Category Archives: friends

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Celebrating Life

I recently submitted two grant proposals related to my sabbatical that will begin next July. The stakes are high–especially since I don’t handle rejection well. But I am a bit better at it than I used to be, thanks to something that happened toward the end of my last sabbatical . . .

There’s nothing more pitiful than a grown man feeling sorry for himself. But that’s where I found myself a few years ago while on sabbatical. My first conscious thought upon awakening was of the email I received the night before informing me that Icollegeville-inst1[1] had not been accepted into a summer writing workshop at the Ecumenical Institute where I was spending my sabbatical, a workshop that I really really really wanted to be part of. My career in academia has mercifully been almost rejection free, and it’s a good thing because I don’t handle rejection well. Despite learning from the email that there had been 141 applications for 12 slots, I took the “no” as a negative judgment about the whole me, from my ponytail to my shoes. This, in addition to my second conscious thought–“I only have nine days left here on sabbatical and then I’m leaving this place I’ve come to love”–and my third thought– “I have an exit interview this morning with the Institute program director”– made for a less-than-fabulous morning.

Slouching in my usual seat in the choir stalls for noon prayer, I was definitely not in the mood. For the first time in the dozens and dozens of liturgies in which I had participated from that seat over the previous four months,100_0331 I didn’t feel like being there. The hymn was lame, followed as usual by a section from Psalm 119 extolling the wonders of God’s law and how fabulous it is to obey God’s word. Whatever.  One minute of silence. The second psalm was entirely forgettable, until the end when the solo monk for the day sucked some phlegm down his windpipe the wrong way. After several seconds of coughing and throat clearing, he finished the last three lines sounding like he’d been sucking on helium. No biggie, dude—happens to me all the time. One minute of silence. The third psalm, number forty-something, included the line “it is good that I was afflicted.” Oh really? Well if you were as afflicted as poor rejected me you wouldn’t have written that. Stand up and bow your head as you recite “Give praise to the Father Almighty . . .”.  Disobediently, I didn’t bow my head—what do they think I am, a sheep?

Sit back down, another minute of silence. Solo monk says “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia,” and we respond in kind, “Blah, Blah, Blah, Alleluia.” Stand up for the final prayer, which sounds like the grownups in the old Charlie Brown cartoons on television.charlie%20brown%20teacher[1]

“Wah, Wahwah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wawah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

Wahwahwahwah, Wah, Wahwah, Wah,

In the name of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ,

Who lives and reigns and celebrates life

With You and the Holy Spirit,

One God, forever and ever, Amen.”

“Lives and reigns and celebrates life”??? That one I’d never heard before—I think solo monk added it impromptu for my benefit. In any event, it worked like the face slap in the old Aqua Velva commercials and got my attention—“Thanks, I needed that!” I guess I’d never thought of the Father, J.C., and the Holy Spirit celebrating life together as one God forever and ever. What would that look like? My first image is of a Gary Larson-like cartoon. Imagine a round table. Seated on the left is an old, somewhat overweight guy with shoulder-length white hair and big white beard, wearing a white robe and drinking 18-year-old Balvenie neat (he saves the 21-year-old for Sundays). In the middle facing you is a sandaled younger guy with dark hair, skin and beard, hoisting a pint of Guinness and saying “Brilliant!!” imagesCAR35IOXOn the right, facing the white-haired old guy, is a dove standing on the table and dipping her beak into a martini with two olives. I guess it says something about me that my first image of celebrating life involves the consumption of alcoholic beverages, but it’s definitely a way of celebrating life.

Well if they can celebrate life forever and ever, amen, I guess I can try it too. And the evening before the day in question, for five hours before reading the email that shall no longer be mentioned, I had been doing just that with friends. Two of my good buddies (a married resident scholar couple), 100_0369a guitar-picking monk who is a native of Montana and tends the monastery orchard, and me. Our conversation ranged from still-new President Obama’s controversial commencement speech at Notre Dame to abortion to politics at the Abbey, while eating salmon, potatoes, salad, and drinking lots of wine. We ended up sitting on the back patio overlooking the lake as it got dark.  100_0366In the dusk the lake became still and as calm as glass, reflecting the trees along the shore in upside-down perfection. Brother John serenaded us with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tunes, and talked about our colleague Conrad who had unexpectedly died (while pouring himself a martini) just a few days earlier. Conrad had loved this place, and thought it was a little bit of heaven. “I think this a bit of heaven too,” my friend said. If I believed in heaven, I would have agreed—but wait, that’s a different essay.

1852724[1]Then Brother John  started playing “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” and I knew my friend was right—this was heaven. “Summertime” is a song that Jeanne sings beautifully; she had sung “Suzanne” with Brother John after a group dinner when she had visited me for a few days over Easter and he fell in love with her (he told me so in an email). I can understand that because over twenty years ago, two days after we met, Jeanne, my dad, and I were having drinks in a Wyoming lounge attached to the restaurant where we’d just had dinner (my boys went back to my folks’ condo with Grandmaw).Jeanne singing Jeanne went to the front and, accompanied by the resident lounge lizard on the piano, sang another Gershwin tune, “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine.” I decided she was singing it to me and I fell off the edge of the cliff I’d been balancing on for the previous two days. I was in love. I didn’t tell her for another month, but hey, that’s pretty quick for me.

When I got back to my apartment that evening, I checked my email, got rejected, and stopped celebrating life. How stupid. I am an introverted celebrator—IMG_9677I’ll never suck the marrow out of every minute and second like my dachshund Frieda and some other people I know. My kind of celebration expresses itself in what Anne Lamott says is one of the two best prayers ever: “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” (The other one is “Help! Help! Help!’) I have a lot to celebrate, as do we all, if I just remember to find it. I can’t promise that I can stick to it forever and ever, amen, but I can at least finish out the day.

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Death Is Nothing Terrible

We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Anne Lamott

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to engage with various groups of people in the classroom on occasional weekends. I’ve had a couple of these opportunities over the past three weekends. The topic is always the same–How to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world largely outside of our control?

As the centerpiece of my college’s extensive required core curriculum, the Development of Western Civilization Program that I direct is of great interest to many more people than just the faculty and students who are in the trenches of the course every day. Parents of prospective students, alums and donors, parents of freshmen students in their first semester—004all of these and more are interested in exactly what takes place in the program’s classrooms, experiences that are the signature shared experiences of all students at Providence College. This is a program so daunting as to generate horror stories of mythic proportions, yet whose importance is revealed by its being the center of pedagogical energy in our new humanities building.

In order to give these various constituencies a taste of the DWC experience, I often am asked on a Saturday afternoon to give a “mock DWC lecture” for fifty minutes to visiting grownups. These lectures are a lot of fun, because the room is full of adults rather than eighteen and nineteen year old adult wannabes. The people at these lectures love to participate, they get my jokes, and cause me to think that maybe I am a good teacher after all. This semester I have given mock lectures four times—twice on the afternoon of the dedication of the new humanities building, once for an Open House for prospective students and their parents, and one for images[1]Freshman Family Weekend. My “go to” lecture in such situations over the past few semesters has been an introduction to Stoicism, one of the Roman world’s unique contributions to Western philosophy, a lecture that I call “Death Is Nothing Terrible.” Why the esoteric topic and depressing title? Because Stoicism is a philosophy for grownups, for human beings who have been run over a few times by life, are a bit frayed around the edges, and are ready to converse briefly about strategies concerning how to live a life of meaning and purpose in a world that apparently lacks both. What better to talk about on a Saturday afternoon?

The most noted Stoics over a couple of centuries were not professional philosophers—their day jobs were remarkably diverse. imagesCALBM2ZLCicero was a lawyer and politician, Epictetus was a slave, and Marcus Aurelius was an emperor. What do a politician, slave and emperor share in common that might explain their attraction to the same philosophical framework? Each of them is a person who, at least in theory, lives a life that is primarily answerable to others, a person who is largely not in control of her or his own life. And this, the Stoics say, is actually the situation that we all find ourselves in.

Epicurus_bust2[1]Epictetus, the Stoic I usually focus the room’s attention on, was a well-educated Greek slave owned by a wealthy Roman landowner. Epictetus’s role in the household was to tutor and educate the children of his owner, a task he carried out so effectively that his master freed him in the later years of his life. Epictetus begins the Enchiridion, a short text that—according to legend—Roman soldiers on campaign carried with them while away from their homes and farms for years at a time, by asking us to do a brief thought experiment along with him. Make two columns on a piece of paper (or on a chalkboard). At the top of the left column, write “Within my control.” On top of the right column, write “Not within my control.” Start with the right column and begin listing all of the things that you encounter or interact with on a daily basis that are not in your control. At a lecture, people immediately start calling out

The Weather! No kidding!

When and how you die! The only thing we know for sure is that within 100 years, everyone in this lecture hall will be dead! But how and when—we don’t know.

Other people! “How much time do you spend in a day or week trying to influence what other people think or do?” I ask. “A lot!” “How’s that going for you?” “It doesn’t work!”

Your family! You may have participated in activities likely to produce a child, but you didn’t ask for this child! How often when younger did you think or say “I didn’t ask to be born into this family”? You were right!

Your health! You may spend a great deal of time exercising and eating right, then get run over by a bus this afternoon!

My gender! My race!

After a few minutes of information gathering and general hilarity, it is clear that many, indeed the vast majority, of the things that define and shape our lives are in the right-hand “Not in my control” column. Enchiridion-Epictetus[1]What’s left to go in the left-hand column? Someone will immediately call out something like “My attitude about everything in the right-hand column!” This person not only is correct, but has also identified the core insight than energizes Stoicism. “Some things are up to us, and some things are not,” writes Epictetus in the first sentence of the Enchiridion. We spend the vast majority of our time and energy messing around in the right-hand column, trying to change and control things that are not up to us. Better idea—transfer all of that energy to the left-hand column. I cannot control what hand I have been dealt in terms of gender, race, family, place and time of birth. Nor can I control or manipulate what other people do or the vast forces of fate. But I can (and must) take control of how I process these matters, how I will consider and shape my response to what jumps out of the right-hand column. My inner life is within my control. 002[1]The Stoic slogan is “from inner tranquility comes outer effectiveness.” By taking control of my mind, my emotions, my desires, my thoughts and my attitude I can respond to an out-of-control world from a place of serenity and peace. And that might just make a difference in the right-hand column.

Of course the proof is in the application and the details, which I spend the second half of the session with my “students” exploring. Epictetus ranges over family relationships, friendships, dynamics at work—just about everything normal human beings encounter from the right-hand column on a daily basis. But one of the greatest Stoic obsessions is with something that we generally don’t want to think or talk about. Death. This is not because the Stoics were depressing or morbid (although they often are caricatured as such). Rather, this is because the Stoics knew that despite all evidence to the contrary, the garden variety human being lives her or his life as if all the time in the world is available. We live our lives as if we are immortal. But we know, deep down, that human beings have a shockingly short shelf life. work on paper by Laurie LiptonSo why do we try to avoid this inexorable truth from the right-hand column?

Epictetus suggests that what we are afraid of is not death, but rather our thoughts and attitudes about death. “Death is nothing terrible . . . but having the opinion that death is terrible, this is what is terrible.” And my thoughts and attitudes are in the left-hand column—shaping these is within my power. Rather than obsessing about how I will die and what might happen (if anything) after I die, imagesCA3Y08VLI might want to pay attention to the classic Stoic mantra: Carpe diem. Epictetus expands in a memorable thespian analogy:

Remember that you are an actor in a play of such a kind as the playwright chooses: short, if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play the part of a beggar, play even this part well; and so also for the parts of a disabled person, an administrator, or a private individual. For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

Don’t waste timeimagesCA2WWW18. Be the best that you can be. Seize the day. These are, in many ways, annoying caricatures of a very rich and complex Stoic world view. But I think Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius would be fine with bumper sticker expressions of Stoicism, just so long as they are reflective of inner work that is more than a molecule deep. Don’t wait another moment to get serious.

For how long will you put off demanding of yourself the best, and never to transgress the dictates of reason? . . . From this moment commit yourself to living as an adult . . . Remember that the contest is now, that the Olympic Games are now.

Postscript: After one of my mock lectures last fall, my lovely Jeanne came up to me and said “From inner tranquility to outer effectiveness. That sounds like prayer.” Hmm. I think there might be an essay in that.imagesCAKB0ODG

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Send in the Plowns

Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground,
You in mid-air.
Send in the clowns.

I get most of my news piecemeal from NPR while riding in the car. Since Jeanne has the car most of the time, this is not a daily event. Even when I am “listening” to “Morning Edition,” I generally am only paying slight attention. It takes a lot for me to listen carefully. Civil war in Syria? Whatever. c2072985-e6f7-5e3e-994a-74990d3f595b.preview-300The Ukraine is falling apart? Yawn. Ted Nugent calls President Obama a bad name? What else is new? But when Renee Montagne reported this one morning, I was all ears.

Circus folk fear a national clown shortage is on the horizon. Membership at the country’s largest trade organizations for the jokesters has plunged over the past decade as declining interest, old age and higher standards among employers align against Krusty, Bozo and their crimson-nosed colleagues.

A clown shortage?? Really?? Apparently Renee wasn’t privy to the email exchanges flying around campus during the most recent controversy and brouhaha last week. Who knew there were so many clowns with PhDs?  I dismissed the clown report as the sort of filler that even NPR has to come up with on occasion. indexBut then the music for a South Korean skater’s short program the next evening was “Send in the Clowns,” and last Saturday the panelists on “Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me,” my favorite radio program, started the show with a couple of minutes of hilarity concerning the impending clown drought. The panel suggested, for instance, that the art history majors dissed by President Obama the other day might want to look into enrolling in clown school as a backup plan for their current careers as Starbucks baristas. Clowns are in the air.

Isn’t it bliss?
Don’t you approve?
One who keeps tearing around,
One who can’t move.
Where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.

652223575f794d7cad2bd5347a0f10This is very strange. There seemed to be plenty of clowns around in my childhood, from Howdy Doody’s Clarabell to Bozo, with whom I spent many afternoons after school. I actually thought the Bozo part of the Bozo-the-Clown-300x206“Bozo the Clown Show” was insufferably stupid and boring, but was willing to put up with it for the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. The next generation has its own clowns, most memorably Krusty from “The Simpsons.” There are a number of possible explanations for the looming clown shortage:

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  • Young people who in the past were interested in clownhood are now going into politics.
  • The procreation rate of clowns is very low. The oversized baggy clothing makes clown sex very challenging.
  • Clown traffic mortality rates are extraordinarily high. Clowns are poor drivers to begin with, and piling twenty-five to thirty clowns into every clown-driven vehicle drives the death rate up exponentially when accidents occur.

Just when I’d stopped opening doors,
Finally knowing the one that I wanted was yours,
Making my entrance again with my usual flair,
Sure of my lines,
No one is there.
 

I know one person who will be very happy to hear about the clown shortage. My son Caleb has suffered from a close-to-terminal case of coulrophobia (fear of clowns) since birth. A little over 30 years ago, five years after my BA, I found myself living in a tiny town in an isolated Star Valleywestern Wyoming valley, working in a grocery store, with four- and one-and-a-half year old sons in a marriage that was sure would not survive. Don’t ask.

We had almost no money, but that was okay since in Star Valley virtually nothing worth spending money on ever happened. So when a pitying friend gave me two tickets to the upcoming county fair, I was pleased to have something to do with my older son other than read Dr. Seuss books or watch television. I knew that Caleb was not amused by clowns, but this was a county fair, not a circus. Horses, pigs, cows, a petting zoo—what could go wrong? As we got out of the car and started crossing the parking lot to the entrance gate, I noticed that the ticket taker was . . . a clown. A stereotypical clown with a bald white pate, a bright orange fringe of hair, checked shirt, polka-dotted pants, oversized grin, exaggerated  eyebrows, size forty-two shoes. pennywiseMaybe Caleb wouldn’t notice. But he did. As we approached the entrance, Caleb protested repeatedly in an increasingly loud and panicked voice “DON’T LIKE IT! DON’T LIKE IT!! THERE’S PLOWNS!!!” In order to short-circuit the dragging-a-screaming-kid-with-his-heels-dug-in scenario that is the bane of all parents’ existence, I sighed, we turned around, got back in the car, and drove away.

evilclown7bc8A few weeks ago I told this thirty-year-old story to Caleb’s younger brother. After several moments of uproarious and uncontrolled laughter, Justin realized that he just been given the greatest gift a younger brother can receive—a completely and devastatingly embarrassing story about his older brother. The next time the three of us were together, Justin sprang into action. “Caleb, are you still afraid of clowns?” Justin asked, mimicking in a high voice Caleb’s plaintive “Don’t like it! There’s plowns!” To Justin’s surprise, Caleb not only did not consider this story to be a threat to his carefully protected manhood, but instead doubled down on his lifelong judgment concerning clowns. “Clowns are evil. I hate clowns. Clowns are fucked up.”

Don’t you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.

What will a clown-less world be like? Probably the same as the one we’ve got—I have to admit that other than the above-mentioned adventure with my son, clowns have not been on my radar screen very often. But generations yet unborn will eventually wonder what the hell Judy Collins is singing about.

Isn’t it rich?
Isn’t it queer,
Losing my timing this late
In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well, maybe next year.

The World’s Most Interesting Man

In one of my interdisciplinary classes we are in the transition between Ancient Greece and Rome. Which means we’re in the world of Alexander the Great. As I listened to my history colleague’s excellent introductory lecture to the Hellenistic world the other day, my thoughts drifted to someone else who, as Alexander was in his day, is simply the best at everything . . .

His words carry weight that would break a less interesting man’s jaw

Every once in a while, Madison Avenue gets it right and an advertising campaign takes on a life of its own. When I was in my late twenties and early thirties, miller-lite-ad[1]Miller Lite’s “Tastes Great . . . Less Filling” campaign went viral. This simple disagreement about what was more remarkable about Miller Lite—that it tasted more like real beer than expected or that its reduced calories made it possible to drink more of it without feeling bloated—started showing up in the strangest places. During the campaign’s heyday, I was studying for my Master’s degree at the University of Wyoming and never missed a UW Cowboys’ basketball game.Pic C - Cat Fight[1] During time-outs, the student section behind the basket at one end of the arena would stand as if on cue, point threateningly at the student section behind the other basket, and scream TASTES GREAT!!! at the top of its lungs. In response the opposite section would rise as one, point back and scream LESS FILLING!!! Back and forth the challenge would go, louder and louder, soon involving every one of the several thousand fans in a competition that for the moment was more intense than the game on the court.

When opportunity knocks and he’s not home, opportunity waits.

super-bowl-etrade-baby-[1]Jeanne’s favorite current ad campaign is the talking baby on E-trade ads—“I guess that riding the dog like a small horse is frowned upon in this establishment!”—who never fails to cause her to laugh uproariously. I find these ads occasionally amusing, but personally find talking babies somewhat creepy. images[8]My own favorite campaign, one that unfortunately seems to have almost run its course, is Dos Equis’ “The World’s Most Interesting Man.”

In a past life, he was himself.

The picture of suaveness and refinement, perfectly dressed for every occasion, sporting the perfectly groomed salt-and-pepper beard I wish I could grow, surrounded by gorgeous women, various ads show The World’s Most Interesting Man saving babies from fires, playing polo or cricket, and generally excelling at everything he does, as the voice over reveals various remarkable facts about him.

His mother has a tattoo that says “son.”

Some ads include life advice from The World’s Most Interesting Man.

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Skateboarding: “No”

Or

The World’s Most Interesting Man on Boxers or Briefs: “What comes between a man and his pants is his own business”

the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-drink-beer-but-when-i-do-i-make-chuck-norris-serve-it-to-me-in-a-dress-f73cff[1]Each ad concludes with The World’s Most Interesting Man at table in a mahogany-paneled room, flanked by beautiful people, lifting a glass of beer toward the viewer. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis. Stay thirsty, my friend.”

The World’s Most Interesting Man is every man’s best imagined self, the man who he would like to bring into the world every day but who is never available. Napoleonzyexvm[1] is a central character in War and Peace; he is one of the few human beings ever—along, perhaps, with Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and a few others—who actually was able to for a number of years to not only believe that he was The World’s Most Interesting Man but also to have millions of people agree with him and to see events bear their collective opinion out. One of my favorite chapters in Tolstoy’s novel is at the Battle of Borodinoaleksandr-averyanov-battle-for-the-shevardinsky-redoubt-undated[1] , where Tolstoy gives the reader access to Napoleon’s inner dialogue as he slowly realizes that, on this day at least, he is not The World’s Most Interesting Man. There is a Napoleon in each of us convinced that we are the center of the universe and undoubtedly the world’s most interesting and important human being. It’s just that for most of us this inner World’s Most Interesting Person never seems to show up except when we are alone.

He once had an awkward moment, just to see what it felt like.

My position directing a large academic program often requires me to act as if I have more confidence than I actually do, as if I am The World’s Most Effective and Intimidating Director. Sometimes props help. My favorite coffee cup at work, a cup that I paid forty dollars for because a monk made it, was shattered a few weeks ago when I dropped it on a particularly stressful day. So I’m considering which coffee cup to bring from home in the fall as my replacement Director’s coffee cup to break in the new Ruane Center for the Humanities, the beautiful new digs that we will be moving into over the summer. The top candidate for new Director’s coffee cup at the moment is one that my son gave me last year for Father’s Day, a cup large enough to take a bath in.

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Maybe it will do double duty as the Development of Western Civilization version of a speaking staff, and I’ll allow each faculty member at meetings to hold it as they speak. It seems that I come closest to letting my internal “Most Interesting Man” out at work. On the door of my philosophy department office is a take-off on “The World’s Most Interesting Man” that I found on-line. There he is, perfectly coiffed, manicured and dressed, holding a glass of beer and sayingMost interesting man

I don’t always hear from God, but when I do, He sounds like me

            What I suspect makes this ad campaign so amusing to me and many others is that it actually hits very close to home. We really do frequently believe and act as if we are the world’s most interesting human, usually to discover in short order that not only are we not that interesting, we’re not even that important in the larger scheme of things. The Psalms are particularly effective at pricking balloons of self-importance. As I have developed the habit of reading the assigned Liturgy of the Hours psalms every weekday morning, I have been treated to regular reminders that I’m not so great. This morning at Vigils, the assigned psalm-reading monk read Psalm 62:

scale-balance[1]Common folk are only a breath,

The great are an illusion.

Placed in the scales they rise;

They weigh less than a breath.

“Placed in the scales they rise”—as my friend Ivan once commented, that’s the ultimate description of a lightweight. Coupled with such deflating put downs from the Psalmist, of course, are lines similar to those that close Psalm 62:

Psalms-62-Verse-11[1]For God has said only one thing;

Only two do I know:

That to God alone belongs power,

And to you Lord, love;

And that you repay us all

According to our deeds.

God’s coffee cup, which I’m sure is as vast as the Pacific Ocean outside my retreat room, undoubtedly says055

I AM a BIG fucking deal . . . and you’re not

Good to keep in mind. And yet . . . this is the same God who invites me to intimacy and friendship. It is probably best to keep my inner “World’s Most Interesting Man” to myself—except on those rare occasions when I just have to let him briefly see the light of day.

He wouldn’t be afraid to show his feminine side—if he had one.

The Crucifix Train

A bit over a year after moving into our beautiful new humanities building, there is still a great deal of debate and disagreement for what belongs on the walls. With one notable exception. As I wrote about a year ago, there is one item so omnipresent on the walls in the new building that it is impossible to miss.

Moving day on a Catholic campus is a bit different than on other campuses. The large interdisciplinary program that I direct was moved a couple of  months ago into our new fabulous humanities building, an academic Shangri-La that is the envy of  my academic friends who teach at other colleges and universities. Since my program’s lectures and seminars will constitute the lion’s share of classes taught in this building, I have been referring to it as “my building” since ground breaking a bit over a year ago. The day after we moved, as I wandered the halls of the Ruane Center for the Humanities and thanked the gods of interdisciplinarity for this long-awaited gift, I came across an unusual sight. 15267-4259672-6[1]In the middle of the main floor hall, piled on top of a pushcart such as food services uses to deliver items to meetings, were at least a dozen identical two-foot crucifixes, in living and gory color. “Must be crucifix day—we certainly are keeping some crucifix factory in business,” I thought. More than twenty-five years as a non-Catholic in Catholic higher education has prepped me for sights never seen on other campuses.

089But this was a first, and I mentioned it to the next few colleagues I came across as the morning progressed. One faculty colleague told me, as she was setting up her new office, that she had come across a room on the lower level where dozens of crucifixes were laid out across the floor. “It looked like some sort of weird medieval torture chamber.” Another colleague said  “Oh yeah. You don’t want to get in front of that train. I did that once, and it wasn’t pretty.” 088Apparently this colleague found out a couple of years ago during a discussion about the placement of a crucifix in a new classroom that the crucifix always gets priority because “God is more important than white boards.” Good information to have. A couple of days later, as I was giving my son a guided tour through my new building, we came across yet another very large crucifix. “His halo looks like a dinner plate,” my son observed. “It’s a little known fact that when the Romans crucified someone they didn’t just nail the person to the cross. 100_1976They also made him balance a gold plate on his head,” I replied. You can’t get this information just anywhere.

All this reminded me of a favorite story from a friend and colleague  with whom I spent sabbatical at an ecumenical institute a few years ago. He told me about the large Catholic parish church he and his wife attend when home in Washington D.C., a church filled with expensive and gory religious art. Once at a vestry meeting my friend commented that “during mass we say ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ Anyone visiting this church would have no trouble figuring out that Christ has died; we might want to consider having at least one thing on display that indicates that Christ has risen.”

I must admit that I don’t “get” the attraction of crucifixes; I am quite sure I had made it into my late teens or early twenties before I saw my first cross bearing a corpus. In the world in which I was raised, crosses were empty—that was the point, right? 100_1977But before my Protestant bemusement at Catholic practices gets out of control, let me assure you that Protestants are just as capable as Catholics of getting out of control with religious artifacts. In the early years of the Protestant Reformation, mobs of Protestants occasionally stormed through churches destroying all symbols of “popery,” including crucifixes, statues, and often priceless works of art. Several centuries later, there is continuing evidence throughout Protestantism not only of this iconoclastic spirit, green-cross-neon-sign-6867771[1]but also of a remaining, undiluted attachment to religious symbols. Crosses are everywhere, often combining fetishism and bad taste. Neon crosses were particularly popular in the churches I visited with my preacher father as a child, most often an imagesCAP5AG7Dethereal blue, but also coming in Kermit the frog green, red, or laser bright white. And don’t get me started on artist’s renditions of Jesus. Let’s just say that whatever the connection is between religious belief and mass-produced items of religious art, it runs far deeper than the divide between Catholics and Protestants.

I have occasionally written in this blog about the difference between idols and icons, the difference between focusing one’s attention on an artifact, object, or work of art and letting that artifact, object, or work of art serve as a doorway or window to something elseFedorovskaya[1]. The difference between treating something as an idol or as an icon is the difference between “looking at” and “looking through.” To my irreverent Protestant eye, a crucifix is a prime candidate for idolatry, because it is available and oddly attractive. But if I step outside of my admittedly skewed perspective and wonder how a crucifix might be an icon, what lies on the other side of such a sacred window?

Looking through a crucifix brings suffering and pain into focus, which makes a crucifix a complex symbol of a very complex set of beliefs. At the heart of Christianity is the suffering and dying God, a God who, using Simone Weil’s words, offers a supernatural use for suffering rather than a supernatural cure for it. God’s response to the pain, suffering and devastation of our world and the human experience is to enter it with us, to share the burden. In the most horrific of circumstances God is intimately available. Although a crucifix hanging on a wall is just a mass-manufactured religious artifact,Pastrix-cover[1] it can be an iconic reminder that there is absolutely nothing that can occur in this frequently messed up world that does not include God’s presence.

In her recent memoir Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber, a heavily tattooed and pierced former stand-up comic who is the Lutheran pastor and founder of the Church of All Saints and Sinners in Denver, CO, tells the story of the ten weeks she spent as a hospital chaplain, satisfying a clinical pastoral education requirement during her years in seminary. What is an apparent representative of God supposed to do when regularly placed in the company of people experiencing the worst pain and sorrow imaginable? Bolz-Weber knew instinctively that words were almost certainly the last thing needed.

You hear a lot of nonsense in hospitals and funeral homes. God had a plan, we just don’t know what it is. Maybe God took your daughter because He needs another angel in heaven. But when I’ve experienced loss and felt so much pain that it feels like nothing else ever existed, when_god_closes_a_door_he_opens_a_window[1]the last thing I need is a well-meaning but vapid person saying that when God closes a door he opens a window. It makes me want to ask where exactly that window is so I push him the fuck out of it.

As she would often sit silently with persons in the midst of great loss in a chapel with a crucifix overhead, Bolz-Weber trusted that the God who was there could communicate far better than words. A crucifix as an icon reminds us that God did not look down on the cross—God was hanging from the cross. This truth transcends doctrine, intellect, and even our best tortured questions. From Pastrix once again:

Emmanuel_God_With_Us[1]There simply is no knowable answer to the question of why there is suffering. But there is meaning. And for me that meaning ended up being related to Jesus—Emmanuel—which means “God with us.” We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.

100_1981

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?

imagesCAY02GPZ

Reading the Fine Print

As predictable as the change of seasons is the point in any given semester when students will approach me for the first time and ask for out of class help. Usually it’s after the first exam or paper has been returned. Students with dreams of an “A” dancing in their heads tend to make an appointment when their first major piece of graded work has a “C” or “D” on the top of it. I’m a user-friendly professor and am more than happy to meet with any student; when first approached, I usually raise the student’s eyebrows when I direct the student to be sure and bring the appropriate texts along for the appointment.

When Jane comes to my office, conversation begins with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why I did so poorly—I’ve done all of the readings and haven’t missed any classes.” I know whether the latter claim is true already, and will be checking on the first claim shortly. First, however, I tell Jane that “whatever I suggest in terms of strategies or help is going to require more time and more work from you. If you’re looking for a way to do better in the class without working harder than you have been already, there is no such way.” This is undoubtedly a disappointment, since the reason Jane made the appointment was to get the “magic bullet” that will slay the dreaded “C” or “D” and make room for the “A” to which she believes she is entitled. Learning that there is no such magic bullet is never good news.

And it gets worse, as I next ask to see her texts. They look as if they had just been taken off the bookstore shelf—no dog-eared pages, no scribbled notes in the margin, no underlined passages, no highlighted texts—and Jane’s name isn’t even in it. Handing my heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of the same text to Jane, I remark that “here’s problem number one. Your text should look like this.” I even go so far as to provide her with the key to my quirky markings, according to which I highlight in yellow the first time through, focusing the second time through primarily on the highlighted areas and underlining with a black pen those part that appear most crucial. Then after class I return a third time to write notes and comments from class discussion in the margins. Not only will following something like this procedure lock the material into the student’s memory by requiring something more than simply looking at words, but it will also condense the material for reviewing purposes when exam time comes.

I lost Jane’s attention as soon as she saw my copy of the text. Even though Jane doesn’t know what the colors and markings mean, she at least knows that they mean a lot of work. You mean I have to read more than once? That I have to read and think critically? That I have to read it again after class? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s going to take a lot of time and effort! And indeed it will. Jane has been introduced for the first time to the fine print in the life of learning—it’s hard. It requires building good reading and study habits. True education isn’t for lazy people and it isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t for anyone who wants to cut corners, to get to a desired outcome without taking all of the necessary steps in between. Every one of them.

In Mark’s gospel, we read of a classic “fine print” experience. In Mark 10, a young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments. Jesus lists a few for the guy, just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more. He’s thinks that he’s ready for the fine print.

We all know Jesus’ response—he reads him the fine print. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” We also know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” The fine print demanded the one thing the young man could not do. But what precedes Jesus’ reading of the fine print is even more interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But that damned fine print—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s about the fact that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “ when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of all disturbers of the peace. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

This is a disturbing story because it absolutely runs roughshod over our idea that human dealings with God are transactional. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z not to die?” is the question we so often want answered, and this sort of question is always wrong when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical I heard the poet Michael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything, in ways I’m not sure I’m fully ready to think about yet. But the following from Rainer Maria Rilke gives me hope:

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.

 

But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.

 

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

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!