Retrospective: What It’s All About (3.15.2006)

Editorial: I’m starting off this week-long retrospective with this post because I think it reminds me most of why I am in this business of being a college professor, and why I felt like I needed an entire blog to catch the runoff from the daily work of being a college prof. An afternoon like the one I describe here is enough to keep a prof going for a whole year and I wish I could have one of them every day of the week.

I forget what the offensive comment was that got removed. Something about how ridiculous it was for a Christian to consider himself an intellectual. Whatever. On to the article.

What It’s All About

Originally posted: March 15, 2006



We’re all basically over our various illnesses at home, so now I can get caught up on a few blogworthy thoughts from the last week. Here’s one of them.

Last Friday, it was a simply stunning early spring day here with bright sunshine and temperatures in the 60’s. It was 3:00, and office hours were over, and it’s about that time of the day I get the minor wanderlust that makes me want to be anywhere on our little campus besides my office. So I grabbed some linear algebra grading and headed outside toward the excellent coffee shop in our student center.

Halfway there, I ran into two students whom I had in previous classes (one of whom is in the linear algebra class right now). One of them had this book out and the other had this book, and so we struck up a conversation about them. The first thing I asked them was what classes were using those books. They cheerfully told me that they weren’t for class; they were just reading these for fun. Oh, my Lord; I almost died from pleasure and surprise. We went on to talk for an hour about what was in those books, books in general, reading in general, spirituality and Christianity, connections between mathematics and computers and spirituality, and more. A couple other students joined us as we talked. All outside on a park bench in this lovely spring day. I never even got started on my grading — I never even made it to the coffee shop — and I’ve not had such a pleasant and energizing hour on campus in a very long time.

It struck me that this is a symbol of why I am in this profession in the first place. My job is to teach, to do research, to help manage my end of the college, to advise students and help them through the curriculum. But my vocation is more closely aligned with this little episode. Helping students whet their appetites for the life of the mind and then helping them simultaneously enflame and satisfy their curiosities is really the reason why I do what I do, and when it works there are few things out there that are more satisfying to me.

It also struck me that there is a potentially very large number of students on our campus who want a lot more, in terms of this enflaming/satisfaction of curiosity, than what they are getting from us. We have so many students whose only goals in life are personal security and the acqusition of wealth that it creates a culture on campus whereby the intellect, one’s curiosity, and the academic life are not really even on the radar of students. And that culture drives the way we think about the curriculum here. We are in the midst of revamping our general education curriculum, and I am dumbfounded by the attitude held by some of my colleagues that we shouldn’t pursue a challenging, innovative curriculum that appeals to students’ innate sense of curiosity but rather we should stay focused only on preparing them to get a job, because “the kind of students we get” don’t want curiosity or challenge, only security and acquisition. I deny this. I really think that there is a critical mass of students who want more than that, and I hope that they begin to make their voices heard.

And to the two students in question — you know who you are — thanks.

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