Universities follow an unsettling rhythm. The semester opens with a bang, a roar from the crowd...and most us kneeling on the ground tying our shoes. We all find ourselves in classrooms, with summer jobs and travel still on our minds, and are asked to suddenly read hundreds of pages, or offer cogent and enticing lectures. By perhaps the third week, with most us dazed and confused, the semester settles into an andante pace, an alternately comfortable and at times sleep-inducing stroll.
Then, before anyone is ready, the semester is at its end, but with no fireworks to accompany its conclusion. Semesters do not climax in some grand learning moment, but rather seem to collapse under the' weight of late- night grading binges, perturbed students, slush on the ground.
For some, of course, the work of this semester has just begun, even though classes are about to be over. It has always amazing to me how much "learning" takes place in that small space of time between the end of classes and the beginning of finals. Having been an undergraduate once myself-- some- thing my students sometimes forget!- I well remember speeding dangerously through several centuries of art history in the week before the final or conducting a semester's amount of research as December grew middle-aged.
But even if books are read and papers written, the spark of passion that we brought to our classes in September has finally fizzled in the puddles of December. Already our minds are dreaming of vacation and we are, perhaps reluctantly, planning for next semester. Students are choosing courses, consulting with advisers; professors are ordering books, and preparing lectures. Soon, the pain of the semester-long project, the sense of finals week vertigo, even grades (maybe!) will recede from our memories.
But will everything about the semester be gone? Won't we remember, and take with us, certain ideas, and discussions, certain experiences from our educational efforts? For better or worse, the academic season is our season -- some of you for four years, some for a few more, and some of us for a lifetime. Its worth asking, regularly, the simple question your parents asked you when you came home from grade school: What have we learned?
I 'say "we" because too often both students and professors see the road of learning that takes place in a university as a one-way, limited access highway. Professors "deliver" lectures, "lead" seminars and thus "teach." But this ignores what professors learn, or should learn, from students. Unfortunately, professors are rarely sensitive to this essential part of a university.
We live in a society that perpetuates a perverse value system, where status is too often proportional to the amount of distance you put between yourself and others. Professors, desperate for any scrap of status in a society that offers them so little, scrounge for any sign of power. One way professors accomplish this is to settle into the distance between themselves and their students, seeing in that rarefied space between them a symbol of their own position.
I would have too much hubris to suggest that I can bridge that distance, but I'll take a first step. Here is some of what I learned this semester, both the bad and the good.
I learned about the deep cyncism with which many Penn students look at the world; but I also learned about an underlying idealism that refuses to be killed.
I learned about the frustrations of a lesson plan gone awry; but I also learned to embrace the pleasant surprises of class discussion. In teaching, less can be more.
I relearned, from earlier teaching days, the annoyance of manipulative students, who sully the delicate trust between teacher and student; but I found a reserve of respect for the educational process that we too easily suggest has withered away.
I learned, in a class on immigration, about the limitations of my own thinking about race and ethnicity; I learned, in a class on American memory, about the power of personal memory for social understanding. I learned the dangers of abstraction, and the power of the specific.
But just as pleasure has more pull on memory than does pain, I leave the se- mester with a bounce of hope. For despite the frustrations that inheres to all efforts in the world of teaching, I learned most powerfully about the intellectual generosity and openness of most students. Even as I slog through drafts and re-drafts of final papers, I feel optimistic when I think of the moments of pure joy as I learned with my students.
To watch as students' eyes and minds open to new ideas, and to then find yourself looking anew as well, seeing old frameworks shatter, is an almost holy moment. These experiences are, by definition, fleeting. They arlse from an almost magical combination of knowledge, diligent study, and supportive dialogue. The balance is maintained briefly and then swings away, to reappear again when least expected.
It is these times that remind you of the utterly improbable, and truly miraculous idea that a university is built upon: people reading and thinking in private, and then conversing in public, might change the most important thing of all, how we understand our world.