After Class, Learning Among Colleagues

After a particularly successful class, I’ve sometimes heard professors say they enjoy teaching so much they would do it for free. But while we probably all feel that euphoria when we see students “get it,” we also are likely to know how discouraging it can be to try to measure our professional worth solely through triumphs in the classroom. I’ve found beginning writers who thrilled and challenged me at every institution I’ve taught at, but this past week as I counted my academic blessings, I kept coming back to what can happen after the classes and office hours, when students are gone for the day.

When I interviewed for my current job last spring, the department chair told me simply that this was a place where people loved books. I don’t remember much from that initial, hectic visit, but his description of a community where faculty members take an active interest in one another’s scholarship and drop into their colleagues’ offices to share what they’re reading made a powerful impression on me.

He wasn’t much exaggerating either. I’ve been meeting weekly with one of the department’s senior professors to talk literature, and Friday afternoons a group of faculty from throughout the humanities often find themselves sharing ideas at the bar just off campus. One hears the word “collaboration” a great deal. There is a sense of our shared intellectual endeavor here that I haven’t previously encountered, not even as a graduate student when I shared (very tight) office space with other creative writers.

Perhaps some of the atmosphere I’m trying to describe is due to the size and religious affiliation of this smaller university. More important, I suspect, is the presence of a group of men and women, both faculty and administration, who are particularly articulate on the value of the liberal arts. I know I have found it profoundly encouraging to hear our leaders regularly and passionately championing the humane value of what scholars do with books and ideas. The blank page is always lonely, but here I’m constantly being reminded that the university is full of scholars whose work complements and informs my own.

When we see students “get it,” I think what we’re often observing is just a new awareness of potential, an understanding of the power that an idea might have in their lives. Of course we are excited by those discoveries, but lately I’ve been increasingly aware of, and grateful for, the deeper refreshment that can be found in conversation with colleagues, scholars who have followed those ideas for decades.

Is there sense of productive collegiality at your institution? How important is a shared sense of professional purpose? What role do your colleagues play in shaping your scholarship and pedagogy?

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