On not wishing one’s students were different
My students know what I am thinking, especially what I am thinking about them. I tell them all the time, though not in so many words, or sometimes in no words at all. They are attuned to my body as it relates to them: tone of voice, physical twitches, facial expressions. My many lectures, words flowing over and through them, pulling them into thought, sometimes, like the undertow of a river, snagging at limbs.
Sometimes I am not saying anything. But this is data, too: there are things I do not say, as I stand there and choose what I want to enrich in a student’s guess or comment or question. I apply my comments like gold filigree—delicate, specific, spare. After all, I cannot say everything. And students cannot learn everything at once. I have a particular way of pausing, or so I am told, where I seem wholly absorbed in thinking through what we are saying to one another. I stop and I think about it. I say nothing. I’m there and far away. Into the silences, students read tacit admissions and omissions of all kinds. I am a book that they read again and again.
Into the silences, students read tacit admissions and omissions of all kinds. I am a book that they read again and again.
Aware of this dynamic, I work hard to let go of any tiny resentments that can build in the back of a professor’s head and then be read by those in front of it: Why do you not read? I catch myself thinking. Why do you not listen? Why do you not know this thing you have been told? Why are you not curious? Why do you refuse my passion with your gestures of indifference?
My feeling is felt by them, mediated through the veils of their experience. That they intuit my feelings is the most important thing for me to remember. And remembering it means that I must let go of what I had wanted to happen during our time together, or what I had imagined would take place. Maybe I thought that reading Irenaeus would lead us to reflect on how bodies are necessary for temporality, but really they did not read Irenaeus at all. Maybe I forgot that we humans have not thought about bodies all that much apart from our anxieties about them. So I should ask, “Do you ever think about what it’s like to have a body?” And continue: “What is it like? What do you think of when I mention the human body?” We will not get so far in Irenaeus, but I think he would be pleased. I can ask any student my new question, even if they did not do the reading.
Our struggle is to learn, which is a work, a deed. A working, energēmatōn, in that peculiar usage in Paul’s letters: “There are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (1 Cor 12:6). Learning is a working that I can force upon no one who does not want it.
Our struggle is to learn, which is a work, a deed. A working, energēmatōn, in that peculiar usage in Paul’s letters.
Students often do not want to be in my classes. They are busy, immensely busy. They can be lazy (as we all can be). They can be utterly marooned by years and years of education whose purposes and tasks and quality can be rather, let us say, various and often opaque. They have made it to college, but they are weary already. Often enough, students are not at all interested in my topic, which is theology. But Catholic institutions understandably require theology courses, and so here they are, and here I am. And one of us at least is excited about religion.
This brings me to a kind of madness. The madness of a broken heart, one that knows that it wants everything, a wanting that is a taste of a pure desire to know. And this heart that wants everything can want nothing for anyone. I cannot make people desire what I desire. So it is the madness of a kind of love, one pierced by its mysterious futility. As in a line from “King Lear”: “As mad as the vex’d sea; singing aloud.” And I sing and sing and sing: Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, in this futile heart exposed.
It is hard not to turn to students who do not want to be there and to wish that they were someone else. Someone who did not want to extract a grade from me, or to merely survive my class (survive me). They read me, but I read them, too: You who stare, do you wonder with me or wonder at me? Do you wonder, in this moment, anything at all? Am I not a subject and an object—strange, lovely, terrible?
I work hard to let go of any tiny resentments that can build in the back of a professor’s head.
But it is unforgivable, I think, for me to really wish that my students were different than they in fact are. It is unfair to want them to be some other students. This is different than expecting much from them, which I continue to do. It is not the same because the wish for them to be different is disappointed before we even begin, and it remains disappointed. They will know. And I will have forsaken them, though maybe not out loud.
I cannot reach what I never search for. I cannot bring into the fold of knowledge the lamb I never find. I cannot scaffold upward from some “whence” I never discover. And so I try to let go, and I go forward to meet my students as they are. I have a job to do, which is to build those scaffolds that help my students reach what they seek, that help them climb to the heights we seek together. The unforgivable thing would be the refusal to go after the lost students, and it would be the cost of such a refusal. The unforgivable thing is to wait for students to be some stranger that I once imagined them to be, someone that they do not know, someone that they are not.
Here I grant a hundred million caveats to my fellow teachers about how hard we work, about how there is no time, about how we must make decisions about what is most important and what is not. I grant these and many others. And I reply with this one: that, as a Catholic and as a theologian, I am not allowed to deny the real. I am not allowed. For the real is God’s. And my students are as real as it gets. Their struggles, their joys, their boredom, their pain. All of it. And everything in our glorious, miserable, mystical, disappointing cosmos of triumphs and mediocrities, this world on fire, this mess—including myself—is divine in origin and divine in end. Every thing and every person in front of me is a mysterious instrument of the glory of God. (O Lord of my passion and my futility, you reign even here.)
This, then, is the truly Catholic moment, truly cosmic in scale. The breath of eternity in any breath at all. To look upon the world as it in fact is, and to hear, “Be still and know that I am God!” (Ps 46:11).
Updated, Aug. 20, 2022; 8:43 p.m.