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Monday, August 23, 2010

On Phenomenology and Abstraction, PART 002 (with added Surrealism and other Required Existential Nutrients)

I've begun to feel an exaggerated sense of experience in the months since I left the Academy. I never completed a post I began before leaving, but somehow I had prophetically entitled it "Farewell to the Academy." As I celebrate today a simple victory I won August 23, 1989, I am reminded of how much our present experience is seasoned with our past. These days I walk into the classroom with a sense that only 10% of the lecture time belongs to me; as opposed to having an open check to experiment with how my students respond to literature. It's okay, though. I am lucky to be where I am and I think there's no better day than today to reflect on the long road behind. The last thing I believed that day in 1989 was that I would be in the position I am right now. Perhaps that is a common experience, a universal one that infects people in unique ways. Taking a look behind me I only see the dark shadow of time past--looking ahead I see young people looking at me (some of them). Some of them are so young that their "long ago past" is still very much lit, immediate and paved with "milk and honey." No, this is much more than the proverbial walking 10 miles to school barefoot. I wonder, is this generation learning anything from their so immediate past? How does this fit in the classroom today? How can I help them develop their own sense of "narrative," of "story?" Gone are the days of starting the semester with that morbid "in-class" assignment I learned from the legendary Terry Martin: "Write your obituary." These days, it seems to me, a more appropriate assignment would be "If you had all the money in the world, how would you spend it?" Yes, I bid farewell to my wonderful Academy, and with it, it seems I had to leave behind all of the so-called "impracticalities" of a Liberal Arts Education, as per Mark Edmundson. There's no space for the great questions of a positive existentialism, nor for the examination of Virtue and its role in our lives. I spend more time covering "objectives" (even at the college level where I presently am) than pursuing the Life of the Mind. 10% and with it I have to divide my time as professor and alchemist and turn gold out of copper.

August 23, 1989 was the starting line for me. I had some tools, very limited, and I had no idea what to do with them. Music had expanded my horizons, but I had to now walk on my own and find a new path. Most of that time I spent (if I remember correctly) trying to experience everything at full--no shortcuts, not one. Perhaps I embraced more than I could chew at one time, and my first semester as an undergrad was less than stellar. Yet, I was learning how life spent itself, how hours and hours and days, months and years went by with the speed of a bullet train. What I experienced was, in retrospect, so intense I wonder how I did not get burn before my time. Then came logical fallacies, arguments, Plato and the rest of the "gang," professors who really cared about my education.... literature saved me and illuminated the way that made my past doubly dark, my military experience, my loss of faith in humankind. I not only couldn't turn back--there was no past to speak of, and I began to feel that half of my experiences had evaporated into thin air. The few days between undergraduate and graduate school saw me turn from student to teacher (T.A.s were more like adjunct, miserable pay and no benefits: a great savings for that corporate institution known as higher education). I was thrown in the classroom with an anthology and was told to teach students how to think for themselves. Looking back after 15 years I now realize that only the time before 1989 is in darkness--the time after has remained illuminated by my role as teacher. There have been good and bad students, good and bad colleagues, good and bad administrators, good and bad classrooms, but never a bad day.

The abstraction in all of this rests on the fact that no one can predict (from one day to the next) where this so-called "New Economy" is taking us. Between consumerism and long stretches of forbearance of student loans the young do a precarious balancing act that takes up all of their time. Freshmen today pick and choose from a menu of courses that gives them the edge when they are ready to internship or graduate, whichever comes first. More and more "elective" liberal arts courses are being canceled for lack of enrollment, yet not even a single space is to be found in courses like "Business Ethics and Risk Management."

I feel (as I said in my earlier post regarding phenomenology and abstraction) I am still at that skating rink, far away yet close to the security blanket of institutional organization. What I see in the classroom and what is required to do seem to be pulling in different directions. I still go round and round trying to find a balance. The dark clouds and the strong, cool, humid air predicting rain are still here with me. A shared sense of isolation--a contradiction, a paradox, a no win situation. God help us all.

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