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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday II*

All this "whoo-hoo, Lent!" attitude notwithstanding, I'm glad that I'm not teaching today. Even if I could have gotten to a service with my current class schedule, I would be extremely reluctant to teach classes or even wander the halls wearing ashes. I did do it last year, when I was teaching at INRU and the only service I could get to was the noon one at my old church, and it was fine--my students mostly politely pretended not to notice, the one exception being a very young Muslim woman who wore hijab: she seemed visibly excited, possibly at no longer being the only person in the room wearing her religion, as it were, on her head.

However, last spring I was teaching an intro-to-the-novel course. A course with pretty much zero religious content. These days? Well, I wind up talking about religion quite a lot in three of my four classes, and I think that the way I pull it off is by being rigorously fair: I'll explain the relevant side thoroughly, and the reasons behind some of its beliefs, but then I'll immediately explain its potential shortcoming and what people on the other side might say. I also speak as informally as I can, saying things like, "And what's [this character] trying not to do? He's trying not to piss off the Big G."

So, I think I strike a good balance between respectfulness and irreverence, and it seems to me extremely unlikely that my students have any real idea whether I'm a secularist or whether I have some particular religious identity. (My last name IS recognizably ethnic-Catholic, but so are the names of many of my students, and that doesn't say a thing about their actual religious beliefs.)

I like it that way. I think I'd lose a lot of credibility if I tipped my hand, at least in my lower-level classes. My more secular students, I know, are already overwhelmed by the religious content of the works we're reading in my survey, and I want them to understand me as a guide through what is genuinely foreign material. I don't want them to think that I have some secret agenda, or that I'm proselytizing when all I'm actually doing is outlining a belief system (one that does not, in fact, match up with my own, even if both are broadly "Christian").

I think that all of this makes sense, but whenever I think about the degree to which I exclude the autobiographic from my classroom persona, I get a little nervous. Is such a project doomed from the start--since we can't escape our own biases? Am I eliding information that my students actually have a right to know? And is this behavior in any way gender-specific?

Except for the last one (to which I answer a resounding, "yes!"), I'm really not sure. I'm big on the biographic and autobiographic, I love the personal and the particular, and I think they're crucial interpretive tools. On the other hand, when I'm teaching a survey course, most of what I'm providing is back-fill. My students need some basic historical, political, and religious information in order to ground their analysis of a given text. I do try hard to show that our understanding of history is not fixed, and that people of the same religious persuasion could have completely different philosophies, but at the same time, my students need to perceive me as an impartial and final authority, someone who's telling them FACTS. Someone who has no dog in any given fight.

I mean, when I was an undergraduate, did I want to know more about my professor's personal lives (at least in some cases)? Yes. Did my friends and I speculate wildly about some of them? Of course. But would it have improved my educational experience if I had known that Professor X was in the process of a messy divorce, or had five cats, or was a member of the John Birch Society? Uh, no. I'm not sure that I could have separated that out from the subject of the class or from their pedagogy; too much background noise.

I think that the same thing applies here, but I still wonder, sometimes, whether I'm operating in bad faith (pun not intended, but let's go with it).

*Doesn't this sound like the sequel to a particularly ill-conceived horror movie?

link | posted by La Lecturess at 3:25 PM |


Blogger Tiruncula commented at 4:35 PM~  

Very interesting post. I'm sitting here in my office having missed the noon service at the local church, so I'm headed for the 7:30 one - which I prefer, on balance, but now I have to decide whether to stay on campus all afternoon and evening or schlep back home and then back up the hill to church.

Anyway, this is my first Ash Wednesday not teaching in a Catholic college. There, of course, wearing ashes around was a non-issue, because almost everybody did, too, and nobody was bothered if I went downtown to get mine from the Episcopalians. Here at large public university I teach mostly graduate medievalists, so I kind of assume they all have appropriate respect for and awareness of the liturgical calendar, but still...I teach a class that ends on the dot of noon on Wednesdays, and we didn't have a moment to spare in today's work, so I debated up to the last minute whether to end early to make time for church. I seriously considered asking at the beginning of class if anybody needed to leave 10 minutes early to make it to a noon mass, but then I kind of....didn't. I'm a little sorry not to have made it to church in the middle of the day, though, because today seems to me one of those rare days when one can bear quiet but quite public witness: not preaching, not rebuking, but just going about with a public mark that says, "yes, this particular rational lefty apparently sane academic also happens to be a Christian." It's a way of claiming the Church.

I agree with you about liking Lent. As an adult convert, I find it one of the most surprising things about my own faith, that the things that used to squick me out the most about other people's piety now really float my penitential boat.

Blogger Ianqui commented at 5:36 PM~  

You're in an interesting situation, aren't you? You teach literature that often has a religious basis, and your students are skeptical about whether you're trying to indoctrinate them (well, that's the strong form of the claim). You're the fundamentalists' dream, which may be your worst nightmare! If you were teaching evolution, would you be so worried about potentially stepping on people's toes?

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 6:15 PM~  


Yes--that's the strongest argument for wearing ashes that I can think of: to demonstrate that one CAN be both an intellectual lefty and a believer. It's a useful corrective, and that's why I finally did wear the ashes last year at INRU.


Well, evolution is a different case for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I'm not actually teaching religion in my classes--I'm just trying to get my students to understand, in some minimal way, the issues and attitudes expressed in a given work (many hundreds of years old) so that they can then perform their own, creative interpretations of that work; there's not really the time for me to go into all the detail that I'd like, and so it's a lot harder, I think, to convince one's students of all the nuances and of one's own evenhandedness.

But you're right that there's something particularly tricky about religion, and particularly for those of us who ARE academics, feminists, and all those other good left-wing things. It's possible that I'm being overly cautious simply because I know how dismissive many secularists are about religion, simply out of hand, or because I don't want the trouble of explaining how I reconcile these things.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 6:17 PM~  

P.S. Ianqui, I was just in a store the other day where I saw this devil-horned rubber duckey. I spent HOURS trying to remember why it seemed familiar before finally remembering that it was you!

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 11:54 AM~  

I do find it sort of funny that the two of us, though being very different on the question of religion, find ourselves in the same awkward position. I guess the advantage for me in dealing with religion in the classroom is that I can tell my students "I'm a fire-breathing atheist, and I don't care if you think Calvinism or deism sounds stupid. We're not hear for your opinion or for mine." Not that this doesn't raise its own set of problems with churched students, of course...

Then again, I find myself wanting to tell my students this autobiographical thing about myself in part as a gesture of solidarity with the few avowed secularists in our student body. I commonly hear from such students how glad they are to know someone on the faculty is "like them."


Blogger Prof. Me commented at 10:15 AM~  


If you really want a "Little Black Book" (I just read your comment on my blog this morning), I'll see if I can get one for you. There should still be a few hanging around our church, and I'm happy to mail you one.

Just drop me a note at the email address on my blog and let me know!

Blogger Ianqui commented at 6:07 PM~  

Heh. Devil Ducky Is Ianqui. I like that :)

Blogger ABDmom commented at 6:35 PM~  

Humor the Protestant in the room: are you not *supposed* to remove the ashes, in terms of dogma? Or is more of an unspoken thing, "everybody does it this way," etc? I grew up in highly Catholic town and married a (non-practicing) Catholic, but I don't know the answer to this and am genuinely curious if it's doctrine that states you should not wash them off or if it's tradition. Just curious. :)

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 9:08 PM~  

ABDMom: This came up when I was in college and a good friend of mine had a job interview on Ash Wednesday. Of course she wasn't going to wear the ashes--but was it *okay* to wash them off?

My feeling is that it's fine to wash or rub them off, but not immediately. I'd say a few hours are an appropriate amount of time to reflect upon one's mortality. (And for whatever weird reason, I seem always to have plans Ash Weds night, so if I go to the noon mass, I don't feel bad about wiping the ashes off around 7 p.m.)

Anonymous Anonymous commented at 2:02 PM~  

Typically, the ashes are to be kept on all day. Obviously, most people will take a shower on Wednesday night or Thursday morning, and that's fine. The point is not to be ashamed of being Catholic. It seems to me that any secular excuse, e.g., "I'm embarassed", " I have a job interview", "I might get a pimple", shows that a person has a priority greater than God. It was mentioned that Muslims wear unique clothing daily. Why can we not wear ashes one day a year? And, if you receive a little persecution and probing from your peers, all the better! What greater way to start Lent than with a little humility?

My background includes 3 years studying to be a priest at a very traditional seminary. I am now a doctoral student at a well known Catholic university.

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