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Karen Armstrong and College Teaching

I’m still reading Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, and I find myself laughing, crying, and re-reading paragraphs with the joy of having found (in books, as is often the case with me) a consciousness I recognize. She just puts it all out there–she describes herself as a failed nun, a failed academic, a failed heterosexual, and a successful high school teacher who hated that whole field of work; and out of all that failure she makes one stunning success–as a writer.

Here are some passages that knock me out:

“I have never been able to achieve a normal domestic existence, and this, like my epilepsy, has also ensured that I have remained an outsider in a society in which coupledom is the norm” (189).

Amen to that! I don’t have epilepsy, for which I’m deeply and richly thankful, though I’m told migraines of the frequency I’ve experienced are a mild form of epilepsy…but I certainly have “NEVER BEEN ABLE TO ACHIEVE A NORMAL DOMESTIC EXISTENCE” or coupledom…and it took me three-quarters of my life to accept that fact and choose the celibacy that finally set me free.

And about teaching–she encountered a woman who had been a school teacher for over 20 years, and she writes, “‘Twenty years!‘ I was aghast; I had been wondering how I was going to endure the next twenty minutes” (192).

I can’t count the years, really; I first taught a college class in 1972, and I have done hundreds of other things to earn a living since then, but I come back again and again to college teaching. I do it well. But there are aspects of it that are like sawdust in my mouth. One of the conversations I had with Gallo and Ansie in Mexico was about this. Ansie, who isn’t a teacher, wondered if I’m burnt out. Gallo, who is also a college teacher, nodded when I explained that it isn’t a question of being burnt out. I could go on. I am going on. But there is something deeply wrong with the way college teaching works. The system is broken, and I don’t know how to fix it. It involves so many students marking time, doing what they hate, enduring some years of suffering in the classroom, presumably so they can “get a better job” or “make more money” when they finish this test of endurance. It ought not to be that way. I don’t like being the person who holds the hoop students must jump through in order to get to the other side where they can “make more money.” I want it to be about joy, about passion, about excitement. I do my best to generate excitement, and yet…. How excited can any student be, about a course s/he is REQUIRED to take and would never even think about taking if not forced?

Here’s how Armstrong writes about her college teaching: “I had no problems with the students…. Indeed everything seemed to be going very well…. I certainly didn’t feel that I was being unduly challenged–or stretched in any way at all. It was, indeed, pleasant. But wasn’t it already [after two years] a little…predictable? Was it not a trifle…dull?” (169).

She continues, and here I am gripping the book tightly and reading with ferocity: “I was glad to have this job. I couldn’t expect the moon…. I am doing a useful job of work, I told myself firmly…. I had always been caught up intellectually in what I was studying. I always wanted to find out more, to see things clearly. And once an idea had been suggested to me, I got real pleasure from it–even if I could rarely come up with ideas of my own….for a wild moment I longed for one of [my students] to get up and yell that he absolutely hated Keats, that he thought Keats was insufferably indulgent, pretentious, and overrated. I would have welcomed any sign of involvement or commitment….Was their course teaching them to think? Was it enhancing their lives? Would the world be a better place because they had shared Clare’s insights? Or were they simply passing the time…?” (161-2).

In my case, I face rooms full of young people who would rather be talking on their cell phones, instant-messaging, watching TV, listening to their ipods, and surfing the net ALL AT THE SAME TIME than reading Aztec poetry slowly and with concentration, marveling at the images, the details, the connections between Aztec life and our own. I see a lust for shallowness in many of my students–a desire to go on quickly to the next thing, to skim over the surface, a headlong rush to–what? It frightens me, and even when I provide film clips, power points full of changing images, small-group activities, music, and all the glitter that they have become accustomed to since their Sesame Street days, even when the fifty-minute class period races by (for me), I see their eyes on the clock, and I know when time is up, not because we have come to the end of the subject for today, but because they are zipping their backpacks and turning on their cell phones in order to experience, for ten minutes between classes, their REAL lives. On their cell phones. I am chilled to the bone with fear about what this means.

I want to do something different with what is left of my life. Karen Armstrong wanted this too. She found her way to what she was put here to do. I am sixty-one. Time is passing. The journey matters. I lived for years on the joy of a conversation I had with a nuclear physicist, sitting on a park bench in London in 1988. He was old, had white hair, had been one of the team who developed the atom bomb. He was one of the few left alive. Several had committed suicide. His eyes were haunted with the horror of what he had done, believing fully that he was protecting what he loved. I reached out and held his hand for a moment. He asked me what I did. I said, “I teach drama and literature.” He rocked back on the bench, his eyes filled with tears, and said, “How wonderful to do something merely beautiful.”

I know I am terribly privileged to have a job, to be supporting myself and to have supported my children in relative comfort, to be able to take a five-day vacation to Mexico and even (last summer) a month-long pilgrimage through Portugal and Spain…I don’t want to live for the holidays. I don’t want to fall into the feeling that my students have, of forcing myself to plod through the hours. I look at the next heap of papers they didn’t want to write, which I don’t want to read, and a great wave of dread like nausea rises up in me. Not good. Not good. Must find another way.

Quick post script: the volunteer work I do in the prison is EXACTLY the kind of satisfying work I yearn for in the rest of my life. I continue to examine that. Prisoners are passionate about writing, about reading, about discovery. Their minds, starved for stimulation, yearn for new material. In their daily lives, no one values their insights, so they save them for our class, and their insights pour out powerfully. Gallo, who co-facilitates the workshop with me, always brings a dictionary. One of the men in the workshop grabs that dictionary at the beginning of each class and holds onto it throughout most of the two hours, eagerly looking up the meanings and spellings of new words for his arsenal. In the workshop, there are no grades. No credits. No salaries. No one is “in charge.” Though Gallo and I bring “assignments” and “readings,” we do the assignments with the others in the workshop. We all come together for the love of the work, the life of the mind. If these same men were in the free world and had cell phones, TVs, and the internet, would we lose that magic? I wonder.

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2 responses to “Karen Armstrong and College Teaching”

  1. Steve Raymond says:

    Kendall –

    I’ve been struggling with a first-sentence [to you] for awhile now, this morning . . .
    “Thanks” seems to be the most-appropriate
    first word . . .
    . . . for including me in your [“anti-weirdo”]
    readers ‘edit’/purge; (sorry that
    you’ve been beset by that trouble) ;
    . . . for your STRENGTH; I gain from it ;
    . . . for the depth of Wisdom in your
    writings ; I learn and am empowered
    by your example ;
    . . . for giving me inspiration this morning;
    on a number of different levels.
    We are kindred Spirits, you and I.
    And sometimes being a ” ‘deeper’ see-er” can be a frightening and lonely and energy-consumptive experience.
    This morning I am inspired-afresh by your simple words. In some almost-‘magical’ way,
    your blog this morning represents the likely “bridge” to my next metamorphosis …
    you have given me the strength that I needed today, to ‘carry on’ . . . to persevere . . .
    For whatever combination of reasons, my emotions of-late have been often deeply-despairing . . . loss of my Youth(54), and associated medical challenges; aging parents (1 stroke; 1 hip-replacement); changing role vis-a-vie ‘occupation’ (Prop. Mgr./R.E. Broker); ‘Empty-Nester’ . . . Career-oriented wife with several years still to ‘endure’ before Retirement . . . no local person comes to mind as a trustworthy ‘Confidante’
    . . . since all have a vested-interest in keeping me “the same” [while my Spirit beckoned me to Mexico (solo) twice this Winter, for nearly two months’ total time].
    Change is in the wind, for me . . . and the very next ‘step’, as it turns out, is for me to turn my attention to “catching-up” on reading your Blog Entries since the last time that we exchanged e-mails. Something is in there that I need, currently, to ‘absorb’ . . . I’m certain.
    So here I go.
    *smile* Don’t be surprised if I am inspired to write again before I get very far . . .
    Best Regards,

  2. admin says:

    I’m honored, Steve. Thank you. Feel free to continue by email, although please be aware that the hacker apparently reads my email. I’m working on what to do about that.

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