A Twitter exchange on John Williams’s Stoner today included a mention of my reading a bit of the novel aloud at a conference a couple of years ago, and it got me thinking about conferences and teaching and my habit of getting choked up in both settings reading things aloud or talking about affecting subjects. I’m never not able to keep teaching or to finish my paper, though there have been times that I’ve had to struggle to pull it together, turning and facing the wall or staring out the window for a moment. It’s a thing that’s always always happened to me as an academic, and though it’s hardly unique to me, I’ve had many academic mentors and colleagues for whom such a display would be unthinkable.
But the point of these moments is that they’re not really about thinking, and this Stoner exchange has gotten me thinking just now about their place in my work, and in the work of academics generally, and especially in my teaching, particularly in my teaching next semester, which is going to be entirely online because my department generously allowed me that option. I haven’t figured out how much my classes will be synchronous and how much not, but even when we can all see each other’s faces on our screens, I’m wondering whether those moments will happen. I believe you can learn and teach online, though like most of us it’s not my ideal, but if you teach smallish discussion-based classes, so much happens that I’m worried can’t happen if we’re not sharing the same physical space and (how’s this for an awkward figure of speech) breathing the same air. So what I’m worrying about now–because someone helped me remember the sadly beautiful moment at the end of an English professor’s life when he remembers the overwhelming feeling of joy and terror that the work of reading and thinking and talking had brought him–is whether I and my students will be able to be overcome by words and ideas together.
This is more a reflection than a cry for help, as far as I can tell, but I’ll take help if people have some.