Mark Edmundson

Mark Edmundson on Becoming the Author’s Advocate, His Attorney for Explication and Defense


“The kind of teaching I part company with, the kind that seems to me most destructive to the freedom of self-making, is the kind that simply applies a standing set of terms to every text that comes to hand. These forms of teaching are a little like bad translation. Every work, alas, is rewritten in the terms of Foucault, of feminism, of Marx, and that is the end of the story.”

Mark Edmundson

Seek Transformation

After spending the past few weeks reading and thinking about Heidegger, I found myself returning to his political status again and again. He was not only sympathetic to the Nazi agenda, but spoke on behalf of the movement while in a position of authority at University of Freiburg in 1933. In the recent book, At The Existentialist Cafe, Sarah Bakewell describes Heidegger’s philosophical work and personal life in a way that is hard to separate.

Naturally, this is all swirling around in my mind as I read and prepare materials on a short work that Heidegger wrote and presented in 1929 called “What is Metaphysics?” I was reminded of one of my beliefs about the art of teaching that I learned from the contemporary educator from the University of Virginia, Mark Edmundson, in his 2013 book, Why Teach?

First of all, Edmundson champions a posture toward teaching that returns the process to one of its Latin roots; educere, which means “to lead out” and toward something. You might remember the prisoner of Plato’s cave allegory gaining freedom from his shackles and moving toward enlightenment symbolized by the sun. For the prisoner, a radical transformation takes place. The teacher’s responsibility, in the spirit of Plato and according to Edmundson, is to design an atmosphere that makes these kinds of transformational moments possible.

Mark Edmundson affirms this notion:

I think that is the highest objective for someone trying to provide a literary education to students is to make such moments of transformation possible… But the proper business of teaching is change — for the teacher (who is herself a work in progress) and (preeminently) for the student.”

Avoid Critical Readings

In the process of creating classrooms that cultivate this kind of transformation, Edmundson rejects something that has grown increasingly more commonplace in literature departments. It has to do with the way we read texts. Rather than teach William Blake, he argues, we read William Blake through the lens of Marx, or Freud, or Derrida, and so on, without ever really reading William Blake through the lens of William Blake.

He writes,

“I’ve said that the teacher’s job is to offer a Blakean reading of Blake, or an Eliotic reading of Eliot, and that’s a remark that can’t help but raise questions. The standard for the kind of interpretation I have in mind is actually rather straightfoward. When a teacher admires an author enough to teach his work, then it stands to reason that the teacher’s initial objective ought to be framing a reading that the author would approve. The teacher, to begin with, represents the author: He analyzes the text sympathetically, he treats the words with care and caution and with due respect. He works hard with the students to develop a vision of what the world is and how to live that rises from the author’s work and that, ultimately the author, were he present in the room, would endorse.”

This is actually fairly radical in a post-death-of-the-author world. Critical readings have become the standard at the loss of knowing the actual text. If a student first reads a text through a psychoanalytic lens, it is tough to read it any other way. Does that mean we ditch theory completely? No way. It means we recognize the delicate exchange that happens when we read: an exchange between author, text, and reader. We hold it loosely and allow the language to lead us toward intellectual becoming.

Befriend the Text

Edmundson has a fairly simple suggestion that he follows with a profound metaphor that has stuck with me for years. First he describes how we need to befriend the texts we teach:

“..we need to befriend texts that we choose to teach. They are testaments of human beings who have lived and suffered in the world. They too deserve honor and respect… If there are texts that you cannot befriend, then leave them to the worms of time — or the kinder ministration of others.”

We first aim to understand what the text is doing. What does it say about how we ought to live? This notion echoes Schopenhauer’s assertion that every artist asks and answers the question: “What is life?” Edmundson says only then should teacher and student question it.

“But this sort of questioning needs to occur once the author’s vision is set forth in a comprehensive, clear, sympathetic manner.”

And then, “The teacher and student inquire into it, and often too they answer on its behalf. But it all begins with a simple gesture. It all begins by befriending the text.”

I adore the idea of befriending the text. I think so often we treat texts as enemies because they are hard and we don’t understand them. We read certain works, especially nonfiction works, ready to contend with whatever argument the thinker puts forth. While that contention is healthy and brings a necessary vitality to scholarship, it is often premature. When we don’t understand a text, we tend to attack the author. For the student, this kind of reading is detrimental. The text is our friend – our students need to know why we spend time with this friend.

Defend the Author

Edmundson follows this idea with a metaphor that has stayed with me for the past several years. It came to mind every time I opened a text written by Heidegger in the past few weeks. Edmundson challenges the professor to become an advocate for any author that they teach:

“…the teacher’s task is often one of inspired impersonation. Against her students’ final vocabularies, against their various faiths, she, with a combination of disinterest and passion, hurls alternatives. Impersonation: The teacher’s objective, in the approach I’m describing is to offer an inspiring version of what is most vital in the author. She merges with the author, becomes the creator, and in doing so makes the past available to the uses of the present. The teacher listens to criticisms, perhaps engenders some herself, but always finally is the author’s advocate, his attorney for explication and defense.

We not only befriend the text, we explain it and defend it to our students. This is one of the most powerful postures I could imagine.

This notion does not change the fact that Heidegger was sympathetic to the Nazi agenda. We focus on his work and strive for comprehension. Does this mean his personal views get a free pass? Hardly. The value judgments on the subject matter, the author, and the greater context come after understanding the text itself. They are not eclipsed. When the time is right, we (teacher and student, alike) can process the contextual details with discernment and care.

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