What Not to Ask Your College Professor

I’m sitting in office hours, and a student stops in to discuss his philosophy class.  We lean back in our chairs, pondering whether or not greed is inherent to our nature or acquired, and another student enters and offers her own opinion. Then she asks me whether or not a photograph of an object diminishes the beauty of that object since it’s not real

An hour passes and the first student leaves in a rush because he’s late for an economics class.  The other student remains and we meditate on the meaning of friendship, fame, and the world of dance.

Nobody asks me that one question I just can’t stand:  “How do I get an A?”

Living with flair means loving to learn, loving to discuss, and loving to ask philosophical questions.  The grade will take care of itself.

Journal:  What will you discuss today?


I Just Couldn’t Do It

You lay your clothes out, you pack your backpack, and you hardly sleep because you just can’t wait for it all to begin again.  

It’s a new semester here at college. 

I’ve been packing a backpack for 30 years, but for the last decade, I’m the teacher and not the student.  My backpack has syllabi, course rosters, grammar books, and a tattered anthology of literary works.   I still have a red pencil case (some things never change), lunch, and notebook paper.  But I’m the teacher now. 

I study them: I learn their names and remember their hometowns and majors.  I’m suddenly fascinated.  I can’t help it. I’m a student of the students, and maybe that’s my secret. 

One just returned from Africa and will introduce us to his passion for African modern art.  Another just switched majors from nuclear engineering to classics (there’s a great story hiding there!).  Four of them have parts in a musical theater production in April (which we all must attend).  A dozen kinesiology majors, seven history majors, five communication disorders majors, and three education majors captivate me with their career paths.  I forgot to mention the philosopher, the criminal lawyer, the animal physical therapist, and the international stateswomen. 

Here we all are together in one place for a college semester to learn advanced writing and professional development. 

That’s why I couldn’t do it;  I couldn’t turn on all the technology and hide behind elaborate presentations.  I sat with them in the circle, looking into the white of their eyes.  Once the big screen comes down and the hum of electricity rises like a swarm of wasps around me, I know I won’t see them the same way.  And they won’t see me.  I’m not ready for that.  There’s too much to learn. 

Living with flair means I’m a student of the student.  I earn the right to teach by learning first, and sometimes (most times) technology impedes rather than promotes authentic connection.  We’ll see what I do with this high-tech classroom.  I’m still learning.  


How College Should Be

Last night, an entire class of students comes by my house with food for a huge potluck.  This isn’t part of the job description of a college instructor, and I know it’s unusual–at least at a big state school–to invite students into your home.

I’m supposed to keep my professional distance.

But my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia ruined me regarding professional distance.  In those days, I dined with professors nearly every evening.  As part of the Jeffersonian ideal of the “academic village,” professors joined students in dining halls or else invited them into their homes for dinner, dessert, or coffee.  Some of my favorite memories from college have to do with meeting my instructors outside of the classroom.  I remember walking into the living room of my English professor and sitting around a table with a group of other students and just talking–like it were an ordinary, everyday thing–about beauty.

Another professor, Rita Dove–the Poet Laureate of the United States at the time and Pulitzer Prize winner –actually hosted class in my dorm room.  She actually sat on my bed and talked to me about my poems.  The other students sat in a circle on my floor.  How could I not feel like I’d entered a portal into adulthood, into intellectual communities that wanted to hear my voice?

Later that semester, Ms. Dove hosted us all for dinner.

I talked about my life.  I talked about things I hoped for and things I cared about.  Those conversations changed me forever.

Those conversations made me feel truly adult, truly independent.   It was college at its best.  

My class piles into my living room, and one student plays her guitar while others sing around the piano.  We decide to talk about creativity, future careers, and the burden of having to decide how to choose a career when you love too many things.  And these students actually want to talk about their writing projects.  They pose questions, make comments, and grapple with their revision process all while petting my cats and eating homemade apple pie.  One student says, “Dr. H., I want to write my memoir about this,” as she gestures to our group gathered about her. 

I have to force them out the door so I can go to bed.  

When most people think of the college scene, they visualize the alcohol and the parties.  But for at least one night, a group of students sat around and talked about ideas–not because anybody was taking attendance–but because they wanted be together and share their ideas and their lives.  That’s what makes college so good.


Why Professors Can Also Be Christians

It’s possible to be a scholar and a Christian.   It’s possible to study neuroscience, understand the process behind how we age fossils, know the mechanism of evolution, immerse yourself in various spiritual paths and still proclaim, with a resounding “yes,” that Jesus Christ is the one true God.  Many professors have deeply held spiritual beliefs.  Students, I find, have a hard time believing this.  Let me set the record straight.

I believe the claims of Jesus because I don’t base my faith on my experience (I read too much neuroscience to be able to validate my perceptions of God as truth).  And although I feel, on a daily basis, what I describe as the peace and love of God in my life, answered prayer, protection, provision, and joy, I’m not a Christian because of emotion or experience.

I also acknowledge Jesus because I know you don’t need to discount science.  I’m married to an organic chemist, after all.  I honestly don’t understand, with 100 % certainty, the matrix behind creation or how species evolved (I wasn’t there).  The more I read, the more I observe, the more I see mystery and the limits of human understanding.   I’m not afraid of science; the deeper I delve, the more I’m amazed.

When students ask me why I’m a Christian, I tell them it’s because of the historical Jesus.   As a college student, I read the entire New Testament because I had to be absolutely certain that Jesus made claims to divinity and that his body was resurrected as proof of his claim.  Why, I reasoned, would I stake my life and my reputation as a future scholar on some hogwash that wasn’t true?  I needed to come to terms with the claims of Jesus.

What I found when I read the eye witness accounts of Jesus of Nazareth included miraculous demonstrations of power:  controlling weather, healing diseases, curing blindness and paralysis, knowing a person’s thoughts, multiplying resources like bread, wine, and fish, casting out demons, and predicting the future.  As I read, I wondered to myself why people worshipped this man.  And why did he cause such a political stir?  Other people, as the scriptures and historical documents report, did miraculous things.  Healers, psychics, and sorcerers had been around for a while (they made big money).  Other men, in other cultures, claimed to have the power of God.  They even performed miracles.  I’ve even read other cultures, in other times, have their own virgin birth narratives.

But when I examine the resurrection of Jesus’s body, when I analyze the reports of who saw him, and when I read how I could know God, I had to listen.   I also had to listen to the hundreds of prophecies, written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, that talked about his life and death–and resurrection.

The religious rhetoric imprisoning Christianity makes it nearly impossible to talk about it.  I don’t even know how to begin.  What I can say is that I acknowledged, in my mind, that Jesus was the incarnation of God.  Scripture talks about “receiving Jesus” into my life, so mentally, I asked the spirit of God to reside in me.  As someone who reads about the brain, I’m not sure where the Holy Spirit actually dwells in a person, but I know Jesus claimed that receiving the Holy Spirit meant you had a Counselor and a Comforter.  Jesus also claimed that by receiving him, I’d have eternal life that began now.  In other words, the spiritual death that accompanies our separation from a holy God wasn’t a future death.  It was the reality of my life before knowing God (“sin” is one way to describe it).  I had no “relationship” to God.  When I began praying to Jesus, I became alive spiritually. This meant that I began to enjoy worshipping God, praying to God, listening to the instructions and promises in the Bible, and most importantly, relishing the favor of God.  I also had power in my life to become the type of person God wanted me to be.

I didn’t go to church today.  I was too tired (grading, a big wedding, everything else).  As I lay in my bed, I thanked God that my going to church doesn’t help me impress God.  I’m deeply loved, completely free, and completing confident that I am known by God.  I go to church to enjoy praising God with other folks.  I don’t do one thing to earn God’s love; I also can’t do anything to lose God’s love.

So, in case you wondered, that’s why I’m so happy and full of energy when I’m teaching.  That’s one reason why I can live with flair.  God’s love is unfathomable; it sets people free.  My teaching philosophy has much to do with the love and acceptance I extend from knowing God.

Now you can say you know a professor who is also a Christian.

Living with flair means seeing the harmony between the life of the mind and the life of faith.


50 Ways to Stay Out of Trouble

It’s a big weekend in my town. It’s a big party weekend. This means I avoid campus and expect a really low attendance in my early classes on Monday. It’s always the same story: students act out this script of what it means to be a college student.

Last year, a man came to my office hours and asked me if I had any ideas for how he could stay out of trouble. He’d been arrested, he’d had several underage drinking citations, and his GPA had plummeted from a 4.0 to a 1.7. Feeling like he’d squandered the last four years of his life, he asked me what I did for fun that didn’t involve getting drunk. He wondered what a life looks like that doesn’t involve partying. As I talked about my own college years, he started to make a list for himself. He was writing a new script.

So, as a shout-out to my students who want a different script for their evening, I’m providing 50 ways to stay out of trouble. I once heard a speaker say that the definition of pleasure is: “having fun with no negative consequences.” Living with flair has something to do with experiencing pleasure in ways that don’t harm you or anybody else. Hence, my tried and true 50 ways to stay out of trouble.

1.Learn the moves to “Beat It” (or Thriller, or Single Ladies, or any dance)
2.Cook a gourmet meal with your friend. (Remember: good things happen with cutting boards)
3.Play improvizational games (Watch “Whose Line is it Anyway” or just play charades)
4.Organize your desk. (This will feel really good)
5.Do a movie marathon of 1980’s John Hughes movies. Or James Bond. Or Spielberg.
6.Visit every coffee shop downtown and evaluate each one. (I did this one Fall semester)
7.Plant something. (I’m doing this now)
8.Call your parents. (I should do this)
9.Call somebody from your childhood.
10.Read a bestselling novel. Then go talk to people about it. Book clubs are cool.
11.Go thrift store shopping.
12.Find neighborhood garage sales and buy unusual things.
13.Go to a local park and swing very high so you can jump out of the swing.
14.Go for a long walk. See if you can walk for an entire hour.
15.Search for new music on iTunes. Fall in love with a new band.
16.Get into a fascinating conversation with a stranger.
17.Go to church.
18.Plan some dreams for the next decade. Write out your personal mission statement.
19.Help somebody do something.
20.Watch people. Tell a story about their lives.
21.Learn a new sport.
22.Start a “flair” blog and tell me about it.
23.Get a great night’s sleep.
24.Go to a fancy grocery store and buy the most expensive chocolate just to try it.
25.Go to a pet store and hold all the new kittens and puppies.
26.Find a creek and sit by it.
27.Build your own kite and then fly it somewhere. You can google instructions.
28.Start a collection of some really obscure thing.
29.Learn to draw something.
30.Make a flip book comic.
31.Go in search of the world’s most comfortable slippers.
32.Learn a different language. (I want to learn Chinese this summer)
33.Go to a toy store and play with the toys.
34.Hang out at a bookstore and read for an hour.
35.Volunteer to help at a shelter or a community center.
36.Join a club.
37.Drive down a country road. (Rt. 550 changed my life)
38.Learn double dutch jump rope.
39.Do something that gets your heart rate up for 40 minutes and see how good you feel.
40.Practice being alone for an entire evening.
41.Donate stuff you don’t need.
42.Read a chapter in a textbook because you want to learn something, not because it’s on the test.
43.Reread a book from your childhood. (I reread To Kill A Mockingbird)
44.Hiking. Camping.
45.Make a scrap book.
46.Invent a game to play.
47.Create an ad campaign to motivate people to do something.
48.Teach somebody how to do something.
49.Watch an entire season of a show on DVD in one day. 24? Lost? The Office?
50.Make water your beverage selection for the whole weekend. Hydration can change your life.

So there. Here’s to living with flair.