Liberal arts education is often thought of in terms of a balance of knowledge across a range of fields and disciplines. Such an approach results, so the story goes, in the well-rounded individual who has an appreciation for the sciences and the humanities, who can work, at turns, with raw data and with subtle hermeneutics, and who understands history as well as the complexities and nuances of the contemporary moment.
This understanding is relatively accurate as a zoomed-out view of how the liberal arts work. But then there are other parts of a liberal arts education. Smaller parts.
David Foster Wallace, in his Kenyon College graduation speech, talked about some of the more weighty benefits of liberal arts, such as learning to recognize the difference between cultivating awareness and sensitivity, on the one hand, and sliding into the mindless mode of the rat race, on the other. But I’m not talking about this sort of heaviness.
When I think back on my own liberal arts education, I realize that many small things contributed to my overall experience. Those things weren’t necessarily planned in advance nor did they show up on my transcript. But they were absolutely meaningful for me.
For instance, I recall when my English professor drove me up to Ann Arbor, Mich., to hear poet and essayist Gary Snyder read some of his new work. Our little college was about 45 minutes south of the University of Michigan, and we were far less likely to get a speaker like Snyder.
Another English professor, an early modernist, took sympathy on me for my lack of curricular planning. She agreed to do an independent study on Shakespeare and nature so I could satisfy a certain graduation requirement.
Then there was the time a favorite philosophy professor went along with a gaggle of us students to see the film The Matrix when it first hit theaters. We saw the movie and then went to a pub to discuss the film in relation to various readings and class discussions we’d had.
In the spring when the weather turned nice, my Latin professor would take us outside with a big bucket of colorful chalk, and we’d do our translations on sidewalks around the quad, in garish pinks, yellows and blues. That may seem entirely whimsical, but it made some pedagogical sense, too: changing the context of learning to make the lessons stick.
Doubtless, many other small things shaped my education, as well -- but I’m focusing here on the ones that involved my professors. As a professor myself now, I often find myself thinking about all the aspects of the position that go unremunerated but that are also immeasurably part of the job.
This might be a last-minute, unplanned “office hour” with a student that ends up being a walk through the park on my way home. Or it might be helping with a senior thesis, which is a voluntary overload credit in terms of a teaching assignment but which ends up (usually, hopefully) as a student’s capstone experience, reflecting in unpredictable ways the sum total of her or his education thus far. Or it can simply be a coffee or a beer that I buy for a student over an impromptu session of giving life advice or calming near-graduation trepidation.
Such small things add up in at least two ways: they are the uncompensated and incalculable parts of the job, and they are also the things that can result in lifelong memories for students. They are the aspects that can make the whole enterprise seem worth it -- when you actually help someone make a good decision or at least avoid a bad one.
As my own university goes through a prolonged and at times painful financial equilibrium process, dovetailing with a general assessment phase, I am trying to keep all this in mind. I do that both in terms of being aware of the small things I do (and trying not to overextend myself) and in terms of simply remembering that such small things make my position meaningful -- especially during salary freezes or threats of across-the-board cuts.
It is an economic paradox of sorts that the parts of this job that are about uncompensated giving are also those parts that give back -- and that these things might also be the very measures by which we defend this model of education. If we are truly interested in educating the whole person, then we have to be whole people, too -- knowing that this sometimes means delayed gratification and generosity beyond calculation.
Being a professor is still a great job for so many reasons. And a lot of those reasons will always necessarily remain unquantifiable. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work hard to be fairly compensated or to try to find ways to recognize much of what we all do.
But it means that we should also acknowledge that many things we do on our campuses (and off) for our students will always fall through the cracks of assessment and reimbursement. Yet they will nevertheless benefit our students in inestimable ways. It’s the small things that count.
Christopher Schaberg is associate professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans.
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