It’s Spring Break for both of the colleges at which I teach, but for me it’s time to get caught up on grading and other course tasks that fall off the map when one is in the thick of it. In his book The Courage to Teach (1997; 2007), Parker Palmer argues that good teachers maintain an orientation to one’s students, one’s self, and one’s subject. This Spring Break is an opportunity to assess all three: my students through grading, how I’m doing through reflection and introspection, and the course to date in terms of representing the subject in light of unfolding current events. Events in the Middle East / North Africa and closer to home have provided opportunities in particular to the upper level courses in the Sociology of War and Peace and Modern Social Thought (sociological theory) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Endicott College, respectively.
Unlike teaching, which operates under fairly strict time constraints of a particular number of meetings of a particular length each week, these activities are, like writing, unstructured. As such I turn to my favorite sources on writing at times like these. In Writing for Social Scientists (1986) Howard S. Becker describes a series of exchanges in a class on writing he felt he had no business teaching at that time.
…So I turned to a former graduate student and old friend sitting on my left and said “Louise, how do you write?” I explained that I was not interested in any fancy talk about scholarly preparations but, rather, in the nitty-gritty details, about whether she types or wrote in longhand, used any special kind of paper or worked at any special time of day. I didn’t know what she would say.
The hunch paid off. She gave, more or less unself-consciously, a lengthy account of an elaborate routine which had to be done just so. Although the was not embarrassed by what she had described, others squirmed a little as she explained that she could only write on yellow, ruled, legal-sized pads using a green felt-tip pen, that she had to clean the house first (that turned out to be a common preliminary for women but not for men, who were more likely to sharpen twenty pencils), that she could only write between such and such hours, and so on.
I went on with my interpretation. From one point of view, my fellow participants were describing neurotic symptoms. Viewed sociologically, however, those symptoms were magical rituals. According to Malinowski (1948, 25-36), people perform such rituals to influence the result of some process over which they think they have not rational means of control. He described the phenomenon as he observed it among the Trobriand Islanders…
I have considered my calendar, scanned the headlines of the day, blogged a few things, checked my Facebook messages, cleaned the kitchen, brewed some tea, and queued up some music.
Last week I blogged about an episode of WNYC’s Radiolab, “Help,” in which among other things, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray Love (2007), describes her approach to inspiration. She thinks the muses or whomever find one working diligently at one’s desk and take pity. Are we, even in this modern era, after all still trying to appease the gods with our ritualistic behavior?
In Modern Social Thought, we just finished considering Max Weber, one of the three leading “classical” theorists which also include Marx and Durkheim. Marx is easy, appealing to any young turk even slightly discomfited with injustice in the social world as we know it, or easily rejected by a consideration of the fruits of those political “others” who have traced their heritage to him. Durkheim, too is admirable, for actually doing, in his groundbreaking work Suicide, the kind of “social physics” that August Comte, his French forebear and founder of our discipline said “should” be done. It really took me until graduate school to develop an appreciation for Max Weber and his concern with “rationalization” in modern society and the “iron cage” of bureaucracy.
In our course’s text, The Discovery of Society (2010), Collins and Makowsky subtitle the chapter on Weber “The Disenchantment of the World.” Apparently, Weber borrowed this phrase from Schiller, using it to denote secularization. Indeed, it is given form in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which, incidentally, Weber wrote upon emerging from the throes of depression. Was it the prospect of a society imprisoned by rationality or a world bereft of magic that drove him there?
Whichever may be the case, we survive to bear witness to some transcendent reality to which we turn our meditations in times of transition. It could be “the community,” or “the subject,” “Spirit,” or “the Divine.” As Thomas Merton indicates, this reality is immanent as well as transcendent.
…The reality that is present to us and in us: call it Being, call it Atman, call it Pneuma…or Silence.
And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained: the happiness of being at one with everything in that hidden ground of Love for which there can be no explanations.
I suppose what makes me most glad is that we all recognize each other in this metaphysical space of silence and happiness, and get some sense, for a moment, that we are full of paradise without knowing it.
It’s funny that this idea of immanence and transcendence, of intimacy and ultimacy, also came up in my reading yesterday, in a Shambhala Centaur Edition of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” (1993). In the introduction, editor Stephen Mitchell quotes from the Upanishads.
Self is everywhere, shining forth from all beings,
vaster than the vast, subtler than the most subtle,
unreachable, yet nearer than breath, than heartbeat.
May you, too find the divine in the ordinary.