Relational and Reparative Pedagogies: An Interview with Benjamin Hagen
As students and teachers experience persistent disorientation in the classroom during the pandemic, it seems crucial to imagine “reparative” teaching practices that attend to students’ diverse learning needs through a relational framework. In this interview, author and scholar Benjamin Hagen reflects on “pandemic pedagogy” and the broad implications of his recent book The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence (Clemson University Press, 2020). As a literary critic, Hagen does not offer a survey of educational institutions during the time these writers composed their work; rather, he investigates how their writings and conceptual ideas might inform contemporary pedagogy.
By imagining pedagogical “accidents” (“encounters, moments of being [that are linked] to thinking, feeling, and a way of learning that catches [us] off guard”) as opportunities to enhance the affective relationships comprising a learning environment, Hagen argues that both Woolf and Lawrence provide some direction for thinking about how the structure of such moments offers opportunities for learning and engagement. This turn toward dynamic and relational modes of teaching is made further necessary by the contemporary context of evaluation and surveillance facilitated by “ed-tech,” which exacerbates tensions both within and outside the classroom. These challenges prompt Hagen to reflect on “what it would mean to ground pedagogy in student trust from the very beginning.” Bringing together an array of thinkers, disciplines, and texts, Sensuous Pedagogies draws on the fields of literary studies, philosophy, history and education to impart a unique outlook on pedagogical concerns with relevance to both European and other contexts.
This interview sheds light on some of the discoveries and surprises Hagen experienced while composing the book, and also offers a preview of his exciting pedagogical experiments as an instructor of a recent senior capstone course at the University of South Dakota.
—William Bowden for EuropeNow
EuropeNow Congratulations on your first book, The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. Among the many revelations that came about during the process of writing this book, what was most surprising for you?
Benjamin Hagen After some initial development and research for my study of Woolf and Lawrence, I read Gabriel Compayré’s L’histoire de la pédagogie (1879; translated into English 1888) and Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori’s Pedagogy: Disturbing History, 1819–1929 (1996) to better understand “pedagogy” as a conceptual framework. Far from refining my sense of it, though, these books broke the term open. As I unpacked “pedagogy,” I was shocked at the various histories it loops together, from ancient slavery to the history of maternity and the norms that develop in modern philosophy around raising infants and young children to early theories of the difference between humans and animals.
The most challenging part of writing, and explaining, the book, then, was making clear what I meant by “pedagogy:” a term at once transparent (given its clear association with classroom practices, lesson plans, syllabi, and teaching philosophies) and obscure (given the depth and breadth of its history). Sensuous Pedagogies is not a book about public school novels or about “teaching” Woolf and Lawrence’s work (some friends and colleagues assumed this was the direction my research was taking). Even so, it is still a book about problems of teaching and learning—even if the texts I am reading and studying aren’t explicitly grounded in educational institutions. Some of them are, of course. D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow (1915) has a famous chapter about Ursula Brangwen’s experience as a schoolteacher, and my first chapter looks at Woolf’s report about teaching at Morley College. And yet, for the most part, everything I study in the book has an unusual, non-institutional link to pedagogy. I was drawn to how pedagogy is operative in the solitudes depicted in Woolf’s unfinished memoir, in Lawrence’s narratives of friendship and love and relational failure, in their respective critical essays and literary studies, and in Woolf’s detailed portrayal of the lives of girls and women. The most challenging aspect of the book was to persuade scholars and teachers that “pedagogy” is really there: that these writers are worth studying within a capacious framework of teaching and learning—even and especially when there isn’t a schoolroom in sight.
EuropeNow In what ways do you find the research for this book practically informing your own pedagogy?
Benjamin Hagen The topic of my senior capstone class this semester (Spring 2021) speaks directly to the ethos of Sensuous Pedagogies insofar as it encourages students to take seriously their own reactions and relationships to the texts we are studying (as well as to the wide webs of their own preferences in art—and in politics and people). What do we do with the books that we care about and that we are interested in when we read? Even the degree to which they find the assigned reading boring or uninteresting: that, too, is a focus of our study, one that made our discussions of Marcel Proust, for example, far livelier, I think, than they anticipated.
The assignments that I developed this semester are also tied to the insights of my book—to a certain degree. In addressing how Woolf and Lawrence’s pedagogies privilege, say, accidents or relationships, I’ve come to believe that teaching students to write formal academic prose might be getting in the way of their development as writers. This isn’t to say we should be teaching students to write in some other specific style or genre; rather, it’s to say that we instructors could learn to be more open about encouraging students to reflect on their writing, to learn how to make good choices when writing, and to experiment with a range of different genres. This is not a novel position; in fact, I’m very late to the party.
This semester, I am taking my cue from the novels my students and I are studying. For instance, the main protagonist of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) is a blogger, so the first assignment asks students (I’m paraphrasing): “Okay, if you had a blog like Ifemelu, what would it be about? Try writing a post or a series of posts for your blog.” Additionally, we elaborated a description of a blog post’s “features” together, giving students ownership over the criteria by which I evaluated their projects. Coming back to the title of my book, the term “sensuous” isn’t meant only as a reference to bodily sensation; I also intend it to convey acts of intuition (i.e., gut feelings) and the manners in which we become attached to and invested in things, ideas, and relationships. So, as I developed assignments (with students) this semester, I’ve learned to see an alignment between my course and this aspect of the “sensuous.”
EuropeNow Could you say a bit more about your senior capstone class? Its theme? Its inspiration?
Benjamin Hagen The class focuses on the theme “Finding Love and Exploring Attachments in Literary Studies.” This is an experimental course (at least for me) that splits up Rita Felski’s Hooked: Art and Attachment (2020) across the semester, pairing sections of it with fiction of Adichie and Proust as well as the literary/scholarly writings of Saidiya Hartman and Anne Carson.
Felski’s is a controversial book. Anyone on “Literary Studies Twitter” will be aware of the intense defenses of and reactions to it (and Felski’s work in general). The class invites students to participate in the conversations the book broaches—often a missing component, I think, in “postcritique” debates. My students are reading and thinking about the book alongside a series of novels about love: does Felski offer useful language to think about attachment or attunement to artworks, ideas, and other persons? How might we mobilize, think about, or critique Felski’s work when we try to find and conceptualize love? Felski initially considers “love” as one of her neo-phenomenological/ANT-ish concepts but explicitly discards it from the vocabulary she builds. She finds it too thin (and perhaps too fraught with a masculinist literary tradition) to join attachment, attunement, identification, and relation. My course invites students to reconsider this move: to put love back into play and to explore what Felski’s concepts might do for our study of it in novels, in scholarship, and in life.
EuropeNow Returning to your book: you refer to Woolf’s “moments of being as pedagogical accidents.” I’d like to hear more about this idea of pedagogical accidents. What are they? How do you define them?
Benjamin Hagen The idea came from studying Gilles Deleuze and Virginia Woolf alongside each other while completing my PhD at the University of Rhode Island under the direction of Stephen Barber. The notion of “pedagogical accidents” synthesizes ideas found in Chapter 3 of Difference and Repetition, “The Image of Thought.” In that chapter, Deleuze writes, somewhat forebodingly, “Something in the world forces us to think.” And that something, he continues, is an object not of recognition but of a fundamental encounter with something that can only be sensed. Later in the chapter, he distinguishes between knowledge acquisition and learning. And he says something that has always hooked me, which is that “we never know in advance how someone will learn.” Since reading Difference and Repetition, I’ve always thought of those things—the sensuous encounter and unpredictable learning—together, associating them both with accidentality.
Later, when studying Woolf’s memoir A Sketch of the Past (1939) and her development of the concept “moments of being,” I couldn’t help but think of Deleuze. She records several encounters and expresses how indelibly they stay with her; how she never forgets them. She thinks about these encounters all of the time; they come back again and again in the telling of them, the thinking of them, the remembering of them, and the writing of them. And so, I was caught by the way in which both Woolf and Deleuze privilege accidents—encounters, moments of being—linking them to thinking, feeling, and a way of learning that catches them/us/one off guard.
The pedagogical piece comes back to Deleuze’s belief that we never know in advance how someone will learn. This is similar to how Woolf frames moments of being as “revelations of some order.” Moments of being have some sort of a lesson to teach her. For Woolf, there is something about the moment itself, the structure of moments that affords some sort of pedagogical opportunity. Which is odd, because there is no teacher in those instances—only the moment and its structure. That is why I call them “pedagogical accidents,” because there is no one teaching Woolf anything; it is the accident itself that seems to orchestrate and compose an authorless lesson.
EuropeNow What might this look like in the classroom, especially during a time of tumult for instructors and students as we try to adapt amidst the pandemic?
Benjamin Hagen As I’ve been trying to practice my way toward a “pandemic pedagogy” or “Zoom pedagogy” this year, it seems to me like the “pedagogical accident” has helped me feel and develop a bit of teacherly humility; I have found some comfort in the idea that my lesson plans—whether for face-to-face, hybrid, or online courses—are almost always going to fail (at least for some, if not most, of my students). The best laid lesson plans will go awry. For me, this is a structurally fundamental component of teaching and learning. What we plan will not work out. Students learn things by accident, they become interested in things by accident, and even from the teacherly perspective things work accidentally. And I think it is important to be open to that dimension of pedagogical planning and relation.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan, but, rather, that we accept failure and the accident as significant components of our practice as teachers (and students). Most teachers probably do this already, but I’ve found that accepting that has made me want to become a more honest, humble, and potentially more ethical teacher. I’ve tried to become more attuned to students’ needs and the way that students convey those needs. To some extent this is what I get into in Chapter 2 of Sensuous Pedagogies, “Failing Students.”
EuropeNow While we are reflecting on this topic of “pandemic pedagogy,” what are some of the insights you’ve garnered from teaching courses online?
Benjamin Hagen I don’t want to romanticize Zoom or remote teaching, but I think I’ve learned to better anticipate inequities I did not do a great job of anticipating before the pandemic: do students have stable internet access? Working laptops or tablets? Are they hungry? Have they slept? What sort of circumstances frame their experience of class? What are the conditions under which pedagogical accidents can occur for them? Remote teaching/learning also makes a lot of activities more feasible than it had been before, like having expert speakers visit the class or sharing screens, notes, and files in real time, etc. To be honest, this past year has really made Deleuze’s belief (that we can’t know in advance how someone will learn) sink in all the more. Indeed, we don’t know in advance how someone will learn, and we also might not be able to anticipate what obstacles will get in the way of that learning. But we can learn to be more flexible, more trusting, and more attuned to hidden and revealed pedagogical needs.
EuropeNow You speak about feeling and different forms of affect throughout the book, and you discuss how your investigation of pedagogy will not be a “historical” or theoretical approach to educational practice per se but, rather, an exploration of how pedagogy might be grounded in affect. Could you explain this?
Benjamin Hagen For me, the correlation between pedagogy and affect comes from my study of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s work. As far as I know, Sedgwick never develops a close conceptual analysis of pedagogy. It appears in the subtitle and throughout the chapters of Touching Feeling (2003), and yet she never really defines the term (even in the chapter “Pedagogy of Buddhism”). One consistent component about her references to and interest in/study of teaching/learning, however, is the centrality of relationship. For her, pedagogy is not primarily about plans or activities or institutions but the varied and variable connective and dynamic tissue between (the roles of) teachers and students. For me, this is probably the most significant idea that Sedgwick contributes to my understanding of “pedagogy.” She is not the first or the only theorist or practitioner to insist on the teacher–student relation, but her work helps clarify that any tip or trick a teacher may come up with that doesn’t prioritize the contingent web of relations that are built up semester-to-semester, classroom-to-classroom, week-to-week (inflected by institutional support or lack thereof), is going to fail badly. Her aspiration, it seems to me, is to fail well and to welcome, as she writes about the reparative position, good surprises.
Reflecting on the affective, relational dynamics of our pedagogy might encourage us teachers, from the beginning, to ask questions, for instance, about the role of shame in our pedagogy and the intimacy between shame and interest (as Sedgwick explores in the work of Silvan Tomkins). Are we careful about, aware of, sensitive to the ways in which shame (or fear or cruelty) is used as a pedagogical tactic in our lessons, policies, or strategies of enforcement or evaluation? Do we ever consider how quickly student interest can become student shame? Like many teachers, I have thought about such questions a lot over the past year, upset about how technologies like lockdown browsers or other surveillance software’s track students’ eyes and voices—exacting cruel penalties for purported policy infractions. A sensuous, affect-attuned, relationally-minded pedagogy can see that much of our teaching practices—especially via surveillance ed-tech—is bound up with a project of policing students’ bodies and spaces in ways that must be harmful to their well-being (physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual). This policing feeds back on teachers too, it seems to me, producing forms of affect that can develop a coldness toward students and their varied and variable situations.
I really resonate with Matthew Cheney’s work on cruelty-free pedagogy and the cruelty-free syllabus. Indeed, as Jesse Stommel prompts us to wonder, what would it mean to ground pedagogy in student trust from the very beginning, knowing all the time (and being okay with the possibility) that plenty of students might take advantage of that trust. What would it mean, for each teacher, to make those structural decisions up front when designing courses, assignments, exams, and lessons or activities? These questions have at their center, it seems to me, the prioritization of pedagogical relationship and a sensitivity to affect that accepts the lessons of Woolf, Lawrence, Deleuze, and Sedgwick: namely, we can’t know ahead of time (and can never really control) how a student will learn. But, we can try to organize situations in which we’re not actively sabotaging their potential learning with decisions, strategies, or technologies that are cruel or shaming.
EuropeNow How do you think your approach to pedagogy as a literary critic might be productive for teachers across disciplines and even institutions?
There is another wrinkle here, of course: namely, that taking pedagogical relation and affect seriously also might mean being more honest with ourselves about the toll that pedagogical relationships have on teachers. Why is teaching so draining, exhausting, taxing? Lawrence’s poems about the classroom—his Schoolmaster poems—attend to this dimension of teaching and learning; I find them so fascinating because he really tries to capture and convey the toll and tax of teaching, the relational aggregate of one teacher’s many simultaneous relationships with students. Whether you have fifty or sixty (or a hundred) students as a college instructor whom you meet with three or four hours a week (if not more) or thirty (or forty or fifty) students as an elementary school teacher whom you attend to from five to seven hours a day (five days a week): the physical, affective, and intellectual weight of that relational matrix is daunting. I don’t think many people in or outside of educational institutions take seriously the amount of relational attention, focus, and maneuvering required to be a decent teacher.
Efforts, then, to distance oneself from students (emotionally, physically, and intellectually) can sometimes be necessary—a matter of survival and self-care and sanity—because no one person can meet all of the needs of all these students, especially without better support from institutions or administrations. “Pandemic pedagogy” has also clarified for me what was already clear to so many of us: namely, the gender and racial inequities in pedagogical labor. To whom in our departments or our schools are students going, and whom do administrators expect to be the energy sources for these students. We all need support, but some of us are getting more support than others (or, in some cases, all of the support).
EuropeNow Your reflections on the possibility of a reparative teaching in Chapter 4 of your book is captivating. How would you describe reparative pedagogy? Also, how do you envision this practice being modelled or performed in the contemporary classroom?
Benjamin Hagen The sources Sedgwick draws on to theorize “reparative reading” seem a bit lost in many discussions that cite her concept (debates about surface reading, postcritique, etc.). Melanie Klein and Silvan Tomkins’s respective psychoanalytic and psychological theories are at the center of her reparative project; within that context, the reparative position corresponds to a developmental phase where the child learns to rework their relationship to an object they once found murderous or threatening, transforming the object into something that can be a source of nourishment, something with which they can identify—even love.
This relational, creative dynamic is not often central in allusions to reparative reading. At times, the phrase seems deployed as a way to scold critics committed to ideological critique; sometimes it seems that the phrase is deployed to convey recovery or recuperation. Both goals—recovery and recuperation—are significant, but they really capture what is specific about reparation. This position does not correspond to rediscovery (of what has been lost or forgotten) or even to the repair of a text or writer’s reputation. It’s about repairing one’s relationship to a part-object (like language, Literature, or Lawrence) we once found threatening.
Given this clarification, reparative pedagogy, in the context of a college course would try to organize conditions that help students or teachers work through rebuilding relationships to texts, perhaps even ones that initially appear difficult, daunting, repulsive, or, in some way, worrisome. I see this as part of my work on Lawrence. When I read him, I found there was so much about which to be worried. My chapters do address his (character’s) regular misogyny, but also attend to and honor other work his writing and thinking does: for instance, his attention to landscapes and to human labor and his breathtaking attention to how human beings pay attention to each other. His observations, for instance, about how pedagogy emerges in friendships outside of schools is incredibly detailed, specifically his portrayal of a kind of odd reversibility of teacher/student roles that seems to set in when people try to teach each other something (when it’s unclear who is really teaching whom).
So, reparative pedagogy might ask questions about what bothers us, what we find worrisome, and what we find threatening. Reparative pedagogy would not be about forcing students to like or appreciate things that (could) traumatize or trigger them. God, no. But it would challenge them and us, their teachers, to work through what we can actually make of something difficult and/or off-putting—even boring—if we return to it with something like grace.
EuropeNow This brings to mind my first reading of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. As an undergraduate, I didn’t have much exposure to modernist writing, and I grew up on Victorian literature. So, when I read Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, I felt completely repelled by it. Would you consider this experience an opportunity for reparative pedagogy or reading?
Benjamin Hagen I think so, but your question makes me wonder, would reparative pedagogy just be a training in open-mindedness? Honestly, I don’t know, but I think it is more active, dynamic, less sentimental, and more urgent and radical than that. And riskier (in its affirmation of accidents). I think of Lawrence near the end of his life, writing his (last) book about St. John’s Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation)—a text he had hated since he was a child—and discovering what difference rereading can make. But I want to be clear that there are often good reasons to give ourselves permission to refuse to give our time to things from which we’ve recoiled. But yes, your example of Mrs. Dalloway does make sense to me.
EuropeNow As one of the objectives of Campus is “to bridge interdisciplinary research with pedagogy by highlighting how educators engage students with major research questions relating to Europe” how might you contextualize Sensuous Pedagogies within Europeanist studies?
Benjamin Hagen Sensuous Pedagogies is about two English writers who have very different relationships to Europe. There is a degree to which thinking about UK writers, especially in the age of “Brexit,” inspires questions of whether UK writers are “European” writers and to what degree the history of the British school system is part of the history of European school systems: a compelling research question. As a relevant aside, the Woolf Conference in 2018, held at the University of Kent, was organized around the theme: Virginia Woolf, Europe, and Peace. A two-volumes collection of essays related to this event was recently published by Clemson University Press. Re: Lawrence, his travel writing and fascinating reception across Europe is certainly an avenue to explore in terms of “sensuous pedagogy” within the continental context.
There’s also some good work being done on the history of European school systems that developed after World War II. Sandra Leaton Gray, David Scott, and Peeter Mehisto’s Becoming Europeans: A History of the European Schools (2018), for instance, studies this institution and its curriculum, as well as ideological factors that motivate a system that hasn’t really changed much over the past six decades (though perhaps it has in the past three years). What my study could contribute to institutional, sociological, and historical research into European education may be modest, but it would probably come down to relationality and solitude—the two factors that correspond, respectively, to my studies of Lawrence and Woolf’s sensuous pedagogy. What difference might a prioritization of these categories make, especially within a framework that prioritizes the sensuous (feeling, emotion, intensity)?
EuropeNow Your personal website is compellingly entitled “Sketching a Present.” What kinds of content can we expect to find there?
Benjamin Hagen I started “Sketching a Present” when I was still in graduate school, but I didn’t publicize it much until after I finished and entered the job market. It was a project of love and something to work on to take my mind off the fact that my job prospects were terrible. More pragmatically, it was a way to curate a body of work and have a professional presence should one happen to Google “Benjamin Hagen.” I’ve been slow to develop new content over the past few years, but I certainly hope to return to it soon. The main thing that I’d like to get back to is my “slow reading” of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition: a long series of posts, each of which takes a paragraph from DR and tries to make sense of Deleuze’s allusions and to track his argument sentence-to-sentence. Perhaps someday I’ll return to this project—maybe with the help of others. To really get off the ground, its future might have to be collaborative.
EuropeNow How about the “Syllabus” section of the website?
Benjamin Hagen This is going to sound a bit naïve, but I’ve recently discovered that in other disciplines, people don’t rewrite or revise their syllabus every semester. One of my colleagues in another discipline was shocked by how many “new preps” I’ve had (that many early career literary scholars have had) over the past fifteen years. The perpetual design of new courses or redesigns of the same course has always been fun for me, but it’s also been time consuming. So, I thought it would be nice to start building an archive of, say, my first approach to teaching an upper-level theory course or the time I had to design a “Topics in Romanticism” class.
Building up this archive (which is far from complete; I’ll get back around to it one day too) has clarified how long it took me to develop a philosophy of teaching or get comfortable with the volatile dynamics of teaching and learning. As an undergraduate and graduate student, I always thought the basic structure of a literature course was that of a book club or reading group: you just assign pages, get ready to think on your feet, and see what happens. While this approach might echo my interest in accidents, it misses the necessity of structure and preparation, as well as the relational matrix of the classroom. It took me a long time to become a teacher who plans and designs activities, projects, and group exercises so that the students themselves can do the work—can think and make something together in the classroom. It took me a long time to become a teacher. I’m still becoming one.
EuropeNow As a graduate student instructor, I know there is still much that I need to learn and will continue to learn throughout my career. But, as graduate students tend to have little formal training, there is inevitably much to learn about teaching. Not just the texts and the content, but general teaching strategies. What value is there, for you, in a community of instructors sharing their teaching practices, course material, syllabi, etc.?
Benjamin Hagen I think it’s invaluable. In my experience, reading the assignments or syllabi of friends and colleagues can teach you more than formal guides or training; you discover things you might want to try in the classroom, policy language that makes more sense, or complexities of the pedagogical field you’ve never thought about. This is not to say that going through a school of education is a waste of time, but I do think looking at what other people are doing and hearing them talk about it can be more eye-opening. More open to accidents, perhaps.
Sharing materials can also address some basic rhetorical issues. What does your assignment sheet really read like? Beyond the issue of clarity, does it sound cruel? Punitive? How do you want your assignment sheets to sound in the ears of students? Of other teachers? Sharing materials also helps to break out of the typical pattern of emulating what your advisors or professors did while you were a student. If you didn’t have teachers or supervisors who deviated much from the (publishable) seminar paper model, you don’t get a lot of ideas about other things you could try. No sense that there are so many other evaluative possibilities. So, having that community or those databases or archives is invaluable. It also gives us a glimpse of the real dynamic range (and history) of our discipline beyond the march through “schools” or “frames” that our “Intro to Criticism” or “Intro to Literary Studies” textbooks provide. This is why I (and so many others) love Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan’s The Teaching Archive: A New History for Literary Study (2020). Their important work demonstrates how attention to existing teaching archives shows us that the classroom is the real heart (and source) of our discipline’s development, experimentality, and value.
Benjamin D. Hagen teaches at the University of South Dakota and is author of The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence (Clemson University Press, 2020). In 2021, he steps in as Editor of Woolf Studies Annual and is currently at work on a new monograph, Finding Love in Literary Criticism and Theory.
William Bowden is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow in English at the University of Rhode Island. His research interests include: Twentieth and twenty-first century British and American literature, ecocriticism, ethics, and indigenous literature and culture. He is currently beginning a dissertation project entitled “Textual Sediments: Genre and the Planetary Novel.”