Nine years ago I wrote a column for Inside Higher Ed entitled “The Professor as Personal Trainer.”Back then I was A.B.D., adjuncting, and had basically never exercised in my life. Today, I’m a middle-aged, tenured professor and I’ve hired a personal trainer to try to get in shape. Now that I actually am a professor, and really do work with a personal trainer, how does my original piece hold up?
I still stand by a lot of what I said in the original piece: Education is not a commodity that can be bought and sold, but is a process of personal transformation. Student learning is the student’s responsibility, not the teacher’s. It requires commitment outside the classroom, not just in it. And, I maintained then (as now), the best "job skills" we can give our students are the generalized capacities cultivated by a liberal arts education.
But I’ve also learned a lot. Some of it I learned working with my trainer, and some of it has come to me as I grew into my profession. For instance, I’ve come to value concision in writing, and I cringe now when I look at how deep I buried the lead in my original article.
In some ways, however, my views have shifted. In 2005 I argued that students didn’t know what they wanted when they sought to be educated. I’m not quite sure I agree with this today. Today I think my students and I do have a concrete idea of what and when we seek to become “educated” or “fit.” What we lack is not a sense of the what, but the how: the means by which to improve.
Getting fit has been transformative for me. Sure, I’ve learned to keep my weight on my heels when I hit the squat rack. But it’s also taught me how to think about nutrition, movement, posture and my daily routine. Learning to exercise involved major culture shock -- and I say this as an anthropologist whose work has sent him to the highlands of Papua New Guinea. It started before I even set foot in the gym. Just buying the right kind of workout shoes involved immersing myself in a kind of masculine culture that’s always been alien to me.
This experience has helped me realize what it is like for my students – particularly those who didn’t grow up in the white middle class, which is most of them -- to enter college. I’ve gotten so used to doing university work that I’ve forgotten how strange and disheartening it can be. Hopefully, this experience will help keep me empathetic.
So getting fit has meant testing unknown waters. But it’s also reaffirmed a lot of what I’ve already known. The culture of fitness has a huge pop-psychological component focused on commitment, motivation, inspiration as well as a slightly more kinky side focused on fighting through the pain, conquering, enduring, and so forth. In the past, I couldn’t tell the difference between websites about losing weight and Onion articles lampooning websites about losing weight. But after a little committing, enduring, persevering myself I have come to see that the idioms of fitness are just another way of discussing familiar academic virtues.
My students often ask me how I can live my life reading boring, poorly written books. I’ve never been sure how to answer since, let’s be honest, a tremendous amount of academic work is boring and poorly written. Now I have an answer! You have to push though the pain and persevere, never relent and keep fighting, if you want to get mentally strong. Never give up. Never surrender. Previously, I thought this was a cliché from Galaxy Quest. Now I know it’s about Deleuze. Working out has helped me understand my intellectual regimen in a new way.
I’ve learned a lot from my trainer about teaching, and from the other guys in my workout group about learning. When I say I have a “personal” trainer, that’s not quite right. I actually work out in a small group with three other guys, since an actual personal trainer is ridiculously expensive. Working out with people who are further along than me gives me a strong sense of what I’m supposed to look as I progress -- and it also helps confirm that the current amount I’m benching is, in fact, peanuts. I suppose they put things into perspective for me.
My trainer has also been great. Although professors are right to rail against the retailification of teaching, we might actually learn something from someone who actually gets paid by their students to help them improve! In our rush to defend our prerogatives we may accidentally dismiss the value of being supportive and considerate (even indulgent) of our student’s needs. And of course, it's just valuable to watch another teacher at work -- something that rarely happens in the academy.
I’m still beginning the process of becoming a healthier person. Like, really really beginning. But my experience with my trainer has confirmed for me what I originally learned dabbling in the performing arts: Although Seneca excluded wrestling and other “knowledge that is compounded of oil and mud” from the liberal arts, any attempt to educate the whole person should recognize that that person is, importantly, a body.
More then that: I think my liberals arts education has taught me to imagine my trainer as a professor, to imagine me as a student, to take lessons learned from dancing and transfer them to lifting weights, and to find the familiar in the strange. Would I be able to bring this capacity to my workouts if I hadn’t gotten a broad, general education? I hope so, but frankly I don’t think so. But then again, maybe it’s something I could learn from my trainer. After all, he went to a liberal arts college himself.