A New Semester

The Fall 2017 semester has begun at College of Marin. After a summer of relative leisure, I’m finding myself falling into some recognizable mental patterns of reflection now that I’m back in the classroom.

This semester, in addition to three sections of Introduction to Philosophy, I’m teaching Ethics, Logic, and World Religions; 18 units altogether. This is a normal load for a community college instructor, though for university instructors it seems excessively heavy. I recall, many years ago, when I was hired at my first teaching job at a community college back east, my graduate school mentor was incredulous when I told her how many units I would be carrying. She was convinced that teaching so many classes was an impossibility. Of course the difference between her position and mine is that she’s required to produce a consistent body of research while there are no such pressures on me. At the community college, the emphasis is on teaching, not research, and so most of my time is spent in the classroom or in my office preparing lectures and assignments, grading, or (more often than I like) sitting in committee meetings that go on for way too long and that accomplish way too little.

I think I would be doomed if I had to go back to working a regular 9-5 job at this point in life. I’ve become so used to the rhythm of the academic semester system that I just could not imagine working without the anticipation of midterms and finals, or the end of the semester and graduation ceremonies. These markers help to put a frame around the march of time, giving me something to look forward to and making it feel as if there is a predictable and finite span until significant goals are achieved. I like the beginning/middle/end structure of the semester. It suits my Aristotelian tastes.  Each term begins as I meet a new group of interesting (and interested) students while reconnecting with familiar ones. There is a sense of excitement about the material that we will study and the conversations that we will have. I enjoy the challenge of trying to maintain this excitement as the weeks draw on into months and the initial novelty of taking a philosophy class starts to wane for some students. It is usually around midterms that parking becomes easier to find on campus; an indication of diminished motivations and recalculated priorities. But nevertheless, as the semester races toward final exams, there is a crescendo of anticipation that seems inevitably to reinvigorate even the most lax students. They all want to finish strong, and so do I.

The fact that I’m the only full-time philosophy instructor on the College of Marin campus means that I get to schedule the times of my own classes. This is yet another aspect of my work situation that I can’t imagine giving up. While there are certain time slots that are in high demand with students, happily those are usually the very periods that I myself prefer in any case. Online classes are particularly popular, and the late morning and early afternoon on-campus classes allow a leisurely and refreshed start to the day, with time to study books that, even if I wasn’t a teacher, I would read during my free-time in any case. What other job pays you to read Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger or Stirner? Most jobs probably discourage it!

But my greatest source of enjoyment teaching at College of Marin comes from having regular conversations about philosophy. Socrates, in his Apology, said that daily discourse about virtue is a necessary component of a life worth living, and while I have my own struggles with despair and meaninglessness, it would be much more difficult to endure these struggles without my daily conversations with students. There are mornings when I wake up gripped with fears about death and the pointlessness of doing anything at all, but then when I walk into the classroom and conversation takes off, I feel swept away by a flow of ideas and thoughts that make me forget about anything else. Often, I’m surprised (and disappointed) when the period comes to an end and I have to retreat back to my office to work in solitude on other projects. I often tell students that we are uniquely lucky to have the opportunity to discuss and entertain the most important questions of all time in our philosophy classes. Outside, in the everyday world, we are discouraged from asking these very same questions, as they are considered by many people to be troubling or useless. To me this always seemed odd and ironic. Why are the most important questions – Who am I? Why am I here? Does life have any meaning? – disparaged and dismissed by those we spend most of our waking lives talking to? Why, instead, do we spend most of our time engaged in activities that, in the grand scheme of things, really are meaningless; activities like watching stupid TV shows, shopping, surfing the internet, working at boring jobs, or making small talk? Is it because we are scared to confront the big issues? Or is it because we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by others who want us to remain placid and complacent with the way things are?

In annoyance, I once told an advertising specialist who was designing an ad campaign for the College of Marin, “I do not teach students anything. I learn along with them.” To my surprise, I later found these words emblazoned along with my own photograph on ads that appeared in local newspapers, on the sides of local buses and on a larger-than-life-sized banner that now hangs in the College of Marin Student Center. It’s rather funny how an off-the-cuff, irritated remark could be construed as a slogan that might attract students to the school. Now that I have some distance from that remark, however, I’ve come to realize that it does honestly sum up my own attitude toward teaching philosophy. While the Truth forever slips through our grasp, it is the process of  jointly (and vainly) searching for that Truth that is important. Nothing else.

 

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7 thoughts on “A New Semester

  1. Amazing and eloquent essay – and this praise comes from someone who ran for his life from the academy.
    You have every right to be thankful for the perks of the job as you see them, though a 9-5 gig, one where happy pleasure reading can also occur, has much to recommend it.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      I have no doubt that the right sort of 9-5 job can be very rewarding. I’ve worked in one or two that I enjoyed, but I’ve now become so used to the flexibility of my schedule that I can’t imagine giving it up. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of aggravations and annoyances that go along with the teaching job, but for me, it’s the best possible situation.

      What led you to turn away from academia?

      • Every fiber of my being led me to turn away from academia – intense dislike of the pretensions of classical culture, the basic boredom engendered by and listlessness of allegedly “elite” education, the deluge of popular culture and “Information” as alternative to classroom prisons, lifelong aversion to bullshit and cant – the usual, eh?

  2. Great quote (I’m glad they chose to immortalize it at COM!); I really appreciate your sharing how much value you find in meaningful, regular interactions with your students. But while I also think activities like TV and the endless quest for STUFF help keep us apathetic, disengaged and complacent, working a boring 9-5 job (or multiple jobs, depending on where you live these days) is often crucial to make ends meet. Philosophy is basically egalitarian: any of us can ask these profound questions (and do) – but as you suggest, the reasons why many don’t engage in more meaningful discourse are numerous and complex!

    • Very true. A 9-5 job is sometimes a financial necessity, and some 9-5 jobs can be very rewarding. I guess the key is to avoid selling your soul. Work to live, rather than live to work!

  3. “Work to live, rather than live to work!” I wholeheartedly like it, though I suspect that socialists, communists, fascists and all sort of collectivists and moralists who tell us to live for others and to sacrifice ourselves for others will be opposed to it.

    • Yes, I think it is the case that many (if not most) political and social philosophies discourage individual self fulfillment in favor of a focus on the collective. Reminds me of Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

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