Melancholy and my teaching

Melancholy has been my hero. It has led me, helped me make decisions. Like a spirit, it guides me. It guides me to help others and find fulfillment in the process. I dread discussing it though. Melancholy is unattractive; it’s an unspoken taboo, and it is often framed, especially in literature, as a woman’s disease.

I am reminded of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and other similar works like “The Awakening.”

Melancholy isn’t “cool,” or pleasurable, but it might be an experience of reality for some people, like me. My life is mostly joyful but punctuated with bouts and moments of melancholy. Often the melancholy comes when I am making changes or decisions in life, hence the melancholy-as-guide metaphor.  It’s interesting to think about.

Right now, I am reading Freedom (Franzen, 2010) and thinking about melancholy for my own writing. I enjoy male authors, especially authors like Franzen, but I always pay attention to the ways in which male authors frame “their” women. Of all the ways there are to create characters, Franzen uses melancholy to define the two most important female characters in the book. In various ways, the women’s melancholy threatens the freedom of the men in their lives.

I’m just beginning some research now, but I want to know what melancholia might have to do with English teaching in particular. Melancholia relates to my teaching because teaching fills some emptiness, just as social justice work and the giving of care, also fill my emptinesses.

This matters, because so often I have framed my care naively, as if I was a good-hearted person simply wanting to give care. Who is to say if that is true?  Not me. I can say that at least some of my melancholy is relieved every time I offer care. Care, then, serves a selfish need. It is not merely for others’ good.

A wise professor back in Greensboro helped me think about this in terms of my teaching, particularly my passion to teach “inner city” kids. She introduced me to my false sense of “white hope.” Because I come from a Christian-evangelical background, I am very sensitive to missionary metaphors. Now that I have been researching urban teacher education for several years, I am beginning to see how missionary zeal, especially as wrapped in social justice frames, can be uberly problematic. Since I get so much from teaching or helping these kids, I now realize how much I am objectifying my representation of their needs for my own sake.

If nothing else, perhaps when “giving” social justice, we should imagine ourselves as otherwise, as the ones in need of something we can only get from the objects of our affection. Given that frame, teaching might take on a more balanced and honest identity.

To be continued…