Friday, September 30, 2005

Theory ( *shudder* )

Scott Nokes and I have been having a running discussion about our profession and its problems. His latest post references a discussion at TheOneRing.net in which someone characterizes me as "largely anti-theory" (Scott says I'm not). Scott goes on to explain why he thinks "theory" is important and comes up with a very good metaphor likening literary theory to the foundation of a house: you need it to be there, but you're not particularly interested in looking closely at it every day:
All of which leads us to the purpose of foundations (or in the obvious metaphor here, theory). Foundations need to be applied to buildings. What would we think of architects who fetishized foundations to the point that they were laying foundations around the landscape, refusing to sully them by placing buildings over them? Naturally, we would think such a person mad or a fool. Yet there are those who refuse to apply their theories to actual works of literature. In some quarters (though it has gone out of vogue), you can still find people who haughtily reply that they "do theory," not literature, or even more pretentiously, "high theory." As a colleague of mine said recently, "We already have people who do that, and do a better job. We call them philosophers."

I don't disagree with Scott; I just want to add a few things about why theory has such a bad odor among all but its most ardent practitioners (and in passing, plug a book idea I've been brooding about).

Theory deals with important philosophical problems (as applied to literature) that often get passed over by "untheorized" approaches. For example: when attempting to figure out the 'meaning' of a text (scare quotes because different people mean different things by 'meaning,' and I'm not interested in getting into that argument right now), many people appeal to the authority of the author: The Beowulf poet put a specific meaning into the poem, and it's our job to figure out what it is. But, says the literary theorist, how do you know what the Beowulf poet put in? By reading his text, of course? Isn't that circular: the text tells you about the poet which tells you about the text, which you can use to create your idea of the author.

Ok, what about an author, like Tolkien, who left criticism behind? The theorist points out that you still have to interpret the words that author wrote, whether they are criticism or literature, and when you make decisions about how to interpret them, you are often relying upon an idea of what the author "was really like" that is shaped in no small part by the author's texts.

You can see a possible source for that tiresome "X is impossible" cliche that I mocked in a previous post criticizing President of the MLA Domna C. Stanton. These are irritating philosophical problems about literary interpretation (and they've been around since Plato in one form or another).

But on the other hand, these are interesting problems: in my experience, smart, non-English-professor people are happy to debate these different approaches in informal circumstances if the questions are framed this way. The same goes for the "political" types of criticism: how much of Chaucer's creation is a work of his own, unique, individual genius and how much is a reflection of certain political and social structure of his time (Did Chaucer really hate Jews, or is the Prioresses' Tale just a reflection of 14th-century English culture, or is Chaucer criticizing this mindset by attributing the Tale to the Prioress, whom he perhaps is satirizing, etc.

Nevertheless people are alienated by theory, and for good reason, I think. Theory is taught and communicated as a series of quotations from authorities. First you master what X said, and then Y's critique, and then Z's development... it is just like those incredibly annoying rambles through the authorities that we read in The Wife of Bath's Prologue or The Nun's Priest's Tale or the Tale of Melibee: Seneca says this but Macrobius says this but The Philosopher (Aristotle) say another thing and here's a quote from Paul's Letter to Timothy and here's another from Ecclesiasticus... you get the idea. For those in the know this may be (and I am not actually conceding this point, but arguendo...) an efficient means of communication, but it also serves to exclude everyone who has not mastered the authorities even when those people might have something very interesting and relevant to contribute to the discussion if it were framed properly.

Also, at this stage in its development, theory doesn't provide any answers, or, more accurately, the only answer it provides is that everything can have a political interpretation. If that's the case, then, as you'd expect, each political school latches on to theory to undercut their opponents and support their positions.

So why, you ask, do academics stick to theory? Are they all wannabe politicial scientists or half-baked sociologists ("sociology without all that pesky data" is what I called one school of Tolkien criticism in an honest but perhaps impolite moment)? Theory supplies "method" to replace the philological method that was politically discredited after WWII and the New Criticism, which ran out of steam after the five millionth celebration of "ambiguity." If there's one thing that all the branches of contemporary theory seem to agree upon (and Scott hits upon this in an another post) it's that one can go gigging for binary oppositions (light/dark, good/evil, male/female, hot/cold) and then "deconstruct" them by showing that the first, priviledged term requires the other term to make sense.

This was probably exciting the first couple of hundred times people did it, but now it is tedious beyond belief, and I immediately begin to do Anglo-Saxon calligraphy on my notepad when someone starts going on about binary oppositions.

But I do think that the big questions theory raises are interesting, and answers to them (and yes, I am a positivist, if we can figure out how to explain quantum tunneling, we can figure out how to deal with 'author intent') would be really desireable. But "Theory" doesn't have an answer, and I don't think as it is now configured, it will ever have one.

Which leads to two desiderata: First, a book that takes on all the big theoretical questions and lays them out for people without the whole gloppy mess of citation of authorities and academic jargon. Instead of trying to give a reader a grasp of who said what, the book should attempt to show the problems: For example, there's a continuum between universality (this book means that same thing to very reader) to solipsism (this book is about me) and we have no good way of carving up that continuum into philosophically defensible chunks. Or: various theorists assert that 'meaning' is constructed by social relations in the culture (i.e., all the authorized people decide that Beowulf is about "wisdom and strength" in balance, and so everyone thiks that), but there are obviously some formal characteristics of a work which limit the freedom of interpretation (an interpretive community can be as strong and it wants and people aren't going to be believe that Beowulf is about cheese). I'm talking to a colleague about writing such a book, first for our students.

Second, a theory that actually can provide some new answers or can give a different take on various played-out questions. That's what I tried to do in How Tradition Works and if the press would ever get around to sending me my galley proofs, you could see for yourself if it was successful.

[Nota: it's somewhat ironic that someone would call me "anti-theory." When I started out in medieval studies everyone thought I was too theory-focused because of my academic pedigree (Allen Frantzen was my dissertation director and mentor, and he was the first person to being theory to Anglo-Saxon studies). But I don't take "anti-theory" as an insult, since I'm hoping that the person who wrote this had picked up that I'm skeptical of theory's claims and that I'm willing to criticize the way too many people in my profession use it]

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Job Here at Wheaton College in 18th Century

Here at Wheaton we are searching for a new colleague to teach 18th century literature. Here is the official ad:
Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, seeks an Assistant Professor for a tenure-track position of English literature and culture in the long eighteenth century and its borders, any area of specialization. All members of the department teach courses outside their primary specializations, and we look forward to hearing how the range of your interests can enrich our program. Teaching load is 3-2, and junior faculty may apply for a pre-tenure semester of fully-funded research leave. All members of the department are committed to teaching first-year writing. Wheaton continues its dedication to hiring a diverse faculty and encourages applications from women and people of color.
Send letter, vita, and self-addressed postcard for acknowledgment, postmarked by November 8, 2005, to Katherine Conway, Chair, Department of English,Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts 02766. Ph.D. expected by time of appointment. AA/EOE

[N.B.: We are not the Wheaton College in Illinois that has a strong religious focus. We are the Wheaton College in Massachusetts, half-way between Boston and Providence, RI].

To flesh out what I think we mean (I speak only for myself on this blog) by "the long eighteenth century and its borders": a candidate must love, study and teach the literature and culture of the eighteenth century, but he or she can also be interested in literature back into the late 17th and forward into the early 19th; a candidate's interests also do not in any way need to be limited strictly to British literature. In some departments someone who comes near to and crosses boundaries might be seen as a turf threat. Not to us.

I would strongly recommend that applicants NOT take my blog as any reflection of the department as a whole (except in the sense that the department supports an obvious pest, malcontent and loose cannon like myself). You should research the entire department (start here ) and the college as a whole. I do feel confident in saying that to be happy and successful at Wheaton, you need to love and be committed to teaching.

Also, I can say with all honesty that cannot imagine a better department of English, anywhere, in which to work. There is not a single person in my department whom I do not genuinely like, and that is rare (perhaps even unique) in English. I love the college, the department, my colleagues and my students, and so I am not unbiased when speaking of Wheaton.

*

For the remainder of the search I am going to refrain from commenting on the academic job market. This is entirely voluntary on my part; no one in my department has suggested it. I do so (out of the obvious self interest of wanting the best possible colleagues) only because I worry that a candidate could be led astray by imagining that the things I write here represent the department.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Domna C. Stanton, President of the MLA: You Are NOT Helping

Today, after reading a reply by Scott Nokes to this post, I went to my mailbox and found this month's MLA (Modern Language Association) newsletter.

Domna C. Stanton, a scholar in French and Women's Studies who apparently is now president of the MLA, in her "President's Column" manages to illustrate beautifully why my profession is slouching towards irrelevance.

Although there are many more than two problems with this column, I'm going to focus on two that should be particular embarrassments to the profession: ideas whose dumbness is illustrated in the very argument of the column and poor writing.

The title of the column is "The Paradox of Academic Freedom." Stanton argues (ok, that's being charitable, "asserts" would be a better description) that it is essential for "us" to defend "academic freedom" while at the same time "we" must admit that a definition of academic freedom is impossible.

So we're going to defend something we can't define, and we will do this by defining it, but it won't be a real definition. This campaign is sure to be a smashing success.

Let's look at Prof. Stanton's description of academic freedom:
It is historical, not a transcendent notion; its meanings are contextual, relational and open to change.

Well good luck defending it, then. I'm not a big fan of transcendence, myself, but if we can't assign transcendent value to freedoms that are at their foundation speech and thought, then we might as well pack up our stuff and quit. How can you possibly defend academic freedom if you won't argue that it is a universal good, a benefit not only to the individuals who practice it, but to the society (any society) in which it is embedded? Why should the Chinese or Cuban or Saudi Arabian authorities give their scholars freedom of thought and speech if we can't even make the argument that it is a fundamental human right to think about, teach and communicate what, to the best of your knowledge, you think is true ?

Stanton stumbles around this point, bringing in the utterly useless Universal Declaration of Human Rights and trying to tie academic freedom to this particular piece of paper (and noting that it's not really possible). By choosing to argue from a textualist position (that the rights are Universal because some dead people declared it so in 1948), she chooses to occupy the weakest possible ground to make any kind of substantive argument. Beorhtnoth is a tactical genius compared to Stanton.

But this doesn't stop Stanton from coming up with a laundry list of specific, US political developments that she doesn't like (some are reasonable: the "Academic Bill of Rights" is a terrible idea, though an incredibly clever bit of political judo, turning idiotic speech codes and stifling "hostile environment" rules against their authors), others are childish (the Federal government had the power to subpeona library records before the Patriot Act, so whining about this now seems a little, well, opportunistic; that said, the Patriot Act is a bureaucratic power grab and most of it should be allowed to lapse). But as best I can tell, her reasons for opposing these particular problems but not others doesn't arise out of any principle beyond 'I don't like these.' (She doesn't argue against speech codes or "hostile environment" lawsuits even though these things actually are in force and repress freedom while the Academic Bill of Rights is proposed legislation that hasn't passed anywhere yet. But I digress...)

The point is: bad ideas have consquences. If you accept the bad idea that really, really important freedoms, like Academic Freedom, are merely historical and contingent, then you are going to lose really important arguments.

There is indeed a lot of knowledge whose "meanings are contextual, relational and open to change," but not all knowledge. A proton has a positive charge. One carbon and two oxygen atoms form one molecule of carbon dioxide. In Anglo-Saxon, "witan" is a preterite-present verb. These are facts. You can get all freshman-philosophy on me and argue that because they are embedded in language and convention that they are just language, but that view cuts no ice outside of the MLA, as well it shouldn't.

Stanton has made the mistake of apparently actually believing in a bad piece of contemporary dogma, and it has led her to undercut her own argument about a really important problem facing the profession.

Nice work.

Even worse, when the president of the MLA demonstrates poor writing skills, citizens not in the organization might reasonably conclude that perhaps they don't need to take the organization seriously. I quote:

As crucial as conceptual clarity may be, and as difficult--perhaps impossible--as it may be to realize this idea(l) in any society, academic freedom nonetheless needs to be defended whenever it is under attack. In this column, I examine some of the problematics of the concept in the present context and at the same time affirm the need to combat recent instances of the infringement of academic freedom that are central to the concerns of MLA members.


Where to begin?

Prof. Stanton, did you really just use "idea(l)"? What is this, 1988? That whole multiple-meanings-indicated-by-silly-typography shtick stopped being clever fifteen years ago. Why not just write The Secret of My Succes$ and be done with it? Embarrassing.

What about that parenthetical "--perhaps impossible--" : is this supposed to be a parody? I know you work in French, but come on, even the French aren't doing that whole "X is impossible" thing anymore. Does it embarrass you that the Postmodernism Generator can write this sentence?

You didn't really just make the played-out adjective "problematic" into a plural noun, did you? What is wrong with "problems" if you need a plural noun? What exactly are "problematics," and why do we need this term here?

Did you really mean to use that "I examine ... at the same time ... [I] affirm" construction? Are you really examining and affirming at the same time? Don't you examine first and them affirm later? Doesn't the phrase "in this column" make the "at the same time" phrase unnecessary?

Even worse: "As crucial as conceptual clarity may be... academic freedom nonetheless nonetheless needs to be defended." This makes no sense. How is the cruciality of conceptual clarity in contrast to the academic freedom needing to be defended? Why did you begin that sentence with "as... may be" if you're not giving a contrast in the second half of the sentence?

Prof. Stanton, you write like a committee.

That's probably enough. I could continue through the whole column, but after a certain point it's just mean. Confused thinking, poor writing and political special pleading: is it any wonder no one pays attention to the MLA?

And I am not an MLA basher (Really. Stop laughing.) I think a strong, effective MLA would be very valuable to American society and to our profession. But what we have ain't that.

Instead, the people at the top of our profession (in the MLA as a whole, but also in my own field of Anglo-Saxon studies) are failing us. They are not communicating effectively to the public. They are involved in how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin debates within the academy that are visibly stupid to those outside (and that wouldn't withstand the intellectual scrutiny of even a first-year grad student in philosophy). And most damningly, they are letting us become irrelevant because by the time the intellectual bills need to be paid, they will be comfortably retired.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Why is Literary Scholarship Going Through a Dry Spell?
You are only allowed to say "a drought" if you smile when you say that

[UPDATE: Please go here and read everything that Scott Nokes has to say about this. I hope to have more later, though Mondays and Tuesdays are my busiest days.]

Over the past week or so, as I've been trying to put a whole pile of projects to bed (revised King Alfred's Grammar off to a potential publisher, Dark is Rising Companion proposal to another publisher, two sets of galleys for book chapters done, compilation of the works for David Bratman's "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" finished, rough draft of bibliography for 2004 done...), I've been thinking very hard about my plan to write a short, straightforward Handbook of Philology for Students of Literature. I'm seeking the right collaborators (and may have found the right one, but that depends on job searches, etc.) and figuring out what will go into the book. I want it to preserve as much philological method as possible while at the same time being less than 200 pages and easy to follow -- no assuming that readers have internalized all of their ablaut before reading the book. I also want it to be up-to-date, not just a recapitulation of 19th-century work, but I don't want it to be a "linguistics" textbook; I want it to be a "philology" textbook (i.e., I don't care, or mind, that the field of linguistics, even historical linguistics, has moved on from the study of ancient texts. I'm not trying to reconfigure that field; I'm trying to pull together things useful to my field).

But that's not really the subject of this post; only the set-up. In at least laying some of the intellectual groundwork that I'll need to do before I even start thinking seriously about the book, I've been reading W. P. Lehmann's Historical Linguistics and his A Reader in Nineteenth-Century Historical Lingistics (you should have seen the looks I received when I pulled that one out of my bookbag and began reading it at my daughter's gymnastics class). I've been reading, and going over the great works of Rasmus Rask, Jakob Grimm, Franz Bopp, Karl Verner, Eduard Sievers and Ferdinand de Saussure, seeing how their work build on each other and coalesced into an effective, intellectually powerful discipline. It must have been amazing to be at Leipzig during the early years, or later at Paris, when these things were being figured out.

Combine this with my reading all of Tolkien's published scholarship a few weeks ago: all that great work being done by him and R. W. Chambers and Lawrence and Klaeber in the 1930's and even into the 40's. Then add in the other book I'm finishing right now, Ernst Mayr's Systematics and the Origins of Species. Mayr uses the (Name date) citation format, and Tolkien's articles were almost all written within fifteen years. I started noting the incredible number of citations from the late 20's, through 30's, up until about 1941 (I'm guessing that the papers published in 41 were those where research and writing were done before the war started). It was a time of amazing intellectual accomplishment in both literary study and in evolutionary biology.

Why hasn't this happened, in literature, again during my lifetime? There have been little bursts of interest, little fads, and out of these we get the demi-gods of 80's and 90's academia: Derrida, Foucault, Butler, Said, Bhaba, Fish. But these folks didn't build anything coherent: there's no new method (well, I guess you can go gigging for binary oppositions), there's no edifice of knowledge comparable to what was built by the great nineteenth century linguists, or by the "last philologists" of Tolkien's day, or by Mayr for biology. Maybe there were just giants in the earth in those days.

That's certainly possible, but I also think we might be seeing the results of a system that has been terribly stable (and hence ossified and boring) for a long time. There is no way a 33-year-old like Tolkien would be appointed Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon today. No way that a major endowed professorship will be given to a hot young scholar instead of someone in their early sixties, likely to retire in less than a decade. I understand the impulses (most of them laudable) that cause this.

But in the late 20's and early 30's, WWI and the Depression had changed everything. First of all, an awful lot of young men were dead, leading to expanded opportunities to those who were not dead. Hierarchies were shaken up and new blood given new responsibilities. This led to a brief flowering of intellectual life in certain fields. Changes in technology, communication and economics also shook up established fields and led to their flowering.

Out of this ferment, men like Tolkien and Klaeber and Mayr rose to new prominence when normally they might have been expected to wait and take their turn for many long years. They then had opportunities to do great work and re-shape fields that were beginning to be moribund.

But what today can shake up English studies? One hopes to God that it won't be violence and the death of millions as it was in 1918 and 1939. Economic pressure has exactly the opposite effect one would have hoped for: instead of improving the discipline and expanding its reach, everyone has hunkered down, protecting turf. I though technology might help, but even though I can edit a book with contributors from five continents and never meet any of those contributors, technology isn't shaking up the fossilized intellectual system that still operates as if we are in 1974. We need some breakthroughs, some reconfiguration of the field around new ideas. But where that will come from in this climate of the weird combination of intellectual timidity and grandiose claims, I don't know.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

On Set Pieces

Since I am on a small trend of discussing things in academia that annoy me, might I mention the habit of many academics of using "set pieces"?

Now we all have set pieces that we use in lecture or even discussion: a certain, expected question comes along, and we can launch into an effective piece of oratory, with well-chosen examples and even memorized quotations.

For example, I have a set piece on Tolkien's engagement with the German race laws of the 1930's: in response to an inquiry as to whether or not he was Aryan, Tolkien replied that he was not aware of any ancestors who were Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or related dialect-speakers and then went on to say that if they were in fact asking whether or not he was Jewish, he did not know of any ancestors of that talented people, but if such impertinent questions become commonplace, he would no longer regard his German name with pride. Later he wrote to his son Christopher that would have been a better soldier at 40 than he had been at 22 due to an abiding hatred of that ruddy little ignoramous Adolph Hitler: ruining, perverting and making forever accursed that noble northern spirit Tolkien had so admired...

I also have a set piece on Thomas Jeffereson's thought to make Old English the legal language of the United States and his design for the great seal of the US to depict on one side the pillar of fire that led the Isrealites to the promised land and on the other side the Anglo-Saxon warriors Hengest and Horsa, who led the "migration" or "invation" of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes to England.

Set pieces work well, though you must be judicious: I have a few students who tend to "major in Drout" and thus may have seen a set piece before.

But, I assert, you must never use a set piece on one of your colleagues, particularly if that colleague has heard you do that set piece before on undergraduates. It happened during my dissertation defense, when one of my committee members launched into a well-prepared bit on C├Ždmon's Hymn that I had heard delivered to a class less than a year before. When I stopped gripping the edges of the desk, I decided the best thing to do was visibly zone off during the presentation -- NOTE: This is a terrible strategy. Do NOT do it at your Ph.D. oral, no matter how pissed off you are. Really. Bad. Idea.

Yesterday the same thing happened to me in a meeting, and once again, I was floored. It reminded me of the scene in The Blues Brothers, where Carrie Fisher has John Belushi crawling around in the mud while she points a machine gun at him, and he tries to charm her back, and for a moment there is a priceless look on Fisher's face, a look of sheer fury that you would even dare think of trying to explain (and then John Belushi, being John Belushi, briefly makes up with her). The look on Carrie's face was the look on my face while I sat there and listened to this set piece.

Patronizing is one of the deadliest of the academic deadly sins, and is it all the more dangerous because academics fall so naturally into the trap: it's a short, short trip from Knowledgeable to Patronizing--you hardly have time to find a good seat before you're there. So don't even board the Set Piece Train in front of your colleagues.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Stop that wretched humming!!!
or, more evidence that Drout does not fit in anywhere...

[Update: In response to comments: I'm not criticizing individuals who nod and hum. It's a perfectly normal part of phatic communication to do so. I am criticizing it in a large meeting context when the speaker probably can't even see you or hear you as an individual. Also, I'm not objecting because of the content of what is being affirmed by the humming (neither the leftism or the Christianity is per se objectionable, though it obviously depends on the specifics). I am objecting to the anti-intellectualism of the practice: humming leads a speaker in one direction and not another without having to articulate an argument. I was part of a fraternal society that had weekly meeting for four years in college: I know how to use cross-talk, murmuring, etc. to railroad a meeting. It's not a good thing in academia, where we should be aspiring to intellectual debate.]



One of the things that has long driven me crazy about Wheaton is what I have labeled "The Leftitst Hum." When someone is speaking--at a meeting, or at lunch, or even in a presentation setting--and that person begins going on about social justice, or race and class, or gender, some subset of the assembled faculty members will begin to hum their assent. Depending upon how extreme the speaker goes, the humming can sometimes break through into sotto voce appreciations and assents. I think this is related to how easily we can allow our colleagues to go on talking smack.

I have complained for years, to anyone who would listen, about "The Leftist Hum." I think it is anti-intellectual and an obvious attempt at steering discourse in certain directions without having to actually argue for a point. I think it's rude to speak, hum, or even nod intensely (God, I hate nodders!) when someone is speaking. Listen attentively, answer with words, argue your case. (I have avoided Wheaton's AAUP meetings for years, even though I pay my dues, and support the work of our AAUP chapter unequivocally, because I don't want to lose respect for my colleagues due to their humming. For me, it is like fingernails on a blackboard).

Well, while at Hillsdale last week I discovered that "The Leftist Hum" has an exact counterpart in the opposite context. I won't call it "The Rightist Hum," however, because it was more specific: It is "The Jesus Hum." Every time one of the speakers brought up Jesus (this conference was about C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, so it wasn't out of the blue), the exact, same, maddening hum buzzed up in the audience. I thought my head was going to explode.

When I calmed down, I realized that there might actually be the germ of an explanation in the parallel: Wheaton was originally a religious seminary, and even though it wasn't Quaker, there's a very strong Quaker-feeling tradition about certain things at the school. New faculty have expressed great frustration sometimes at the way people seem to go round and round and round at meetings, not quite arguing, sidling up to a point rather than making it. For someone from New Jersey (me), it was a very difficult adjustment. And I wonder if the hum is part of an early American religious tradition: that would explain a presence at both Wheaton and Hillsdale, which both have long traditions. If the traditional behavior at Wheaton stayed the same but was attached to the new 'religion' (i.e., hot-button social and political issues) but remained attached to Christianity at Hillsdale, that might explain the existence of the behavior at both places.

It does not, however, excuse the damnable humming.

But it does give more evidence that I'm just a malcontent, which you all knew already, anyway.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Evil Twins, or Just Clones

Blogging has been so light lately because I had to prepare a lecture for a talk I'm giving today at Hillsdale College in Michigan. So far the conference has gone very well, with a variety of interesting talks on C. S. Lewis (I missed one Tolkien talk because my flight came in too late for it), about whom I don't know enough. Today I give a talk on "The Significance of Tolkien's Scholarship" and Tom Shippey presents on Tolkien and his Roman Catholicism (I'm very glad I don't have to follow Tom, who is a tough act to follow).

When I told colleagues that I was off to Hillsdale for a few days, those who knew about Hillsdale looked at me as if I were going into the lion's den. "That's a very conservative school, isn't it?" they asked. And Hillsdale is. They have a picture of George Will up on their website right now and they make a pretty big deal about being traditional, patriotic and friendly to religion (they're not an explicitly religious school like the Wheaton in Illinois). I should add here that I admire Hillsdale's efforts to fight the general academic tide and that I particularly admire their combination Great Books/English 101 program. I would be terrified to try to teach Plato, paragraph organization, Dante and comma splices in the same course (though they do give a full year rather than a semester), but I wish I had had such an education rather than having to create mine ad hoc. I think real, not cosmetic, diversity in higher education is very beneficial and having an explicitly conservative, excellent liberal arts college is a great thing (although it's not a substitute for having a better mix of ideological viewpoints throughout academia).

But you know what? As best I can tell, Hillsdale and Wheaton are as alike as two peas in a pod. The buildings at Hillsdale are more 50's-60's modernist pieces (the room I'm staying in looks like it should have a sign "Nabokov slept here"), and it's got the more spacious layout that comes from being in the midwest rather than the crowded east, but so much is exactly the same. The students are very similar: smart, articulate, individualistic. They dress similarly in all their diversity (the guy at the computer center this morning had black fingernails; last night one of the students I had dinner with looked as proud and uncomfortable in his suit as the students at Wheaton do when they come for a special event). They obviously listen to the same music. The posters on the walls--for the writing center, singing groups, charity events, films on campus--are for the same things. The students have the same love of life and energy.

I don't see real differences in the faculty, either. Faculty here and at Wheaton talk about teaching constantly. They are constantly rushing from one thing to another. They're swarmed by students on their way from one class to the other.

Big differences: There are a lot more pictures of eagles in the Dow Center where I'm staying than there are anywhere at Wheaton. But I like eagles, and other birds of prey, a lot, so that doesn't bother me. There are also about twice as many posters for Christian fellowship organizations at Hillsdale, but that ratio is misleading, as there's one Christian fellowship at Wheaton and, apparently, two at Hillsdale (there may be more; I'm just guessing based on the posters).

My point? For all Wheaton's talk about social justice, etc., etc., and all Hillsdale's talk about preserving tradition, to an anthropologist from Mars, they would be identical places. My lesson: most of what goes on at a college is a function of gathering a lot of bright, motivated 18-22-year-olds in one place. All the rest, all that we do as teachers and administrators, is frosting on the cake: it makes things appear different, but the cake beneath is the same. And that fits with my own experiences, that 80-90 % of what I learned in college, I learned outside the classroom. I don't for a moment think that what I do isn't important to the lives of my students, but seeing how similar Hillsdale and Wheaton are despite the obvious attempts of faculty and administration to make them different is a good reminder that you can only do so much to control your students.

And that is a very salutary thing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Joy and Responsibility

Startup of the Wheaton semester is extremely energy-consuming if you are teaching First Year Seminar (which I am, a class called Rings, Swords and Monsters: Tolkien, Wagner, Beowulf). There are meetings and more meetings and workshops, and then there is the marathon advising session (which one year I had to do on Labor Day Monday) where I have individual meetings with each of the nineteen students in my class. The day is exhausting, not only because the math of 19 students x 20 minutes per meeting = a very long day, but also because the cognitive demands are pretty high. You have to try to get a read on the students' strengths and weaknesses and the plans for the future and then match it up against a potential schedule. Is it a good idea to have all four classes MWF with no classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays? (No, it is not). Should I take basic French even though I had four years of French in high school? (No. You take a placement exam and end up in Intermediate French). Should I really take Chem and Bio in the same semester? (Yes, if you want the option to go Pre-Med). You also have to try to match students with classes and faculty that will fit their learning styles (i.e., student with documented ADD should probably avoid a large lecture course in the first semester; student who wants to be a Theatre major should not fill the entire first year with math and science to "get them out of the way"). You also have to try to encourage students to stretch intellectually, to drop bad prejudices ("I just don't like science" -- how can you be sure? You've only had boring high school science. Try a course with Prof. Morris and see if you even can be bored), and to understand the Wheaton curriculum.

So, as I said, exhausting.

But this year's meetings were different. I don't really know why--maybe because I have a particularly great group of kids, maybe because my daughter has reached an age where my wife and I are thinking and talking a lot about future education, maybe just because I'm reaching a certain age--but whatever the reason, I was acutely aware that trailing behind each student was an enormous amount of parental and family love and pride. I could imagine their parents watching them walk bravely into their first day of kindergarten with that mix of pride and terror that parents feel, that emptiness and fullness as a child steps further into the world. Now, here they were in my office planning their first year at college. Each student was like a chalice filled to the brim with a family's hope and pride, a chalice that had been filled drop by drop with so much labor over so many years and could so easily be spilled out.

Joy and fear. I imagined their parents feeling it, and I felt it myself.

It is very easy for things to go wrong at college. I have had much more than my fair share of student successes, students who discovered how great they were while I was watching. But I've also had disasters; I've seen students dig themselves into very, very deep holes. I've seen them get into all the sorts of trouble that 18-22 year-olds can find. I can imagine their parents back home awake nights thinking about car accidents and date rapes and drug overdoses. I know I will be thinking about those things in the years ahead.

I have responsibility with very little power: I can't control what students do in the dorms, and I'm realistic enough to know (and young enough to remember) that what happens in their classes and with their professors is only a very small part of their lives. It could be a crushing burden, and it is when a student really messes up I can't help that person enough.

And yet, so much joy. My students are smart and articulate. They are, at least right now, in these first few golden days, hungry for new knowledge. They have new freedom and it has gone to their heads. The air sparkles around them with life and promise.

And I get to be a part of that.

I love being a teacher.