I fear I am about to get myself into trouble with a compendium to my latest reflection on what students need. It’s about what so many faculty need. Perhaps, desperately need. Why trouble? It’s because while so many of us academics are so quick to talk about students, we are so hesitant, to say the least, to talk about ourselves. Nevertheless, here goes.
After a month, I still have a “Lily hangover.” I guess it’s because Lily-South was my first outing, since my cerebral hemorrahage, reminding me “gratio ergo sum,” that is–if my Latin is correct–loosely, “I am thankful, therefore I am.” That is, how grateful I am for each breath I still take. Anyway, being a Lily old timer, a professor e-mailed me asking, why I talk so much about the Lily conferences and what was the one thing that stands out most from my years of engaging in the national and regional Lily conferences on college and university teaching that makes them stand out. I’ve been pondering an answer for days. Actually, there are two things that stand out. The first is the creation of an uplifting and empowering environment for information, affirmation, education, and especially for edification that is the beauty of the Lily regional and main conferences. Over the years, they have done so much for me. Magically and miraculously, there’s no need for entry signs to read, “No egos allowed.” Uplifting is the name of one Lily game. Nourishment is the name of another Lily game. At these gatherings, you can see all around you, whether in formal sessions or schmoozing in the halls or talking around the meal tables, in the early morning and late into the night, the people offering positive support and encouragement for each other to engage themselves as strangers quickly become colleagues and friends.
At Lily so many people feel it’s a safe place to let their guard down a bit, momentarily come out from behind their pretenses, and let their inner selfs briefly rise to the surface. So few of these often surprisingly open and honesty after-session, over-the-table conversations center around classroom teaching methods and techniques. And, those which did, were always peppered with such hesitating and even fearful utterances “Oh, I’d be scared to death to try that” or “I don’t have the confidence for that” or “Oh, I couldn’t do that” or “They wouldn’t let me” or “I don’t have tenure” or “I’m too shy” or “That’s not me” or “I have a family” or “I’d die” or “I don’t believe” or “Do you know that they would say?” All this brings me to the second thing about Lily. I had had a quick, few seconds exchange with Stewart Ross of Minnesota State at this past Lily-South conference during a plenary presentation by Ed Neal of UNC. I whispered to Stewart, “A lot of what he’s saying is so spiritual.”
Stewart quickly replied, “Maybe people need spirituality to fill the vacuum.”
I’ve been thinking ever since about that comment and some things said by Todd Zakrajsek of Central Michigan during his presentation on classroom apathy and motivation, as well as by Bill Johnson during his presentation on dreaming. It’s the heretical thought that we academics are just as human, just as fallible, just as suffering the sling and arrows of outrageous fortune, as the students. So many academics come to Lily looking for methods and techniques and technologies, and so many find, often to their amazement, that they want something more. They’re seeking something beyond themselves because they’re feeling forced to settle for something that is less than themselves as they get caught up in the trappings of assessment, accreditation, tenure, research, publication, promotion, and a host of other academic rites that give at best lip-service to classroom teaching. The “got to” chase for academic recognition and security seems to instill so little joy in so many of them. It’s like, as it is said in Ecclesiastes, chasing the wind. In conversation after conversation, people whispered, almost as if they were afraid others would hear them, that they have a “clone-ish” feeling, that they are losing that war e.e.cummings described against others who are fighting to make them into people those others want them to be.
Empty and meaningless institutional mission statements aside, in often fearful resignation that embodied Thoreau”s “quiet desperation,” they sighed that they are void of an inner happiness and serenity, that they are being “forced” to compromise themselves, that they’re looking over their shoulder when they enter the classroom, that they really did not want or want to do what the academic tradition and values were dictating to them what to want and to do, that they really didn’t want to focus on what the academic world was spotlighting, that the quest for the demanded generic academic achievement of degrees, tenure, and promotion–and even mandatory scholarship–did not really bring very much lasting fulfillment, that in reality most institutions aren’t as open minded as their mission statements state and are too often inhospitable to those who challenge old ways of thinking and doing things, that the stress has made them impatient with students–and others, that the pursuit of those off-the-shelf achievements and recognitions left so many of them hopelessly frustrated and/or even fearful. There was a realization that standard definitions of academic accomplishment that satisfied recruitment committees, tenure and promotion committees, administrators, as well as accrediting agencies, were not truly all that personally satisfying.
I have heard so many people say in so many words that even if they successfully had struggled academically to survive, they really didn’t know what they had survived for other than a guarantee of a job, a title, a salary level, a publication, a bit of reputation. So many people realized that though they may have acquired the means to live academically, they lacked a meaning to live for. In many ways, they are reflective of what was reported by PBS’ in its indicting “Declining By Degrees”: life without living, means without meaning, having while having not, being owned without owning. They forlornly revealed that inner vacuum they themselves had created by surrendering their selfs and their responsibility, often at the expense of students, with blaming accusation that the devilish “system made me do it.” And, perhaps worst of all, they sadly and haplessly had convinced themselves that they could not do anything about it.
Vision! Difference! Integrity! Purpose! Meaning! That’s what so many who attend Lily, and those who don’t, find themselves looking for. They have a yearning for a clear personal vision, an almost desperate hunger for meaning, an inner burning desire to make a difference, a thirst for authenticity, and a search for a connection with a real, meaningful purpose that would yield joy, excitement, satisfaction, and fulfillment.