Back to reality.

I recently finished grading exams for my “tragedy in arts and literature” seminar, and was a bit disheartened that my students had consistent difficulties with the excerpts from Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy we covered.

Nietzsche, being Nietzsche, is not prone to moral absolutes. In The Birth of Tragedy both Apollonian and Dionysian arts he describes are equally constructive and destructive (depending on whether one is discussing the individual body or collective humanity). Both are, to some extent, illusory and unattainable. Both are tragic, and both depend upon the other: the Dionysian may be a desirable state of intoxication, when one comes close to experiencing collective “reality,” but the experience occurs at the destruction of the individual self. The Apollonian hero myth may “rescue” us from Dionysian destruction (the hero encounters death, the loss of the individual self, on our behalf), but this myth is ultimately illusory (and leaves us bereft of the collective “reality” we desire).

Nietzsche is obviously complicated, and, recognising this, the Birth of Tragedy seminar was the one I worried most about in advance, and spent the most time preparing. Selecting passages that defined the major terms and concepts of his argument, and asking the students to paraphrase and ask questions of these passages as means of understanding (in their own words and thought processes), I’d hoped to arrive at a fairly nuanced understanding of the work. It seemed to work: discussion was lively, and spending more time working through the fundamentals than usual allowed us to have an interesting discussion of Nietzsche, Schlegel, and the tragedy of “reality.” I left the seminar feeling fairly confident.

This confidence was shaken in the process of grading the exams. Many of my students treated Nietzsche’s theories of the Dionysian and Apollonian arts in reductive ways, positing a hierarchy where one (the plastic Apollonian) is ultimately “better” than the other (the rhythmic Dionysian). Noting Apollo’s associations with light and “truth,” most students further associated the Apollonian with “goodness” (in the moral sense), while associating the drunken revelry of Dionysus with “badness” (frequently conflating Nietzsche’s concepts with Freud’s concepts in Civilization and its Discontents, and reading characters like Medea as slaves to their darker, murderous, primordial Dionysian halves).

I have to remind myself not to take this type situation too personally, or to read it as (necessarily) some sort of failing of myself in an educational role. While it’s true that even excellent professors (with actual credentials, and far, far more experience than myself), have bad days, or make mistakes in a lecture or seminar (and so it is alright if this also happens to me, so long as I pay attention and correct these when possible), it is equally true that students have some measure of responsibility in their own learning. Many students are intelligent enough to engage in seminar discussions, even if they have not completed their readings, but, as they have not worked through and internalised the readings for themselves, will not do as well on their exams. It is also true that with only fifty minutes a week for seminar, and with three or four other classes for which to read and study, it is possible that students have difficulty remembering, understanding, and then conveying their understanding of their readings — particularly when asked to do so in a first-year class, during an exam situation, and when the reading is as complex as The Birth of Tragedy.

It is finally true that I had a few students who wrote outstanding exams which discussed Nietzsche clearly and creatively, and this may be equally as non-indicative of my own qualities as a teaching assistant as the others. If a student finds a work interesting, and is willing to engage with it, they will do so no matter who is at the front of the room.

21 December 2008 ~ St. Catharines


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