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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Paul Christensen, 1941 – 2016.

Paul @ TablePaul Christensen died on June 18th, 2016.

Paul was a professor of sociology at the College of Marin for over 40 years, serving as the chairman of the sociology department and as chief negotiator for The United Professors of Marin. A controversial figure on the COM campus, Paul was a tenacious fighter for worker’s rights, brokering one of the strongest teacher contracts in place at any US college. His efforts in this regard earned him a hated reputation among many COM administrators, while also earning him the gratitude and admiration of many of his peers.

Students, likewise, had widely polarized opinions of Paul. Some loved him while others hated him. Comments posted on Rate My Professors range from the laudatory to the insulting, with his outspoken, sometimes “vulgar,” manner being appreciated by some as “awesome” and condemned by others as “repulsive.” Either way, student opinions of Paul were never luke-warm. He was a teacher who left a lasting impression on anyone who sat in his classes.

I am one of those students who loved Paul. In 1982 I had just graduated from high school and was more concerned with riding motorcycles and listening to punk rock music than I was with studying. I began attending the College of Marin mostly to appease my parents, and it was during my first semester there that I enrolled in Paul’s social deviance and problems course. The class, unsurprisingly, was filled with a large number of nonconformist youth, including a gorgeous girl with a purple crew cut who eventually became my wife.

Paul had what it took to grab my attention as a 17-year-old. He was big, – well over 200 pounds – bald and aggressive. He lectured in an informal style, hands in pockets, freely using profanities. During one discussion on the dynamics of state power, I vividly recall him warning the class how in the real world, challenging police authority gives cops the permission to “kill your ass!” Such gruff vulgarities turned some students off, but at that point in my life, Paul was exactly what I needed. He spoke frankly about violence, power, sex; all in a down-to-earth manner that was startling but also attention grabbing and entertaining. Here was a teacher who appealed to my teenage sensibilities, showing me that academic study did not require the adoption of inauthentic affectation or pretension.

I recall being overwhelmingly excited that a block of the social deviance and problems class was devoted to the study of punk rock. In connection with this, Paul introduced students to Dick Hebidge’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a book that remains a landmark in subcultural studies, and to the works of Erving Goffman and Edwin Pfuhl. At that pivotal point in my life, he showed me that it was possible to apply serious academic theory to things of intimate importance to me; things that were a part of my own experience. He taught me that I could bend my educational experience to fit my own passions and interests rather than passively allowing myself to be bent by the school establishment.

After leaving the College of Marin – and because of Paul’s inspiration – I went on to study sociology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I eventually decided to switch my focus to philosophy; a switch that Paul at one point told me amounted to “the same thing.” All through the years I pursued studies in philosophy, Paul’s influence remained present in my mind, and indeed, I count him as one of three professors throughout my life who have (knowingly or unknowingly) been my most important guides and role models. With his death, only one of these role models now remains.

My relationship with role models has always been fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, I need them. Their presence in my life offers concrete proof of what it is possible to achieve, giving me confidence that my own dreams and hopes are not completely implausible. On the other hand, I’ve found that if I get too close to my role models and start to see their flaws, they begin to fall in my eyes. For this reason I have found it necessary to keep them at a bit of a distance if I hope to retain my sense of idealistic admiration.

This certainly applies to my relationship with Paul Christensen.

After earning my Ph.D. in philosophy, I eventually returned to College of Marin as a professor, and thus became Paul’s colleague. It was impossible for me to shake off the feelings that I had developed toward him as a student, and though I periodically socialized with him and other COM professors, I retained the need to keep him at arm’s length so that he would not become too familiar or commonplace to me. This eventually became harder and harder for me to do.

As Paul’s physical condition began to decline, and as I became increasingly unnerved by what looked to me like a disregard for his own health, I one day made a comment about his overindulgence in alcohol; a comment that he did not receive very well. He became angry at my impertinence, telling me that his drinking habits were none of my business. He was right of course, and I apologized. Nonetheless, I told him, he really did not understand exactly how important he was to me. It was a confession I felt I needed to make, and it stopped Paul in his tracks. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and I could see the previously welled up anger dissipate in an instant. Although he didn’t say anything in response, I’m certain that he knew what I was getting at; or I at least hope he understood what I was getting at, since it was one of the last times that I talked with him before his death.

Without Paul Christensen my life would have been very different than it has turned out to be. I already miss him very much.

The Challenges of Teaching Philosophy

Conducting a philosophy class is an exercise in balancing order and chaos; and inevitably there are times when things slide too far in either direction. When Apollonian order predominates in the classroom, things are organized, orderly and structured. However, if this condition prevails at the expense of Dionysian vitality, things become stale and static. Sacrifice Apollo to Dionysus, on the other hand, and things become disordered, frantic and chaotic. Maintaining the delicate equilibrium between these two forces is, I think, an important part of a philosophy teacher’s job, but it is also something that one can never get perfectly right. There is a constant and ongoing negotiation that must occur throughout the academic semester as an instructor attempts to zero in on that “golden mean” making a class both energizing and orderly in equal parts. At any given moment in time there is room for improvement, but hopefully as the semester comes to an end, a class, on the whole, achieves a state roughly in the middle of these extremes.

I have taught many philosophy classes that have operated on the outer boundaries of this continuum. The chaotic classes were always more memorable than the overly organized classes; no doubt because energy and vitality are always more entertaining than their polar opposites.

There was one class in particular that still stands out in my mind as an example of how quickly the energy and excitement of philosophical discussion can descend into pandemonium. It was a course on the “philosophy of life” that I taught years ago at a college on the east coast. The class was held in an amphitheater that seated around 50 students, all of whom were very involved and interested in the subject matter. The session that is still burned into my memory was a day we were focused on arguments for God’s existence. This is always a touchy subject, and as the class period began, the energy in the classroom was definitely high. This was a day when the students were especially eager to speak out and voice their views. Arguments and counterarguments were hurled back and forth concerning the validity and the soundness of the positions that we had been studying until the entire room fractured into small groups of individuals, arguing among themselves. There were students standing up and waving their arms in the back rows. There were students in the front rows turned around in their seats, passionately debating with those who sat behind them. I stood by the blackboard, virtually ignored as I impotently called for order. The students were so absorbed in their own disputes that they became oblivious to their teacher’s presence. At one point I stopped saying anything and just watched the strange drama in front of me, thinking that this was exactly how you might see a philosophy class depicted in some “B” movie. Everything was passion and argument. Order was lost. Dionysus had won.

A chaotic class session like this one is at least memorable and exciting. Those classes in which the spirit of Apollo prevails, on the other hand, usually become dim memories that take their place among the forgotten routines of the past. These are the class sessions during which I find myself lecturing unchallenged, and the only questions students ask concern how correctly to spell a particular philosopher’s name. In these sessions, I remain the focus of attention, the facts get voiced, the structure of arguments are understood, and the issues are laid out one by one, but no one seems to become very fiery or excited. This sort of class is just another day at school and I’m just another teacher who will be grading just another set of tests.

Of course the best sorts of classes are those in which both structure and passion – Apollo and Dionysus – are present, guiding conversation in exciting, unanticipated and yet structured ways. These are the sessions in which the students and I seem to be truly resonating with one another and cooperatively searching for the Truth. I know that this may sound like an overly romantic and starry-eyed aspiration to some of my teaching colleagues, but there are times when this is truly what happens in a philosophy classroom. We forget about testing and grades; we forget about what is proper and improper to say. Instead, we become so absorbed by the flow of argument and discussion that we are swept along by the topic at hand, excited, eager and curious about where it will all lead without feeling as if it has to lead in any particular direction. These are the times when the distinction between teacher and student collapses and members of the class become fellow philosophical explorers. These are the classes that don’t end on the hour, but continue as groups of us walk across campus still debating, arguing and disagreeing about what life means, whether God exists, and what makes an action moral or immoral. I wish every day could be like this, because this is really what philosophy is supposed to be about: self-regulating conversation unencumbered by authority. It is a good kind of anarchy.