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School started again this week for me. I had been thinking about the fact that I’ve hit a career milestone–I’m beginning my 25th year as a professor at my institution–and then, something else struck me: Monday was my 50th 1st day of school! You see, I’m one of those people who never took a break from academics. That eager 4-year-old who started pre-school in 1972 continued straight on from K-12 and college to grad school, post-doc, and into a teaching job.
And what could be better? Despite everything—and academia, both local and global, has had crisis after crisis, small and large, even when I was an undergraduate in what look like the now halcyon 1980s—I still can’t imagine a richer life for myself. Fifty years (so far) in the land of learning feels like the absolute deepest privilege. True, like all jobs, being a professor has its own abundant share of annoyances (petty and not)—but for me, they can all be borne to get to be a member of a vibrant community of learners (whether that be my students, my colleagues, or the lifelong learners I work with in non-academic settings). I am still naïve enough to have never gotten over the core belief that the day-to-day work of educating successive generations, together in a shared space around a piece of writing, is noble and necessary.
As a lark, I posted about my “50th anniversary” on Facebook. One of my high school friends responded by asking, “Looking back all these years, what has been the most surprising thing/experience/insight?” What a good question, was my teacherly response—and I had to think on it for a minute.
I decided perhaps the most surprising thing is that I still take such great joy in introducing students to texts I’ve taught many, many times. On tomorrow’s syllabi, for example, are poems I’ve taught more times than I can count. One might assume that they’d have grown staid and familiar with use. And yet, this afternoon when I re-read them again to prepare for class, it was with the dear affection of being with old pals. They are still speaking to me, still reminding me of important truths, still telling me new things. I’m still learning from them, seeing new beauty and wisdom. And every year, I add new literary friends as I discover more writers who I want in my life. I approach the classroom, then, with the exuberant delight of a hostess about to throw the most fabulous party, who anticipates introducing my new student acquaintances to these faithful (in all senses of the word) companions. What a treat!
That’s not to suggest that we don’t engage difficult material, works that challenge us. It’s not all party time. As Flannery O’Connor insists, literature that doesn’t truly engage the range of human experience is not properly literature; instead, she says, it’s a diminishment of the imago Dei into either sentimental tripe or pornographic exploitation. The hard stuff is what literature classes are about. But precisely because our “thoughts…do often lie too deep for tears,” as Wordsworth has it, literature—and importantly, the authors who have written it—guides us in exploring those arduous pathways and in providing models of expression for all that we are witness to.
Put another way: I have realized that the unwavering aim of all these years has been the cultivation of the Great Conversation. Not a one-way reverence for ancient tomes, but not the dominance of personal opinion above the work, either. Instead raucous and respectful dialogue—for which fifty years is a meagre beginning, given the immensity of the task. And so we listen, as Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” narrates, for all the ways we can come to find out more about God’s world, more about each other. Here’s to many more years to do just that, d.v.
Ars Poetica #100: I Believe By Elizabeth Alexander Poetry, I tell my students, is idiosyncratic. Poetry is where we are ourselves (though Sterling Brown said “Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”), digging in the clam flats for the shell that snaps, emptying the proverbial pocketbook. Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there. Poetry (and now my voice is rising) is not all love, love, love, and I’m sorry the dog died. Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) is the human voice, and are we not of interest to each other?