In the Spring of 2000, I was a Professor of Afro-American Studies at UMass and Graduate Program Director of our new doctoral program. None of our graduate students knew anything about Marx, so I decided to teach them. I announced a series of evening classes on Marx and about seventeen students showed up -- almost all of our doctoral students at that point. We met for as many weeks as it took for me to give them the elements of Marx's thought, and to their credit, these overworked students all stuck it out. There was one wonderful moment, but a little background is required. At that time, not a single member of the department had anything that could by the wildest stretch of the imagination be called a religious belief, but at least half of our students were serious Christians of one sort or another. [When you called Chris Lehman on the phone, for example, if he wasn't in, you got blessed three times before the beep.] Anyway, I was lecturing on Marx's early views one rainy evening, and a propos of I know not what, I remarked in an off-hand fashion, "Of course, there is no God." Just at the moment, there was a tremendous clap of thunder. I did not know it at the time, but I later learned that a number of students took it as a sign.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
WHAT IT IS TO BE A TEACHER
Several e-mail responses to my "small triumph" post yesterday expressed distress at the lack of real mentoring these days in the Academy. As I was taking my walk this morning at 6:30 [a lovely full moon hanging low in the western sky], I thought back to my first year as a senior member of the Columbia Philosophy Department, forty-nine years ago. The department at that time was like a three generation family party. There were the old wise men, at or near retirement -- Ernest Nagel, John Herman Randall, Horace Friess, and James Gutman -- the grownups -- Justus Buchler, Bob Cumming, Albert Hofstadter, Charles Frankel -- and the kids -- Sidney Morgenbesser, Richard Kuhn, Richard Taylor, Arthur Danto, James Walsh, Charles Parsons, and myself. I had been told when I was hired that my "teaching load would be two and two" -- academic shorthand for a responsibility of teaching two courses each semester. But the old men in the department, all of whom had come up in the Great Depression, had no conception of a teaching load. They were simply teachers, and when students wanted to learn something they taught it, whether that meant teaching two courses a semester or five. The year I arrived, Randall, Friess, and Gutman were teaching a seminar on something or other, joined by Frank Tannenbaum, a distinguished historian. They asked whether I would like to join them and I said sure. The seminar, if you can call it that, was a hoot. We sat in a room with maybe fifteen graduate students from all over the university and talked about whatever the students were interested in. There was no sense of "fields," or "specialties." We were all just teachers. There were some delicious moments. Every so often, for example, Jimmy and Horace would have a disagreement, and like as not Jimmy would say, "Horace, I seem to remember you took a different view of that question in 1937." Then Jack and Frank would try to recall whether Jimmy was right. I was thirty at the time, and I felt really privileged to be allowed to take part, sort of like being permitted to join in the conversation as a kid when my parents had friends over of an evening. I never forgot that window on an earlier time, when teachers taught, not counting credits or teaching loads or contact hours.