What if I kissed the teacher?

March 19, 2016

It was almost a decade ago that I first read Mark Bracher’s powerful essay “Transference, Desire, and the Ethics of Literary Pedagogy.” At that time I was a fairly fresh post-secondary instructor, beginning my doctoral studies and feeling my way between literary theory and pedagogical theory. In this essay Bracher argues that “transference is ubiquitous in literature classes” (128). From my own experiences in the classroom, as both student and teacher, I cannot dispute Bracher’s assessment. I believe teachers and professors in literary disciplines, including writing courses, should read and reflect on this essay, for it makes vital observations about our behaviour and ethics.

Importantly, Bracher argues, the teacher cannot help being the object of transference, at least for some students. Contemporary pedagogical practices almost ensure that it will happen:

In such a situation, strategies designed to reduce or eliminate the coercive and seductive force of authority actually have the opposite effect, because they function surreptitiously to reinforce the transference. The first strategy, the democratic, egalitarian gesture in which the teacher attempts to function as just another member of the class, often makes students suppose that this subject, the egalitarian teacher, really does know — knows or understands something about students’ abilities that other, more traditional teachers do not. As a result, students’ admiration for and enthrallment by such teachers is often increased rather than decreased by the teachers’ attempts to give up their authority. The second strategy, the “up-front” and honest acknowledgement and expression of the teacher’s own political or epistemological bias, with its assumption that students can counter the teacher’s authority with their own if they can recognize the teacher’s bias, mistakenly assumes that disagreeing with an authority neutralizes its force. In actuality, such admission of bias on the teacher’s part often simply transmutes the force of overt authority into a more subtle, transferential form even more powerful than the overt form: students may be so taken with the teacher’s honesty (or insight, or self-awareness) that their faith in the teacher’s authority is made even stronger. The third strategy — that of exposing the contingent, constructed nature of authority — also results in increasing the force of the teacher’s authority through reinforcing the transference, for such discussions, like the acknowledgment of one’s authority and the egalitarian gesture, succeed above all in confirming the students’ supposition that the teacher is a subject who really knows — in this case, knows epistemological truths that not only the students but also most other teachers don’t know. (128–29)

He continues:

The question, then, is not whether to operate with transference authority, but rather how to operate with it in an ethical and effective manner — that is, how to have a significant impact on students, but without subtly coercing or seducing them into particular beliefs, values, desires, enjoyments, or behaviors. (129)

Ultimately, Bracher argues that teachers must become more conscious of the kinds of outcomes we seek in the classroom, since the ultimate goal of teaching is to effect some kind of change in the learner (and presumably the teacher). While psychoanalytic pedagogy is largely ignored in today’s classrooms, Bracher’s essay offers nuanced insights about how teachers actually operate and how we may even work against our declared intentions. I recommend his essay highly.

Source: Mark Bracher, “Transference, Desire, and the Ethics of Literary Pedagogy” in College Literature (26.3: 127–146).