Never too big to teach—or learn

I learn new things from my students all the time. I learn through reading their essays on topics such as One Direction fan fiction, or online trans poetry networks. But I also learn by developing new approaches to teaching. Chapter 1 of Make It the Same, for instance, would never have been written if I hadn’t, about a decade ago, decided to teach a unit on Kamau Brathwaite and Linton Kwesi Johnson for a new course on Poetry and Music. I knew a little about the work of both already, but it was the effort to gather recordings of Brathwaite’s work and of the music that had inspired it that led me to become obsessed with the importance of sound recording to Brathwaite’s practice: his use of the tape recorder in particular as a mode of composition, publication, and, as it turned out, a way of reimagining black diasporic cultural persistence and change.

Brasch spine book spine image
Book spines from the library of Charles Brasch, University of Otago Special Collections, Dunedin, New Zealand. Photograph by Elisha Gordon. Image reproduced from Elisha Gordon, “Book Spines: A Photographic Representation of the Brasch Collection,” Unpacking the Brasch Collection: Studies in Global Modernism, June 30, 2016.

I document a similar process of learning through teaching in my contribution to a new Modernism/modernity Print+ forum, organized by Rebecca Walkowitz, which asks: “What is the scale of the literary object?” In my contribution to the forum, “Too Big to Teach: Sizing Up Global Modernism,” I write about my experience teaching an honours course on global modernism in which I challenged the students to write a research blog about the personal library of the prominent New Zealand modernist writer, editor, and philanthropist Charles Brasch. As I explain, the project was prompted by the recent preoccupation with scale in modernist studies but working with the students and seeing the results of the project also taught me new things about both modernism and teaching.

When we teach, we learn. It’s a cliché, but it seems worth repeating at a time when students at colleges and universities are increasingly taught by adjunct lecturers and professors who are paid to teach, but not to research, write, or think. I am aware that I write from a privileged position of tenure and that, sadly, such symbiotic relationships between teaching, research, and writing are a rare luxury in universities around the world. But they shouldn’t be. University managers and funders, in their narrow view of the bottom line, increasingly forget that university education is meant to be about learning from those who are not just teaching knowledge but producing it and that they need to pay their teachers accordingly. Perhaps they too need to be reminded that one is never too big to learn.

Published by Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is associate professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019), A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012), and of numerous essays, which have appeared in journals such as Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.

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