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It’s the Conversation

24 April, 2009

It’s the conversation

I’ll post about my feelings about the recent news when I’ve finally processed it, but thanks again, everybody, for the good wishes.

In the meantime, I have been mulling some things about in my head lately. This has been rather an interesting year, personally and professionally. And some of it is interesting in that Chinese curse sort of way. Recently, I had a conversation with a colleague that resulted in a disagreement over ‘the real business of the university.’ The real business is apparently scholarship, and the life of the mind. Now, let’s all remember that SLAC is, well, a SLAC. There are graduate programs, but really, there’s no crossover between faculty or students. For all intents and purposes, I teach in a SLAC. We have a standard 4-4 teaching load, and most of us have a 4-3 load due to one release for research time.* (I know!) Our promotion standards, unlike those at many similar campuses, are really commensurate with our teaching loads. They are achievable, but it’s clear that teaching is our primary job. And for those who can really only manage the minimum requirements in scholarship, service can count for a lot.

And that’s how we tend to think of our jobs, all of us. It doesn’t really matter where we work — we see our jobs as some combination of teaching, research, and service. But are those the real business of the university? I think yes, absolutely. And also no. I think that my colleague is right — the life of the mind is an important part of the university. But I’d like to suggest that the life of the mind does not exist in a vacuum. Big surprise, right? The life of the mind doesn’t mean a damn, unless it’s part of a conversation. Not a bunch of people talking about what they do, and quietly researching away, and presenting what they find to others. Actually entering into a conversation that exists on many different levels is what I mean.

There isn’t just one conversation, although I think there is also The Conversation — the constant ebb and flow of thoughts and the articulation of thoughts, of new knowledge building upon and revising old — but there is the sharing of our work and our knowledge with each other, crossing the boundaries of our own research and asking questions of each other. It’s there when we work with our students — I mean, seriously… well go to interviews and tell the nice people how our research informs our teaching, and how we all use the Socratic method, but how many of us really think about what that means? The best classes are conversations. Yes, we’re the experts, and we are trying to make sure our students acquire content knowledge, and get the approaches of our discipline. But aren’t the best classes the ones where our students make us think, that shake us up, that — even if the students are wrong — make us look at things in slightly different ways?

The conversation is there when we go to conferences, too. And blogs. You all know this — you read blogs! But when we go to conferences, is the point to talk about our research, or to share it? Why do we do it? Ok, partially to keep our jobs and pad our CVs. But I know for me, it’s more that giving a paper is a ticket to The Conversation. It’s a chance to hang out with cool, smart people and share ideas. I want to hear about what other people are doing, and yes, tell them about what I am doing, too — but mostly in the context of seeing how it can all fit together. What I do is dreadfully dull, unless it’s part of a bigger picture. Blogs are just another kind of ticket.

We, and I think especially those of us who are medievalists and classicists, are often challenged, and challenge ourselves, about why what we do is relevant. Yesterday I had the wonderful experience of meeting a colleague in a very different field. The colleague presented some really interesting ideas, and was incredibly flattering to my departmental colleagues about medievalists and how versatile we are. Nice, when one is the only medievalist! The thing I liked best about this colleague, though — a scholar from a strong research uni — was that the colleague reminded me about the conversation. We were all over the place, picking each other’s brains, suggesting approaches to his research, considering sorts of evidence to broaden the study… it was great fun. And my mind was alive.

Yeah. There’s a subtext. I’m not going to go there at the moment, though. Realizing what this means to me is enough.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 April, 2009 10:08 am

    Such teaching as I get is mainly constructed around the idea of equipping my students to have that conversation with me, I reckon. And a lot of the point of conferencing is qualifying to join in with the big stars and profit from their conversation. (That still sounds pretty mercenary, actually? Do I really regard knowledge as wealth to that extent? Anyway.) Know just what you mean, at several points in that post…

  2. 24 April, 2009 1:03 pm

    Glad it makes some sense! I think one of the things about teaching, at least for me, is to get students to realise that the conversation exists!

  3. 24 April, 2009 1:33 pm

    Unless your colleague construes “life of the mind” in a very interactive way, predicated upon the conversation with students, colleagues and peers elsewhere, I wouldn’t much care for their image of a university!

  4. 24 April, 2009 1:58 pm

    I think part of it really is in the concept of conversation — for me, that’s something that goes both ways …

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