Mannequin – the Silent Partner

A new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum called The Silent Partner focuses on the role played by the artist’s mannequin over the centuries. (Read a review here).

I like to think of myself as a bit of an artist, in my capacity as English teacher, but I wonder if mannequin is not closer to the truth of it. There can occasionally be something oddly unreal about the experience of teaching a language, if you do it for long enough. Unreal, because while some of the exchanges are realer than others – so, a bit of chat about the weather is realer than a role play negotiation, for example – all necessarily fall under the rubric ‘practice’. A student walks in, you talk together for an hour or more, work on some structures or fields of vocabulary, talk about jobs and careers, processes and problems; exchange stories or ideas; and it all feels real enough, a simulacrum of a real conversation or encounter.

And yet at some level it is all pretend. The teacher is listening to the English, the student is worrying about the English. Neither of us would be here if it wasn’t for the English. And so on. Occasionally you get a student who absolutely refuses to play by the rules, will not small talk or do exercises. And occasionally you develop real relationships of friendship and affection which transcend the context. In the end, many relationships – those formed at work, notably – are equally unreal, context-dependent. It is a form of public life. And we do not always feel like mannequins. But sometimes we do.


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