Saturday, September 08, 2007

Some Random Notes from the First Week of Classes

The semester is really and truly underway now. Here are some scattered thoughts and impressions:

1. One day, coming back happy from a class, I was thinking about why I like teaching so much. "When I'm in the classroom, I feel like a magician," I found myself thinking. I say some magic words, and if I put them in the right order, and wave my hands a certain way, I can summon certain Energies. It really is quite amazing. But it is a subtle art. A spell cast in one class may not work in another. You have to Discern. You have to gain a good sense of the Energies already present in the room to know how to evoke from them the kind of spirit you wish to evoke. It doesn't always work very well.

So, a teacher really does have a special kind of power. Like all power, it can be used for good or ill. But even at its best, what does it really do? Oddly, this is the one thing the teacher never can fully see, feel, or know.

I work hard to evoke positive energies: energies of surprise, insight, inspiration; energies that help students feel empowered by what they are learning: empowered to strive for excellence, to live their lives well, and to have a positive effect on the world. But I know that I am met sometimes by dubiousness, even cynicism. Sometimes I sense that I do transform the negative energies that meet me. But what effect does that have long-term? That I do not know.

So I live in a special kind of faith in this respect. I keep doing my best, and I live in and enjoy the moment. I have goals and hopes, but I resign myself to the realization that, to a certain extent (and despite "Assessment Plans"), there is no way that I will ever really know the effect that I have. I must just trust. Even when the effect is sometimes negative despite my good intentions, I must trust that too. After all, in the long run I did benefit from processing the negative experiences I had with some of my professors in the past. The value of the positive experiences I had with my professors was immediately visible, but even the few negative experiences I had did have value too, that I often did not realize until much later.

2. Because I teach philosophy of science, I sometimes get in my campus mail science supply catalogs. Usually those catalogs relate to physics. I enjoy looking at them. But this week I got a catalog of various dead animals and embryos students can dissect in laboratory sessions. There were fetal pigs, and a stretched out "skinned cat." There were also various pig organs, and models of every human organ imaginable, including diseased versions. I did not enjoy looking at this catalog. I threw it away, remembering to myself that this is a major part of the reason why I switched from being a student of science to becoming a student of philosophy of science. I am curious about the mysteries of life, but wish to explore these mysteries in a somewhat different way.

3. There are four colleges in the area where I live. I was talking with someone who interacts a lot with faculty from all four of these colleges, and he observed that it is the faculty at my college who work hardest and seem most stressed. Meanwhile, the faculty at my college have revived an AAUP chapter (American Association of University Professors) and met yesterday to organize for an improved faculty salary policy, to help us catch up with our competitor schools. While I like the fact that we are organizing for change, I'm not so concerned about our salaries as I am about figuring out what it is that makes us unusually busy and stressed. I'd rather have the same salary and be less stressed than be as stressed but get paid more. I think for a lot of faculty the salary issue is more symbolic than pragmatic. Working hard, they think that higher salaries signal appropriate respect. I prefer the kind of respect that manifests itself as interest, attention, and kindness.


  1. On good days I do feel a kind of magic in the classroom. The good days make it all worth while. Maybe this is something to talk about at FAHE some time.

  2. Yes, this would be great to talk about at FAHE!