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Review of "Death in the Classroom"

By Jeffrey Berman
State University of New York Press, 2009
Review by Joshua Gidding, Ph.D. on Jun 30th 2009
Death in the Classroom

In the Spring semester of 2006, at the State University of New York at Albany, English professor Jeffrey Berman taught an undergraduate course entitled "Love and Loss in Literature and Life".  Death in the Classroom: Writing about Love and Loss is the story of that course, which turned out to be an unforgettable adventure for both students and instructor.  But the book tells another story as well: how Berman used the course to help him grieve the death of his wife Barbara, two years earlier, from pancreatic cancer.  Indeed, it was Barbara's death that gave rise to the idea of the course, as it had in the case of Berman's previous book, Dying to Teach: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Learning

It was Berman's intention, all along, to write a book based on his and his students' experiences in the course.  To this end, he and his teaching assistant each kept a detailed diary of every class meeting and writing assignment, and Berman also seems to have saved every piece of student writing produced in the course, including seven three-page papers, a midterm, and a final exam.  Many excerpts from these writings -- and a few entire papers -- are reproduced in the book.  (There were sixty students enrolled in the course; you do the math.)

While the sheer volume of student writing included here sometimes makes for heavy sledding (I didn't always share in Berman's high estimate of the quality of his students' writing), it also points to an aspect of the course, and Berman's teaching philosophy, that is central to his book.  Berman -- whose students call him Jeff -- is a passionate proponent of what he calls "empathic teaching" (the title of another earlier book), which aims at narrowing the distance between teacher and student through an emphasis on "self-disclosing" or "risky" writing that is often personal in nature, and can be therapeutic in effect.  "The 'talking cure' and the 'writing cure'," says Berman, who has also authored two books of psychoanalytic literary criticism, "are parallel journeys toward self-knowledge and self-healing", and "students ... are willing to make these painful or shameful self-disclosures only when they believe that their teacher and classmates will respond empathically, not judgmentally." 

This approach to teaching is controversial, and Berman makes an examination of that controversy part of his book.  Some of his colleagues have found his emphasis on self-disclosing writing to be "voyeuristic, narcissistic, and predatory", and according to one of his best students, "Sara" (all students included in the book have given themselves pseudonyms; "Sara" suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and her writings on that and other subjects are quite eloquent), "outraged academics have accused him of playing therapist to his students' patients, and in doing so, putting his students at risk."  Berman devotes considerable space to justifying his educational philosophy, both through his own cogent (though sometimes defensive) arguments, and through numerous -- perhaps too numerous -- student testimonials. 

There is no doubt, however, that Berman is a caring and compassionate teacher, who has obtained striking results in the classroom.  His claim that "affective teaching is effective teaching" seems to be borne out by the thoughtfulness of some of his students' work.  "Carly" writes movingly of helping her parents care for her dying grandmother, and "Elijah", orphaned at four, tells of being too small to help his mother, a drug addict sick with AIDS, get clean pants and underwear down from the "mountain of a dresser":

As fate would have it the pants and underwear drawer had to be the very top drawer.  I couldn't reach the drawer or get it open.  And I just felt like I failed her.  I started crying and she kept telling me it's okay but in my mind all I remember was her being so sick and weak and asking me to do something as simple as get some pants and I couldn't even do that for her.  I felt like the worst person in the world.  She eventually came out of the bathroom, cleaned up, changed clothes and went to bed.  We went to sleep and when I woke up there was an ambulance and cop cars and all these lights everywhere.  That was the last time I saw my mother and that was the night she passed away.

Another student (unnamed), who wasn't an orphan, might as well have been.  She writes:

When I was 13 years old, I bought a box of razors from CVS....I had never mutilated my body before, but I acted as though I was a professional.  I cleaned my skin with rubbing alcohol before I carved in the outside of my right arm: EMPATHY.  My teachers spotted it before my parents did.  When I was forced to show my mother, she asked me what it meant.

One can't help noting here that the student's word choice in her act of self-mutilation seems too pat to be true, especially considering that her essay was written for a class based on "empathic teaching".  If the story is true, however (and Berman doesn't question that it is), then clearly her mother would have benefited from taking Berman's class. 

          "Breanna", the daughter of an alcoholic father who died of lung cancer, repeatedly credits Berman's class with saving her life.  Here Berman is more skeptical, attributing her claim to possible psychological projection and transference, but then becomes rather defensive in his explanation:

Neither Breanna nor I transgressed our roles as student and teacher: there were no boundary violations....  At no time did she ask me for advice about her personal problems, nor did I offer any.  Most of my comments on her essays focused on grammatical and stylistic suggestions for revision, which helped her to become...a better writer.  That her last essays are so well-written demonstrates her academic success in "Love and Loss" and validates her claims about the course's impact on her life.

With stories like these, it is no surprise that more class time was spent reading aloud and responding to the student essays than discussing the assigned readings (which included the Book of Job, selected poems of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, Wuthering Heights, and A Farewell to Arms.)  Writing assignments included a classmate's obituary, a eulogy of a loved one (either dead or living -- Berman includes his own "self-eulogy", shared with his students, in an appendix), an essay on euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide, and an essay on "Ten Things to Do Before I Die" (a topic inspired by the movie "My Life without Me").  The latter was by far the most popular assignment, and elicited answers both predictable ("getting married" and "falling in love" were the most common wishes) and unique, such as "putting a .45 Magnum to the grill of my 1997 VW Jetta" and "eating an entire Thanksgiving dinner all by myself -- turkey and all."  (The latter serving, presumably, not only as preamble to but also as cause of death.)  In grading these writing assignments, Berman chose to disregard content and determine the grades on writing quality alone, "since the writing topics are highly subjective, with no right or wrong answers."  This procedure strikes me as odd, presuming as it does not only that writing can be separated from content, but also that the content of a subjective essay cannot reasonably be evaluated and assessed.  This is like saying there is no difference between informed and ignorant opinion.  Berman's own book serves as a counterexample, demonstrating that subjective content is neither trivial nor separable from the fine quality of its expression.

          Considering the personal emphasis of this book, I think it appropriate to end on a personal note.  Berman's grieving of his wife Barbara struck a chord with me. I lost my wife Diane five years ago to breast cancer.  Berman says, of writing his previous book Dying to Teach, a memoir of Barbara, that "it was easier writing about her every day than not writing about her....  I was so focused on writing about Barbara's life and death that I forgot I was heartsick and grief-stricken.  By losing myself in work, I was paradoxically saving my life."  I couldn't agree more, and experienced the same feeling when I was writing an autobiography after Diane died.  She too played a large part in my book, and served as my muse, as Barbara did for Jeff.  The adventure that constituted our respective lives with our soul-mates was continued, in Jeff's case, in the class that was, among other things, a remembrance of Barbara's life.  I envy him the experience of that class, and wish I had been there to share it with him and his students.  But having read his inspired and inspiring book, I feel that I was.


© 2009 Joshua Gidding


Joshua Gidding, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Dowling College, is author of Failure: An Autobiography.

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