In my third year of law school, I took an elective called “Law and Literature,” taught by John Jay Osborne, Jr, author of The Paper Chase, a novel (and movie and TV show) about a Harvard law student and his obsession with his intimidating contracts professor.

In this offbeat course (even at Berkeley), we escaped “black letter law” to analyze Shakespeare (King Lear) and Melville (Bartleby, the Scrivener), plus films such as Rashomon and Thelma and Louise. Discussing his own story one day, he focused on a final scene: Hart (Timothy Bottoms), the law student, converses with Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), whose presence ruled his life for a year. The professor stares blankly. “What is your name?”

Lack of reciprocity in the relationship

After all of their heated debates and encounters, Kingsfield is oblivious to Hart. Osborne summarized the theme of that scene (and their dynamic) as a “lack of reciprocity in the relationship.”

Those words captivated me. Lack of reciprocity in the relationship. It seemed the crux of all unbalanced, frustrating interactions. Rude neighbors, bad bosses, random jerks. I’d silently resurrect Osborne’s theme as a catchall for any bitter relationship.

But is it really necessary to have reciprocity in a teacher-student relationship? Does it matter whether a teacher acknowledges you? Indeed, the Wikipedia entry for The Paper Chase suggests that Kingsfield is only pretending not to recognize his students, to emphasize that it’s not the relationships formed in law school that matter, but rather the knowledge attained. Kingsfield himself says, “You teach yourselves the law. I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and if you survive, you’ll leave thinking like a lawyer.”

Teacher-student relationships

In yoga, I’ve always chosen a “main” teacher for regular (weekly or more) classes. Then I’d experiment with others’ teachings, through their writings and workshops. This contrasts with today’s trend: folks elevate their affiliations with far-flung, big-name teachers, whom they might meet at mega workshops and Yoga Journal conferences.

Sure, I might be influenced by teachers I know only through workshops or drop-in classes. But I’ve always found my relationships with my main teachers much more important. Only with a firsthand give-and-take (week to week, year to year) can teaching can be specialized and monitored. To be observed and adjusted by a teacher: invaluable!

Back to The Paper Chase: Kingsfield and Hart might have lacked a personal reciprocal relationship, but their exchanges suited law school (and Hart did learn). Between you and your yoga teacher, there should likewise be reciprocity, whatever that means to you.

Image: Amazon.ca

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