The wisdom of being a hopeless professor

Sometimes we professors feel as if we are dumping the precious contents of our life force into a gaping void. We do our research, prepare diligently for classes and spend hours hashing out difficult concepts with just one of our many students. A professor’s lament, and it is perhaps as old as the profession itself, is that we are usually left without a very full picture of how our work impacts students or our disciplines over the long haul. Some professors respond by orienting to the future with plucky optimism, adopting faith that their efforts will surely leave tangible results down the line. I prefer, instead, to embrace the insecurity of not-knowing, to teach and write without hope, not nihilistically, but radically rooted in present reality as much and as often as I can manage.

In the U.S., to question the desirability or wisdom of hope is tantamount to outing oneself as un-American. Hope is the great motivator, we are assured, without which we cannot possibly expect to act with vigor and deep purpose. As a ray of light breaks through the clouds, or the comatose patient finally blinks her eyes, hope is held up as the answer for everything from cancer to climate change. That Barack Obama embraced and leveraged the trope of hope so successfully in his campaigns is to the point. A presidential candidate whose very existence challenged a reactionary, racist status quo cloaked himself in the innocuously appealing, downright patriotic trappings of optimism, and it worked. The loathsome MAGA slogan is a reminder, though, that hope can also be rallied to harm and exclude.

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And it is some of the very facets of hope that make it work in slogans — its potentially insipid, numbing, soothing quality — that also make it worrisome. Hope is right up there with thoughts and prayers on the efficacy test, and it is often what one cleaves to during moments of greatest quietism. It is, perhaps, not the worst attitude in the world if one has a loved one (hopelessly) lost at sea, but far less appropriate in situations that invite, or admit of, intervention from us in the here and now. At its most innocuous, then, hope is nothing more than an expression of one’s preferences about the future. But when hope takes on a quasi magical status, as it so often does in conversations influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, it risks becoming a childish distraction from reality, one that, like Santa Claus, is created and maintained to make us feel better as we, perhaps, do nothing to reevaluate or adjust course.

This is not an objection to optimism, then, but, rather, to the pie-eyed version of it that has one teleporting into the future by way of magical thinking, usually leveraging assumptions about the inevitability of moral or intellectual progress. In such cases it strikes me as a quintessentially immature orientation that can lead us to make excuses for present failures or mediocrities. The comforting trope that, as a scholar and teacher, I plant seeds that will eventually come to fruition is one that I have certainly relied on in dark times, but I don’t regard these as my finest, most authentic moments. I am far more proud of the times I have confronted the existential bleakness — “What if nothing I ever do ultimately makes one iota of difference to the planet or to humanity?” — and still found a way to continue my work with enthusiasm.

In my best moments, I find optimism in the present, a sturdy-booted, minimalist version that emerges from facing the reality that is rather than one created by my fears and solipsistic fantasies. And with respect to teaching and researching from the current moment, whatever future outcomes I may wish to manipulate from engagements with students or ideas is secondary. The paradox is, of course, that very often it is only from this commitment to the present, with its lack of emphasis on consequences, that quality future results can emerge. It’s no wonder that such radical presence is difficult to achieve; we are creatures of time, after all, and in some ways the present itself only makes sense to us by reference to past and future.

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Though hope may be useful as a stopgap measure in desperate times, then, it is ultimately a shallow basis on which to build one’s ethical or professional platform. I avoid those Hollywood movies about charismatic, brilliant professors, then, in part, because I find the romanticism of hope they are premised on to cheapen the slogging, consistent labor that actually propels mature teaching and research. The fact that we must choose to make meaning, moment by moment, and do not find it waiting at the end of a rainbow is, for me, the most meaningful aspect of the work that we do.

I no longer imagine, then, that, as a teacher, I toss bottles containing precious messages into the sea that one day, someday, will be plucked from the rocky shoals by receptive hands. Instead, I see myself standing in the desert, pouring all that I have into the arid night, knowing full well that it will almost certainly evaporate before it hits the sand. Because creating meaning in full awareness of my part in this Sisyphean drama strikes me as essential to being a human being, a human professor. If I can manage to do my work in the full knowledge that it will all come to dust, as it surely will, then, by my own reckoning, I will have achieved a greatness worth celebrating.

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