Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Teaching or Research

Whenever I work on a writing project, I worry that my time would be better spent doing something else. I'm used to it, but sometimes it keeps me up at night: How can I justify slaving over a technical article on a subject whose direct relevance to my teaching will amount to perhaps two minutes of class time in a course I teach every second year? Wouldn't my summer be better spent (only) reading and exploring questions directly related to the classes I have to teach this fall--even if nothing written or publishable comes of it? Is it enough to research something because it fascinates me? Does it pass the Annie Dillard test?
‎Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality? - Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989), 68.
In this case, maybe the best response is a note to self: Next time, think twice before volunteering to write on that esoteric topic!

But to counter Dillard and my internal interlocutor, I am reminded of a talk C.S. Lewis gave to a group of university students that defends the value of "Learning in War Time." Lewis's initial point is that, for Christians, learning in war time is no different than any other:
[E]very Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by the war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or to hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology. If human culture can stand up to that, it can stand up to anything. - C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 44.*
I've quoted from Lewis's affirmative answer before. Lewis goes on to say that the pursuit of learning is worthwhile and--to qualify Dillard--we don't always need to be able to explain how all our little projects relate to the big questions in life:
Humility, no less than the appetite, encourages us to concentrate simply on the knowledge or the beauty, not too much concerning ourselves with their ultimate relevance to the vision of God. That relevance may not be intended for us but for our betters--for men who come after and find the spiritual significance of what we dug out in blind and humble obedience to our vocation. - C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 49
Lewis, it seems to me, takes for granted a classic ideal of higher education that has been obscured, if not lost altogether, in a contemporary context where schools that emphasize teaching are distinguished from research universities, and where, in the latter, one is sometimes better off staying home and working through a textbook than attending class: The scholar is paid to research, not to teach. Since there is no reward for teaching, little effort goes into doing it effectively.

According to the classic ideal, teaching and research go together. You expect a scientist to do science not just to teach it. Part of learning from a scientist is to learn about what it means to live the peculiar life of the mind that is scientific inquiry--and that is best caught from someone who lives and loves their craft enough both to share it and to practice it.The point is not for all students to become scientists--or literary scholars, for that matter--but for all to learn disciplines of learning that will form them for their own vocation. Actually, Annie Dillard says something similar:
"Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used. The works possibilities excited them; the field's complexities fired their imaginations. The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules. They learned their fields and then loved them. They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks" - Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989), 70-71.
*Lewis, obviously, hadn't read Rob Bell.

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