Thursday, August 15, 2013

Back To Work

Restful Work
I've been on sabbatical for the last academic year, and it has been a gift.

I've done a lot of writing (I think I've averaged about 750 words a day, which may not sound like much, but it is) and a lot of reading (roughly a half a book a day for fifteen months) and a lot of traveling (visited five countries; had one writing fellowship on the west coast and one NEH study fellowship on the east coast; read and wrote at a writer's conference in Vermont; attended a handful of other conferences; and a whole lot more.  I lived out of my suitcase for the first two months of this summer.)

In other words, my sabbatical hasn't been idle time.  Quite the opposite.

But now I'm ready to get back to work.  To the work I feel called to do, that is.  All the work I've done for the last year has been aimed at a particular purpose: to make me a better teacher.

Those Who Can, Teach
No doubt you've heard it said that "those who can, do; those who can't, teach."  Anyone who has tried to teach well knows exactly why that saying is false.

In one small way, it can sometimes be true: it may be that the teacher lacks the physical capability to perform the tasks she teaches.  But if she teaches them, she must understand them at least as well as those who perform them.  Good athletic coaches illustrate this idea well: a man may be a brilliant football coach well after he's too old to survive being tackled; a woman may understand her sport far better after her body will no longer allow her to participate in it.

But in each case it is obvious that the teacher has some mastery that is greater than the bodily capacity to do the activity.

To paraphrase Aristotle: the craftsman knows something, but the one who teaches the craftsman must know even more.  My sabbatical has been a chance to deepen precisely the kind of knowledge I need to be a good teacher.

Be The Change You Want To See In Your Students
I can't speak for all teachers, but I find that it is not enough to know only as much as I plan to teach.  When I teach a course in philosophy, philology, theology, ecology, or history I must become a student of that discipline myself. 

This is one of the reasons why humanities professors are always reading and writing.  It is not enough to tell the students what we know.  As Plutarch put it, "The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled."  My job is not to impart information; my job is to make students.  My job is the work of conversion, of helping people become what they were not, of facilitating the habit of learning throughout one's whole life. 

To put it negatively, my job is to avoid being a hypocrite.  More positively, my job is to be an example of the kind of change I wish to see in my students.  And this is why sabbaticals are so important.  They are not a reward for service, a respite from the work of teaching.  They are a chance to immerse oneself in the life of the student again, to strengthen the scholarly habits.  Sabbaticals make better teachers.

Looking Forward To My Real Work
Recently I was having a drink with some other professors in my field as we sat on a hotel rooftop in Athens.  Several of them described the tricks they've come up with to minimize grading and teaching, so that they can spend more time on their "real work."  This "real work" turned out to be their research.

Kvetching in bars is a popular pastime for many professions, so I won't hold those words against them.  And I can't claim to know what the difficulties of their lives are like, nor how hard it is for them to manage the stresses of the job market (neither of them has a stable position).  And both of them may in fact be excellent researchers who are producing books and articles the world needs.

But it made me sad to hear that things have so fallen out for them that they have come to regard teaching as an impediment to their real work.  I love teaching, and I'm grateful for the privilege of spending time with books and pens and bright young minds.  I love the way the books and pens become tools for working out our life together.

Some of my friends have been ribbing me about having to go back to work after a yearlong sabbatical.  I'm sure it will present some challenges, and I'll have less control of my schedule.  But honestly, I've missed the classroom.  This year has been like time in the shop, taking apart the engine and replacing worn parts, topping off the fluids, recharging the battery.  As the sabbatical comes to a end, I find I'm eager to rev the engine and step on the pedal. I'm looking forward to seeing my older students, and to meeting the new ones.  I'm looking forward to engaging in the lofty work I've been called to, of helping young people think in ways they had not yet imagined.  I'm looking forward to seeing their eyes light up as they read Plato and Kant and Emerson, to hearing their challenges, to seeing what happens when they, too, step on the pedal and squeal the tires.  I can't wait to get back to work.


If you're curious: The Plutarch quote, above, comes from near the end of his "On Listening To Lectures."  This is my rough translation, which I think comes pretty close to what he says.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Day Picasso Made Me Fall Down

My latest at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Chronicle Review.  The main content is behind a subscribers-only paywall for now, but here's the beginning and a link to the article:
"Twenty-three years ago, I spent my junior year abroad in Madrid. For half the year, I lived in a small apartment just off El Paseo de Recoletos, a short and pleasant walk to the Museo del Prado, one of the world's great art museums.
"At the time, I knew very little about art—a fact that really hasn't changed much since then—but in just one day, the Prado changed my mind about the importance of art, museums, and a certain kind of education."
Read it all here.