The Dog in the Classroom

Terry Caesar considers what the rare canine appearance in academe says about how professionalism is defined.

December 30, 2005

Awhile ago at a conference I read a paper to a dog. The subject of the paper was Clarice Lispector's great story, "The Crime of the Mathematics Professor," which is about dogs; the professor abandons his own, and subsequently buries another. So it was fitting that a dog would be in the audience. There were seven humans, including his owner, who was blind.

I don't know if the dog -- a beautiful, black, curly shepherd mix named Mark -- enjoyed the paper. Sprawled at his master's feet, he seemed to sleep the entire time. Yet he duly opened his eyes when I finished reading and the audience began clapping. I hoped he would give forth with a couple big barks.  Maybe it was his first conference and he was unsure if a "woof" would be appropriate.

Dogs, after all, aren't normally seen in conference rooms. They aren't expected to join professional organizations, they aren't invited to give papers. Just so, they aren't welcome in the other major academic space: the classroom. A dog might be the object of knowledge (it turns out that the representation of animals is something of a hot topic at present) but it does not constitute a subject. Seeing eye-dogs aside, no dog in the United States to my knowledge either regularly attends or teaches a class.

Too bad. Years ago a dog wandered into my second-floor classroom late one morning, occasioning great delight among the students. "I gave him an A last semester," I remarked. Perhaps at these words delight lessened a bit. There are limits to the possible relations between ourselves and even the most familiar of animals, which reminds me that one of my above panelists was also named "Mark" and seemed uneasy to be in such nominative proximity to the dog.

Reading a paper to Mark (both of them) prompted me to try to recall other conference appearances of an animal in my experience. I could remember none. I do recall now the first time I saw a woman nursing a baby. (Evidently a proud assertion of womanly power; nowadays, it's more common to see the baby but not the nursing.) But of course babies are humans. Even though it could be argued that neither belongs in a conference room, each doesn't in quite different ways.

Back to the classroom: once a student told me that she had seen a classmate bring a snake to class. I never actually saw the snake. (Nor the student, for that matter.)  So it's gone with nonhuman beings. With the exception of the one dog, whose name I never learned, my classroom for better or worse has been exclusively human. It seems idle to mention a few furtive cockroaches who scurried across the floor, a lizard or two immobile along various walls, or the odd disruptive bee who flew in through an open window.

No animals. What exactly could be at stake in this fact, other than yet another lamentable example of what animal rights people would term "species-ism?" Principally, two things. Each one illuminates the nature of the principal public spaces in which our professional lives are played out. Both abide according to a profound analogy to theatrical space. Nothing provokes this realization like the example of a dog in a classroom.

First, what is kept out of the classroom is just as decisive to what transpires there as what is admitted in. Indeed, the classroom can be conceived of as a site of constant struggle to get rid of things that don't belong -- cell phones, students missing from the roll, and so on. At the pedagogical, if not phenomenological, limit, animals certainly don't belong! And yet, when a dog strays in, what we discover is that it does belong, or rather, can be made to belong, affording amusement and even instruction to all, at least for a time.

I take my own instruction from a chapter, "The World on Stage," in Bert O. States's wonderful little book on theater, Great Reckonings in Little Rooms. The dog on the stage (which was the original title of this chapter) is "a nearly perfect symptom of the cutting edge of theater, the bite that it takes into actuality in order to sustain itself in the dynamic order of its own ever-dying signs and images."

But of course, unlike the stage, the classroom is, alas, not nearly so dynamic. Its space is far more conservative. Too much "actuality," in the person of a dog, only defeats its purpose, which is ultimately intellectual rather than aesthetic.

Conference space is more theatrical. While the burden of the classroom is to keep out the amplitude or variety of conferences, conference sessions themselves are pleased to admit more of actuality -- people arriving late and leaving early, babies, and even dogs. Indeed, it seems very right for conference programs to include poetry readings, theatrical performances, or special lectures by stars right alongside the usual sessions. Back on campus, readings or lectures are more aligned with the one or two plays offered by the drama department each semester.

There is a second thing about the spectacle of the dog in the classroom that follows from the first: the inescapable, mysterious presence of what has been excluded from the classroom. Each semester we do battle anew not only with cell phones or individuals not on the roll but a whole host of other things, ranging from students in back who won't stop talking to construction noise right outside the window.

Classes in which everybody belongs on the roll and always raises her hand before speaking are a great blessing. Yet day by day or week by week these classes can also be a great bore. Citing Artaud, States writes of "a theater that brings us into phenomenal contact with what exists, or rather what it is possible to do, theatrically, with what exists." Pedagogically, by contrast, our classes do too little; there are days when everybody seems to suffer from what might be called phenomenological poverty. The rattling sound of a lawnmower outside seems momentarily welcome. A buzzing insect inside can seem numinous.

But the wagging tail of a dog? Conceived of in States as "at the lowest echelon of living things that come on stage tethered to the real world," why not a dog?  What the stage does with this dog is immediately transform it into a "sign" (albeit a special, fascinating one, given the tether). What the classroom does with a dog, on the other hand, is to seek to banish it.

This is to be lamented. To lose "the real world" is too great a loss, which is why it is such a recurrent moment in education to bemoan the loss, however conceived. A dog constitutes one especially provocative example. I would not have the classroom become a kennel. But I would have the classroom be more like a stage, where dogs don't appear always under the sole sign of "disruption."

Our classrooms should be more like stages, because they already are theatrical in nature. They don't all aspire to be "cutting edge" (any more than all stage productions do). Yet signs of the correspondence between classroom and stage are everywhere, ranging from the "wardrobe" of students and teachers to the material presence of "props" and the role-governed nature of "dialogue."

Does the best teaching embrace this correspondence? Probably -- in all sorts of ways. I fret about my own teaching when I fear my own inner classroom has become too narrow, bent on excluding everything rather than doing something with anything, even students who leave "to go to the bathroom."

There are days when I wish a dog would come prancing or slobbering in. (I never imagine him growling; disruption is one thing, while danger is quite another.) There are times when the day's syllabus-authorized discourse needs to become more wayward. Especially when we have all been variously engaged in good behavior, what we can always use -- to continue with a distinction States makes -- is the shock of what the stage animal always gives: behavior only.

Perhaps back at the conference this is why Mark (the dog) moved me so. Not only was he incapable of obligatory "appreciation" of my paper. (It's almost impossible for a human being to merely "behave" at a conference or in a classroom.) He suggested possibilities I had never considered, such as reading the paper to an entire audience of dogs, or, perhaps better, listening to a paper on the same story read by a dog.

Silly? Of course. Yet such scenes might be hilarious in a play. The reason is not fundamentally different from why the sudden appearance of a dog in the classroom initially elicits laughter. A classroom is not the same thing as a conference room, but the difference dissolves when each is reborn, vividly, as a stage. In order to hasten this rebirth, I would have our classrooms go to the dogs.


Terry Caesar's last column was in praise of librarians.


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