To My Students

Every semester I write a letter to my students that comments on my position in relation to the readings we are working through that semester. I delivered my letter early this semester, since I am trying to get them to think about the differences between what Vitanza identifies as writing and w-r-i-t-i-n-g; the former designates what we teach in textbooks and classes, the latter attempts to signify (impossibly) the broad expanse of all possible written expression. And then some.

Any who, for a bit of background, we've been reading about the historic purpose of higher education. We spent the first six weeks reading about five historic conceptions of higher ed: Plato (to produce philosopher kings) , Cicero (to produce citizens), Petrarch (to deal with life's hardships), Kant (to increase scientific knowledge), and Americans (economic advancement and vocationalism). Its been an interesting semester for me in terms of learning of my students aspirations and the intellectual climate at South Florida. Here's my letter to my students (those who wrote Trickert papers will recognize, no doubt, a particular tone and rhythm--I'm starting to realize how much I miss the looseness of those papers):

I know that I strive to be a Ciceronian--someone who values the voice of all people, who encourages all people to participate in the political and social conversations of their time. Unlike either Kant or Plato, I reject the concept of a progressive conversation through history. Although, on the flip side, I do believe it is important to know something of the voices that have come before us before you attempt to join in a conversation. An opinion is only valuable if it is based on something more than opinion. It is in this valuing that I begin to look like a Platonist... a charge that makes me cringe.

To detail why this charge would make me cringe would take quite a bit of time. Quickly, I will say that I do place value on the ideal that everyone should be free to live their life their own way. My academic career, and personal life, is dedicated to preventing another Holocaust (please forgive the logical jump). And the root of the Holocaust, in my opinion, lies in the fundamental premise that we can know the Truth. And that we can use the Truth to judge others.

If I object to religion, I do not do so for the same reasons as Kant. Everyone, I believe, has the right to worship who or what he s/he chooses. No one can claim to have a rational answer to the question of metaphysics. None of us can ever know, with certainty, what lies beyond. My objection to organized religion stems from its moral obligation to help the “less fortunate.” The same system that identifies "misfortunate" also provides the logic for solutions. Final solutions. Answers are solutions. In the face of Right answers, I ask my God for the strength to ask all the wrong questions. Sometimes she listens. Sometimes, in silence, in passivity, she reminds me to question her existence.

As to the arts, I support them. I think they help us to imagine possibilities. It is through this imaginative exploration that we can avoid the trappings of Reason--the passion for singular answers. To Plato I say: we do not escape imprisonment solely through the employment of reason. Imagination is not simply a means to convince the masses. Imprisonment can come from blindly dedicating ourselves to any one thing. Art serves as a way of diversifying our perspective, of challenging what we "know" to be true, of opening ways of hearing.

Lately, I’m feeling a bit Petrarchian. I apply everything I read to my own life. I draw examples to my own life. I even ask my students to write about me. Such is not meant to be an egotistical move (which, undoubtedly, my detractors would perceive it). Rather, it is meant to open myself up for inquiry, to improve myself as a teacher, and to force me to reflect on whether "me" is "me." If it is egotistical, it is so in a critical sense—it is a questioning of what puts the me in me. We all narrate our own stories. We are always just before the climax. Now is a product of a future we wish to be(come). But, ultimately, the future frustrates ourselves.

If I disagree with the structure of this class, I do so for two reasons. First, the class assumes a very Kantian perspective—i.e., you write for the Great Conversation (what we call academic writing). Perhaps I could more "work" the assignments to meet my own goals. Perhaps someone can do a final project on how I might do this. Imagine how, working with this material, you would teach the course. Second, true writing emerges from complex engagements. Writing is the thought that happens when you stop trying to write a paper and just start writing. It is when you chase down the trace of something Other in a moment when you suspend the will to order. When you [can’t] become something you couldn’t be. I'd like to do more of this writing, writing that more reflects w-r-i-t-i-n-g than writing. I'm trying to (w-)r-i-t-e ((to) you) right now.


Casey said...

Interesting -- I sympathize with that seemingly egoistical move to apply everything to your own life. And I agree that it's only seemingly egoistical if you manage it the right way (sounds like you are)...

Are the students writing their own letters?

Insignificant Wrangler said...

The students have freedom to write as they would like for their research paper.

I think I'm going to ask for their final project to be a letter to someone... (earlier this semester we read Petrarch's Letter to Cicero)