Teaching Winnicott: On Listening and More Than Listening

by Jordan Alexander Stein

We teachers don’t always know how to walk the line separating the pedagogical from the extra-pedagogical.  Years ago, when I was fairly new to the job, I found myself in office hours listening to a student in some amount of pain.  I gave her a hearing, brokered an accommodation, and sent her on her way.  But as the day went on, I began to fret that I hadn’t done enough––that I could and should have been more encouraging, or at least told her I recognized the bravery that comes with asking for help.  So I turned to friends for advice, and one memorably emailed to say “Therapy is 95% listening and 5% things you’re not qualified to do.”  Their point was that, in doing no more than listening, it may well be that I’d done enough.

In the ensuing years, as I’ve continued to do my best within the limits of my qualifications as a teacher, I’ve nonetheless maintained some curiosity about that other 5% of things I’m not qualified to do.  One way of naming what is included there, perhaps, comes through a metaphor D.W. Winnicott uses in various essays, where he describes what patients seek from therapy as mending.  I love this word because of the assuredness it implies: that the therapist can both see the problem and engineer its solution that someone, somewhere, is qualified to do that extra 5% of things beyond listening.

While I very much want my students to have the chance to mend, however, I also very much think that my success as a teacher involves not trying to be a mender.  Focusing my job on that “95% listening” often takes 110% of my concentration, and even then I’m not always sure I listen well enough.  An enigmatic line of Serge Leclaire’s haunts me: “[when] I was an inadequate listener, [the analysand] went from believing that they were sterile to making babies” (5).  I understand him to be describing a scenario where a patient will, as it were, try to mend themselves, and in doing so reproduce the traumatic (Oedipal) scene.  We professors often say we want our classrooms to be generative spaces, but Leclaire reminds us that generativity isn’t always a positive thing. Best leave mending to the professionals.

Like a lot of pandemic-era teachers, however, my lack of qualifications and my disinclination to do more than listen were abruptly tested a year ago, as my university became one of the first in the country to move entirely online, mid-semester, during the first weeks of the COVID-19 emergency.  Here in New York City, businesses, offices, stores, and transit shut down almost entirely for what we were told at the time would be two weeks.  Perhaps something about that promise of a finite timetable enabled the totalness of the shift away from what the emerging discourse labeled “face-to-face” interactions.  Meanwhile, both that timeline and that totalness created room to reflect on the abruptness of the change, the sudden loneliness and isolation.  As my students came back from spring break to a Zoom-world we didn’t yet know how to navigate, I tried hard to be the professor who could listen, in the ways I’d cultivated across my career.  Yet one of the strains came not from our new circumstances, but from the fact that the post-spring-break assignment I’d planned months before was a handful of essays by … Winnicott.

Introducing students to Winnicottian concepts (the good enough mother, the holding environment, the transitional object––to say nothing of mending) across the blackened gulf of Zoom squares and in the first throes of a life-altering pandemic was as close as I ever again wish to be to real-time dark comedy.  As my apartment-turned-workspace began to feel rather crowded (an environment holding perhaps a little too much?), students and I worked through concepts blatantly at odds with our feelings of isolation: that copacetic cuddliness, that irreducible caring-ful-ness of Winnicott’s account of successful child development.  The fact that these readings served also as the syllabus’s prelude to Alison Bechdel’s memoir Are You My Mother?, which explicitly foregrounds the motherliness of Winnicott, heightened my sense of the contradictions between what we were learning and what we might be feeling.

It also meant that, suddenly and against the inclinations I’ve already described, I was approaching the territory of doing more than listening.  It’s one thing to read about psychoanalysis with students in a classroom, but it turns out to be quite another thing to read about psychoanalysis with students “outside” the classroom.  Without the standard holding environment of a neutral space––the bland and largely interchangeable classroom that belongs to no one but is for one semester collectively “ours”––we didn’t necessarily know how to feel held together as a group, whatever else was going on with us individually.  Winnicott’s term, “holding environment,” felt inadequate, precisely because it was revealed to be so highly abstract when compared to our immediate experience.  My job was still to perform that 95% listening, but it turns out to matter quite a lot where one does one’s listening.

Those early Zoom classes were initially set up to be Q&A-driven discussions, but in response to one student’s question I found myself spontaneously lecturing on Winnicott for 25 breathless minutes.  Perhaps I was trying to use my voice to create or hold a space of authority, to insist on a boundary I didn’t know how to maintain in a classroom-less environment.  Perhaps I was uncomfortable with what might emerge in a more dynamic exchange, as though I might slip too far or even too willingly toward that 5% that was beyond my qualifications.  It also occurs to me now that perhaps I was trying to turn my students into listeners––perhaps unconsciously befuddling the same boundary some more conscious part of me was trying to uphold.

Whatever my motivations, what was happening was, like all improvisations, a bit more of a back-and-forth than the scripted role of listener that I as a teacher usually try to assume.  With varying degrees of agency and capacity, these students and I were feeling our way toward finding some version of what we knew how to be to one another.  Listening is part of it, to be sure.  But the activity that best performs this function, in a Winnicottian universe anyway, is called play.  At any age, he argues, play is how we learn to be ourselves––which also means learning how to be in relation to one another.

In the final meeting of the semester, in whatever improvised, classroom-less space my students and I had figured out how to be together in, I asked about their favorite readings of the semester.  One volunteered that Winnicott’s notion of play inspired their roommates to turn a large cardboard box on its side and decorate it to look like a car, in which they took turns driving around the apartment, presumably in compensation for the outside spaces they could not explore.  I understood this as a description of a scene of play, to be sure, but I also felt like I was getting a glimpse into my students’ world, such as I rarely get and even more rarely seek.  I was being asked to listen to something more than a perfunctory answer to my end-of-semester question.  Whatever boundaries I was trying to maintain ––perhaps feebly––my students and I had succeeded in finding a new way, as well as a new space, in which to be in relation to one another.

My attraction to the metaphor of mending is the competence it implies.  Play is not––not in quite the same sense––a procedure or a task.  It implies no certain outcome.  But it’s also the activity of this past year that I don’t think I am alone in finding myself working through as a teacher, doing more than listening, or perhaps listening to get something more than listening done.


Works cited

Bechdel, Alison. 2012. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Leclaire, Serge. 1998 [1975]. A Child Is Being Killed: On Primary Narcissism and the Death Drive. Trans. Marie-Claude Hays. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Winnicott, D.W. 2005 [1971]. Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.



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