Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by, or: Servetus’ textual confessions

HobbitAUJ-666Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) recovers from the battle with Azog under the ministrations of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Source:


So often you exasperate me.

Exhaust me.

Flatten me.

So often I think, “I did not sign up to teach Life Lessons 101. I’m not sure I could pass Life Lessons 101 myself.”

I hate every microsecond of the time I spend — waste — policing you.


So often, over the last year, I wonder, “Why am I still doing this? And why am I still doing it this way?”

The answer: I can’t stop believing.

The answer: I still remember so many decisive moments of my life, so many world-altering recognitions, connected with the “great books.”

We were talking about one the other day, here. Servetus has it, bad, for Thucydides.

The easiest answer for me to “Why are you a professor?” is “So I can keep on reading.”

Great books are not in style any more; the globalized world has made this canon irrelevant not only in the eyes of its traditionally marginalized critics, but even in the view of those who might be assumed to wish to support it. Oddly enough, the attack on the idea that students should read (for example) Edmund Burke comes at this moment most vehemently from those who one would think agree most with Burke.

The first critique compels me, though. The world is much bigger than “the West.” We should teach our students to see that. We should help them figure out for themselves how to be aware with whatever tools we can give them.


SH3_096Richard Armitage as John Standring in episode 3 of Sparkhouse. Source:


And, in fact, one encounters truth in so many surprising places. One can find truth in the midst of lies. One can find truth [cough] in one’s own reflection in the eyes and the dramatic performances of an actor in productions with less-than-optimal scripts. In a visceral jerk of joy to the solar plexus in response to a picture. In a joke. Even in fanfics.

Pace recent charges against me personally and lovers of “literature” generally, I’m not a snob, and I hope that if you met me, you would not find me pretentious. Nonetheless, for me so many stunning moments have been connected with reading, perhaps precisely because I didn’t learn Latin from the age of six. Because — apart from the King James Bible — I had to claim such things for myself as an (young) adult. Because they were not always easy.

And so I sometimes think, if I can’t give the world anything else, I can give it this; I can keep these students reading books that they wouldn’t read otherwise, and maybe that will get them to read some other books I haven’t assigned, and some of it will click immediately and some of it in the middle term and in some cases — a decade or more later, even — a student will find me on facebook and say, “Thank you for making me read that; now, I understand.”

I can open up their own search for truth; I can help them mount the steps of mastery. It’s all I want. For them to be able to say they figured it out. For themselves. Whatever it is that they figure out.

“Now, I understand.” That’s all I want to hear any student of mine say. Today. Tomorrow. This term. Some day. Ever.


HobbitAUJ-677Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) tells Bilbo Baggins that he was wrong, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Source:


I wasn’t hoping for much this afternoon. Friday afternoon before a long vacation weekend. Summer session with a long meeting time. A very hard reading given the average preparation and intellect of student at this university. Probably (as usual) I (optimistically) assigned too many pages.

But you were there.


When I walked in, you were all silent, till someone said, nervously, “So, what did you guys think about this reading?”

I waited, a bit nervous myself, mentally ticking over my game plan in case I was going to have to take you page by page through the reading.

And six people broke out simultaneously in loud praise!

You read the reading.

You connected it to assertions I’d made in lecture the previous class meeting.

Even better, you used it to challenge assertions I’d made. And then modify them.

You got the jokes the author was making! We got into a long discussion about textual irony!

One of you said, “This reading casts a lot of suspicion on what the author of the last reading was saying.”

One of you asked, “How can we trust any narrator, though? Especially one who writes so much about liars?”

One of you asked, “Do you think this says anything about the alleged ‘crisis of authority’ we’ve been talking about?”

One of you said, “I read this and I feel like he’s speaking to me, personally.”

Another answered, “Is that a real connection, though, or is it just something you do for yourself in your mind?”

One of you said, “Do you think this author has a self?”

The discussion went ten minutes over before anyone noticed.

I wished you all a good Memorial Day weekend — most were working — and said I’d see you on Wednesday for the second part of the discussion.

The last person out of the room stopped to chat about parallels between the reading and The Prince — which she had read in high school social studies and not understood.

She said, “Today, after our discussion, I think I finally got what Mr. [XXXXX] was saying. It just clicked!”

“Drop him a note,” I urge her, “he’ll be so thrilled to know that.”

“I’ll try to remember,” she said, and, “I think I’m taking this book with me on vacation this summer. I’m going to need to reread it, so I can be sure I understand.”

I smiled, and turned to erase the whiteboard.

   This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

~ by Servetus on May 25, 2013.

56 Responses to “Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by, or: Servetus’ textual confessions”

  1. Congratulations! You really won this one. I’m so glad for you. Reading and thinking are so important in my life that I doubt I could live without them, but I know this is no longer a commonly accepted view. Yet how do we become who we are otherwise?


    • Thanks. I badly needed a win.

      There’s this weird thing that one episode like this makes up for weeks of apparent failure. I leave with this feeling of grateful euphoria. Which is deceptive. Because the majority of the slog is really failure.


    • shouldn’t you be in bed? 🙂


  2. Whether we realize it or not, as teachers, professors, instructors, we are teaching Life Lessons 101 regardless of whether we’re teaching Philosophy, English, or even massage therapy to our students, young and old. Life is a huge life lesson, but more so than even I’d care to admit in a university environment. Some people just choose to take their life lessons outside of university walls, with different kinds of teachers.

    But in the end, we learn something. I like the saying about the mind being compared to a parachute. It only works when it’s open.

    So nice to hear you talk about this Friday class and all the wide open parachutes, er, minds that connected with what was being taught and even beyond.


    • Sure, no question (as I say — truth is everywhere if you’re looking). I’d just like to be teaching the life lesson: “the unexamined life is not worth living” rather than the one about how if you cut too much class you fail. 🙂 Most of it’s the latter. And I won’t be able to teach that one much longer. I just do not physically or emotionally have it in me.

      I feel like I express so much frustration that it’s only fair to myself, the students, and anyone reading about all this that I also sketch out the good points. I wish that I could have been more exact about the discussion we had — it was fascinating — but I think you’d have had to do the reading 🙂


      • I think I’m ready for a reading assignment 🙂


        • Montaigne, Essays, Book I 🙂


          • Got it! Free on iBooks (whew!)


            • LOL. I hope so. The copyright on that is possibly centuries expired.

              You don’t have to read it in order. My students compared it to a blog or social media, actually. I recommend the chapters on liars and on sadness — in “on sadness” he more or less expresses what I’m doing in this blog.

              The students, in comparison were captivated by his discussions of impotence and farting in I:21 🙂


              • I don’t blame them. I would go to that discussion on impotence and farting first, too. 🙂


                • Since that was at the end of the reading I told them to read that first. I figured, if I have a chance of snaring them, that’s the place so they have to be awake for it.

                  I am absolutely not below cheap classroom tricks. 🙂


                  • One of my Shakespeare professors once told us, “People have always laughed at dick and fart jokes, and they always will.”


                    • absolutely. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so many of them in Shakespeare. Although students don’t always realize they’re there …


                    • That was exactly what he was trying to call the shocked students’ attention to. They expected highbrow because OMGSHAKESPEARE! and the professor was like, Guys. Heh. Look closer.


                    • Once again we must ask about the fans who bought all the tickets. The groundlings 🙂

                      I admit that I sometimes find it exhausting to explain sexual innuendo. Not the explanation so much as the students’ embarrassed giggling that I’m explaining it to them.


                  • Smart move. I should learn a few tricks from you to get my students to do my bidding, especially in the Kinesiology classes.


                • LOL…it never seems to get old..reminds me to finish a post on Aristophanes 😉


                  • Yeah, farting is totally NOW. So many connections. One of the conferences I used to frequent frequently always had break out sessions for a Society for Scatological Research or something like that. They were always talking about Montaigne.


                  • Apropos of discussions elsewhere, it would be hilarious if the two blogs to comment on the “lighting farts” stuff were the ones written by professors 🙂


                  • My one strong memory of high school biology class (other than dissection of a frog) was the day when a classmate asked loudly, “why do we fart?” and the whole class exploded in laughter and screams (it was an all-girls school, what can you say?).

                    But everyone paid attention to the answer. And everyone learned something new that day, I’m sure.


                    • I may have mentioned on Friday that after the microscope was invented / constructed, one of the first things that the people who made it used it to do was to look at semen. Fascinated silence in the room for 5 seconds, after which the women in the class all burst out laughing.

                      This is so nice, I’m remembering the reasons I like this bunch.


                    • I have actually told my students that there are people who specialize in studying sperm. And after they recover from that, I recommend they go to Youtube and watch this very “interesting” documentary called The Great Sperm Race 😉


          • Yes, you’ll get an intellectual workout and have a lot of fun with Montaigne.


  3. Yes! Every victory is worth celebrating! 🙂


  4. I agree that the victory is worth celebrating. Remember, Servetus, you touched at least those 6 minds and 6 lives (or was it the whole class?). Probably the seeds were planted before today and have been germinating all semester. And like Mr. [XXXX], the bud may not open for years to come, but it will open, maybe not for all of them, but at least a few. Or some. Or many. 🙂


    • well, and as you say, one lays seeds and waters ground. Plants can spring up in surprising places …


  5. There was a time when to be called a well read person was a honor, not so much now.

    It is great that your students are reading and understanding what they are reading. Sharing ideas that they got from what they read. It is powerful to be able to discuss what your views are on a piece of written work.

    They say that boys tend not to be readers, I am so happy that one of my boys reads just to read. He gets that from me.


    • I think it’s really important to learn how to have a judicious opinion based one careful processing of information and then express it to others. You could call it a life skill. School isn’t the only place that can be learned, though.


  6. I’m not a reader. I’m not intellectual, and I don’t understand a lot of what you write, but I do admire Richard and that’s why I keep reading your blog. Thank you.


  7. Teaching life lessons was actually what turned me off teaching. It is so complex that I never felt qualified. Plus, it is so personal, that I always felt parents were responsible for it, not an outsider like a secondary school teacher. It was only when I returned to teaching photography last year to young adults, that I found the joy and gratification of teaching again – in a context that allowed me to ignore life lessons.
    However, I remember from my secondary school teaching (English and history) that the best bit always was when the students engaged. Through the engagement came the personal connection between teacher and student. And only that facilitates interdependent learning experience that teaches both the student AND the teacher – and is ultimately the most gratifying thing in this scenario. I hope you have many more experiences like this and that yesterday’s lesson shows you there is a reason why you do this and a reason to continue doing this. Just having opened ONE student’s eyes is worth-while. Congratulations!


    • I used to joke about the bathroom pass, years ago. We’re sort of moving in that direction, even in the university, unfortunately. I could go into the reasons why but it’s only discouraging.

      What your story about photography suggest to me is something I’ve taught before, which is that teaching without grades and penalties is the way to go. I could probably continue on that basis. Because it’s there, as you say, that engagement of minds occurs and one gets a return on one’s energy.


  8. Woo hoo! I’m so happy for you!! That is so exciting. That’s education. I’m going to show this to my niece. She wants to be an English teacher. Congratulations!


  9. This is just so happy-making. And so rare. And so affirming. Thanks for laying this series of thoughts out for us!


  10. There’s nothing quite like that moment when you know you have reached your students. It rivals the birth of a child. Very happy for you!


    • Indeed I think it’s a good similitude. You give birth to little grey cells in motion, you help build a conscience, you help young people to *understand* the world and themselves. I think teaching is one of the most important profession, a mission I’d say. And it’s only too sad to see it isn’t estimated in this way by our politicians and administrators. Sometimes teachers are heroes. I still remember 4 people among my old teachers from high school or university. They did the difference.


      • This is what I often think on Father’s Day — I need to have a “teachers/professors who saved my life” day. Because there were a few.


    • yeah — the lightbulb goes on and you know the person can switch it on himself next time. …


  11. That’s wonderful! When you’re a teacher, you must look for things like that to keep your spirits up. Usually, I feel as though I’m beating my head against the wall! I had a comment a few weeks ago from a parent that I’ve been repeating over and over to bolster myself. Her child, who I taught to read last year in kindergarten, was tested to read at the fifth grade level. I thanked her for telling my the terrific news and she said, “No, THANK YOU!” That’s it. Just thank you. It’s the simple things that make you feel like you’re making a difference! Hold onto those little sparks and remember them during the dark times.


  12. Sometimes these kind of “wins” come up just when we need the validation to continue to do this, despite the downsides…the upsides are just soooo transcendent from time to time 🙂 They got it, they really got it!!


  13. Thanks for linking to this most remarkable „water-speech“ of David Foster Wallace from which I’ve never heard of before. Ich bin ganz aus dem Häuschen!!


    • Isn’t that amazing? It always circulates around graduation time in the US because it’s an excerpt from a speech he gave at a commencement ceremony. But he totally expresses how I feel about the purposes of a liberal arts education.


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