Goodbye, 2018. The endings that define a professor’s life

The cyclical rhythm of the academic year is one of the greatest perks of being a professor. Many of us still know the buzz of possibility when summer ends and the campus parking lots begin filling up again. The winter break, too, brief as it is, can be as restorative as a deep, purifying breath. The poignancy of the fall semester’s ending is enhanced for me, no doubt, by the darkening days leading to and from the solstice and into uncharted seas. I suspect that even the most cynical among us can hear the whispered promises each new year brings.

As a unit of time, the semester has great power even though its parameters are arbitrary. Whatever rationale the academic calendar may once have had means nothing to most of us now. And, of course, despite our fealty to semesters, we routinely violate their boundaries by working with students on long-term projects, as well as our own ongoing service commitments and scholarly work. Summer teaching too, especially when done online, disrupts the familiar stop-and-start school year rhythm. Most of us are not, it is clear, rigidly wedded to traditional academic rhythms and could not flourish in our jobs if we were.

And it’s also not true that we are on break in any normal sense. I gently bit the head off the last person who asked me if I had big plans for my winter “vacation.” The truth is, that though last semester’s grades have been submitted, I’m busily retooling my courses for next term, revising a paper to submit early in the new year, and fielding questions and requests from previous and upcoming students. There are all sorts of deadlines and due dates that have no respect for the fact that I am on “break.” But even so, there is this peaceful sense of closure, of a chapter ending in my professional life, that most workers never enjoy.


I suspect that this stop-and-start rhythm may also help account for the effective teacher-student relationships many of us form. I can give my students fifteen weeks of more or less steady energy, and expect them to pony up some in return, partly because our time together is well-bounded and brief. For better and worse, it is often easiest to lend one’s best self to a new acquaintance with whom one is merely taking a short journey than to, say, a life partner. The pressure that the semester’s looming, inevitable ending places on the participants, an ending that is always visible on the horizon, can nourish the productive intensity of the classroom experience.

A school term can perform this framing function, I think, whether it’s a “good” semester, full of energetic and capable students, or a “bad” one in which things never fully click. Surely there’s some broader lesson in impermanence and detachment here? How, I wonder, can we move into each new term, with hands more fully open, embracing the knowledge that, whatever else these upcoming months bring, it will all end? Whether we and our students love and respect one another or are mutually repelled, soon it will be over. Surely, in light of this benevolent, merciless constraint of time, I can offer my full presence and attention, right? And, besides, isn’t the school term just a microcosm of the structure of time that bounds and gives shape to our very lives?


It is no wonder, then, that, for fortunate professors like me, these thrumming beginnings and solemn denouements form the basic architecture of our professional identities. It’s a rhythm that mirrors the habitual relief of falling into bed each night and the hopeful possibility that can nudge one out of bed each morning. This drip-drip-drip of time is almost comforting in its honesty, and the response it invites from me is just as straightforward: I am to accept the weight of yet another snowy Midwestern winter as I clear my desktop and my driveway in these waning days of 2017. As I move forward, my left foot finds the oblique, diffuse light of the future while, for a long moment, my right one remains in the shadowy past.

I wish I were fool enough to believe that this unwritten, upcoming calendar year might magically wash away the grinding horror of our national circumstances, not to mention the stains of a remarkably difficult year for me personally. But though 2018 brought me a heaping portion of death, illness, and disruption, I do not want to rush through its ending. Instead, I choose to bask in this caesura, this animated liminality, like a hibernating frog on a muddy pond bottom. And I dare anyone to repeat the tired accusation that professors are eternal schoolchildren, never having matured enough to enter the “real world.” What could be more real, more elemental and momentous, than letting go and starting over again and again and again?

On the uses and abuses of gratitude

We know we’re supposed to be grateful. It’s a year-round pressure that culminates on Thanksgiving: to count our blessings, look on the positive side, and remember how very fortunate we are. It’s even become a sort of medical prescription, with mental health professionals claiming that gratitude is the key to happiness, long life, and success. I don’t doubt it, but I also recall Karl Marx’s warnings about apparently anodyne feel-good ideologies that function like opium to help keep workers, including professors, cowed and complacent.

Even before the puddle of cranberry sauce dries on my plate, then, I think about how injunctions to be grateful, including those that come from oneself, can become fodder for quietism and bland self-satisfaction. When I consider, for example, the salary hit I will take as the result of huge increases to my insurance, I vacillate between relief — my situation is still much better than that of most people in the U.S. — and anger. How long am I supposed to suck it up and smile as my standard of living is eroded so that fat cats can get even fatter? Am I to compare myself only to those worse off than I am to avoid feeling, and being perceived as, elitist?


This gratitude double-bind is familiar, including to those of us in higher ed. On the one hand, we are aware enough of how tough times are to be grateful for full time faculty jobs. After all, this is an environment in which endangered faculty positions are being hunted down and casually ground into cheap instructor labor. And we mid-career professors watch with horror and sadness as newly minted PhDs continue to roll off the academic assembly line with little prospect of finding jobs half as secure as those we enjoy. We watch as the dignity of our profession is stripped away and, unless we are utterly obtuse, we can’t help but feel gratitude for our own good fortune.

But we are rightfully critical too, and aware of the distance between where public higher education is and where, in a prosperous, enlightened society, it might be. We wince and gnash our teeth at polls reporting that Republicans blame higher ed for the nation’s woes, and we see the writing on the wall. Whatever the future of public higher education holds in store, it is hard to believe it will survive in a form most academics would recognize or prefer.


Gratitude, then, like so many spiritually tinged notions, is double-edged. On the one hand, it is a vitally necessary and beautifully human impulse. Surely there is no one more miserable or pathetic than one who constantly complains, the perennial victim who is unable to access any sense of appreciation or agency. But in the quest to be that optimistic, spiritual person, it can be tempting to settle permanently into the narcotizing arms of gratitude, especially when others are urging us to “lighten up” and “count your blessings.” We desperately need, though, the sort of vigorous social protest that often emerges from visceral, contagious dissatisfaction.

If I am to be grateful, then, let me be fiercely, and not complacently, so. Let my gratitude for my own good fortune galvanize me into fighting for the same benefits for others that I now enjoy. Let me freely express my discontent and desire for a better world, impelled by appreciation for what is beautiful and good in my life, and not to be shamed into silence by fear that I will be seen as just another whining, overindulged academic.

How the ukulele makes me a better teacher

I play the uke almost every day. I’ve been doing this for almost a year now, but probably not for the reasons people think. I do it because I’m not very good at, because, being not very good at it, I get to enjoy the process of becoming less bad at it. I do it because my typically habile fingers turn into sausages on the clear nylon strings and because this hamhandedness transforms me for a few minutes, into a student, a learner, an eager newbie. I do it as a lark — because my cheap plastic uke is sweet and silly and fun — and because being this bad at something others do with such astonishing ease helps make me a better teacher.

Like so many academics, I have spent time in Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset category, one of those learners who operates as if ability were a set part of identity — natural talent — rather than a new friend to be welcomed in and nurtured over time. For such people, Dweck explains, persistence can be especially challenging. We try something, suck at it, and because it doesn’t come easily, assume we lack the gene for it and move on. For us — and there are lots and lots of us in academe — there is little joy in casual amateurism. If your ego is badly bruised by the inevitable false step or off note of the novice, then why pursue new activities for fun? And remaining so safely competent, we can, of course, forget what it’s like to be unskilled, uncertain beginners.

My relationship with the uke symbolizes and exercises my desire to become comfortable with being inexpert. Of course, we’re all accustomed to leaving things in the hands of more and less capable others — the auto mechanic, the dental hygienist, the jumbo jet pilot — as a matter of survival. But the uke represents my chosen foray into playful amateurism, a place where I must rely on skilled teachers to inspire me and and show me the way. And, just as importantly, I recognize and name my own internal resistance, including my ego’s near constant craving for a quick hit of self-esteem, as I reach for my four-stringed friend. Each day the uke invites me to do something I am not good at, and know I may never be good at it, but to put in the effort nonetheless, simply because this is what I have chosen to do.


And perhaps most importantly, I come to remember that becoming an expert is not, and cannot, precisely be the point, not of playing the uke, practicing photography, learning Spanish, or of life. There will always be others better at everything I do than I am, except, of course, as Mr. Rogers taught, of being ME. And it is a tonic reminder to face that, contrary to American fantasies of being NUMBER ONE, a WINNER, and a true CHAMP, the point is not for one to be the best at every activity one deigns to undertake. Nor should it be for our students.

Can I embrace mediocrity and failure without abandoning hard work and ambition to improve? I think I can and I have the uke to thank for the insight. In some sense I now engage in healthy magical thinking. I make the commitment to repetition that learning the uke requires. I pick it up each day as a matter of course, give it a quick tune and then ten or fifteen minutes of this or that lesson. I do not, for the most part, stop to ponder my level of improvement, or fantasize either about how I will or will never be a virtuoso. I just pick the damn thing up and bang away at it, trusting, in the background, that the spirit of repetition will carry me through. My real success, then, is in developing a kind of “grit,” much more than becoming a great musician. It is not, in fact, so different from how I go about cleaning my house, maintaining my bicycles, or writing this blog.

I do get better at it, of course, but my improvement is more a byproduct of the mundane habit than the goal. I am not, then, that person who aspires to be good at the uke but simply one with a daily habit that involves this little guy. And it impacts my teaching. These days I focus much more on encouraging my students to develop unsexy, repetitious practices than on fanning the flames of their incipient and erratic brilliance. Some would say that the point is to see life as a marathon and not a sprint, and that is part of it. But for me life has become not even a marathon but a kind of meandering walk in which it is the rhythm of both the steps and stops — and not whether one runs or crawls or even “finishes” — that count. If there is a finish line, then I do not think much about it. The joy these days is in the journey but in the “failed” parts of the journey just as much as the successful ones.

For the first few years I lived in this house, I watched a a rangy, craggy old gentleman inch his way around my block with a walker each day, sometimes followed by an equally arthritic and grizzled black Lab. Their regularity and tenacity were somehow spellbinding. I came to see, not a failing old man, curved and pathetic in his final years, but a living representation of how to persevere. All our talk of objectives, goals and outcomes is well and good — and for teachers there is tons of such rhetoric — but it would be an insult to describe the value of this man’s walk in such terms. He didn’t get better — he just stopped coming one day — but it is with both admiration and gratitude that I remember him now.

Busy, busy, busy! When a professor’s work is never done….

If you’ve ever used a can of spray insulation, you know how the toxic goo expands to fill every hole and crack. It’s like bread dough rising in a time lapse film, still creeping towards you long after you think you’ve sprayed it in place. As I teetered on a step ladder in the searing heat last weekend, watching the stuff grow like a kitschy movie blob, I knew I’d found the right analogy for this week’s post. I tried not to wipe my sweaty brow with a foul, sticky glove and thought, “This is how work can expand to fill every space if I’m not paying attention.”

It’s understandable, of course, that professors get swallowed up by actual and self-imposed overwork given that we are under the scrutiny of a skeptical public and increasingly out of touch university administrators. With a conspiratorial wink, an uncle informed me decades ago when I got my first professor job that it sounded like a “sweet deal.” And I’ve suffered through countless meetings with administrators who reactively push for higher teaching loads, quite certain that we professors just aren’t doing enough. They clearly do not appreciate the amorphous nature of the job, the pressure we are under to permit it to overlap with, flow over, and otherwise obscure the rest of our lives. To make this more concrete, I made a record of my activities on a typical morning last week — snippets below. The pace of my daily routine is especially striking to me when I keep in mind that, in the eyes of a critical taxpaying public, and, increasingly corporatized career administrators, this is the bon vivant, summer vacation chunk of my calendar.


Many instructors never really leave their work. Their sense of responsibility to students and to the subject area they love, combined with the almost open ended nature of research and the teaching relationship, guarantees that there is always more to be done. Certainly, if lines and limits are to be drawn between our “work” and “life,” this will not come from the time clock, the setting sun, or the factory whistle. By and large, we must draw them ourselves. Being a professor is not unique in this way, of course — many other jobs share these qualities — and this lack of specialness is worth keeping firmly in mind.

That setting priorities and effectively drawing boundaries is hard for most people is clear from the glut of self-help books on this topic. I’ve read and appreciated lots of them, especially those that reveal the deeper questions at play, psychological, and maybe even spiritual ones. When deciding how to spend our time, we must, after all, decide what really and truly matters to us. If it turns out, say, that the very burden of work tasks we complain about actually serves to happily distract us from personal or existential woe, then we must be honest about that. It’s obvious that many privileged individuals who complain of being “busy, busy, busy!” are classic workaholics, with little satisfaction or even sense of identity beyond their career. Some don’t like their personal life much, but find it less wrenching and more socially acceptable to complain about their demanding job than about their husband or exhausting tween children.

Ultimately, then, though professor jobs are not the walk in the park that many imagine, they are also not intrinsically more demanding or diffuse than many other other jobs or activities that routinely swallow up peoples’ lives. Saying no or calling it a day is, for those of us with the luxury of managing much of our own time, as much an exercise in honesty, authenticity and courage as of practical time management. We must learn to tell the truth about why we’d rather send just one more email or grade one more paper, now, tonight. And, as one of my great teachers urges, “to tell the truth about whether or not we’re telling the truth about that.”


Some of us have tried every trendy time management scheme — the hulking Franklin organizer, the Palm Pilot, or the understated iPhone or Moleskine bullet journal — but if I fear what lies behind all the planning (which often becomes an excuse for yet more busyness) — the silence, the uncertainty, the potentially bottomless mysteries of joy and grief — then nothing will ever really change. I’ll busy my life away with this or that VIT (very important task) complaining all the while — the better to establish my importance to others and myself — until a crisis forces me to make different choices. And if, as a relatively independent, privileged, well-employed individual, I focus only on the supposed grappling hooks that others have imposed on my life, I will overlook the agency that I do have.

I am not, of course, focusing here on the many who must work multiple jobs at the whim of others with little claim on their own time. In fact, I write this post partly in honor of adjunct instructors who piece together their livelihoods from scraps discarded by full-time professors, or stolen from professors and reassigned to adjuncts by jaded, penny-pinching administrators. And I write it in honor of the remaining academic collectIve bargaining units that support professors’ struggle to retain some measure of independence and dignity. We must continue to fight against the trends of increasing teaching workloads — for all instructors — even as we resist the temptation to make our jobs a scapegoat for why we never do whatever it is that matters most to us.

Excerpt from a typical summer workday (boring, but requested by a reader!)

I woke at 5:30, fed my dog and cat, and graded the first of four sets of assignments my students do each week (I’m teaching summer school). After 90 minutes of grading, I spent another twenty minutes composing a note summarizing the results of my grading and offering guideposts to my students for what’s coming next. Then I took my dog for a quick walk, showered, and got my books and computer packed up. On the way to the coffee shop where I’d planned to work for a few hours, I stopped to pick up some necessities for later — lemons and chocolate — and then at the hardware store for giant paper lawn bags.

At the coffee shop I ran into a junior colleague who wanted to chat about his upcoming tenure process. After a pleasant half hour with him, I opened my computer and began seeking and skimming articles I’ve collected over the past year for my upcoming LGBT Studies class. As I read, selected and rejected, I tried not to get sidetracked by the mostly fascinating material, but did stop to post one article to a professional social media site I’m responsible for and also emailed it to a colleague at another university. As I sent that email, I noticed an “urgent” message from one of my current students with questions about an assignment that’s due tonight. I responded to her and then returned to culling articles.

About the time the lunch crowd began to arrive, I went to a nearby park to eat outside and enjoy a quick walk while listening to a chapter from an audiobook version of a text I’m teaching in the fall. Next I went to my campus office to finish my morning grading, sort through some student papers from last semester and meet with a graduate student who’s doing an independent study. About 4:00 I raced off to a dental appointment I’d nearly forgotten and then went home to mow the front yard — the back can wait — and put out the trash, recycling, and lawn waste…..

When instructors and students despise one another

Professors and students have lots of reasons to resent one another, many of which have little to do with academics. While students have learned to see themselves as customers and instructors as mere service providers, we instructors are often urged by our institutions to woo and placate students to maintain the flow of tuition dollars. With an anti-intellectualist, and anti public education zeitgeist as our backdrop, it is probably inevitable that many students and instructors have become wary, and even disdainful, of one another. Still, it’s worth examining the complaints so that, at the very least, we might be more intentional and self-aware about how and at whom we grumble. Some complaints are almost certainly legitimate while others are closer to mean and petty.

On the meaner side of town, it’s evident that some instructors gripe about students to establish and solidify our own elite identities, as when a wine connoisseur complains about the mediocre bottle he’s been served. He keeps drinking it, but openly shares that and how it doesn’t meet his elevated standards as he sips. Instructors’ negative remarks about students, then, sometimes function to remind others and ourselves of our own specialness in an environment in which decent university teaching gigs have become an endangered species. It’s a problem compounded by the fact that in many disciplines there’s a glut of available professors so that even solidly mediocre institutions may have their pick of candidates. And, of course, newly minted, pedigreed professors with elite backgrounds can easily end up shell-shocked in classrooms with students whose skills, resources, and ideas about education differ wildly from their own.


But there is, of course, a difference between merely speaking critically or negatively about someone and disparaging them. I remember complaining years ago that I’d had to focus my teaching so much on rudimentary academic, and even quasi-social, skills. “I’m more social worker than professor,” I griped. I said it bitterly back then, but came to express it more sanguinely — or perhaps just more numbly — as underprepared students continued to pour in each year. I was complaining, to be sure, but primarily about the lack of institutional investment to help these students, and their instructors, properly succeed. Given the challenges, I’m often impressed that professors and students at public universities work together as harmoniously and respectfully as we generally do.

And it’s probably only when we overlook or forget the systemic and institutional challenges that we’re tempted to actually disparage students, that is, to disrespect them. Sweeping, snarky diagnoses of the “problem with millennials” are like this, and I confess that I have indulged in such simplistic and insulting speculations. Here, the older instructor, probably a Gen Xer or Boomer, crankily blames every student misstep on vaguely general character flaws: “The thing about these students is….” Whether students are ridiculed for their helicopter parents, purportedly bottomless thirst for affirmation, or freakishly short attention spans, this qualifies as denigration. Its only appeal is that whatever failure and misery I suffer as an instructor need not result in self-scrutiny and pedagogical adjustment — or social and institutional reformation — but can be blamed on my supposedly lazy, immature, unserious students.


To be sure, our political and educational institutions have done much to fan the flames of student/professor resentment. When, for example, universities nickel and dime students with increasingly complex, ever-rising fees, how are students and their families to avoid relating to professors within a crassly consumerist model? When I’m charged extra for guacamole at a restaurant, and then also for sour cream, I become more vigilant; it had better be worth it. And when instructors are pressured to assign passing grades to failing student/customers to keep the cash flowing, it can feel as if we are being pitted directly against the student. A battle of wills can erupt about grades — which students often think they have purchased — that subverts and bypasses genuine learning.

My aim these days is to be mindful of the difference between expressing legitimate complaints, and letting elitist nostalgia fuel disrespectful grumbling. I also continue to speak up about the need for adequate student support, especially in the areas of basic literacy and numeracy. If our universities are going to accept tuition dollars from underprepared students, then they are obligated to do more to help them and us succeed. We instructors shouldn’t have to be told, though, that rejecting contemporary reality as such is a losing game, and my reality includes underprepared students. And it’s hardly fair to blame them for a landscape they’ve only just inherited. At any rate, if I choose to routinely wax disparagingly about my students then I ought not to pretend it is more high minded than it is. The line between defending high standards and scapegoating is not, I think, an especially fine one in this case.

Alternative facts, fake news, and the anguish of the “objective” teacher

Lists now circulate that ostensibly tag the most ideological, agenda-driven professors among us, those who are “too politically correct,” or “too liberal.” But even before we entered this newest chapter of politically-driven teacher intimidation, thoughtful instructors have felt compelled to police themselves in service to some vague ideal of objectivity. Some of the pedagogical questions are pretty obvious, say, how to fairly grade essay exams, while others connect to the most basic course content, including the readings we choose (and avoid), and the terms we use to frame lectures and discussions. At every turn we are invited and compelled to consider questions about objectivity.

Like lots of liberal arts teachers, when students ask if I want them to do objective research or “just” express their opinion, I help them analyze what’s implied and assumed in such a falsely dichotomous question. We can, then, usually quickly agree that common thought is unhelpfully dualistic, since there is, in reality, often a continuum of more and less reasonable positions one might take, rather than either/or fact or opinion. And perhaps most importantly in our era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” — what we used to simply call lies and propaganda — we can see how having the mere shape of objectivity — as, say, pro/con style debates do — may do little to preserve genuine objectivity, and may even subvert it.


The simplistic courtroom-like scenario in which alternative sides are “presented,” and from which students are supposed to “choose,” has done great damage to both journalism and education. The dramatic fallout of this cartoonish model emerged recently as reporters and editors were rightly criticized for engaging in “false equivalency,” that is, for giving “equal time” even to views and voices that were unserious and patently false. Pouring from the mouth of this clownish caricature of objectivity, ridiculous positions and falsehoods take on a patina of substance and legitimacy that they have not earned. We see it, for example, when public school science teachers are forced to present biblical “creation science” neutrally, right alongside Darwinian evolution by natural selection. An ad hoc, pseudoscientific myth is considered in the same breath as a well vetted, empirically supported, powerful explanatory framework. Ironically, the quest for, or pretense of, objectivity is precisely what may undermine genuine objectivity.

University instructors, who, in this climate of rabid, ultra-conservative anti-intellectualism, are increasingly afraid of losing their jobs, are in a tight spot. We are all reminded of why tenure matters as instructors agonize over how to frame a “controversial” issue — maybe better to avoid it altogether? — even when they know that the designation of “controversial” is itself a political intrusion into their pedagogy. And, of course, the resulting present-all-views approach is a disservice to students and an insult to professorial expertise. Issues, theories, arguments, facts and phenomena about which professors are legitimate authorities are reduced to interchangeable consumer goods from which the student is supposed to be encouraged to “choose.” While there often is, of course, room for reasonable disagreement about interpretations and implications, and while it is ennobling to help students develop such tolerance, facilitating shallow debate among falsely equivalent options encourages intellectual and ethical laziness. And, worse, it suggests that practicing intellectual tolerance and civil discourse is much easier and less consequential than it actually is, that it is more or less like picking out a new sweater at the mall.


Though the notion of objectivity being used to beat instructors (and journalists) into line by the radical right is simplistic, falsely dichotomous and dangerous, some instructors actually take pride in their pursuit of it. They congratulate themselves in their quest for a supposedly scientific disinterest, boasting of how they hide their passion for social justice so that they don’t “influence” students. But what are the consequences of this recklessly misguided relativism? Students may learn that even values that are foundational to the notion of an authentic university as such — tolerance, equality, democracy and respect — are just side dishes on a buffet that also includes white supremacy, fascism, and censorship, not to mention “alternative facts” of all sorts.

Genuine objectivity is much messier and diffuse than we typically acknowledge, emerging only in broader context, against historical and social backdrops that include more and less powerful voices. Across their educational careers, fortunate students will have heard from passionate professors representing a broad range of reasonable disagreement, with some more apparently “ideological” than others. This is not a problem. My lone teacher’s voice is merely one of many in the cacophony of perspectives competing for their attention, a din that includes the shriek of the “alternative” media. When universities succeed, students emerge from the whole experience having mastered the language of facts and reasons, and with a developed sense of accountability to reality. They will be more appreciative of the empathy and open-mindedness required to grapple with multiple perspectives, but not because I’ve presented them with an intellectual tasting platter.

So, while it is an obvious disservice to reactively “penalize students for their opinions,” it is also a travesty to cultivate or politely tolerate the expression of views that are unmoored from reason and reality. And it only deepens the insult to the student’s intelligence and to the teacher’s mission when educators deliver such shallow fare in the name of objectivity and tolerance, as the radical right has defined it. Sure, we may feel more secure about our jobs as we neutrally fan out an array of options before our students — again, tenure matters — but our vocational integrity may well be the price we pay. We are, then, not merely consenting to a worldview in which up means down and war means peace, we are also actively recreating a perverse, anti-democratic social order.

Enduring the assault of shallow student discussions

At some point in the endless process of revising my online discussion guidelines, I’ve had to concede that I am particularly fetishy about this activity. I once thought that my reverence/obsessiveness was merely pedagogical, but it turns out that I’m a little weird all around when it comes to discussion. This quality might be endearingly quirky if it didn’t frequently make both me and some of my general education students miserable.

I typically blame my nuttiness about discussion on my PhD in philosophy, since the sprawling edifice of Western philosophy is largely built upon dialogue. And it’s true enough. Thanks to Socrates, passionate human exchange has long animated philosophy, transforming a mere collection of dusty notions into a pulsing organism. For philosophers, then, discussion is not a merely casual vehicle for bandying about thoughts or sharing feelings, but a fulcrum for authentic intellectual growth and movement. It is regarded as the very basis of the meaningful, examined life.

And, for better and worse, it is this ethos that has informed how I facilitate and assess student discussions. It has always felt urgent to me that they approximate a dialogue that at least dimly reflects the dignity of passionate, rational human creatures engaged in genuine meaning-making. In other words, the stakes of some of my discussions tend to be a little high. And while some undergrad students thrive in this milieu — seasoned online students routinely single out my discussion forums for praise — others peel away, intimidated or, perhaps, simply flummoxed. And, increasingly, I acknowledge that it isn’t just that they don’t feel confident enough in their content knowledge, but that they don’t feel capable or willing to have a focused, attentive, genuinely dialectic interchange as such.


Because I’ve had the good fortune of working with a talented online course designer and some helpful departmental colleagues — thanks especially to Amber and Katrina — I’ve had company in my wrestling match with the discussion component. Although I’ve felt impatient with students at times, I’ve also remained curious about my own frustration. This has motivated me to experiment with discussion strategies that might better reflect the fact that some students have no aptitude for, experience with, or interest in what I think of and treasure as genuine discussion. Typically, I still explicitly teach basic discussion skills and values, but in some units of my general education classes, I abandon the discussion ship altogether and offer a less fraught, more affable exercise.

This may sound like nothing more than a condescending, cranky reflex on my part, as if I’m merely gathering up my precious pearls from the muddy pig sty and going home. And, yes, I have, in some circumstances, sort of given up. But I see this partly as a reasonable compromise born of my own self-reflective maturity: I’ve finally begun to truly accept that my mania to intellectually connect deeply and reciprocally with others reflects a particular aptitude that most people, including most general education students, don’t have. While I can model this way of engaging and offer the opportunity to dabble — some will fall in love with it! — it is foolish to expect that most will come around to it with any real enthusiasm or commitment.


When I need to reinforce this lesson in humility, I eavesdrop: at coffee shops, in classroom hallways, waiting rooms, parties, anyplace really. Then I am reminded that people generally thrive on lighthearted ping pong exchanges, with no apparent craving for line drives to deep center field. Fortunately, I am socially evolved enough to appreciate that discussion, even pedagogically significant discussion, serves lots of meaningful functions and need not always revolve around DEEP QUESTIONS. I am, then, learning to let go of my very focused notion of discussion and create a greater variety of intellectually stimulating discussion-like experiences with which more undergraduate students can gain traction. And, happily, I can now do this with less self-flagellation and resentment toward them.

I remember the first time someone told me that my sense of humor was “very particular.” Until then it had not really occurred to me that there was anything remarkable about my expressive or cognitive style. The comment jarred me into recognizing my own basic oddness — there is a reason I was attracted to philosophy in the first place! So, though I still aim to encourage and train students in/through discussion, I do well to remember that my own penchant for it runs inexplicably deep. In fact, I was attracted to philosophy and higher education largely because I was already so hungry for deep discussion. In this academic world, with its broad smattering of students, faculty and staff — a motley mish-mash of motives, resources and inclinations — it is the fire-eyed gadflies who are the outliers. If we wish to teach well, then this is the distance we must reach across, and we must do so with grace, respect, and reasonably good humor.