An Antidote to Cynicism, or, Why I teach college, now that I know.

A common feeling among my peers, best summed up by Kate Blanchard in the Chronicle, is one of mild depression upon receiving tenure. The dynamics of my despair were shaped by an intense course load, significant pressure to spend substantial time mentoring my students, a marked decline in my students in even basic writing skills, an even sharper decline in critical thinking ability and the knowledge that I was participating in giving them an huge debt load by the end of college. The work is hard, the rewards few, but more importantly I am giving my students this huge debt and for what. I teach religion, that most useless of disciplines, at a denominational school that only serves 14% of that denominations members. My aspirations for my students upon their graduation; voluntary service. I want them to give something back to the world after their four years of “luxury”. It’s genuinely hard to give something back when you are in significant debt. I know this.

And so I listen to Rick Santorum brand me and my students as elitists on the stump, to David Levy indict my hard work in the Washington Post, and to Peter Morici brand my work as a liberal art-ist as useless on Marketplace Money. They are all deeply wrong, but until now; until the last cases of plagiarism have been caught and sent and away empty, my grades handed in, my students bundled off for the summer, and my own relationship with my pillow restored; until now I have not had the energy to think about why.

In the midst of my depression I asked a senior college administrator at midwest college with a better reputation than my own what he thinks about my predicament. He gave a good answer. With the demise of the public square, the failure of the media and newspapers in particular, he said that the small liberal arts college is the last hope of American democracy. It is the last place in which people can be formed into citizens who care about others and in that caring work towards the common weal.

He might be right, and, that answer helped my anomie. But I know that there are other, cheaper, more productive places which encourage a similar growth. They may not steward the special approach to time that the small college, or the university generally offers. (I mean here the ability to consider an idea carefully, at length and without regard to a bottom line.) But these places do exist for those who want to find them.

The thing that we do that does not happen elsewhere is the encouragement of students, en masse, to think. This is not as easy as it sounds. The last thing I had to grade this spring was the exam from my introductory religion course. The common refrain in this set of handwritten essays was that in this course students had been encouraged to think differently, or more broadly, or deeper, or in a more focused way on what they thought that they knew about the Bible. I realized that the important thing about these exams was not the content that students remembered (in most cases very little), the synthesis or analysis present (oh, for a world in which we still cared even a bit about logic), or even that they thought differently, broadly or deeply (very few were actually able to show evidence of this). The important thing was that this course made them think. It was a beginning in attuning their mind to deeper desires, a reference to D.H. Lawrence. “we [have] a double set of desires, the shallow and the profound, the personal, superficial, temporary desires, and the inner, impersonal, great desires that are fulfilled in long periods of time. The desires of the moment are easy to recognise, but the others, the deeper ones, are difficult. It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears.”

This beginning in thinking that happened for my students, and it happens reliably, if only in small ways, is a beginning in recognizing that the world is not quite what it seems to be, and that what passes for politics and economics in this world is only a pale glimmer of what real discussions and production could be. I am deeply grateful to my students for trying to catch what ever part of this that they can each year. I hope more try.

I do not harbor any illusions that education will save the world, that my students will change it, or that we aren’t going to be extinct in a 100 years. I am not in control of these things. But in a world in which presidential candidates call education snobbery, out of touch former university chancellors attack 80 hour work weeks as relaxed, and respected economists who teach at universities openly attack thought, I know that in my work, slowly, some people are learning to think, deeply, and might question, for a little while, the shrill echo in their ear.


First day of school today. My third year teaching at Bluffton. I now share seniority in my department with only one other person. Seniority is an interesting thing as the oldest person in our department will finish his graduate work last, and the newest member of the department finished his Ph.D. first.

Threw my back out this morning reaching for a towel. First time anything like this has happened to me. I’m in unbelievable pain.

Off to teach.


“Touch …. communicates in a way that exceeds or transcends reduction to verbalization. Touch, then, never occurs uninterpreted (and therefore unmediated by language), but it escapes total translation into words. Right when words fail, touch becomes a major expression of extreme feelings ranging from aggression to intimacy.

– Paula Cooey

The act of touching another, in which what is touched is sensed only as itself touching, establishes a circuit of exchanges in which two become one flesh and each becomes part of the other. Because this reaches into dimensions of our being that only an occasional poet or singers have been able to articulate, we should not think of this exchange as a form of communication so much as a form of communion..

– Donn Welton

The last light of day crept away like a drunkard after gin
A hint of chanted prayer now whispers from the fresh night wind
To this shattered heart and soul held together by habit and skin
And this half-gnawed bone of apprehension
Buried in my brain
As I don’t feel your touch, again.

– Bruce Cockburn

Against Research

I want a new word for what I do because I’m not at all convinced that I do research. My work is more or less wholly about the consumption of media-92% of it in book form-and the reguritation of new orderings of that media. Theologians don’t, as a rule, conduct surveys, dissect corpses, collide atoms, or blow things up. My hunch is that we started calling what we did research because to fit into the idea of the scientific university. I’m not admitting that what I do is less valuable than people who conduct surveys, dissect corpses, collide atoms, or blow things up; it’s not. I’m not admitting that what I do belongs in the university any less than people who conduct surveys, dissect corpses, collide atoms, or blow things up. I belong in the university; anyone who has endured my standard comeback to the intended slight, “oh you study theology, the queen of the sciences” … “well yes thank-you it’s so rare to hear anyone outside my discipline acknowledge that these days”, knows I believe this. But I don’t do research. I read and watch and think. I hug people sometimes. I talk alot. I want a word for this.