Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Back to School
First day back to class today, a shock to the system. The feeling for me is a strange mixture: of being (finally) at home while also completely uncomfortable. Sliding into the academic world over time has a kind of adolescent simmer to it. With each year, the inclination to identify more with my teaching colleagues than with my students grows more real. It is a denial on my part, I'm sure, of the true unease that comes with real, adventurous education. You know that sensation--of lying in wait, ready to be consumed by the next idea you read, the next text (music in my case) you study, and willing for it to turn you inside out if only it has the gumption to try.

So, why shy away from it now? It's not about age, not strictly, that's for sure. It's not about changes in music; that's too easy. And anyway, I never liked popular music of my own youth either. I think it's mostly about daily routine, a kind of spiral of forgetting that props itself up with the known, a routine that just can't stomach the capriciousness of wonder. So we start to define ourselves as what we know and what we have learned, forgetting the intense requirements of attention and openness; yeah, that's it - openness.

A year ago I found an essay by Rorty that I came back to today, that reminds me of my role, and indicates to me that it's not a relationship with my students that threatens to change, it is one with myself. How easy is it to begin to define ourselves by what we have learned and by our routines? We never used to do that!

Higher (non-vocational) education is about disclosing yourself, not your subject; at least, it's about disclosing that part of yourself that has found its truest expression of freedom and wonder (not knowledge and understanding) while lying in wait at your discipline's doorstep, ready to be turned inside-out. It's about admitting, at least implicitly, that the whole system can, and will, and must, ultimately be undone. College students don't need to be taught certain things and let go. Rorty says, "students need to have freedom enacted before their very eyes by actual human beings. That is why tenure and academic freedom are more than just trade union demands. Teachers setting their own agendas - putting their individual, lovingly prepared specialties on display in the curricular cafeteria, without regard to any larger end, much less any institutional plan - is what non-vocational higher education is all about." (my emphasis)

The best teaching isn't in the effective explanation, or even the probing question, though I'm pretty good at both of those in the classroom. The best education, at the college level anyway, is in building--no, allowing--a relationship of honesty with students, honesty about a truly continuing search for the sublime and a suspicion of convention. Like all self-disclosure, it is not without risk.

Maybe there is a parallel in your life/profession; it feels like a pretty transferable feeling. Even if not, at least you know now, knowing me and my capacity to self-disclose, why I never sleep before or after the first day, when we get the chance and responsibility to start all over again, not unlike a first date. What other profession lets you--demands that you--do that so regularly?

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