a flaw or a tactic?

One way to recuperate this boredom, I suggested, might be to read Ice as a novel about the violence men perpetrate on women. Such violence is boring. Not unimportant. Nor excusable. Something that ought to be combated (though I don’t think the book has any ideas about how to do so, or if it even can be). It is boring because, no matter how many forms violence takes, no matter what lurid and dismal fantasies give rise to it, it is always the same. In other words, in boring us the book is performing the boredom of misogyny and patriarchy.

Does this reading work? I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that the novel refuses to glamourize violence. On the contrary, it shows that part of violence’s power comes from its resolutely static nature.

In this regard, Ice is quite different from Crash, a novel which also presents violence in an affectless manner but which is also thrilled by it. (It is also so much richer in its prose). Ballard’s world-view—though also quite mad—is less stultifying than Kavan’s, because in Crash violence is equal opportunity (it’s not only men who enact it), and, more importantly, not the point. The point is that violence combined with sex begets fantasies that are transformative and therefore generative, even if in ways that make us uncomfortable. (It’s a book about people who get off on car crashes; it’s about people fascinated by the way bodies can be transfigured through violent collisions with machines. It’s insane, but you should read it.)

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On the course feedback form I asked students whether they thought I should teach Ice again. I’ll be curious to see their answers. My guess is they’ll say no, because none of them chose to write about it for their final papers. And I’m pretty much ready never to read it again. And yet it’s almost always rough the first time one teaches anything. I bet I’d do a better job next time. But I don’t think I’m interested enough to try. Teaching Ice turned out to be a failed experiment. Of course, those are the ones you learn the most from.

On Counterpoint in the Classroom

It often happens that I ask students to work together in pairs or small groups for a few minutes during class. We usually do “think-pair-share”: students write on a prompt for a few minutes, they debrief with a partner, and then, once the class as a whole has reconvened, they share what they learned from talking with their partner. I have the pairs work together for two or three minutes, sometimes five, depending on how engaged they seem.

Sometimes I prepare a series of more involved questions about the day’s text, divide the class into five or six groups, and assign each of them a question, telling them that they will share their response with the group as a whole. In this case they spend longer together, at least five minutes, maybe ten.

This time, when the students are busily working together, is what I want to talk about today.

I find such moments equally satisfying and unsettling. They have a particular texture that, I suspect, is very different for me than for the students. What is happening at such moments? When they are bent over their writing or chatting with a classmate, what am I doing? Am I teaching?

I remember once walking down the hallway of one of the busiest buildings on campus. It was the middle of a class period, and as I passed six or seven classrooms I heard over and over the voices of professors. Some of these classes were lectures, some were discussions, some, no doubt, a hybrid. But regardless of type I didn’t hear a lot of students talking. I’m always conscious that I too am the person who talks the most in my classes. There are good reasons for this (I know more than my students do about most of the things I teach). I’d say I talk more now than I did when I started, for reasons that are both good (I’m more confident; I’ve perfected a spiel that works) and bad (I’ve gotten lazier; it’s easier to talk than to engage in other ways). But my ideal is still a class in which students talk at least as much and preferably more than I do. (I still remember a session on Virginia Woolf many years ago when I only spoke a single sentence for the first hour of class. It was amazing.)

Small-group work has many benefits. It allows people who are shy about speaking in front of the whole class to contribute to class conversation. It helps the ones who need a little time to formulate an answer and who otherwise might be drowned out by students who find it easy to give immediate answers to my questions. And it integrates writing with talking—important because for most people writing is the best way to improve thinking.

When students talk with each other, they wake up, they feed off the changed atmosphere, they gulp down the oxygen that comes into the room. At least, they do when things are going well. Like most teachers, I’ll use impromptu small group work if the atmosphere is particularly leaden (if it’s a particularly rainy or gloomy day I’ll usually come prepared with a small group exercise). Sometimes it doesn’t shake things up. Who knows why. Could be the time of the semester, the day of the week, the weather outside and inside, the intransigence or shyness or fearfulness of a particular group dynamic.

But mostly it works. Things always start quietly; students are shy about breaking the silence. They begin by murmuring, but as they warm to the task they get louder. Soon there is a pleasant hubbub, almost a roar. That’s what I love best. I can feel the class loosening up. There’s more laughter, a kind of ease comes into the room.

I’m not an idiot: I know students aren’t always talking about the thing I asked them to talk about. (Though knowing I might ask them to summarize the conversation usually keeps them honest.) That’s not even the worst thing in the world. If I hear a few groups talking about their weekends or a chemistry exam they just took then I know—though the presence of longer pauses has usually already clued me in—that it’s time to bring them back together as a class. If one group finishes their task too quickly, I’ll go over and check in, ask someone to tell me what they’ve been talking about, prod them to think further, maybe give them another question to think about.

But mostly I stay out of their conversations. Instead I walk, and I listen. Unless I’m teaching a seminar where we can all fit around a table, I always move around the room a lot. Partly because I am nervous and fidgety, but also because I think it keeps them engaged, a little off-balance, in a good way. When I’m asking questions and expanding on their responses—in other words, when I’ve conducting the discussions that make up 90% of my class time—I want to be close to the students: looking in their faces to see what’s happening (are they getting what I’m saying, do they seem confused or bored?) and bringing my presence to different parts of the room. But when they’re doing group work I want to be out of their way. So I’ll wander the perimeter of the room, maybe looking at what’s hanging on the walls (maps of foreign countries, posters listing tutoring times, cheap reproductions of art works hung by God knows who God knows when) or, better still, out the window, if I can. I’ll cast myself outside the space of the classroom, watching the trees rustle in the wind or people hurrying or sauntering along the campus’s walkways or the groundskeepers with their inevitable leaf-blowers. Part of me will be out there, in that space where I don’t have to perform, where no one needs to have something to say about the day’s text. But part of me will be inside the room, roaming.

But this walking is much less important than listening. I’ve always liked to eavesdrop—as a kid I rode the bus a lot, especially when I got to be a teenager, since I took the city bus to school and to work; that’s where I honed my skills of listening in on people’s lives—and these small group sessions are a chance for me to get a (more or less unfiltered) sense of what students are thinking. As I’m wandering the room I’m getting bits and pieces of conversations; I’ll listen for ideas that are repeated from group to group, or for passages that particular groups seize upon. When I can I’ll reference these ideas in our discussions, whether overtly (“I noticed many of you were drawn to the scene at the swimming pool”) or covertly, as a way to structure the rest of the day’s conversation. Eavesdropping is a good way for me to get a handle on misconceptions or just generally take the temperature of the class’s familiarity with the day’s text (if people haven’t read it the small group conversation will be halting; it’s always a tell when students are desperately scanning the pages in the hopes of figuring out what the hell the thing’s about).

As the voices of the students rise and fall, as I make my way around the room, casting an eye outside it and an ear within it, I’ll find myself feeling calmer, even soothed. I’m getting a little break: for a few minutes I don’t have to be the one doing the heavy lifting of making something (a meaningful conversation) out of a room-full of people with their books. I don’t have to worry about time. (When class is going well, time flies by; when it’s not, it’s an enemy, a leaden lump I am forced to try to mould.) And I’m always heartened by the surge of the students’ voices: it makes me feel that something is being achieved in this room—paradoxically, it’s when the class splits up that I am mostly likely to feel the group working together—to feel that it is, in fact, a group, rather than a bunch of individuals who happen to occupy the same space at the same time.

At such times I often recall a scene from the Canadian director François Girard’s film 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993). Canadians of a certain disposition and generation probably know it, but I’m not sure it ever got much traction anywhere else. The film mixes documentary footage and interviews with people who knew Gould and adds re-enactments of important moments in his life. In these, Colm Feore plays Gould, presenting him as gentle and sweet and wise but also strange and demanding and prey to various compulsions, panics, and paranoias. (Much, it seems, like the real Gould.) It’s a good film, and worth your time, regardless of how much you know or care about Gould.

One of the vignettes is called Truck Stop:

As he waits for his eggs and orange juice, Gould, in sun glasses, black beret and wool overcoat, dials into the various conversations around him: a man tells a story about picking up a hitchhiker, a story that seems as though it will be salacious and dispiriting but swerves into a different register altogether; a waitress breaks off her affair with a regular, a long-distance trucker; two men talk sports (the woefulness of the Leafs a topic of almost perennial relevance). We see Gould marking time on his fingers, as if the conversations were a composition by Bach. Girard overlays the different conversations–we’re hearing all the stories at once–but, because he brings up first one and then another, we concentrate on different bits of the general hubbub at different times. This diner fugue is book-ended by Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which plays on the radio both in Gould’s car and in the restaurant: a more simple musical form, but no less appealing, and important, for that.

Wandering my classroom, I fancy myself as Gould, dialing into first this snippet and then that, but weaving them together into a pedagogical counterpoint that offers an image of what I hope the class a whole will be: a set of independent voices that are nonetheless harmonically interdependent. (Am I understanding “counterpoint” correctly? Help me, musical people.)

At the best of these moments, I feel more than satisfied. I feel exultant. But I’m also uncertain, beset by questions. What exactly am I doing just now? Am I teaching or have I abdicated my responsibilities? Shouldn’t I be taking control and running the show? Similarly, I wonder about Gould’s relationship to the diner’s patrons. He’s with the people but he’d not of them. We get a sense of that distance when the waitress, excitedly, a little flushed, asks “Mr. Gould” if he wants his usual. Is Gould slumming? What is his role here, anyway? Is he composer? Performer? Conductor? Maker of found art? Is he responding to what he finds? Or is he, out of his genius, making something out of nothing, music out of noise? Do the conversations mean anything without his assessing ear?

I’m always worried I’ll let the group exercise go on too long. My worry is in part pedagogical: I don’t want the energy to peter out; I don’t want students to lose focus. But in part it’s more obscure, more personal: am I doing my job if I’m not taking a more active role? Of course, I set the task, I arranged the groups, I’m keeping an ear out for who is staying on task, and I’m the one who will turn this moment into what with luck will be a productive conversation about the text. So I’m doing a lot. Am I being an artist of sorts—is that the best way to describe a good teacher? Or am I imposing order and structure and form on something that might, admittedly, be more chaotic but maybe more valuable, more organic without me? Worse, am I using these exercises as a kind of distraction, whether for myself or for the students or for us all? After all, Clark’s “Downtown,” which is just as important to Girard’s scene as the inaudible Bach that underlies it, is a song about distraction, presented not only as a way to help us get outside ourselves but also, more troublingly, as a way to let us hide from ourselves. “You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” sings Clark on the tinny radio. Is that a good thing or not?

Sometimes in these moments that now don’t seem quite as peaceful, these moments when I’m watching and listening and the students are working, I’ll fixate on the close-up of Gould’s fingers and I’ll feel my own twitching. What are those fingers doing? What kinds of cares are they forgetting?