Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cautiously Optimistic

Both of my classes are going extremely well -- it's kind of amazing. I've never had a semester start off so spectacularly well, I don't think. All of my students are highly engaged. At times the classes seem like a "gathered" Meeting. With my lighter-than-usual teaching load, I'm having time to fully enjoy this. And the ideas we are studying are feeding my own research; plus I'm finding them valuable in my own personal life!

This is so nice and so amazing. At last I feel something shifting both in my own soul and in the world around me. For a long time, it was feeling like the world was closing in around me and I was losing strength to maintain my sense of identity and integrity amidst the great and conflicting forces pressing me from all directions. More and more, all I could do was hunker down and endure it all as best as I could. (This has been over the span of the last year-and-a-half or so).

Strangely enough, I was starting to get used to this, and starting to think this was just how life was. I was forgetting that life could be any other way.

But I was also starting to worry, because I could feel my strength beginning to give out.

I don't know how to account for the change I am now perceiving.

What astonishes me most of all is that I perceive this change simultaneously within myself and in the world around me. And I truly cannot say that my inner change has sparked outer change. The outer changes have their own independent sources. Nor did the outer changes inspire the inner change, because the inner change started happening first.

And yet these changes happening so close together feels like more than coincidence. I feel that I really have been tested, pressed to experience the very limits of what I could endure, until I came face to face with the reality of the possibility that my story might not have a happy ending. I found myself in my counselor's office one day saying with intensity, "parts of one's soul really can die -- tragedy really is possible," and he didn't deny this. All he did was share a scene from a movie that was about grim endurance, and he pointed out that in this movie (based on a true story), what made the difference between survival and giving up came down to the person's setting the tiniest of goals from moment to moment and stubbornly staying focused on those goals.

Amazingly enough, this response from my counselor was helpful. Had he said, "now, now, things will get better!" I would not have believed him and my trust in him would have been shaken. Had he said, "put this in perspective; you don't have it so bad!" that would not have helped at all, because it wouldn't have taken into account the reality of my spiritual exhaustion. Instead, he gave me permission to hunker down and fixate with grim stubbornness on tiny goals, not knowing if this would work, but accepting that that was the only thing I could do.

So I did that for a while.

And then, all of a sudden, new clarity and strength started crystallizing in my soul; and now the world around me eases up unexpectedly in several different ways all at once.

It is like the astonishment of spring thaw.

How is it that all of that stuff that has been cold and hard and colorless suddenly gives way to warm flowing liquid and bursting green growth? The whole world changes. Your stiff, guarded winter self is now out of place in this springy, laughing landscape. You can hardly believe it.

At first you are cautious, and you are right to be cautious, because there will still be a few more storms and snow and ice before the springtime really settles in.

This is where I am now: cautious, but open to the possibility that maybe what I've long been struggling with really can get better in my life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What Have I Done?!

My new semester is off to a good start, I am happy to say. Once again, I find it amazingly fun to meet my new classes. The cheerful energy of my students is very inspiring.

But I am realizing that I have set myself up for something very difficult. I have decided to try developing a full course on Religion and Science. I set it up as an upper-level course, to signal to students that it won't be easy, but I listed no prerequisites, because I really wanted to bring in anyone who was interested. And sure enough, I have science majors, religion majors, and philosophy majors -- coming into the course from a wide variety of perspectives.

And I find them ready to do battle. One of my students said, "I signed up for this course because I wanted a chance to talk about what everyone is afraid to talk about." Two of the students described themselves as atheists. One student (whom I knew from a previous class) has been wanting me to read Sam Harris, and so I did do so over break.

Today I found out that a colleague is bringing to campus someone (not Sam Harris) who has recently written a book blaming religion for all of the world's problems. My colleague wants to have a faculty reading group, and was sure I would want to join. Given that I am teaching this Religion and Science class, of course I will have to announce this lecture to my class -- maybe even bring this speaker in to visit my class. And I can tell already that the students will be very impressed with him. And they might not pick up that he does not really know what he is talking about. When I look at his book, and several others that recently have come out proclaiming the evils of religion, what I think is that they may make pretty good arguments against idolatry, but they don't get religion at all!

The other impression I get is that these men (all of the books in this vein that I have read are written by men) are absolutely outraged that there is suffering. In the end, their real objection to belief in God is that they wanted God to have made a world free of suffering. Finding that the world is full of suffering, they scream their outrage to a God they claim that they do not believe in. "You made the world all wrong. Therefore, You do not exist."

I decided not to require the students read any of these books in the course. After looking at a lot of books on religion and science, I came back to Ian Barbour as still my favorite author on this topic, because he works well with the science, and the religion, and the underlying historical and philosophical issues. He has his own point of view, which he is clear and open about, but his books present a balanced survey of many different ways of examining the subject, and then I, in turn, give students the freedom to choose which framework makes the most sense to them. My agenda is only that I want the students to examine all of this in some depth and detail before making up their minds.

This is going to be a very interesting semester...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

Winter Break

My disciplined life has fallen apart over break this year, but maybe this has provided a kind of rest I have really needed? I'm not sure yet. My main goal for break was to get back in touch with my research and writing again, and I have accomplished this (see below), and so I am happy about that.

Our weather has continued to be strange. We usually have a bit of a January thaw, but this year we had a much longer-and-warmer-than-usual January thaw. In fact, all of our snow melted (except the Piles and Ridges). But yesterday we got a couple of new fresh inches, and everything looks all pretty again. I'm glad. For some reason, I didn't want the students to come back to the strange unsnowy landscape.

If we go back to our usual pattern of having some fresh snow of about 4 inches at a time, I will be happy. I was somewhat disappointed that the two feet we had on the ground melted, but it had reached a point where it was hard to know where to go with the snow when shoveling (with the ridges 4-6 feet high!), so now we do have room again.

New Semester

Our new semester starts next week. I will be taking my Chair's course release this semester, which means I will be teaching two (instead of three) courses. One is a new course, but one I am very excited about: a whole course on Science and Religion! The other is a course I have not taught in a long time: Ethical Theory. While it almost feels like two new preps, it is a good time for me to teach both of these courses. Going through this material myself will be good for me in relation to my research.

As I plan these courses, I remind myself that I do have the freedom to simplify the structure of my teaching. I decided that I'm going to be unapologetic about lightening up a bit on the amount of work I require from my students (and thus also require myself to grade). What is truly best for my students? After all, our students get highly stressed and feel too busy during the semester too. More is not necessarily better. Too much pressure can diminish their enthusiasm. What is the ideal balance for them, that optimizes the educational value for them? It is hard to know for sure. What I have done in the recent past has felt pretty close to the right balance, but a little much, for them and for me, I think. Scaling back a little might be just the right thing to do.

My Research

At the end of this week, I am attending a workshop on Book Publishing for Academic Authors. In preparation for this workshop, we had to prepare and send materials in advance. What we were required to send is close to an actual book proposal. It was really good for me to have to work on this.

First I spent a whole day poking feebly at it. Everything in my soul that could resist did resist, simultaneously: dullness of mind; lack of confidence; existential angst; more lack of confidence; "who am I trying to kid"; despair. I would look at notes and passages I had written towards this project in the past, and I found it all painful. It was hard to regain the sense of remembering exactly where I had been going with this. Or, I would get a flash of amazement and enthusiasm, but couldn't bear that either. "Yeah, I'll get all excited about this again," I found myself saying to myself, "and then my busy life will push it back out, and I'll feel a sense of loss again, and thus I'll resign myself again to a diminished view of myself, without even really noticing, except that I'll notice a vague but growing sense of depression..."

But I tried to stop such trains of negative thinking and pushed on. "Still, I do have to get this quasi-proposal done! There's a waiting list for this workshop. I was lucky to get accepted. I must not squander this opportunity." So I pressed on, jotting some thoughts and notes towards a revised outline. But, still, it was an agonizing and exhausting day.

The next day I woke up clear and happy, set immediately to work, and suddenly it all came back with crystal clarity: my vision for this project, and who I really am.

It was kind of amazing.

So I did get my materials in on time, and I am quite happy about it all. I then turned to my calendar and scheduled in time for research and writing during the semester -- about two hours per day (with times when I could extend it if I wish to do so). I had tried this last semester, but it sadly fell apart. But this semester I do have a lighter teaching load, and so I am hopeful that I will be successful.

Related, I will be presenting some of my ideas at the Friends Association for Higher Education conference to be held at Woodbrooke this year. After that conference, I will also stay for the joint meeting of the Quaker Studies Research Association and the Quaker Historians and Archivists.

Discipline and the Art of Scheduling

All of this has me thinking again about the power of discipline and the art of scheduling. Last spring, I was forced to be highly disciplined about my work because that was my Extraordinarily Busy Semester (part of my Extraordinarily Busy Year, you might recall). This past fall was not so bad, even though I had a bit of an overload, and so the necessity to keep to a high level of discipline was not as great, but now it shows. My office desperately needs a major overhaul. I think my inability to take advantage of my more reasonable workload -- to use that as an opportunity to get reorganized and orient my work more in the direction I really want it to go -- was a reflection of just how exhausted my spirit still was, after the intensity of last year.

I am feeling a lot better now. And so I really am hopeful that if I start off this new semester with a well-structured schedule and a healthy commitment to being disciplined, this may be the semester in which I finally move more fully into how I want my work life to be.

The elements of discipline for me include:

* Meeting for Worship.
* Regular time for exercise.
* Enough sleep.
* Good nutrition.
* Regular music practice.
* Keeping in good touch with family and friends.
* Feeling on top of things at work (teaching; being chair; service commitments).
* Scheduling time for research and writing.

I see all of this as part of spiritual discipline. Not only do I see all dimensions of my work as calling, but the other elements of life that extend beyond work are spiritually significant as well: maintaining my own health and well-being so that I am able to be there for others in a real way; attending to my relationships to honor that of God within everyone.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Happy New Year!

Hmm, it seems like the last few years I write my first posting of the year on January 5! So, to continue in this tradition, I realized I have to write today!

Grading

I've been busy finishing grading. I did get my grades in on time. Also, I did participate in a bit of a grading party of sorts. One of my fall classes I co-taught, and so the two of us graded together one afternoon. At other times, I tried to do some of the grading in cafes and such, to alleviate the sense of isolation, but grading philosophy requires such intense concentration I ended up having to retreat to solitude to get it done.

Grading is an emotional experience. It is thrilling to witness some students rise to the challenge and reach a whole new level. It is heartbreaking to see other students fall apart under the strain. Throughout, you find yourself reckoning with your own ability as a teacher. When 90% of a class completely misunderstands something that you thought you explained very clearly, you have to admit that you were not really as effective as you had wished to be. You don't want to punish your students for your own failures as a teacher, and so you change your grading formula a little, regarding the questions that no one got right, or you agonize over whether to do so if one or two did get it right. You ponder the supposed "objectivity vs. subjectivity" issues involved in grading, as well as the likely psychological effects of the grades upon your students. You develop a massive headache, but must persist nonetheless because the Deadline looms!

And suddenly there reaches a moment when you've typed the last number into your spreadsheet, and input the formula for the final computations, and then you click on the magical "Fill Down" and watch all of the final grades materialize before your very eyes. You look them over and are amazed to see that the grades are, for the most part, what you expected each of the students to receive. You double-check and ponder the anomalies.

Then you take one more deep breath, and enter the final grades in.

Even though you had good intentions to clean up your office and file everything away all nicely when you are finished, instead you quickly shut down your computer and flee. In this electronic age, students can check their grades and find them moments after you have entered them in, and if they are shocked, they often e-mail you right away, displaying the full impact of their own emotional reactions.

It is now several days later, and I have received two responses. One was a happy response -- it is rare but delightful to receive these! The other was a very upset response. I was surprised to find myself not as pained to receive this as I used to be. For one thing, I fully expected this response. For another thing, I know how I wish further to reply, but I need to consult with the person I co-taught this course with. We will work together on our reply. In this, our educational opportunity with this particular student continues, and that is fine.

My Car

In other news: I did finally get my car back, all spiffed up again.

I was without a car the week before Christmas. It was an interesting experience to be completely without a car. Much of what I need to do on a daily basis I can do by walking, but I have to factor in extra time. It was good for me in a lot of ways. The walking is tricky in our icy and cold conditions, but that doesn't daunt me. The bigger issue was the time issue. I became more aware of just how tightly-scheduled my life is. I liked the way that walking forced reflective spaces into my day, but it was hard to let go of filling that time with hurried, nervous worrying about each next thing I was running off to do! Towards the end of the week, I was starting to settle in to my new rhythm of life with less anxiety and more gratitude. But the reduction of anxiety might have had more to do with the semester's actually ending than with any real adjustment on my own part.

Getting my car back has been more fun than I expected. Suddenly, many things in life are easier again, and I savor the appreciation I have for this. Also, my car is cute and fun. Strangers compliment me on this car. One person said, "It is such a happy-looking car!" and I found myself beaming for hours after he said that.

It's very strange for me to have something trendy and new and to receive admiring attention for this sort of thing! It's also strange for me to derive such joy from a material possession (except for my musical instruments)! Yet the joy is a combination of aesthetic appreciation and valuing what this object means for me in my life. My instruments allow me to play music, which is spiritually very important to me. And my car offers me mobility and freedom in a rural area where my life otherwise would be highly constrained. Yet I do have mixed feelings about valuing my car so much, because of my concern about what our car culture is doing to the environment. The truth is, as fun as I find my car, I still would prefer a life of not having to have one -- a life where public transportation is more readily available.

I did try to make use of what little public transportation is available in my area to get to one appointment 10 miles away, but the schedules made this absolutely impossible. I could have gotten there (either 15 minute late, or several hours in advance -- but this would have required canceling one of my final exams!), but then would have been stranded there with no way back, except to walk, in the dark, along a snowy rural road with no sidewalk and scant shoulders. At a 4 mile per hour pace, this would have taken 2 1/2 hours. Instead, I asked a friend for a ride.

The garage that fixed my car just sent me a nice thank you note with before and after pictures! They did a really nice job. You cannot tell anything was ever wrong.

Snow

We keep getting a good amount of snow. Two neighbors with snow-blowers now have taken to helping me out when we get big snowstorms. The total snowfall in our area this season so far has been 54.5 inches (but we've had another inch or two since that count). Sometimes that's what we get all season -- and it's early yet. We usually get the bulk of our snow in January, February, and March. The Piles keep getting higher and higher! It's really something.

Other Matters

There has been a lot more going on in my life than I have been able to write about here lately. (You have to wonder, when someone who used to write about spirituality and reflect on wider issues in our world suddenly starts focusing on snow shoveling instead...!) But I have a feeling that this year will bring forth the kind of change that will allow me at last to write about what's really been on my mind lately. I have been on a long and intense spiritual journey that has at times felt almost too much for me, but I have been fortunate enough to find some expert guidance and am hopeful that I'm going to come through this all right.

The start of a new year always makes me feel hopeful!

Happy New Year!