Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ignoring (or Changing?) the Sabbath

Until today, I have continued to honor the sabbath. It helped that the last two weeks I was traveling on Sundays. Yet, those were not exactly restful and restorative days. They were reflective days, however. Traveling always makes me re-consider my life from a wide perspective.

This past Thursday turned out to be more of a real sabbath for me. We had a brief mid-semester break starting on Thursday (and ending today). I resolved to catch up on grading, but instead began writing my Quakerism and science piece. Since I allow writing on my sabbath (because it is good for my soul and makes me happy), it was Thursday that felt more like a sabbath for me than today.

Today, I have felt under pressure to catch up with the grading (which I have been working on on Friday and Saturday, but didn't finish). My students, coming back from break, will really hope to have some comprehensive assessment of how they are doing now that we are officially halfway through the semester. And grading definitely blows the sabbath. It is gruelling hard work, and it raises my anxiety levels considerably.

I find grading very very difficult for a number of reasons.

First, however, I should put it in a positive context: I do like seeing how students work with the material. I like giving them feedback. It's a chance to engage in one-on-one dialogue with them. It's a very important part of their learning process.

Regarding the giving of grades, while this may seem difficult in philosophy, I actually don't have too much trouble assigning grades. There are actually some pretty clear measures: Does the student have a good understanding of the philosphical ideas he or she is discussing? Does the student have a well-formulated philosophical response? Are there inconsistencies in the student's reasoning? Etc.

So what is hard for me, then?

One thing that is very hard for me is dealing with the students' psychological responses to their grades and my feedback. I have developed good pep talks that do help them to interpret my responses in ways that help them to learn and grow, but even so, I know that it can be hard on them to face up to how exacting philosophy really is. I'm a nice person, in person, and I think it is a bit of a shock for the students to see how high my standards are when I grade. Even though they respect me for it, I keep worrying that they'll give up on themselves too easily.

So much in our culture encourages young people to make premature judgments about what they should do based on whether others think they are good at it or not. If their grades in a particular subject are not as high as they would like, they too quickly assume that they are not good at that subject and shy away from it. They say things about themselves like, "I'm not a math person," or "I'm not good at writing," as if these are permanent statements about who they are, instead of being simply skills that require hard work to master.

No matter how eloquently I may try to counter these assumptions in my classes, mine is just one small voice in a culture that overwhelmingly keeps emphasizing the opposite. The students' disappointment in their grades burns more brightly in their minds than any consoling or encouraging words I can offer, which seem hollow and insincere in comparison. "If you really meant it, you'd give me a higher grade for 'effort' or 'potential,'" I imagine them thinking as I see their formerly open and trusting faces now turn guarded.

And my words are further rendered powerless by the exaggerated power we have given grades in our culture. Grades are not just private communication between teachers and students. They are a quasi-public testimony to what the world interprets as students' ability (not just peformance, but ability). Grades count in ways that really matter. They can open or close very important doors to opportunity: from continuing to receive financial aid to athletic participation to study-abroad to graduate and professional studies beyond college.

Professors are caught in an endlessly difficult dilemma about grading: we are under pressure on the one hand to resist "grade inflation" and set high standards and pretend that grades are just an educational tool. On the other hand, we realize that grades are interpreted in ways we do not intend if we do regard them just as educational, and we get contrasting pressure from students and their parents to be more generous and forgiving in our grading.

What's also hard for me in grading is that when I read student papers, I see how little that I am trying to teach is really getting through to the students. I realize that it is because learning is a developmental process. They need time to grapple on their own with ideas before they are capable of understanding those ideas in deeper and more nuanced ways. But I am haunted by that expression, "A little learning is a dangerous thing," because I cannot shake the sense that the "little learning" most students obtain about philosophy after one semester is highly dangerous indeed. Most simply become convinced relativists. While relativism may be better than an unreflective dogmatism, it's still highly problematic! I understand why Plato thought that people shouldn't begin philosophical study until they are 30!

But I try to console myself: I survived my own relativistic phase, and came through to a different place...but only after years of additional philosophical study. That's not the path most students take. Still, should I not just let go and trust? We who teach are mostly planting seeds. If we do our best in the moment, can't we trust that things will unfold as they should in the long run?

Then, today, as I was working away on the grading, a surprise e-mail came in. Someone saw a reference to my dissertation and has taken an interest in my work. He sees how much I have "in progress" but have not yet published, and says, "I hope you will be able to make good on your plans to publish some of the projects mentioned in your current CV." I am touched and moved. I look again at the student paper I am grading, sigh, close it, and realize that I need my sabbath.

What is it that the world needs most from me? My feedback on students' papers, or my research and writing?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Blogger Beta

I've switched to Blogger Beta. The changes my readers notice will probably be subtle.

One change is that there are tags or labels at the end of each posting. I had already thought up a way to organize by topic, by using Del.icio.us to bookmark each posting and then importing its list of tags to my sidebar, under "Postings by Topic" (clever, eh?). I have not yet coordinated all of those tags with the Blogger Beta labels, but I've gotten a good start.

Does having labels at the end of each posting now make my "Postings by Topic" sidebar redundant? They do function a little differently: clicking on the topic sidebar takes you to a Del.icio.us listing of links to all related postings; clicking on a label at the end of the posting shows you a page that contains the full text of all of the postings that fall under that label. For now, I think I'll keep both, because the sidebar shows all tags or labels in use at once. I'll at least keep both in use until I've fully caught up on labeling all of the posts within Blogger Beta.

Another change is that I now have a Gmail account associated with my blogging, making it possible for people to e-mail me. (Previously, the only way to communicate with me was to leave a comment.) You can e-mail me by viewing my profile and clicking on the "e-mail" link.

The third change is unfortunate: a problem indicated in the release notes that still has not been resolved, I believe: that people who have Blogger accounts (rather than Blogger Beta) who leave comments cannot delete their own comments. Not many of my commentators have tried to delete their comments (I can tell...), so this may not be too much of a problem. But if you do find yourself in this predicament (maybe you are a perfectionist and want to re-post a comment to correct a spelling error!), it may be the case that I still can delete the comment for you. So just e-mail me (see above) should you ever want to delete a comment you've made but find yourself unable to do so.

If you notice other changes, good or bad, please let me know!

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, certain things function much more smoothly and straightforwardly now, and so I myself am pleased with the change.

By the way, can you tell that I must be on mid-semester break? Otherwise, I never would have had time for this sort of thing right now. In fact, I don't really have time even now! But I must confess that, for me, this counts as a fun relaxing break from the usual routine. Sad, isn't it? :-)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Quakerism and Science

I submitted a proposal to give a talk at my college about some of the research I did on sabbatical, and my proposal was accepted. What this means is that I will be giving a talk that will have a lot to do with Quakerism at my non-Quaker college! This is very exciting.

Back when I was in graduate school, studying philosophy of science, my dissertation advisors knew that I was Quaker and that I took religion seriously. They were a bit dubious about this, but since I was low-key about it all (as Quakers are often wont to be) and it didn't seem to be infecting my work in any problematic ways, they didn't seem all that troubled by it.

The philosophers of science and the historians of science at my university had a weekly "History and Philosophy of Science" colloquium that we (faculty and graduate students) attended. One day, the speaker was Geoffrey Cantor, from the University of Leeds, to give a lecture on Quakers in the Royal Society and why Quakers were sympathetic to science.

As the faculty and graduate students gathered, two of the faculty members on my dissertation committee gathered around me and then even sat on either side of me, excited at this opportunity to gain new insight into this graduate student of theirs who was Quaker and interested in philosophy of science.

Predictably, I was feeling pretty uncomfortable, but also intrigued. Would this speaker, who was not himself Quaker, do a nice job?

He did a superb job. All of those historians of science and philosophers of science were actually quite impressed with Quakerism by the end.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief as my dissertation advisors turned to me at the end and said, "well, that explains a lot!" They seemed relieved themselves to have learned that Quakerism is non-credal and experiential, and that Quakers always incorporated and often even emphasized science education in the schools and colleges they set up.

When I was in England in March, I had a chance to meet Geoffrey Cantor, and to thank him for how helpful his talk was back then when I was a graduate student. We had a nice long conversation about Quakers and their understanding of science and knowledge more generally.

So now I get to follow in his footsteps and present a talk at my current college about Quakerism and science. Will it be as well-received as his was? We shall see.

In the meantime, as I prepare, I plan to post some of my thinking here so that other Friends can correct me if I get some of the history wrong. So, stay tuned...!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Report from Recent Travels

My second trip went pretty well, I think. Both of my recent weekend trips were Quaker-related, and closely tied in to the leading I've been processing in the past few months. Both of these trips have required travel all day Friday, intense meetings on Saturday and part of Sunday, and long travel back to my busy life here. So I haven't had a real restorative kind of break in a long time. Yet, having these trips behind me is itself kind of restorative. I learned important things. I need time to process what I've learned and factor it into my continued discernment of this leading.

One of the general issues that emerges for me from these meetings is related to issues for me back at home as well: everyone is so busy. Part of what I've been trying to do in many dimensions of my life is to see if Concerned Academics and Concerned Quakers (two distinct groups but with some overlap) can work effectively together in mutually supportive and mutually inspiring ways to really try to address the world's problems. I am surrounded by friends and Friends who keep saying they want to do something, but when it comes right down to it, no one really has time to follow through with anything concrete.

So, how does everyone spend their time? Is their work already constructive and important? Are their days already spent in the work that quietly knits our broken world back together? To some extent, yes. I really want to trust the Concerned people I know to be doing their best. I want to trust that their normal lives are already doing much good in the world. It seems to be the case.

And yet, and yet ... they are stressed; they feel overworked and exhausted; they feel ineffective; they feel restless with the thought that they should be doing something that more directly addresses whatever it is about the world's problems that most distresses them. They long for community, support, and inspiration themselves.

I appear in their midst and try to facilitate the kinds of discussions that can help people connect and inspire, and give people hope. But despite my best efforts, the gravity of the problems depresses everyone and they start quibbling with each other, and vying with me, because I'm discussion facilitator. I become a kind of lightning rod for projection. Anxieties get draped over me and then vied with. I try to stay strong. I sort of succeed. Something shifts. A not unhealthy resignation settles. Everyone seems humbled. A sense of new and deeper faith starts to crystallize.

On my long journeys home, I cry, feeling spent. It has been hard work. Spiritual struggling. I sense that something important is happening. I think that this is a real leading, because it won't let me go, even though I keep trying to let it go.

I cannot tell what exactly is happening, or where it will go. I cannot tell if other people have been as profoundly affected as I have been, or if this is just part of my own story: a story of how a shaking soul finds strength.

I feel kind of good about all that has happened, but troubled too. It is not a troubledness of doubting that I have been as faithful as I am capable of being -- I think it is the troubledness of realizing that intending to make a positive difference in a broken world is a very serious matter, full of risk and danger. But I don't feel afraid. I feel grimly aware. I feel open-eyed.

I feel held in a prayer that is not of my making.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My Whirlwind Life

Lots has been happening.

I went away last weekend on one trip (Friday through Sunday). I go away this weekend on another trip (Friday through Sunday again). Both trips are important events. I think I've been handling my new challenges well, but just barely. Meanwhile, I'm holding my life back at home together, but also just barely. Fortunately, my students this semester are really terrific, and so teaching my classes always recharges my positive energy.

What does it take to try to make a positive difference in the world? It takes a lot of strength, because the world fiercely resists change, even positive change.

Where does one find strength? Through discernment and lots of prayer. Good friends help enormously.

I'll write more specifically about all of this soon. Right now, I'm spent. But I know that teaching about Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics tomorrow will renew me! It always does.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Another Sabbath Report

Yesterday I woke up all in a panic about all that I had to do. I had been out of sorts for several days and hadn’t been working very efficiently on things, and now it was all catching up to me. Grimly I took heart from what several people had said in comments to my recent postings and said, “ok, I’m not going to let this ritual of Sabbath dominate me – I have to work today!”

I leaped out of bed and did some of the not-really-work-as-such household chores that I allow myself to do, and by then had … well, I’d like to say “had come to my senses,” but it’s not a noble story I have to tell. By then the energy briefly inspired by anxiety had degenerated back to a kind of depressive apathy.

But I realized I was seriously in a bad way and needed somehow to face what was really going on. Was it just that after all the excitement of doing the fun things one does to start off the school year (planning courses and such), now I was facing all the scary tasks all at once? Or was there something else going on?

So I took all of this with me to Meeting. And slowly then and afterwards, new realizations began to crystallize.

At the end of the summer and the beginning of the school year, I had carefully set up several projects that I thought represented what I felt called to do, and I took my first steps with these cheerfully enough. But what is getting hard is that I am entering a phase where the success of these projects depends upon my ability to mobilize and inspire others to help out. I don’t have a lot of experience with this. In Meeting, memories floated forth of times when I was totally ineffective at this (i.e., most times I’ve tried!) Everyone is so busy and overwhelmed with their own lives that it is really hard to persuade people to do much of anything beyond their usual routines.

So, have I bitten off more than I can chew? Am I scared because this is new? Or am I resistant because this really isn’t my calling—I should be dedicating my time and effort to my book projects?! That was what I had to discern!

I wanted all the more to run away rather than face that question.

Then I noticed that God was sitting right beside me.

So, I wondered, “what does God think? What a hopeless mess I am! Probably God is all sad about how much I’ve caged myself in with fears again and how much I’m tying myself into a tight knot and pulling far away.”

I glanced over. God didn’t seem sad. Instead, there was a look of calm patience. Not unhappy with me at all.

But how can God not be unhappy with me! What a state I’m in! I glanced over again.

No. No trace of unhappiness.

So I wondered: how can God be so confident when I’m not?! What does God know that I don’t know? Maybe God realizes that something spectacular is going to happen to help me on my way!

Um, no, that didn’t seem right.

What then?

Maybe the course of my days and the coming events (and deadlines) that I dread will themselves lift me back out of my angst and carry me into a better state of being, and God knows that, even if I can’t believe it at the moment.

So, I began to think of a coming important meeting, and realized that I just needed to use that opportunity to ask my friends for help. I need to tell them, “Look, I’m not sure that I can do this on my own. I have something of a vision, but it’s not all up to me! I need for others to help out!” They probably will respond well to that! Can’t I trust them? They are my friends, and they care too about the success of what we are trying to do.

I spent the rest of the day continuing to gently encourage myself to keep facing my fears and working through them. I haven’t yet reached clarity about whether I’ve taken on something I shouldn’t have taken on, but I did become resigned (in a good way) to continuing to try my best since I have said I’d do this.

And so this morning I got up and set straight to work on a number of scary things, and made real progress, and had class, and did more scary things, and am just astounded.

So I am re-committed to the value of honoring the Sabbath. If I had just worked yesterday, I would have worked from anxiety instead of from the more positive hopefulness I experienced today.

It was not through my own virtue that I kept to my resolve, though. I have to admit that.

It was grace.