A questionnaire

Just a couple days left, as time winds down on the Fall 2012 regular semester. More final report presentations are on tap today in CoPhi and EEA. Meanwhile, I’ve been pondering my responses to a student’s questionnaire [scroll down]. Thanks again for asking, Arielle, and for converting my thoughts into such a nicely air-brushed portrait.  It was indeed an honor, as always, to spend another semester trying to encourage representatives of the next generation to save us from ourselves. Some excerpts, with just a few addenda:

3.  What do you like best about working at MTSU?  What do you like least? I like the students, their friendliness and creativity. I like my colleagues. I dislike the bureaucratic entanglements of academic administration, the timidity and caution encouraged (despite tenured academic freedom) by our having to be funded by anti-intellectuals in the state legislature (representing anti-intellectuals in the general population, of course). Let me quickly add: there are plenty of things not to like about some aspects of the intellectual/academic professional life (narrowness, smugness, condescending attitudes towards “ordinary” people on the parts of some academics)… but the practice of questioning assumptions and challenging unexamined traditional inheritances is not among them. We need more of that, but those who hold our purse-strings tend not to be very thoughtfully reflective or self-critical. They may not be the “worst” (or they just may be)– that’s a hard list to crack, in America– but they’re trouble enough.

Another least-liked thing it might be purgative to note: too many meetings!

dilbert meetings

Our weekly staff meetings, for instance, do not observably accomplish any more work, resolve any more conflicts, or achieve any greater consensus, than when convened monthly or even biennially. My friend the department chair in Alabama was elected on a platform of No Meetings. That’s extreme. But life is short.

OK, just one more: I don’t like the petty way some petty chieftains wield their authority to dispense and withhold  essential resources (like office space).

4.  What do you hope students will remember about your course when the semester is over?  What do you hope they will remember five years from now? I sincerely hope they’ll remember that Philosophy class helped them establish a life-long habit of thinking for themselves, discussing ideas, listening to other points of view, occasionally even changing their minds about something important because of that habit. I hope they’ll remember Einstein’s statement: “The important thing is to never stop asking questions.” A propos that, a nice Einstein anecdote:

ONE DAY during his tenure as a professor, Albert Einstein was visited by a student. “The questions on this year’s exam are the same as last year’s!” the young man exclaimed.

“Yes,” Einstein answered, “but this year all the answers are different.”

I hope they’ll remember The Philosophers Song, too. There’s a first for almost everything.

5.  Do you have a philosophy on teaching?  Do you have a philosophy on life?  Explain. My teaching philosophy, which I don’t always live up to, is to follow William James’s advice: prepare by thoroughly immersing in the subject, then when you get in the classroom “trust your spontaneity.” My life philosophy is: “memento mori,” remember you must die… but also remember (as Richard Dawkins says) that you’re one of the lucky ones who got to live. Try to make a contribution to the “continuous human community.” I also like what Kurt Vonnegut said in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, when he offered these words of welcome to newborns: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Basically, my teaching philosophy is self-indulgent: I’m here to learn, too, and I don’t learn as much if I’m doing all the talking. Next semester, though, I’m planning this improvement: I’m going to acquire a loud gong, and appoint a student in each class to ring it loudly at ten minute intervals to keep us (me) moving along. The discussion group format is great, but I have a tendency to linger over compelling conversations. Group #4 tends to get shorted.

I’d also add this observation of Samuel Butler’s to my life philosophy: “All animals except man know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.” Or as George Santayana put it, “There’s no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”

9.  What do you like best about MTSU (the university in general)? See #3. Also, I like the relative diversity on our campus, and the fact that it’s a fairly enlightened & progressive enclave surrounded by a conservative community. I like college towns in general, in that respect, and (in my experience) midwestern & southern college towns in particular. Columbia MO and M’boro TN are “smaller” (so to speak) than the institutions they host.

I also like the way our campus is sprucing up with that shiny new Student Center, the new Science Building, more bike-accessible roads, etc.

10.  What advice would you give us to make our years at MTSU the best to improve ourselves and reach our personal and academic goals? Give yourself permission to think. Experiment with ideas and attitudes you didn’t bring with you to campus. Really talk to your profs (go to office hours even when you don’t have an issue or problem to resolve), engage with your peers, get involved with student organizations, remember that if you put more of yourself into it now you’ll look back on your time in college with fondness for the freedom it gave you to discover who you are and can be. To paraphrase Thoreau: don’t just be good,  be good for something.

That’s really a terrific question. I wish I’d asked it back when I was an undergrad. I wish I’d spent a little more time hanging with the profs who were not quite so gregarious. Office hours are one of the great untapped springs students still neglect. Come see me, you can sit in my comfy chair and we’ll settle the universe’s hash together.

It occurs to me that I need to draft one more addendum to question #5, as we continue in EEA to dream of “Ecotopia,” touching on my life philosophy with respect to our terrestrial home.

ECO- from the Greek oikos (household or home) -TOPIA from the Greek topos (place)

Carl Sagan said it best: we live out our lives, all of us, on “a pale blue dot… a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.” This astonishing fact must, if anything can, “underscore our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

One Response to “A questionnaire”

  1. Edrell Smith(13) Says:

    I agree that bureaucratic entanglements from the “anti-intellectuals” ,as you call them, can be very frustrating. However, knowing that process has to take place, unless better alternatives are presented, means that we should do what’s in our power to correct it. Philosophy is a great way to leave a legacy in changing the world. When applied properly, more problems would be solved and potential conflicts avoided. Law is also another way to leave a lasting legacy.Using that to propel me into politics is how I will leave my footprint on the world. I think that more lawyers, and politicians should “diversify” their thinking by taking more philosophy and ethics classes so that people that share your sentiment of “oh lord, another lawyer” doesn’t cloud their judgement about the person outside of the profession. …Great interview by the way.

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