Varieties of Educational Experience

In my first stab at drafting an inaugural post as the new editor of this forum, I went the Raymond Carver route, writing “What We Talk About When We Talk About the Discipline” across the top of a blank page. When that imagined dialogue hung fire for several weeks, I ventured greater specificity, replacing “We” with “I.” Pronouncements still unforthcoming, I searched my hard drive for toeholds. What have I talked about when I’ve talked about the discipline? My Documents folders returned zero hits for the phrase “the discipline.” I tried again, deleting “the” from the search, which revealed that I have only ever used the word “discipline” as a verb or an adjective—most often to describe the reading and writing habits and practices of the subjects of my first book (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Henry James, and Nella Larsen). This lacuna was perhaps predictable: in my early career as a graduate student and then an untenured assistant professor, I was more concerned (and more comfortable) with proffering granular descriptions of literary activity in my field than with scaling up grand claims about the literary institution my studies were constituting.

At last, then, how to confront and articulate my own conception of “the discipline” as singular noun—this organism, this discourse, this criterion? When colleagues or critics refer to our discipline, I often experience an inadvertent flash of correctional imagery—congressional hearings, prison cells, the covers of Foucault reissues—before academic milieus return to me. Yet there’s surely more overlap between such scenes of punishment and learning than we’d care to admit. Even the OED muddies these categories by acknowledging that it’s “sometimes difficult to distinguish” the penal sense of discipline from its educational sense—especially in contexts where punishment is strategically employed to reinforce instruction or training. The OED’s examples are mainly military and religious, but it’s easy to evoke educational conditions of similarly punitive aspect; indeed, within the context of literary studies, we might consider how often critical debates are framed by the terminologies of combat and crusade.

In her forthcoming book, The Teaching Archive (cowritten by Rachel Sagner Buurma), my predecessor at this blog, Laura Heffernan, outlines the many oppositional figures that dramatize our disciplinary history as a series of “method wars”—beginning with the “battle” between belletristic lecturers and philologist scholars in the late nineteenth century, and concluding with recent clashes over the fate of critique that pit historicists against formalists. Per Heffernan and Buurma, these antagonistic tropes of combat, division, and polarity dominate our disciplinary narratives on the sheer forcefulness of their rhetoric. There is often a correlation, Heffernan and Buurma observe, between critical prevalence and rhetorical simplicity: a schismatic account that would (often reductively) characterize a deeply divided state of internal factions often proves stickier and more authoritative as a diagnosis of the discipline. Yet as The Teaching Archive also suggests, many of the most influential disciplinary narratives in this polarized history are staked on thin evidence, rooted in the same few nineteenth-century polemics or “method manifestoes.” The result is an oversimplified “metadiscourse” about the state of our practice that actually misrepresents the reparative strains and pedagogical varieties within our practice.

In her inaugural post for this forum, Heffernan surveys several new approaches to disciplinary history that counter this misrepresentation—by expanding the field of eligible agents and texts that constitute subject and evidence in the history of the discipline, but also by examining how we confer and accept literary critical authority itself. Much of this pioneering work must navigate new methodological challenges, exploring dimensions of the discipline that may be removed from or actively resistant to conventional spaces, publications, and archives of record. In The Teaching Archive, this work entails looking beyond prominent research institutions to incorporate the distinct goals and practices of liberal arts colleges, large public universities, and historically black colleges. It also requires looking beyond the substantiation of academic monographs and journals to account for practitioners’ own experience of the discipline, much of which unfolds in the exploratory and provisional space of the classroom. In answering Heffernan’s call for “untold histories of the discipline,” contributors to this forum have likewise sought to enlarge our understanding of the practices, people, and places that shape and populate our disciplinary history. Previous posts in this spirit have (to cite just a few examples) considered the coterminous rise of college football and Great Book programs; uncovered a prehistory of the digital humanities; traced alternate teaching genealogies; and offered long-views of selective admissions processes and the conditions of academic labor.

In its methodological variety this forum’s archive has offered many valuable models for my recent research, which examines the formative influence of the American philosophy of pragmatism on pedagogy. As I become further immersed in this project, Heffernan’s work here and in The Teaching Archive has prompted a constructive shift in how I approach issues of evidence and authority—constitutional elements of the discipline that suddenly feel charged and productively contentious. The study of classroom practices—for which citable evidence can be scant and institutional authority and oversight attenuated—presents its own challenges, further compounded by my primary interest in pedagogical practices that might be described as “fringe” or, following Merve Emre, as “paraliterary.” (Or perhaps I am marking the boundaries of what might be called paradisciplinary.) My project begins by acknowledging how the pragmatist methods of John Dewey catalyzed major institutional shifts in North American educational systems by pioneering interactive and experiential learning. My work then turns to the founder of pragmatism, William James, who first articulated Dewey’s central idea that pedagogy should be rooted in a vital web of lived relations—between teachers and students, between learning and doing, and between aesthetic and practical realms of experience.

William James (1842-1910).
Fig. 1. William James (1842-1910). MS Am 1092 (1185), Series II, 23, Houghton Library. Wikimedia Commons.

James’s vital contributions to educational reform have been largely overshadowed by critical interest in Dewey, whose work was unequivocally informed by James’s thinking. I would argue that this neglect is largely due to James’s influence on American pedagogy being felt most forcefully outside of conventional classrooms—in contrast to Dewey’s legacy, which predominates the annals of America’s traditional institutions. While Dewey diligently worked to renovate existing educational structures, James’s central insight was more radical, claiming that most crucial learning occurs outside of a school structure, emerging in unconventional spaces that convey knowledge through alternate structures of transmission and reception. In widening my research’s educational purview beyond familiar institutional frameworks, I’ve discovered profoundly integrative approaches to Jamesian pragmatism being practiced in diverse and unexpected sites of pedagogical exchange—including settlement houses, art studios and galleries, activist organizations, and as I’ll outline here in a brief case study, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

In appending this particular case study to my introductory post in this forum, my gambit is as follows: I wonder how the pedagogical purposes and structures of A. A. might exemplify or challenge our incumbent disciplinary criteria. By what rhetoric or commitment is organizational authority earned or sustained? And by what standard of proof is evidence evaluated? To hedge any of my initial uncertainties about operating afield of conventional methodologies, I began my investigation using a familiar toolkit, by tracking references to James that appear—crucially but inconspicuously—within A. A.’s guiding text, known as the Big Book. My first move was to contextualize these Jamesian references within the origin story of the A. A. organization; my second move was to situate and elaborate these references within James’s own writings. Contextualization has involved consulting documents attributed to the founder of A. A., Bill Wilson, who emphatically acknowledges James’s foundational importance—both for his own sobriety, and for the conceptual path that Wilson would extrapolate into the Twelve Step program of recovery. The second task—reconstructing Wilson’s reading of James—encountered greater obstacles, as I’ll outline here.

Bill Wilson (1895-1971).
Fig. 2. Bill Wilson (1895-1971). Photo courtesy of Page 124 Productions.

First, a bit of background: In December 1934, Wilson admitted himself to Towns Hospital, a treatment center in Manhattan, where he reported having an ecstatic conversion experience, seized by a divine presence that delivered him from the depths of alcoholic despair. Wilson recalls how he emerged from his ecstatic state to find a copy of James’s 1902 study, The Varieties of Religious Experience, beside his hospital bed; he promptly devoured it “from cover to cover” and went on to credit Varieties with securing his release into lifelong sobriety.[1] The discovery of James’s work was momentous enough that Wilson would name James, who had died twenty-four years earlier, as the “cofounder” of A. A.

Charles B. Towns Hospital, New York, circa 1940.
Fig. 3. Charles B. Towns Hospital, New York, circa 1940. Photo courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives.

So what did Wilson specifically learn from his reading of Varieties? And how did James’s book help Wilson translate his own ineffable revelation into a “how to” recovery program currently followed by nearly two million members? The Big Book offers several starting places for answering these questions, but here I’ll focus on an Appendix added by Wilson to the second edition of the Big Book, published in 1955, which invokes James in reference to the controversial third step of the Twelve Step program: “recognizing a higher power.” The Appendix reads:

our first printing gave many readers the impression that these personality changes, or religious experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous . . . Among our rapidly growing membership of thousands of alcoholics such transformations, though frequent, are by no means the rule. Most of our experiences are what the psychologist William James calls the “educational variety” because they develop slowly over a period of time.[2]

If the “spiritual” component of a recovery experience refers to any broadly salutary shift in attitude, this “educational” component seems to designate a temporal aspect—confirming that most recovery experiences aren’t singular, instantaneous, obvious, or easy, but instead gradual, cumulative, and the product of applied commitment.

The second edition of the Big Book, published in 1955.
Fig. 4. The second edition of the Big Book, published in 1955. Wikimedia Commons.

The Big Book offers a strategically realistic way of conceptualizing sobriety—not as a lottery, but as a program. Yet this strategy also seems quite commonsensical. So does the Appendix quote James merely to burnish its method with intellectual credibility? Or does invoking James and the temporality of education hold further significance for A. A. and its varieties of recovery? These questions prompted me to return to my copy of Varieties—the source, I presumed, of the Appendix quote Wilson explicitly attributes to James. To my surprise, I couldn’t find the phrase “educational variety” anywhere in its twenty lectures; while various permutations of “education” and “variety” appear independently, they don’t appear together in Varieties—or indeed, anywhere else in James’s oeuvre. It was this discovery that spurred my methodological reckoning, compelling new questions about the textual-literary conditions under which one is authorized to make a scholarly claim. In investigating the connection between James and A. A., the issue of authority feels especially fraught. To start, there is the question of making any conclusive critical claims when my personal link to A. A. is second-hand: does my external critical assessment only serve to intellectualize and objectify a durably effective learning program, or, as bad, to presumptively gatekeep the heritage of William James? When commencing this investigation, I planned to limit myself simply to tracking James’s verifiable textual influence on the Big Book. On what grounds, then, would I proceed when James’s influence cannot in fact be verified by conventional academic procedures?

Here I look once more to James, whose method for navigating an impasse is to ask: “what difference does it make if x is the case?” This pragmatist question opens a way forward (or admits a dead end) by clarifying the stakes of an investigation—what the consequences are, why they matter, and for whom. In the instance at hand: What difference does it makes if the phrase “educational variety” cannot be directly attributed to James? Unmooring the phrase from a Jamesian source may recast the terms of James’s role in “cofounding” A. A., but does it fundamentally alter the authorizing function James’s work maintains for members of A. A.? Wilson’s origin story appears at first to uphold James as an authority on conversion, and in citing James the Big Book seems to put that authority in support of A. A.’s expansive understanding of religious experience. But what James actually said turns out to be less important than what Wilson received, understood, and put to use from his reading of James. Consequently, James’s authority is conferred less through intellectual precision and more through intellectual permissiveness; in what paraphrasing James—and also what misciting James, however inadvertently—makes possible for Wilson, and by extension for other members of A. A.

In a way, Wilson’s ventriloquizing of James displaces the currency of scholarly authority with the primacy of relation—Wilson’s spiritual relation to James, Wilson’s personal and program-founding relation to other A. A. members, and ultimately the members’ interdependent relation to one another. The transformative force of these relations directly informs A. A.’s twelfth and final step, in which members must pass on their experience by guiding others through the program. The best way to help oneself, A. A. teaches, is to continue in the practice of helping others. This principle of interdependence echoes James’s philosophy of education, which at its core holds that teaching is the best way to learn (and to teach one must also have been taught). Conversions that sustain sobriety are by definition educational in that they allow alcoholics to learn from what they have undergone—to put what they have suffered to practical use. And in becoming students of their own experience, they also become teachers.

Wilson’s misquotation of James has two consequences. The first is structural: authority no longer vests downward from James → Wilson → critic → reader, but is instead dispersed casually through a decentralized network of pedagogical and interpretive relations. The second is methodological: when Wilson puts James’s words in quotes and omits bibliographic information, he sends anyone interested in learning more on a far-reaching search through James’s writings. In mishandling James’s actual words, then, Wilson revealed to me how the Big Book is in fact animated by a more general principle of Jamesian pragmatism, which is also an ethos; the guiding belief that abstract principles, ideas, and received narratives only have true currency when they are lived out and given concrete use.

The imperatives of A. A. are pedagogical at heart, and the Big Book shapes the practices of this pedagogy with its reverently errant invocation of James. If my continuing reappraisal of the discipline seeks methodological examples that fall not into binaries of combat and crusade, but instead model critical and educational receptivity, reparativity, generosity, variety, non-reductiveness, and usefulness, then the history of A. A. seems highly relevant. By privileging the ethos of James’s words over their strict legitimacy as textual evidence, Wilson redistributes James’s scholarly authority so that it reinforces relationality rather than hierarchy. Likewise, the more I read the Big Book, the more it reveals itself as an insightful and nuanced interpolation of James’s philosophy of education, and as a paramount text in the disciplinary history of pragmatism. It may in fact be the twentieth century’s most sustained and effective example of applied pragmatist criticism—and the meetings based on its criteria of conversion represent an ideal of pragmatist pedagogical principles in action. Here it’s helpful to recall the etymology of the word “conversion” and its Latinate roots in the verb convertere, where vertere means to turn (in character or nature) or transform, and the prefix con- means together. By definition, then, conversion brings the converted into greater relationality with someone or something other than oneself—the interlocutor of a higher power, the empathetic template of a resonant text, or the witness of a community. Such dialectic processes of educational conversion are, it seems to me, a useful corrective to many incumbent histories of the discipline that would rely on entrenched and reductive genealogies of authority.

Having offered this definition, the implicit comparison of conversion with education does, I’ll admit, make me immediately uneasy. I’m similarly hesitant to directly align A. A. meetings with classrooms, or to schematize the Big Book’s rhetorical anatomy using the methods of literary critical analysis, or to imagine that the merits of A. A. are served in any way by the curious warrant of my critical attention. Instead, it is the discipline itself that might benefit, as is always the case, from investigative subjects that reflect its familiar methodologies in alternate light. My wager is that there’s real value in asking what it would mean to explore pedagogical principles exemplified by A. A. within more conventional literary critical contexts; to bring a bit more James to our Deweyan operations. I’ll sign off by reiterating Heffernan’s vision for this blog, as a space of exploration for the “untold histories of literary study” in the twentieth century—and by hoping that the open questions I’ve raised may spur readers of this blog to extend their own investigations of the discipline in directions they might not have otherwise—and to share what they find with this forum.


[1] Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, 1957), 64.

[2] Alcoholics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book, 2nd Ed. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, 1955), 555.