Teaching as a Vocation

Teaching as a Vocation (a personalist accounting)

            Sometimes those who can do, also teach. And teaching is also a doing, at least of sorts. Shaw’s perhaps unknowing indictment is well taken, however, for the vast majority of what passes for teaching in our contemporary systems, at whatever level, is tantamount to mass regurgitation and within the framework of patent unthought. This is what needs be for any social system to reproduce itself without too many mutations, not unlike the patterns our genetic proteins must follow. At the same time, the world does not wait for us, nor any systemic congery we have constructed for ourselves. So, within the mass, there must always be the mutant, as it were, the catalyst for a transformation of thinking and even of human experience itself, so that reproduction is itself given new life. And those who feel that assignation, who treat teaching in the traditional sense of vocation, are perhaps more apt to become those agents of necessary change. What follows is a brief narrative of both pedagogy as a discourse and of my own experience becoming both a pedagogue and an education theorist.

            Teaching as an Vocational Experience:

            Though I taught my first few classes as a graduate assistant in the Winter Term of 1989, I only became a sessional instructor five years later. Five years after that, I was awarded my first tenure stream professorial position, and for some twenty years occupied this perch in various units and in three universities, ending my career after a five-year chairpersonship of a liberal arts department. A quarter-century in the university classroom, with more than 140 courses taught over that time, and my experience was one of some irony. At the beginning, I felt the calling of teaching as an authentic assignation, but by the end, I felt nothing of the sort. Does the saint recuse himself from his hagiographic similitude? Does the pilgrim quit his progress? Or for that matter, does the dictator ever simply step down? Clearly, one’s personal sense of what one must do can shift over time. My friends have suggested that I teach still, just in different and distanciated venues, sometimes digitally, other times informally, and I have done various writing workshops and series over the past few years, though now even these are fading memories. I have not been inside a bona fide classroom in over eight years.

            As vocations go, teaching has many rewards, both in the light and, to be discussed below, in the shadows as well. But teaching presumes that one can also learn from one’s students, alter one’s pedagogic trajectory to fit their needs, or have at least the nerve, if not the outright gall, to suggest to them that they do not know their needs, or are only partially conscious thereof. This may seem rash, but any vocation demands also vision. The saint does not brook debate regarding ideal action in the world, and indeed seeks to make mere living action into transhistorical act. The pilgrim will not be detoured from her goal, however afar, and in turn will not be deterred from pursuing it by all means, even if such sometimes stray into the unmentionable. The dictator’s Diktat is indeed generally unfit to print, but nevertheless, it commends itself with utmost consistency to the principle of vocation. Teaching, much less glamorous than any of these, is nonetheless safer, and to the point of complacency. The goal of university teaching is to be, speaking of ideals, open-ended, improvisatory, iconoclastic, critical. Its actual character tends toward the routine, even the otiose, as evidenced by my own professors, trained as they were in mid-century, and many by canonical figures. By the time I possessed the terminal degree from a world top-40 institution, I was but once removed from the likes of Talcott Parsons – I possess to this day many of his office files in which he stored his accumulation of journal articles, as well as the papers themselves – Erving Goffman, Claude Levi-Strauss, Raymond Firth, Victor Turner, Virginia Oleson, as well as others, including the great Dorothy Smith. With this last I had the privilege of dialogue much later in my career, when I myself was nominally worthy thereof. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, their elite training in the human sciences, my own professors’ course outlines were sometimes forty years backdated, sometimes even non-existent, for these were the days when university administrations actually kept their distance from the pedagogic scene.

            I had numerous teachers of merit, but by far the most important was no less than Dorothy Heathcote, the legendary drama pedagogue, by whom I was taught firsthand in the summer of 1980 when I was but fourteen. It was a transformational experience, that summer festival workshops series, with same-aged peers and the most brilliant pedagogue for youth I have ever known. It was she who told me that I had the potential to teach, and she who took the first step with me and showed me a path upon which that potential could evolve into a practice. For many years as a professor in my own right, I attempted to conjure for my students that same sidereal realm in which she moved so effortlessly. Heathcote was compassionate, fearless, unbounded, and quick on her feet. She had about her an aura of gentle invincibility; this is the only manner of description that comes to mind when I think of her. She showed me that the best pedagogue did not so much live and die by her students’ aptitudes or abilities, but rather helped that student understand the very meaning of life and death in its relation to experience, to knowledge, and to education.

            My longest-lasting teacher, and also my most personal, has always been my sister, a five decade veteran of the public schools, in which she occupied almost every role imaginable, from itinerant music teacher to principle, through drama director and superintendent’s office curriculum planner. That she continues apace today, working as the field supervisor in teacher training for her regional university, attests to the truer sense of vocation in pedagogy which is no longer present for myself. One’s experience of teaching as a vocation includes moments of ethical fulfillment – the most commonplace is when a student relates how you have transformed their life and given them a keen drive to succeed or at the very least a hope and an aspiration to be more than they had been before – as well as a consistent sense of existential contentment. No one I know has had more of these future-oriented moments than has my sister, and every one well-earned.

            That I have a number of life-long friendships that began in the classroom is a lasting blessing. That I met the young woman who was to become my future wife in the classroom strikes me as a kind of miracle. The many thousands of students, most of them marginal and many the first-time college attempts in their respective families, have of course come and gone. Those once known fairly intimately I now know nothing of. Those who were obstreperous have long been forgotten. And all this is as it should be, for another principle of the vocation is its not quite diffident, but indeed quite dispassionate, stance and instantiation of itself. Assignation is itself impersonal, for whatever the source of such, be it the Fates or the Furies or both, could have chosen anyone in the end. A vocation is the result of a Valkyric light, shone upon the fragile being merely in the world and making him of that selfsame world.

            Teaching as a Fix, and as a Pimp

            But teaching as a vocation has its shadow side. If there is magic in it, there is also present sorcery. For myself, I was an attention-seeker, and the fact that I could transfix large audiences, keeping them on the edge of their collective seats for up to 90 minutes, only fuelled the sense that I was, as an individual, more than my vocation would, or should, admit. My narcissism could be rationalized away as being in the service of good product, and clever production. If the classroom experience with Professor Loewen was a commodity worth the price, even in steeply ascending university tuitions, I became, in that space, my own fetish object. I bathed in the applause, and I glowed in the admiration of people far too young to make any worthwhile distinctions of mature character. I came to need the fix, captivating, enervating, and especially offending cohorts of students, getting younger and younger as I myself aged. At present, long outside of such contexts, I have to police myself yet regarding the motives for my more critical work. That I am not always entirely successful any readership will attest. The fact that my course evaluations bore no signs of my self-interest was remarkable but also an important relief. One could say, ‘whatever it takes to get up there and kill it’, but as an ethicist, I maintain my doubts. Teaching as a vocation might cater to the fix, but it does not admit the fixation.

            Nor does it the lust. I was a member of what I think, and hope, to be the final generation of academic gigolos. A young male professor, the campus menace and, at least in my gendered druthers, the patent nemesis of the coed. What I can say, is that I never cheated on any one of them, and that they were all adults. That I even fell in love with three of those otherwise uncounted might also be worth something. And of course, my wife of more than two decades rose to the very apex of this otherwise somewhat sordid pyramid scheme cum bedroom farce. The teaching vocation cast as a pimp is unique to the university, or at least one would hope that it is, and as such it places a more stringent ethical demand upon the advanced pedagogue. Institutions have belatedly framed policy surrounding ‘campus romance’ as it is still sometimes sentimentally referred to, as if this were still 1950 or so, and I was witness to these changes, for such policies were non-existent not only when I was myself a student but also for about a third of my professional career. Romance or no, intimate liaisons with one’s own students is not recommended, and I say that as perhaps one of the very least prudish persons on the planet. Inevitably, one’s emotions, or worse, one’s desires, obviate the nobility of the pedagogic plane. It is not that all students must be ‘treated the same’, as if they are but lab rats, but rather that each student must be given their ownmost care and concernfulness, that which is most apt for their current condition, and most astute regarding their current abilities. Beyond this, the tables of desire can be easily turned. I was myself stalked no less than five times, and those represent the cases of which I was aware. By four women, one man, and fortunately the fellow involved was absolutely non-threatening and only one of the young women was, at least to me who is hardly GQ, unattractive. Even so, desire is a game that two can play, further obfuscating both the discourse and dialogue which must be present in authentic teaching.

            Teaching as a Discursive Activity:

            And speaking of which, late in my teaching career I somewhat randomly became an educational theorist. I have now written two books and a number of articles in the field, and I was both astonished and honored that my 2012 book has been used in multiple programs for curricular and pedagogic renewal. For me, the study of teaching became almost as important as teaching itself, and I was able to, as a more mature pedagogue, bring this work into the classroom, thus making it more historically conscious of itself, and allowing students to begin to claim a sense of the wider contexts within which teaching both functioned as a critical discourse as well as its very opposite. My enduring idols of modern education are John Dewey and William James, two pillars of pragmatism but more than this, two transcendental teachers and very much public figures. The present work in digital media I have undertaken with my corporate co-founder and business partner, Avinash Pillay, a true genius of the new age and someone who himself has all the makings of an effective pedagogue, remain profoundly in debt to Dewey and James, and their own attempts at disseminating more widely the history of ideas and the philosophy of consciousness entire, halting and of course technically limited as they were in their own time.

            To read what other teachers have to say about teaching is kindred with reading writers writing about writing, but more on that in a companion piece. Suffice to say that experience is both a great teacher in itself, but also, in its own shadowy form, a purveyor of bias, even bigotry. ‘I know how to do this and I don’t need to learn anything new about it’ might well be the least of it, regarding the poor attitudes the veteran teacher can accumulate. More subtle, and thus more dangerous, is the evolving sense that I can master any classroom ‘situation’, and that I am the master of any student. That I am unassailable not only in my opinions, but also in my very presence. That I, in a word, have moved beyond the need to risk myself.

            But in fact, within authentic dialogue, there is not only present the dialectic, which is objective without being objectificatory, but also, at a personal and a subjective ‘level’, a ‘diacritic’ function which entails that participants willingly risk not merely their beliefs but their entire manner of being; the way they have lived until this moment. The teacher is a mere resource and more experienced participant in the realm of dialogue. It is an intensely hermeneutic realm, and what I mean by this is simply that it entails translation, interpretation, and interaction unframed by specific discursive tropes. I have written at length about ‘hermeneutic pedagogy’, so suffice to state here that if either student or teacher is unwilling or unable to place one’s very reason for being on the pedagogic table, the results emanating from any lesser classroom or other context will tend toward the merely reproductive. This is not a case of the professor giving over his authority to his students, or even the by now cliché sense that classrooms should be ‘student-centered’. Even learning centered classrooms, in contrast to teaching centered say, still does not reach the apogee of authenticity in dialogue. Of course, the standards of intimacy which can be tractioned in various classes and courses must be utterly aware of the students’ own presence and their willingness to risk themselves. But I have always pushed my students to expand not only their perspective in relation to history and thought itself, but with regard to their own capabilities. I have encouraged them to ask any question, no matter how impolitic or unfashionable, and that they may speak to any topic, if only to express their incomplete knowledge, which is in turn a more profound expression of our incomplete beings, to be finished only in mine ownmost death. This concept of incompleteness is of the utmost in a serious pedagogy, for it reminds young people that no matter the life-phase or one’s ‘amount’ of experience both personal and cultural, that we are, ideally, always learning, and that the new is only what fully overturns and overcomes what we once thought we knew.

            Teaching the Vocation of Teaching:

            Lastly, I would like to add a few lines about how one’s sense of vocation in general is itself transformed by the experience of teaching.

            A vocation begins with wide eyes and bright imaginings. It resonates with childlike wonder and perhaps also even a smidgeon of childish anticipation, as if each new classroom were an unopened birthday gift of unknown proportion and value. It should carry one through many other vicissitudes of a life, its own exiguous thread enduring any strain, suffering any insult, and shrugging away any care. And this personal function may last the entire life course, even if its objective content and very character be altered, as it has been for myself. Teaching as a vocation should also stand aloof to both bribe and blackmail, for it should fear no evil other than being wary of that within the shrouds of its own shadows. Over time, one’s own sense of what one is doing alters its vantage point, pointing away from imminent joy and as well pleasure eminent, and toward the more practiced sensibility of ‘Am I doing this well, what can be better, how have my students changed over time, what now does the world ask of all of us?’ and other like queries ongoing. One progresses from painstakingly constructing course outlines, living and dying by every course evaluation, memorizing entire lectures and the like, to being able to gain the larger pattern and paint the more complete picture, of being able to walk into any classroom absolutely cold and simply flick on the killswitch, and of not being overly concerned about either the latest pretty face or the most recent and in fact non-teachable failure, both of which will ere be present as long as one remains an active teacher. These changes represent to oneself both a personal evolution as well as one discursive and dialogic.

            A vocation ends simply when one decides to end one’s relationship with it. Its presence then become a kind of remanant, but a good-matured one and one not given to haunting either our incomplete dreams or our doubts about what we in fact have accomplished, however distant and dated such may be. When I left teaching I was momentarily lost for purpose in action, but I was never alone, for the experience of assignation is fully portable across any specific series of vocations, and this by itself is perhaps the most profound thing one learns by having had one in the first place.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 58 books in education, ethics, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Understanding and Comprehension

Verstehen und VerstÄndnis (Understanding and Comprehension)

            In my life I am confronted with both history and world. Neither of my own making, nevertheless they dominate my existence, and could be said to both originate and predestine it. History includes the tradition, all that which is customary in the sense of Hexis, which I must learn in order to function as a viable being in the social world-as-it-is. But history also includes all that has come to be known as ‘cultural capital’; the very ‘stuff’ of the human career, from ancient archaeology through to contemporary popular culture. It is an open question how much of this capital must be possessed in order to maintain social viability. To each is granted his specialties, perhaps, and in a complex organic social organization wherein each of us plays multiple social roles and thus wears many hats, the daily discourse of informal interaction is muted to the point where Verstehen, or ‘interpretive understanding’ is rarely called upon. This bracketing of interpretation is significant due not only to it being so by design, but also, and as a result of this, that each of us is left to assume that the other knows what she is about, as well as knowing what we ourselves meant by this or that interaction. In a word, we favor Deutung over Verstehen in everyday life.

            Since our very sanity is at stake, both in terms of our self-perception and that of the others, Deutung, or ‘interpreted meaning’ must indeed carry the day to day upon its presumptive shoulders. Most of us presume one another to already and always understand what is called for, and thus what is also called forth, in a great variety of social contexts. But since all of these are learned, and mostly in our childhood and youth, we cannot be certain that either we ourselves or any other person has fully comprehended every possible social context and thus knows how to act to a tee in each. The ‘social’ person used to be casually equated with the most ‘sociable’ person. The very conception of what can constitute a ‘social’ gathering might be interpreted by class and status, ethnicity or language, work relationship or family pedigree. Though all are social in the anthropological sense, the vast majority of us are not students of society in any formal way. It is perhaps ironic that though we do learn to tread on much or even most of the stages upon which civil behavior is to be enacted, very few of us choose to dive more deeply into just how all of this ‘sociality’ actually works.

            And there is, on the face of it, no good reason to do so. If all of us know the score in terms of how to act, what to say, and of course, the opposite as well – the shalt not is duly implied by the shalt – then what would be the point of expending the effort in order to take everything apart just to see how it functioned? Would there not be a risk, in reassembly, that I would then get it wrong? Taking society apart to examine its mechanics and its organics both would seem a risky, even radical act. And since there is no clear consensus on society itself being ‘broken’ – though many claim to know just where and how this or that part of it is broken and should be replaced by some other part, equally proclaimed as being ‘obvious’ – the idea of taking it all down and reconstructing from point zero seems to have little merit. Even the most astute and vigorous social scientist does not attempt such a cosmogonical feat, contenting herself with an examination only, noting the parts and how they interact, just as the ethnographer of modern culture might stalk the streets and observe actual human interactions. An examination of society generates the means by which Deutung can be performed. It does not require any consistent interpretation but rather looks more like a connect-the-dots diagram. The pieces lack order until the connections are made, surely, but just as certainly, all the pieces are present and can be ordered. And it is the resulting order that generates both customary performance but also much of the history of the world itself.

            Between Max Weber and Georg Simmel, ‘Verstehen-Sociology’ gained much traction in the first third of the twentieth century, making a deep impression upon other seminal sociological thinkers such as Alfred Schutz and Robert Merton. It faded post-war given the ascendence of functionalism, which is instructive for our topic as interpretation was just that tool of questioning that mere examination need not access. Taking it all apart and rebuilding it required interpretation, poring over it and noting its connections, as functionalism mostly did, required only already interpreted meaning. Not that this is an either/or situation. Indeed, one might argue that one would have to come to an understanding of the parts themselves before generating an overall comprehension of the whole. While interpretational understanding could do the first, it seemed only functionalism could do the second. Even so, in between these two stood social phenomenology. This third stance suggested that it was the very interactions of living persons that constructed and reconstructed the cultural parts of the social whole in an ongoing and even daily basis. In short, society itself was a performance, or better, a performative understanding of itself.

            The roots of this more active interpretation are diverse. Durkheim’s famous epigrammatic definition of organized religious belief is a case in point: ‘Religion is society worshipping itself’. No more concise editorial can be imagined. But within this pithy fruit is the very essence of performative social action. Borrowing from the older idea that in order for a deity to exist at all it must be actively worshipped, the very structure of society itself has to be borne up by our participation in its manifestations. I am a social actor, yes, but I am also a social founder through my action in the world. Similarly, and perhaps just as profoundly, history too is enacted insofar as we are historical beings. This is not to say that what is known as ‘the past’ must be reenacted – though Mesoamerican cultures have this as a benchmark understanding of human history; the most famous of these consistent performances is the re-enactment of the Columbian Conquest – but at the very least, history ‘continues’ only due to our actions in the present and our resolute being oriented towards the future.

            What is interesting for both the student and the social actor is the fact that performance requires interpretation. The customary scripts may be given and learned by rote, but there is always slippage between an ideal and a reality. The spectrum of improvisation is vast, ranging from stifling a belch during a dinner conversation to reworking a political speech given the pace of world events. Society in its mode of being-social is very serious theater indeed, and part of the fulfilling quality of actual theatrical performance, stagecraft and script, paid actors and paying audience, is that all involved recognize themselves outside of the drama and cast upon the wider social stage. We are, in our own way, not so different from the conquered cultures of Central America, though our settings are perhaps more abstract and work not so directly with historical narratives but rather with an indirect allegory. This too is by design; like the examination of the mechanisms of society without taking the whole thing apart, allegory allows each of us to take the broader view without fully imbricating, and perhaps thus also immolating, ourselves within or upon society’s reason-of-being. For if it is only the ‘moron’ who resists social custom and flouts both mores and moralities alike, most of us would rather preserve our semblance of sanity as part of our own social performance, so that we never risk the ire of others who can justifiably say to us, ‘Well, I’m doing my part to keep all this nonsense together, why aren’t you?’.

            Hence the suspicion and even aspersion cast up against all those who question things ‘too much’. The professional philosopher, who is only doing his job, is perhaps the only socially sanctioned role wherein the practitioner can legitimately say as part of his vocation that nothing is sacred. Outside of this, we are all expected to give at least nominal service to specific renditions of what the majority feels society to be, and to be about. The ‘what’ of society is the first, the ‘why’ the second. Even the thinker, in order to be judged as human at all, must bracket her radical investigations, insights, and indictments some of the time. Society is at once a performance and a comprehension. In true Durkheimian fashion, it performs itself in order to comprehend itself. But because such real drama requires ongoing improvisation and interpretation, society is also made up not so much of cut and dried mechanisms as quick-witted examinations and re-enactments. Society gives the appearance of a machine only insofar as we social actors have honed our individual and thence collective skills upon its various stages. A well-polished theatrical performance never leaves the fiction of its allegory, but a well-staged social performance upshifts itself into a stable social reality.

            The question for each of us then is, do I continue to improve my acting skills within the historical context of the culture into which I was born, in order to preserve the manner in which that culture enacts itself in the wider world, or do I pretend only and ever to be an understudy, letting others do the work which is in fact the duty of all? Or, do I walk off the stage entirely, into a hitherto obscured human drama called ‘conscience’ by the world and ‘the future’ by history? In fact, it is our shared birthright, as both gift and task, to accomplish both of these essential acts. For society as mechanism is only the resulting case, and society as performance the manner in which the present presents its case. In order for any modern culture to reproduce itself, it must eschew pure reproduction in favor of a self-understanding, a Selbstverstandnis or holistic comprehension-of-itself that is developed in history but seeks the future of and in all things. Interpretive understanding is both a tool and yet a way of life for human beings. But comprehension is the mode of being of the social whole, which means no one person can provide it, even for himself. That we are social beings tells upon us in two elemental ways: we are called to conscience by the ongoingness of the world, and we are called toward the future by the ongoing presence of history, which distinguishes the social world from the world at large. That I am myself never socially larger than that historical life is for me the Kerygma of existence.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 56 books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.