Diary of a Mad Professor

Cliff Williams

In one of his mad farmer poems, Wendell Berry writes, “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world.” Some lines later he says, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.” And he ends the poem with these two words: “Practice resurrection.”1

I am not sure how to describe the madness of Berry’s farmer. It is not angry-mad or crazy-mad, though it borders on the latter. Nevertheless, it is something I like. It captures my imagination. It revels in contradiction.

And it recommends resurrection.

Loving the World

Last year, Ann, who graduated from the college in 2004, texted me a quote from Mary Oliver, one of my favorite poets: “Oh! How rich it is to love the world!” I texted back, “Yes!!!” (I have three exclamation marks in my Insert Auto Text for such occasions.)2

I put the quote on the board a couple of days later in my Love and Friendship class. The subject for the day was Plato’s conception of eros-love. Plato thought that the best love was of pure beauty, which one gradually ascends to after first loving the beauty of individual persons. This ascent was designed by Plato to remove one from the changing realm of particular things, where there is messiness and decay, mortality and corruption. An old gospel song exhibits a similar sentiment: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”

I, however, side with Mary Oliver. Or, rather, I think one can love this world as well as live for the next. In fact, it seems impossible to live for the next world without loving this one. If I did not treasure the flowers in my backyard or the smiles on my coworkers’ faces, I would not treasure what I find when I open the door to my home beyond the grave. The God whom I expect to meet when I am hiking in the mountains is one whom I expect relishes mountains. So why cannot I relish them, too? I am far richer when I do.

The class was divided. Some wanted to gaze on the great sea of beauty and some wanted individual bodies to love. That night I texted Ann to tell her I used the quote in class. She texted back with a smile face.

Extracurricular Teaching

A year ago I was lying on a physical therapist’s table getting my injured feet worked on.

“You are 67 and still teaching?” the therapist asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “Last Sunday evening, several students and I got together and read Anne of Green Gables to each other. You can’t do that very many places.”

It was just Sara, Jaime, and me. We met in the new lower dining hall on campus, then found a quiet place at the end of a narrow hallway. I sat on the floor on one side, Jaime sat on the other side, and Sara in between.

“Why do you do that?” the therapist wondered.

“Just because,” I answered. Then, because she had a puzzled look on her face, I added, “It’s extracurricular teaching.”

“Oh,” she said with a knowing nod.

But it wasn’t “teaching” at all. It was simply reading together and giggling at Anne’s adventures. I did not have any motive beyond experiencing these. Nor did I conceive the event to be a teaching moment. It was just there, in the hallway, on the floor.

Of course, Sara and Jaime will remember my voice and twinkling eyes as I read my page. I will remember their voices and childlike glee as they read their pages. And remembering vivid and delightful events, I have discovered, lights up an otherwise ordinary afternoon.

Finding Answers

When I first started teaching, I did what I saw my teachers do—I argued for what I thought were good philosophical viewpoints. And when I gave tests, I got those viewpoints back, along with what I thought were good reasons for them, which I had also given them. It took me three or four years before I realized what was happening. The students wanted good grades, so they gave me what they thought would get them.

I quit, cold turkey. And then what I got on tests was chaos. The answers, however, belonged to the students.

Every semester I face a dilemma: If I give answers, students are more likely to accept them, or say they accept them, because I, the professor, have made a case for them. And that is likely to rub off onto their faith—which means it is no faith at all. If I do not give answers, whatever philosophical answers students adopt will belong to them. That, too, rubs off onto faith.

The risk, of course, is that some students will change their minds about long-held beliefs. But the reward is that other students will find the faith they thought they had. College students want to figure things out on their own, and they would rather run the risk of being wrong than give up that desire.

Besides, it is better for them to experience what real life is like, where the answers are not given—actually, where numerous competing answers are given and one must determine which are right. Students cannot be prepared for that if they develop a mindset of simply ingesting what their professors give them.

A Secret

I was bubbling at Clark Street and Belmont Avenue in Chicago with a carload of students when a couple of former Trinity College students walked by on the other side of the street. I waved them over. After exchanging hello’s, one of them who had taken my Introduction to Philosophy class some years earlier said, “I remember that class. That was where I lost my faith.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I lost my childhood faith and got one of my own.”

“Ah!” I replied, with a big smile on my face.

And now I reveal a long-kept secret, one that I have divulged to only one or two others during the last thirty years. I am an evangelist. I do not come in the front door openly proclaiming the truth of Christianity, but unobtrusively slip in the back door asking questions. Some students, I am sure, leave Trinity College wondering whether they can keep their childhood faith, but others own it for the first time.

What I Want Students to Do

I want students to think for themselves. I want students to care about their faith. I want students to become passionate about learning and also about living. I want students to learn to listen. I want students to blow bubbles and swish in the fall leaves. I want students to sit on the sidewalk beside a homeless person on a busy Chicago street. I want students to remember kind eyes that gazed into theirs. I want students to dream. I want students to feel more keenly the magnificence and tragedy they encounter.

Teaching Forever

Five years ago the alumni director at Trinity College asked me to say a few words at an evening homecoming dinner for college alumni. I composed a poem for the occasion, “Remembering 25 Years of Extracurricular Teaching,” but the emcee forgot to call on me. Here are the last two verses of that forgotten poem:

I decided a couple of weeks ago, again,

That I like the teaching life—

Interaction with students in class and out,

Reading, writing, staring out the window.

I may just get so caught up with it that,

Like the history professor in the fifth

Harry Potter book who was so busy teaching

He didn’t notice he had died,

I, too, will keep right on teaching

And not notice when I have died.

Sayings of a Mad Professor

  • Good: “Live as if it is your last day.” Better: “Live as if it is your first day.”

  • Don’t try to change the world—that is too big and abstract. Don’t even try to change individuals—they won’t like it and will resist you. Rather, change yourself, and others will change as a result.

  • Text a friend, “Good morning,” some random day.

  • Do you want to love God? Then keep your heart open to your neighbors’ tears and smiles.

  • When you are with someone, be with them.

  • Practice resurrection.

1 Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” in Wendell Berry, Collected Poems: 1957-1982 (New York: North Point Press, 1984), pp. 151-52.

2 From Mary Oliver, “The Sweetness of Dogs (Fifteen),” Swan: Poems and Prose Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010), p. 23.

Published in Trinity Magazine (Spring 2012), 20-23

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