Learning How to Teach from Mrs. Dalloway

Margaret D. Stetz (The University of Delaware)

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would design the syllabus herself."

Well, no, Virginia Woolf never actually wrote those words. But she might as well have, because that is what I heard in my head when I first read her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, fifty years after it was published, while sitting in a dorm room in Massachusetts. Right from the real opening line, in which an upper-class British woman announced that she would buy the flowers herself for a party that day in her home, the fictional situations spoke to my concerns. While the protagonist agonized over how to succeed as a host in London, I worried about my future as a teacher in the U.S. Clarissa Dalloway became my model, as I watched her both take control and let go—plan ways to bring her guests together and then allow them to be their different and unique selves. She showed me that parties (like courses) were not something that fit a formula, but a form of art.

In the mid-1970s, I was a graduate student, excited and also daunted by the prospect of becoming a professor soon and wondering what to do to prepare myself. Harvard University's Ph.D. program in English, however, did not consider teaching of any importance. We were there to learn to be scholars, and good teaching methods were something we supposedly would absorb by osmosis, if at all. Clearly, how we taught wouldn’t matter anyway to our academic careers, since some of the worst instructors I'd ever encountered were members of the English department’s distinguished faculty. They were sometimes unprepared; given to long and self-indulgent digressions (even in seminars, where no lecturing was meant to go on); easily offended, particularly if someone dared to walk in the door late; uninterested in students or their opinions; and occasionally, especially on Mondays, cranky and visibly hung over. The further problem was that they were men, every last one of them. I couldn't see myself replicating their style, whether their self-confident posturing, their penchant for speaking ex cathedra (using sentences that began sententiously, “Harvard believes that…” as though the ivy-covered walls were talking), or their shabby suits, which signaled a literal transcendence of the material world.

Where could I go for guidance? Harvard’s campus did house a brand new Teaching Center. One of my classmates tried it and was offered a session of practice teaching, videotaped by a camera behind a two-way mirror, so that she could critique herself afterwards. “What did you learn?” I asked. “I never knew my ass looked so big,” she said. “That’s all.” Seeing herself from that angle made her so self-conscious that she couldn’t take in anything else. I was sure that I wouldn’t fare any better.

I found my teaching mentor when I enrolled in the only graduate literature course devoted to work by a woman writer and encountered Woolf's anxious, self-doubting, yet inspiring protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway. Not that we were in any way alike. She was aristocratic, rich, and raised in an English country house, while I was working-class, Jewish, and from New York City. She was middle-aged, and I was twenty-two. She had been in love with a woman, but now had a husband and a grown child, while I was in love with a man, but had resolved never to marry and become Mrs.-Somebody-Else. She had no professional career, while I was eager to get one started. Nevertheless, I saw from the first scene onwards how determined she was to bring people together at her party and to turn an ephemeral gathering into something not only memorable, but beautiful. That was what I wanted my classroom to be: a place where diverse people assembled, and where an extraordinary fusion happened, so that they not only learned, but experienced what Clarissa called “the fun” of being alive in the moment.

None of that would come from the teaching opportunities at Harvard. Graduate students could only be “section leaders.” This involved running meetings with undergraduates after a professor, who controlled the course, had delivered his lecture to four or five hundred students. My job was just to reinforce his interpretations of the books he had chosen. I wouldn’t get a literature class of my own, anymore than women writers before Woolf’s time had gotten A Room of One’s Own. But someday there would be a course title with my name attached to it. Then, like Clarissa, I would need to decide how to avoid failure—the prospect of everything falling apart that haunts her at the beginning of her party—and how to make a space instead where human connection and revelations were possible.

Every time a new academic year begins for me now—many decades after finishing the Ph.D.—I still use in my classrooms what I learned from Mrs. Dalloway. Her most important lessons are:

1) Parties—and classes—are creative activities.

University administrators today in the U. S. often refer to courses as “curriculum delivery systems,” as though they can be standardized and measured through data collection. Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway reminds me that they are also expressions of a personal vision, like works of art, calling for the exercise of unquantifiable talents such as imagination and intuition. Yes, classes and parties depend on exhaustive preparation in advance. (Clarissa not only buys the flowers, but goes over and over the menu, before the party and afterwards.) Nonetheless, they rise and fall on luck—on who shows up and what they bring to the mix—as well as on the atmosphere that the host/instructor consciously creates. A welcoming environment goes a long way. “How delightful to see you!” Clarissa cries to each guest. “How wonderful it is to be here with you!” I tell the students, and mean it.

2) Parties—and classes—are collaborations.

Although she speaks of it as “my party,” Clarissa pays loving tribute to the work of the women she employs in her house and to her husband. She thanks everyone effusively. My classes reflect the behind-the-scenes contributions of everybody from librarians, who help provide materials, to the staff who clean the classrooms and put them in order. I thank them all and urge the students to do so, too. And if, at the end of the semester, students pay me a compliment, I acknowledge openly that the course was a success due to the people who took it and participated in the discussions—who, in effect, taught it with me. Good participation, moreover, is nothing you can coerce or demand; you can only invite it and make room for it, as Clarissa does with her guests.

3) Parties—and classes—are no refuge from reality.

Death enters Clarissa’s party, when Dr. Bradshaw tells her about the suicide of his patient, Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WW1 veteran. Pain and confusion enter American classrooms, too, through the serious illnesses and even deaths of students, of their friends and family members, or through losses of our own. Our reactions to these unexpected events shape how students judge us as instructors and, moreover, as people. They also affect how students will remember the course and feel about the material, which is inseparable from the human context in which they learned it. Clarissa’s first impulse is to be outraged at the disruption. (“What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party?” she asks herself.) Her second is to go off alone to an empty room for reflection. There, she identifies imaginatively with Septimus’s suffering and with his choice to end it, but recommits herself to living and to offering her gift—the giving of parties—to others: “What she liked was simply life. ‘That’s what I do it for,’ she said, speaking aloud, to life.’” She returns to her guests. If the worst happens, Clarissa’s actions told me, it’s all right to stop, to withdraw temporarily from the scheduled action, to show empathy with others, to focus on what matters, and not to behave like a machine or a hostage to the syllabus.

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When I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I was nearly thirty years younger than Woolf’s 51-year-old heroine. Now I am in my middle sixties, over a dozen years her senior, and her insistence that she is very old seems laughable. But nothing else about her does. Clarissa Dalloway came along when I needed her: someone who understood what her own powers were and how to draw on them, but who never abused power to impose her will on others. She demonstrated that—whether in parties or classrooms—joy and enthusiasm are more valuable than force or rules. In the decades since, each time I have received a teaching award (there have been a few), I have been grateful for her example. I am glad that, long after I have designed my last syllabus, she will always be standing at the top of her staircase, calling out, “Remember my party to-night!” and inviting others to join the fun.

Quarterly Horse 3 (2019), http://www.quarterlyhorse.org/2019/stetz.