Friday, February 5, 2016

The Nature of the Soul and Other Insights from a Week of Classroom Observations

This week has been a week of many classroom observations.  One of my favorites was an Introduction to Literature class, which was discussing this sestina by Charles Algernon Swinburne.  It begins this way

"I saw my soul at rest upon a day
      As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,"

We then had an interesting discussion about how we view the soul:  as a bird in a nest?  Does the soul exist.  The teacher called on me, saying, "We have a poet in the room.  Kristin, how do you see the soul?"

Oh, the pressure!  So I answered honestly.  I said, "I see the soul as being somewhat trapped by the body, which will break down in all sorts of ways."

We talked about the body as a sort of cage, and I hastened to say that I wasn't really comfortable with the theology behind it.  I wanted to make a speech about the dangers of Gnosticism, but that would have required hijacking the whole class.  I also wanted to talk about the dangers of dualism, about the new philosophies of the mind, about all sorts of stuff that would have been tangentially relevant, but not particularly helpful to the interpretation of the poem.

In the end, I reminded myself that I was in the room to observe, not to take over.  And I was glad that I practiced the spiritual discipline of being quiet.  It was great to listen to the students have a spirited (soulful?  how many puns could I make?) discussion about the soul, about the ways we live a good life or recover from our mistakes--and I was interested that no one really mentioned God in a traditional way.  I could tell that the students who spoke had some sort of spiritual life--or at least, a yearning or two that had been acknowledged.  I couldn't tell you much about their specific beliefs or practices.

I admired the way that the teacher wove the conversation back to the line by line analysis of the poem.  I was happy that most of the students stayed with her.

But more than that, I was thrilled to see that students are still thinking about spiritual and philosophical questions, like "What is the nature of a soul?" 

In a way, I hate doing classroom observations.  I feel like I'm invasive, and I worry that my presence will change the dynamic.  It takes time to do them:  the planning, the observation, and the write up.

But I always remember an encounter I had with a colleague after I did her observation, the first of many that I would do.  She mentioned our former chair who had never done an observation and how hurtful that had been--she had interpreted the lack of observations as a lack of interest.

I, who had been a faculty member at the same time, had been relieved never to have an observation.  It was a good lesson for me, and I frequently remind myself that we're not all the same.

It's also good for me to go into classrooms to be reminded of the good work that we're doing in our school.  I often know more than I want to know about the wide variety of problems that pop up in any given day/week/month/year.  It's good to remember that most students are good and hard working.  It's good to remember that faculty want to guide them towards a better future than those students likely would have had without higher education.

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