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A Hopeful Inquiry: Teaching Sophocles in the Community College

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By Alli Carlisle

I laughed out loud when I walked into my first college classroom as a teacher. I couldn’t process the disjuncture—three months earlier, I’d been sitting in the back of the room, terrified of public speaking, and now I was at the front. And not only that, but these people expected me to have something worth saying, worth being paid to say (well, worth barely being paid to say).

So when I walked into the classroom that first day, everything—the doubt, the insecurity, the idea that I was supposed to talk to thirty people at a time—rushed up like pressurized lava out of a subterranean vein, and bubbled into the air in the form of giggles. Yeah, I was pretty sure they were going to respect me.

That first day, I passed out little pieces of paper printed with excerpts from the radical Brazilian education theorist Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”:

…in the last analysis, it is men themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system… Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry men pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

The Freire was meant to frame the experience as much for me as for them. He breathes life into his concepts in the best way possible: with metaphor, that structure that allows the draperies of the mind to cling, hang on, shift and settle into new understandings. His argument about education pulses, begins to breathe, and expands hotly into the reader’s mind. It was my hope that this piece would get my students as inspired as I was—reframe their expectations about education; empower them to feel like confident, whole, special people; enrage them in revolt against the expectations that they be tiny, unthinking cogs in the neoliberal machine; inspire them to use semi-colons; convince them that they were contributors to the great, collective process of knowledge-formation and social transformation!

Okay, so I was a little ambitious. But I like to think I’m entitled to the delusions as compensation for the volunteer-level wages. And it was my more practical hope (practical being a loaded word when you’re teaching Humanities to students majoring in Nursing and Radiography), that the Freire would get them to understand that I wasn’t going to do all the work. I had no intention of lecturing, my resolve born equally from my progressive leanings and my terror of public speaking.

We read “Oedipus Rex.” It was one of the few texts I had actually read before this semester. We read the damn play for two weeks, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I was on board with what it had to teach. What is it exactly that Oedipus is supposed to have realized—that he couldn’t escape his fate, and never should have tried? Why does the whole kingdom have to be punished for it? It didn’t totally connect.

There’s a part in “Oedipus” where the chorus reflects in horror on what has been revealed: that Oedipus and his father have sailed their ships through the same “wide harbor,” “plowed” the same “furrows.” The description sinks the queen’s body into the land itself, using agricultural and shipping metaphors to bring out the complicated identification of the monarch with her kingdom. It’s strangely tender and violent—tender in its beauty, violent because of the misogyny, the passivity inscribed onto the queen. In these metaphors, both commercial, the queen figures not even as a commodity, but rather as a vacuity.

One of my favorite moments of the semester was born of this passage. I was demonstrating close reading, getting into the frenzy of it: I pointed students to the line; I prodded; I asked them what it was about (“Yes, but what does that mean?”); I repeated specific words to draw them deeper. The final reveal, in which I laid out my big interpretation, had the whole class listening—really listening, no texting, no biology homework.

After a pause, one student said, “Wooow. You can get all that from one line?”

On the last day of reading “Oedipus Rex,” we wrapped up with a big group discussion. We put our chairs in a circle, that geometrically egalitarian shape that I hoped would imbue the room with the spirit of democratic learning (it’s the little things). The period was drawing to a close—fingers were tapping, notebooks closing, zippers twitching. I fought against the encroachment of impending free time by pretending not to notice, by radiating calm stasis and a deep, permanent devotion to learning.

I asked, “So what do you guys think? Did Oedipus act heroically or not? Did he take responsibility for his actions? Did he do the right thing?”

(Questions repeated in multiple forms: classic teacherly tool for increasing understanding, filling awkward silences and sounding sophisticated.)

A few students ventured their opinions: yes, he did the right thing; the gods were punishing him unfairly, and he did the best he could; no, he was too arrogant and blind to the truth. (By the way, that contrast between physical and spiritual blindness? Not subtle, Sophocles.)

A student raised his hand, agitated: “Wait—hold on. Sorry. I have an idea.”

We waited.

“Okay, so—sorry, I know class is like almost over, but I think I got something. Okay, so, you know how we were talking about how the Greeks, they blamed everything on the gods? You know: it’s not my fault, because the gods made me do it, the gods caused this emotion, stuff like that. Well, Oedipus, you know, I think he is kind of different. He actually takes responsibility as an individual. He doesn’t blame the gods for what happens. He’s a real hero, and a real man. And that’s kind of like, more modern.”

What about this moment was better: that this student had identified a cultural paradigm shift, or that he had made the whole class wait so he could venture his own personal structural interpretation of a text?

It was hard to say. But that was the moment I started to feel like a real teacher.

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