Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A very long post about running, the soul and the life of learning

Things are likely to be pretty quiet round here for the next few weeks (intense pressures of work will not ease up until the last week of February), so I thought I’d post something I wrote in December in response to a request that I speak during the dinner for this year’s award recipients about a project I was able to pursue as a result of last year's Lenfest Teaching Award. This is a slightly modified version of what I said on that occasion.

I was on sabbatical last fall when I learned I’d been chosen as one of the first group of Lenfest Fellows, so I already had several major writing projects well underway, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the financial security the award represents gave me a kind of mental boost that helped my productivity. But I wanted to speak more directly to something that’s only obliquely related to my academic work, but that turns out to have enriched my teaching and research life in all sorts of ways.

The Lenfest Award led fairly directly by way of one thing and another to me falling absolutely in love with long-distance running, something that I feel has changed my life in the most unexpectedly positive ways, and so I thought I would reflect a bit on how that came about and what it means for my understanding of what I do when I teach or when I write—or, more generally, when I work with anybody who’s interested in subjecting themselves to the essentially transformative lifelong discipline that we call education.

We talk often these days about maintaining a suitable balance between work and life, but there’s no doubt it’s easier said than done when you’re an assistant professor on the tenure track at a place like Columbia. The particular application of the phrase “work-life balance” often comes in the context of family life—raising children, say—but as someone who doesn’t have a family and does have very strong workaholic tendencies, it has a much broader applicability also. Without a family there is virtually nothing to keep the work part of the equation in check!

We all talk about how we should find time for exercise, but it’s hard to make a commitment, and in short when I found myself last September on sabbatical and with real time to write and think and also free from substantive teaching- and service-related obligations I knew that this was the year to make exercise a priority also, and try to undo some of the damage of five years of sedentary nicotine- and caffeine-consuming five-hours-of-sleep-a-night-type tenure-track obsessiveness.

Now, for the natural athletes in this world, it may be the case that internal resources are enough to get you going and enjoying your exercise to the utmost. But for the rest of us, there’s no doubt that resources help. And that’s where the Lenfest Fellowship came in. When resources are tight, it’s hard to justify things like a non-Columbia gym membership, let alone a personal trainer. But what that money meant to me was that I could really throw resources at the problem of getting into shape. And after the initial horribleness of making the transition, I found myself greatly enjoying the project. And what I didn’t expect was how much the whole enterprise showed me—and continues to show me—about the work I do every day in the classroom.

Almost by definition, if we’re professors we were good students. Reading and writing and speaking articulately came easy to us. We enjoyed those activities, and we had the drive to work hard at them—we knew how to work hard at them—and we were rewarded for our exertions and talents in all sorts of gratifying ways that compounded our original commitment.

But there’s one downside to this when it comes to teaching. Of course at Columbia we’re extraordinarily lucky to have such talented students. But not all students find what they do in our classes coming easily. We have constantly to remind ourselves about the students who don’t feel comfortable in our classrooms.

To me, English literature is the most comfortable and easy thing in the world. Writing essays is my natural language. But what about the student for whom English isn’t a first language? What about the student who’s doing an engineering degree and has never read a novel from start to finish? What about the student who doesn’t really like reading, or who’s just plain old shy or awkward or less immediately talented in some way that makes him or her hang back, stay quiet when a question’s asked, avoid office hours for fear of embarrassment?

What about the student who doesn’t yet know enough to know what it means to work hard in that particular discipline?

I like to think that I think about these things all the time, but there’s no doubt the point hits home much more forcefully when you’re a teacher who yourself becomes a student at something you’re not much good at. I have benefited from a great deal of good teaching this year, from trainers and coaches and yoga teachers and so forth. But I also felt far more keenly than usual—more keenly than I ever could do in a college classroom—the small things that might put you off.

You’re the only person with two X chromosomes in the free-weight area at the gym, and the spray bottles for wiping off the machines are sitting on top of a paper towel dispenser that’s too high up for you to reach.

You’re at your first spinning class and the instructor doesn’t explain any of the terminology or tell you what to expect and it is frankly absolutely horrible!

You want to learn how to go for a long run outside but you’re not sure what the etiquette is for running in the park and the first person who brusquely tells you to get out of the way makes you feel like skulking home and never running again.

The feeling you get at those moments is a feeling that’s known to too many of our students in our classrooms. We have to exercise the kind of sympathetic imagination that lets us see when students are having that very unpleasant situation and make education hospitable to them, if I can use that word. Being a student of various fitness-related things this year, a student of a not particularly talented or experienced kind trying to learn things that were wholly new to me—not just individually new, like learning a new language, but structurally unfamiliar and daunting—trying to learn how to work hard at fitness in a way that didn’t come naturally to me—has been immensely valuable.

Now for the fun part, the part I didn’t expect.

I have always had a minor interest in the idea of long-distance running. I ran semi-regularly in my twenties, though never more than three or four miles at a time, but everyone I knew who actually ran seriously or raced was a simply excellent runner. In contrast, I felt myself to be the slowest runner in the world. Which is not a very enjoyable feeling—it is not particularly admirable, but we all like to do things that we’re good at.

However this time I was determined to become a better runner, and in aid of that goal I researched it on the internet (I am an academic in my soul) and found a place called the Running Center on Central Park West which actually offered a beginning running class that promised to take you up to the ten-mile distance. I took it, and it was absolutely wonderful—the coach was a really inspired teacher, someone who managed to break the whole thing down into manageable targets and told us all with great certainty, even when we didn’t believe it ourselves, that we could do the things she was about to ask us to do.

What is it about running? What I didn’t know before, but what’s made me realize it will be a very important part of the next stage of my life, is that running taps into exactly the same thing that at the base of it is what I love about teaching and learning and writing. What gets me up every day in the morning, what has motivated me through many years of education and what keeps me excited about many more years of teaching and thinking and writing to come, is a kind of inner feeling of yearning, a passionate desire for self-improvement that takes us beyond our comfort zone into new places and new things that challenge us. Without this kind of challenge, of stretching, of yearning, our lives are greatly impoverished.

Plato’s Symposium is very good on this, I’ve always laughed to myself when I’ve taught it in Literature Humanities thinking how apt a description Plato provides of this thing that makes life really interesting and enjoyable. It's the part where Alcibiades starts talking about the wholly unglamorous Socrates (I think that really every teacher secretly must want to be something like this): Alcibiades likens Socrates to the busts of Silenus, unattractive on the outside but with images of gods inside them. Socrates has a siren’s voice because of the feelings he induces in his students: “he makes me confess that I ought not to live as I do, neglecting the wants of my own soul, and busying myself with the concerns of the Athenians,” says Alcibiades.

It’s hard to talk about the soul these days without feeling a little silly, but there’s a wonderful passage from the Greek physician Galen’s treatise on the soul that I want to quote here also, because it speaks more eloquently than I can as to what I’m trying to get across. This is Galen:

Becoming a perfect man is a goal which requires in each of us a discipline that will continue through practically the whole of his life. One should not put aside the possibility of improving oneself even at the age of fifty, if one is aware of some defect one’s soul has sustained, provided that defect is not incurable or irremediable. If one’s body were in a bad state at that age, one would not give oneself up to the bad condition; one would by all means attempt to improve it, even if one were not able to achieve a Heraclean sort of good condition. No more, then, should we refrain from efforts to achieve a better state of the soul. Even if that of the wise man is beyond us—though we should have a high hope of attaining even that state, if we have taken care of our soul from early youth—then at least we should exert ourselves that our soul be not utterly disgusting, as was Thersites’ body. . . . If one were unable to attain the most perfect good condition, one would surely accept the second, third, or fourth from the top. Such a goal is quite achievable for one who is prepared to exert himself over a long period in a process of constant discipline.

Discipline’s the secret, isn’t it? The authors of Freakonomics had an interesting piece in the Times Magazine this past spring about talent and why it’s overrated. They argued that expert performers are made rather than born and that just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true that practice makes perfect.

They also suggest that it’s important to follow a path that involves doing what you love “because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good.” We might stop doing something because we’re not good at it, but what we really lack is the desire to be good and the understanding of what it will mean to work hard enough to get better.

And this is what happened to me with running. I started with baby steps, I found the teachers who would help me learn how to work hard, I worked steadily and without thinking too much about my lack of talent, and I discovered that I am in fact not the slowest runner in the world.

I ran my first half-marathon in November, and it was amazing.

[NB for reasons of tact I did not mention the stress fracture that has been making me absolutely crazy by preventing me from running since that day! Also anyone who saw me that day or any time in the week(s) following might observe that "painful" also seems an apt term. Just saying...]

And in 2007 I am hell-bent on running the full marathon, in New York if possible but somewhere else if not, because I know that training for the marathon and actually running it, with the confidence of some mix of nature and nurture but with the emphasis very much on the discipline of nurture and the help of good training and teachers, will let me understand more about this kind of yearning for self-improvement that seems to me so much a part of the educational enterprise. And for all of this I would have to say that I am extremely grateful.


  1. Oh wow this is quite involving. I'm noting down your url so I can come back properly later.
    I randomly found yours on a blog-cruising expedition, you see. It's something I do when I'm in an attention-fractured mood. Do feel free to drop by mine if you like it's ...
    All the best now ..!..
    Have a nice day!!
    With Best Regards from

  2. Well done!

    By the way I completely understand your frustration re: fracture - I have a shin splint and I can't run anymore!

  3. A very interesting and illuminating post. As you know, I have a problem with the practice makes perfect model, and prefer practice makes better, but I can see that a good teacher probably needs to be convinced that each and every student has it within themself to work hard, and to enjoy that hard work. (I am continuing my 'themself' campaign everywhere I can!)

  4. G: Sorry about the shin splint, that's wretched!

    L.: I love "themself" too, isn't it a good one? and yes, practice makes better... (you may be amused to know that given the audience, I got a good laugh at the "even at the age of fifty" line...)

  5. I love this post/speech -- it speaks to my experiences in a lot of ways -- of being a teacher and sometimes a student and what I've learned from that, and also of trying to be an endurance athlete and learning things about endurance that translate into other parts of my life -- dissertation writing, for example.

  6. congratulations, a year too late, on the award. Those students are so lucky to have you. Wish I had had an English literature prof. with your passion. Things might have turned out really different for me (not that I´m complaining about my lot in life, but it is all so random, isn´t it? my Ex-poz writing teacher in college sucked so big-time. It´s a miracle they let me graduate with that non-education.