Tomorrow I go back to teaching for another year. I've been on holidays for most of the summer, at home with my family, who have also been home. It's been both a busy and relaxing summer. And tonight, as I watched the sun set on my last full day of summer, I went for a walk.
I have two main intellectual interests, and have had since I was a small child. The first, not in importance but in the order I'll describe them, is something I'll call language and thinking. The second, which also lacks a crisp title, I'll call computing. Where my first interest is likely to have me reading poetry and philosophy, the second has me reading compiler output. I do them with equal fervor, and lose as much sleep to one as I do to the other, wrestling with the ideas I encounter within them. Each one requires nearly all I have in order to cope with what they ask of me. The effect of which is that I cannot do them both at the same time.
As I went for my walk, I took a route toward the woods. I was interested to see if the bugs had let up enough to allow me to enter, the nights having been so cold of late. I was pleased to discover that they had. So long as I kept moving, the woods would permit me to enter and pass through. I wanted to go to a footbridge that lays across a creek running through the back of the forest.
All through my schooling I tried in vain to marry my two passions. I can remember in high school having to make special deals in order to take both the extra English and Computer electives. I found the situation in my undergrad to be the same. I could take both Literature and Computer Science throughout my four years, so long as I was willing to pay for extra classes and go to school every summer. We love to celebrate interdisciplinary success stories when we hear them on stage at TED or read about them in a biography, but I can tell you first hand that our universities don't give a damn. It made perfect sense to me to read philosophy and LISP together, but I had to do it alone.
Winding my way back to the bridge I slowed my pace so I could listen. Trying to see anything in the woods at this time of year is made almost impossible by the thick vegetation. The air was very still and musty, and the ground was slightly damp, good for tracking. I startled three deer and a Ruffed Grouse, and managed to sneak up on four Wild Turkey Toms, which were showing and circling one another. They finally saw me and took off into the brush, and I stooped to pick-up five feathers they had left behind. When I got to the bridge, I paused to stand on it despite the bugs.
In grad school I was forced to learn how to focus on just one thing. I decided to leave computing for a while (perhaps for good) and go as deep as I could into literature and literary theory. I loved getting lost in these books. I found the discussions in my seminars challenging and thought provoking. I never really thought about computers at all unless I had a paper to write. Then one day I found a humanities computing lab for grad students. Inside were bleary eyed students writing papers and dissertations. They worked on a collection of old PCs, with the exception of one computer that was empty in the corner--an HP Unix terminal. I soon learned that none of the students knew what it was or how to use it, and so it became mine. After enough time working at it, I realized I'd accidentally stirred something that had slept for a long time within me.
Standing on the bridge I'm suspended between two banks. Each one leads a short way before splitting off into a number of paths that disappear into the woods. The bridge puts you in the middle of an interesting clearing made by the convergence of these paths and the creek. It is like being suspended in the leap that would otherwise be necessary to cross at this point. Normally the water running beneath it is fast and carries leaves, twigs, and other debris that has fallen in further upstream. Tonight, though, the water moves through quite slowly and without purpose. As I step to the edge of the boards and look down into it I'm met with my own reflection, which moves in and out of focus.
I stumbled into teaching. I have at least a dozen stories about teaching I've done in my life, and all of these instances found me instead of me looking for them. Teaching is something waiting for me, something I discover on my way. The longer I do it the more I realize, too, that it is the only authentic connection I have between the two sides of myself. I cannot, no matter how I try, do both philosophy/reading/thinking and software/programming/computing at the same time. The pattern is the same every year. In June when I have to stop working on software to go on holidays, I feel loss and regret. I then proceed to lose myself in reading and thinking about philosophy and literature, and forget about computers. Come September I am terrified that I can't make the leap back to computing, that I need to stay where I am. The only way across is teaching.
On the bridge I reflect on two descriptions of teaching that have influenced me greatly, and run through my head all summer. The first is Heidegger's:
We are all on the way together, and are not reproving each other. To learn means to make everything we do answer to whatever essentials address themselves to us at a given time. Depending on the kind of essentials, depending on the realm from which they address us, the answer and with it the kind of learning differs.
A cabinet maker's apprentice, someone who is learning to build cabinets and the like, will serve as an example. His learning is not mere practice, to gain facility in the use of tools. Nor does he merely gather knowledge about the customary forms of the things he is to build. If he is to become a true cabinetmaker, he makes himself answer and respond above all to the different kinds of wood and to the shapes slumbering within wood--to wood as it enters into man's dwelling with all the hidden riches of its nature...
Whether or not a cabinetmaker's apprentice, while he is learning, will come to respond to wood and wooden things, depends obviously on the presence of some teacher who can make the apprentice comprehend
True. Teaching is more difficult than learning. We know that; but we rarely think about it. And why is teaching more difficult than learning? Not because the teacher must have a larger store of information, and have it always ready. Teaching is more difficult than learning because what teaching calls for is this: to let learn. The real teacher, in fact, lets nothing else be learned than--learning. His conduct, therefore, often produces the impression that we properly learn nothing from him, if by "learning" we now suddenly understand merely the procurement of useful information. The teacher is ahead of his apprentices in this alone, that he has still far more to learn than they--he has to learn to let them learn. The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices. The teacher is far less assured of his ground than those who learn are of theirs. If the relation between the teacher and the taught is genuine, therefore, there is never a place in it for the authority of the know-it-all or the authoritative sway of the official. It still is an exalted matter, then, to become a teacher--which is something else entirely than becoming a famous professor. ["What is Called Thinking?" Part I Lecture I]
The second is Illich's:
I have trusted that people who seriously followed a semester, or several semesters of my teaching, would eventually become guests around my table and find out for themselves the way in which I try to proceed...
I have to point out first of all that changes in the nature of the university, particularly during the last hundred years, have made this institution almost an enemy to the collegial procedure, which I've tried to cultivate. Yes, I have made my living out of the university, soberly milking that sacred cow and making my nest with the handouts I've received...This has provided my friends and me with the wherewithal for a hospitable table. And a good tax lawyer found a way of making it credible to the IRS that a certain number of cases of ordinary but decent wine are my major teaching tool...I was inspired by the Symposium of Plato. Plato's idea of philia, of love, as the way into knowledge has been a challenge because, from decade to decade, I have had to interpret it in new ways...For me friendship has been the source, condition, and context for the possible coming about of commitment and like-mindedness...
I wanted to see if it would be possible to create truly, deeply committed human ties on the occasion and by the means of common investigation. And I also wanted to show how the search for truth can be pursued in a unique way around a dining table or over a glass of wine and not in the lecture hall...
When I was younger, and was offered access to the lecture hall, the public forum, I grabbed it, but always with the idea of eventually bringing together those who took me seriously in more convivial circumstances. So when people approached after a lecture and asked, "May the three of us come to see you?" I would say, "Yes, but why don't you come when the other two, whom I would like you to meet, are also there?" And, in that way, the public occasion could be used to bring people together.
...The university is oriented towards disciplinary gatherings. People who know something about the history of ideas in one tradition tend to think they can only advance in their knowledge within the circle of people who have the same training. I have tried to challenge them to put friendship above this prejudice, and to let this friendship motivate them to try to put into ordinary language the breakthroughs and insights that have become possible through their technical knowledge...
Along this path I've been describing, I've had the luck to pick up friends, with whom conversations have now gone on for five decades. When these people have met each other, intense ties have frequently developed between them, and sometimes they have felt called to a deep revision of their views. ["Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley" Chapter 11, Friendship]
There's too much in these two accounts to do anything more with tonight than simply quote and commit to returning to them as I write in the months to come. It's enough to say that this is the teaching to which I aspire. This is the bridge over which I cross as I wander back and forth along my own personal divide. I don't teach in the usual ways, and I don't look back nostalgically to my own schooling for inspiration. Instead, I reach for what lies behind these two accounts. I go for walks in the woods and bring friends along to keep me from getting lost.