Category Archives: teaching

the other

I Was a Stranger

Buried in the middle of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is a story of one of the strangest love triangles imaginable. Acis and GalateaTwo points of the triangle make sense—Galatea, a sea nymph and Acis, the son of a sea nymph—but the third point makes things interesting. The story of Polyphemus the Cyclops is well known from Homer’s Odyssey, but Ovid’s story involves Polyphemus in earlier days—solitary, huge, hairy,  one-eyed, and hopelessly in love with Galatea. Galatea, who tells the story, isn’t having any of it: “I could not say whether love for Acis or hatred of the Cyclops was stronger in me.” But Polyphemus is not deterred. He combs his hair with a rake, trims his beard with a scythe, suspends his habit of destroying passing ships and eating the sailors, playing musicand settles down on top of a hill with a homemade instrument made of “a hundred bound reeds” to try his hand at musical composition and performance.

The Cyclops’ hilarious love song reveals his inexperience at wooing sea nymphs, as his descriptions of Galatea range from “more radiant than crystal, smoother than shells polished by the tide” to “meaner than a pregnant bear . . . more vicious than a snake that’s been stepped on and kicked.” Toward the middle of his ode, Polyphemus gets down to business: “If you really knew me, Galatea, you’d be sorry you ran.” Understanding that a hairy giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead is not your typical match for a sea nymph, the Cyclops emphasizes what he brings to the relationship table—polyphemussurprisingacisandgalatealots of sheep and goats, a nice cozy cave, all the fresh fruit one could want from his orchard, as well as excellent family connections through his father Neptune, the god of the sea. What’s not to like? “Tell me why, when you turn your back on Cyclops, you love Acis, and why do you prefer his embrace to mine?” Polyphemus’ frustration rises to the boiling point when he catches sight of Galatea and Acis making love in the forest; he tears the top off a mountain and drops it on top of Acis while Galatea dives into the ocean in terror. throwing a rockAcis’ blood seeping from under the pile of rocks turns into a river as Acis is turned into a river-god, yet another metamorphosis in Ovid’s strange collection of stories.

The tale of Galatea and Polyphemus was one of many I discussed in seminar with twelve Honors freshmen last Friday. When asked what the point of this particularly odd story might be, various suggestions ranged from a comparison of civilized with barbarian people to a morality tale about the dangers of unrequited love. “But why doesn’t Galatea take Polyphemus’ advances seriously?” I asked tongue-in-cheek. “The Cyclops has a lot to offer—a nice place to live, a comfortable lifestyle, property, great family connections—he’s even captured a couple of bear cubs so Galatea can have unusual and interesting pets! What’s not to like (other than his being a hairy giant with one eye, that is)?” Why does Galatea prefer Acis, who is a nonentity with nothing to offer other than being good-looking? In the middle of a number of very amusing comments from my students, one young lady thoughtfully hit the nail on the head: “Polyphemus is just too different, too unusual, too scary for Galatea to take him seriously.” the otherUndoubtedly true, which raises an important larger problem: The Problem of the Other.

Human beings are hard-wired to form the strongest connections with those who are most like themselves, dividing naturally into groups of “Us” versus “Them” according to dividing lines both natural and imaginary. The Problem of the Other covers all manner of challenges and fears, from those who look different through those who think differently to those who do not share our values. The Other is often the person or persons who I choose to ignore or pretend does not exist, those who I choose to treat as invisible. But just as Polyphemus could not be ignored, neither can the Other. Furthermore, yesterday’s gospel makes it clear that for those who claim to be followers of Jesus, those who we would just as soon ignore are the very persons who are to be the primary focus of our concern. 6a00e54ecc070b88330177444f3010970d-320wiAnd our spiritual survival depends on it.

Yesterday’s passage from Matthew 25 is the familiar apocalyptic vision of the Last Judgment, with those judged being separated into the sheep and the goats (sort of like Polyphemus’ charges) and sent to eternal bliss or darkness. More interesting than the possibility of reward or damnation are the criteria used to make the judgment. Explaining to the sheep on their way to the heavenly kingdom why this is their destination, Jesus says “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And we don’t need to wait for Jesus to show up to act this way: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” obamaThe greatest challenge of the life of faith is to recognize the divine in the most unlikely places—and in those people who are the most invisible.

In his prime time speech on immigration reform the other day, President Obama closed with a rewording of a passage from Exodus 22: “You must not mistreat or oppress the stranger in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once strangers . . .” I fully understand that public policy should not be shaped according to religious principles, but there is a psychological truth in these passages that transcends the various choices concerning religion that one might make. The moral health of an individual or a group is revealed by how they choose to treat those most unlike themselves. small victoriesThe outsider, the stranger, the disenfranchised, the poor—all of the various manifestations of the Other. For at heart we are all strangers seeking a home. As Anne Lamott writes, “All I ever wanted since I arrived here on earth were the same things I needed as a baby, to go from cold to warm, lonely to held, the vessel to the giver, empty to full.” To refuse a home to the stranger, to reject those who are unlike us, to imagine that different means less important, is to imagine fellow human beings as Polyphemus—too strange, too different, too scary to be included, appreciated or loved. But just as Polyphemus, all of us need the same things. And we are called to be those things for each other.sheep and goats

mindfulness

Going on Retreat

I begin with a confession. As recently as a week ago in a Facebook posting I have been telling people all semester that in the middle of November I was going to be away for four days at a conference (I might have called it a “workshop” once or twice). out of officeI put up an “away” message on Outlook announcing my absence for four days from the administrative saddle because of travelling to a conference, let my “inner circle” blog circulation list know that they would have to do something other than wait expectantly for my usual 7:30 AM Friday blog post on a particular upcoming Friday, arranged for my teaching teammates to cover the Friday afternoon seminar on the Aeneid that I would be missing, and generally covered my academic ass. No biggie—everyone know that giving papers at a conference is part of the academic life that requires rearranging classes and office hours on occasion.

cyprianExcept that I was not giving a paper. I wasn’t even going to a conference. I was going to a retreat, which in most corners of academia is tantamount to going to a 60s love-in. The name of the retreat, located at the Episcopal House of Prayer on the campus occupied by my beloved Saint John’s Abbey run by the Benedictines in the middle of Minnesota, was “Prayer in the Cave of the Heart,” led by a Benedictine monk who is the prior of a hermitagehermitage in Big Sur that I spent a week at a year and a half ago. It’s a good thing that I have not needed tenure or promotion points for a while now, because participation in such an event would have carried negative academic weight. The value of going to such a retreat in the middle of the semester in the eyes of the Committee on Academic Rank and Tenure on our campus would be similar to what the Psalmist says about the ungodly: “Placed in the scales, they rise.” The fact that I perceived several months ago that this retreat at this point in the semester would be good for my soul would be irrelevant to CART—“But will this produce a peer-reviewed article? Probably not? No tenure or promotion for you!” Too bad, CART. I’ve been around long enough to have been on that committee myself for a couple of years, convincing myself every Friday afternoon that I was qualified to mess with other people’s lives. If I determine that a trip to the middle-of-nowhere Minnesota is what is needed to keep my spirit, soul and body centered and willing to inhabit the same room, you can’t do anything about it.

Human beings are funny creatures; human beings on retreat are even funnier. The average age of the twenty-four people gathered at this one was probably a bit over my fifty-eight years, with women outnumbering men two to one. The women all looked alike—tall, thin, wearing glasses, with approximately  the same short haircut (with the exception of one woman with a long braid who looked like a refugee from the Sixties and who was the only person of either gender attending with hair longer than mine).ND Turns out that four or five of them were ordained Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of North Dakota. The guys were a bit more variant in appearance, beardless and bearded, bald and haired, thin and not so thin, including one heavyset guy who fell asleep during meditation in the oratory and snored really loudly. Twice. Everyone on retreat walks the same way, with a slow and intentionally reverent gait that actually looks a bit like how zombies walk when they are staggering toward you in the movies. Everyone and everything slows down at a retreat, at least at the ones I go to, which is a good thing.

Just as the other two times I have attended retreats at this establishment, silence was observed from the conclusion of evening prayer around 9:00 until the end of lunch the next day, the only exceptions being when were in teaching sessions with whoever is running the retreat. In these sessions we were allowed to ask questions, but only if they were good ones. I love silence. Silence is good. But not when packed into a small dining room for breakfast silenceand lunch seated six to a circular table, for breakfast and lunch during what is quaintly called “the Great Silence.” The sounds of people chewing their food while uncomfortably looking anywhere but at each other may be an important part of some people’s spiritual practice, but it doesn’t do anything for me. There is no one more introverted than I am, but even I breathed a sigh of relief when lunch ended and we all were allowed to speak for the next nine hours or so.

WardOther than the leader of the retreat, who came from California, I was the person who travelled the farthest. My flights were such that I was the first arrival early on Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the retreat officially began at dinner. After touching base with Ward, the director of the retreat house who is a friend (largely because between us Jeanne and I have been to five retreats at this place over the past five years) and moving my stuff into my room, ehopI went into the beautiful large living room area with a glass wall overlooking the adjacent forest, made a cup of tea, and sat down to read Anne Lamott’s latest book. TEA?? Since when did I start drinking tea?? As I have discussed in the past, I have been a dedicated coffee drinker (more like a coffee swiller) since my teenage years.

Saint Keurig

Jeanne was a tea drinker when we met years ago and still drinks tea on occasion as well as coffee, but not me. Tea is for pussies. coffee or teaWho can be bothered with the precious seconds wasted with opening the tea bag envelope, waiting for the tea to steep in hot water for an interminable minute or so, then figuring out how to drink it with a tea bag floating in it? By the time all that happens I will have swilled a paper cup of coffee, black since I can’t spare the time to add cream and sugar, and be back to the important business of whatever I’m doing—since everything I do is obviously important business. I don’t drink tea.

Except on retreat. I said earlier that human beings on retreat are funny creatures—I am no exception. Making myself tea instead of coffee for my first of many hot drinks over the four-day retreat was not a conscious decision—I didn’t even notice I had done it until I sat down to read. But my body knew something my mind didn’t know. mindfulGoing from an 80-100 hour week of work to a four-day retreat is not as easy as flipping a switch. Slowing down, mindfulness, deliberation and attentiveness—all those good things that I’ve begun to incorporate into my life but that slip through my fingers easily when swamped by real life—need practice. And taking the time to make a cup of tea (which I actually really like the taste of) rather than throwing another several ounces of coffee down my pie hole was a good place to start. Take the time to pay attention to what you are doing, do each thing as it comes, and wait to see what comes next. mindfulnessDo what you are doing and be where you are. I know this. Sometimes I even do it. But a retreat is an opportunity to drop fully into that space that I’ve been skimming over or dodging around for weeks. And to notice that it’s always there waiting—my deepest (and best) me.

I was even thinking that I should start drinking tea at work. Until I remembered that thanks to Saint Keurig I can now make a cup of tea as quickly and mindlessly as a cup of coffee. I don’t even need a tea bag. Oh well.

Hedda and Paul

t. Williams“There is a famous anecdote about an out-of-town tryout of the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Thornton Wilder was in attendance and remarked afterwards to Tennessee Williams that he thought Blanche DuBois was too complex a character for the theater. Tennessee is said to have replied, ‘People are complex, Thorn.’”

I read the above anecdote in the program notes as Jeanne and I waited at a local theater for Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler to begin. hedda gablerWhat I know about the great Norwegian playwright has been gathered over the years from teaching in a team-taught course where my literature teammate has occasionally chosen one of Ibsen’s controversial and fascinating plays for the students to grapple with, ranging from An Enemy of the People to The Wild Duck and A Doll’s House. Ibsen’s penchant for ripping the veil off late nineteenth-century bourgeois Norwegian society, pushing his readers’ and audience’s face up against topics that decent people would just as soon not consider, and especially his willingness to populate his plays with female characters who explode the stereotypes of dutiful wife and devoted mother caused his plays to not only be banned in several countries during his lifetime ibsen(he was nicknamed “Ibscene”) but make them sound to a twenty-first century audience as if they were written yesterday. I probably read Hedda Gabler as an undergraduate, but this was the first time I had the chance to see it on stage and only the second Ibsen I had ever seen performed; reading in the program notes that the role of Hedda has been described as the “female Hamlet” raised my expectations even further.

Over the past few months I have been immersed in things Norwegian as I read through Jo Nesbø’s mystery series set in Oslo and environs. Nesbø is the hottest writer to come out of Scandinavia since Steig Larsson; I started his ten-volume-and-counting Harry Hole series in early summer and am currently plowing through Phantom, the ninth entry in the series. Were it not for my usual commitment to reading everything an author has written in the order written once I have discovered their work, I might not have made it this far—phantomNesbø’s incredible popularity has caused him to crank out books at a pace that outstrips consistent quality—but when he’s good, he’s very, very good. As with all of my favorite authors of mystery series, I particularly enjoy how the repeating characters become more real from book to book as I learn incrementally more about their history, their peccadilloes, their shortcomings, their successes, their relationships, their failures, their inner lives—in short, I enjoy observing them become more and more recognizably human. Because Tennessee Williams was right. People are complex.

Nesbø and Ibsen both prefer shadow to light and seldom go far before revealing something dark and sinister lying beneath the surface of even the most banal and pleasant persons and circumstances. Hedda Gabler, a newlywed just returned from her honeymoon with her husband George, a newly minted PhD (philosophy, no less!) expecting a plum appointment at the local university, finds herself situated in a large new house ready to be furnished with whatever furniture she fancies. George is clearly infatuated with his beautiful new wife, who everyone describes (to her increasing annoyance) as “glowing.” Hedda 2But appearances are deceiving; only a few minutes into the play we find that Hedda is complicated to the core. Another short essay in the program guide reports that Hedda has been described by critics as “sinister, degenerate, repellent, lunatic, a monster in the shape of a woman, with a soul too small even for human sin.” A bit over the top, perhaps, but she actually is just about all of that. But she is also charismatic, has a razor-sharp wit, crackles with energy, and as if by magic causes everyone in the room to dance to her tune.

As I watched the play unfold on the stage fifteen feet away, I realized that Hedda is not necessarily a bad person bent on the destruction of everything she touches. In this performance she was brilliantly played with the energy of trapped animal, like a tiger or lion in a zoo cage pacing back and forth restlessly, looking everywhere for a way to escape, and devouring everything unfortunate enough to fall within her reach. She finds herself in a world in which the only acceptable roles for a woman are roles that she not only would reject if given the opportunity but that she also knows she is completely unsuited for. caged tigerIn a twisted version of Socrates’ observation that some lives are not worth living, Hedda strikes out more and more desperately as she feels the walls closing in. When there is no more room to move or breathe, she makes the only choice available and dies rather than living under these circumstances.

Two sets of sixteen freshmen and I encountered another trapped human being the next day after I saw Hedda Gabler. These Monday seminars were the culmination of New Testament week, in which the students had already read Mark for a setup lecture; the assignment for seminar was Luke, Acts, and Romans. We spent the bulk of both seminars considering various passages in both Luke and Acts where the very clear requirements of following Jesus set the behavior bar so high that clearly no normal human being could reach it. Iris Murdoch once commented that it would have made sense if in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had said something like Iris“Be ye therefore slightly improved,” but he didn’t. Instead he said “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” My mostly parochial school educated freshmen, many of whom had been taught from a young age that the Christian life is about trying to be a good person as often as possible, were shocked and disturbed when they encountered what the texts actually say. Even at eighteen or nineteen years old, each of them had enough life experience with themselves and other human beings to know that the gospel standard is one that is impossible for the flawed creatures that we are to meet.

No one has ever described the human predicament more effectively than Paul at the end of Romans 7—I took the students there toward the end of seminar.

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate . . . For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want . . . Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?machete

Hedda found herself trapped in circumstances in which she could not flourish, grow, survive, or even breathe. Paul finds himself in the same situation, but with much greater scope. Knowing what must or should be done and finding myself completely incapable of doing it. Bottom line, this is the human condition. No wonder we often strike out in frustration and anger at whatever is within reach. However we came to be in this predicament, we cannot work or will our way out of it.

Then in a masterful reversal of just a few lines, Paul provides a way out so compelling that it is hardly to be believed, a way whose energy coincides with the hope and promise that is at the heart of Advent that makes its welcome yearly appearance in a couple of weeks.

Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law could not do: by sending his own Son . . .Romans 8

For me, it is this hope and promise–fulfilled by the incarnation–that both uniquely defines the Christian faith and can keep a flawed, seriously damaged creature from descending into Paul’s despair or Hedda’s destructive rage. For every frustrated “I can’t do this!” there is an “Of course you can’t. But help is on the way.”Calvin and Hobbes

imagesCA3Y08VL

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

no complaining

Educating the Uneducated

An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly. Epictetus

 We have all had the experience of only realizing after the fact what we should have said in real time. This happens to teachers frequently—you want to tell the unvarnished truth to a student who badly needs to hear it, but circumstances don’t allow it. But every once in a while, one gets the chance to actually say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. DWCI had that opportunity in an email exchange early this week.

A quick setup—I direct an interdisciplinary program (Development of Western Civilization, known colloquially by faculty and students as “DWC” or “CIV”) in which at any given time eighty or so faculty are teaching close to two thousand students. If students are having difficulty in class I am the next resource after the faculty teaching their section. A few evenings ago I received an email from a student complaining about his professor; I gave myself until the next morning, then responded. The original exchange of emails, as well as those that followed, is below. These are entirely unedited other than to change the names (except mine).

11/3/14 7:24 PM Hello Dr. Vance Morgan my name is PO and I am a freshmen at Providence College.  This email is with regards to my CIV seminar teacher Dr. X.  Currently I have a D- in the class and I believe I deserve much better.  In high school I was in the top decile in my grade and history was my best subject.  We recently got midterm grades back and the highest grade in both of X’s seminars was an 82.  I received a 60 and after conversing with some of my classmates I found out that I had done better than a good amount of them.  He gave out very little partial credit where credit was due and he is very bias.  unhappy studentWe also have written 5 papers and I’ve only received back one so far.  Also, in seminar he goes out on tangents and hardly gives time for individuals to participate.  Also, he bashes anyone who has a “wrong” answer that doesn’t consist with his own beliefs.  I know that you are not Dr. X and you can’t speak on his behalf but I do all the readings and take notes in lecture and I do not believe my grade reflects my work ethic solely based on his system of grading.  When the highest grade in both seminar classes (and there are some very smart individuals in my seminar class) is an 82 that says something about his grading system and I believe it is unfair.  He makes his gradings based on if he agrees with the material one’s written.  I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining but I just want to know what you think I should do to do better in the class or if I should do anything else.  Tomorrow I’m going to talk to him about my grade but I doubt he will change anything.  Sorry for bothering you with this long message but I’m doing well in all my other classes and I don’t want CIV to completely destroy my GPA.  Let me know if there’s anything you can do to help or if there is anything I can do to get my grade up.  Thank you for your time and get back to me whenever you get the chance.  Sincerely, PO

11/4/14 8:21 AM Dear PO: After reading your email carefully, I have a couple of comments and a couple of suggestions:

  1. Your record in high school and how you are doing in your other classes this semester is irrelevant to how you are doing in DWC. So are the grades that other students are getting in DWC, which are not your concern. You may have been a successful student in high school and may be doing well in other classes here at PC now but you are not yet a successful student in DWC. If I were you I would also be concerned about my DWC grade and be concerned about how to do better. I would not, however, assume that my grade is something that was arbitrarily given to me by my professor, as you seem to have assumed. Your midterm grade is simply Dr. X’s recording of what you have earned thus far in DWC this semester.
  2. You may believe that eighteen or nineteen years of life experience and eight or nine weeks of college experience qualifies you to have an informed opinion about how a college course should be organized and taught, but you are mistaken. Dr. X is a fine and experienced DWC no complainingprofessor with a well-earned reputation for excellent teaching and a willingness to help students. Your rambling critique of various aspects of seminar and his teaching style is clearly aimed at finding every way possible to place responsibility for your poor performance in DWC this semester on someone other than yourself.
  3. DWC is a difficult course–no one is claiming otherwise. It is not at all unusual for midterm grades to be of the sort that you describe in your email. I had no midterm grades over an 84 in either of my freshman DWC seminars this semester. It often takes a while for freshman students to become acclimated to the rigors of this program and to adjust their usual studying habits to the greater demands of DWC. Things generally get better in the second half of the semester, but only if you use what has happened to this point wisely. The last thing you want to do now is start blaming your professor for your lack of success rather than seriously considering what you need to be doing differently in order to ensure success. Having a good work ethic, doing the readings and taking notes are all good places to start, but are by no means a guarantee of success.

That said, here are a couple of suggestions (since you asked):OAS

  1. Make use of the Office of Academic Services (OAS). The OAS, located in the library, has tutoring available for all aspects of DWC, including writing, note-taking, seminar discussion and preparation for exams and quizzes. They are anxious to be of assistance, particularly to first semester freshmen. Use their services.
  2. Meet with Dr. X. This is the one good idea that you include in your email. But, if you are intending to meet with Dr. X only to argue about your grade, then you are absolutely correct when you “doubt that he will change anything.” He won’t, nor should he. If, rather, you are interested in clarification about grading policies and (especially) getting advice for how to do better in DWC going forward, Dr. X will be happy to help you.
  3. Change your attitude. You say that “I don’t want to seem like I’m complaining,” but that is exactly what you are doing. Your email is nothing but an extended session of complaining and attempting to blame someone else for something that you are ultimately responsible for. attitude adjustmentIf you want to be successful in DWC and in college overall, it’s time to take responsibility for yourself. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (someone you might be studying later this semester) wrote, “An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly.” It’s time to stop doing that. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 9:42 AM Good morning Dr. X: I thought you might enjoy reading an email that I received last evening from one of your DWC seminar students and my response this morning. . . Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 10:04 AM I apologize for complaining and I appreciate your help. I will do my very best to work harder in the class and use your words of advice to help benefit me in the class.  Thank you. Sincerely, PO11/4/14

10:28 AM Best of luck with the rest of the semester. Dr. Vance G. Morgan

11/4/14 3:26 PM The young man who wrote you came to visit with me this morning, and seemed quite contrite.  He didn’t bring his exam with him, and simply asked how he might improve.  That was a big change in attitude.  This young man started the semester by putting his head down on the desk while I was lecturing.  He hardly said a word in seminar.  I saw him consulting spark notes before I began seminar last week.  I think you’ve taught him a lesson, Vance.  Time will tell; I’ll keep you informed. Dr. X

Time will indeed tell, as it always does. But in one exchange of emails (1) a student’s path has perhaps been slightly redirected for the better, (2) a professional relationship and friendship with a colleague has been strengthened, and (3) I got to say what every teacher want frequently wants, but seldom gets, to say. Not bad for a day’s work. :-)time will tell

What I Want, When I Want It

A Benedictine monk told me once that “sabbatical is God’s best idea.” I agree. My next sabbatical, which will begin in eight months, has been on my mind for the past several months, producing a couple of sabbatical project proposals that I have sent out over the past couple of weeks. NoahI felt like Noah might have felt when he sent the raven, then the dove out from the ark—you never know what’s going to come back (if anything). Which of these projects will be the raven and which the dove? Or are they both ravens? Or, in the best scenario, both doves? Wherever I end up and whatever I do during sabbatical, it will be a continuation of what I’ve been working on for a while (including in this blog): exploring the various ways in which the life of the mind and life of faith can mutually inform each other.

I have always claimed that a college professor’s teaching and research should feed each other and have tried to live that out, with occasional success. That teaching and research can be mutually supporting is a challenging enough idea for many academics. f and pBut supposing that the life of the mind, especially philosophy, and faith have much to say to each other is for many, from both the intellect and faith side of the claim, beyond the pale, simply because the intellect stereotypically is considered to be incompatible with faith. At best they can be separate rooms in a home, rooms between which no one ever passes. Imagine my surprise, during my last sabbatical, when I discovered over several weeks of daily prayer and reading of the Psalms with a couple of dozen monks that the wall between my faith and philosophy room is illusory—that both my mind and my faith want to inhabit the very same space. Not to argue or play a game of one upmanship, but rather to get to know each other and become equally committed to helping the guy whose house they inhabit learn to live a coherent and integrated life. I have been regularly surprised over the past five-plus years at what percolates to the surface from this collaboration of faith and intellect. schedulingBut even I did not expect to learn something about prayer from working over the past two or three weeks on the faculty schedule for the 2015-16 academic year in the program I direct.

You can learn a lot about people by observing what happens when they are given the opportunity to express preferences about something. This round of scheduling roughly eighty faculty into thirty three-person teams spread over three courses with two thousand enrolled students to take place during the upcoming academic year is my fourth round—each year it becomes a bit more complicated, and that’s my fault. ozOne of the greatest faculty complaints over the years that I have taught in this program is that the faculty had little to no say in whom we teach with or when. The process was as secretive as the wizard of Oz’s activities behind the curtain, with the faculty finding out the nature of two-thirds of their teaching load only when the schedule was made public as a fait accompli. You’ve been put with two colleagues with whom you cannot get along? Too bad. You’re lecturing at 8:30 on Monday morning with a seminar at 4:30 in the afternoon? Too bad again.

So I pulled back the curtain, just a bit, inviting faculty to suggest whom they would like to teach with and those they wouldn’t, as well as indicating their top three time slot preferences from the ten available in each semester. Promising only that I would “do my best” with their suggestions, the preferences began to roll in. Two pages of them, single spaced, the first year, increasing gradually each year to the five single-spaced pages Rubiks cubeI received this year by the deadline, after which I pulled the curtain closed and began solving the thirty-six sided Rubik’s cube I had just created. I have cursed my foolishness in pulling back the curtain several times over the past couple of weeks, but I do care (at least a little bit) about freedom of choice—this is what happens when you invite people’s preferences. They will tell you, sometimes in excruciating detail. And I’ve learned a lot about my colleagues and about myself.

Informally and unofficially I would guess that I received preferences from eighty to ninety percent of the faculty who will be teaching in the program next year. Some expressed time preferences only, indicating that they did not care with whom they teach—just when. Others were exactly the opposite, clear about whom they wanted to teach with, but less insistent about when. high maintenanceThe high-maintenance contingent (fortunately there were only three or four of them), told me not only their time preferences (“I prefer not to teach on Mondays, Fridays, or in the late afternoon.” Direct quote) but also provided me with two lists containing ten or twelve faculty colleague names each, lists entitled “I would be happy to teach with . . .” and “I do not want to teach with . . .” Clearly these colleagues trust my ability to keep confidences. These are the “I want what I want, when I want it” folks, an attitude that I once thought adults left behind in kindergarten.

Then there are the lowest of the low-maintenance colleagues (about the same number as the highest of the high) who say “I know how hard scheduling is, so put me where you need me with whomever you want.” low-maintenanceI want to hug such people. It is no surprise that most of the persons who have regularly told me this are former directors of the very program that I am now directing. They do know that the scheduling process weeks are the toughest weeks of the year. They understand from experience that sometimes individual preferences, although important and worth expressing, pale in comparison to what is best for everyone involved or simply what works. Since this is my last year doing the schedule, I started wondering about the future. On the assumption that after next year’s sabbatical I will continue teaching in the program, and on the further assumption that the director who follows me invites preferences, will I be high maintenance or low maintenance?

I might be tempted, briefly, to be high maintenance just because I think I’ve earned it. But I won’t do that, because lurking in the back of my mind will be the questionspecial “Morgan, do you really think that your specific likes and dislikes are so disproportionately important compared to the rest of the universe’s interests that the lives of eighty people and two thousand students should be organized and manipulated just to make you happy?” Apparently two or three of my colleagues do think that their preferences are exactly that important, but I couldn’t pull it off with a straight face. Except perhaps as a joke played on the next director. At the same time, am I low-maintenance to the extent that I believe my preferences are so unimportant (because I really do have people I would prefer to teach with and times I would prefer to teach at) that they are not worth even expressing? My natural tendencies lean strongly in that direction, but that far?

The dynamic of preference expression and fulfillment expectation has been on my radar ever since I can remember, because I was born into a world in which preference-expression was a highly evolved art form with the most important stakes imaginable. prayer meetingThis high-stakes art form is called prayer. Prayer was so important that it took up significant space in every Sunday church gathering. There was even a middle of the week evening meeting dedicated specifically to the fine-tuning and honing of the art form. God is the ultimate wizard behind the curtain, but the book we considered to be literally true includes many passages in which the wizard invites the reader to ask for things, to express her heart’s desire, to “call upon Me and I will answer you.” Many of the prayers I heard as a child were detailed, extended laundry lists of things the pray-er wanted to have happen, a list that put the ones I received from my high-maintenance colleagues to shame. I learned to play the prayer game, but my heart was never in it. I observed that most of the preferences expressed were never satisfied and often wondered what the point of expressing always unanswered petitions was in the first place.delight Constitutionally I couldn’t do it simply because I wasn’t convinced I was important enough for God to push my wishes to the top of the divine to-do list.

But the other day I read in my morning Psalm reading that “the Lord takes delight in His people.” Over the years that has turned out to be one of the most welcome, yet shocking, lines in the Bible for me. If God is delighted in me, then perhaps God is not looking for me to be the lowest of the low-maintenance. My preferences matter, not because I have any particular insight into what is best, but because they are mine. I left the transactional God who might give me what I want if I beg or petition often or strongly enough behind in my childhood. I have no reason to believe that any given thing I ask for will happen. But I do believe that there is something greater than me and I do believe that my input is invited by whatever that something greater is. Where I fall on the high to low maintenance spectrum with regard to prayer tells me little about God but it tells me a lot about myself. I may not be important enough to get everything (or anything) that I want, but I am important enough to say something. And perhaps be heard.

anchor

Accept the Anchor

Is it ever right to hold a grudge? Is resentment or unforgiveness ever justified? These questions were front and center in a seminar with my freshmen last week; their answers revealed one of the most important and ubiquitous moral divides of all—the divide between what we think we should believe and what we actually believe. And behind the discussion loomed an even larger moral issue: moral compassWhere does a person’s moral compass come from, and is there any way of determining whether that moral compass is accurate?

I’ve been teaching philosophy for twenty-five years and there are few areas of philosophy or philosophers that have not shown up somewhere in my classroom over those years. Ethics is my favorite systematic area of philosophy to teach on an introductory level, because ethics is where the often esoteric and abstract discipline of philosophy intersects immediately and directly with real life. And in the world of ethics, no philosopher ever got it better than Aristotle. Aristotle RaphaelHis framework for thinking about and trying to live the moral life is flexible, dynamic, creative and practical in that it provides broad but identifiable boundaries for the life of human excellence within which each individual human being has the opportunity to make many important choices about what sort of person she or he will be. Aristotle’s ethic avoids both the Scylla of absolute and rigid moral rules and the Charybdis of “anything goes” relativism by continually reminding us that there is a point to a human life, that some lives are clearly not worth living, and it is up to each of us to identify the purpose of our lives as we live out the process of shaping and defining that purpose.

The most important feature of Aristotle’s ethical vision is the virtues, which he identifies as “good habits,” habits that will more often than not facilitate the living of a flourishing human life. These he contrasts with vices, bad habits that tend to hinder the living of such a life. habitsThe notion of the key to the moral life being habits rather than obedience to rules is often both intriguing and confusing to eighteen-year-old freshmen; last week in seminar I focused my students’ attention on the “virtues as habits” idea by first brainstorming with them to produce a list of a dozen virtues, then providing them with a list of Aristotle’s examples of such habits scattered through the portions of his primary text on ethics that we had read for the day.

There were many virtues on our list that are not on Aristotle’s list. Where, for instance, are humility, honesty, patience, love, faith and hope? Perhaps even more confusing are some of the items that Aristotle does include on his list that were not on ours. There were several such items—wittiness, high-mindedness and right ambition, for instance—which raised eyebrows and provided an opportunity to consider just how different Aristotle’s definition of virtue is from our own. But the item on Aristotle’s list that bothered my students the most was “just resentment,” the idea that one of the good habits that will facilitate the life of human excellence is being able to tell when forgiveness is appropriate and when is it better to hold on to one’s resentment.forgiveness Aristotle did not list forgiveness as a foundational virtue but, as many of my students pointed out, we know better. Or do we?

“How many of you think that forgiveness is a virtue?” I asked my students—every hand went up. “How many of you can think of a situation in which it would be natural not to forgive?” Most hands, but not all, went up. I gave my own example of the latter. In the earlier years of my teaching career I often taught applied ethics courses, which usually turned out to be a crash course in various moral theories for a few weeks, which we then applied to four or five tough moral problems for the rest of the semester. capital punishmentThe issue of capital punishment, which I consider to be one of the toughest moral nuts to crack without making a mess, was often on the syllabus. I told my students that in the abstract I believe the best moral arguments are against capital punishment, starting with the simple point that to respond to harm with more harm reduces a society to the level of the person being punished. “But,” I quickly added, “I know that if someone killed my wife or my sons and was found guilty, if I lived in a state where the death penalty was on the books I would want to be the one to administer the lethal injection or pull the switch.” There’s a place where even if I have developed the habit of forgiveness, the habit of just resentment seems more appropriate.

Several students vigorously nodded their heads in agreement, but others pressed back. One student had learned an important lesson well from Socrates two weeks earlier when he told a friend why, even though he has an opportunity to escape his prison cell and execution, he will not do so. “Who are you damaging if you don’t forgive?” my student asked. “Not the guy who’s being executed. He’s dead. just resentmentBut you will never move on and will never get past what has happened if you carry resentment around for the rest of your life.” “What if I don’t want to move on?” I asked. “Then you’ll never be able to live Aristotle’s life of human flourishing,” she replied. Touché.

But most of my students agreed that to forgive indiscriminately is not natural to human beings, despite the psychological damage that accompanies lack of forgiveness. “So where did we get the idea that we must forgive regardless of the situation?” I wondered. “We certainly learned that long before we considered that not forgiving might hurtful to ourselves.” “I learned it in church,” one said, while another said that she had learned it in school (which, since it was a parochial school, is pretty much the same as learning it in church). That strikes me as the real truth. I learned that universal forgiveness is a virtue because I was taught at an early age that a first century Jewish carpenter said that we must love our enemies and told one of his followers that he should forgive his neighbor not the very challenging seven times but the impossible seventy times seven. Aristotle and JesusAristotle perhaps doesn’t put such a habit on his virtue list because he lived more than three centuries before the Jewish carpenter and was not inclined to include on his list habits that are humanly impossible.

Truth be told, we all have the foundational pieces of our moral lives given to us long before we develop the capacity to challenge them—and often we never get to the challenge part. I usually urge my students to question and challenge what they have never questioned and challenged. But on this given day it struck me that in addition to questioning, it is equally important to first identify what we have been given. The fact that my students thought Aristotle was wrong about just resentment because they had been carrying around the directive to forgive their whole life was not mistaken—it is just a fact. The Jewish carpenter will be on display in a few weeks in seminar and when he is, we’ll remember Aristotle.

Ileopardn The Leopard, the Jo Nesbo Norwegian crime drama I am currently reading, the main character, an extraordinarily complex person in every way imaginable, is berating himself because he can’t seem to move past some inhibitions he has carried his whole life. A colleague suggests that he should relax.

You can’t just disregard your own feelings like that, Harry. You, like everyone else, are trying to leapfrog the fact that we are governed by notions of what’s right and wrong. Your intellect may not have all the arguments for these notions, but nonetheless they are rooted deep, deep inside you. Right and wrong. Perhaps its things you were told by your parents when you were a child, a fairy tale with a moral your grandmother read, or something unfair you experienced at school and you spent time thinking through. The sum of all these half-forgotten things. “Anchored deep within” is in fact an appropriate expression. Because it tells you that you may not be able to see the anchor in the depths, but you damn well can’t move from the spot—that’s what you float around and that’s where your home is. Accept the anchor.anchor

not your friend

I Am Not Your Friend

If it’s Friday, it’s time to think once again about interactions between various constituencies in academia. Today I am not thinking about faculty-administration relations. I’m wondering instead about the dynamic between professors and students.

One of the challenges and joys of team teaching in an interdisciplinary program—something I have been doing for twenty years—is that you get to teach with all sorts of people. Young and not so young, introvert and extrovert, high maintenance and low maintenance, mount rushmorecollegial and not-so-much, colleagues who belong on the teaching version of Mount Rushmore and others who have a difficult time avoiding embarrassment in the classroom. And everything between these various extremes. The various three- and four-person teams I have been part of have ranged from forever memorable to eminently forgettable. My team last fall was one of the most memorable, largely because one of my teammates was someone who really didn’t want to be there.

I have been directing the interdisciplinary program I teach in for the past three and a half years. Scheduling twenty three-person teams out of the rotating faculty that staff the program from four large departments from semester to semester is one of, if not the most challenging part of the job. Negotiating the time constraints while attempting to honor various faculty “requests” (I want to teach with these people, I do not want to teach with this person, I cannot teach before 9:30 or after 2:30, Rubiks cubeI cannot teach more than three days per week and definitely not on Fridays) is like trying to solve a 36-sided Rubik’s cube. The only accompanying perk is that I get to choose who I will teach with each semester. Last fall, one of my teammates was a colleague from history in his last year of teaching before retirement. J had taught in the program I direct in the past, but not for a dozen years or more. I was sure J was not thrilled to be sent back for the first semester of his last year before retirement. Known for his curmudgeonly and crusty demeanor (as well as his expertise in military history), I thought it might be a good idea to put him with me—both because we have been friends for several years (we are frequently at the gym at the same time) and because I wanted to protect unsuspecting colleagues from what J might bring to the table on a bad day.

J is in his early seventies; teamed with T, old white guysa classicist from Art History who is in his late fifties as I am, our triumvirate was the “old fart”/”old white guys” team let loose on 100 or so unsuspecting freshmen. It was a blast. It turned out that each of my teammates shared my ironic and sarcastic sense of humor, so we spent the first several weeks laughing in class at each other’s cracks and side comments while the children wrote them down dutifully in their notebooks in the off chance that such information might be on the next quiz or exam, all the time wondering what planet they had landed on.

At one of our first weekly team meetings, the topic of office hours came up. T (a complete rookie in the program) wanted to know whether there was a required amount of office hours a faculty member teaching in the program had to hold per week (there isn’t), prompting J to mention what he had told the students in each of his seminars the first time they met.

These are my office hours. If you have questions or need help, this is when I’ll be in my office. But don’t just drop in to “shoot the shit” or hang out. I am not your friend. I’m in my early seventies and all of you are eighteen years old. If someone my age wants to be your friend, you should call the police.not your friend

I wouldn’t have put my office hours policy quite that directly to my students, but I know exactly what J was talking about. There are many faculty colleagues who have students lined up outside their door every day, often just to chat or get life advice (the person whose office is next to mine is one of these people). I am not one of those faculty—nor do I want to be one.

I have written frequently about the interesting challenges and opportunities presented to an extreme introvert by the teaching life. I learned to channel what few extroverted neurons I have directly into my teaching first by treating the classroom like a stage on which I am acting (some of the best thespians I have ever met are naturally introverted). Over the years I not only have internalized these energies so that I no longer feel like I am performing, but also have become far more personal and transparent in the classroom than I used to be. I share so much about myself and my life in the classroom that in some ways my students probably know more about me than anyone other than Jeanne and my sons. INFJA willingness to be transparent not only breaks down the formality that is inherent in the classroom but also gives me an endless supply of illustrations for difficult philosophical concepts. I think I have become a more naturally open person over the years because of my profession, which is a good thing for a 19-1 introvert on the Myers-Briggs scale.

But I am still a dedicated introvert, which causes a bit of confusion when my students encounter “Out-of-class Morgan” and find him to be quite different from “In-class Morgan.” I know that almost everyone’s first impression of me before they get to know me (if they ever do) is one of formality, aloofness and perhaps superiority (none of which are actually true—it’s just how introverts are often read by non-introverts). I can live with that and actually make good use of it on occasion. But my students’ first impression of me is in the classroom, where I am extroverted, loquacious, inviting and often funny. my caveThere’s a moment of cognitive dissonance when one of them shows up in my office and finds out that my natural state of being is quite different. I never have been able to make my office an extension of the classroom—my office is first my space, a space out of which I take great pains to create a “Morgan cave.” And in that natural habitat I am my default self. An introvert. That means that my face does not necessarily light up with joy when a student or colleague pokes their head in the door—SONY DSCit often feels like an interruption.

I’m working on it. Since my office is a cave reflecting my interests, it is full of items as eclectic as the things I love, including tons of books, pictures of the family, penguin paraphernalia and a small stuffed Big Bird, a shot glass that says “I heart Jesus,” and a large coffee cup that says BFD“I’m a BIG Fucking Deal.” Come to think of it, my Morgan cave is probably a den of cognitive dissonance for the unprepared or uninitiated. Students find out very quickly that I am excellent with and often more helpful in email communication rather than face to face, which is fine with me. Email is an introverts dream; phone calls are not, and unannounced visits definitely are not.

I love my students, but I am their professor, not their friend. Some develop into friends over time—my office is full of cards and pictures of former students with whom I have a continuing friendship long after they graduated. I’m looking forward this evening to seeing two of them for the first time in a year and a half. They were students in one of my freshman classes a number of years ago, each took several more classes with me (different ones) over their four years at the college, they started dating as seniors, were married a couple of years later—a happy couple and I take full responsibility for it. bday fairyThey will be attending a dinner tonight on campus that Jeanne and I will also be attending—they call Jeanne the BCF: “The Birthday Cake Fairy.” It’s a long story and probably the centerpiece of a new post soon.

I was reminded when reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act last week that, even though I naturally keep a distance between myself and my students outside of class, I have invited them into something intimate in the classroom that I cannot ignore. McEwanA young man says to the central character in the novel that “I feel you’ve brought me close to something else, something really beautiful and deep, but I don’t really know what it is.” That’s what I love about teaching—I get to open the door to a wonderfully beautiful and profound world for my students on a regular basis. Often the person who opens the door becomes a placeholder for what lies beyond the door. I have to remember that the invitation does not end when I walk out of class—I need to keep the door of the Morgan cave open—at least a crack. Even J learned something during his semester teaching with me. At one of our last team meetings of the semester, J said “Vance, I’m really pissed!” “Why?” I wanted to know. “Because I’m really beginning to like my students.”

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

Socratic Faith

He lived over two millennia ago, and as far as we know he never wrote anything. We learn everything we know about him from others, often in reports and descriptions written decades after his death. The reliability and accuracy of these reports are often called into question, since their authors clearly have agendas and interests that undoubtedly undermine objectivity and an accurate accounting of the facts. He had a lot to say and attracted many followers who hung on his every word, while also annoying and angering others. He was an inscrutable enigma, even to his closest friends and family. Eventually he ran afoul of the authorities in his community, was brought to trial on serious charges, and was summarily executed. Yet through the mist and fog of obscurity, the passage of time, and the unreliability of second-, third-, and fourth-hand accounts, his life reaches toward us with a compelling attraction that is as powerful today as it was for his contemporaries. Countless people have adopted his life as a model for their own; others have rejected him as either a charlatan or a complete failure. And his name was not Jesus.Socrates

I just finished spending a week with over one hundred freshmen spread across three classes immersed in one of the most interesting and dramatic stories imaginable—the trial and death of Socrates. David SocratesIt is a gripping narrative in which an apparently innocent and harmless man who only wants to be left alone to pursue what he believes he has been called to do runs headlong into trouble so serious that his life is at risk. Young people generally are fascinated by Socrates, just as the youth of Athens in his day were. They know that he’s important and that they need to take him seriously (I told them that he is the godfather of Western philosophy), but many find him to be arrogant and annoying. As we discussed the texts for the day, it became clear that Socrates’ insistence on challenging pretensions to certainty, his dedication to asking disturbing questions of himself and others, and his general refusal to conform to the accepted attitudes and expectations of the day make people just as uncomfortable today as they did 2500 years ago. Socrates undoubtedly spoke truth to power, but he did it in a unique way. He spoke questions to certainty.

The charges against Socrates at his trial sound odd to the contemporary ear:

• Investigating things in the heavens and under the earth.
• Making the weaker argument the stronger and teaching others to do so.
• Corrupting the youth of Athens.
• Believing in gods other than those authorized by the state.

Socrates trialSome of the charges sound ominous in their vagueness (“corrupting the youth”), while others are simply peculiar. But against the backdrop of what we know about Socrates’ life and within the context of the world in which he lived, a consistent thread can be found. By pursuing what he considered to be a divinely inspired vocation, Socrates threatened and angered the wrong people.

Over time, his very existence was a continuing reminder that the stable foundations of a society are only as good as the willingness of the members of that society to agree that some things cannot be questioned, that some basic assumptions are sacrosanct. And nothing was sacrosanct to Socrates. His regular and very public questioning of everyone who would engage with him in conversation imperceptibly but inexorably had a corrosive effect. Young people were attracted to him not primarily because of his commitment to a life of pursuing truth through questioning, democracybut rather because he continually exposed important persons as pompous frauds. Socrates’ Athens is remembered fondly by many as one of the first experiments in democracy, but when freedom threatens power and stability, something has to give. For this he was brought to trial and lost his life.

Despite his occasional claims that he had been set on a life’s path that brought him to an untimely end by something that he cryptically referred to as “the god,” Socrates was thoroughly secular in his interests and activities. His primary concern was this world, the specific human beings with whom he lived and worked, and seeking to discover through dialogue and conversation what the various elements of a well-lived life might be, as well as how (or if) those elements can work effectively together. soldierHe had a family, a job, was a good friend to many, an honored citizen-soldier, and in many ways was not that different from either his fellow Athenians or from any of us. Had he not paid with his life for his strange and quirky resolve to question and prod everyone and everything, we might have never heard of him. But this homely, awkward man reaches out to us across the centuries because he committed his life to the proposition that there is nothing more dangerous than premature and poorly supported pretensions to certainty. There is nothing more likely to smother growth than the belief that we are “all set.”

soc and jesusThere is much that a person of faith can learn from Socrates. Even though his concerns were secular, what he taught and what he lived is directly transferable to those who are committed to journeying in the territory of the sacred. There is no area of human enquiry where the pressure is stronger to simply believe without questioning than issues concerning the relationship between human and divine. There are innumerable systems of belief that one could adopt that will provide definitive answers to all of the pertinent questions—Does God exist? What is God like? What does God require of me? The fact that the purportedly certain and absolute answers provided by these myriad systems of belief are incompatible raises a big problem, of course—which system has it right?

The life of Socrates is a reminder that such systems raise an even larger problem, the problem of certainty. Certainty offers the promise of closure, of stability, of security, all valuable and attractive commodities. But a Socratic faith recognizes that when bought at the price of openness, change and growth, these are commodities not worth having. Socrates challenges me as a person of faith to recognize that rather than questions being a means to an end of definitive answers, the best questions are an end in themselves. The best questions always allow for the possibility that what I currently believe might be wrong, is always revisable, and that I have a lot to learn. Continuous questioning does not imply that there are no absolute answers, but it does imply that I have no reason to believe at any point that I have found them.unexamined life

In Plato’s Crito, a short dialogue containing a conversation between Socrates and his friend Crito that occurs in Socrates’ prison cell in the early hours of the day of Socrates’ execution, Socrates tells Crito that there is a difference between living and living well. In the life of faith, there is a similar difference between believing and believing well, between believing in order to put important questions to rest and believing in order to energize the asking of better and better questions. The most famous one-liner ever attributed to Socrates comes from his defense of his life when on trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I would add that for a person of Socratic faith, the unexamined faith is not worth having.