Amit Chaudhuri’s 2009 novel, The Immortals, is a portrait of the vexed relations between music gurus and their students. Pandit Ram Lal, a senior guru, is particularly attuned to matters of protocol between students and teachers: “There was a story of how Lata Mangeshkar wanted a guru to train her in the finer points of classical music, and of how she had thought of him, Ram Lal, having heard his abilities as a teacher praised highly…Panditji did not call. ‘She should call me,’ he said. ‘If she wants to learn from me, she will call me.’ The call did not come.”
This Lata is, of course, a fictionalized version of the singer, but Chaudhuri uses the real name to make a point. The fictional Panditji was not willing to compromise his code of conduct for anyone, even a famous Bollywood singer, but Lata dismissed his traditionalist ideas about the guru-shishya relation. Importantly, Panditji’s son, Shyamji, is a music teacher who disavows the status of guru-ship, saying to his students, “There’s no need to tie the nada.”
“Shyamji lived in the real world,” the narrator says, “not in some imagined idea of antiquity.”
As the novel unfolds, Chaudhuri shows that by disavowing a guru’s rituals, Shyamji has also partially disavowed the role of guru. He becomes preoccupied with his many appointments and travels; he sings into a Panasonic recorder, which serves as a proxy “guru” for students in his absence.
This past year, I had my first taste of inhabiting the teacherly role as an instructor of two college courses. While I certainly do not have illusions of guru-ship, I have begun to cultivate my own ideas about the potential of the teacher-student relation. Reading Chaudhuri recently, I wondered: Are Panditji’s ideas about the teacher-student relationship really that old fashioned? Or is there something about teaching that is quasi-sacred? Is there something about the pedagogical relation, which demands that we treat it differently from any other relation—something that we must defend and protect against the incursion of technologies that would replace us and market forces that would reduce our students to customers?
What, in other words, does it mean to teach? This is as important a question as “what” is being taught in any given classroom. For it is one thing to determine “what” to teach by establishing a course theme and trajectory, determining what writing and research skills students must develop, and drawing on your expanding toolbox of texts, exercises, and assignments in the preparation of a syllabus. It is another thing to remain responsive to and vigilant about the question of teaching itself. What am I doing when I step into a classroom? I am not giving a presentation. I am not delivering a talk. I am not presenting material. I am not there to collect homework. Teaching, it is increasingly clear to me, is much more than the sum of its parts. At best, it is a dialogical act of commitment and engagement with the world and others in it.
I learned this lesson on day one. Five minutes before class, we were strangers in the hallway, scooting between trashcans and orphaned desks and trying not to listen in on each other’s conservations. But when we emerged from the classroom, we were teacher and student, bound by an unceasingly complex, age-old and dynamic relation. We entered into a relation of interlocution and communication and a dynamic space of possibility, in which I got to know my students as thinkers, writers, readers, and speakers, with their own attachments, commitments, politics, aspirations, and vision of the world. In return I helped them clarify their thinking, sharpen their vision, and make every sentence crafted more precise. I felt ownership of them as “my” students, and even now when I pass one of them in the halls, I feel the tenacity of the connection built.
And yet, teaching continues to be a radically misunderstood and undervalued practice. Perhaps this is because we tend to use the term “teacher” to describe those who work with children and young adults. We speak of pre-school teachers and college “professors,” eliding the fact that at their best, what professors do, too, is teach. And remember our schoolteachers? They led us through lessons, assigned homework, organized activities, gave feedback on our papers and tests, met with parents to discuss our progress, commented on penmanship, coached us at recess, intervened in our squabbles, corrected our pronunciation… In high school, they exposed us to the complexities of world systems, great literary traditions, and interdisciplinary fields of inquiry like feminism and social justice. In other words, our teachers instructed, but also coached and advised us, led and mentored us. They were charged not simply with delivering information, but with preparing us for full lives, and they did so in conjunction with whatever family, parents, and friends comprised our individual networks and support structures.
The teaching of adults is, of course, different from the teaching of school-age children. In college, there are no more parent-teacher conferences. We spend less time with our students. We know less about them. We might never see their handwriting. And graduate instructors are trained to prioritize our research, even though most of us will eventually be employed in full-time teaching positions. But no matter what monographs we publish or experiments we conduct, teaching will be the work of our days. And the role we play in students’ lives is rich with possibilities for meaningful human exchange.
Chaudhuri’s Panditji identified foremost as a teacher, and as a teacher he expected certain respect from would-be students. There is a lesson here for any graduate student who would prematurely deemphasize the value of teaching. It is fundamentally as professors and instructors, with a robust sense of what teaching is and does, that we will be able to defend the public university, stave off the encroachment of online education, redeem the liberal arts curriculum, and reinvigorate a new generation of critical thinkers who can be more than the technocrats the market wants them to be.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.