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confessions of an unschooling college professor

I am an unschooling dad–a life learner. This is the life my wife Chris, my six-year-old son Aidan, and I embrace quite fully. I am also a college professor–part of a state-run institution of higher learning. How can I reconcile these contradictions? How can I on one hand eschew “teaching” as a somewhat rude imposition when it comes to my son–allowing him instead to pursue his own interests, to figure out who he is and who he wants to be at his own pace, to learn naturally with only gentle guidance from his parents, to embrace the joy of life and learning without being continuously tested, evaluated, and judged–but then on the other hand participate as an agent of institutionalized schooling and get paid for it? This is something I wrestle with on a daily basis.

I find a good deal of comfort in that theoretically by the time people find their way to my college classroom, they are choosing to be there. It’s not mandated by law that they go to college. While on the surface, this gives me comfort, I know full well that in reality many if not most of the students are not their of their own free will but, instead, are being pressured by their parents or others to attend. Even if the students have freely chosen to pursue college, I’m quite certain that most would choose to opt-out of the required freshman composition course if the institution and state would allow this. The fact of the matter is I have a captive audience–quite literally–as my course is the price of entry to opportunities that lay beyond it.

I’m already a bit of a guerrilla teacher in that I bring into the class a good deal of criticism of traditional schooling experiences to get the students to begin questioning their own views and values on this matter. I try to use my own moral dilemma to deepen the discussion and to invite students to help me solve this problem. It works pretty well, but in the end I still feel like an agent of the state as I pass judgment on student work, assign grades, and decide who is worthy to benefit from the opportunities of passing my class and who is not. On some level, this just does not sit well with the “free-range” approach I find myself taking with the education of my own son. I feel somewhat hypocritical as my values clash at times with the procedural mechanisms of state-run schooling.

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe in education (in all forms), but also in the fundamental right for one to pursue their own brand of education–to pursue their passions freely and not to be forced into certain educational experiences before one can gain access to a better life. I believe that all people should have the chance to learn freely, at their own pace, setting their own course, and without fear of judgment.

As I work to negotiate the tricky middle ground between state-run higher education and authentic learning, I am trying to develop a personal code of ethics to guide me. Below is what I’ve got so far.

In my interactions with students, I will strive to uphold the following:

  • I will make explicit my views on learning and education, attempt to make clear my struggle to avoid duplicity in what I say and do, and try to raise critical awareness in others regarding personal freedom and responsiblity in learning, education, and life.
  • I will offer choice as much as possible to allow students to explore personal interests in their writing, while encouraging them to try new things and venture down unfamiliar paths with a spirit of adventure and curiosity.
  • I will make use of “contract grading” focused largely on the degree of engagement in the course rather than on the judged quality of the writing itself. This will allow me to more authentically and honestly respond to the writing of students as a fellow reader in the class. The “terms” of the contract will be as clear-cut as possible and will be agreed upon at the outset of the course to allow fully informed students to opt-out before they begin if they choose.
  • I will treat students with respect and work hard not to hold myself above them. I will encourage them to do the same.
  • I will work to cultivate honest conversation, community, creativity, and service in and out of the classroom.
  • I’ll will work with students to design learning experiences that have relevance beyond the “exercise” of the classroom and that can positively affect the lives of others. I’ll support students in their writing and learning efforts.
  • I will be kind and empathic and ask others to reciprocate.
  • I will not obsess over arbitrary rules but work hard to ensure fairness for everyone.
  • I’ll work to foster positive relationships with students as fellow human beings and to avoid the traditional adversarial trappings in the way teachers and students interact.
  • I’ll seek to communicate honestly with students and avoid combative stances–whether defensive or offensive.
  • I’ll enjoy what I do.

All right, so it’s a work in progress. Perhaps I spend far too much time agonizing philosophically over my job and my interactions with others. I suppose it’s all in the spirit of trying to be a better person…. Like I said, it’s a work in progress.

writing with my students: a philosophy of art

Each semester, I tell myself that I will write with my students–that I will complete each of the assignments that I ask them to complete (particularly in my creative writing classes). It makes sense, and after a number of semesters not doing this, I begin wondering if I am a bit of a hypocrite for not doing so or if I can even do the very assignments I assign. The tough reality is, though, that by the time I’m done planning my classes and developing the assignments (not to mention responding to and grading them), there is very little time for me to do much else. Just the same, this semester, I’d like to try again–at least for a couple of the assignments even if it’s just rough work.

One of the first pieces I ask for in my fiction writing class is a response to a number of questions about why one pursues fiction writing. My hope in having students begin to articulate answers here is to raise some awareness of their own philosophies as artists and writers. I want them to recognize the possibilities of their art beyond it being a pleasant pastime. Here’s what I prompt them with:

Why do you write, or why do you want to write? What do you hope to achieve with your writing? What do you hope to gain from this work? How do you hope to affect others with your work? What will they gain? Can you describe your philosophy towards your art? (I know this is a hard one. It’s really the bigger question that we will be working towards, but give it a shot now. Just play with it. Think through writing.)

So here goes my rough and rapid response…

I write because I breath. The act of truly living requires that I consider my relationship with the people around me, within the natural world, and within the webs of significance that we, as human beings, weave to create meaning during our time on this earth. I write to keep my eyes and heart open. As distant images of distant suffering flicker across my television, I write so that I can feel something, to know that other’s pain is not so distant, to save myself from the perils of indifference.

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” asked E. M. Forster. I write to think, to know what I know. It helps me literally work out problems through writing–to figure stuff out. As I sit scribbling late into the night, or alone in my car before braving the parking-lot walk to my office in the dead of winter, I write to surprise myself.

I write to say what I otherwise couldn’t. There are words I don’t dare utter for their sound afloat in the air would surly shatter the glass threads that bind me to others–or some–and crack the facade of composure I maintain. I write to face my fears or to hide from them.

I write to tap my “wild mind,” an image Natalie Goldberg brings to our collective conversation on writing,–to seek refuge in the wildness that saves me from the suffocating illusion of order that I force on my day-to-day life. Through writing, more is possible; change is within my reach.

I write to connect with others, to express my humanity, to seek human communion…

reading waiting for godot by samuel beckett

Sneaking in a little more summer reading with an existential classic–Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It’s been on my to-read list for years and on my shelf for almost as long. I thought I’d move it to the top of the list.

Is my life anything more than a distraction–an endless array of meaningless preoccupations to keep my mind off the reality of nothingness? Beckett might think so. I completed Waiting for Godot about a week back and have been meditating over its message ever since. Is it a dark message he sends? I suppose it’s how you look at it. It does, however, force the careful reader to reconsider how he or she spends time.

Vladimir and his dear friend Estragon throughout the play are looking for diversions to sustain [singlepic=150,200,200]  Beckett in a Paris Cafe
  Photo Credit: John Minihan
themselves–to take their minds off the waiting and to fend off the terrible possibility of thought itself. Beckett depicts life through his characters as just that–a waiting game, but what we are waiting for never comes (and likely does not even exist). To realize the fact of this nothingness can result in two possible outcomes: 1) a complete liberation whereby we understand that we are free to choose and, thereby, responsible for our own lives, or 2) a complete undoing of all that we’ve put stock in (blind faith)–an unraveling of the idea that something bigger than ourselves exists, something to wait for, something to give our lives meaning. This latter outcome is what drives us in search of a “good bit of rope” with which to hang ourselves; however, it is the not knowing of whether Godot will come to save us or not that keeps us in a constant state of waiting, diversion, distraction–a dynamic balance between thought and decision. It is sheer ambivalence that keeps most of us moving through each day without much of the dreaded thought–day in and day out. Of course we find things to pass the time or, as Estragon says, “We always find something…to give us the impression we exist” (77).

Too much awareness is a crippling disease.

Thought is a scary thing. It can be a real burden–quite the contrary to the bliss of ignorance. In Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from the Underground, the protagonist says, “I am firmly persuaded that a great deal of consciousness, every sort of consciousness, in fact, is a disease.” More concisely interpreted in Gary Walcow’s film version of the novella, our underground man says, “Too much awareness is a crippling disease.” And so it is. But one might equally argue that a lack of thought–a lack of awareness–paralyzes us in this eternal waiting game or, if you prefer, sends us into perpetual, yet meaningless, movement (see Sisyphus) searching for meaning where none can be found. What do we do in the meantime?

Estragon: In the meantime let us try and converse calmly, since we are incapable of being silent.
Vladimir: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.
Estragon: It’s so we won’t think.
Estragon: They talk about their lives.
Vladimir: To have lived is not enough for them.
Vladimir: When you seek you hear.
Estragon: You do.
Vladimir: That prevents you from finding.
Estragon: It does.
Vladimir: That prevents you from thinking. […] What is terrible is to have thought. (Beckett 68–71)
Vladimir: We wait. We are bored. (He throws up his hand.) No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. Come, let’s get to work. (He advances towards the heap, stops in his stride.) In an instant all will vanish and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness! (Beckett 92)

Beckett’s play left me thinking hard about how I spend my time. In fact, this concern has been a preoccupation of mine for the better part of my life. I don’t believe in wasting time. I also don’t believe in the false hope of urgency–as if anything really matters that much. Am I fundamentally an existentialist? Oh, I don’t know. I can probably answer that as easily as I can answer the question of whether I’m a vegetarian. (I don’t eat red, pink, or white meat except for fish and enjoy my eggs over easy.) “Once you label me, you negate me,” writes Kierkegaard. Do I think Beckett and his contemporaries promote a philosophy of despair? No, I really don’t. I believe Beckett sends a message of hope–a wakeup call that we all better start living our lives responsibly, deliberately, awake and alert, and make something of them, lest we fall prey to that bit of rope or squander all our time waiting by the roadside for someone or something that will never come.

On a related note, let me point you to one of my favorite essays of late by Penn Jillette. It is truly a life affirming essay about belief. Give it a listen/read: “There is No God”.

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