Breathing Together

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For the first seven years of my career, I taught a very large lecture course once, and sometimes twice, a year in a graded auditorium filled seat-to-seat with as many as 350 undergraduates. The course focused on a cluster of themes that linked art and violence–how art resists violence, how art animates violence, how art expresses violence, how violence spurs art– and traced those themes through the history of British fiction from Joyce, Woolf, and Forster through Barker, Burgess, Ishiguro, and Rushdie. I loved teaching that class. I loved and was sometimes terrified and almost always invigorated by being in that room with those students. Needless to say, no one wore masks. Far from it.

I remember the feel of the crowded, anonymous, yet intimate room. Intimate, because a group of 20 or 30 very avid students occupied the first few rows, and I came to value and recognize their attentive faces. I could hear their little sounds as they scratched out notes, adjusted their laptops, whispered to each other, and rustled papers. Intimate, because I was standing at my full, not very substantial height on a stage, and they were looking up at my body and listening to my voice for 50 minutes twice a week. And intimate, in another sense, because they would sometimes forget that we were there together live and behave in ways that I have never experienced in a smaller classroom. One day, two students in the last row, which in the slanted auditorium was directly level with my elevated gaze, spent most of the lecture kissing ardently. I was impressed by their enthusiasm and by the duration of their embrace. At the end of the lecture, I quick-stepped up the aisle to remind them: this is not TV; we are here together. I smiled while I said it, and they apologized for distracting me. I smile as I think about it now.

During the COVID lockdown, I missed the embodied experience of large gatherings, including large lectures. The Zoom classroom, for all its affordances, can’t replicate the accidental encounters, the risk and energy of embodied presentation, the warmth of individual eye contact, and the shoulder experiences of the class period: what happens in the time just before and the time just after the actual class takes place. The shoulder experiences are truly precious, as any seasoned teacher knows, because they allow us to shift the scale of encounter up and down, and they allow us to interact in spontaneous and less formal ways than we do when the entire class is gathered as one. Close up and informally, we are more likely to use our faces and our hands: smiling, nodding, tilting, waving, and pressing our palms together to say thank you.

There is a kind of social intimacy and a kind of social violence that can only be illustrated in a very large group, and I appreciated my lecture for allowing me to experience that. The most terrifying day of my class each semester was the day I spoke about– and performed!–the shock of involuntary, inchoate expression in E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Like other Bloomsbury artists, Forster was committed to ushering out traditional ideas of self-restraint and maturity and ushering in greater communication between men and women, between social classes, and between ages about sexuality, desire, and the experiences of the body. The word of the day was “play”: life needed more play, more honesty, more curiosity, and less seriousness, less decorum, and less lying to ourselves and others.

What does this look like in the classroom? On the day in question, we would talk about the scenes in the novel in which characters are criticized for disruptive actions they cannot or do not control, such as fainting, laughing, bleeding, getting carried away, or expressing sounds in addition to words. I would explain that there are two problems with these actions: they are accidental or unintentional, and they involve an unexpected, unregulated expression of the body in public. Even worse, the actions take place in what our grandparents used to call “mixed company,” not only among strangers but among a mixture of men and women, with children present, and among different kinds of people. Social disruption, which often creates new pathways for social intimacy, is therefore not simply a function of involuntary action; it is a function of involuntary action in an inappropriate setting.

The classroom, I would explain, also has social rules which are unspoken but generally understood and observed. And then I would make those rules visible by transgressing them. While standing at the front of the auditorium, right beneath a “no smoking” sign, I would take out a cigarette, light it, inhale, and exhale in front of my 350 students and 5 or 6 teaching assistants. I wasn’t a regular smoker, but it was the early 2000s at a Midwestern university, and many, many of my students were. It wasn’t the first time they had seen someone inhale a cigarette. But they reacted with shock: they tittered, they shifted in their seats, some laughed out loud. It was the incongruity that made my gesture shocking: the breaking of an explicit rule but also the occasion, a professor smoking in front of her students in the middle of a crowded lecture hall. Can you imagine?

Within a few years, I had to stop this practice because it didn’t only shock my students, it shocked me. My hands would shake, and I would have trouble finding my way back to the thread of my lecture. So, I revised my lecture and began to illustrate my point about the disruption of social decorum by yelling “FUCK” into the room. (This also shocked me, but I didn’t have to worry about lifting my shaking hands above the edge of the podium.) Of course, they had heard the word before, as I reminded them, but not in this context, and, like clockwork (and like Clockwork, which we discussed later), they reacted with involuntary laughter and fidgeting. After that day, which took place in the early part of the semester, right after Dubliners and before Mrs. Dalloway, we were all on a new footing. It was disruptive for me as well as for them, but it created space for greater risk and conviviality. It also created the basis for a kind of solidarity as we became more aware of our experience as bodies thinking, feeling, and learning in real time.

In a classroom, we breathe together, and that is why, when I first wrote this, my colleagues and I were not teaching in a classroom. And many colleagues are still not teaching in a packed, unmasked auditorium of 350 students. In meetings, in hallways, in office hours, in doorways, at the water cooler, and indeed in auditoriums, I value those shoulder experiences of pedagogy and collegiality: conversations on the way in and on the way out, spontaneous or informal consultations, excessive or unnecessary or even involuntary reactions that take us outside of ourselves, or outside of the selves we expected to be. As a way to manage anxiety and stress at the worst of times, we have learned how to breathe intentionally, transforming what is for most people an involuntary or automatic action into a conscious and purposeful gesture of self-care. But it is also a luxury to breathe involuntarily, excessively, spontaneously, and collectively. It is a luxury that is not equitably distributed, as we know. But ideally, the classroom can be a space of embodied surprise–a gasp, a titter, a laugh– and a space for learning about the intellectual and social value of surprise. I cherish the crowds that make that possible.

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