Those of you who know me personally (can you know someone impersonally, or do you simply know of him? In any case…) know then that I am in the latter stage of a graduate degree in English Literature. In order to fund said degree, I (among some other less glamorous things) teach Greek and Roman Mythology to indolent, ignorant, and entitled (but ultimately delightful!) undergraduate buggers. Last Friday one of my classes was observed by a professor from our department. Three days after her observation her and I sat in her rather sizable office and held a chat about my discussion of Euripides’ great Medea.
This professor’s (whose own teaching tends towards the tragic) critique was, somewhat to my surprise, slightly scathing. And so, as I sat uncomfortably in one of her rather comfortable chairs I found myself (as I often do) trying to assert my self-consciousness, so as to convince her, seemingly, that indeed I am quite aware of both my actions and implications. Several of her “concerns” regarding my pedagogy, more technically-aimed, were indeed valid, and I acknowledged as much, citing once again my confidence in a greater scheme. Those concerns regarding method notwithstanding, it was almost as if she had no desire to recognize precisely what it was I was trying to do in that classroom. This has been one of the greater conflicts I’ve recognized during my time in graduate school: how academics cannot detach from the scope of their own distinction and interest and allow for—indeed encourage—work and growth as an individual within a system, and not as another name within their system.
I’ll be rather honest here when I say that I felt singled out, distinctly attacked because I’m the slightly reserved (see: cautious), slightly pompous (see: confident) “outsider,” the philosophic-literature guy in a world of ancient culture and language (all outsiders themselves, the inhabitants of this world). Indeed I was Medea herself, the passionate, stigmatized foreigner (though my children remain unharmed, indeed unborn). My dragon chariot awaits.
Normally I am able to allow criticism to slide down and off my back like children at the playground. I am open, aware and humble enough to accept what others say, and incorporate it if I feel it will help in maintaining and promoting the balance I seek, and not take away from it. Humility not withstanding, I am both confident and ambitious. I trust in my Self above all else and, though what I try to promote may not always project sufficiently, I know in my heart and in my soul what I am building. I know what I’m doing and there is not one cynical, self-righteous “man of the world” or “man of the word” out there who will deter that. We are all works in progress, but some unthinkably wield little control of the process. Why should we not control the forces of our own being?
That is not to say that I don’t have forlorn moments of doubt and wonder, moments where I question whether or not I actually know what I’m doing as I say I do; moments where I feel I have no control at all. As I left the professor’s office I had one of those moments, one that has carried through my day and into my bed where I now sit propped up against a paper-thin, white wall. What if she was right? What if, when she told me that she just didn’t see the point to my class, that it wasn’t just her pedantic blindness that missed it? What if it didn’t have a point? Or, perhaps worse, if it did and I’m simply unable to convey it?
Ubiquitous anxieties, which dissipate with humble reminders of my success and realignment, reassurance of the path on which I trod. But, like all other issues, it seems to speak to a larger concern which rests, nestled deep in the dark, dripping grotto of my soul. That is, point, purpose. Is it any good to keep on doing things the way I want to when no one else recognizes it, when they ignore it on their own selfish principles? Is the integrity of agency, autonomy, and steadfastness enough to overcome the poverty and isolation of self-containment and self-centeredness? I absolutely believe it is, and anyone who knows me well (if anyone actually did) knows that I cherish authenticity and loyalty to value, virtue and to the Self beyond anything else. The deeper question, however, that faces us all is what if I’m simply not good? Is anything ever good enough? What if everything I think I’m doing, everything I think I’m building towards, is just juvenile nonsense and Romantic delusion? How do I know? How will I know? And if I’m told, will I listen? What if, when I listen, it’s already too late? What if I’m just wasting my time? (And, again, anyone who knows me know how much I detest [see: fear] time wasted.) What if I’m just a nominal god?
But I’m not, of course. We are all gods in the powers of our own psychic selves. From Max Planck: “I regard consciousness as primary. I regard matter as derivative of consciousness.” Yet so often we shut our ears to this (in the words of Ghandi) “still, small voice.” We fear that force that is our conscious selves, that “power that…holds together, creates, dissolves, and re-creates” (again, Ghandi). We deflect the god that is our Selves onto other things. We let others bear the responsibility that we should innately bear for our selves. We waste time in this way, and in this way we train our kin and our kindred to be empty, devoid of values or responsibility. We make the world frightening in this way.
Ghandi said, “the purpose of education is to bring out the best in you” and, as an educator, I adhere to this. And in bringing out the best in my students I try to help them become aware of that “best,” aware of their own selves and what that constitutes. Why is this concept alarming? Why can I not be who I am? Why can’t my pupils strive to be who they are?