The extracurricular mile

5th June 2015 at 01:00
Dale Salwak

As a university student, some Saturdays I would attend an evening of boxing matches. After a week of seminars, studying and essays, there was something therapeutic about leaving behind the bubble of academic life and sitting ringside to watch two men try to knock the living daylights out of each other.

I never disclosed this fact to my professors or classmates because I knew instinctively that to do so was to risk not being taken seriously as a student. I could imagine my Chaucer professor saying, "Why waste your time with such lowbrow distractions?"

Many others have told me that they, too, felt pressured to hide the activities they pursued concurrent with their studies, for fear of being disdained, dismissed or disrespected. Some academics can become locked into a rather narrow view of what's expected of students.

Beyond their rigid perspective is the divorced mother raising four children while pursuing her MA in the biological sciences; the history major hiding evidence of his passion for bodybuilding by wearing loose-fitting clothing; or the humanities student who, after travelling to attend a seminar on Marcel Proust, makes time to take in a comic book convention.

For some of us, this bias against leading a double life continues into our teaching careers. During my early days at the college I teach at, for example, I hid from most of my colleagues another of my passions - the art of conjuring.

What could be more antithetical to the life of the mind than doing card tricks? "How trivial," a critic might say. It took me a long time to reveal my alter ego, and even then I did so without fanfare lest someone be tempted to put on a show of moral indignation or feigned concern about my lack of devotion to my profession.

For reasons I can't fully explain, many of us have been raised to believe in the impossibility of doing more than one thing well. All other activities - from hobbies to socialising to side professions - must be held at a distance lest they interfere with the quality of our assigned work. To be a dilettante, some argue, is to scatter our energies, weaken our resolve and undermine our commitment to excellence.

And yet, for some of my most fiercely original and audacious students and colleagues, the activities that allow them to step away from the intellectual arena for a short time also bring them back to the classroom with minds sharpened and spirits recharged. Instead of interfering with assignments or clouding concentration, their extracurricular activities feed into their work.

Neither pride nor a competitive spirit motivate those who are driven to do more than one thing well. They are not looking for ways to neglect their professional responsibilities. What compels them is an inherent, sustained curiosity about everything and everyone and an almost compulsive desire to be all that they can be. They are like actors who want to play all the parts. That drive can only help to inspire those with whom they work - and play - both in and out of the classroom.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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