Touch the Future: A Look Back

One of my current online students asked if she could interview me for an assignment in another class. It’s for her History class. Each student, apparently, is giving out the same questionnaire to one of their professors as part of a class project.

I said yes.

I found it pleasant to think back over a 30+ year career and pull together memories and observations. It’s a long read and none of you signed up to follow this web site for its educational content, so please feel free to ignore.

I didn’t include any images with my student’s assignment, but I scrounged some to jazz up this version.

The title below came pre-attached to the questionnaire. Not my choice.

“INTERVIEW WITH AN EXPERT”

What made you become interested in your academic discipline?

When I was in my early 30s and after a few lackluster coat ‘n tie jobs I ‘dropped out’ and was living on the edge of society with a boisterous gang of avant-garde writers and musicians, unemployed poets and intellectuals, cultural rebels and assorted creatives.

“most unlikely to succeed”

It was only natural that we would read and identify with the Left Bank artists and expats who scribbled novels and plays and existential musings on napkins at Parisian sidewalk cafes in the 1920s. We drew sustenance, too, from Hipsters and Beatniks and the Greenwich Village Bohemians in their ‘Rembrandt’ berets who mingled in jazz bars and invented a radical new art form, abstract expressionism, in the 1940s.

We were a motley bunch, high on Life, social pariahs who if there had been a Yearbook surely would have been voted “most unlikely to succeed.” But it was an exciting, immensely creative life we were living, even if productive in ways more felt than seen.

I mention this because 20 years after majoring in psychology I was having oodles of guilty fun saying ‘Yes’ to life by doing nothing. Well, I was writing sloppy prose and throwing paint at canvases, hangin’ nights at outdoor beach bars with rowdy friends for animated discussions, prowling the public library for books on religion, philosophy, literature and the arts. Not because I was pursuing these areas as “subjects” or thought of them as an academic discipline, but because these books were alive; they spoke to me. All around me culture was in chaos, centuries-old rock-solid traditions crumbling beneath my feet, and I was fascinated, welcomed change, but also wanted to understand what was going on. I especially devoured books on modern art and cultural theory.

doing nothing is a full time job

About this time I fell in love with a 23-year-old adjunct professor at a two-year college (SPJC), and I learned that in academic catalogues these same four subjects – religion, philosophy, literature and the arts – are called “humanities.” Schools lump them together and approach them chronologically in the context of cultural history, repositories of human values, places where people try to figure out what life is all about. I still have trouble thinking of them as impersonal “subjects.” They are more like family – sometimes dysfunctional, to be sure, but dynamically intertwined.

To answer the question more specifically, my girlfriend – the humanities teacher, briefly to become my fiancé – motivated me (by example) to enroll in grad school. I was in my 40s and painfully shy. I had no assurance that I could ever comfortably stand up in front of a class and actually talk. In fact, my hair tilted toward grey the night before my first lecture at a University up in Michigan!

Interestingly, my girlfriend left teaching, she said, because “no one cares anymore about TGB (Truth, Goodness, Beauty).” Perhaps more discouraging, however, was that colleges at that time only seemed to be hiring adjuncts without benefits. Not a good career choice, teaching.

And she left me because I was foolish enough to gamble my future on a sinking ship.

What do you like most about working at FSW?

Grim Reaper advising John to retire NOW because their next chat might not be so pleasant.

I am retired now, and only teach part time online. That has allowed me to travel and indulge a new love, photography. In the eleven years since I left full-time teaching at the Collier Campus I have made ten cross-country, coast-to-coast road trips. Many summers in Yellowstone I have tracked and photographed wolves just as the sun was peeking over the rim of Lamar Valley, sat down mid-morning on a stump to eat lunch and log into my humanities class, and then headed on down toward Mt. Washburn to find some grizzlies before they took a siesta. Gotta love it when you can hold office hours in Yellowstone National Park!

looking for wolves in all the right places

My first foray into the classroom after grad school at USF was at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. A rinky-dink party school not known for academic excellence, but beggars can’t be choosy as mine was a full-time position with benefits. Students would stagger in for an 8am class bragging about how hungover they were. One kid confessed to me that he had never read a book. So it is hardly an understatement to say that when I arrived in Naples I felt like I had died and gone to heaven!

Students here at Florida Southwestern State College are wonderful. Yes, like everyone else, they bitch about the relevance of the humanities. But they are respectful, they are motivated, and they work hard. Watching eyes light up when an insight goes off like a lightbulb in their head is a reward like no other.

What do I like most, besides the students? Well, it’s hard to beat the fact that I get paid for encountering all the best artistic creations and intellectual achievements since the beginning of time. And they even give me free books!

“they were alive; they spoke to me”

It also doesn’t hurt that when teaching full time I got something like 17 weeks off each year. Unpaid, to be sure, but I would thin out my paychecks and spread them over 12 months to make do. Gotta love a job that gives you that much free time!

You know, I have to shake my head sometimes when I realize how many name changes our college has undergone. I started in 1992 when we were Edison Community College. And then the mouse began to roar, mission creep set in, and the college started marketing itself as serving more diverse community needs, including offering a handful of four-year degrees – and, well, then it was Edison College, Edison State College, and of course now FSW.

Collier Campus sculpture: “Education – The Lyric of Life”

Did we experience growing pains? Yes.

Did I ever think FSW as a place to teach was anything less than the best of all possible worlds? No.

What was one of the most important factors that contributed to your success as a college student?

My undergraduate college experience was incredibly unique. I was in the second batch of students to arrive at a brand-new topnotch liberal arts school in St. Petersburg, Florida. There were not yet any juniors or seniors, which means we got to “grow” the college from scratch by selecting school colors and logos, starting the school newspaper, voting against Greek-letter organizations, forming the first athletic teams, and generally establishing school traditions that morphed into legends reverently passed down through the years.

But that’s not all. Florida Presbyterian College – now called Eckerd College – was on the cutting edge of education in terms of curriculum (an interdisciplinary ‘Great Books’ approach) and teaching methodology (small, discussion-based classes). One of their innovations was a mid-winter Independent Study semester, no formal classes, where students during the month of January designed and pursued projects individually with a professor of their choosing. Another was an attempt to de-emphasis grades by jettisoning the traditional 4-point system and awarding only H (Honors), S (Satisfactory), and U (Unsatisfactory) – although that was phased out after a few years.

The net result was that we bonded with the school, with our professors, and with each other in a way that continues to this day. We were family and the small number of students – barely 150 my first year – guaranteed that each of us knew everyone else at least by sight, and usually by name. Imagine a campus where no one was anonymous!

Most important factor, I suppose, was just that, the strong relationship we developed with our professors. They ate lunch with us in the cafeteria. They invited us into their homes for family holidays. All the professors – math, science, social sciences – participated as lecturers and discussion leaders in a common core program called Western Civilization, and if they were unfamiliar with some of the material because it was outside their specialty, they humbly sat down and learned right alongside of us.

The [future] President of the college would barge into my dorm room every Saturday morning – way too early, if you ask me – and drag me out of bed to play tennis!

That’s critical, in my opinion, finding a professor who can be both a role model and a mentor – and if such a relationship lasts a lifetime, so much the better. I, personally, would be digging ditches today if I had been shunted into online courses. Fortunately, those were pre-digital days of residential college campuses with face-to-face encounters.

I was only seventeen my first year, immature and socially inept, but thanks to a nurturing college environment, I survived.

What historical area of study do you specialize in? Or, if you are not a history instructor, what is your preferred area of history?

you gonna love ‘dis class

As mentioned above, I enjoyed a “living relationship” to arts & ideas long before I returned to school to study them as “subjects.” None of us were students and most of us were underemployed but my friends and I could sense the ferment all around us – of, in Bob Dylan’s raspy words, a world “busy being born.” A new cultural paradigm (postmodernism) sprinkled with arts & ideas that got up in your face and demanded understanding was emerging right before our eyes; what else could match that for excitement?

So I can say what some call the ‘Age of Anxiety’ – late 1800s and up into the 1900s – speaks eloquently to me. I was forged in the same crucible of experience that gave us modernism and postmodernism, the birth of a new epistemological skepticism from the ashes of traditional certainties.

I particularly like to teach modernist art, a collection of prophetic ‘isms’ so radical and disturbing that even today canvases are sometimes attacked in museums.

Modern art is not easy to understand. It’s a radical new way of seeing and I struggled for years to find the best way to teach it. It’s been a lifelong project but I am getting close, and enjoy the challenge.

As an era of study the 20th C. is a friend I can’t bring myself to abandon. We have aged well together into this new century.

If you had to choose the most important reason for the study of history inside and outside of a college setting, what would it be?

This is a “why” question that I confess to having agonized over since before I even started teaching.

My decision 36 years ago to return to graduate school in the humanities was a midlife jump into an uncertain future. The Liberal Arts curriculum back then was on life-support in the wake of demands for more “relevant” courses, and we were entering a “post-humanist” cultural phase that was, still is, scary. And I realized early on that if in the face of such hostility I couldn’t articulate why the humanities were important, my life – my raison d’être – was a sham.

For years I would wake up sweating in the middle of night reaching for a pen to jot down another reason, hopefully more convincing than the last one, why students were not wasting their time. I wanted them to weep with gratitude for taking my class. Never happened, of course, but I did learn a few things along the way.

       “Ok . . . As we go along do things get more complicated or what! What is suffering? Why do we have to know this stuff? I really don’t need to know what suffering is when I get into my profession. Actually, what will the whole class do for me except to “culture” me. I also think you cannot just memorize things for this class, you have to have a real understandment [sic] of most of the things taught, because of that this is a pretty difficult class.”

– Anonymous Student Evaluation, Ferris State Univ., 1989         

One thing I learned is that there is no simple soundbite answer that will satisfy everyone. Ask a student and she will probably demand a course be job-related. Humanities are universally high on the list of “irrelevant” courses students wish they didn’t have to take.

But ask an employer and they typically downplay vocational skills. We can teach new hires what they need to know, they say, just send us students who can think critically and communicate effectively – i.e., give us someone who is teachable.

And herein lies an insight. In terms of educational goals, a humanities course has two aspects: (1) content mastery, and (2) thinking skills.

Unavoidably, there is often a ton of factual textbook information students need to memorize. Sometimes it is dry, boring, and irrelevant to one’s future career. No one can ever brag that they gave a better presentation to a Board of Directors because they had read Shakespeare.

But content/subject matter is typically not the essential component of a humanities course. It’s what you learn to do with the content that carries more weight.

Ideally, conscientious students will improve their ability to (1) analyze complex ideas, (2) compare and contrast alternative points of view, (3) discern patterns and larger connections, (4) evaluate the merits of competing claims, and (5) articulate and persuade others both verbally and in writing.

Analysis, synthesis, evaluation, communication – if a student’s goal is to be successful, what could be more practical than skills like these?

But the most important reason, you ask, for studying history – or in my case, the humanities? I’m on a roll so let me mention one more from a larger perspective.

The goal in my courses, at least back when I taught ground classes, is for students not so much to “study” humanities as to “experience” the humanities. That cultural ‘ground of being’ that we lump under the rubric of the liberal arts/humanities will only nourish those who actively participate with it.

In a nutshell what we in a humanities classroom seek to accomplish is to yoke a mind with a text. (By “text” is meant a painting, a film, a sculpture, a symphony, a poem, etc.)  And in that confrontation of a properly seeded imagination with a carefully chosen text, something incredible is always on the verge of happening:

A mind stretches, an imagination grows, consciousness expands, humanity blossoms. 

What a crock!

This more subtle and less tangible reason for studying humanities is not one that students at this stage of life care one whit about. And for that matter, probably never will, even years later when they reach their zenith and in moments of reflection look fleetingly back at how much they have changed and matured.

And it’s also the kind of pompous gibberish Ivory Tower academics like to slip into their syllabi, never noticing that such a “self-actualizing” claim is empirically unverifiable.

Actually, if on the advice of Samuel Taylor Coleridge you embrace a ‘willing suspension of disbelief,” this highfalutin’ blooming consciousness stuff does sound kind of neat, eh?

I’m sticking with it.

******

Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren

sich weiss Rechenschaft zu gehen,

bleibt im Dunkeln, unerfahren,

mag von Tag zu Tag leben

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I apologize for answering from a humanities perspective, not history. My so-called “expertise” is limited. (You definitely wouldn’t want to ask me why study math, for example!) Best I can do is quote Goethe, who in what I’m told is archaic German basically warns that if we can’t give an account of the past 3,000 years, we are destined to live in the dark, day to day.

Along those lines I would only add that humans since Prehistory have struggled to learn how to live, and those efforts over the years amount to what might be called the human narrative – i.e., the fascinating trial-and-error, success-and-failure story of what it means to be human.  We are the latest chapter in that story.

And since the ‘burden of proof’ is always on those whose claim is the most outrageous, why would someone NOT want to nurture an awareness of their cultural heritage, to confront the many forces which have conspired to shape their unique moment in time, to enter into a life-enhancing dialogue with the ongoing human narrative?

To study the past is to become more fully human.

Not to study the past is to . . . well, live in the dark.

🙂 🙂 🙂

2 Replies to “Touch the Future: A Look Back”

    1. We lived in the same dorm, Jim. In spite of being difficult to the point of overwhelming, it was a pretty neat experience, eh?

      Like

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