Teaching in the Amateur Hour

Professors -- especially senior ones -- should challenge themselves by teaching in multidisciplinary programs that force them outside their intellectual comfort zones, writes Michael Nelson.

June 12, 2013

The architect Christopher Wren, after working for 35 years to rebuild London’s St. Paul's Cathedral, took Queen Anne on a tour of the completed renovation. When they were done, the queen delivered her verdict: "It is awful, it is artificial, it is amusing." Wren was thrilled, not devastated. In 1710, awful meant "awe inspiring," artificial meant "artistic," and amusing meant "amazing."

Amateur is another word that once thrilled but now devastates. The Latin root reveals something of its original meaning: amare, to love. Properly understood, an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it. Yet this meaning has been all but lost. To call someone an amateur today is to describe a person of limited competence.

Dare I say it?  The faculty at Rhodes College who teach “Search” — formally the Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion — are all amateurs. In the 68-year history of this three-semester, great books-style course taken by most Rhodes freshmen and sophomores, no instructor has ever had a Ph.D. in Search; no such degree exists. Classicists regularly step outside their training to lead colloquiums on the Hebrew scriptures.  Philosophers strain to teach the Inferno.  Theologians herd their students though the Iliad and the Republic. Political scientists struggle to make sense of Calvin.

Regrettably, however, a disappointingly small proportion of the Search faculty consists of full professors: only six out of the 30 who are teaching in the program this fall have attained that rank.  All too often, department chairs and other tenured senior faculty shunt the responsibility off on junior colleagues at the very stage of their careers when they most need to establish themselves in their disciplines and can least afford the time to get up to speed on entirely new subjects. 

It amazes me how enthusiastically my young colleagues dive into Search anyway and how much satisfaction they derive from doing so — even though every minute that, say, an American historian spends learning about Christine de Pizan is a minute away from finishing that book on sexual politics in the Jackson administration.  We senior faculty who have risen as high in rank and job security as we can ought not to force our untenured junior colleagues into that position.

I’m one of the six exceptions and have been for as long as I’ve been a full professor.  I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that at the outset no one was more of an amateur than I — certainly in the modern sense of the word and, I like to think, in the original one as well. Fear of embarrassment prevents me from revealing the full extent of my ignorance when I began teaching Search in 1991. Suffice it to say that 20 years of studying the American presidency and related subjects had seldom led me into the by­ways of the Deuteronomistic history or the musings of the Epicureans.

When I speak of Search and Rhodes, I also think I’m speaking of more than one program at one college. For one thing, Search has inspired similar courses at a number of other Southern colleges and universities: Sewanee, Hendrix, LSU, Hampden-Sydney, Millsaps, and even Davidson, which hired a Rhodes professor to come and bring the course to them. 

For another, as more and more institutions move toward multidisciplinary courses on a wide range of subjects -- neuroscience, environmental studies, gender studies, political economy, and so on—the need for faculty to teach in courses of the same genus, if not the same species, as Search is becoming more prevalent.

What was I doing teaching Search back when I started? In large part I enlisted in the course for the sake of my own education. I did not want to go to my grave without seriously hav­ing read, reflected on, and discussed works such as the Aeneid, the Nico­machean Ethics, and Augustine's Confessions. I knew from long experience in education that there is no better way to master a subject than to teach it. 

I also knew that Search was the defining academic experience at Rhodes, the soul of the college in some ways. I had learned this while teaching at Vanderbilt University for 13 years.  My Nashville friends included several Rhodes alumni, and when I would ask them what their college experi­ence had been like, they invariably said that Search had been the best course they had taken, the one that had stayed with them the longest and affected them the most.

My first year teaching Search was the sort of experience that, while you are having it, you hope you will laugh about someday. I prepared feverishly for each class, trying to keep Jeroboam and Rehoboam straight and thumbing futilely through the Iliad to find the parts about Achilles' heel and the Trojan horse. Professors joke about staying a chapter ahead of their students, but what do you do when despite your best efforts they seem to stay at least a page ahead of you?

What you do is manage as best you can and treasure the odd mo­ment when it seems that perhaps you belong at the head of the table after all. I vividly remember the joy I took when, as a political sci­entist, I was able to offer insights into Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas that might not have occurred to a classicist, and even resulted in articles in two political science journals. 

You also revel in your status as a fellow searcher with your students. One of our goals in the course is to encourage students to take serious­ly their own searches for meaning, and one of the things we always tell them in furtherance of that goal is that the faculty are searching with them.  That’s especially true when we annually read and reread works that have endured through the centuries because they speak to people differently at different stages of life.  I used to think Antigone was virtuous and Creon craven; now I’m not so sure.  As a son I related to Telemachus, as a father to Odysseus.

The lesson for senior faculty in all disciplines, I think, is that any of us are capable of teaching in courses like Search and that those who choose not to do so are cheating themselves by not taking the plunge, as well as relying too much on our junior colleagues.  After all, the issues that engage students as they read these works are the issues that engage the amateur even more than the specialist.

As for the senior faculty who have used their secure status to burrow deeper into their specializations rather than stretch out — well, if my experience is any guide, they would be personally enriched beyond measure.  They’re missing a chance to learn from the works they teach, from their colleagues in other disciplines, and even from their students.

The lesson for the institution is to encourage senior faculty to participate, starting with a year of partial course relief in return for sitting in on colleagues’ versions of the course.  At my dream version of Rhodes, being invited to teach in Search would be regarded by senior faculty as something to aspire to, a crown to one’s career.  Retiring without having done so would be regarded as a mark of incompleteness, even inadequacy.

This fall I will begin my 23rd year in the course. I still work harder to prepare for each Search class than for all my political science classes put together. But I actually expect to leave this world an educated person. An educated amateur.


Michael Nelson is Fulmer Professor of Political Science at Rhodes College and senior fellow of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.


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