So much still to learn

7th March 2014 at 00:00

In 1967, during a class on the Victorian novel, one of my professors began his lecture by stepping up to the blackboard, chalk in hand, and drawing a circle so small that it was barely visible even to those in the front row.

"Imagine that this blackboard represents spatially all that there is to learn about our subject," he said. Then he pointed to the round mark. "In a lifetime of concentrated study, with luck, you'll learn this much."

He then went on to explain that despite his 40 years of research, he knew little compared with what was waiting to be discovered. His passion to know it all superseded even his passion for teaching.

"That truth will define your own pursuits throughout your lifetime," he said. "You will continue to revel as I do in every new discovery."

For me, as for others, his remarks touched upon a personal fact: we had an innate compulsion to discover all that we could about our chosen field, and we later carried the professor's message into our own classrooms.

His words led to a planned epiphany. It was the subject itself that drew many of us into academia; teaching, although important as a concomitant, was not the chief motivation. We embraced the profession because we loved our subjects and wanted to learn about them for the rest of our lives.

"But don't you tire of teaching the same classes day after day, semester after semester, year after year?"

Only a non-teacher could ask that question. As many of us in the profession know from experience, no two semesters are ever the same. New students invite new strategies. New research inspires new lectures. And with good students, we often learn as much from them as we hope they learn from us. When teaching others, we are teaching ourselves.

Thus a re-reading is a new reading. Each time we return to the works familiar to us from many years of teaching, we discover something fresh, and we find ourselves rethinking not just the work but how we deliver it - and how others might see and comprehend it. This process of renewed discovery happens every semester during my own preparations, class discussions and reflections.

With that professor always in mind, I begin my classes with the analogy of the mark on the blackboard. I speak of my own deep enthusiasm for the subject and hope that the energy of that model will kindle in my students their own spirit of unyielding enquiry. I conclude with the words of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai: "I have drawn things since I was 6. All that I made before the age of 64 is not worth counting. At 73, I began to understand the true construction of animals, plants, trees, birds, fishes and insects. At 90 I will enter into the secret of things. At 110, everything - every dot, every dash - will live."

Although we may not achieve the great revelations of the centenarian's perspective, those of us who are academic adventurers know the joy of discovery, feel its pleasures almost every day and follow its compelling, fulfilling call. What we ultimately know may still be only a tiny circle, but it opens worlds beyond worlds to us.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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