The End of the Semester and Scholarly Pursuits

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It’s already begun to happen.

Each semester as I complete my course of teaching, and move toward completing grading final exams, I experience once again what I think might be a common experience for those of us who pursue an academic life.

Into my mind come flooding ideas and topics to pursue, books to read, and considerations to test. Questions that I have not been able to answer adequately must be researched and creative impulses pursued to produce a paper or argument. Teaching consumes the mind, or at least my mind. I want to both know my subject, but also be ready to communicate it creatively, and to be able to respond to questions from whatever angle they come. Intellectual work can be exhausting, in my experience. By the end of the Spring semester especially I notice intellectual fatigue but I feel it at the end of the Fall semester too. I don’t want to think about one more topic that I have to teach.

Thinking and writing, experimenting and creating, outlining, explaining and creating teaching experiences for students (in detail and in the multiple ways in which students learn) is difficult and can be draining, even when we enjoy it. Teaching, communicating and bringing students along, attempting to understand them and their questions, their ways of knowing, and to guide them requires energy and requires our full attention.

It takes a rested mind to think and communicate well, just as it takes a rested body to perform well athletically. I sometimes use the analogy with my students. What we do in class is like an athletic practice. We are becoming intellectual athletes. We need to learn basic skills; this requires multiple drills, sometimes without much thrill. (I know it is corny but memorable in its badness.)

Most of my time is spent administering these days, but I still teach at least one class a year, and this takes up my extra time and mental energy. This semester it was a history of church and theology course for the FPU Biblical Seminary. Now as my grading is nearing completion, and I do not have to think about the next class session, re-read the assigned texts, follow-up on questions I or the students have raised, I feel the energy returning, the freedom to think and ponder. I begin (just begin right now) to feel the desire to read things that have been on my shelf, and to pursue questions that I want to pursue, not that must be covered in a class.

This is the reason we have sabbaticals, research grants and attend academic conferences as participants and presenters. We are able then to pursue those questions that bring a new dimension to our teaching, they renew our energies as scholars, and sharpen our thinking.

I have learned that this is not the pattern of normal human beings (yes, I meant to say it is not normal), but as I have spoken and lived with my colleagues at Fresno Pacific, I have learned that this is common to many of us who have sought this academic life. Perhaps it is what makes us professors. Here at FPU we have the privilege of thinking integratively–about science and faith at the same time, about religion and public life, about piety and justice together. It is energizing and intellectually satisfying way to live and work.

Chaucer (of course) summed it all up memorably with his portrayal of the “clerk” or scholar, one of his ideal figures, in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. The scholar is thin, out of shape, his clothes worn out, and he spends too much of his money on books. He doesn’t cut it in fashionable society. But he prays for all of those who make it possible for him to study. He cares about what is true and right, and, Chaucer concludes, “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.” (The Middle English is not too difficult!)

If you notice that we don’t dress as well as we might, that we get excited about an old book or a new study, or if we are off again on a trip to collect specimens, or gather data, well this is what is required—gladly would the scholar “lerne” first before he presumes to teach. Teaching requires constant learning and exploring. Perhaps you know you are to be a “clerk” if you can’t help yourself and must keep learning. As I write this early in the morning, I have four books in front of me that just begged to be pulled off the shelf. Like the scholar, I am grateful for the chance to learn and teach.

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