Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spiritual beings

I know students mean "spawn of Satan" and "you are the devil" as terms of endearment for professors; how could it be otherwise?  I'm actually far less concerned when students address me with these terms, as I assume some measure of comfort exists and the message being delivered is a variation of the your-class-is-killing-me-but-I-don't-take-it-personally type.  Not that it happens all that frequently, mind you, but it does happen.

The most recent "you are the devil" comment followed my observation that the person who'd provided editing comments on a paper (the paper was lying on the table where the team was working) clearly did not have enough to do, as there sure were a lot of edits.  Since I was the editor in question, the devil comment seems appropriate.  And, as I thought about it a few days later, I was reminded of one of my favorite Satan stories, that of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.  I've read Uncle Screwtape's letters to his nephew Wormwood multiple times, but it's been a while; so I picked up the book again...and, as is always the case with good writing, it's a rediscovery.

C.S. Lewis (who was part of the faculty at both Cambridge and Oxford) wrote The Screwtape Letters when he was 44, an age that seemed far older at one time.  With whatever limited wisdom I may have gained in the years since I first read Lewis, I now appreciate the wisdom and life experience offered in his writings.  Screwtape has a pretty accurate take on human beings, what makes us happy, and what, ultimately, leads to our greatest misery.  But, as with many other things offered to those who want to lead examined lives, it may only be of value to those of a certain age.  As with any teaching, the student must be ready.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sowing and weeding

I spent time in the garden this weekend, doing work that keeps my hands busy and allows my mind to wander.  Gardening has taught me much, both literally and metaphorically, not the least of which are a respect for rhythms and cycles, an awareness of my place (sometimes small) in any growth process, and patience.

There are many things that, I hope, have helped me to be a better teacher now than I was two decades ago.  At the top of the list is becoming a parent; a close second is being a gardener.  The beauty of the garden I have in the late spring and into the fall takes a lot of hard work, much of which is never seen by anyone.  The seemingly endless pulling of weeds, the inability to predict weather patterns, the various annoying (at least to the gardener) bugs, and the complete unpredictability of it all don't bring much joy.  But, oh, the finished product.   It's the finished product--the flowers in full and glorious bloom--that make it all worth while.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The little lies we tell

The topic was ethics...and how good people persuade themselves (and others) that certain actions aren't really wrong.  A compelling speaker who looks like one of us and has spent time in prison for her own fraudulent activities.  A well-written article about the very specific ways people in a variety of business settings rationalize their own behavior.  A class discussion (one of the rare moments when students actively participate) about the speaker, the article, our own stories.  And it still happened.  Students benefited from a grading mistake (mine), remained silent, and were hurt or dismayed when another student told me about my mistake.  

I read recently (and I can't remember of the down sides of constant consumption) that we all tend to overestimate our abilities, our skill level, even our attractiveness.  The one reported exception was people who are depressed--they tend to be the realists.  So I wonder how much those little lies we tell ourselves pave the way for the rationalizations that lead to dishonesty. 

From Bhopal to Enron to my classroom, the difference is in magnitude.  People are hurt when we fail to hold our actions--and those of others--up for rigorous scrutiny.  My last manager--who is now the CEO of the company--is a very wise man who was (probably still is) fond of saying "Bad news does not get better with age."  Truth, no matter how painful, is far less damaging than the little lies we tell ourselves and others.

I don't have any answers today, but I sure do have a lot to think about.