Teaching & Transference: A Response to Ann Turkle

Eric Torgersen | September 1989

Eric Torgersen

My first response to Ann Turkle's letter: false alarm. Turkle appears to imagine some great Freudian pedagogical juggernaut bearing down on her, but she can relax: it's only me with a couple of suggestions.

Throughout, Turkle refuses to grant the tentativeness I insisted on: where she says "Torgersen contends," for example, Torgersen merely speculates. I tried to explore the implications of a single point of contact-transference-between psychoanalysis and teaching; I did not propose that teaching in its entirety is like psychoanalysis in its entirety because that would have been ridiculous. (Turkle cannot resist misstating this parallel I did not draw to make it even less palatable: surely instead of "illness/neurosis=creative process" the accurate equation would be "healing process=creative process.") Not only failing to notice the restraint in what I wrote, Turkle appears to imagine that this imposing Freudian model I never created was meant to be normative: that teachers ought to act like analysts, and teaching ought to be conducted in the manner of psychoanalysis. That's certainly a horrible idea, but I'm going to have to insist on calling it "Turkle's nightmare" rather than "Torgersen's model."

Freud did not write about transference in cases where the analyst is female, but in our day the analyst sometimes is. I didn't speculate about how the transference in teaching might operate when the teacher is female, because I couldn't know from experience, but quite a few women have told me they found the essay useful, and several have, in conversation, done what I proposed: filled in the gaps in my account with experiences of their own. Thus if Ann Turkle wants to claim that there is no room in the modest model I did create for the experience of women as teachers-which I think is obviously wrong-she ought at least to try to prove it, but she doesn't.

Other detail responses: where Turkle imagines I am assuming great power and control, I would have said I was proposing a bit of responsibility. Where she hears me Drowse a double standard. I was rather acknowledging second thoughts or double-mindedness. (I should have credited Anthony Petrosky's article more fully: "In and Out of John Logan's Workshops," Ironwood 30, Fall 1987.)

Underneath our nearly perfect failure to understand each other must lie some deep cause. Is it some kind of two-cultures gap? Ann Turkle has read a lot about "creativity": it's never occurred to me to read about it. I don't teach "creativity"; I teach the writing of poetry (and sometimes of fiction), about which I am assumed to know something both by training and because I am a poet. I emphatically prefer to define the transaction between me and my students in this clear and specific way rather than in the idealistic terms Ann Turkle proposes in her last two paragraphs, because I have so often seen such idealism abused in both small and large ways. (And with respect to Turkle's suspicion that I'm just a lazy, dull teacher making excuses, I'd say that those who need such idealism are at best no more likely to have the human qualities that warm up a classroom and spark a discussion than those who don't.) In an interview in the February 1989 Newsletter Madison Smam Bell makes just the point I would make:

It has been decided in academia, I think rightly, that workshops in writing will be about technique and the mechanics of the construction of the text instead of being about any sort of mystical creative process. The reason... is that teaching methods which get very involved in process, sort of primary process, have a disposition to turn into cults- where the teacher becomes the guru and has excessive power over the imaginations of the students, and not just their methodology. You get little miniature Jonestowns.

Of course Ann Turkle has no such thing in mind- but it really does happen. My essay was meant as a small bit of corrective demystification.


Eric Torgersen is gathering his essays on poetry into a collection: Closing the Crack Between the Worlds; he will be the moderator for a panel on Formalism at the next AWP annual conference.

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