Some personal reflections on Stoner, the novel I discussed yesterday. Stoner was a teacher at a mid-western university. I was teacher at a college in Oregon. Our lives were not entirely dissimilar.
Like Stoner’s, my life was forever changed by a course I took in college. In Stoner’s case it was one on Shakespeare. In my case it was one in the history of western civilization. After taking that course, I knew that wanted to spend the rest of my life in the academy and that nothing else would ever come close. Never once have I regretted that decision.
Like William Stoner there were times when I was a relatively popular teacher and other times a rather indifferent one. In the beginning, I really had to learn the stuff and I really had to learn how to teach. You don’t learn any of that in graduate school, of course. I was young, the youngest member of the department, and the students, who I loved being around, were only slightly younger.
They were intelligent, energetic, and a bit nutty, as is often the case at Reed College and were also attracted by the research I was doing. If I was interested in some issue, so were they. (Much later this kind of influence frightened me.) My lab was crowded, as were my classes. It was pretty heady stuff. Looking back on it now, it seems inconceivable--I was studying problems in animal conditioning and the students wanted to work with me.
While I felt privileged to be at the College and continually amazed that I was being paid to engage in the scholarly life I led, eventually I became more and more disenchanted with academic life. The never-ending administrative responsibilities, the tedious committee meetings, and the faculty wrangling and politicking gradually turned me away.
Above all, after teaching psychology for almost 25 years, I really wasn’t much in love with it anymore. I am sure that was reflected in my classes and departmental activities. I knew, like Stoner did, that you really have to love your work to be good at it. It was then that I realized it was time for me to leave the College.
I was always a reader, it did not take me long to begin the second act of my life in literature. Other than the subject matter of the discipline, I’m really not doing anything different than I always did. However, like Stoner, I realize how much I do not know.
“Sometimes, immersed in his books, it would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read: and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”
I saw a film last weekend, a virtually unknown Swedish film, As It Is In Heaven that suddenly made its appearance at a local theater. The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Film in 2005 is about a highly acclaimed orchestra conductor who retires from the musical world after experiencing a heart attack at the end of a performance.
He returns to the small Swedish village of his youth where in time he becomes the leader of the mill church choir whose members have no real music talent. After working with the group as well as each member separately, he comes to realize his long held dream “to create music that would open people’s hearts.” He works an almost miraculous transformation in the choir’s singing.
After seeing the film I realized how much the story reflected the most satisfying feature of my life as a teacher. It was to see an individual become a first rate scholar after entering the college without much in the way of intellectual background. At times I saw it happen in some of my students. Here I thought was the true measure of a teacher.