Category Archives: stories

Facts, Words, and the Word

TheHobbit_Sdtk_Cover_1425px_300dpi1[1]The day after Christmas a few years ago I went with my son to see Peter Jackson’s movie version of “The Hobbit,” Part One. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I knew I would. I have been a Tolkienphile since my early teens, when The Hobbit was assigned by Mrs. Lord (a great name for a teacher) in my high school honors freshman English class. I loved it, and innocently said to Mrs. Lord “I like this—has this guy written anything else?” “As a matter of fact he has,” she replied, and turned me on to the wonders of The Lord of the Rings. It set off a love affair with J. R. R. Tolkien that has lasted for over forty years. Although I have strayed in the past few years, my first encounter with hobbits, dwarves, wizards, elves, orcs, and humans in Middle Earth caused me, going forward, to religiously read all four books once every three years. And I suspect that had Mrs. Lord not assigned The Hobbit, I might not have discovered Tolkien for many years after, if ever. It was one of my first examples of the joys of unexpected literary discoveries. It probably also explains why I have never read a word of the “Harry Potter” series”–the next generations Tolkien, I suppose.

muriel_barbery_personnalite_une[1]I still enjoy the unforeseen pleasures of a new literary find. I recently reread one of my favorite novels, Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and asked myself, upon finishing, a Mrs. Lord question: “I wonder if she’s written anything else?” Thanks to the wonders of Amazon, I found out in less than a minute that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is gourmet-rhapsody3[1]Barbery’s second novel, that she studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure, and worked for a number of years in France as a philosophy teacher. I immediately ordered her first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody, to read during the break between semesters.

It’s a short novel—a novella, really—that can easily be read in one day, especially if you have a cold and are resisting the siren call of work-related emails that you want to ignore until after New Year’s Day. In the midst of the story about a world-famous food critic who has been told that he has no more than two days to live, I read a sentence that has stuck with me over the past several months, even as the details of Barbery’s story drift away. “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis between words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial dress.”

As I get older and become more able to put years of teaching experience and continuing personal transition and process into some semblance of context and perspective, I find myself placed often at the intersection of words and facts. Facts, the one damn thing after another that provide the stuff of reality, are naked and uninteresting until shaped by a context, energized by a story, or illuminated by narrative light. Yet we live in a world which often insists on just the facts. As the insurance investigators tell Pi Patel in Life of Pi, after listening to his story of survival involving a hyena, an orangutan, a tiger, and a carnivorous island, “for the purposes of our investigation we want to know what really happened.The-Life-of-Pi[1] We want a simpler story for our report, one the company can understand and that we can all believe.” But the notion that the truth is nothing more than facts properly assembled in appropriate order is itself the result of a particular narrative structure, a structure guaranteed to produce stagnation and mediocrity. “I know what you want,” Pi responds. “You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

If I have become convinced of anything in the twenty-five years that I have been teaching, it is that true learning only happens in the company of the desire to see higher, further, or differently. Accordingly, in the narrative of teaching and learning the atomic facts of reality are dressed up in various styles. Sometimes the dress is formal, sometimes casual, sometimes liturgical, and sometimes humorous. Occasionally learning happens best when facts are dressed as for a masquerade, deliberately seeking to conceal what is underneath. Almost never are facts served up naked, except to illustrate how dull and lifeless facts in the raw are, compared with what we might find in the word wardrobe to dress them in.

story_iStock_000015344866Small[1]Alasdair MacIntyre tells us that humans are story-telling animals, and as such we package the facts of our lives for ourselves and for each other in word-woven stories. But just as facts are, of themselves, incapable of conveying truth, so also it is often impossible for even the most skilled storyteller and communicator to encompass the highest truths with words. Human beings know this intuitively. Anyone who has ever tried to express the depths of real love finds that the reality always exceeds what can be expressed in words. As Reverend Ames says in Gilead, “you must not judge what I know by what I find words for.“ “Actions speak louder than words” is more than a truism or sound bite—it is an acknowledgement that the truth often must be shown rather than spoken or written about.

The inadequacy of both naked facts and the words we dress them in is shockingly apparent when entering the realm of religious conviction. This is especially the case when the religion in question involves sacred texts, words that supposedly carry divine weight in some fashion or another. inerrancy_Gerstner[1]I am a product of a version of Christianity that treats the Bible as literal fact—this leads to shallowness, agnosticism, atheism, or at worst, rigid self-righteousness. When the “facts” are dressed up in ornamental dress, the product is stories, metaphors, doctrine, or dogma, depending on the style and the word-fashion designer. But embedded at the heart of the Christian narrative is a challenge both attractive and provocative. As with all of the greatest truths, the most dynamic aspects of the relationship between the human and the divine cannot be reduced to words.

ChristmasB-in-the-beg[1]There is a reason why the writer of the Gospel of John begins by considering divine wordplay. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” What sort of ceremonial dress is this? Alfred Korn puts it this way: “God is spirit, but at some point in history God became Word. This process of finding words for what cannot be expressed is incarnation.” As the Gospel writer tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The depths of divine love cannot be exhausted by words, by speech, by texts, by facts dressed up in even the fanciest garb. www-St-Takla-org--Coptic-Saints-Saint-Athanasius-03-01[1]These depths must be lived in and inhabited. And so the story goes—we are the continuing incarnation. As Saint Athanasius provocatively said, “God became human so that we might become God.” The Word continues to become flesh and live with us, because the Word is us. The life of faith is the life spent exploring what that amounts to and living it out.

Someone with Skin On

afraid-of-the-dark[1]The story is told of a little girl who was afraid of the dark. After trying any number of strategies to allay her fears, one night the girl’s frustrated mother said “there really isn’t anything to worry about—Jesus is always with you.” “But I can’t see him!” the little girl wailed. “I know you can’t,” the mother replied, “but he’s there all the same.” This did not help the little girl, who said “sometimes I just need someone with skin on.”

I thought of this story in the wake of an interesting round of seminars with two groups of nineteen freshmen in the interdisciplinary course I  teach in. Our seminar text was anselm[1]Anselm’s ontological argument—the very title is sufficient to cause nineteen-year-olds (or perhaps anyone with common sense) to shut down or at least to glaze over. The proof is a highly cerebral, rational attempt to prove the existence of God first made famous by Anselm, an eleventh century Benedictine monk who rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury for the last fifteen years of his life. It is called the “ontological” proof because it focuses on a logical analysis of the concept “to exist” or “to be” (ontos in Greek). Here it is in its simplest form.

1. I can think of a being than which no greater can be thought (a Perfect Being). 

2. Since I have this thought, the Perfect Being exists in my mind. 

3. It is greater to exist both in the mind and in reality than it is to exist just in the mind (ex: a unicorn that existed in reality would be greater than the unicorn that just exists in our imaginations). 

4. The Perfect Being must exist in reality as well as in my mind; if it existed only in my mind, I could imagine a greater being (which is contrary to #1). 

5. Therefore, the Perfect Being (God) exists in reality.

Here’s a cartoon version that gets the gist of the argument. Jesus and Mohammed are having a beer . . .

2006-09-11[1]

Confused? So were my students. My literature colleague and teammate, a medievalist, had done a first run through the argument in a lecture early in the week, but when I asked my seminar students how many thought they had a handle on what had happened in that class, not a hand was raised.

So-What[1]I took the opportunity over the next ninety minutes to walk through the steps of the argument with the students as slowly as needed and was convinced, at the end of the exercise, that each student in the room at least understood how the argument worked. But as I frequently tell students, the most important philosophical question one can ask is “So what?” Who cares? This led to the most important part of the seminar, as I asked them to role play:

1. Choose one of the following roles: a person who believes in the existence of God or a person who does not.

2. Once you have chosen your role, ask yourself the following:

a. If you are a believer, would the ontological argument help strengthen your faith, or would it basically have no impact? Why or why not?

b. If you are a non-believer, would the ontological argument convince you to become a believer or not? Why or why not?

dividing-wall[1]Each person wrote from the perspective of their chosen role for ten minutes, then compared what they wrote  in groups of three or four with others who had chosen the same role—believers with believers and non-believers with non-believers.

The students choosing to be believers and those choosing to be unbelievers were roughly equal in number. But the message that emerged from the group discussions—believer or non—was consistent: The argument doesn’t work. Believers agreed that although the argument might be “interesting,” that’s all it is. The argument does nothing to bolster, support or clarify already existing faith. Neither did the argument move any non-believer an inch closer to belief.

Why? Is there a fatal flaw in the logic of the flow from premises to conclusion? Many philosophers and theologians over the past millennium have sought to poke logical holes in different parts of the argument, with varying levels of success. But the ontological argument is still here, dragged out and dusted off in hundreds of philosophy of religion classes across the world every semester, godel ontological[1]stubbornly staking its claim that from the mere existence of an idea about a Perfect Being one can establish with certainty the actual existence of an actual Perfect Being that matches up to the idea. I have a colleague in the philosophy department, a Dominican priest, who not only is convinced that the ontological argument is sound, but who will proceed upon invitation to demonstrate it using symbolic notation and modal logic. Trust me, you don’t want to know.

The argument’s failure to impress my students, however, had nothing to do with its logical triumphs or failures. As different groups of believers and non-believers weighed in after we reconvened, a common theme emerged:

Maybe God exists, but this doesn’t tell me anything about how to relate to God or where God is. 

Faith for me is not about arguments.

This argument doesn’t tell me anything about what God is like or what God wants.

If I already believe that God exists, I don’t need a proof to tell me that.GodPuzzle[1]

I don’t think God is a puzzle or a problem to be solved.

How is this going to help me be a better person?

Bottom line: My students were in almost unanimous agreement that the God of Anselm’s argument is not someone who can be related to on a human level. Anselm’s God is not “somebody with skin on.” And sometimes—perhaps most of the time—that’s what we need God to be.

RUBIKS GOD[1]The good news is that according to the Christian narrative, God knows this. It sometimes shocks my students to hear that “incarnation” literally means “to become meat.” Carnivore, carnivorous, chili con carne, carnal. Or to put it differently, “incarnation” means “to put skin on.’ God’s response to human need, hope, sorrow, desire, pain, joy, and suffering is to wrap the divine up in flesh. On a given day, in a given situation, that incarnated God might be you. It might be me. This is how the divine chooses to be in the world. It’s much more possible to relate to someone with skin on than to a mathematical formula or a logical construct. God is not a Rubik’s Cube. God is a person with skin on. Embrace it.

Border Crossing

As a youth growing up in northeastern Vermont, a trip to Canada was pretty much the same as a trip to Hartford or Boston—except it took less time. We lived about forty miles south of the border, and most of my family’s favorite hangout spots were north of the border. Montreal, about three hours away, was our big city; Quebec CityQuebec City, about four hours away, was our destination when we wanted to pretend we were in Europe (where none of us had ever gone); Sherbrooke, only a bit over an hour away, was the location of our favorite Chinese restaurant (actually the only Chinese restaurant I ever ate at before I turned twenty). Our trips over the border were so frequent that the border guards at the Newport, VT crossing eventually started waving us through—we just needed to slow down sufficiently for them to realize who it was. Sort of like EZ Pass decades before its time.Canadian Rockies

My family loved Canada so much that we made significant forays north of the border on our frequent summer driving trips from one coast to another. I became particularly familiar with the natural beauty of British Columbia and Alberta, considering to this day the Canadian Rockies of Banff and Jasper National Parks to be superior in beauty and majesty to the American Rockies (with the possible exception of the Grand Tetons). lobsterWhen I was a freshman in high school we explored the Maritime Provinces for the first time—a highlight was eating my first full lobster at a community lobster bake on Prince Edward Island. I spent a couple of Canada-less decades after my teens, but once Jeanne and I returned to New England in the mid-nineties, I enjoyed exploring with her the Montreal and Quebec City of my youth, even staying in the very same B and B in Quebec City at which I had stayed several times with my family twenty years earlier. Canada is a bit more of a trek from Providence than from northern Vermont, but that’s why they invented airplanes. I have loved Canada for as long as I can remember; several summers ago during the brouhaha over the Affordable Care Act, comparisons to Canada’s universal health care system were frequent. moose“We don’t want to be like Canada, DO WE??” one outraged letter to the editor author wanted to know—somone replied “What’s wrong with Canada? Canada is freaking awesome!!” I agree.

In the spring of 2002 I was pleased when an academic group I am involved with chose to hold their annual colloquy at the University of Toronto, offering Jeanne and I our first Canada opportunity in a few years. As we checked in at the Providence airport, the counter lady said “Don’t forget to have your passport out!” “My passport??” I thought—“We’re going to freaking Canada! Why do we need our passports?” We had forgotten that a minor event called 9/11 had happened since our last visit north of the border. We actually did have passports—it just had not crossed our minds that we would need them for Canada. We did not have sufficient time to run home to get them and return to the airport to catch our scheduled flight. When it turned out that rescheduling for a later flight would cost more than what we had paid for our original tickets, Halifaxwe chose not to go to the colloquy, using our tickets several months later instead to visit a different Canadian city—Halifax—that neither of us had ever seen for my March birthday. Don’t ever visit Halifax in March. It’s cold. We spent most of our time in our warm hotel room watching the international curling championship that was in town that weekend. Really.

Fast forward twelve years to spring 2014—this time my academic group’s annual colloquy was being held in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city that I had visited only once when I was a teenager. Jeanne’s work takes her to Canada frequently and she vouched for how awesome Ottawa is. I was pumped—I liked the paper I was going to be presenting and I even made a note to self not to forget my passport. A passport that I realized just a couple of weeks before the colloquy was expired. Discovering that an expedited renewal application would be prohibitively expensive, I chose not to go. passport applicationI placed the renewal application papers on my bedroom nightstand, intending to get a new passport forthwith so this wouldn’t happen again. And there they sat for several months.

Until just a few weeks ago, when Jeanne let me know that she had a chance to do a weekend’s work in Toronto from June 19-21 and wanted me to go with her. I never can travel with her when classes are in session, so with the semester over this sounded like a nice way to kick off my sabbatical. I filled out my renewal application form, attached a passport photo of moi taken at CVS, and mailed it off on May 1, sad to be including in the submission my expired passport with its Cuba stamp from 2002 (a future collector’s item). Paying $170 for expedited (two to three weeks) service, I was in business. Or so I thought. Two weeks later I received an email, followed the next day by a priority mail letter, reporting that my application was on hold for two reasons.

  1. I had forgotten to sign my application. (“Bullshit!!” I exclaimed until I checked my copy of the application and saw that they were correct—I hadn’t signed it).
  2. My picture was unacceptable because it was “overexposed” and my defining features were not clear enough. (That’s what I look like, morons! I have white hair! wtfMy skin is Scandinavian white! Even my eyebrows are white! I’m the whitest person I know!).

After a “What the fuck!” moment or two and a few deep breaths, I calmed down, got a new picture taken, this time at the main Post Office, filled out a new application, and sent it off on May 15th. With still more than a month before travelling to Toronto, no worries. Or so I thought.

On May 28th I received another email, followed by priority mail the next day, informing me that my application was on hold—again! This time apparently my picture was okay but the letter claimed “You did not sign and/or complete your original application. Please submit a completed, signed, and dated application.” Checking my copy of this second application I confirmed that I fucking well did sign and date it and fucking well couldn’t find anything wrong with any of it. And now it’s only a bit over three weeks before the scheduled Toronto visit. I decided to deliberately descend into the lower levels of hell and call the passport 1-877 number on May 29. helpAfter twenty minutes on hold during which I was advised at least twelve times that “due to an unusually high volume of calls the wait time is much longer than usual,” therefore I might want to try the passport website (I already had done that several times—it isn’t helpful), I heard “Thank you for calling, this is James, how may I help you?”

Practicing my Benedictine Zen, I calmly explained my situation to James, who helpfully walked me through the passport application so simple that a fifth-grader could fill out but that I had failed to successfully complete two times in a row. He was (most unhelpfully) not able to tell me what I had done wrong on my second attempt (“It could have been anything,” he offered) but seemed confident that it would work this time. But would my passport make it to me by June 19th (now a mere three weeks away)? overnightNo guarantees, but my chances were better if I would be willing to pay $14.85 for overnight delivery in addition to the $170 I had already paid for expedited service. This is turning out to be an expensive trip to Canada I thought as I wrote out the check and sent my third application into the priority mail slot at the Post Office.

While Jeanne and I were visiting friends and family in Florida June 5-15, I managed to convince myself that my passport would be waiting for me when we returned. But it wasn’t—and now I was moving into serious WTF and panic mode. A Monday afternoon call to the 1-877 number produced Mia, who was less helpful than James had been. Couldn’t say anything other than that my application was “in process,” couldn’t guarantee it would get to me by Friday, couldn’t think of anything more that I could do from my end, and generally couldn’t wait to get me off the phone. Shit. I prepared for the likelihood that I would not be going to Toronto, and even started planning what I would do at home with the dogs this coming weekend while Jeanne went north of the border. But yesterday around noon Jeanne called to let me know that my wayward passport had arrived—with about forty hours to spare. Here is proof:WIN_20150618_141315

In four hours Jeanne and I will be on a plane to Toronto with our passports in tow. I hope mine works—but if it doesn’t, I’d hope I get stuck on the Canadian side of the border. I’d be happy to spend my sabbatical in Canada. Canada is freaking awesome.Canada is awesome

ineffeciency

Sowing the E-Seed

Today’s gospel is about sowing seed–a promising but ultimately inefficient activity, both in the field and on line. I was thinking about that a year ago . . .

I do not consider myself to be a particularly obsessive person (Jeanne might disagree), but my penchant for checking my blog statistics on at least an hourly basis belies my claim. In the middle of the summer when my schedule is less intense it is easier to explain why I frequently check my blog either on my phone or tablet, but I find time to do so regularly even when the semester is in full swing. my-stats-mapI have even stepped out of someone presenting a philosophy paper at a conference on the pretense of visiting the men’s room on a particularly busy blog day to see how many more hits my new post has attracted since the paper began a half hour before.

It did not help when Jeanne bought me a couple of hours’ worth of conversation online with a blog consultant several weeks ago. My blog has been in existence for close to two years now and I am continually surprised pleasantly by how well it is doing, but Jeanne would like to see it go through the stratosphere. I suspect there is an ulterior motive behind her promotional hopes for my writing beyond the fact that she loves me—she wants this blog to be the vehicle for my writing becoming so popular and my turning into a speaker so highly and lucratively in demand that she can retire. imagesRFB367C3During the first Skype-type hour with my very pleasant, very talented and frighteningly young blog consultant Matt, it was clear that he did not know what to make of me. I’m not selling anything on my blog, I’m not promoting anything other than ideas and stories—most of his clients are trying to become rich off their blog activities. It was clear that it would take some time for him to understand me when within the first ten minutes of our first conversation he suggested strongly that I should get rid of the penguins at the top of the entry page to my site. Unaware that messing with my penguins is like messing with my children, he backed off when I told him the penguins weren’t going anywhere (although he tentatively raised the issue again the other day at our most recent session).

On his advice my blog has been moved to a much more powerful platform. For the most part I have no real idea what that means except that it cost some money and forced me to learn a few new habits when preparing posts for publication (sort of the same as moving from word 2010word 2013Word 2010 to Word 2013; a general pain in the ass, but not impossible). The most tangible difference is that I now have access to approximately 1000 times more stats concerning where the people visiting my blog are coming from, how they got there, what they are reading, how long they are staying, what search engines are directing them to me most effectively, etc., etc., etc. Not a good thing for my stat-obsessibounce rateve tendencies, but I’m doing okay so far. That’s probably because I’m finding some things out that I don’t like.

For instance, the “bounce rate” on my blog for the month since it was moved to its new platform is 72.04%. The bounce rate is “the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page without interacting with the page).” Well that’s not good. Matt says “we should try to get that under 70%,” which also doesn’t sound very good. I think he blames it on the penguins. My blog has been visited by folks in 67 different countries in the past month (over 150 since the blog began), but the bounce rate brings those numbers into sobering perspective. untitled 2I can just hear people in forty-five different languages saying “What the fuck is this??” as they zip away from my entrance page. They probably didn’t like the penguins.

Drilling down deeper (a cool, nerdy phrase Matt likes to use) into the location stats, I discover that in the US, not surprisingly, 39.06% of my visitors are from Rhode Island, with a close competition for a distant second between New York, Texas, and Massachusetts. Texas?? That doesn’t make sense. But the bounce rate from Texas visitors is 87.88% and the average duration of their visit is thirty seconds, so even Texans can figure out pretty quickly that my liberal, blue state, non-fundamentalistMt-Rushmore-006 blog is somewhere they don’t want to be. It’s probably the penguins. I am also disturbed to find out that there are three states who have not sent someone to my blog in the last month: cornSouth Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska. I’ll work on saying something nice about Mount Rushmore and corn in the coming weeks. By the way, I can drill down even deeper and find out what cities and towns visitors are coming from as well. I haven’t figured out how to find out my visitors’ mailing addresses yet, but if I do I’ll be writing you individually.

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t—that would require my spending even more time looking at blog stats. But I wondered for several days whether all of the time and energy I put into my blog is worth it when almost three-quarters of the people who arrive on my entrance page and have the opportunity to read my latest bits of wit and wisdom don’t. L07LIM26CHRFortunately the Gospel readings for the past few Sundays have been from Matthew 13, the wonderful chapter in which Jesus shares many of his most memorable parables. Like this one:

Listen! A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

It is difficult to imagine a more wasteful and non-economical activity. If this sower had Google Analytic statistics to gauge the success and effectiveness of his activity, I’ll bet his bounce rate (the sum of seeds that fell on the path, rocky ground, and among thorns) is at least as high as mine. But if, as Jesus’ interpretation later in the chapter suggests, the seed is the word of God, then this is just the typical divine strategy that I keep bumping into—“Let’s just throw a bunch of crap out there indiscriminately and see what happens!” ineffeciencyGod is no respecter of persons, statistics, focus groups, yield projections, bounce rates, or any other thing humans might devise as the best measures of effectiveness and efficiency. All you have to do is consider the extraordinary wastefulness of the way God chose to crank out endless varieties of living things, natural selection, to realize that Isaiah wasn’t kidding when he reports God as saying that “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

I’ll try to keep this in mind whenever my stats aren’t to my liking or Matt tries to get me to ditch my penguins. Every Monday and Friday when I throw new e-seed out there and Wednesdays when I throw out recycled e-seed, I am imitating a divine activity that makes no sense but somehow produces fruit in the most unexpected and unpredictable places. Excellent. And I’m not getting rid of the penguins.untitled 4

Undoing Babel

Jeanne and I watched a documentary not long ago called “Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action,” created, filmed and directed by a man with the fabulous name “Velcrow Ripper.”imagesCAMGJ7EL He is the cousin-in-law of a colleague and friend of Jeanne’s who made the recommendation. The movie was beautifully constructed and filmed, as well as being very thought-provoking. The central thread of the documentary traces various ways in which people seek spiritual growth and reality that are seldom located in traditionally religious frameworks. All this, of course, in the middle of a world that seems to have little concern for matters of the spirit at all. The voices of spirituality, religion, secularism, materialism, power, and greed often are speaking languages so incompatible that our world appears to be little more than a cacophony of white noise at different pitches.

The Old Testament reading for Pentecost this Sunday is a story that is familiar to many but has probably been actually read by few.  The Tower of Babel tale was part of the first seminar assignment (Genesis 1-25) for one hundred or so freshmen last fall in the interdisciplinary course I teach. These chapters contain stories so seminal and formative—creation, the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and his ark, the call and adventures of Abraham—that it is impossible to do them all justice. So I didn’t try. Hendrik+III+van+Cleve+-+Tower+of+Babel+(Kröller+Müller+Museum)[1]Instead, I focused our seminar attention on the strange story in Genesis 11. Very briefly, it is traditionally interpreted as a story similar to Noah and the flood—human beings are getting uppity and God puts them in their place. Because of their hubris, God scatters people in every direction as well as “confusing their language” so they can no longer understand each other. Just as we can blame Adam and Eve for original sin, so our seeming incapability of understanding or truly communicating with each other is inherited from the people of Babel who thought themselves to be greater than they actually were.

Reading this story anew with my students last fall, however, revealed something far more interesting and provocative. First of all, there is no obvious challenge to God from the people of Babel. What they want to do is build a city, share their talents, build a tower as tall as their abilities and technology will allow, settle down, stop wandering, and “make a name for ourselves—otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.”el-castillo[1] In other words, this is a story about the early beginnings of what we recognize as civilization. Recognizing that the world is a demanding and scary place, human beings learn that there is strength and security in cooperation and numbers. Self-reliance and independence are better established collectively than individually. There is no obvious sense of humans thumbing their noses at God here, just a desire to reap the benefits of community. So what’s the big deal?

From the perspective of Elohim (the plural name for God used in this story), apparently this is a very big deal in a negative sense. Something about human attempts at solidarity, independence and strength is threatening to God throughout the Old Testament, but never more so than in this story. “This is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”1aaatowerofbabel2[1] These amazing creatures that we made? Look at what they can do! Planning, creativity, cooperation, independence, ambition—the sky’s the limit! Great stuff, right? Our kids are growing up! Divine high fives all around! Not exactly. “Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” Someone’s sounding threatened and paranoid.

At the very least, the Tower of Babel story reveals that human progress by its very nature creates tension with what is greater than us. This particular God, sounding like somewhat of a control freak, is made uneasy by the prospect that what has been created might actually have a mind and will of its own. These are the early seeds of tension between the secular and the sacred. The divine response? Put an end to it now. Scatter them, confuse them, cut this thing off at the knees. Not surprisingly, when I asked my seminar students to reflect in their journals on the question “Did God treat the people of Babel fairly?” they unanimously judged that God did not.

Toward the end of the semester, as we moved into the New Testament for a couple of weeks, the seminar assignment was the Gospel of Luke, the Book of ActsSt_%20Luke%20Shirt%20Logo%20Gold%20Cross[1], and Romans. What, among the vast array of possibilities, to focus on? In preparation it occurred to me, as it occurred independently to several students in seminar, that there is far more than simply a surface level connection between the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In fact, Pentecost undoes Babel, turns it on its head. Rather than dispersing human beings and confusing their language, at Pentecostpentecost1[1] the divine unites human beings by causing them to understand each other.

I was taught that Pentecost is the “birthday of the church,” but actually I think it signifies something much greater and more important than the start of a religion. Pentecost tells us that the divine is neither angry at us nor threatened by us. God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine giftActs 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound. The distance between God and humanity in Genesis 11 has been eliminated; Pentecost completes the story of the Incarnation—as my friend Marsue says, we all are “God carriers.”

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her own tongue.Earthen%20Vessels[1] God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do. Because we now “contain this treasure in earthen vessels,” as Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, we can easily be distracted by the various shapes, sizes, designs, and materials of the clay pots. But the divine connects us all. In the words of the ancient Gregorian chant,

Where charity and love is,

God is there.

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Resembling the Picture

Another academic year is in the books, and as I will gladly be shifting into sabbatical mode in six weeks, I’m reminiscing about how I became a teacher. It is a good thing when your conviction that you are perfectly suited for your profession is confirmed by an objective source. That’s not exactly what happened to me the other day, but when I took yet another internet personality test—“What career should you actually have?”

What Profession Should You Have?

I was pleased to be told that

enhanced-buzz-7133-1390948755-1YOU GOT PROFESSOR! You are a thinker, in constant search of knowledge and answers to life’s most illusive [sic] questions. You love to analyze everything, testing out theories and pushing mental boundaries. Basically you’re an Einstein, but then again you probably already knew that.

I probably should not put much stock in a quiz that does not know the difference between “illusive” and “elusive,” and had a student made this error I would have directed them to a thesaurus, but I’ll take affirmation wherever I can get it. Several of my colleagues also got “Professor,” while a couple of others got ‘Writer.” I would have been happy with that as well, as long as I could keep teaching to pay the bills. One of my colleagues in the music department got “Astronaut.” That sucks. It’s going to be annoying for her to have to quit a tenured professor position and start all over again.

Isoros200-438336cae96965c46c594c60bc99df0c15ee161c-s6-c30 have said to anyone who would listen that I was born to do what I do for a living for so long that I think I actually believe it. But I was not always this confident in my classroom abilities. free_angela_buttonI remember clearly the day, over twenty-five years ago, when it occurred to me that I had painted myself into a corner that I was not at all sure I wanted to be in. All of have heard of famous persons in all walks of life with philosophy degrees (George Soros, Angela Davis, Thomas Jefferson, treeeAlex Trebek, Susan Sontag, Steve Martin—just to name a few), but their philosophy degrees were a BA. Once you are deep into the several additional years of earning a PhD in philosophy, available options narrow. The day I learned that my graduate assistantship for my second year at Marquette would be a teaching assistantship rather than the research assistantship I had during my first year, it dawned on me—I’m going to be a teacher. And I had no idea whether I’d be any good at it or if I would even like it.

I had been a TA for a couple of years during my Master’s program at the University of Wyoming, where the job consisted of doing everything the professor of the 150+ student Introduction to Philosophy course didn’t feel like doing. ta_teaching_assistant_chemistry_element_symbol_t_mug-r11846fd890814a1583e540dd34d61964_x7jgr_8byvr_512That included all of the grading and trying to explain every Friday to two groups of twenty students what the hell the professor had been talking about on Monday and Wednesday. My Friday students seemed to like me, but that’s probably because anyone with fifth-grade level communication skills could have been clearer than that particular professor. At Marquette, however, a TA had her or his very own class, designing it from scratch, giving all the lectures, seeing all of the students, and grading everything from beginning to end. Just like a real teacher—except that I had never been in front of a classroom in my life, except to make a few five or ten-minute presentations over the years. So how is this ultra-introverted student, who is far more confident in his writing skills than his people skills, supposed to morph into a teacher?

Although the graduate program in philosophy at Marquette did have a large safety net spread under its TAs, the process was pretty much like throwing a person who wants to learn how to swim into the deep end of the pool and seeing what happens. aristotle-success-largeSince in most PhD programs there are no courses in “How to Teach,” the assumption being that the ton of esoteric and possibly useless information in a grad student’s brain will somehow magically be communicated effectively to a bunch of undergrads who don’t care. I decided to teach by shameless imitation of the best professors I had, a decision that Aristotle—who said that a key to the moral life is to imitate those who are already the person you want to become—would have been proud of. My two mentor/models could not have been more dissimilar.

Father Jack Treloar was a Jesuit who looked like a short Marine drill sergeant, with less than two percent body fat and a grey flat-top. He scared the shit out of undergraduates; we graduate students who got to know him knew that he was a softie at heart. His favorite thing to do when he came to the house for dinner was to sit on the floor and play with my sons (8 and 6). His brilliance in the classroom was built on a foundation of crystal clarity and organization bordering on obsessive. Fr TreloarFr. Treloar’s flow chart “road map” through the labyrinthine thickets of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was so effective that I have shamelessly used it regularly, with only minor changes, over the past two decades with my undergraduates. As I often tell my students, “when you use someone else’s ideas, its plagiarism; when professors steal each other’s ideas, its creative pedagogy.” Fr. Treloar asked me a number years ago to stop calling him “Father Treloar” and call him “Jack”—I couldn’t (and can’t) do it. I’m not comfortable being on a first name basis with an icon.

Dr. Trene-descartes-and-immanuel-kantom Prendergast was undoubtedly the most enthusiastic teacher I have ever encountered. His obvious love of his subject matter of expertise (Early Modern Philosophy—Descartes through Kant) was so infectious that it spread through the classroom like a virus. The virus became so rooted in me that I took three seminars with him and he ended up agreeing to be the director for my dissertation on Descartes’ ethics. His class was energized by passion, not organization or necessarily even logical precision, qualities that he also lacked in his life outside the classroom. Two stories will suffice.

Tom (I had no trouble calling him that at his request) lived in one of the Lake Michigan lakeside suburbs of Milwaukee; we would meet at his favorite restaurant every other week to discuss the latest draft material from my dissertation. It was always Dutch treat—I usually only got a beer because that’s all graduate students can afford. But our final meeting before my dissertation defense happened to fall on my birthday. indexJeanne behind the scenes let Tom know that it was my birthday, and Tom greeted me at the restaurant with a hearty “Happy birthday! It’s my treat—get anything you want!” We celebrated both my birthday and the completion of my dissertation with dinner—very cool, until the bill came and Tom realized he didn’t have his wallet. I didn’t even have a credit card, but through some beneficial grant from the gods of philosophy I happened to have just enough cash to pay the bill and avoid washing dishes. I didn’t have enough for a tip, though—Tom promised he would return and leave a tip after he retrieved his wallet from home. I doubt he remembered.

On the evening after my successful dissertation defense a few weeks later, Tom and his wife Barbara took Jeanne and me out to dinner to celebrate. Yes we made sure he had his wallet. It was beginning to snow, so Tom dropped the three of us off at the restaurant door and went to find parking on the street, joining us within several minutes. Snow in BrusselsWhen we left the restaurant a couple of hours later, three or four inches of new fallen snow had covered everything. Barbara joked “I’ll bet Tom won’t remember where he parked the car!” She was right—he couldn’t remember. We spent the next ten to fifteen minutes brushing snow off all the cars in the surrounding blocks until we discovered theirs. That was Dr. Prendergast.

As I started thinking about teaching my first class, I sort of figured that if I could combine a bit of Fr. Treloar’s organization and clarity with Dr. Prendergast’s passion and enthusiasm, I might become a serviceable teacher. The organization and clarity came much more naturally to this extreme introvert than the passion and enthusiasm—I brought the energy of a performer to the front of the class, playing a role that ultimately became my own. Almost twenty-five years later, with many mistakes, embarrassing failures, increasing joy, and a imagesTeacher of the Year award behind me, I can, if I step back for a moment, see the imprint of both of these master teachers and generous mentors on everything I do for and in the classroom.

Was I born to be a teacher, or did I become the teacher that I am through necessity and the extraordinary blessing of having models of what I wanted to become smack in front of me? Iris Murdoch writes that “Man is the creature who makes pictures of himself, then comes to resemble the pictures.” Just as Ernest in Story of Great Stone FaceNathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Great Stone Face” came to resemble what he had spent his life looking at, so I have come to resemble those teachers who I observed so closely many years ago. Perhaps I observed too closely. I am extraordinarily organized in my planning for a class, a semester, or future blog posts as well as in my administrative duties, but often can’t find my reading glasses or wallet.

My Leading Man

As the director of a large interdisciplinary program required of all students during their first four semesters on campus, I am quite used to hearing both students and their advisors refer to the required sixteen credit hours in the program I direct, the centerpiece of my college’s rather extensive core curriculum, as something that students need to “get out of the way” before they are free and clear to start their real education in their major. I have spent a great deal of energy and time over the past four years trying to change that attitude—with mixed success. MitchBut I must confess that I had something like the “get it out of the way” attitude in place last Sunday when it came to Easter church duties. When our friend Marsue was rector, Trinity Episcopal provided only one super-celebration on Easter morning at 9:00, but Mitch, the new rector guiding the congregation through Holy Week festivities for the first time, scheduled 8:00 and 10:00 services on Easter morning. I’m an early morning person, Jeanne said she would join me at the early show, and by slightly after 9:00 AM our Easter church duties had been gotten out of the way. Priceless.

cinderellaI suppose it reveals my latent barbarian and irreligious tendencies to say that our real Easter activity last Sunday was going to see the new Disney movie version of the classic fairy tale “Cinderella.” But think about it—there are actually some Easter related themes there—redemption, transformation (pumpkin into coach, lizards into coachmen, goose into coach driver, mice into horses), unconditional love. Cinderella and Easter are both “feel good happy ending” tales. Even the life mantra Cinderella learns from her mother—“Have Courage, and Be Kind”—before her mother dies sounds like some versions of Christianity I’m familiar with. Not convinced? courage and kindnessNeither am I, but it really was a lovely movie with great CGI effects, good acting by Rose and Daisy from Downton Abbey as Cinderella and wicked stepsister #1 respectively, and a good time was had by all.

As fairy tales go, I prefer Cinderella over Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, but in a recent foray into Facebook/Internet personality quiz-taking revealed something quite accurate and appropriate about me.Snow White

Which of Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs am I?

I’ve always thought Snow White to be a radically chauvinistic tale, since the main reason the little guys love Snow White is that they finally have a woman in the house to cook and clean for them, but I was still intrigued. I used to know the names of all seven of the dwarfs (couldn’t produce them all now), but my result makes perfect sense.

docYou are Doc! In a chaotic world, you’re the one who keeps everything grounded. You’re a natural-born leader, even if you don’t always find the right words to get your vision across. You are a caretaker and a control freak at heart, but you go weak in the knees for life’s more beautiful things!

Those all sound like the qualities that I’ve had to rely on (even though I didn’t know I possessed many of them) in my now decade-long foray into academic administration, first as chair of a large department, then director of a much larger program. Except for the weak-in-the-knees business. The only thing that does that to me is an unexpected victory by the Friars or the Red Sox.

Continuing with the personality quiz theme related to movies and television, a while ago I came across a perfect quiz:

Which British Detective Are You?

This one might not work for you, but Jeanne and I are Anglophiles of a cosmic order when it comes to television detective shows. Sherlock? Lewis? Morse? Barnaby? This one knocked it out of the park.Tennison

Your result: Congratulations; you are Jane Tennison (from ‘Prime Suspect’)!

Ever since she played Morgana in Excalibur back in the early 80s, Helen Mirren has been one of my favorites, and her role as Jane Tennison in “Prime Suspect” is brilliant. I can’t say, though, that much of the description fits me.

Your life and career is a long and bitter tale of struggle and injustice, stretching back as far as you’d care to remember. And of course, that sort of thing leaves a mark. You’re no longer sure if you became good at your job because of natural talent, or because no one thought you could do it and you had to either prove them wrong or leave. Whatever the reason, all of this battling has brought out the best in your personality. You’re tough, strong and ready to fight your corner whenever adversity comes your way. excaliburThis does make it hard to drop your guard sometimes, and of course it won’t protect you from heartache because in order to admit you have feelings, you have to be vulnerable. And nothing hurts like betrayal. But woe betide the person that crosses you. LOTS of woe.

That sounds a lot more bad-ass than I consider myself to be, but I’ll take just being in the same paragraph with Helen Mirren—channeling Jane Tennison’s bad-assery is something I will work on. Maybe a sabbatical project. And by the way, Jeanne and I saw Helen in her newest movie “Woman in Gold” last evening. She’s as great as ever.

I’m a great lover of movies and good television, almost to the point of addiction. Of the dozens of online personality quizzes I have taken (I guess I’m addicted to them as well), I anxiously awaited the results of

Which Actor Would Play You in the Story of Your Life?ddl mohicans

I had taken this one several months ago but forgot to record the results—this time around I won’t forget.

Daniel Day-Lewis has been cast to play you! Daniel Day-Lewis’ onscreen personality and character traits: Passionate, fiercely intense, wise, unafraid of a little insanity, romantic, intimidating, fearless, able to speak other languages, ddl my left footintimate, up for any challenge, cosmopolitan, adaptable, proud, forceful, powerful.

With roles ranging from Christy Brown in My Left Foot through Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans to Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, the only actor who has won three Lead Actor Academy Awards, this guy sets the bar higher than I could aspire to in my corner of the world. Of the various words and phrases in the description above, less than half of them sound like me. But there’s something about this that I relish—if the chameleon-like Daniel Day-Lewis and the brilliant Helen Mirren had a love child, it would be me!ddl lincoln

crucifixion[1]

Actually, He Died

Three Christmas Eves ago, Jeanne, Justin and I were invited to share dinner with a friend from work and her family, which includes two precocious and very active children. On display was a beautiful crèche, surrounded by all sorts of interesting items—who knew, for instance, that there was a duck and an elephant (both roughly the same size as the baby) at the manger? My friend is from Italy; her mother annually sends new additions to the crèche scene from the homeland, often forgetting the comparative size of the items she sent in previous years. My friend’s five-year-old daughter introduced Justin to the various characters in a monologue interrupted only by a few confirming comments.

And these are some shepherds, those are goats and sheep, that’s a dog a turkey and a cow, these are some angels, and that’s the baby Jesus.

Oh, really?

Yes. Actually, he died.

Yes he did, as Good Friday somberly reminds us. It is traditional for Christians, anticipating the end of the story and what will happen in three days, to attempt a symbolic descent into the depths of pain and devastating disappointment. But there is no evidence that any person among Jesus’s family and followers expected that he would rise from the dead. The crucifixion was an unmitigated disaster and they fled in fear for their lives. Some hid in anonymous locations to escape arrest. Some simply went home. The bravest among them planned to show respect for the dead body in traditional ways. Various hopes and dreams were shattered. As the travelers to Emmaus said, “We had hoped that it was He who was going to redeem Israel.” But actually, he died. End of story—time to move on.

The idea of a suffering and dying God is not new—there are many traditions supported by myths and stories of a divinity suffering and dying for various reasons. But this story is so intimately personal, so representative of the crushed hopes and dreams, the inescapable pain and suffering, that are fundamentally part of the human experience. That’s what makes Good Friday so poignant and what made it so devastating for those who were there, those who had tied their lives to this man. He seemed to be something more, but turned out to be the same as everyone else—human, limited, subject to suffocating power and injustice, to the random events that ultimately shape each of our stories. We had hoped—and he died.

Simone Weil suggests that the entire story of redemption is contained in the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. If the story ended with Jesus executed as a criminal and dead in a tomb, we still would have reason to believe in a God of love. Our very existence, as well as the existence of the reality we inhabit, is evidence of God’s choice to create in order to love. The story of a God who becomes fully human, who lives a life in time subject to all things each human being is subject to, including suffering, pain, loss, tragedy, injustice, and death serves to drive the point deeper. No supernatural cure for suffering is offered in this story, no promise that God will take pain and loss away. Rather a supernatural use for suffering is offered. Isaiah promises that the Messiah will be called “Emanuel—God with us.” Good Friday reveals just how far the divine chooses to go with us—into the depths of despair and death.

I saw a poster recently with a dark twist on a familiar saying. “It is always darkest just before—it goes pitch black.” And God is there.

despairdemotivator[1]

Watching for an Hour

Some people can sleep anywhere. One of those people was a student in one of my seminars last year. Bob (his name has been changed to protect the innocent) is a bright but apparently less-than-motivated student whose verbal work, such as participation in seminar, vastly exceeds his written or objective work, such as reading quizzes and the midterm exam. imagesCA4P0ANMHe’s one of those students who always has something to say that is relevant and insightful, carefully crafted to disguise the fact that he has probably only skimmed the reading, if he looked at it at all. After twenty-five years I recognize this sort of student more easily than he or she might wish. More important, I recognize this sort of student because on rare occasions I was “that guy” as an undergraduate myself (although not as frequently or as successfully as Bob). And he dozes off in class—frequently. The seminar rooms in our wonderful new Ruane Center for the Humanities are equipped with circular tables, so it’s not as if anyone can sleep in the back row. There is no back row. But that doesn’t deter Bob—if he needs a catnap he takes one. More power to him, I say; I often would like to do the same.

themerchantofveniceebookdownloadOne week our seminar text was Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Following a setup lecture the previous day by my colleague from the English department, I decided to have students volunteer for the nine speaking roles in the dramatic Act Four trial scene and spend the majority of our two hours reading Shakespeare aloud, with pauses for commentary and general discussion as the spirit moved. Bob volunteered to read the part of Portia, the most important role in Act Four other than Shylock. In this act Portia and her sidekick Nerissa are pretending to be young men, a lawyer and his assistant. Since in Shakespeare’s world all female roles were played by guys, Portia and Nerissa in Act Four would have been played by guys playing a chick who is pretending to be a guy. maxresdefaultRight up Bob’s alley, as it turned out—he was excellent in the role.

Until it came time for Portia’s famous “The quality of mercy is not strained/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” speech, that is. Instead of the opening lines of Portia’s eloquent appeal to Shylock’s mercy, there was an uncomfortable silence. Bob had fallen asleep. The girl playing Antonio sitting next to Bob elbowed him in the ribs, Bob’s head jerked up—“Oh! Sorry!”—and he proceeded to read Portia’s twenty-five line speech beautifully and with feeling. Pretty impressive—and he managed to stay awake for the rest of the act. Bob might suffer from narcolepsy, but my suspicion is that he simply doesn’t get enough sleep—a malady shared by most freshmen in college. So he grabs forty winks in class when he needs to. At least he shows up.

Today is Maundy Thursday, a part of Holy Week so full of drama and intrigue that it is very easy to miss some of the most interesting details in the narrative. After dinner, Jesus heads to the Garden of Gethsemane for some one-on-one conversation with his dad, while the disciples tag along. botticelli_sleeping_apostles_2_smallHe wants to be alone and asks them to stay and wait for him as he walks on a bit further. Jesus’ distress and agony as well as his fear of what is to come are palpable and are understandably the focus of most discussions of this part of the Holy Week drama. A less discussed, but equally important, detail is that the disciples fall asleep. They literally cannot keep their eyes open. On three different occasions, Jesus returns to them and finds them catching some Zs. The gospel account is very “high church” sounding, but Jesus is clearly pissed when he finds them asleep. DUDES! Really?? I’m over here literally sweating drops of blood, I’ve never been so scared and worried, and you’re ASLEEP?? WTF?? Wake the hell up! Can’t you at least do that much?

I’m sure their collective reaction was something like Bob’s when he was caught sleeping as he should have been channeling Portia. “Whaa? Oh! Sorry, man! James! Andrew! I can’t believe you guys fell asleep! It won’t happen again, dude!” But it does—three times.

On the few occasions I have heard this scene discussed, the focus is always on the disciples, so human, so weak, or so disinterested that they fall asleep at the switch. I’m more interested in Jesus’ reaction. He hasn’t asked the disciples to do anything for him; he doesn’t even want them around him. So why is he so upset to find them sleeping? What’s the difference between sitting on one’s ass doing nothing and being asleep? In one of his letters to Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison, BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer uses this little scene to illustrate a profound insight.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” That is a reversal of what the religious person expects from God. We are summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

We expect God to do stuff, to solve problems, to kick ass and take names, but this God is not any of that. The only way this God can be in the world is to experience everything it has to offer, to suffer the worst it can do. The least that the disciples can do is be there, to pay attention, to be in solidarity with this man whom they love, whom they have followed, and whom they absolutely do not understand. Jesus feels alone and abandoned by everyone and everything; finding the disciples asleep simply confirms that what he is feeling is the truth.

What would it mean to watch and not fall asleep, to share in God’s sufferings? Where exactly is God suffering in our world? Everywhere that a human being has a need of any sort, God is in the middle of it. There is so much suffering that it can be overwhelming. No one of us, not even any one group of us, no matter how well-meaning, can make a significant dent. But Jesus isn’t asking the disciples to do anything other than to be aware, to be attentive, and not to tune out. If the answer to “what can I do to help” is “nothing,” at least the question was asked. Asking someone to bear the weight of the world alone is asking a lot—even of God.photo-1-e524059dbea1cebfe788ab374f45a37680085cdc-s40-c85

office hours

A Modest Proposal

a modest proposalIn 1729, Jonathan Swift of Gulliver’s Travels fame anonymously published a short work entitled A Modest Proposal, one of the great works of satire in the Western literary tradition. The complete title of Swift’s essay is A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick; in it, Swift in apparent seriousness proposes that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for rich gentlemen and ladies. He goes to great lengths to support his argument, including a list of possible preparation styles for the children, and calculations showing the financial benefits of his suggestion, all in a matter-of-fact style that can easily convince the reader, for a while at least, that he is perfectly serious. It takes some time for the unsuspecting reader to realize that Swift’s essay is a clever and devastating satire and commentary on the abuse of Irish peasants by their English landlords.

I love satire and frequently use it in class to great effect, an effect heightened by the fact that the average college undergraduate can’t tell the difference between satire, irony, and a spreadsheet. I am currently team-teaching a colloquium called Markets and Morals—our text for lecture and seminar a couple of weeks ago was Michael Sandel’s recent book SandelWhat Money Can’t Buy, a fascinating investigation of how in our contemporary world market economies are inexorably turning into market societies. A market society is one in which values, ideas and practices that have traditionally been outside the realm of the dollar sign and commodification have begun to be treated as just another thing to be bought and sold. From marriage arrangements to human life, everything has become a commodity for sale.

Tucked among tons of real-life case studies, Sandel provides some useful tools for identifying “market creep.” Trust your intuitions, he says—if your gut tells you, for instance, that there is something wrong with employers like Walmart buying life insurance policies on their unsuspecting employees then cashing in big when the employees die, or if you think there’s something morally amiss with high-powered special interest groups such as congressional hearing queuebig oil hiring people to stand for hours in line to secure coveted seats in congressional or Supreme Court hearings (and thus doing an end run on the democratic, “first come, first served” process), chances are that there is either a problem of fairness or a problem of corruption in play. Either something that has traditionally been thought of in egalitarian terms has suddenly become for sale to the highest bidder (fairness problem), or a value that we cherish is being eroded and cheapened as it gets sucked into the market vortex (corruption problem).

Rather than use Sandel’s own examples (the majority of which you can watch him discuss with various audiences on YouTube—the guy’s a rock star phenomenon in the world of academia), I decided to develop my own case study situated directly within the context I share with my students twice per week: classroom and course dynamics. I introduced my “modest proposal” as follows:

It has been my practice for many years when assigning students a paper in a class to offer my time and expertise for reviewing up to two pages worth of double-spaced rough draft material up to five days before the paper is due. I will read and comment on the rough draft material and send it back within 24 hours of receiving it. My experience is that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft commenting services earn on the average a grade that is five points higher than those who do not.

Since in any given semester I have anywhere from 60 to 75 students for whom I am the sole grader and there are times (such as around midterm) when a written assignment is due in all of my classes, it is often difficult to keep up with the rough draft demands, particularly when many students send their rough draft material to me just before the deadline. I always read this material on a “first come, first served” basis; it is undoubtedly the case that I am not able to pay as much attention to each student’s rough draft material as I would like because of the pressure to return the material with comments in time for it to be helpful in writing the final draft. office hoursThose students who are unable or unwilling to start their papers early are at a disadvantage in terms of getting my full attention and expertise when I am swamped close to the deadline.

A similar problem arises during my scheduled office hours during the days leading up to the due date for a major assignment or exam. A line of a dozen or more students is a frequent occurrence outside my door. Often I am not able to see everyone because my office hours end and I have to go to class or a meeting; often students who have waited for a long time have to leave before seeing me because of a class or another appointment (or because they get sick of waiting). So I wish to make a modest proposal for your consideration:

QUEUE THE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION

At the beginning of each semester, my students will have the opportunity to purchase a Morgan Preferred-Access Pass for $250, a purchase that will provide a student with the following semester-long benefits:Preferred access

  • Your rough-draft material will be read, commented on, and returned within six hours of receipt (unless it was submitted between midnight and 6:00 AM), even when there are several rough draft submissions ahead of yours that have not yet been read. Your Preferred-Access Pass, in other words, entitles you to the privilege of jumping to the front of the e-line.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass also entitles you to jump to the head of the line outside my door during office hours for one-on-one conversation with me.
  • Your Preferred-Access Pass is transferable. For instance, if you believe that you are in good shape on a particular assignment and do not need my help or expertise, you may rent your Preferred-Access Pass to a fellow student lacking such a pass to use for that assignment only.
  • Please Note: Your Pass gains you preferred access to me by jumping the queue—it does not guarantee any particular grade on any given assignment.

I have said on occasion over the years that teaching is often like acting—a convincing performance is everything. On this particular morning, I was good; the students were unaware that a good deal of the “data” I used in the setup for my proposal was made up on the fly. For instance, I have no evidence that students who avail themselves of my rough-draft-reading services earn five points higher in their final grade than those who don’t. That’s an educated guess, primarily based on my observation over the years that the students who do send me rough draft material are the A-/B+ students who probably are the only ones in class who don’t need my input and suggestions. office hoursFurthermore, I don’t know if I have ever had more than two students waiting outside my door during office hours, even when a paper is due. In my proposal I am channeling people like my colleague across the hall in the philosophy department who often has more than a dozen students sitting on the floor waiting to see him. I would say I’m envious, but I’m not—I’m an introvert.

But I sold my modest proposal to my students with sincerity and a straight face, then asked them to discuss my proposal in small groups for ten minutes, both constructing an argument in favor and imagining what a critic might say. When we got back together, the conversation soon revealed that they had taken me seriously, and they were not amused. My proposal didn’t strike them as being quite as problematic as selling one’s children to rich people as snack food, but close. Stay tuned next week for A Modest Proposal—Part Two; or why my time should not be for sale. Until then, what do you think of my modest proposal?