"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Handed My Own Life

University of Glasgow Coat of Arms

[Thanks to Peter Bunder & Good Shepherd for this photo & caption]

Back to school already! The calendar year is nearly two thirds gone, yet in semester - speak the year is just beginning! After a few decades on the academic calendar, it becomes hard to measure time in any other way. I began my Freshman year at Northeast Missouri State in the fall of 1975, finishing four years later with a B.A. in English, one of the mere fifty - two Bachelor of Arts candidates listed on the last page of the graduation program (Spring 1979). My educational goals were not shared by many of my peers (most of whose names were listed among the many hundreds preceding the B.A.'s). While I did not elect to obtain the then popular Bachelor of Science in Education, I somehow or other ended up teaching for a number of years and was imprinted by numerous examples of what it meant to be an educator.

The closest I've come to a mission field was teaching at the Community College of Philadelphia. I taught a class for students who were trying to qualify for Freshman English -- so pre-freshman English. A few had not graduated from high school, but they had special admission status as returning students. A few were traditional students (age 18 or so) who had just not been served well by the Philadelphia public school system. Most were returning students, African American women about my age (late 30s at the time) and many were grandmothers! They were always surprised to learn that I was the mother of toddlers, at my age. I was impressed by the commitment they brought to their course work, and their determination to improve the level of their writing skills. Their dedication was inspiring, and many times they seemed to surprise themselves and each other with the success of their achievements. My last semester there, Spring 1998, I participated in a departmental evaluation, in an attempt to reveal something of how these small successes were accomplished.

Always my goal was to reveal to the students their own capacity for intelligent thought, as mine was revealed to me. In An American Childhood, Annie Dillard vividly describes her initiation into the world of natural science, her early discovery, years before college, "that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself." I love her scenario of revelation, though the indifference of her privileged parents fills me with some misgiving:
“Mother . . . gave me to understand that she was glad I had found what I had been looking for, but that she and Father were happy to sit with their coffee, and would not be coming down [to check out her biology experiment in the basement]. She did not say, but I understood at once, that they had their pursuits (coffee?) and I had mine. She did not say, but I began to understand then, that you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself. I had essentially been handed my own life” (148 - 49, emphasis added).
In Homegrown Democrat, Garrison Keillor writes of his education in very similar terms, describing himself as an undergraduate "with no money to speak of and no clear plan for the future but . . . teachers who engage him with gravity and fervor and that's enough. That was the true spirit of the university, the spirit of the professors who loved their work. That was the heart and soul of the place . . . ." He enumerates half a dozen of his most inspirational professors, concluding with a visit to the library where "that Niagara of scholarship holds you in its sway, the deluge and glory of learning, and you begin to see where work and play become one. And imagine working at something you love. And that was how the University of Minnesota gave me life" (94 - 96, emphasis added).

Several times during my undergraduate years, I too was "essentially handed my own life," not just in the English courses which catered to my "private passion" but once in a science class where we learned that "Much knowledge is gained in pursuit of even elusive goals," and once again in music appreciation where the professor explained that "we don't know what we like -- we like what we know" and then proceeded to teach us just how much there was in the world to know and like and love. Not only did I obtain personal attention when necessary, but upon one memorable occasion during my Freshman year when I arrived at an office door at the same time as a classmate, the instructor soon had us tutoring each other. My questions were answered by a peer whose questions in turn I was able to answer! Thus, even in uncertainty, my own competence was reinforced. I learned that I was capable of intelligent thought and that I could impart as well as absorb information. This was an invaluable discovery, which stood me in good stead as an educator. Though it was not always easy, I aimed for a similar transference of accountability during my years as a classroom teacher.

As for my private passion, one of my most rewarding undergraduate challenges was to work as an editor of the student literary magazine, learning to test and question my own critical thinking skills in ways which continue to influence and inform every writing task I undertake. I knew when I arrived at Northeast that I wanted to major in English; and when I took Modern British Fiction, I knew what, one day, my field of specialization would be. Never before had I read such wonderful novels or worked on such exciting assignments! From a handful of professors, I encountered generous and enthusiastic encouragement, and was challenged by their faith in my work and by the valuable information which they choose to share.

Regardless of one's private passion, the public study of language and literature should yield a certain breadth of vision when it comes to solving problems, analyzing common or repeated themes, and dealing with human conflict in a humane way. To portray the inevitable links between existence and language, to create an environment of personal actualization in which a whole and steady vision might be realized, to repair the learned disjunction between speaker and utterance, to not be fooled by wordcraft or lazy thinking -- those were some of my goals as a teacher of English. Particularly in teaching composition it seems important, perhaps it is even a mission to show students how to be responsible to language, to own it, and to overcome indifference.

I pointed out to them the significance of their own authority in what Stanley Fish calls the "interpretive community" and the relevance of their own contributions to the discursive enterprise referred to by Robert Maynard Hutchins as the Great Conversation and the Civilization of the Dialogue:
"How, then, can higher education escape dogmatism, narrowness, the invasion of academic freedom, and failure in its proper intellectual task and still do its duty by morals and religion? A possible answer lies in the Great Conversation. The Great Conversation began with the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Hindus, and the Chinese and has continued to the present day. It is a conversation that deals, perhaps more extensively than it deals with anything else, with morals and religion. The questions of the nature and existence of God, the nature and destiny of humanity, and the organization and purpose of human society are the recurring themes of the Great Conversation.

"There may be many ways in which a college or university can continue the Great Conversation, but it would seem offhand that one of the best ways is through the reading and discussion by all the students of the books in which the Great Conversation has been carried on by the greatest writers and thinkers who have taken part in it. I emphasize discussion because of the contributions that this method makes to the moral and intellectual habits we desire; and I emphasize reading and discussion by all the students and faculty because in this way the formation of a community can be advanced. To continue and enrich the Great Conversation is the object of higher education.

"The Civilization of the Dialogue is the only civilization worth having and the only civilization in which the whole world can unite. It is, therefore, the only civilization we can hope for, because the world must unite or be blown to bits. The Civilization of the Dialogue requires communication. It requires a common language and a common stock of ideas. It assumes that everyone has reason and that everyone can use it. It preserves to all their independent judgment and, since it does so, it deprives any individual or any group of the privilege of forcing their judgment upon any other individual or any other group. The Civilization of the Dialogue is the negation of force. We have reached the point, in any event, when force cannot unite the world; it can merely destroy it. Through continuing and enriching the Great Conversation, higher education not only does its duty by morals and religion; it not performs its proper intellectual task; it also supports and symbolizes the highest hopes and the highest aspirations of humanity."
Robert Maynard Hutchins
from Morals, Religion, and Higher Education

In keeping with this focus on dialogue, I stressed the need to adhere to certain objective principles (use of the apostrophe, for example, or the conjugation of verbs!) not merely for the sake of following rules, but so that the students' contributions to the dialogue might be taken seriously; so that they do not undermine their own authority as readers, writers, and speakers; and so that they may learn to make the best use of that "tight economy of energy" which for Mina P. Shaughnessy characterized the transfer of meaning via the written or spoken word. In the developmental courses which I taught, I hoped for my students to discover that expressing themselves verbally went hand in hand with reading and expressing themselves in writing; and I tried to impress upon them that most human endeavor, education in particular, is a verbal undertaking. I urged them to think of each essay as "a try," an attempt to tackle one more problem and eliminate it before confronting another.

Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction contains a structural analysis of the curriculum in which he warns students that literary studies "are a question of the signifier, not of the signified. Those employed to teach you this form of discourse will remember whether or not you were able to speak it proficiently long after they have forgotten what you said." Despite the appeal of Eagleton's analogy, I always was, in fact, keenly interested in what my students had to say; and I continually reminded them that it is for this very reason -- the significance of their message -- that their mode of signification is so important. Myself a student of the message as well as the medium, I have to admire "that rare educator," described by Maya Angelou in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings "who was in love with information . . . [and desired] to make sure that some of the things she knew would find repositories so that they could be shared again" (209). If, as Angelou suspected, such an impulse was not motivated solely by a love for the students themselves, then certainly it derives from a sincere conviction that they proceed with awareness, as cognizant as possible of their role in creating and naming the world which surrounds them -- a way to give them life, to hand them their own lives!

Henricus de Alemannia Lecturing his Students
from Laurentius de Voltolina, 1350s
For more on higher / liberal education, see
my previous post: "Back to School: A Scent of Knowledge"
and this vintage video: Bryn Mawr College

For a bit of academic humor you might want to try
33 Teachers Who Got The Last Laugh,
or Your Teachers Were Funnier Than You All Along

which I found to be very entertaining in a Breakfast Club kind of way!

In fact, it reminds me of another movie Class in which the English instructor is handing back papers with a negative remark for each one. When he gets to the last one, his comment is "This one offended ALL my sensibilities." It's been 30 years since I saw this movie -- (warning: it's a stupid movie; so this is not a recommendation) -- but I never forgot that one funny line!

That's the thing about being a student or a teacher: it always seems to involve grading! Reminiscing about these good and bad movies reminded my brother Bruce and me of our best grading stories.

Bruce wrote to say, "I once got a paper back with the international traffic symbol for "No" -- the circle with the slash through it -- covering most of the first page. In one of the few spaces not covered by the circle was the word "NO!" in big red letters. The rest of the pages just had big red Xs from corner to corner. The test was a final that I was required to take, but it wouldn't affect my grade. I only had to get something like a 40% on the final to get an A. So, I just went in and wrote drivel . . . didn't even study. The professor called me into his office and told me something like this: 'I know basically all you have to do is spell your name correctly on this test to get enough points for an A, but you ARE going to take this final.' He gave me an incomplete and I had to go take the finals when we got back from Christmas."

The prize correction / comment, which I still enjoy for it's sheer uselessness: "Revise for smoothness." This is the one and only comment that one of my dissertation readers put on the top of my 300 - page rough draft, without one single mark anywhere throughout the entire document (did he even read it? I think not). Now, whenever Gerry and I hear any piece of totally useless advice, we just say, "Revise for smoothness" (or sometimes "Go Over").

My advisor Leonard Orr (one of the inspiring professors invoked above) gave me some useful advise: He said to wait a couple of days, change a couple of words around, re-submit the paper, and say, "I revised for smoothness." Worked like a charm!


Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, August 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

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