Transference in education: Britzman at the CNPC conference

This past Friday I had the pleasure of attending part of the Canadian Network for Psychoanalysis and Culture’s first conference, The Freudian Legacy. I attended Deborah Britzman’s plenary talk “An unexpected novelty: Reading Freud’s technique papers with the arrival of pedagogy” and a panel session called Transsexualities featuring Oren Gozlan, Patricia Elliot, Trish Salah, and Sheila Cavanagh.

I must state up front that I am not fluent in academic language. I can read an academic paper the way I read in French – fairly slowly, giving my brain lots of time to parse infrequently used words, and giving myself permission to look up words I can’t figure out from the context. But I can’t really watch French movies or listen to French radio – I just can’t follow the language quickly enough. I also lack the background knowledge to make sense of allusions and cultural references. I might know that “Lacanian” means “pertaining to the work of Lacan”, but I have only a very hazy idea of what that means in the context of the field.

So it is possible – or rather, inevitable – that the majority of what I heard went far, far over my head. I found the panel discussion particularly difficult to follow. I also am generally unfamiliar with the conventions and context of the academic conference, only having been to one or two before, and always as a performer in something or other; I found the format a bit alienating in itself.

But it got me out of my comfort zone and introduced me to some new ideas, and there was free coffee – I’m not complaining or anything. So before I get into my reactions, here are a few terms which I looked up after the fact and which would have to been good to have known beforehand:

 Psychologism – the idea that a discipline other than psychology is grounded in psychology. Apparently this is a fringe position among philosophers of logic. Dr. Britzman made a passing reference in her talk to “not falling into psychologism”, which in context I think meant “not trying to explain every difficulty in an educational context as a psychological problem”.

Cathexis – the investment of mental and/or emotional energy in something or someone.

Transference – I already knew what this meant, but it’s important: the displacement of emotions from one significant relationship to another. In a therapeutic context the patient will feel transference towards their therapist.

 Counter-transference – the same as transference, only from the point of view of the therapist. Or in other words, the therapist’s emotional entanglement with the patient.

Monism – the idea that all things are one in source or essence. In the context of the panel discussion it seemed to mean something similar to “psychologism”, i.e., not explaining everything in terms of the Oedipal struggle or penis envy.

Jouissance – according to Wikipedia, “a transgressive, excessive kind of pleasure linked to the division and splitting of the subject involved”. I do not find this definition particularly enlightening, and the context didn’t help me make sense of it either.

Death Drive – the compulsion towards death, destruction, the return to the inorganic. Freud saw this as opposing the ego drives towards propogation and creativity. The source of many self-destructive impulses.

Dr. Britzman’s talk centred around Freud’s 1932 “New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis”. If I had been a bit more on top of things I would have read it ahead of time, but oh well. It’s available here on scribd if you want to have a crack at it yourself. Using this text as a starting point Dr. Britzman explored, among other things, how the concept of transference expresses itself in education.

I’ve always thought that music lessons – singing lessons in particular – have a lot in common with the therapeutic process. Both are emotional, fraught experiences, where the patient or student learns how to break down their own resistance to change, to get past their fears and preconceptions in order to express something authentic; where the teacher or therapist listens and guides rather than prescribing or imposing a solution (that’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway). But for some reason it had never occurred to me that transference could occur in a teaching/learning relationship. And it absolutely does! It is the elephant in the singing studio, how the complicated feelings each party has towards themselves, their voice, their career, the music world in general get projected onto the other party. In her talk Dr. Britzman quoted some famous analyst – I wish I’d written down which one – saying that as a therapist, you cannot help but hate and fear your patients sometimes; and the more you acknowledge and are aware of this the less you feel it.

This is terrible for business, but I must acknowledge that yes, sometimes I hate and fear the kids I teach. They are a source of trouble and worry and responsibility. They stay up too late the night before their theory exams and don’t memorize their lieder well enough and refuse to stand with correct posture no matter how many times I remind them. They have needs and expectations and insecurities that I am forced to deal with, and that make me uncomfortably aware of my own needs, expectations, and insecurities. They show the same resistance to learning to sing well that patients in therapy show to facing themselves – even though they are there voluntarily and theoretically want to change for the better, change is challenging, difficult, and asks a lot of our inner resources. And I show resistance to teaching them, to really engaging with their needs and with the process, because it demands vulnerability and risk of failure on my part.

Dr. Britzman asked a tantalizing question: that we should ask not “how can we learn?” but “why DON’T we want to learn?” Why do we have a resistance towards learning? Rationality, she suggested, is not the only pedagogy. The resistance that comes from emotion can’t be corrected with proper teaching technique.

As seems to be a theme with much of the academic writing I encounter, I did not come away with a lot in the way of concrete ways of making this idea into reality. In the Q&A session someone did ask how this could translate into teaching (she was talking about a university classroom, so not exactly the same thing), and Dr. Britzman said “Well, I have some teaching tips”, which were all very useful – make the students work together, acknowledge and engage their emotions – but not a full realization of what is a very big idea.

Similarly while I find it eye-opening to think that transference and countertransference are happening in my teaching practice, I don’t know exactly what to do with that information. But perhaps that is too much to ask from a 45-minute lecture, and I should buckle down and read Dr. Britzman’s books on the subject and figure the thing out by myself.

I didn’t have a strong reaction to the panel discussion, which was in much more impenetrable academese, but perhaps I will read a whole lot of Oren Gozlan and blog about it next week.


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