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15 years of teaching at Notre Dame, five reflections

| Friday, November 16, 2018

With thanks to The Observer for its editorial hospitality this term to a faculty columnist, here are five farewell reflections.

1. Yes, professors procrastinate, too.

Just as students procrastinate by looking at next semester’s course descriptions instead of completing work for this term, so do professors put off grading said work by thinking about next term’s courses. No exception, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my courses for next semester, the last, as it turns out, in fifty years of teaching.

One is a seminar on Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain, two colossal ironists whose company we could use today and who will be invited back into this column in a minute. The other course, “Literature: Nature: Now,” is an introduction to environmental fiction and non-fiction published since 2014.

Spending a semester on works written in the last five years is not something I ever expected to do, after teaching 18th-century literature much of my life. So, why do it? The short reason is that we live in unprecedented times and need to try to catch up imaginatively.

Veteran literary historians do not say “unprecedented” lightly; we’re used to finding past origins or parallels for just about any current situation. But the so-called “Great Acceleration” that roughly corresponds with my lifetime (from the end of World War II to the present) has been uniquely hard on the global environment, and some of its impacts are just now registering.

Those of us awake to these changes — who are not environmental change denialists — need all the help we can get from the brightest and best informed imaginations of our “now” to learn how to see, feel and say our new realities and responsibilities.

2. The “unsurpassed undergraduate education” that Notre Dame aspires to offer is being surpassed.

I don’t mean that Father Jenkins’s goal is in danger because we risk being passed by this or that school in the US News rankings. The problem is that we’re being surpassed by reality.

The complex environmental peril that defines our time — and that will continue to do so during the lifetime of every current Notre Dame student — barely finds a place in our curriculum.

In my first column, I suggested searching the fall class offerings for the kinds of general courses one might take to learn something about climate change, extinction rates, global population pressures, earth systems, food systems and so on.

Searching the spring offerings now will not yield better results. Notre Dame does not have an Environmental Studies major (Saint Mary’s does). We do not offer geology except as part of Environmental Engineering. We do not have enough ecologists or earth scientists or climate scientists to launch thoughtful team-teaching between the College of Science and Arts & Letters.

However cutting-edge our scientists may be as researchers, our undergraduate curriculum is outdated. It may remain so without encouragement from the president, provost and dean of Science.

We are being surpassed not only in the sciences. Despite Notre Dame’s having the “largest Philosophy Department in the United States,” can you find courses in environmental ethics? In a Theology department of similar size and distinction, courses in creation theology? Or elsewhere, environmental sociology? The anthropology of climate?

3. Speaking of anthropology, “homo sapiens” needs modification.

I’ll leave the scientific terminology to the experts, but from the perspective of my literary oracles, Swift and Twain, the self-description is, well, self-congratulatory. Of the assertion that “Man is the reasoning animal,” Twain observes in a late essay, “Such is the claim. I think it is open to dispute.” He had in fact disputed it satirically most of his life by depicting countless characters stronger on rationalization than rationality.

Swift, as a clergyman and political satirist, made many observations that fit 21st-century Washington as well as 18th-century London or Dublin. One example: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.” What he observed led him to reject altogether the definition of man as a “rational animal” and prefer the phrase “capax rationis”: capable of reason.

My own modest proposal for renaming ourselves is “homo sapiens infrequens”: very occasionally sapient.

4. How Emory is not Notre Dame.

When I first moved to Notre Dame fifteen years ago after more than two decades at Emory, new friends sometimes asked me to compare the two schools. Very fond of both, and avoiding invidious comparisons, I settled on a small joke: Emory is secular and has no football team; at Notre Dame football is a religion and religious discussion a contact sport.

Well, sort of a joke. The first part feels pretty literal some weekends. The second is metaphoric and complimentary rather than critical. Intellectual discourse makes “contact” here with religious questions more commonly than on many campuses; generally a good thing. I haven’t yet seen such discussions devolve into fisticuffs.

Nor have I often felt excluded as a non-Catholic. I was once called “heterodox,” but that was by an economist, irritated by doctrinal doubts over unlimited growth in a finite troposphere.

5. Some things professors never complain about. 

Having chaired two departments and served on countless committees, I’ve heard colleagues complain about many things. But I’ve yet to hear any professors complain about their students for:

— showing intellectual curiosity

— reading beyond the syllabus

— coming to office hours to pursue a question or seek advice

— staying in touch.


Stay in touch.


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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