Diana Senechal is a brilliant writer. She wrote a fascinating book titled “Republic of Noise.”
She teaches in the summer at the Dallas Institute of Culture and the Humanities. Who knew that Dallas has a vibrant learning center where teachers read the great books? I did, because I visited a couple of years ago and was blown away by the teachers and their enthusiasm for Shakespeare.
This is Diana’s report about this summer’s institute. Every city should have an institute like this one:
Literature as Teacher Education
In a lovely tree-shaded wooden building, in July, teachers convene for three weeks not to analyze data, discuss “learning strategies,” or align objectives with standards, but to immerse themselves in literature. This place is the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture—specifically, its Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers. As a faculty member at the Institute and a NYC public school teacher, I love the place unabashedly and will try to explain why.
The Summer Institute, part of the Teachers Academy, was conceived in 1983 by Dr. Louise Cowan as a class for high school English teachers in “literature as a mode of knowledge.” It now attracts K–12 teachers across the disciplines, from public and private schools. In the even-numbered years, the Institute focuses on epic (participants read the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Theogony, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Moby-Dick, Popol Vuh, Mwindo, Monkey, Gilgamesh, and more); in the odd-numbered years, on tragedy and comedy. The point is to explore the literature on its own terms and to enrich teachers’ knowledge and understanding. People sometimes ask: how does this affect student achievement? How does this translate into classroom practice? The Institute is there not to tell teachers how to teach, but to feed their imagination and intellect. This ultimately translates into classroom practice, but not in jargonizable ways.
The Institute follows a simple and fruitful routine. Each day begins with breakfast. The teachers sit down to eat in the dining room, in the seminar room with the French windows, or outside on the porch or one of the benches. At 8:45, everyone congregates in the lecture hall, an intimate and elegant room with sloping ceiling. After some brief announcements, a faculty member gives opening remarks. Another faculty member then gives the morning lecture about the literary work under discussion. (Giving a lecture there is an exhilarating experience; the audience members’ eyes light up the way.) Seminar discussions follow and last two hours.
Then comes a hearty lunch followed by the afternoon activities, which may include panel discussions, teaching lectures, plenary discussions, guest lectures, and films. (This summer’s films included Iphigenia, Kagemusha, and The Revolt of Job.) At 4:00, the Institute adjourns; the teachers and faculty go home to regather themselves, think and read in quiet, and prepare for the next day. One ends up dreaming the literature—entering a state of mind like Dante’s in Canto XVIII of Purgatorio (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation):
Then, when those shades were so far off from us
that seeing them became impossible,
a new thought rose inside of me and, from
that thought, still others—many and diverse—
were born; I was so drawn from random thought
to thought that, wandering in mind, I shut
my eyes, transforming thought on thought to dream.
What distinguishes the Summer Institute from an intensive literature course? First of all, it’s specifically for teachers—so, while there’s minimal discussion of pedagogy, everything studied has an indirect, analogical relationship to the classroom. Second, the unifying principle is genre—not the external structure of a work, but its internal impulse and form. This allows participants to compare and liken the works in intriguing ways. Third, the faculty are there to learn from each other as well as to teach, and the teachers respond to this. Fourth, everyone is tasked in some sense with the impossible, and there lies the cheer. What, give a lecture on the Inferno? What, discuss the Iliad in three days? Preposterous! Yet we go ahead and meet the challenge—and enjoy a few surprises.
The Summer Institute is so far removed from typical teacher training, and yet so soulful in its approach to education, that some participants experience shock and pain. How did we remove ourselves from what matters in education? How did we get caught up in rush and frenzy? The Dallas Institute manages to create time where there is little. The time expands even as the three weeks come to a close.
What brings about this expanse? Part of it is the excellence of the literature and the practice of returning to it. The three weeks are a beginning, an opening. There’s minimal talk of pedagogy or skills—but the Summer Institute’s format suggests many possibilities, and thus open up teaching. A teacher couldn’t replicate the Institute, but the point is not to replicate. In the words of Dr. Claudia Allums, director of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center for Education, the point is to “work from abundance.” The abundance makes its way into everything, even into time running out.
This was my first summer as a full faculty member (I was a junior faculty member last summer). I laughed and cried during the closing ceremony, when the teachers presented us with surprise awards. Mine was the Venus Award for inspiring a love of poetry. I saw teachers joyous about what they had received at the Institute, and knew myself joyous and grateful too. I left confident that the good work of education is possible. The Dallas Institute clears away distractions and delves into good things. May it do so for many years to come.