Category Archives: Development of Western Civilization

monochrome exposure

Monochrome Exposure

October is often the month that the best new movies of the year are released and the best books of the year are published—this year is no exception. Jeanne and I saw “The Judge” last night; although it did not crack my “top” anything list, it was very good, especially the lead acting performances by Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., and Vera Farmiga. On the novels front, two of favorite novelists’ latest were published within a couple of days of each other—Marilynne Robinson’s Lila and Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. I was in the middle of my latest Scandinavian mystery when these two novels arrived from Amazon, so Jeanne grabbed Lila and I read The Children Act last week as soon as I left Denmark.

The Children Act is the story of Fiona Maye, an experienced and highly respected family court judge in London. The story centers on how a particular case impacts both her professional and personal life. McEwanA seventeen-year-old boy is hospitalized with leukemia; his regimen of treatment requires a cluster of powerful medicines, including one that produces anemia. To combat the anemia a blood transfusion is required—standard procedure. But the boy and his family are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and blood transfusions are prohibited by their religious beliefs. Fiona hears testimony from attorneys representing the interests of the hospital, the young man (three months away from his eighteenth birthday and legal majority), and his parents. In her judgment on the case, Judge Maye writes something that could have been written about me at age seventeen:

His childhood has been an uninterrupted monochrome exposure to a forceful view of the world and he cannot fail to have been conditioned by it.

Just how strongly the religious training and atmosphere of my youth influenced and shaped me was brought to my attention sharply just a few days ago as InquirersI spoke with six folks ranging in age from fifteen to seventy in an “Inquirers’” class at the small Episcopal church that Jeanne and I attend. Such classes are preparation for the Episcopalian version of confirmation, capped by a liturgy involving the Bishop at his annual appearance next month. Inquirers class is open to persons who wish to join the church officially, those who wish to renew their original baptismal vows so far removed in the distant past that what the vows say—let alone what they mean—has been forgotten, persons who wish to be “received” into the Episcopal church from other churches in which they were originally confirmed (most often disaffected Catholics), and anyone who is just looking for an hour’s worth of religious entertainment on a Wednesday evening. Knowing that my own religious upbringing in the Baptist church included brainwashing in the Bible, my good friend and rector of the church Marsue asked me if I would come to this particular meeting to talk about “Bible History.”

October and November are by far the busiest and most stressful months of the academic year for me as director of a large interdisciplinary program on my college campus, so I unashamedly admit that I hadn’t thought for more than five minutes about what I was going to say to this class as I walked into church on Wednesday evening. OT worldBut I was not at all worried—I knew that just relying on my fifty-plus year old foundation in things Biblical would be more than sufficient to introduce Episcopalian-wannabes who had probably never encountered Scripture first hand in their life to the Bible lay of the land. I even forgot to bring one of the dozen or more Bibles at home with me. Upon request, Marsue produced a book with a few maps relevant to Old Testament events from her office, while the church secretary (who is one of the Inquirers) scared up a few Bibles.

Directing everyone to the Table of Contents, I table of contentswalked them through the patriarchs, the exodus, the time of the judges, the unified kingdom under David and Solomon, the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, Israel’s captivity in Assyria followed by Judah’s captivity in Babylon a century and a half later, capped by the Persian emperor Cyrus’ allowing the Hebrews to return to the devastated Promised Land to rebuild the Temple and their communities—all in a bit over a half hour. It was fun to return to the Sunday School lessons of my youth (a Sunday School that was run like a real school—we were expected to learn things, subject to quizzes and exams). It was even more fun to come up for air occasionally and ask for questions. There weren’t any, because everyone (especially the teenagers) was looking at me as if I were a mutant or some sort of trained monkey. I was working without notes—no notes are necessary when plugging into things learned in-depth at a young age. As Aristotle says, if you want people to learn things they won’t forget, get them when they are very young.

After the crash course in Old Testament happenings, Marsue made a few comments that opened the door to broader issues. I had pointed out on the maps that the centerpiece of these historical events—Canaan—is remarkably tiny in the overall scope of things. MonotheismYet in our twenty-first century this part of the world continues to carry extraordinary importance to billions of people both politically and religiously. The three great monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all claim Abraham as their father and this part of the world as the central home of their faith. The violence and bloodshed of the current Middle East mirrors the violence of the Old Testament, just on a larger scale. The Palestinians of today have the same grievance against the still relatively new nation of Israel that the native people of the Promised Land had against the recently freed Hebrews of the Old Testament. We were here first.

In the midst of making these contemporary connections, one of the older members of group—one of the church’s two current sextons—spoke for the first time as he remembered various conversations with people of different faith commitments over the years. Whether during impromptu discussions with fellow soldiers during basic training or conversations with his next door neighbor, he noted how it has always struck him that people with significant faith differences actually share a great deal in common. ‘one godWhy can’t we simply understand that we can believe in the same God in very different ways?” he wondered. Why all the hatred, the violence, the suspicion and judgmental attitudes?

Her Honor Fiona Maye runs headlong into the same issue as she deliberates her decision in the case of the Jehovah’s Witness teenager. She’s not a religious person herself, but whether religious or not, the Jehovah’s Witness belief that God’s will does not include blood transfusions, even if required to save a life, seems odd, peculiar, and irrational. Such apparently arbitrary rules are cultish—something from which normal persons need to be protected or perhaps rescued. And yet, Fiona realizes, that one person’s cult is another person’s truth.

mountainsReligions, moral systems, her own included, were like peaks in a dense mountain range seen from a great distance, none obviously higher, more important, or truer than another. What was to judge?

Fiona’s position and status requires her to make a judgment, but she realizes that it cannot be on the basis of moral superiority or certainty. For what makes sense and what is true for a person is always largely shaped by that person’s experiences, some of which—especially those of one’s early youth—one does not freely choose.

I remember a number of years ago when my therapist, after listening during yet another session to my descriptions of how the impact of my religious heritage on my adult life had been, in my understanding at that time, largely negative, suggested to me that I might want to trybuddhism Buddhism. If Christianity isn’t working, try something else. But I knew that I couldn’t do it, even if I wanted to. I’ve been working on this for a while now, and I realize more and more that although I have no basis on which to insist that my faith is the best way to package the truth, it is my truth. Each unique expression of faith, viewed from a distance, looks pretty much the same to an objective observer, which is a good thing for all persons of faith to remember as they get ready to go into religious warfare, virtual or actual, on a regular basis. But faith is never lived from a distance. It is inhabited up close. My monochrome exposure to faith as a child may have exploded over time into Technicolor, but the original imprint is still there. It is not mine to impose on anyone else, but it is mine.roses

hello october

October Musings

Autumn in NEAutumn is my favorite season of the year, and October is my favorite month. This is not surprising for a native New Englander, since turning leaves together with crisp, sunny and cool days are an attractive combination. Even on this particular middle-of-October day as I write, when it is unseasonably warm and humid with a threat of heavy rain later, a few typically beautiful fall days in the past week and the promise of more to come keeps me weather-happy. I know that autumn bums many people who live where the seasons change out because it means that winter is coming. But I like winter as well, or at least the idea of it. The older I get the less I enjoy the actual fact of shoveling snow on occasion and having to warm the car up every morning, but I’ll take it over the Florida summer humidity and heat that my son and daughter-in-law profess to love for some unknown reason.halloween birthday

October not only means my favorite kind of weather, but also puts me in a reminiscent mood. October was an important month during my growing up years because both my mother and my brother were born in October (my mother on Halloween, which meant that we usually ignored her birthday in exchange for more interesting activities). It is actually my brother’s birthday today as I write; he has now lived two years longer than my mother did, and I’m within two years of the age at which she died. She died of cancer in October, just three weeks short of her sixtieth birthday, followed a couple of weeks later unexpectedly by the death of my father-in-law of only a few months. That was twenty-six years ago; last week Jeanne was in Brooklyn for a week to be with and help her sister after the October death of her sister’s husband of more than forty years.

October is a centrally important month every year for both students and faculty on college campuses—the first big papers and often the first significant exam of the semester (or perhaps the midterm exam)midterm are usually October events. For students this means even more stress than usual; for faculty it means that the first few weeks of the semester that have pleasantly been free of tons of grading are now at an end. Faculty love to bitch and moan about grading—I used to be great at such complaining until Jeanne asked me once many years ago at the end of my latest grading whine-fest “Isn’t that part of your job?” Well yes, I guess it is. It’s the one part of my job that I hope I don’t have to do in my next life (because I still intend to be a college professor—there’s nothing better). Now I tend to think of October grading as a great opportunity to learn new things from my students.

For instance, my colleague on an interdisciplinary faculty team informed me by email a few days ago that she just read the following in one of her freshman papers: “As Mr. Morgan talked about in lecture, during this time and culture, obeying god was the priority of every man, even if that means sacrificing your own son, which happened a lot in olden times.” Google UMy colleague wrote “I guess I must have missed that lecture.” I responded that “Mr. Morgan is my evil twin who gives lectures on off days for students who don’t come to the regularly scheduled lectures. I take no responsibility for anything Mr. Morgan says.” In one of my own papers (the same assignment that produced my colleague’s paper) one of my freshman began as follows: “According to Google, happiness is defined as . . .” I’m glad that I’m old enough that I won’t have to fully adjust to the brave new educational world that is just around the bend.Kathleen

October also often brings important speakers to campus. At the beginning of Q and A at her on campus talk the other day, best-selling author (and resident scholar for this year at my college) Kathleen Norris mentioned how much she used to enjoy Q and A sessions with second-graders to whom she was bringing poetry in North and South Dakota classrooms many years ago. “How old are you?” “How much do you weigh?” “Do you have a cat?” “How much money do you make?” “Do you have a bicycle?” The next time I am in attendance at a scholarly paper event, those are the questions I’m going to ask. Because those are the things I really want to know.

Even though the liturgical year is still slogging through endless weeks of “Ordinary Time,” October always brings welcome entertainment. Two Sundays ago we celebrated Saint Francis Sunday with “Blessing of the animals.”

Three years ago

Three years ago

This year

This year

Twenty-one dogs, a hamster and a turtle were in attendance (twice as many dogs as were present the previous year), but no cats. That confirms my long-standing suspicions that cats are agnostics or atheists. I was lector for the fourth straight Saint Francis Sunday and read the story of Balaam and his donkey from Numbers. My friend Marsue, who is rector of our little Episcopal church, makes sure I am scheduled as lector for this event every year because I always bring my dachshund Frieda to the lectern so she can stare people down while I’m reading.

Last Sunday we returned to the regular cycle of readings, which during this liturgical year in ordinary time has been walking us through the familiar and fascinating stories of the patriarchs in Genesis and the dramatic escape of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage in Exodus. On Sunday in Exodus 32 Moses is up on Mount Sinai hanging out while God writes the Ten Commandments and everyone else figures he’s never coming back. So they make the Golden Calf, start a minor orgy, and you know how that worked out. golden calfMoses is pissed; God is even more pissed. “Jesus Christ!” God yells (he forgot what part of the Bible he was in for a moment). “Moses, can you believe this shit?? I’ve had enough of these clowns! Stand back, Moses, while I wipe them all out. Then I’ll start over again with a new bunch of people starting with you, sort of like I did with Abraham in the previous book.” Moses points out that this would make God look bad, given that he put so much effort and creative thought—from plagues to parting a sea—into getting these people out of slavery, only to kill them in the desert. God’s response to Moses’ point is my favorite verse in the Jewish Scriptures, perhaps in the entire Bible: And the Lord changed His mind. The implications are unlimited.

October also provides me with a yearly opportunity to introduce a bunch of innocent freshmen to my choice for the greatest philosopher in the Western tradition: Aristotle. McEwanHis vision of the moral life, of the life of human flourishing, is second to none. I came across a beautiful description of such a life in Ian McEwan’s latest novel (an October release just a few days ago), The Children Act:

Welfare, happiness, well-being must embrace the philosophical concept of the good life. She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.

Autumn is a time when I feel, at least a little bit, that such a life might be possible. Thanks, October.love october

pickett

Academics in No-Man’s Land

This is the second in a projected series of occasional Friday reflections on what I have learned as a faculty member who has frequently had to play administrator over the past three-plus years. Mars and VenusMen are from Mars, women are from Venus, but maybe faculty and administration are from the same planet after all.

I have had the opportunity over the past three-plus years to spend time occasionally in the no-man’s land between faculty and administration—simply writing about it from a faculty perspective with a few positive things to say about the other side a couple of weeks ago drew several pointed and critical comments from fellow faculty members.

Faculty/Administration War Games, or How I learned to appreciate (or at least tolerate) assessment.

Spending too much time in academic no-man’s land is similar to Pickett’s charge across no-man’s land on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863—a spectacular failure that arguably turned the tide inevitably against the Confederacy in the Civil War. 350px-Pickett's-ChargeAfter two days of bloody stalemate, Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered an intense bombardment of Union forces, under the command of General George G. Meade, aligned on Cemetery Ridge from Confederate artillery positions on Seminary Ridge. This bombardment was intended to soften up Union positions sufficiently to ensure a successful infantry charge across the “no man’s land” plain between the ridges by Confederate troops led by General George Pickett and two other generals.

Bad idea. The bombardment was ineffective and the charging Confederate soldiers were sitting ducks, mowed down long before reaching Cemetery Ridge as they charged unprotected across the field. the chargeThe Confederate troops suffered casualties of more than 50%, marking the end of the Battle of Gettysburg, the northernmost thrust of the Confederate Army into Union territory, and arguably the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. When asked years later why his charge had failed, General Pickett replied “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

Warfare is a favored metaphor when discussing the interactions between faculty and administration on a college campus. Both sides consider everything to be a “zero sum” game—whatever is gained on one side is automatically assumed to have been taken from the other. Each assumes the worst both in motive and will on the other side. Yet the two sides are required, at least on occasion, to interact with each other. When the need arises, the tactics and procedures are reminiscent of the Battle of Gettysburg. One side tries to soften up the other side with distractions, deflections, apparent “peace offerings,” or simply preliminary committee work—all in the hope of setting the stage for a successful frontal attack when the time is right.

Administration Ridge

Administration Ridge

Case in point: a seemingly innocuous foray by the administration into perceived faculty territory that I was in the middle of over the past few weeks.

I direct a large interdisciplinary program required of all freshmen and sophomores on my campus, a program so central to what we do that the classroom portion of the beautiful, brand new humanities building we moved into just over a year ago was designed, then built with the classroom specifications and needs of this program as the driving force. meThe program is in its fourth decade of existence, but in only the second year of a re-energized and reconceived version that was the first ever serious revision of the program’s aims and pedagogy. I was approached early in the summer by some important administrators with a proposal for a “Wall of Honor” to be placed in a large, prominent location on the main floor of the building. The purpose of the Wall of Honor would be to celebrate in portrait and plaque the contributions of retired faculty (some deceased) whose contributions to the program over the years were especially noteworthy. The proposal contained a detailed description of nomination and selection processes; I was asked to first gather input from my advisory group, a small hand-picked committee of persons from the academic departments that largely staff the program, wall of honorthen to run the proposal past the faculty in attendance at the first full faculty meeting of the fall semester.

The proposal seemed both benign and well-intentioned—who could possibly be opposed to honoring both excellence in teaching and former colleagues? Doesn’t the faculty often complain that the administration does not sufficiently recognize faculty achievement? The six members of my advisory group agreed that in general it was a good idea and helpfully identified some easily fixable problems in the proposal, adjustments made by the proposers as soon as I identified them in an email following the advisory group meeting. As is my custom, I sent the program faculty at large the amended proposal by email attachment a week before the first scheduled full faculty meeting of the semester,asking them to be prepared to talk quickly about the proposal before we moved on to the more important business of the day. What could go wrong?

Faculty Ridge

Faculty Ridge

You would think that after several years of being first a department chair, then a program director that I would realize how stupid the question What could go wrong? is when anticipating a faculty meeting. In military terms, the preliminary bombardment of the faculty through contact with me, then indirectly through the advisory group, meant nothing to those present and lined up on Faculty Ridge at the department meeting. As if organized by an invisible hand, several faculty members spoke clearly and directly in quick succession about how much they hated the proposal; furthermore, they backed up their opposition with good arguments.

  • The idea of singling out individuals for recognition is contrary to the spirit of interdisciplinary and collaborative teaching that we are seeking to establish and strengthen in this program.
  • old white guysThe first dozen or so retired faculty, perhaps more, to be honored on the wall will be old white guys, hardly a helpful image on an already too-white campus seeking to diversify both its student body and faculty. In such a highly visible place, we need to show that we are moving forward, away from an older, more patriarchal version of ourselves and towards a more inclusive, and a more welcoming, college.
  • The excellence that will be honored is primarily teaching excellence, while many good but less-than-excellent faculty whose contributions behind the scenes have been immense will never be nominated or honored.
  • This proposal does not facilitate the new program’s goal of reaching out to faculty across campus and incorporating them into what has, until now, been largely the domain of four large departments in the humanities.

And so on. Some of the arguments were so clearly presented that they convinced me and a couple of members of the advisory group who had entered the meeting as supporters of the proposal.pickett If the analogy of Pickett’s charge is appropriate, the Wall of Honor proposal never made it out of no-man’s land before it was ripped to shreds by the artillery on Faculty Ridge.

With faculty and administrators continually suspicious of and at war with each other, it’s amazing anything ever gets done on campus. The administration proposes that we all agree that the Pope is Catholic (even the current one); the faculty wonders what the real motive behind this proposal is. blue skyThe faculty senate resolves that the sky is blue; the administration wonders what they really want. In a world in which the faculty and administration by definition have radically different agendas but also arguably share many important goals, concerns and dreams in common, can we do better?

In the aftermath of his proposal’s evisceration by the faculty, one of the administrator proposers and I had an interesting conversation in my office a week after the faculty meeting. We have gotten to know each other well over my three years of being program director—from our shared work on an important committee I have learned that he (as well as the other administrators on the committee) are remarkably human, while I believe that he (and they) have learned something similar about me. In the same room we can get many things done, even though they still roll their eyes at the faculty’s resistance to what appears to the administration to be “no brainer” common sense, while I continue to explain that the world viewed through faculty eyes is a very different world than the one perceived in the offices of Harkins Hall.

conf and unionMy administration colleague and I agreed that a different strategy is called for, starting with a beginning faculty discussion and vote on whether any sort of process to honor faculty is desired. If not, then we’ll move on to other more important things. If so, then I’ll try what I did last year—putting some faculty and administrators in the same room to create a joint proposal. A handful of folks from Faculty Ridge will meet halfway across no-man’s land with a handful of folks from Administration Ridge, and we’ll see what happens. Collaboration instead of suspicion? Conversation instead of bombardment? Cooperation instead of cold (or hot) war? Impossible. Ludicrous. Or is it?

lifes-a-bitch[1]

Suffering into Truth

Every fall I get to spend several weeks with a bunch of freshmen in the wonderful world of ancient Greek literature and philosophy; two weeks ago it was Herodotus, last week Aeschylus, this week Plato. These guys make you think! Here’s what I was thinking last fall–similar thoughts this year.

Jeanne got on the Amtrak early one Sunday morning not long ago, beginning two weeks of work-related travel. Bummed out, I decided to head south for church an hour and a half early in order to spend that extra time in a nice little coffee shop just down the road from Trinity Episcopal, reading and doing my introverted thing. herodotus[1]My text for the morning was Herodotus’s Histories, the primary text for the coming week’s Development of Western Civilization freshman seminars.

Herodotus is considered to be the first true historian, but historian or not, he’s a great story-teller. His “history” is often page after page of anecdotal tales about strange and distant lands, often based more on second-hand rumor than direct observation. Consider, for instance, his description of a certain Thracian tribe’s practices at the birth of a baby:

When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.

That’s a sixth-century BCE version of “life’s a bitch and then you die,”lifes-a-bitch[1] codified into the very fabric of a culture. The first stop on Jeanne’s two-week travels was to stop in New Jersey briefly to help celebrate the first birthday of her great-niece with her family. Something tells me that Emma’s first birthday was not marked with a recitation of “the whole catalogue of human sorrows.”

But if brutal honesty were the rule of the day, perhaps her Emma’s first birthday celebration should have been so marked. The ancient Greeks, Herodotus included, understood better than any group of people before and perhaps since the often tragic tension that lies just below the surface of human life. In Aeschylus’s Oresteiafull[1], the trilogy of plays that was the previous week’s focus with my DWC freshmen, we encountered the horribly messy history of the house of Atreus, undoubtedly the most dysfunctional and f–ked up family in all of literature. In this midst of this powerful and tragic work, Aeschylus occasionally reminds us that tragedy and pain is not just part of myth and legend—it is an integral part of the human condition. We must, Aeschylus writes, “suffer into truth.”

At the risk of “piling on,” here’s one more observation about the darkness that often envelops human existence. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient tale of King Midas, who spends a great deal of energy and time midas_silenus[1]chasing down the satyr Silenus in order to ask him a simple question: “What is the very best and most preferable of all things for man?” Silenus’ response: “Why do you force me to tell you what it is best for you not to hear? The very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best thing for you is – to meet an early death.” To which I’m sure Silenus added: “Have a nice day!”

imagesCAP8LYMLAs the main character in the movie “Playing for Time,” played by Vanessa Redgrave, says in the aftermath of the horrors of Auschwitz, “we’ve found something out about ourselves, and it isn’t good news.” The texts and stories mentioned above are pre-Christian—apparently the ancient Greeks did not need a doctrine of original sin to notice that there’s something seriously wrong with human beings. In the words of John Henry Newman, we are afflicted by “some aboriginal calamity.” And we need help, the sort of help that the mere elimination of headline tragedies and sources of suffering would not provide. The human condition is not a generally pleasant state that is inexplicably and unpredictably invaded on occasion by events both tragic and destructive. It’s much worse than that because evil, tragedy and suffering are woven into the very fabric of human nature. Anne Lamott opens her just-released book Help, Thanks, Wow with these lines from Rumi:

You’re crying: you say you’ve burned yourself.rumiport[1]

But can you think of anyone who’s not

hazy with smoke?

No, I can’t.

So what to do? The upcoming Advent season is the season of expectation and hope, energized by the desire that we can be better, that “life’s a bitch and then you die” need not be the final word concerning the human story. The truth of human suffering, of course, is embedded in the Christian narrative, about which Simone Weil writes that “The genius of Christianity is that it does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but provides a supernatural use.”  The Incarnation that Advent anticipates is the beginning of this narrative; tIMG_0091[1]he promise of Advent is that there is a glimmer of light in the distance that is about to dawn—“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us.” A rumor of legitimate hope is about to literally be fleshed out. As we turn our attention away from our obsession with the human condition toward distant promise, we choose to believe that when the divine takes on our human suffering and pain, we in turn take on divinity itself.  The choice to look outward in expectation is within our power, as this text from Baruch describes:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Help is on the way.

FSM

Knowing the Unknowable

babelI just spent a week with over one hundred freshman exploring the familiar but challenging stories of Genesis and Exodus. I do this just about every year, but each time I’m in a different place and the students have different interests, backgrounds, and prior experience with the texts, so once again “all things are become new.” This time the focus most frequently was on the problem of how to make contact with the most important force in the universe in a meaningful way when, virtually by definition, that force is unknowable. The God of the Old Testament stories wants simultaneously to have an intimate relationship with apparently random groups of human beings and individuals, yet frequently falls back on the “I’m God and you’re not” position when things get dicey (such as when human beings start asking tough questions).

a wild godA friend of mine from church who also is a regular at the monthly seminars I lead afterwards asked me several weeks ago whether I had ever read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living With a Wild God. I had not, and honestly had never heard of the book (although the title alone made me want to read it immediately). “Put it on your list,” said my friend. “I want to know what you think of the end of the book.” That was at the beginning of the summer; I only got to my assignment in the last two weeks of August, right before the beginning of the new semester.

I found the book to be equal parts interesting, annoying, and incoherent. As Ehrenreich, best known (to me, at least) for her best-seller nickeled and dimedNickeled and Dimed, wanders back in time to her dysfunctional childhood and tries to pick up a thread of investigation now that she is in her early seventies that she dropped many decades earlier, she frequently gets lost in the jungle that threatens everyone who writes about themselves—the temptation to believe that just because it happened to me, it’s interesting and important to someone else. The fine line between fascinating memoir and suffocating self-absorption is often close to invisible. I should have loved the book, given that it is (roughly) the story of an atheist trying to come to grips with what can only be described as a series of  “mystical experiences” that occurred over a few years in her late teens and early twenties. Right up my alley—sounds exactly like what God would do, send mystical experiences to an atheist while giving well-intentioned believers the silent treatment. But it wasn’t until the final chapter when I realized why the whole thing just wasn’t clicking with me. Ehrenreich writes:

I have no patience with Goethe when he wrote, ‘The highest happiness of man is to have probed what is knowable, and to quietly revere what is unknowable.’ Why ‘revere’ the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?

“Aha!” I thought. She’s trying to play the “seeking after God” game using a set of rules that guarantees that she will lose the game. balticThat’s like playing Monopoly using rules that guarantee you’ll not proceed past Baltic Avenue. Never a good idea.

Ehrenreich was trained as a scientist and came from a family with no regard for religion, so her categories of explanation for everything are objective evidence, provable fact, and calculating reason. She lacks the common vocabulary for even beginning to communicate about experiences that apparently do not fit into these categories, but that doesn’t stop her from trying. And it is a heroic effort throughout, regularly teasing the reader with impending breakthroughs in understanding—when she’s not spending page after page telling us about her love affairs, her immersion in sixties radicalism and a variety of stop-and-start careers, that is. But I hung in there because I was hoping for a big payoff of some sort—Barbara Ehrenreich meets the Divine.

In her final chapter, the one in which I hoped she would tentatively draw a line between the knowable and the unknowable as her experiences have led her to draw it, Ehrenreich instead unfavorably quotes the above passage from Goethe, then proceeds to speculate randomly about the “wild God” who has been lurking around the fringes of her rational and logical life ever since her mystical experiences as a teenager. Maybe God is the Presence we occasionally found ourselves in the middle of while experiencing natural beauty. FSMMaybe God is a creation of the “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device” that cognitive scientists say our human brain comes equipped with, a device that predisposes us to project consciousness onto things other than ourselves, including rocks and trees. Maybe God is like a germ or a virus, not really alive but pervasively invading the various cracks available in living things. Or, I might add, maybe God is a Flying Spaghetti Monster, since apparently once one starts speculating beyond the boundaries of logic any guess is as good as any other.

“Why revere the unknowable? Why not find out what it is?” In the end, I find these questions to be sad, simply because the continuing assumption behind the questions is that everything, and I mean everything, is subject to not only logical scrutiny (that’s fine) but also the assumption that only those things that are at least in theory within the range and scope of human reason are worthy of even a moment of human attention. facebookIt is as if we have no other tools available for engaging with and trying to shape a meaningful life within the world we find ourselves so unexpectedly placed.

The other day I made the rare choice to get involved in a Facebook discussion. In response to my resistance to his universal claim that “Religious faith is bad,” a Facebook acquaintance (whom I’ve never met) said “Faith is belief without evidence. What else does it mean? Why else would it be needed?” My quick and inadequate response was “Faith is not belief without evidence. Faith is belief when evidence may point in a particular direction but is not complete or exhaustive. Belief entirely without any evidence at all is simply foolishness. That foolishness is not confined to religious activities–it is rampant in politics or any other arena of belief. Non-theists are just as capable of such foolishness as theists are.” As long as faith opponents are rejecting a definition of faith similar to TwainMark Twain’s “Faith is believing something you know ain’t true,” I’m with them. But that’s not what real faith is. Rather, it is applying the very common human activity of believing on the basis of important but partial evidence to the realm of the relationship between human and divine. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” wrote the author of Hebrews. The relationship between faith, evidence, knowledge and hope is one worthy of extended investigation—perhaps a sabbatical?? But to assume that faith and evidence have nothing to do with each other is to define the game out of existence—or to guarantee advancing no further than Baltic Avenue.

assessment bumper sticker

Faculty-Administration War Games, or How I Learned to Appreciate (or at least tolerate) Assessment

ASSUMEEveryone has heard the old adage, attributed to Oscar Wilde, that “When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” Although it does not lend itself to such a witty and pithy saying, there is another ASS word that gets a lot of buzz on college and university campuses: ASSessment. When the term arises in conversations of any sort, the faculty says “Look out, the administrative ASSes are coming for our academic freedom!” while the administrators say “Look out, the faculty ASSes are braying about academic freedom again!” I am by training and gene pool strongly aligned with the faculty side of this divide, but over the past decade have had to play nice with administrators so regularly and often that I’ve come to realize that there just might be fewer devils in the halls of the administrative buildings than there are in the faculty offices on campus. assessmentBut administrators and faculty are wary of each other, and fall back into stereotypical fears concerning “the other” at the drop of a hat. So when the third rail—ASSessment—becomes the topic of conversation, all bets are off.

I managed to ignore assessment while chairing an academic department, then directing an academic program for a number of years, but eventually couldn’t avoid it any more. And I had to figure out whether there was an academic Claritin available to help me with my assessment allergies. One of my friends and teaching mentors in my early years as a teacher had a favorite story about assessment that he liked to tell. During the meeting of a committee whose members came from various academic departments, the topic of assessment of faculty and students was on the agenda. RodneyMy colleague, a distinguished English professor who also ran the Liberal Arts Honors program on campus, bristled on principle. “How are you going to quantify and measure what happens when a student reads and then a room full of students with a teacher discuss a Shakespeare sonnet or a page from Dostoevsky?” he fumed. “Some things can’t be quantified!” “Rodney,” a professor from economics patiently replied—“Everything can be quantified.”

My friend did not tell this story as a remembrance of a day when he learned something new. Rather, he used it as evidence that even in the academy, even on the campus of a college whose bread-and-butter is the humanities and the liberal arts, barbarians and Philistines are at the gate, seeking to turn the richness of the humanities into a linear, number-crunching mockery—just as Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD seeks to do in his introduction to a weighty poetry anthology in this scene from “Dead Poets Society”:

I remember the first time I met B____, the newly appointed assessment guru on campus—his daunting official title is Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs/Chief Institutional Effectiveness Officer. He was appointed to this position roughly ten years ago at about the same time I became chair of the philosophy department. Knowing that my department had done absolutely nothing over the years in response to regular administrative prompts to develop internal assessment strategies, I was not surprised when shortly after moving into the chair’s office I received a pleasant invitation to come to the Academic Affairs suite and have a conversation with the assessment guru. Shortly after I sat down, he said enthusiastically “Vance, I’m an assessment geek!” “This is definitely not going to go well,” I thought. “I would rather stick a fork in my eye than even think about assessment—assessment geekhood is beyond my range of comprehension.”assessment bumper sticker

I was allowed to effectively thwart and ignore the whole issue during my four years as department chair, but by the time I became director of the Development of Western Civilization Program, the four semester, sixteen-credit-hour required set of courses that is the core of my college’s core curriculum three years ago, the lay of the land had changed. Due to accreditation requirements and an increasing insistence from various constituencies on the peculiar idea that teachers should be held accountable in some measurable way for what happens in the classroom, I realized that benign resistance and neglect would no longer be an effective strategy. wesleyOddly enough, I also realized that I had started moving incrementally in the direction believing that assessment might after all be desirable beyond the pragmatic fact that we were going to be forced to do it.

This was not the result of any John Wesley-like “heart strangely warmed” conversion experience concerning assessment. I am still wary of and uncomfortable with the very idea of quantifiable measures of what happens in a humanities-oriented classroom. But I at least had come to the realization that the standard humanities faculty insistence that any sort of assessment in the classroom is bogus and a violation of academic freedom is untenable. Unless we want to live in an Aristophanes-like educational universe that is comically removed from how the real world actually operates, we need to recognize that being held responsible for what we do on a regular basis is not a violation of anything other than our hubris and pretensions. News flash, humanities professors—even God gets held to recognizable standards on occasion.

The program I inherited had been chugging along merrily without agreed-upon standards and without being answerable to anything other than itself in any noticeable way for a couple of decades. Accordingly, the ongoing interaction between dozens of faculty and hundreds of students from semester to semester tended to produce islands of excellence and rigor in an ever-widening sea of mediocrity. rate my professorAnd everyone pretty much knew it, both within the program and on the campus at large. The only assessment tool used in the program was an informal “popularity poll” in which the students at the end of the year got to take out their frustrations anonymously on their professors in the manner of RateMyProfessor.com.

The biggest reason why the assessment lay of the land on campus had changed was that when I stepped into directing the program, the more-than-five-year process of core curriculum reform on campus had just ended, producing among many other things a new streamlined and improved version of the program, the first such revision in its four decades of existence. My task was to help lead the faculty from the old into the new. Amongst administrators and many faculty on campus there was a commitment to making the new core curriculum work—which meant a renewed, sharp focus on assessment. In response to B___’s request for a report on assessment progress at the end of each of my first two academic years as director, I provided a summary of conversations the faculty was engaged in related to important issues such as grade distribution and inflation—archimedesbut this wasn’t exactly assessment. Then going into my third year as director, I had what at the time seemed like an Archimedean “Eureka!” moment—looking back, it was a realization and idea both disarmingly simple and obvious, but completely against the grain.

One of the reasons assessment is so problematic for faculty is that it always seems to be imposed on them from outside, antagonistic forces. What if faculty and administrators actually met in the same room with the charge of developing instruments of assessment to track the progress of students in important areas of learning over their four semesters in the program? Administrators and faculty collaborating with a common goal? Impossible! Insane! But it was worth a shot—knowing that there are assessment experts on campus, why not have them work with faculty focusing on what might work in the context of this program rather than having the faculty wait for the assessment shoe to drop? task forceI sent an email describing my crazy idea to B_____; he enthusiastically accepted my invitation to help form the first ever “DWC Assessment Task Force” on campus (I call them the “Assessment Posse”). Three administrators, four faculty members (specifically chosen because of interest expressed), and me.

Over the academic year, the assessment posse turned out to be one of the hardest working and most creative committees I’ve ever been involved with, producing by April a twenty-question reading assessment quiz to be administered to students at the beginning of their first semester and at the end of their third semester in the program, a tool intended to indicate whether the program is actually facilitating “deep reading” of primary texts as it claims.faculty meeting We did a dry run by springing the quiz on those present at the last faculty meeting of the semester, received unexpectedly positive feedback, and we were in business.

All of this is fresh in my memory because this coming Monday the newly created assessment instrument goes live as three program teams give the quiz to 250 unsuspecting freshmen. How well will it work? Will information useful for tracking the program’s success or lack of same be gathered over time? I certainly hope so, but one thing I have learned for sure. Humanities faculty and number-crunching administrators can learn to speak each other’s language sufficiently to work toward a common goal. I’ve seen it happen. Imagine that!

Lady M

My Life as Lady Macbeth

NiccoloOver five hundred years ago, Niccolò Machiavelli raised a classic question in The Prince: for a person with power seeking to keep or increase that power, Is it better to be loved or to be feared? This question came up in two separate seminars during Old Testament week with my freshmen in only their second week of college. The texts for the day were the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis along with the first twenty-five of Exodus; the main character in these texts—God—seems in his omniscience to have decided Machiavelli’s question millennia before Machiavelli ever showed up. For an extraordinarily powerful being who also happens to be capricious, vengeful, manipulative, insecure and self-absorbed, fear is far more effective than love. My students frequently wondered why God so often found it necessary to express divine power in over-the-top and destructive ways, given that nobody doubted who was more powerful in a God-human comparison, nor was it likely that anyone was plotting an overthrow of God’s rule. GodThe ancient Israelites and their forebears had probably read Milton’s Paradise Lost and found out what happened to Lucifer when he tried that. And apparently God wasn’t aware that Machiavelli’s question applies only to those whose power can actually be lost. If one is omnipotent, one can do whatever the hell one wants.

But for mere mortals lacking the ability to generate world-wide floods or to drop creative plagues on non-compliant people, Machiavelli’s question remains pressing. If one finds oneself in a position of power or authority and is seeking to use that power effectively, is it better to cultivate love or fear among those under one’s authority? Although teachers sometimes sound as if they are entirely powerless in the face of pressures from all constituencies, in fact a teacher in the classroom finds herself in a situation of almost complete power that demands a constant, flexible, lived answer to Machiavelli’s question. A teacher’s success or failure depends on how she or he shapes love and fear into a structure solid enough to withstand challenge but flexible enough to address the ever-changing atmosphere of the classroom on a daily basis. dept chairI’ve been at it for over twenty-five years and am still working on it.

I had to think through the “love or fear” issue in an entirely different manner when I found myself in an academic administrative position for the first time. As the chair of the twenty-two-member philosophy department, knowing that if trying to lead faculty is like herding cats, then trying to lead philosophers is like herding a breed of cats who believe that ideas alone are enough and that simply thinking something makes it so, I worried about how to even begin. At the end of four sometimes exhausting years, I was surprised to look back on my term as chair and conclude that it had largely been a success. We rewrote the department mission statement, entirely revised our major and minor, and hired six tenure-track faculty, all without anyone getting killed or maimed. Not known for my “people skills,” it turned out that I had a knack for what might be called “diplomatic persuasion.” I sometimes described this new-found skill as the ability to “diss someone without their knowing they’ve been dissed until a day later,” or to “convince people that what you want them to do is actually their idea.” diplomatic persuasionAmid tedious solitary hours of paperwork and tedium, the people management thing was sort of fun—and no one hated me (that I’m aware of) at the end of four years.

When I was asked a couple of years later to step into much larger and more challenging administrative role—leading the large interdisciplinary program that is the centerpiece of my college’s core curriculum—I dusted off my “diplomatic persuasion” skills and retooled them for the task of leading and cajoling four times as many faculty down a much more treacherous path than I travelled with the philosophy department in my years as chair. Within the first couple of my first semester as director, I established a few new policies and started some difficult collective conversations that I fully expected to generate significant pushback. Surprisingly, I received almost none—everyone actually started doing what I asked. “Wow!” I thought. “My ‘diplomatic persuasion’ leadership skills really work! I actually know what I’m doing!”

Early one morning shortly before the day’s classes began I mentioned to a colleague who was a teaching veteran in the program my pleasant surprise that no one had (yet) directly complained about the new directions the program was turning toward. “That’s because everyone’s afraid of you,” my colleague suggested. Afraid of ME? Really? Introverted little ole me?? VM Ruane 9Although my colleague is not known for her sense of humor, I assumed she was kidding. “Yeah, right (ha ha ha)” I said. She replied by revealing something about me that I never knew “No, really. You can be very intimidating at times.” Add fifteen years in the program, tenure, full professorship, introversion, a teaching award and a gray ponytail together and apparently the illusion of intimidation is produced. “Fine,” I thought. “If people are under the false impression that I’m scary on some level and it’s causing them to actually pull together in a good direction, then that’s a card worth playing as long as it works.” When I reported a couple of weeks later to my two sons at our annual Thanksgiving gathering that the faculty in my program is afraid of me, the news produced guffaws and laughter of a rolling-on-the-ground-and-gasping-for-air variety.Propero

I was reminded of all of this three years later just the other day as the latest Facebook personality quiz caught my attention. “Which Shakespeare character are you?” Fully expecting the typical bland “You are Hamlet” or “You are Prospero,” another unknown feature of myself was unexpectedly revealed.

http://quizsocial.com/which-shakespeare-character-are-you/

Lady MacbethYou got: Lady Macbeth! Wow, are you ever good at manipulating people into doing what you want! It is a valuable skill, one that could help you secure a job in government one day, but also a dangerous one. Like Lady Macbeth, you have a love of power that could motivate you to do evil things. Don’t let it overtake you.

Well now—that’s very interesting. Am I really channeling one of the most determined and evil manipulators in all of Western literature? The closest contemporary comparison to Lady Macbeth is Claire Underwood, the amoral, calculating, ambitious and uncompromisingly cold wife of Frank Underwood, claire and frankthe Senate majority whip who in two seasons has climbed, manipulated, lied and murdered his way to the Presidency in Netfix’s megahit “House of Cards.” The only person more ruthlessly calculating than Frank in the “House of Cards” universe is Claire—she keeps his manipulative batteries charged when they run low. And I’m not making this up—there’s a whole cottage industry on-line that documents just how indebted “House of Cards” is to Shakespeare, especially to “Richard III” and “Macbeth,” and just how much Claire and Frank’s marriage mirrors the relationship between Lady and King (for a short time) Macbeth. (Spoiler alert)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/21/house-of-cards-shakespeare-_n_4823200.html

So apparently my commitment to “diplomatic persuasion” is actually an expression of my deep-seated commitment to power and manipulation. w to p barMy expressed desire to lead the program I direct effectively into a new and more creative future is a thinly disguised working out of my need to control. Nietzsche was right after all—all living things seek not just to survive but to extend their dominance and influence as far as possible. Administering an academic department or program has unexpectedly turned out to be an effective way for me to get to do what all human beings secretly want to do but often never get a chance to do—boss other people around and make them dance to your tune. I may end up dead with indelible blood on my hands, but the journey will be a lot of fun.

Or not. I’m not buying this, because I’m not buying that leadership necessarily requires a commitment to manipulation and power. leadershipBut I might be wrong. Maybe my sabbatical project should be to establish a new Lady Macbeth School of Leadership on some campus somewhere. It’s a thought. P.S. From Facebook comments generated by the results of the above Shakespeare quiz, I have discovered that friends and colleagues have learned that they are Bottom, Iago, Falstaff or Richard III. But so far I’m the only Lady Macbeth. The “quizsocial” person must have been having a very dark day when he/she put this quiz together.

Entertaining Angels

Some have entertained angels unawares (Hebrews 13:2)

angel and jacobI’ve never known what to make of angels. I was bombarded with stories involving them as a youngster, from the angel chasing Adam and Eve out of Eden, to the one who wrestles with Jacob, to the one who brings bizarre news to Mary and the one who sits having a morning coffee on top of the stone that’s been rolled away from the empty tomb on Easter morning. But surprisingly, my favorite portrayals of angels are from the movies. Consider, for instance, the 1946 Christmas movie classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is a standard at my house (which probably makes my house the same in this regard as about a billion other households). G and C at nicksThere are many memorable characters and scenes; my favorite is when George Bailey and his guardian angel Clarence Oddbody have a drink at Nick’s, the watering hole in the alternative universe into which George Bailey was never born. George and Clarence get thrown out of the joint shortly after Clarence orders a “mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves.” Nick is not interested in customers who want to do anything other than drink hard and fast, and he certainly doesn’t want an old guy dressed in a 19th century nightshirt and claiming to be an angel taking up barstool space and adding “atmosphere” to the bar. As George comments, “you look like the sort of guardian angel I’d get.”dudley and julia

Then there’s Dudley from the 1947 classic “The Bishop’s Wife,” the suave angel who comes as an answer to the prayers of Bishop Henry Brougham, who is struggling to raise money for the building of a new cathedral. Dudley’s mission turns out to be spiritual guidance rather than money-raising, a mission complicated by his increasing attraction to the Bishop’s lovely but neglected wife Julia. In both movies one learns that if angels exist, they almost certainly are not at all like what traditional art and sacred texts suggest. No wings flapping around here (although Clarence apparently gets his at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” upon the successful completion of his first solo mission).

angel unawaresI don’t know if I believe in angels as supernatural beings or not, but I’ve always liked the “entertained angels unawares” idea, thinking of angels not as non-human messengers from heaven but rather as unexpected vehicles and facilitators of goodness. The saying reminds me, first, that I never know which seemingly random person who drops into my life might be an unexpected game-changer. Second, I never know when I might unwittingly be a game-changer in someone else’s life. I’ve had many angels in my life—I’ve been with a certain red-headed one for more than twenty-five years; David Riceone of the most important was a close-to-three-hundred pound angel with a patrician New England accent.

My first teaching job after graduate school was at a small Catholic university in Memphis that focused primarily on engineering and business. They needed a philosopher (I was one of two philosophers in the six person Religion and Philosophy department) to teach a lot of Business Ethics (I taught four or five sections per semester). It was a good “starter job” and was tenure-track, but Jeanne and I hated Memphis and I couldn’t see myself teaching Business Ethics for the rest of my career. I started applying for positions in places like the northern Midwest and the Northeast immediately, but the job market was tight (as it still is) and we were worried. Then a close-to-three-hundred pound angel dropped into our lives.

The aging President of the university, Brother T., was such an incompetent holy terror that the university’s board created the position of Provost specifically in order to take the day-to-day operations away from Brother T. and nudge him into a retirement sunset. After a national search, David was hired as the new Provost. CBUThe university was small enough that even a junior faculty member just starting his second year at the place met the new Provost within a few days of his arrival; David’s office was just one floor down from mine. He was a breath of fresh air for Jeanne and me. David was a native, patrician Bostonian, spoke with an accent that we understood, was cultured and refined in ways that we appreciated, and had the wonderful Northeastern forthrightness and honesty that we embraced as opposed to the Southern hospitality and “charm” with which we did not resonate well. David was a wine connoisseur, had read just about everything, had wide-ranging interests, and had a heart as expansive as his waistline. boston-red-sox-alternate-logo-pair-socks-blue-59063And he was a Red Sox fanatic. Jeanne and I welcomed him like a long-lost older brother.

I don’t recall how I mustered the nerve to ask David for help escaping from the very institution where he had just been hired as Provost and day-to-day operations manager. I was only in my second year of teaching, my position was tenure-track (something many newly-minted professors nationwide would have killed for), and comparatively speaking I had nothing to complain about. fear and tremblingI came to his office on the morning of our scheduled appointment with “fear and trembling” of Kierkegaardian proportions, expecting him to do what a good Provost should, deflect my concerns positively (“It isn’t really that bad here,” “We need people like you here to raise the bar”) or shoot them down (“Shut up and do your job. No one likes a whiner”). Instead after a few minutes of intent listening (something few administrators do as well as David did), he smiled and said “I’m not surprised. You are too good for this place.” For a relatively new and still insecure teacher such as I, this was like the manna from heaven that God will dump down on the complaining Israelites in next Sunday’s Old Testament reading. “Tell you what,” he continued. “Let me take a look at your dossier; we’ll meet again next week and I’ll make some suggestions.” And so my boss took on the task of helping me make my dossier more attractive to a prospective boss at a better place. Only when angels get involved does this sort of thing happen.

David was as good as his word and more. Over several meetings that fall, he helped me revise my curriculum vitae, learn how to sell myself in ways a severe introvert would never think of, and begin to grow into the confidence as an academic that he saw in me long before I saw it myself. And it worked—not that academic year, but the next one. dustI landed my dream job at Providence College, where I am now in my twenty-first year, we shook the Memphis dust off our sandals and never looked back.

David unfortunately was not in Memphis to celebrate with us; he also was too good to be there for long. In the spring semester of his first and only year in his new position, Brother T. attempted to force David into making executive decisions that David’s strong moral convictions and big heart of generosity could not live with. Rather than compromise, he chose to resign—to the great dismay of the faculty and students who had come to respect and love him in the few short months he had been on campus. I can still see the huge banner the students draped off the side of an overpass outside the front gate of the college on the morning the word broke that David was leaving: DR. R—–, PLEASE DON’T LEAVE US!

yaleJeanne and I stayed in touch with David over the subsequent years as we went to Providence and as he became a higher education administrative gypsy, taking positions at colleges in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and probably others I have forgotten. We learned over time that he was a frustrated professor; despite a PhD in classics from Yale, life’s contingencies eventually plopped him in administration rather than in the classroom where he belonged. David visited us occasionally, we had the opportunity to return his generosity and write him letters of reference for a new position he was seeking, and he even took a thousand-mile nonstop road trip with us back to Memphis to celebrate the retirement of the athletic director at the college we had been so anxious to leave.

Despite many attempts, David never did lose the weight and sadly succumbed to a fatal heart attack five or six years ago. I miss him, not only as a friend and mentor, but also because I could use another good classicist in the interdisciplinary program I direct. The students and my faculty colleagues would have loved him. I’m not sure David ever fully understood how important he had been in my life, probably because I’m only fully understanding it myself now, twenty or more years later. David didn’t have wings and neither do I, but I pray that if a chance to be an angel for someone else arises unexpectedly in my life, I won’t miss the opportunity. I’m eternally grateful that David didn’t miss his opportunity with me. whtthe big guyIf there is a heaven, David is undoubtedly drinking fine wine with other portly angels such as Thomas Aquinas and William Howard Taft, while cheering on the Red Sox with Babe Ruth.babe

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Stuffed Soul Mates

I have a good friend and colleague in the philosophy department whose twin daughters have just begun their senior years in high school. DartmouthThis means that my friend and his family spent a significant portion of the summer just completed visiting college campuses—seventeen of them, to be precise. emoryThe young ladies in question, although twins, could not be more different in appearance or personality. Daughter #1, whose interests are predominantly focused on science, favors Dartmouth College but is also very interested in the University of Virginia and Emory University. Daughter #2, a quieter more bookish type, is strongly attracted to St. John’s College and its curriculum of the Great Books. This prompted my friend to email me, knowing that in the misty past—the middle seventies—I earned my Bachelor’s degree at St. John’s. “Do you have anything you would like to tell Daughter #2?” my friend asked.

St. John's booksIn reply I wrote:

I’m the world’s worst alum, but I’m quite sure that the program at St. John’s is virtually unchanged over the 35 years since I was there. I’ve recommended it very infrequently–it’s perfect for the right person, but there are very few “right persons” for what they do. If Daughter #2 loves books more than anything else, loves to talk, discuss and debate ideas 24/7, is ready to work really hard, is more concerned about learning than preparation for a job, and doesn’t care a lot about intercollegiate sports (there aren’t any at St. John’s), then she might be the “right person”!

“Sounds just like Daughter #2,” my friend said. I suspect the description might sound familiar to my “Johnnie” friends and Facebook acquaintances as well.

St. John'sExactly forty (!) years ago I began my freshman year at St. John’s College. The older I get, the more I realize what a life-shaping experience I was beginning. I have written frequently on this blog about how the Great Books program shaped me as a teacher, how it gave me ways to talk about the new directions in which I’ve been nudged the program I’ve been shepherding for the past three years, and how it stirred my soul in lasting ways. But one of the most memorable regular occurrences during my years in Santa Fe had nothing to do with tutors, books, labs or seminars.

The heart of the St. John’s curriculum is the seminar, which occurs every Monday and Thursday night from 8-10. Actually I don’t remember a seminar ever ending at 10:00. They always went at least until 10:30, then continued informally in the coffee shop until midnight. What was happening in the hour before seminar on Thursday nights? Students rushing to finish the reading? Checking notes and annotations one more time? Muppet showGrabbing a quick forty winks? None of the above, because at 7:00 PM every Thursday night in the lower dorms common room everyone—and I mean everyone, tutors included—gathered to watch “The Muppet Show.”

Strange to say, “The Muppet Show” was just irreverent and bizarre enough to be a perfect fit for the young misfits who had chosen to spend their first years of college immersed in the “Great Books,” the best texts the Western tradition had to offer organized into a curriculum so rigid and liturgical as to not allow students a single elective choice in class offerings until their Junior year (and even then only one class). I was too young to know then what I know now, forty years older and with twenty-five years of college teaching experience behind me: a college curriculum with no electives runs so against the normal grain of  pedagogy in this country that it sounds more suitable for youngsters from Mars than for earthlings.stallone

“The Muppet Show” was more for adults (or at least non-children) than for kids; definitely not your kid’s Sesame Street, although many of the characters were the same. Current events, the best human guest stars (none of whom visited more than once)—in many ways it played the role that current shows like “The Daily Show” now play. In the past couple of years I have occasionally taken the “Which Muppet Are You?” online quiz

Which Muppet Are You?

and regularly get the same result—Kermit the Frog. Nothing against Kermit or against the quiz—if you read this blog regularly, you know that taking online quizzes is my preferred form of therapy. But this one is wrong, because I have known for forty years which Muppet I am (actually two of them):untitled[1]

attitudeSince the first time I observed Statler and Waldorf criticizing and mocking everyone and everything on the stage from their perch in the box seats, I recognized them as stuffed soul mates. The natural foundations of my sense of humor are sarcasm, irreverence, bemusement, and irony—an extreme case of “don’t ever take anything too seriously.” Their removal from the action but self-authorization to critique the action from afar is very attractive to an introvert; it also provides an avenue for the introvert to be “involved” without really being involved.

Statler and Waldorf HighlightsOld school

It could be that Statler and Waldorf did nothing but sit up in the box seats and critique even when they were young puppets, but I choose to believe that, given their elderly status, they were “in the trenches” guys for decades and now have earned the right to step back and make fun as others make the same mistakes they made in their youth. Forty years ago I resonated with Statler and Waldorf because their senses of humor are just like mine and they struck a deep introverted chord in me. Both of these things are still true, but now I not only resonate with S and W—I am on the cusp of becoming them. I also have earned the right.

The academic year just beginning promises to be an odd one for me, a year of closure as well as a year of opening the door to new things. This is my final year (of four) running the large interdisciplinary program that is at the heart of our core curriculum. It is also (so help me God) the end of a decade of almost uninterrupted administrative duties (department chair followed by program director) that have occasionally threatened to take my life over and choke the life out of my teaching. sabbaticalThis will be followed by a sabbatical year in 2015-16 (YAY!!) during which I intend to write several scholarly tomes, a best-selling novel, steer my blog into the stratosphere, see the world and SLEEP. When I return from sabbatical, I intend to spend the rest of my vocational years finding out what is actually like to do nothing but teach—since that is what I went into the profession for in the first place. Of course as they say, if you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans. But there they are.

500074-R1-052-24A_025Whatever the future holds, I believe that as I approach sixty years of age I am entitled to channel Statler and Waldorf on whatever occasions I deem appropriate. The lovely coupleI even look a lot like them. They say that couples who have been together for a long time start looking like each other, just as dogs and their owners start resembling each other. I sure as hell hope that neither of those turns out to be true (at least for Jeanne and Frieda). But it is indeed true that over time each of us starts to resemble our stuffed soul mate. In my case, it could be a lot worse.

kermitanimal

They’re Baaack . . . .

We are in the business of believing in, and promoting, things that don’t yet exist. Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

RI summerThe most beautiful Rhode Island August in the twenty years I have lived in Providence just concluded, the culmination of the most beautiful Rhode Island summer I have ever experienced. I hate heat—I will take zero over ninety-five degrees any day of the week. It’s not that we normally get endless days of ninety-five-plus even in the warmest RI summer, but this summer we got none at all. I recall only one day when our backyard thermometer said “90,” and that was with the sun shining directly on it.

RuaneDespite the fact that it usually contains hot weather, August is one of my favorite months because I am a college professor. August is very quiet on campus—no classes, few hosted events, few visitors other than prospective students and their parents taking tours. I can work out at the gym without competing for equipment and I feel as if our beautiful new humanities building is my personal playground. It’s all a wonderful period of solitude; but just as Louis XV reportedly commented in anticipation of the Revolution that would cost his grandson Louis XVI his head, August says to the academic Apres moiaprès moi le deluge.” Before long, the floodgates will open. They’re baaack . . .!

Actually, this is great news. I’m usually ready to be back in the classroom at least a couple of weeks before we commence classes the day after Labor Day. I’m not one of those professors who regularly moans and complains about their students; they are the reason I am in the profession to begin with, they keep me young (at heart if not in outward appearance), and let’s be practical: for an academic, a world sansstudents would be a world sans paycheck. I got a fictional look at the dark side of academic attitudes about students, fellow faculty, administrators, and reality in general when reading DCMJulie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members over the past week or so. Billed by Amazon as “A novel that puts the pissed back in epistolary,” it follows Jason Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing at Payne University, from the beginning to the end of an academic year through the exclusive lens of letters and emails of reference and support written for current and former students, colleagues, and acquaintances from graduate school days. Billed by reviewers as “funny as hell,” “hilarious,” “fun-as-heck,” and “funny and lacerating,” I must confess that although I smiled occasionally, I found the novel more sad than anything else. Sad because I know that the never-ending bureaucratic and pedagogical challenges of the academic life can turn someone into a jaded, sarcastic, and cynical curmudgeon like Jake Fitger (he’s four years younger than I am), and even sadder because it doesn’t have to be that way.

owaFitger is the graduate product of what he calls the “Seminar,” a graduate writing program that sounds a great deal like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (which produced a few of my friends and colleagues—and none of them are like Fitger). After a reasonably successful first novel, followed by a couple more that fell still-born from the press, he finds himself in the final decade or so of a mediocre career at a mediocre public university in an English department whose infrastructure, both psychological and physical, is falling apart. As lines are closed down and the plumbing in the men’s bathroom fails, the Economics Department on the floor directly above is being treated to a complete upgrade of facilities. Fitger is the embodiment of what is actually happening across the country in more universities and colleges than I care to consider—the neglect and downsizing of the humanities while departments and programs perceived as job-producers and money-makers receive the lion’s share of funding and attention.

I am extraordinarily fortunate and privileged to have spent the last twenty years (and hopefully the next fifteen or twenty) at an institution that consciously attempts to swim against that tide. pcAccordingly, Fitger is for me the fictional embodiment of what could have happened had I not been as fortunate. I have few cynical and dedicated negative bones in my body, but some might have been created had I lived the professional life of Jason Fitger. Of course many of the most problematic aspects of Fitger’s life are self-created. He is hated across campus for various justifiable reasons, his marriage to a fellow professor on campus fell apart when she became aware of his continuing infidelities with an administrative assistant, and his affair with the administrative assistant ends when he accidentally hits the “Send All” button on an email intended for one individual in which he expresses his continuing sexual attraction for his ex-wife that remains strong even after five years of divorce.

I don’t know anyone on campus like Jason Fitger (although he might be lurking somewhere). But hidden like buried treasure underneath page upon page of sarcasm and nastiness are occasional and brief homages to the academic life that I was surprised and pleased to find. faculty on quadIn an email to a former colleague from the Seminar, an epistle drenched in anger, regret and bitterness, Fitger steps back for a moment.

The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus square is already fading; and, though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that I believe our mission and our way of life to have been admirable and lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending.

Amen to that. I only get to wear black robes a couple of times a year—although it would be sort of cool to wear them all of the time—and I agree that the eccentricities of the academic process and of academics themselves can be a pain in the ass. But what a wonderful profession. It’s the best thing going, not because of money, fame, or notoriety (which come to only a miniscule percentage), but because of the privilege of making a living in the midst of the most exciting environment imaginable—the life of continual learning. VM Ruane 1As I noted in my remarks at the dedication of our new humanities building a little less than a year ago, the Apostle Paul’s words ring true at this time of year for every academic: Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And Jason Fitger knows it, in spite of himself:

There is nothing more promising or hopeful than the start of the academic cycle: another chance for self-improvement, for putting into practice what one has learned—or failed to learn—during the previous year.

They’re baaack . . . and I can’t wait. Bring it on.