The Impossible Profession

The first week of this semester was strange. On the one hand, my classes went awesome, at least from my perspective. My two Shimer seminars have had engaging discussions where everybody talked at least once, every class (which is harder than you’d think, even in a relatively small group of 10-14), and in my Ethics class, I’ve hit a pretty good balance between lecture and discussion in a larger class of 30. More than that, in all my classes I have thought new thoughts and made new connections because of our discussions. I leave the classroom energized and happy. On the other hand, everything outside of class felt like an absolute disaster. I’ve had to adjust my sleep schedule for an early start — the same schedule I had during the year of intense overwork that low-key ruined my life and let to my self-proclaimed sabbatical — and my classes are back-to-back-to-back with only 15-minute breaks between them. My service role also produced more stress and demands on my time than I anticipated this early in the semester. The result was that I felt like I had no time to breathe, much less think — at least outside the classroom.

I’ve never thought of myself primarily as a teacher. When I’m asked to provide a short bio, I often say I’m a writer, teacher, and translator — and I intend it in that order. Like most academics, I viewed writing and research as The Real Thing, with teaching as the way we paid the bills. And like most academics, once I actually set foot in the classroom, I found it exciting and engaging and even addictive.

In fact, from the perspective of the isolated scholar, devling through the archives to try to find the space for their individual contribution, it can often be a much-needed breath of fresh air. Here, finally, we get instant feedback — far from waiting months for our advisors to respond to our dissertation drafts or the peer reviewers to nitpick our articles, we have a live interaction and can see how our ideas are landing in real time. Perhaps more insidiously, in contrast to our struggle to find our place in the scholarly guild, in the classroom we have a setting where we are always the smartest (or at least most knowledgable) person in the room! Lecture pedagogy tends to exacerbate the effects of this artificial confidence boost, leading to the academic long-windedness with which we are all so familiar.

Doubtless I would have gotten to be the same way if I had taken a more traditional academic path. I often boast that I’m the only man in academia who knows how to shut the fuck up occasionally, but really that’s moral luck. Getting hired at Shimer saved me from the whole smartest person in the room syndrome. With its insistence — which is from some perspectives even a little doctrinaire and limiting — on text-centered discussion as the only pedagogical mode, it forced me to sit back and make room for my students to speak. The center of authority in the classroom was not me, but the course materials. Not only had I not chosen those materials, since we all taught from a shared curriculum, but very often I was not the most knowledgable person in the room. That was especially the case when, as occurred increasingly often, I was teaching outside my areas of expertise. But even when I taught the course on philosophy and theology, I had a student who had obsessively studied the philosophical canon and knew them chapter and verse — that’s the kind of thing that happens in a school that recruits compulsive readers.

Within this paradigm, teaching becomes less about presenting or covering the material than about figuring out how to put students on productive paths through the material. This has often proven easiest when I’m teaching outside my area, because I’m learning along with the students. And I think that, after all these years, it has helped me to reconnect with that early learner’s mindset in my own area — whatever that even is anymore — and show better judgment on what kind of background information will be helpful and empowering and what will be distracting or even stultifying.

And aside from the meta level, I have obviously learned a lot from going through this program. I know much more about music and the visual arts than I ever would have dreamed, and it has enriched my life immeasurably. I have thought more about science and what it really means to think scientificially — and certainly done more lab experiments — than most theology PhD’s out there. My teaching duties even opened up a whole new area of research for me when I was called upon to teach on Islam and the Qur’an. It sounds scattered, but it really is all connected in surprising ways. Even my course on the history of chemistry — which I’m scheduled to repeat next academic year! — paid dividends when it turned out that I had actually read the old-timey chemists Hegel engages in the Science of Logic. I didn’t have to read the footnotes for context, I just immediately recognized them and knew exactly what he was getting at. What a life!

It’s not just all connected in a Beautiful Mind kind of way — I really do keep connecting it back to theology. In the Shimer seminar on astronomy and cosmology, students always wind up writing their papers on theology, because that somehow winds up being a big part of what we talk about. Even in the chemistry course, I love the way that Lucretius uses atomism to argue for atheism (and next time around I plan to include Islamic atomists who go the exact opposite direction, or at least Maimonides’s critique thereof).

But the further I go down this path, the more I feel like I’m making apologetics, trying to recuperate my teaching for The Real Work. Even if it’s true, the attitude is pathological. Where does it come from, this urge to fold everything I learn and enjoy — even Star Trek! — into fodder for My Intellectual Project? Why can’t it be good enough to teach and enjoy it and give students something to think about? I’m sure we could delve into all kinds of amazing insights about how my decision not to have children leaves me anxious about my legacy or whatever. But surely part of it is the ephemerality of teaching. When it’s going on, it feels so substantial and real and powerful, but in the end, what concretely remains are some syllabi, some lecture notes, some grades, some teaching evaluations — fragments of something that can’t finally be grasped. On an intellectual level, the vast range of my teaching is probably the greater achievement than the sum total of my research, but there’s something to be said for a shelf full of books that anyone can take and read.

From another angle, I’ve stated in this post that I know a lot about fine arts, about Islam, about cosmology and even the history of chemistry — and I promise I really do. But you have to take it on faith. Even if I write about it on here, I could just be bullshitting. Official publication indicates that it has at least been vetted in some way by some other verified expert. Of course, part of this strange pedagogical-moral education I’ve been undergoing at Shimer has led me to value official expertise and the proof thereof much less — though if I’m being honest, it also reinforced my tendency toward generalism and my impatience with the demand to “engage the literature.”

I know I will never be in the position to write a book that will be regarded as the definitive scholarly account of anything — and if I tried, even if I somehow “objectively” succceded (whatever that might mean), I don’t have the kind of position that would allow for that kind of recognition. All I can do is offer up my engagement with (mostly) primary sources as part of an ongoing conversation with people who find themselves interested in related materials and questions. It’s all the seminar table, all the way down. I’m always doing The Real Thing! What a relief!

If I’m being honest, though, I really do miss serious writing and wish I had more energy and mental space for it. I’m happy that I have a few talks scheduled this semester to ease my way back into it (without violating the terms of my self-sabbatical). I don’t feel my full self unless I have a project in mind. Hopefully this week will be unrepresentative and I will be able to return to a more sustainable version of my former full self. But if not, maybe a lifetime discussing interesting books with smart people won’t be a total waste.