This Academic Life
  Living and learning
This past weekend the study abroad group -- myself, my program assistant (a student with whom I've worked very closely for the past four years), and the six students taking the program for credit -- went on a weekend study trip to Prague. Why Prague? We have been talking about the idea of Central Europe in class, and a visit to another Central European city seemed like a good way to explore the ambiguities of that designation. Plus, Prague is a fascinating and vibrant place -- always good for a visit.

The substantive content of the trip -- the reflections on identity, "authenticity," tourism (including the rising tide of "sex tourism" in which British stag parties fly to Prague for a weekend of drunken revelry, taking advantage of being far from home and from the normal parameters of acceptable and civilized behavior; watching them ogle every female in sight, including my students, was quite disconcerting, and several bars and clubs now post signs saying "no stag parties" in an effort to distance themselves from the plague), and the like -- was fantastic. I suspect that our class discussions this week will be greatly enhanced by the experience. Indeed, it's already showing up in the student journals that I am having everyone keep. Pedagogically, I find this a good technique for promoting reflection.

But even more striking to me than these aspects of the weekend, and of the program as a whole, is the way that the set-up of the program enables a more comprehensive kind of pedagogy. There is a strange intimacy to being on a study abroad program, surrounded by other languages and other customs, recording your observations and sharing them with your study group. It's almost as though we have all become a team of anthropologists visiting an alien civilization, struggling collectively to make sense of it all. This even goes for the two students on the program who are Polish, as they become our Sacajewas or La Malinches: interpreters, mediators, but removed from the stream of daily life by the mere fact of being in the program. We are then Lewis and Clark (or, rather, Lewis and the Clarkettes).

Everyone writes about the great discoveries that Lewis and Clark made. But as far as I know no one focuses on the dynamics internal to the exploratory group, the social construction of the knowledge that we later attribute to their efforts. (And I know next to nothing about Lewis and Clark, actually, so there might in fact be an analysis that focuses on precisely this floating around someplace. If there isn't, there should be: a kind of "sociology of knowledge" take on exploration groups.) There is something very important the the fact that in a situation like this, one lives together with a group (even though we have separate apartments): we see one another daily, both in classroom settings and outside of it. We walk around and the conversations veer from philosophical (can identity be freely chosen?) to mundane (the hot water in one of the student apartments keeps ceasing to function at times). We get news from "home" and discuss its significance. We share stories about previous trips, previous courses, previous experiences. The ordinary process of producing a class vernacular is accelerated tremendously; everything moves faster, as the speed of network exchange is greater and the temporality that it spins moves along at a fierce clip. It's exhilarating and exhausting.

And intimate. All teaching -- all genuine teaching, as opposed to the dissemination of facts -- is intimate. By "intimate" I mean that there is a certain intensity of commitment, a certain surrender to the evolving dynamic of the interaction, as the group gropes its way to some kind of rough stability, and then hopefully sheds that and keeps moving. As the professor I have more control than other people over the general gestalt of that dynamic, but I am never just an observer of it. If I don't participate -- albeit in a different way, since I am not a student and my responsibilities are not the same -- the experience doesn't cohere in the same way. There is differentiation (including a difference of authority -- the hierarchical character of the professor/student relationship should never get completely obliterated, as this makes the course unsustainable) between professor and student within the pedagogical situation, but it is differentiation internal to the situation. And the more intense the pedagogy, the more intimate the relations -- and the more that the experience takes on a life of its own.

Living-with, traveling-with, being-abroad-with: all of these connections enable and make possible the experience. It's qualitatively different than a single student going to study at a foreign university. At the same time, there's nothing inevitable or determinate about this consequence; relations can be mobilized and tapped in very different ways. We're operating in the realm of conditions of possibility here, after all.

The difficult thing for a professor -- for me, at any rate -- is figuring out when and how to sustain the internal differentiation. My general rule has been: I'm around during the day, talking to students and interacting with them. (But I run alone in the mornings, and spend pre-class hours preparing -- prayer and meditation, if you will.) This interaction often continues even through dinner. But after that, we withdraw to our separate spheres. Part of that also involves ritual boundary-demarcation: I watch baseball highlights, stay in touch with people via e-mail, blog as a means of self-reflection, and use the marvelous invention of voice-over-IP to talk to my wife and kids on an almost daily basis (which is a great gift -- I'd have a lot more trouble doing this in the absence of such ready communication with my family, because although we're operating in the realm of conditions of possibility the available space for agency is shaped by those conditions, and on a prolonged trip under such conditions it might be far easier to surrender to the dynamic than to set firm boundaries within it. I have to admit that I am only coming to realize this slowly, and also to realize the applicability of the insight to my life as an academic more generally--more on that in a subsequent entry).

That's the normal weekday schedule; being in Prague altered that somewhat, since we tended to eat together more and socialize a bit more in the evenings. But I have set an earlier curfew for myself than the students typically have, so that they can go and get into their own trouble (so to speak). After all, my job is not to monopolize them and their time, but to strike a delicate balance.

It's fascinating and exhausting. But also exhilarating. Just jump in with eyes open, and insist on some internal boundaries with meticulous -- even fanatical -- consistency.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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