The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"This work contains many things which are new and interesting.  Unfortunately, everything that is new is not interesting, and everything which is interesting, is not new."... ...Lev Landau.

Commentary of the Day - February 1, 2004:  Interesting!  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

After 40+ years in the classroom there are certain rituals that accompany retirement.  One is emptying your office so that the person who's had an eye on the campus view outside your window can, at long last, move in;  another is the  sudden realization that  your carefully labeled  course syllabi and class notes no longer matter a fig.  The list goes on and on, with every item making it clear that you are yesterday's news. It's enough to give a person the willies.

That's why I figure  it's high time to give other side of the retirement coin a lighthearted look.  In my case,  there's nothing quite so uplifting as a preview of  the "coming attractions" for next year's faculty meetings: a proposal to bring our Greek system into full college recognition (and oversight); a plan to replace dormitories with a smaller, more regulated "house" system; and yet another effort to encourage faculty  members to live within a mile's radius of the campus.  None of these issues "grabs me" -- as our students like to put it when asked about any literary work written before last Wednesday -- and I'm jolly glad I won't have to sit through the tedious debates that  will divide the faculty squarely down the middle, with one half swearing an allegiance to "long overdo restraint" while the other half  is equally insistent that a good  college  governance is the one that governs least -- and the best one of all leaves plenty of time and space for "dancing around the campus wine cask."

I used to think that the  phrases surrounded by quotation marks were indigenous to my campus alone but the advent of e-mail has made it abundantly clear that they flourish at nearly every college that has faculty members and faculty meetings.  Sometimes the rabbit ears  are meant to be sneer quotes -- as in the case when words such as "truth" or "beauty" are being hooted out of the hall as indicators of the patriarchal hegemony -- but there are also occasions when quotation marks direct our attention to the latest news  from the heavy-water theorist Jacques Derrida.  Either way, faculty members  are more than able to turn any debate into a clash of quotation marks which operate as shields, as weapons, and sometimes as both.

I am well rid of the foolishness I used to hear every two weeks, or more often when the faculty met in extra sessions to consider what a change in the college's final exam schedule might mean, especially to those who regularly handed out "take home: exams" a week or two before the final exam period officially began.  For faculty members deeply suspicious and opposed to more regulation from the dean's office, the issue boiled down to a clash between freedom and  constraint.

Curiously enough, certain students echoed the all-purpose sentiment when they used teaching evaluation forms to hammer a teacher for being "too rigorous" because he or she handed out a syllabus at the beginning of the semester and then kept to it.  Far better (according to some) were  teachers who were deemed "flexible," which meant that they would often ask the class what they wanted to do.  Most of the time this meant "meeting outside" or better yet, taking the day off altogether.

All this is easy enough to kiss farewell.  But what is even more attractive is the prospect of living a long, happy life without ever uttering the word "interesting."  Why so?  Because "interesting" is nearly always an empty word, and  when a teacher lets it slip out in a classroom it is nearly always meant to be a weasel word. The fact is that most of the things that students say are not interesting.  But that said, who wants to turn off discussion altogether, which is what too much bald truth will do if directed to the person half nodding in the back row and wearing a baseball cap backwards.  For such a student, publicly declaring that his response to Hawthorn's story  is "interesting" may be a lie, but if so, it is a white lie meant to encourage not only that student but others within earshot.  Once again, the tension  in Hawthorn's The Maypole of Merrymount  are well worth exploring, even from those more prone to identify with the partygoers than with their more sober, morally serious cousins.  It's "interesting" that this should be the case, but it does not bring us very far in terms of understanding what the story is finally about.  "Interesting" is the anthem of those who believe that every person is entitled to his or her opinion, and moreover, that all opinions are right.  I will fight to the death to defend the first part of the equation, but not the second.  Still, I will concede that there are time in the classroom when the case for widening the circle makes a certain amount of sense.

That's why I used the word "interesting" far more than I probably should have.  In this crime I am hardly alone.  But now that I'm retired, one of the great liberating joys is that I have no need to use "interesting" ever again -- unless, of course, when the need really does fit this deliberately vague word.

I can think  of places, other than classrooms where the word "interesting" is bandied about (art museums, for example, or recitals for cutting-edge music), but I always suspect that people are hiding behind the word until they get a sense of what the majority thinks.  After all, you can't get into too much trouble when hiding behind "interesting."  "Lousy" would have made it clear that you hate the damn thing, and "wonderful" would have painted you into a corner.

Now that I'm retired I will, no doubt, have lots of occasions to test out whether I'm using "interesting" in a legitimate (interesting?) way or whether I'm simply being much the same coward as most people who hide behind intentionally vague words.  Perhaps it's best that I retire the word "interesting" altogether; and perhaps that wouldn't be a bad idea for those who still labor in the teaching vineyard.

© 2004, Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is the Shadek Professor of Humanities, Emeritus at Franklin and Marshall College.

The IP comments: Somehow we suspect that Sanford will continue to be interesting, even in retirement.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.