Friday, November 29, 2013

The Vale of Soul-Making

Mark Edmundson's latest collection of essays on teaching, learning and the state of the contemporary university repackages many of the laments, jeremiads and crotchety harrumphs of his previous work. Indeed, all of the essays in Why Teach (Bloomsbury, $24.00) first appeared in such publications as Harpers, The Chronicle of Higher Education or the New York Times.  

Read together, however, they form an extended cri de coeur to fellow students and teachers that real education is still possible today, but it's not easy and the obstacles--including the modern university itself--are formidable.

Somewhere in the 1990s, Edmundson notes, American higher education dropped any pretense of being driven by the intellectual and cultural pursuits of its professors and became an essentially commercial enterprise. Administrators proliferated (especially in Student Life) and admissions offices became marketing departments.  Even the physical plants of campuses began to transform. More and more they resembled "retirement spreads for the young, complete with health spas and gourmet offerings in the cafeteria."

There are various reasons for this transformation: competition for declining student populations, political pressures and, perhaps most importantly, the increasing permeation of marketplace imperatives into nearly every aspect of American life.  All of this is familiar stuff.  Any number of authors have chronicled how an increasingly-powerful economic growth model has come to define higher education's value only in terms of its contribution to product development and market competitiveness. 

But Why Teach? isn't a call for reform.  That moment has passed.  Higher education in this country is now firmly in the hands of the corporatists, and they see their mission as turning out careerist leaders who can adapt themselves to the needs of organizations, manage their functions and internalize their rules. Such leaders, Edmundson writes, may question the "presiding powers but in the manner of a minor angel, inquiring into the ways of his more opulently-fledged brethren."

There's not even much push-back these days from those who once argued that education should prepare citizens to take part in and strengthen democratic society.  You will search op-eds in vain looking for even a whisper of this idea.  Old John Dewey's body lies a-moldering in the grave. And don't bother dredging up that hoariest of educational mission statements: knowing thyself. 

Yet it's this idea (soul-making, to use Keats' phrase) that Edmundson champions.  He acknowledges that "the major enemy of education in America now is American education," but he maintains that there are still a surprising number of opportunities to be had for shaping one's soul, for acquiring a personality and even for more fully knowing oneself.  It isn't easy and you will have to work at it, but it's still there.  At almost every college and university you will still find a few professors who are strangely passionate about their subjects and their students' learning.  Every year, too, a few students show up on campus, a little lost and uncertain, but inarticulately hungry for something deeper, richer and more soulful.

That they show up lacking any language to express these aspirations is hardly surprising.  Very few of them have ever heard education discussed as anything but an expensive yet necessary process for enhancing their value as commodities in the labor market. By the time they're seniors, however, most of them get it.  I continue to be amazed by how little it takes to engage students in a deeper conversation about life and what they aspire to become.

If I ask my seniors to evaluate and reflect upon their meaningful courses and experiences, almost all of the language of a cheap transaction falls away.  The courses they value are ones in which they discovered a passion, developed an interest or found out something new about themselves and their own soul. On the whole I'm enormously impressed with young people. A lot of their superficiality and cynicism is only skin deep. Underneath they're just as scared, hopeful, and needy as they've ever been. And they're just as capable of sustained and deep intellectual thought as they've ever been. It's just that the world doesn't ask them to do much of it. What the world seems to want is what Max Weber feared: specialists without spirit, and sensualists without heart.

Why Teach? doesn't say much that is new about contemporary higher education. It simply says a lot of old things, most of which are still worth saying.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Snow in the Suburbs

Several years ago I began starting my classes with a poem.  I don't do it every day or it would get old.  Still I do it enough that the students are used to it and even come to expect it.  I try not to select anything particularly relevant to the lesson I'm teaching that day.  Thanks to the miracle of Google, I can pull up anything that strikes my fancy.  

This past week, for instance, it snowed for the first time. Walking across campus  I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs. So I found it on-line, put it on the smart board and read it.  We talked afterward for a few minutes about the way snowfall mutes a landscape and how much fun it is to watch the flakes swirl around. 

Reading a poem to begin a class lacks much pedagogical justification.  I suppose it does burn a little clock as you wait for the persistent late arrivals to wander in (no sense beginning on the hour when a third of the class will need everything explained a second time).  I also like that it embarrasses the late comers, who must stand awkwardly in the back like tardy parishioners waiting for the prayer to conclude.
In the end, my motivation for starting a class with poetry is mostly selfish.  I would just rather talk about poetry on most days.  Randall Jarrell once remarked that he would actually pay somebody to teach poetry to young people if he were rich enough.

This semester one of my students—a baseball player—was inspired enough by the poetry reading that he actually sent me one he had written about his hometown, Austin, Minnesota.  I asked him if he had ever written poetry before and he said no.  I rather liked that he'd taken a risk and encouraged him to write some more.  I don't know that he will, but I sure like that he once did.  In fact, I wish all of my students would write and memorize their own poems.  If nothing else, it would give them something to do in prison (or whatever variant of prison everyone eventually lands in).

Reading Hardy's Snow in the Suburbs the other day actually called to mind W.H.Auden's great elegy for William Butler Yeats, which describes the moment of the poet's death with the line "Silence invaded the suburbs."  Oddly enough, Auden's elegy also concludes with these lines:

In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

That's not a bad university mission statement.   I'd pay to teach there.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Post Mortems

I'm not sure how exactly I feel about the first semester the new core capstone, a three credit seminar in which students reflect upon their discernment of vocation.  It doesn't help that my colleagues still make the occasional snarky remark about the whole notion of vocation in undergraduate education (despite having voted for it in the new core and helping students do it every day).

Snark aside, I do understand their uneasiness.  Saying our 'students are called to lives of service' is a conveniently passive-voiced circumlocution.  Called?  Really?  By whom?  The theological answer is God. Indeed, the word vocation comes from the Latin vocatio and was originally confined to calling in the spiritual sense.  It did not take on its broader connotations until around 1550 when Martin Luther began to extend its use to describe work in secular life.  Luther argued that shop-keeping and shoe-making were also God-called activities.

But saying we are called by God is not an especially clarifying answer.  Who is this God that calls us?  On what authority?  More importantly, which specific God is on the line?  My students aren't necessarily in agreement on this point (to say nothing of my colleagues).  I have had over the years Muslim students, Hindu students, Buddhist students, Jewish students, Catholic students, and even a few Lutherans. I've also had Wiccans, Mormons, Methodists, rock-ribbed Evangelicals and the occasional free thinker. How then can I approach this subject without stepping into a theological minefield?

My solution was especially gutless.  I went pagan.  I chose the theme of "The Good Life" and paired modern with pre-Christian classical texts.  When I say "gutless" I don't mean I went with 'God-free' texts.  I mean I went with material I already knew how to teach (and then threw in a few subjects I wanted to talk about).  The result has been a highly uneven seminar.

Some days we have explored a rich, interesting idea.  Some days I have been tap dancing like a madman to make it all come together. Watching my students opt out of the discussions the last few sessions has made me feel like the worst kind of academic huckster.  I didn't do the hard work of figuring out how to teach this seminar.  I made a mix tape of past skits and bits and hoped for the best.

Some days I wish that I sold shoes.  Now there's a worthy vocation.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The old knot of contrariety

No matter how many years I do this job, there comes a point every semester when I begin to doubt everything. No, doubt is not the right word. I need something stronger, something with more heft. Ordinarily you can count on the Germans when you need a word to capture the more perverse of human emotions.  But somehow Zweifel doesn't cut it.  I need something better, something more corrosive, something that captures the idea of thought turning in on itself with a kind of ruthless, cannibalistic clarity.

It seems every November I have to come to terms with the fact that I've compromised most of the goals I set for myself in September. I discover myself shamelessly making up lesson plans on the fly, speed grading what I should take more time with, and finishing my committee work an hour before the meeting.  November is when I discover important, unanswered August emails in the cthonic depths of my in-box.  November uncovers my native hue of feckless irresolution.

Other people seem to be on top of things.  Other people seem to have clear, pedagogically brilliant strategies. Me?  I have a line of tired, shopworn lessons and a few wince-inducing last minute improvisations.  I have, for lack of a better word, bitter, self-lacerating doubts about the whole enterprise and especially my less than stellar role in it.  

And it's also this time of year when, inevitably, a passage from Walt Whitman's Crossing Brooklyn Ferry comes to mind:

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,  

The dark threw patches down upon me also;  
The best I had done seem'd to me blank and suspicious;
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?
          would not people laugh at me?

It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil;
I am he who knew what it was to be evil;
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb'd, blush'd, resented, lied, stole, grudg'd,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting.

None wanting indeed!  If there's any blessing to be found in November it's in the promise of Thanksgiving Break.  Make it to break I think to myself, and it’s almost over.  But right now, in the first few days of this rotten no-good month, I find myself thinking of still another poet, Frank O'Hara, who once wrote, "Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again."


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...