Full of Dis-passionate Intensity?

During Monday night’s program on Open Source, which I really enjoyed participating in, there was a brief moment where the studio I was in dropped its connection, just as I was about to say something mildly critical about Swarthmore. (Everything else that got said made liberal-arts colleges come out looking like the positive alternative to big research universities, which is an impression I’m quite happy to give.)

What I was thinking about is the extent to which even in a teaching-centered institution that promotes a pretty healthy degree of connection between the faculty, we mostly teach courses that narrowly service departmental curricula deriving from a state-of-the-art sense of what a given specific discipline entails. Broader, connective, integrative courses, or material that doesn’t belong to a conventional discipline, often falls out of view.

This has been on my mind a lot this academic year for various reasons. I spoke along with a colleague to our Alumni Council early this year on this problem, that the faculty don’t ask ourselves enough what it is that 18-22 year olds who are not going to be academics themselves really need to learn or would benefit from knowing, preferring instead to ask, “What’s the proper sequence of courses for this discipline”, or “what’s in the scholarly literature on this topic?” as if the discipline or literature’s benefits are self-evident. We review interdisciplinary minors here every five years, and sometimes do external reviews of departments, but we don’t really expect departments and disciplines to provide an ongoing, renewable and contestable sense of their relevance to the students, the college, the curriculum.

These are old complaints for me in the context of this blog, I know. I think the newer context to which they are becoming relevant is an increasing sense among the student body and recent alumni that Swarthmore has a degree of intensity that is unwholesome or counterproductive.

It’s hard to know what to make of that sentiment when I encounter it. Over time, I’ve felt more and more remote from student experience, for some of the same reasons that Rebekah Nathan discusses in My Freshman Year, her account of a year she spent being with students at her institution. It’s a natural thing. Professors have a very bad tendency as they get older to subscribe to the local declension narrative and talk about how things aren’t as good as they were in the old days, and so on. Sometimes I really don’t want to know more about the students, either: aspects of their institutional experience belong to them, and them alone.

There is some evidence burbling up here and there in ways I can’t ignore that what was mostly an amusing schtick about the college (e.g, the catchphrase, Anywhere else it would have been an ‘A’) is maybe slowly transforming into something less light or neutrally quirky, that it has costs that maybe we’d want to lessen or redirect.

Keep in mind that students also tend to think they know more about what’s going on than they do, or to see things in ways that appear to anyone else to be pretty self-absorbed and maybe even melodramatic. Not just here, everywhere. The smaller the community, perhaps the easier it is for waves of collective melodrama to pass through everyone. Students also can misperceive or exaggerate trends, or assume themselves to be typical or representative in their experience when they’re not.

All these small colleges have their own personalities, and much of what is publically understood about those personalities is something of an illusion. Still, the “brand image” is also a bit of an attractor. Swarthmore’s said to be intense, serious and intellectual, and so it draws some 18-year olds who are or imagine themselves to be intense, serious or intellectual. Particularly for those who think that they are that way but find that they really are not, the feedback loop that gets produced by the match of institutional image and self-image can be a bit daunting, depressing, alienating. Of course, even for those who are authentically intense, part of that authentic personality tends to be a certain kind of dour, serious, self-important take on things.

To some extent, my response to that is a classic old-fogeyish, “Welcome to life!” Our expectations about experiences rarely match the experience itself. Coming from California to go to college in Connecticut, I thought the entire East Coast was all bricks-and-ivy and people in tweed coats smoking pipes, that it was all very sophisticated and European and intellectual. And I thought that’s what I wanted when I was still a surly adolescent. I was wrong about what the East Coast was, and in pretty short order I also found I was wrong about what I wanted. It would be silly to hold a place responsible for not being what I foolishly thought it would be, or be surprised that what I thought I wanted at 18 is not what I wanted at 25 or 35 or 40.

The things that make the biggest difference in the life of an undergraduate college student are often the things that the best possible planning cannot account for or capture. You can’t know who will be on your hall or be your roommate. I haven’t talked to my roommates for two decades but I married a woman who lived on my freshman hall and I’m still married to her. One thing with no effect on me, the other with a life-altering impact, both unpredictable. The professors and classes who mattered: I didn’t know who they would be. The things I thought I was interested in that I turned out not to be interested in. The things that interested me then and don’t interest me now.

You can overplan this part of your life when you’re looking at schools, and thus misattribute both later satisfaction and later bitterness to the choice you ended up making. The things that matter about the choice are the size and organizaton of a college or university, the types of programs it supports, the structure of its curriculum, that kind of thing. There are major rough choices to make along those dimensions, but past a certain point, flip a coin and stay loose about how things unfold. Here I sound a lot like my colleague Barry Schwartz, who offers some pretty valuable practical insight into choices and how we ought to think about making them.

Still, I do worry about the concern for intensity and a sense of dissatisfaction that I hear more and more of here among students and recent alums, because I think it does reflect a tendency of the faculty here and perhaps faculty almost everywhere to go about the business of liberal education with a kind of grimness, without explaining in any sustained and potentially debatable or contestable manner why we think particular courses, disciplines, and so on are important. I tell my students that the first (but not only) question of a liberal education always should be “so what?”, and expect them to rise to that challenge on their papers, in their discussion. I’d like to tell my colleagues the same, only I think I’d get a pretty sizeable number of blank stares or some irritable circle-the-wagons scoldings in reply. Or I’d get answers to “so what?” that are primarily intended for the consumption of other academics rather than students or wider publics.

If some students here (and perhaps at other institutions of our type) feel beaten down or frustrated by intensity, maybe it’s because it seems to no evident purpose save itself, because it feels like ritual self-injury , because the real answer to “so what?” is simply and dully, “because”. We don’t take the time for better answers and assume they will trickle down magically somehow. Or we don’t have those better answers and so dodge the question.

As an undergraduate at a similar kind of place in the 1980s, I took a ton of classes. I think I actually had, if I’d claimed my APs (I never bothered), the second largest number of credits for a 4-year undergraduate ever at my institution. That was intense sometimes, but I enjoyed the intensity. Because it was just about the pleasure of knowing. If a class wasn’t working out or wasn’t interesting to me, I dropped it. I started one class with a nice man who had a very serious drinking problem and I quit the course just because I could see it wasn’t going to return much to me. Didn’t matter, I wasn’t doing it for a major or a pre-professional track or anything else. I took classes in my two majors just to see what they were like, on topics that I had no prior or fixed reason to care about. I didn’t care that much about grade–I took an upper-level biology class on animal behavior and did pretty poorly in it grade-wise but got a lot out of it. I took two years of Spanish and one year of Latin because I thought it was important to try to learn languages, even though I was terrible in languages then and still am today. I was having fun, is the key thing. Yes, an egghead’s kind of fun, but fun nevertheless.

I think it’s still a bit of a secret to the students here, past and present, that some of the students who thrive most or get the most out of this place (and others like it) are those who try not to care too much about it all. I’ve had a couple of “B” students over the years where I think they’re better, more capable all-around intellects and people than some of my most conventionally strong “A” students. The “A” students tend to be more like me or other faculty, to know how to navigate the game as we define it, but often not to know how or when to defy, ignore or circumvent the game. There are exceptions: there is also a kind of occasional “A” student here who is almost terrifying in their sense of self-possession–I can think of a couple of alums in academia, two journalists, and a few other alums I’ve known who could be described that way. Good for them, but that’s rare. The thing anyone can do is make sure you’re playing and not being played, whatever your grades, and I think some of the students who end up with a partially negative sense of their time here are the ones who felt that they have no choice but to be played. You always have choices.

Still, I also think it’s partly our fault as a faculty in this place, partly the collective culture of academia, and also partly the fault of various pressures and expectations put upon our students by themselves and by people who matter to them in their personal lives. I do think we can do a better job explaining what we do and why we do it. I suspect if we did a better job, we’d do a lot of what we do differently. Intensity when you’re full of passion, commitment, lost in something abiding and authentic, is very different than a kind of multitasking, routinized, just-because intensity, the intensity of having three humdrum essays and a mid-term exam due on the same day. You can’t expect to deliver the former intensity consistently as a service to your students (by its nature it is elusive) but it would not be unreasonable to strive for it for insistently.

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5 Responses to Full of Dis-passionate Intensity?

  1. Laura says:

    I’ve had this experience at Bryn Mawr, when I’ve suggested things that are considered “non-academic” or when my mouth drops open at the amount of reading some people assign, an amount of reading that tops my grad school experience. My own liberal education sounds a lot like yours. I changed majors 8 times, but all the classes I took for those changes taught me something. I don’t think I could have had that experience at a research institution. And, of course, many of my most formative experiences had nothing to do with school or classes.

  2. Alan Jacobs says:

    This could be my favorite Tim Burke post ever (which is saying something). Some people might think it’s about two subjects — (a) how many college teachers understand and characterize what they do, and (b) how many college students end up “being played” and therefore have a highly frustrating or anxiety-producing undergraduate experience — but in fact these are core elements of a single complex subject, that being the proper form and structure of a liberal arts education. If teachers could find the courage, or the initiative, or whatever it takes, to rethink their pedagogy and their curricula in full cognizance of these common undergraduate experiences — many of which were once their own experiences — that could be a great thing for students but also for the teachers themselves.

    Over the years I have been a part of many, many debates about curriculum and pedagogy, and invariably they center around two (usually competing) invocations: “This is how we’ve always done it” and “This is where the discipline is (or is headed).” Neither of those, for reasons that Tim indicates here and in other posts, is particularly helpful if you want to make substantive decisions that yield an exciting and challenging learning environment. I think I do a pretty good job of explaining to my students what I care about and why I care about it, but if they were to ask me how my decisions about the books they read and the paper they write were shaped by those deep concerns, I might stumble a bit. Because in many cases I assign what I think I ought to assign based on criteria quite unrelated to the matters I think so important. There’s a kind of false consciousness here that Tim is quite rightly encouraging us all to expose.

  3. PaulJ says:

    As a fairly recent graduate of the University of Chicago, this post resonated with me. We have a very similar self-deprecating humor, exemplified by the “University of Chicago: Where Fun Comes to Die” T-shirts, and I would be very sad if that attitude began losing its joking sense.

    Another tradition that the University of Chicago has that ties in well with this post is the “Aims of Education” address given to incoming students every year by a distinguished faculty member. Of course, being incoming freshman we had a lot on our minds, and may not have fully appreciated sitting through a long talk. But there was definitely a seriousness to the tradition that rubbed off, and afterwards they broke up into smaller groups, and met in the dorms with various professors to discuss it.

    I whole-heartedly agree with the call to encourage “passionate intensity.” I’m in math graduate school, and it seems to me at times that my field is particularly bad at this. It’s an elusive goal to work towards – the most effective instance I remember was simply running across a professor in the quads, who noted that my in-class comments were often in a particular vein, and that he looked forward to reading more of it in my paper. On the other hand, the professor who noticed that I lacked that intensity in his class and called me did nothing to inspire more.

  4. Miles says:

    Note: I am a Swarthmore freshman.

    Lisa Delpit was at my Issues in Ed class this past Tuesday, and she asked everyone in the room why they went to college. A handful of the people in the room talked abouthow they were their “mothers retirement,” etc. but the majority of us in the room basically said we went to college just ‘because.’

    It was startling to realize that, while I had a vauge I was going to college because I enjoyed that kind of academics and in theory it would help career-wise, I didn’t really have any clear purpose or answer to the question of ‘why.’ And without a purpose, Swarthmore can be a bit overwhelming and grinding. However, a lot of students at Swarthmore can (I believe) make ‘passionate intensity’ their purpose at Swarthmore; I think it is fairly easy to change the misery-poker-intensity of Swat into more of a passionate intensity, and I see a reasonable number of students doing so. In such cases, ‘because’ becomes enough of a reason. However, a lot of students don’t ever seem to make that transition though, and therein lies the real point of conflict, imho.

    Perhaps one of the biggest impacts of Swarthmores intensity, passionate or not, is that it frequently discourages flexibility. I know many students who have sworn to never take another science/math course above and beyond the basic requirements. Lots of students applaud the ideals of liberal arts – we can be well-rounded! – and then ask “how can anyone manage to get 20 courses outside of major X?” . . . as freshmen.

    Anyways, I’m not quite sure where I am going with this.

    As always, I enjoy your posts.

    Your post also reminded me of something Herb Kohl told my class recently: “It seems every teacher here is assigning dozens of articles a week, and every student here is only reading one or two of them.”

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Thanks, Miles. My feeling is that the faculty bear some responsibility for discouraging flexibility. That’s an old theme for me, but since many of us do not ourselves pursue a liberal arts ideal in our scholarship and teaching, how could we reasonably expect our students to take seriously the idea that one should dabble in multiple areas of the curriculum just to see what might be learned that way? We talk about the concept in our self-promotions, but it’s not really taken terribly seriously when you get down to the nitty-gritty of curricular design. (There are many notable exceptions, but I don’t think they invalidate the general rule of disinclination.)

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