Dr. Kevin Spicer is Chair of the English Department as well as an active Professor here at USF. I had the chance to interview him regarding his teaching style, which I found unique to the profession, after taking his Adolescent Literature class in Spring of this year.
DS: What genres do you most enjoy?
KS: There aren’t a whole lot of genres that I don’t enjoy—I like to range and roam quite a bit. I do have a fondness for sci-fi and fantasy—and I am one of those people that legitimately thinks Tolkien is incredibly overrated. That being said, I quite like the so-called “hard sci-fi” that shows up in the work of Kim Stanley Robinson and numerous others. I’m also a huge fan of China Miéville’s work—he’s an interesting mix of “hard sci-fi” and straight-up fantastic world-building fantasy. His trilogy set in New Crobuzon (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council) is brilliant and I could not recommend it more highly.
Of course, I dig all the more typical and classical works within the realm of literature—I love Shakespeare and the late Dickens—Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend especially. There might not be a genre of literature I don’t like—lame as that no doubt sounds. I’m sure I could talk on and on for this question.
DS: What kind of student were you when you were younger? Did you enjoy schooling?
KS: I think that for me this is a rather difficult question to answer—or perhaps it’s not so much difficult as it’s perhaps somewhat ironic to say that in all kinds of ways I was an atrociously horrible student—at least within the institutional confines of formal schooling, so to speak. I had always loved philosophy and thinking and reading and had always done a great deal of it outside of school—within school I just found myself drifting and always having a rather difficult time within that context. Outside of school I read Nietzsche and Sartre and Heidegger when I was a senior in high school and then even more extensively when I went to college. One of my mentors who used to be a faculty member here at USF—Marvin (Vin) Katilius-Boydstun—often used to say that he thought that the worst students from the perspective of formal schooling often made the best teachers, if only because that made it easier for them to sympathize and empathize with students who just did not particularly fit within certain kind of molds that the formal system of schooling and education so often puts students into in one way or another.
DS: When did you know you wanted to become a professor?
KS: In many ways I absolutely did not know that I wanted to become a teacher until I had tried it out for myself in graduate school. I thought before I actually started doing it that there was no way that I would enjoy it and also that there was no way I would be in any way good at it. This is the spot where I do want to again try to be a little bit modest and say that I’m not quite sure that I’m a good teacher. It’s true that I have colleagues who tell me I’m good at it and I’ve received a fair number of accolades. More students than I can count have said that I do it rather well, but even after all these years I’m not quite sure that they’re right. I think it would be so nice if we could manage to see ourselves from the perspective of others or of the world that gazes at us. I wonder if things would be so much easier if we could do something like that and then come to some kind of working conclusion.
DS: What do you enjoy most about teaching here at USF?
KS: I definitely think it’s a combination of all kinds of things. For starters, I am exceedingly grateful to be at an institution where teaching is so heavily prized. USF is a place that calls itself a teaching institution—and I think that’s true. There are all kinds of other characteristics that go along with this that make the focus on teaching so clear: the small size, the opportunity to get to know students well over the course of their time with us, and all kinds of other things that come with a “smaller” school. I am also profoundly grateful to my faculty colleagues in the English Department—each of whom I have had tons of profound pedagogical conversations with over the years. I was also here when both Dr. John Bowers and Vin Katilius-Boydstun taught—each of whom helped me to become the teacher that I am today.
DS: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself back in your college days, what might it be?
KS: I would probably have two—and they’re ones that I could elaborate on endlessly, but I won’t. The first would be: don’t be so arrogant. Secondly: figure out some way to indulge your sense of humor. I would bet that when I was in my late teens I was perhaps a rather stereotypical late teen: moody, a bit too much on the depressive side of things—and it certainly didn’t help any that I sat around reading Sartre and Heidegger and the existentialists—even worse was that I thought I knew what they were talking about! Of course, I didn’t know what they were talking about at all—not really. Later when doing doctoral work on these thinkers and philosophers I figured out what they were up to—but not when I was eighteen, nineteen. I slide altogether too far towards a fundamentally tragic view of life. Life is tragic in so many ways, no doubting that—but there is a more joyous, festive, carnivalesque conception of being that was hard to find in Heidegger and Sartre. I found it in other thinkers and poets, Nietzsche, for sure, Dante even. In other words: don’t slide too far towards a fundamentally melancholic conception of the world, life, etc.
DS: You have a distinct teaching style. How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
KS: I am not quite sure how I would describe it. I would say that my pedagogy is fundamentally student-centered and focused—quite radically so, I might add. Of course, it’s possible—more than possible—to have a pedagogy without anything more than that: just that it is student-focused and centered. However, if you grilled me for mine, I think I would say that there are two things in particular that come to mind. The first one has been with me for a really long time and the second is quite a bit more recent. I think the first major component of my pedagogy comes from psychoanalysis—and especially the strange brew of theory that comes from the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, who was by far the most fascinating greatest analyst after Freud. Freud very famously said towards the end of his career that there were three professions that were impossible: politics, teaching, and psychoanalysis itself. I find it endlessly curious how two out of three are things I engage with quite often. I suppose one should also mention that every teacher probably needs to admit that in their role as a teacher they themselves perform a profoundly political function and role. I’m not a therapist and I’m not a counselor and I’m certainly not an analyst or clinician by any stretch of the imagination but I have read a fair amount of literature that comes out of psychoanalytic circles and it seems to me that there are all kinds of ways in which I often have to ask myself if in order to be a good teacher, must they to some degree be somewhat of a good analyst as well?
I’m not sure if this will transition well here, but I’ll give it a go nevertheless. I think that one perhaps should take very seriously the possibility that what Freud calls the unconscious does exist in some way, shape, or form—or at some level of reality, so to speak. I actually find that all kinds of things become slightly easier to understand if one is working within a psychoanalytic framework. Why is it that one teacher can teach something to a student and it just does not stick at all—but then another teacher could teach the exact same lesson and all of a sudden everything becomes crystal-clear for the student? Freud had a word he used to try to explain such things—he called it the “transference”—and I find that word and concept to be exceedingly helpful to me as a teacher (and also as a student too). I think the unconscious exists—and that means we teach and we learn with it. I have an unconscious and it impacts all of my pedagogical relations. Students have it as well and it plays all kinds of roles in terms of whether students learn, how they can learn, what it is a student can be consciously clear about (in terms of their own knowledge), and what they can’t. I think to discount this all as silly Freudian psychobabble is quite an unfortunate mistake.
This also leads me somewhat naturally into my second major philosophical undergirding, the one that is slightly newer in terms of my own ever-evolving ideas and thinking about pedagogy. This newer cornerstone is definitely something that I can pinpoint and locate very easily to roughly three years ago or so when the department hired Dr. Ioanes—whose own scholarly work managed to spark a return for me to all kinds of things that are now quite central to how I think about and teaching. I think what a good analyst does—and this is perhaps something good readers do as well—is they are able to read a situation and, as Lacan would say, “punctuate” a discourse in a way that opens up all the possibilities of interpretation that they can. We all know how different inflections, different intonations of the voice, can spin a word or a sentence in many different ways. Imagine a kind of question that you could easily ask pretty much anyone within any profession—something along the lines of “Why do you teach?” or “Why do you play baseball?” or whatever the case may be. A good reader can hear such a question and, through changes in inflection and tone and emphasis and much more, twist and turn that sentence in all kinds of different ways. I think it takes a great deal of skill and rhetorical power to read a situation (or a poem or a play or a story) and then fashion and create responses to these things that allow for as much freedom and flexibility in those readings as possible.
During each and every class session, one does not really quite know where things are going to go or where the conversation is going to lead. I can imagine all kinds of people pursuing fields where they need not face such uncertainty during each class period. I myself find it quite wonderful and exciting. I do not have elaborate, finely tuned lesson plans that “set an agenda” for a group’s conversation each day. (I can imagine that statement being construed as outright sacrilege by so many educators and pedagogues. “No lesson plans!” they would say.) Are class sessions like a heavily scripted TV drama? Mine usually aren’t. Are they some kind of bizarre mix of the scripted and the improvisational? That’s getting slightly closer to the truth, I would bet.
I think that it’s really important to note that it’s difficult for me to say what my teaching philosophy is at the end of the day. Whatever it is, it’s definitely not mine, in any real strong way—it’s the product of all kinds of other thinkers, scholars, friends, colleagues, etc., such that to say it was “mine” would be a mistake. Given that we do have a small-ish department, what this means is that, in so many ways, I never teach alone. I also think that over the past few years, the department has become more and more of a collaborative teaching unit. All of us, more often than not, have a pretty good idea what the others are doing, reading, teaching, and talking about in their own classrooms. This itself was my own first intentional stab at working around the “silo” problem in universities where I only know what is going on in my classroom and am largely oblivious of the other English courses and what is happening in them. A teaching philosophy that describes a single faculty member in a single classroom is missing some incredible opportunities. There is no doubt that those who have done advanced study in the humanities know that our disciplines can be incredibly solitary affairs: we read alone, we think alone, we write alone, all of which lead us, quite often, to teach alone. However, my years on the tenure clock at USF have led me to embrace a teaching philosophy that seeks to fight against this tendency.
What this leads to is a pedagogy that seeks to make every classroom session look and sound like it has more voices in it than one would initially think if they simplify just counted the number of bodies in the room. My body and presence can serve as the dummy that countless other voices ventriloquize. A classroom should be a meeting place of many voices—starting with the students’ own, to be sure—and each day one should be bringing more and more of them to bear on the problems that concern us. I am quite proud of the way in which faculty bring each other’s voices into their own classrooms so often. I think it’s an incredibly unique thing about our Department.