The Chronicles of Oxford Part 2: Standing Up

It is the second day of my program at Oxford, and the third day that I’ve been in town.  Much has happened in that time and within that time a sense of the inability to actually sit and write down some impressions and experiences, for fear of missing something.  So it is with a sense of relief that I am finally sitting down in Blackwell’s Bookshop on High St, directly across from the Bodleian Library and typing on this laptop.

If I try to encapsulate my experience thus far, I have to begin with standing up.

Not right now in Blackwell’s.  I mean two nights ago, in the Exeter Dining Hall.  Here’s what it looks like:

And here’s me with a drink in hand in the Dining Hall:

Notice I’m wearing a suit?  Required.  Our first night consisted of a champagne meet and greet in the Fellow’s Garden, and a four course welcome dinner with wine flowing freely, served and poured by Exeter’s wait staff.  But what really struck me was what happened before we ate.

We stood up.  But why?

As sudden as a light switched turned off, all pre-dinner chit chat in the dining hall stopped, and we all stood as the faculty made their way to the high table, their black robes flowing behind them.  The sense of ceremony in the room was palpable during that moment, and to me, it set the tone for the whole program.  This was a tangible statement of respect for learning.  The positioning of the head table and this ceremonious walk stated very clearly “Learning is set on a pedestal here.   It is worthy of respect.”  For those who are teachers out there:  Can you imagine your students actually standing when you walk into the room?  I really liked that moment.  One might think it smacks of elitism and inequality, but the fact of the matter is, I am not their equal.  They are my literary and educational betters.  But that’s ok.  Because they are taking time to teach me, and who wants to be a student and have a teacher who knows just as much as you do?

My rooms overlook Ship Street, off Turl.  I am situated right in the heart of the University, with Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theater next door.

Radcliffe Camera

I’ve met many people thus far, and there is a whole coterie of us representing Florida, especially because of scholarships given out by the ESU.  In addition to the US, however, I’ve had conversations with people from New Zealand, Pakistan, Denmark, Germany, France, and Australia.

Exeter is the college of Tolkien- this is where he studied English Literature and Languages in the early part of the 20th Century.  There is a bust of him in the Exeter Chapel, sculpted by his daughter in law in 1977.

Bust of Tolkien in Exeter Chapel

My mind still feels a bit scattered, but I feel totally at home here.  I am surrounded by wood and stone and grass and books and coffee shops and PUBS.  I am sitting in places my favorite authors sat, and looking at buildings and structures which have been here for centuries.  tolling church bells tell me when to go to lecture.    I was sitting in class in the Morris Room, and noticed elaborate tapestries showcased in each corner.  One girl said, “Those are great replicas of William Morris’s work!”  Our professor gave her an odd look and coolly stated “Ah.  Actually, those are the originals.”

I am still echoing many of my fellow summer students: “I can’t believe I’m here!”

Next: A trip to Canterbury, and what the heck am I actually doing here?

Brain Spill- Look at the Pretty Colors!

I have some time over Spring Break to engage in some arguments, discussion, musings, ideas, and readings of which I have put on the back burner for most of the school year.  Here are the snippets, and some links to articles and blogs which have caught my eye.  They all seem to go together somehow…the “somehow” of which i am still figuring out:

C.S. Lewis’ ideas on education: “not cutting down jungles, but irrigating deserts.”

The role of technology in education, especially literature studies.

-fantastic discussion of which can be found in Diana Senechal’s article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All”

and Sven Birket’s “Reading in a Digital Age.”

Technology and Theology.  What better introduction can I offer than Callid Keefe-Perry’s presentation at Theology After Google?   Callid’s presentation- and some comments- can be found over at The Image of Fish.

In the midst of all this, I am trying (not much succeeding, but) to wind down my analytical mind and just enjoy a damn good story.  Contemporary literary fiction makes me want to hang myself, so here’s some cool books currently by my leather chair: FableHaven, by Brandon Mull, Sea of Monsters (part of the Percy and the Olympians books) by Rick Riordan, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

Personally, my favorite cover is Fablehaven’s:

Interesting thought to note: ever since I put down the articles and starting incorporating some fantasy literature into my diet, my dreams became more vivid.  Hmmm…

Final thought: To properly experience the majesty of God, one must be able to feel and touch a clod of dirt in one’s hands with the same wonder in which one looks up into the vast reaches of interstellar space.

The Devil Likes the Education System

As a teacher, this quote from CS Lewis (in the voice of the demon Screwtape, from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”) makes me cringe, wince, laugh, cry, nod, shake my head, gasp, and sigh.  Yep…all at once:

What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence- moral cultural, social, or intellectual.  And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” (in the incantatory sense) is now doing for us the work that was oce done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods?

…The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils.  That would be “undemocratic.”…Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma…by being left behind.  The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.

In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way.  All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish.  The few who might want to learn will be prevented, who are they to overtop their fellows?  And anyway the teachers- or should I say, nurses?- will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching.  We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men.  The little vermin themselves will do it for us.

“The Monks are back. School must have started…”

…this is what I wrote recently in my journal, totaling the entries to two (2), because it’s a beautiful leather bound journal I received as a gift for Christmas years ago and I don’t want to mess it up with my scribbling.

So what I wrote must have, in hindsight, been pretty important.  And now, upon reflection, seems to me an indicator of a new season in my life.

The “monks” in question are actually two books about monks: An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Maguire and Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco. Infinity profiles five young men who chose to become novitiates of the strict Carthusian order started by St. Bruno in the 11th Century.  Voices explores the structure of life among the Trappists, from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to Notre Dame de Melleray in France.

The books are quite gripping, and help sustain an interest in monasticism I’ve had for years, but the real question remains: “Why did I choose to pick up those particular books?”

I’ve quipped a few times to my friends that the practices of monasticism are really a form of Ritalin for those of us suffering from spiritual ADHD.  For those, like me, who suffer from the actual physical disorder, you may know what I’m talking about here.  Our attention span is a like hummingbird drinking espresso- it’s all over the place.  Spiritually, I think this makes it harder for us to focus on God, especially in silence and reflection.  If there are a million things going through our mind every second, what do we do to help us put all of that aside and focus on God and His guidance and assurance?

Along with increasingly over-perscribed medication, psychiatrists emphasize the establishment of routine and pattern of those with ADD.  This emphasis on organization helps reduce the stress and anxiety that usually occurs when “too many things seem to be happening at once.” Similary, monks have established spiritual practices (prayer, work, contemplation, lectio divina) which allows them to further focus on God.  This is not to reduce these practices as some sort of “prescription for finding God,” but I think the analogy works to a point.  Monks remind themselves daily- hourly- of the pattern, rhythm and presence of God in their lives and in the world.

Which brings up the question of liturgy.

It’s a question already posed, and answered substantially, over at Julie Clawson’s onehandclapping blog.  Liturgy is the rhythm and pattern many Christians follow and embrace every Sunday as part of their worship service.  This is the “smells and bells” approach to worship, with repeated prayers, times for standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, contemplation, and the partaking of the Eucharist.  For many of us, it is a reminder of God’s role in the world and the steps it took to bring about the miracle and mystery of Christ.  For me, it’s a reminder to breathe, not simply just to relax, but to breathe in the realization, as Rob Bell stated in a recent sermon, that “A whole new world is bursting forth, right in the midst of this one, and everybody everywhere can be a part of it” and that “A Christian is constantly learning how to see this creation with their very own eyes.”

There are many other thoughts on this, and I encourage those who would like further perspectives to the conversation put forth in Clawson’s blog.

This sense of structure and organization is imperative to me as a high school teacher.  yep.. That’s what I do.  And let me tell you, if you are disorganized as a teacher, life quickly becomes a living hell.  Because it’s not just me…the organization of my 150 students is a necessity as well.  It’s organizing lesson plans, homework, essays, vocabulary work, grades, progress reports, permission slips, notes, etc.

But it’s all meant to create a space so we can open up.  We can explore.  We can immerse ourselves.

The monks are back.  To remind me of what higher purpose that structure is for…

A Day with Lewis

Winter Break continues, though the end is near.  A few more days of relaxation before I hit the books again in the classroom, or at least direct and teach my students as THEY hit the books.  After a fair bit of sickness last week, I’m starting to feel like my old self again.  Today, after starting the day with  devotional reading, a small breakfast, and grading some papers, I plunged headlong into a reading binge of C.S. Lewis.  For a Christmas present, I received the C.S. Lewis Signature Classics Audio Collection, and had a wonderful time listening to Joss Ackland’s reading of The Screwtape Letters.  I have nearly completed George Sayer’s biography on Lewis, which, although a more intimate account of the man, remains a second to me in favor of Alan Jacobs’ The Narnian.  I am in the middle of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, having just finished up the crew’s adventures with the Dufflepuds.  Finally, I came across a wonderful article by David Downing, “C.S. Lewis Among the Postmodernists” which endeavours to show how this “medieval dinosaur” remains relevant to textual analysis today.  Oh, and throw in a few ideas gleaned from Lewis’s Abolition of Man, and I think that’s it.

This last mention seems almost an appendix to the others, but offers me the most pragmatic and proactive ideas for my teaching career.  I was enamoured of deconstruction and postmodernism as an undergraduate, seeing my understanding of it as the pinnacle of my literary studies.  However, as an English teacher, I can not find a set of theories more destructive to a young student’s imagination and sense of purpose and wonder in life.  Not in the sense of “oh the poor little dears shouldn’t know that, it’ll break their hearts…”  I fully intend to follow my curriculum and show them the origins of this philosophy when we begin modernism, and indeed, perhaps the initial need for this philosophy to develop as a more distinct analytical tool.  However, it would dishonest of me to present these current theories as the be all end all of their cultural reality.  I would reckon even some theorists would argue this point.  The crux of my argument is that postmodernism and its social implications seeks not to build up, but reduce and tear down.  We are reduced by class, gender, race, and politics by postmodernism insurmountable divides.  What might have been necessary as a logical exercise in the 60s is absolute poison to a current generation of young men and women that did not have the luxury of toying with these ideas as possibilities in their youth, but rather are living with the consequences of those ideas in the here and now:  What is right, what is wrong?  Who can say?  (And yet we expect them to obey laws and see everyone as equal.  Huh?)  As teachers, especially those of the liberal arts, our duty is to build up our students as critically thinking individuals, to restore the connections postmodernism has broken down.  We live in a world now where we are all “connected” in some way- politically, socially, morally, or technologically.  The fragmented, alienated track of postmodernism just doesn’t work anymore.  Our students sit at their desks wondering, legitimately, “Is this actually worth anything?  Does it mean something, or nothing at all?”  If a postmodern mindset continues, then its continuous reduction of things gives the answer in the negative.  However, Lewis’s admonition in The Abolition of Man provides a guide against this tendency:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever.  The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.  It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque.  How if you saw through the garden, too?  It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles.  If you see through everything, then everything is transparent.  But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world.  To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

School Approacheth…

It’s that time of year again- time to pick up pen and paper and figure out exactly what to do this new school year.  My first thought is to try and find a place to hide with a good book and reemerge next June, which is not a unique thought pattern among English teachers (given that time frame, perhaps choosing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time).

However, the “teaching dreams” have plagued me for the past few weeks (for those not in the know, this is similar to the “actor’s nightmare,” but in this case you find yourself in front of a class of students with no lesson plan, no idea what to lecture on, and no idea of how long of a time you have to teach), and now I sit eyeing a stack of lessons, textbooks, and a syllabus needing revision.  With coffee brewing and poured generously into my Shakespeare mug, it’s time to get back to work.  As I take a deep breath, I quote the mantra from Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “DON’T PANIC!”