The Werewolf Priesthood

Well, I’m exhausted. We’re coming up on Spring Break, and as excited as my students are for the rest, I’m coasting into it on fumes. Luckily for me, tonight my youngest fell asleep in my arms at about 6:15 so my wife and I were gifted with a quiet evening. One thing I like to do that I haven’t been able to lately is sit down with milk and cookies and watch monster movies, so this is what I did.

I went with an childhood favorite, Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. It’s a really fun (and surprisingly sweet) werewolf movie with Corey Haim, Gary Busey, and Anne of Green Gables. If you have Amazon Prime, it’s free right now, so you should check it out.

SPOILER’S AHEAD

(as if you care…come on, no one’s really going to watch this are they?)

The story is your basic whodunit, with clues about the werewolf’s identity being slowly unfolded until … tada … it’s the local minister.

Silver Bullet

This notion, the werewolf priest, intrigues me.

It apparently has a long folklore tradition, but this movie is my only experience with it. I’m sure that there are Christians out there who will take great exception to the plot twist and see it as another in a long line of instances where Hollywood, or “the mainstream media” cruelly trashes religion in general and Christians in particular. This is a tired and not-very-true-or-interesting narrative that I don’t feel like dealing with here. Let’s just say that every profession and culture thinks it gets overwhelmingly negative press. See almost any movie about an English professor. So shut up and think about what it means to be part of the Royal Priesthood. More on this below.

One thing I find so fascinating about the werewolf priest in this particular movie is that, on some level, there is a sense that God may actually be using this monster for his own terrifying ends and purposes. The priest’s affliction (we never find out how he became a werewolf) has the appearance of divine calling at the beginning of the movie. He doesn’t truly become the bad guy until he tries to keep his secret safe by attempting to kill a disabled little boy who knows his secret. Before this, his victims seem to be chosen not by random, but by the Almighty himself. I have no idea about the doctrinal ramifications of this narrative, but it does make for some thought-provoking viewing. Those more theologically-minded than me are requested to comment further about this below.

The other thing about the priest’s curse is that I could sort of relate. I remember delivering a sermon at church once about the royal priesthood and finding the whole thing to be rather impossible. We’re somehow supposed to live in this world in a way that resists its institutions while simultaneously respecting them. I quote:

Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

This is a rather tall order, I think. In my sermon, I think I also threw in a bit about werewolves and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (much to my pastor’s chagrin, I’m sure), paying close attention to the damage we often do when we seek to withdraw from the constraints placed on us by various institutional manifestations of “the man.”

 

Richard Mansfield was best known for the dual ...

Richard Mansfield was best known for the dual role depicted in this double exposure: he starred in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in both New York and London. The stage adaptation opened in London in 1887, a year after the publication of the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

The ironic dilemma we are ultimately faced with is that to properly live outside the systems of culture, we have to live in harmony with them. The line is exceedingly thin. The werewolf priest apparently failed at some point to ethically walk it, and became not an agent of God’s mysterious will, but a true monster.

I teach English. (Wow! What a smooth transition). I teach at a tiny Christian college in a small, rural town, much like the one in the movie. I love living here and I love my job very much, but, being new to the area, I have often felt a dreadful isolation and have, at times, withdrawn. In some sense, and through no real fault of my own, I have not lived as harmoniously within the local cultural institutions as I eventually hope to as I grown into my role in the community.

In the absence of that harmony, I have thrown myself into my work to a sometimes frightening degree. I stay late when I’m not teaching, and I exhaust myself when I am. I love what I’m doing, and I think I’m doing a good job by my students. This has been a rich and rewarding experience that I would never trade, as I do feel I’m doing the work God has blessed and cursed me with.

Watching this movie for the umpteenth time has made me pause, though. My work is my responsibility, but so also are my family and my community. How can I walk the line as werewolf priest, without becoming a monster?

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Twitter Plus Teaching=Tweaching?

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In one of my very first posts, I wondered how I might incorporate Twitter into my composition class. This week I actually tried it, and I think that it worked. I want to emphasize that it was by no means smooth going, but, as is normal for me, I take that as a sign of success. See Groucho Marx.

First, a little context. We are in the middle of our research projects and we’re currently emphasizing that our arguments are not simply us speaking our minds, but rather our engagement with bigger conversations. (I say us because I’m doing a project along with my class, in case you missed that post).

It’s important for me that my students understand that they already constantly compose writing within this model. Twitter, for example, makes use of things like hashtags and a “reply” function. For me, this is a handy metaphor for the conversational aspect of academic writing. The # is a symbolic representation of an ongoing, complex, and highly organic conversation. The reply feature is a way to speak directly back to an individual contribution to that conversation. This week, I made the argument that our choosing of topics is akin to applying a hashtag to something we want to say. When we bring an outside voice into our papers, through quotation or paraphrase, we are essentially hitting the reply button.

So to illustrate, I created a unique hashtag before class (#TwitterForComp) and Tweeted the question “How can we use Twitter in composition class?” In class, I had my students pull out their smartphones and laptops (their faces – you’d have thought it was Christmas morning) and tweet ideas aimed at that hashtag. This is where the messiness began.

Many students tweeted really thoughtful responses. Someone suggested that doing a hashtag search might be a way to discover articles or opinions about their topic. Someone else noted that Twitter’s required conciseness is good practice in formulating a thesis or topic sentence clearly and efficiently. I was rather blown away by responses like these, and there were more than a few.

There were, however, students who used the opportunity to goof around a little. This is completely understandable to me and, in some ways, I encouraged it, but it made me work a little harder to achieve my pedagogical goals. I am grateful for the chaos, however. It gave me an opening to describe for them what they were doing in composing these playful tweets and how that might be useful in their research.

I told them that they were, in essence, diagnosing what would get a particular audience’s attention and constructing humorous tweets to achieve that goal – to reach someone. I told them that I was not offended by this and that they should in fact do precisely that when constructing their arguments in their final projects. Their jokes were interesting because they were interested in their audience. “Interested people are interesting people,” is what I wrote on the white board. I noted that the interesting people I follow on Twitter (Drunk Hulk for example) gain my attention because of their creative engagement with the world around them. I applauded their improvisation asked that they think about appropriate ways to gain the attention and applause of their research papers’ readers.

We’ll have to see about the long-term effects of this class, but it seemed to have, at least temporarily, driven home the idea that their research papers are not simply a platform to scream their opinions at the world. They are, instead, an opportunity to thoughtfully participate in a conversation. I told them that a critic does not simply tell everyone what he thinks. That is what a douchbag does. A critic listens and responds.

I don’t want to be a douchbag. I value your opinion about this hashtag. Please reply either here or at the Facebook page.

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The Buried Life

Long before it inspired a basic-cable series dedicated to MTV douchebaggery, Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem, “The Buried Life,” inspired generations to quiet introspection.

Who has not, after all, sensed that there might be something more to life? Something richer? Who has not felt bitter sadness at their inability to escape the immediate demands of life in order to pursue an unclear purpose and invisible meaning? Like generations have before me, I too have found solace and desperate inspiration in its 98 lines, and I wanted to use this forum to experience it’s wisdom once again. After all, as the poem’s speaker suggests, “The same heart beats in every human breast.”

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Upon her retirement, my beloved adviser, Dr. Judith Oster, gave me her copy of The Portable Matthew Arnold, edited by Lionel Trilling. Given the nature of my dissertation, she thought it a poetically appropriate gift and it is precious to me. I love that Lionel Trilling edited it. I love that it identifies itself as “portable,” meaning that art need not be something dead and compartmentalized, but alive and living with me. But mostly, I love that my adviser, mentor, and friend passed its wisdom on to me. With it in my possession, I feel as though I’m a part of a great tradition. And as much as Arnold’s own printed words, I relish Judy’s handwritten marginalia. It captures an image of my intellectual forebear struggling for the first time with great art and great ideas. Seeing the undergraduate underlining and engaged scribbling of my great teacher makes me imagine her life and career as a classical epic, and inspires me to try and carry on her intellectual and moral work. Much of what I know of the “best that’s been thought and said,” she taught me, after all.

Arnold’s poem retains its moving power even in our distracted, immediate age. It’s able to do this because it identifies a human longing that is not bound by time or place.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life

What the speaker identifies is a human desire for meaning. Despite the claims of early Derrida and recent “advances” in science, human beings long for meaning, whether it is actually there or not. Some of us waste that desire seeking out a collection of consumable products or hedonistic frivolity to quench our thirst for meaning. Those things need not be the ends of our desires, however.

Self-absorption is not the only barrier to digging our our buried lives, however. Conversely, some expend their divine longings by assembling a life built on ostensibly good things like family, community, and religion. But these things as ends unto themselves are also inadequate. Indeed, the poem asks,

Alas, is even Love too weak

To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

So what are we to do? What is the point? The point is that there is a point. And too many people miss it.

Those who wish to confine our lives to the mathematics of particle accelerators and the pre-destination of chemistry will not agree with the transcendence this poem conceives of. But, “The Buried Life” suggests that there is something inside each of us, a “true self” that awaits discovery. The notion that the essence of our lives is arbitrary and constructed is an alien one to Arnold here. Yes, much of what we do with our time “in the world’s most crowded streets” is arbitrary and lived entirely in the “din of strife,” but this poem offers a bleak, distant hope that there is an objective beauty to be grasped and experienced. That there is a purpose each of us is born to.

Yet — and this is what can be debilitating — this quest can never be fulfilled and we are therefore Sisyphus, forever pushing that rock uphill. This is the act in which we must find our joy.

I think I must be drawn to this poem at this moment because I’ve seemingly found my calling, the life that was buried in my breast all along.

And yet.

What can explain the fact that these words resonate with me in a manner that destroys any comfort I might otherwise rest in?

But often, in the din of strife,

There rises an unspeakable desire

After the knowledge of our buried life;

A thirst to spend our fire and restless force

In tracking out our true, original course;

One general critique of Arnold’s liberal humanist project is that it closes down free inquiry. It’s deference to “the best that’s been thought and said” is usually cited as an unthinking dedication to tradition. I think that this is a reductionist interpretation, if not patently false. The speaker in this poem sees life as a never ending, beautifully tragic inquiry. There is no comfortable resting on laurels. The philosophical position this poem takes is, I think, consistent with Arnold’s body of poetry and criticism, and it refutes the naive simplicity imposed upon his reputation by the dogmatists of European philosophy. If anything, Arnold provides a tortured, restless window from which to experience the world. It does not allow for confidence or privilege. It requires eternal introspection, all the while knowing that there is no depth at which the answer will be revealed. The poem states this flatly:

Into the mystery of this heart which beats

So wild, so deep in us — to know

Whence our lives come and where they go.

And many a man in his own breast then delves,

But deep enough, alas! None ever mines.

The Blessed Assurance that Arnold is accused of peddling is certainly not evident in these lines. This is a philosophy instead more attuned to the Romanticism of Bruce Springsteen. The ‘Burns and The Boss each find the beauty and truth of life in the Darkness on the Edge of Town. My own attraction to this poem at this moment can probably be traced to my desire to maintain touch with that landscape and the inspiring uncertainties that reside within. Only they can provide a goal worthy of my own “fire and restless force,” spent endlessly trading in my wings on some wheels. In fact, Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” perfectly captures the spirit of Arnold’s poem.

This sounds rather terrifying and hopeless, I know. “The Buried Life,” however, like Springsteen’s song, also provides a flash of hope that makes the uncertain risks worth taking. Arnold writes:

Only — but this is rare —

When a beloved hand is laid in ours,

When, jaded with the rush and glare

Of the interminable hours,

Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,

When our world-deafen’d ear

Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—

Rare though it may be, I have experienced enough of this exhilaration to keep me energized for the endless journey. Like Mary in Springsteen’s great epic, my own Beloved’s hand has offered me the clear vision that reveals the Buried Life. The poem’s last three lines describe that experience:

And then he thinks he knows

The hills where his life rose,

And the sea where it goes.

The brief glimpses of “the point” of my life are what exhilarate me and make me eager for my own time spent in Springsteen’s Edge of Town. I have a beloved wife and family that give me this perspective, and I also have great art. All of us have this; it is our cultural inheritance and we need only claim it. Arnold’s poem, ending as it does with this promise of vision, offers “an air of coolness,” a reason to risk excavating the Buried Life. The poem itself is a “beloved hand” that is “laid in ours.” This is what Judy gave me when she passed her book down to me. This is why we shouldn’t be so bold as to laugh off the best that’s been thought and said.

                      The Buried Life

                                by

                       Matthew Arnold

   Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o’er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there’s a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.
Give me thy hand, and hush awhile,
And turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.

Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
I knew the mass of men conceal’d
Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d
They would by other men be met
With blank indifference, or with blame reproved;
I knew they lived and moved
Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest
Of men, and alien to themselves—and yet
The same heart beats in every human breast!

But we, my love!—doth a like spell benumb
Our hearts, our voices?—must we too be dumb?

Ah! well for us, if even we,
Even for a moment, can get free
Our heart, and have our lips unchain’d;
For that which seals them hath been deep-ordain’d!

Fate, which foresaw
How frivolous a baby man would be—
By what distractions he would be possess’d,
How he would pour himself in every strife,
And well-nigh change his own identity—
That it might keep from his capricious play
His genuine self, and force him to obey
Even in his own despite his being’s law,
Bade through the deep recesses of our breast
The unregarded river of our life
Pursue with indiscernible flow its way;
And that we should not see
The buried stream, and seem to be
Eddying at large in blind uncertainty,
Though driving on with it eternally.

But often, in the world’s most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
And many a man in his own breast then delves,
But deep enough, alas! none ever mines.
And we have been on many thousand lines,
And we have shown, on each, spirit and power;
But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves—
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on for ever unexpress’d.
And long we try in vain to speak and act
Our hidden self, and what we say and do
Is eloquent, is well—but ’tis not true!
And then we will no more be rack’d
With inward striving, and demand
Of all the thousand nothings of the hour
Their stupefying power;
Ah yes, and they benumb us at our call!
Yet still, from time to time, vague and forlorn,
From the soul’s subterranean depth upborne
As from an infinitely distant land,
Come airs, and floating echoes, and convey
A melancholy into all our day.

Only—but this is rare—
When a belov’ed hand is laid in ours,
When, jaded with the rush and glare
Of the interminable hours,
Our eyes can in another’s eyes read clear,
When our world-deafen’d ear
Is by the tones of a loved voice caress’d—
A bolt is shot back somewhere in our breast,
And a lost pulse of feeling stirs again.
The eye sinks inward, and the heart lies plain,
And what we mean, we say, and what we would, we know.
A man becomes aware of his life’s flow,
And hears its winding murmur; and he sees
The meadows where it glides, the sun, the breeze.

And there arrives a lull in the hot race
Wherein he doth for ever chase
That flying and elusive shadow, rest.
An air of coolness plays upon his face,
And an unwonted calm pervades his breast.
And then he thinks he knows
The hills where his life rose,
And the sea where it goes.

Arnold's grave

The Fourteenth of February

leonardo-da-vinci-heart

I think that if this blog could be summed up in a single word, I would choose “Love.”

I have, for reasons all my own, a deep passion for life and for experiencing it with all my senses and the whole of my imagination. If you’re still reading this blog after two months, I suspect you’re in the same boat. What you may not know, however is the role that a very special person played in forming this passion within me.

So today, I want to talk about Love itself. To do so I will focus on the person who is for me the embodiment of it. My wife, Kim.

It is, I think, a sign of how far we’ve fallen as a culture that even a discussion of this greatest of virtues is so easily drawn into the pettiness of politics. Even as a type these words, I worry about who I’m going to offend. “What about those from broken marriages?” “How can I work gender equality in the workplace into this?” “There’s gay marriage now Anderson, what about that?”

Call me an idiot, but I believe that it’s possible to transcend the mechanical and mean world of politics, culture, and economics. Damn Foucault’s torpedoes, I’m going to pull back, with my Love, onto Matthew Arnold’s darkling plain at Dover Beach.

The picture above that I’ve chosen for this piece fully represents my views on the issue. Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the human heart represents what is most certainly mechanical and scientific about human beings. We are kept alive by a pump after all. Da Vinci, however, doesn’t leave the object of his study in the realm of cold, heartless fact. He rescues it by rendering it as art – an art that inspires wonder and emotion, and one that creates a new space in which to experience life. This is the human heart. At once, mechanical and transcendent. Leonardo’s genius is in his ability to reconcile this contradiction.

St. Paul started a millennial firestorm with the whole “Wives submit to your husbands” thing. For my entire life, churches have fought and split over the politics of this issue. Yet I ask you to take a look at almost any little church across the land and tell me who keeps it operational. I recently read an article criticizing The Feminine Mystique for being racist and classist. Once we get into politics, just as in the church turf-wars of my youth, it seems division is the only possibility. My point here is not to argue the theologically correct view of women in the church or even the politically correct women, class, and race. I frankly don’t care anymore.

My wife is more than the love of my life. She is its pump. She came into my petty little world and pulled me out into a larger, infinitely richer one. My wife, for reasons that I will never understand, saw something in me that had value and she fought for it. This was no easy fight. Her adversary was a stubborn and ignorant boy, but her essential goodness (combined with a rugged stubbornness of her own) had the day. What’s more, she did not abandon me to my new life. Each day, she lives it with me and teaches me how to live it better. This is a tireless, courageous act that is perpetual and constant. Like the human heart, she contracts and expands to keep the whole system well-nourished and functional. And like Da Vinci, I am in constant awe of her magnificence.

This is important to understand: She is not only my partner. This is not a business relationship. She is part of me. The best part of me, in fact. Her love is not something that is added to my life like a spice. It is not a supplement, but rather a creative energy that gives purpose and meaning to everything I do or experience. Her love is the very landscape upon which my life is lived. It creates my life everyday and enriches each experience as it happens. The legal concept of partnership fails to capture what is magnificent about Kim. If we where merely partners, it would be implied that I have an existence outside my relationship with her. I don’t. Her love once-and-for-all eradicated useless, old-me. Thank God. Without her, I don’t exist at all.

Emptiness into fullness. Fear into joy. If I am an idiot for believing in transcendence, so be it. I have good reason. I have lived it, and I’ve discovered that Love is transcendent. Kim, through a force that science cannot account for or measure, entered into a life, changed it, gave it meaning, and creates it anew each day.

My wife is a miracle.

Happy Valentines Day, honey.

The Agent of Chaos: Teaching as a Student

horsefeathers01

I am about to step into the Undiscovered Country.

For whatever reason, since I’ve become a “professional,” I’ve continually sought out the “amateur.” In a later post, I plan on exploring this ethic more deeply, but for now, all I mean is that my so-called success in landing a job as an English professor has emboldened me to ruthlessly experiment with my teaching methods. Maybe I’m too cocky for my own good, but finishing my terminal degree seems to have relieved a self-imposed pressure to please my betters and explore the possibilities of teaching English in ways that speak to my own passions and imagination.

Generally, my teaching style is to institute a bit of anarchy in the classroom. I have an agenda, but whatever I put on it depends on my students participating and pursuing their own education, not passively sitting back as I provide information.

Consumers do not enjoy my classes.

But I stress to my students that the activity I require, though sometimes chaotic, is meant to keep them from settling into a passivity that can stifle education. I do understand that different people have different learning styles, and that some people are engaged as they passively sit back, watch, and listen. Believe it or not, I myself am one of those people. I account for this as best I can by providing some instruction each class, but it is usually supplemented by exploratory writing, group workshops, and some sort of problem-solving activity. My role in the class is, in a sense, like that of Groucho Marx in the great movie Horse Feathers.

Groucho, playing Quincy Adams Wagstaff, institutes chaos among a stuffy college faculty, then organizes the anarchy into a highly crafted production. This is my goal each class, my garden of pedagogical Eden.

I am aware of my motives, but self-awareness comes with a price. I’ve slowly come to realize that each time I teach, I have one specific student in mind.

Me.

My first run at college ended in failure as I was unable to conjure a vision of myself that was sufficient enough to keep me interested in learning. The professorial me is now always and forever trying to reach the withdrawn, aimless, youthful me that follows me into every classroom. His ghost still haunts the man he has become.

I think that my students largely enjoy my classes, but they must be ever so confused at the figure at the front of their classroom. I think the picture above captures my fragmented ego better than my words can describe it. I am, in many ways, both men in that publicity shot. Culture and Anarchy, bitter enemies and passionate lovers, working together. This is the chaotic contradiction I draw on to try and empower my students. This chimera. This boy-man. This momentary professor who is an eternal student.

Well, given this back-story and my propensity for experimentation, I was knocked over by a comment I received this week on this blog. In my post “Dear Student: Teaching as Relationship,” I wrote about a certain assignment prompt I wrote as a personal letter to my students. I received the following comment:

Have you also done this assignment? I teach a boatload of composition courses and find that doing my own assignments gives me perspective. I just take it through the rough draft. That’s not critique or advice, by the way. I just want to know.

This, quite frankly, blew my mind, and I am ever so grateful for this person taking the time to comment. The idea of doing one of my own assignments has never crossed my mind, but I found the idea irresistible. Not to psychoanalyze myself, but the notion of attempting as a student an assignment I designed as a teacher beautifully captures the exhilarating terror of the split personality I bring into my classroom. Immediately I began plotting.

So here is the experiment. My research writing class is about to undertake their semester-long research assignments. I, as a good faculty member, conduct my own research all the time anyway, so why not do a research paper with my students? It began today. I had planned a set of activities to help my classes work from their questions about their topic to working thesis statements that will send them off hunting for their first volley of research. So I explained my plan and, like an engaged student would do, presented my own research project using the same four steps I had asked them to use. I then committed to preparing my own annotated bibliography, my own research proposal, my own rough draft…everything I am requiring them to do I am going to do myself.

With them. As one of them.

I admitted to my students that this was an enthusiastic experiment and it may end up as a foolish idealistic failure, but even so, I wanted them to feel a sense of ownership in this class. My attempt at leveling the distance between student and teacher was meant to treat them as intellectual peers as well as my students. How this balance will work, we will all learn together. I asked how they felt about this experiment and most of them expressed an enthusiasm for it.

Then something astonishing happened.

I set them off developing their own working thesis statements and, stepping back into my teacher-self, scurried among them, answering any questions they had about their projects. The number of thoughtful, probing questions I fielded was dizzying. Everyone had real questions about how to pursue topics that suddenly seemed to matter very much to them. My students were engaged, and I was elated.

This pedagogical bliss then reached a magnificent crescendo, a chaos worthy of Groucho Marx himself. One of my students took my playful experimentation and threw it right back at me. “Do we get to grade your paper at the end?” he asked.

This is going to be so much fun.

I will try and provide periodic updates about this adventure. In the meantime, I would love to hear from you about your experiences or concerns with my teaching methods and would gladly receive any advice. Please feel free to comment either here or, even better, at The Arnoldian Project Facebook page (like the Project at the upper left corner).

Architecture, the Campus, and Learning to Become

Kenyon

Last semester, I was responsible for more than one existential crisis, I fear.

If you’ve followed this blog for any period of time, you know that I don’t only enjoy confusing my students, I feel that it’s essential to their education. I believe that disorientation requires re-orientation and that is what learning is all about. My post about the Bernard Malamud story “Angel Levine” should explain what I mean.

Another essential element in the alchemy of education is, of course, curiosity. In fact let’s call it Curiosity, with a capital C. It where education begins (and possibly ends).

The crises I set in motion were related to an assignment I gave my freshmen. I asked them, in short, to be curious about their surroundings. I assigned a paper in which students were to write about their own campus. It is their temporary home after all, so I thought it was appropriate that they thoughtfully consider what the experience means. They were to choose a single place on campus, and it could have been any place, to analyze. I wanted them to consider the location of their chosen space and its prominent features.

My hope was that they would pause at particular spot and observe, noticing how the space functions. Who has access to it? What pragmatic goals does it serve? And most importantly, what kind of person is the space supposed to create? This is the question that caused all the ruckus.

The difficulty was simply that my students had never considered that spaces might be supposed to do anything. To many of them, places are strictly constructed to walk over or sit in. My asking them to find meaning in their built environment was paramount to Jesus asking the Rich Young Ruler to sell all his possessions.

My students’ difficulty with the assignment (and thus me) is not unique. For so many people, it’s unnatural to think with any depth about how places shape our desires and conceptions of ourselves. To me, this is apparent in the mad rush toward online learning and things that are, for some reason, called “MOOCS” (no, Bubble Boy, not the Moors). My good friend Danielle Nielsen is currently writing about her experiences with these things at her excellent blog http://dnielsen2.blogspot.com/. I wish her all the luck in the world and am enjoying reading her updates.

Education as Baptism

The idea behind this distance-learning initiative suggests, whether intentionally or not, that education is as simple as the transference of information. It denies the possibility that education might instead be a special immersion in a specific environment to create and expand a student’s experience. I use the term “baptism” loosely, but I think it works as a metaphor for what I’m getting at. Just as the devotee is submerged (in some traditions) and emerges a new person, the student immerses him or herself in their chosen institution, an act which will ideally change them for the better. Becoming is, therefore, a spiritual experience.

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In the act of destroying the physical campus, the movement toward distance in education destroys this spiritual aspect of higher learning as well. And, ironically, the e-learning philosophy bears remarkable similarity to my students view of campus space. Both physical space and education itself are simply landscapes to be traversed, not experiences to be savored.

Jeff Selingo recently defended the campus experience in an insightful article that I hope you will take the time to read. His sentiments echo my own. I fear that in the rush to provide information to students, we are too willing to ignore their humanity. What is passing for education is really merely credentialing for industrial purposes. Education is something different than that.

Education, like humanity itself, is about becoming. This means that it’s every bit as spiritual a process as it is technical. It therefore extends beyond the information transmitted in the classroom and out into the campus space. Yes, we learn who we might be by studying the facts of George Washington’s life, but we are also offered visions of our potential selves by the spaces in which we abide. Take City College of New York, for instance:

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This magnificent campus was built to educate New York’s poor and decidedly un-privileged (Bernard Malamud is one prominent example out of many). In fact, it was so much thought of as a place for the children of the city’s Jewish immigrants that CCNY was jokingly said to stand for Circumcised Citizens of New York.

Yet take some time to experience the details of its buildings and plazas. This is a campus space that values its students and their potential. Notice the promise the design offers the working-class student. The Gothic design immerses the urbanite in an educational tradition that extends through the ages, forcing them out of their immediate environment, backwards through history. By walking these halls and sitting in this plaza, students are placed in virtual conversation with the best that’s been thought and said. Great architecture is access to something currently out of reach, and this campus grants that access.

Also, note the prominence of the windows. Their size and sheer number certainly bring light into CCNY’s classrooms, but they also narrow the distance between the learning going on inside the classroom and the experiences of life outside. It’s as if students are encouraged to understand that the things they learn in these rooms are meant to be permanent and portable. This empowers education and suggests that there is a future to be forged outside these walls. It screams “Be Something Great.”

I have only emphasized architecture in this reflection, but the social is equally vital in the college experience as Selingo articulates in his article. Human beings are social by nature, for better or worse. By occupying physical spaces with other people, networks are possible. Long-lasting, meaningful friendships can be forged. Mentoring that passes down a tradition of wisdom is available. Education can be, at its best, deeply and broadly imagined. Students can be encouraged to become in a way that distance-learning simply cannot replicate.

Or I suppose that efficient, cost-effective, and icy cubicles will work just as well.

I’d love your opinions about this, so please share them either here or, even better, on the Arnoldian Project Facebook page (link is to the left of the page). Do your experiences match my mushy idealism? How much hot air am I full of?

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Towards a Werewolf Apologetics

werewolves

Quick note at the start. If you haven’t yet, please click the Facebook “Like” button to the left. I try to supplement this blog with miscellaneous links and such on Facebook a couple of times a week. Having folks look at them would be great. Now for this werewolf business.

I recently introduced my students to Michael Chabon’s short stories, specifically one entitled “Werewolves in Their Youth.” It’s a great story that revels in both the wonder and the danger of the human imagination. It’s right up my alley, in other words.

I have a strategy when it comes to teaching. It basically boils down to confusing my students whenever possible, then working to help them catch up. I call this “education.” I pace around the room and stand beside them, lean over and ask them a direct question face to face . . . I basically model my classroom presence after Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Law in Order: Criminal Intent. Sure they look at me like I’m a little crazy, but at least they pay attention most of the time. What can I say? As much as I’d like to be Lionel Trilling, I’m ever only Groucho Marx. Sometimes I even dress like him to teach.

Anderson Groucho

I know, I know. But sometimes a cigar is just a rolled-up piece of brown construction paper. More Freud further down.

Anyway, many of my students were disturbed when they looked at the syllabus on the first day of class and saw the title of the Chabon story. I teach at a small Christian college in a rural area and I think that I may have, as the kids say, “freaked them out” a little. Not wanting to have the villagers descend on my castle with pitchforks and torches, I assured them that there weren’t any actual werewolves in the story, just two misfit boys with wild imaginations.

But now I’m thinking, why not?

I happen to really love werewolf movies (a shock to my regulars, I’m sure), and I’m quite certain that a course devoted to werewolves would be entirely appropriate at any college, particularly a Christian college.

Alright, time for apologetics mode. Stay with me.

Treatise on the Christian Werewolf

Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf describes the human condition as such:

There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life.

The werewolf, as imagined in Hesse’s novel, but particularly the classical Hollywood rendition, is a splendid image of what it is to be human. All of us, each in our own way, walk the line between civility and brutality. This (I assume) mythical creature embodies that struggle. Here is a human body striving to live in a society with other humans, and upon it, brutal, cruel nature has collapsed.

Now, with the advent of the Twilight franchise, I know that the ancient conflict between human and nature is not fashionable. Ms. Meyer has popularized what I call, “the Magical Werewolf.” This is an individual who has come to some sort of happy oneness with nature and draws upon its violent resources to gain righteous empowerment and glittery self-actualization. This is self-help gibberish and I’ll have nothing to do with it. By stripping the creature of its agony, the Magical Werewolf has also stripped it of its dignity. I prefer the An American Werewolf in London vision:

A true Christian

This scene leaves no doubt that David is cursed. Well, I don’t want to break this to you, but we are all cursed. At the beginning of the film, David is just an innocent college-kid hiking across Europe on summer vacation. By the end, he is a vicious killer. The scene above captures the tortuous moments which comprise the border between the two. And I submit that these moments are where we all are most of the time. This film (my personal favorite movie) shows us the torment of living in a society as fallen, sinful creatures. The werewolf is a uniquely sympathetic monster because he or she is each of us.

There is, I think, ample evidence in the Bible for my argument. As cursed punishment, Adam and Eve are placed into direct and eternal conflict with nature, banished from their previously easy communion with the animals (take that Team Jacob). This forced distinction between human beings and nature is consistent. Over and over, association with nature equates with cursedness. Chosen Jacob was a man of the house, rejected Esau, a man of the wilderness. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar is cursed in a manner that startlingly resembles the above clip:

The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.

“The Dew of Heaven” is one of my favorite poetic images in the bible. It has the sound of pleasure, as if the divine has graced the recipient with soothing, life-giving refreshment. The reality for the once and future King, however, is horror. This divine drenching washes the humanity from his body. This is precisely the tragedy of the Wolfman. Nature has not empowered him to be a better human, it has overtaken his body and stripped away his humanity entirely. This is the very definition of horror. All I am trying to say here is that there is textual precedent in the Bible for the metaphor I’m trying to extend to Christianity.

However, I don’t mean to set the werewolf’s borders at Christendom. This tragic figure speaks to me mainly as a human being. In previous posts, I’ve tried to own my less than flattering moments because I think they are a big part of whatever meaning rests in human experience. To ignore my cruel self is to ignore the conflict between Civilization and its Discontents. My responsible wishes to contribute to society perpetually wrestle against my desires to destroy it. Culture versus Anarchy. Perhaps this conflict is what inspired Matthew Arnold’s animalistic sideburns. I am Tyler Durden.

The werewolf helps us visualize the precarious position we humans occupy on this planet as we strive to wedge civilization into the natural realm. Its tragedy, its horror, its loss of the human pronouns “he” and “she,” help us imagine and experience the wondrous horror that life is.

Wolverine

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