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Faculty Development Committee

Lessons Learned

April 2000

"In This Immensity, My Thoughts Drown...."
By E. Paul Colella, Philosophy Department

Rarely is it the case that those meaningful classroom lessons come to us announcing their arrival. Indeed, part of the meaningfulness of such moments is due to the surprise with which they overtake us. There are even times when the most meaningful lessons come to us clothed in tragedy. It has been two years now since the loss of my friend and colleague, Dr. Richard Talaska. I remember that day so vividly: the shock as well as the unreality of having to come to terms with so sudden and unexpected a loss. While subsequent reflection upon Rich's life and death has taught me much, I would like to focus on some general lessons learned which have enabled me to glimpse more deeply into my vocation as an educator.

Dr. Bundschuh shared the news of this tragedy with Dr. Tim Quinn and myself during a breakfast meeting we had scheduled long before. Tim and I had been among the first in the faculty to learn the news, and it fell to us to inform others who needed to know as soon as possible. In the chaos of that Friday morning, I volunteered to meet Rich's classes. I soon discovered that I was to be the messenger who brought this sad news to his unsuspecting students. With little preparation and still in my own state of disbelief, I shared the most difficult moments I have ever had in the classroom with more than 50 undergraduates. I had been in the classroom most of my life, and had stood in the front of one since 1977. On that rainy day in March, the familiarity of the classroom evaporated and was replaced by something very different. A silence much unlike the silence of an unresponsive class unwilling to engage in discussion, eyes fixed upon me in a manner unlike the curious "sizing up" that occurs on the opening day of classes when the professor first walks into the room. In place of the customary and familiar, the same classroom now offered experiences I was not used to encountering there. Some students were quiet, others cried. Still others sat in disbelief, incapable of tears, yet unwilling to leave. 

In the days which followed, Tim and I took over the responsibility for teaching these classes. Not only did we have to finish the semester's material, we also had the burden of playing midwife to the healing process. We moved the classes to different rooms at the request of the students themselves. We kept to the syllabi, reading schedule and requirements. I myself resolved to refer to Rich on a regular basis in our classroom discussions, deliberately saying things like "I am sure that when Dr. Talaska covered this, he said..." or "As I recall Rich saying." I must admit, for a very few of the students the class could never recover from the blow of losing their teacher, and I was viewed as a sort of interloper. Fortunately for most, however, this was not the case.
The students would willingly help me reconstruct the logic behind the selection of issues and themes that Rich had set in place, and they were eager to summarize the general direction of class discussion so that I could find my way as quickly as possible.  Accustomed as I was to the rhetoric of "joint inquiry," "cooperative education" or "collaboration" on the part of teacher and student, these words become vivid realities in those difficult days.

Yet there was more. Since my days as a Teaching Fellow in graduate school, I have always ended my classes with a "thank you" to my students for their attention and effort over the past hour. Soon after my arrival in Rich's classes, several students in each section started the habit of thanking me at the end of each class as well. Interestingly enough, the students who most often did so were not necessarily the most eager or visibly engaged students in the class. Indeed, some were among the most quiet. What emerged from this tragedy as one of its most compelling lessons was this: never before had I been aware of the profound bond that exists between teacher and student, or between the students themselves, in a given class. Oftentimes we are more accustomed
to think of this collection of persons as the outcome of any number of chance factors: time of day, scheduling requirements, and the like. Seemingly thrown together by chance, they became something else through their shared experience of each  other, their sharing of ideas, confusions, and of enthusiasms. And losses as well. A bond existed between us, students and teacher alike, which I had never encountered in the classroom, before or since.

At a deeper and more personal level, Rich's death taught special lessons to me as a friend and colleague. One of the vernacular meanings of "philosophical" suggests the ability to take disappointments in stride, without getting too upset about them. It refers to the teaching of the ancient Stoics who recommended an attitude of indifference to joy and suffering, pleasure and pain, comedy and tragedy. While those Hellenistic thinkers posited that philosophy could lead to a calmness of spirit, and could banish disturbance entirely from the experience, the events of that sad spring of 1998 made it painfully clear that life continues to resist our philosophical attempt to render it orderly, reasonable, and fully open to our intellectual gaze. I recall one of Rich's students -- a philosophy major, too -- wrestling with this very lesson the morning I broke the sad news. "But he taught philosophy" was all that he could repeat in his disbelief, as if the cultivation of philosophical reflection is supposed to be an adequate defense against tragedy. And if not an adequate defense, then at least a consolation? While the life of the mind may help us to discuss such things, clearly such contemplation offers little in the way of defense when the immediate experience of tragedy forces the benign abstraction of "the tragic" aside. Ultimately, the power of the experience proved to be greater than the feeble effort at conceptual ordering could bear. Thinking about Rich's inconsolable student in the subsequent days and weeks, I was reminded of the words of Giacomo Leopardi who, in attempting to fathom the infinite wrote "and so in this immensity, my thoughts drown".

It is now two years later. Much about the daily business of teaching -- the routine conversing with students, the correcting of rough drafts, the advising all this has been restored to its familiarity. Today, the rhythms of classroom and the semester are, in many ways, just as they have always been. Incoming freshmen are admitted, advised and scheduled, seniors are checked out and graduated. Yet, in many ways things are not the same, nor can they ever be, just as they were prior to that rainy March of 1998. What it means to teach, what it means to share in another's education, yes, even what it means to philosophize in conversation with another person, all of these things have  changed and deepened in their significance. If nothing else, their meaning has become more mysterious. More mysterious, and in the words of Leopardi, more immense. For the rest of my career, whether going over a syllabus with a fresh group of faces, struggling to make a difficult concept take on the cloak of greater clarity, or in listening to seminar students presenting the fruits of their research, the awareness of this immensity will always be in the background of my mind, ever reminding me that what we do as educators can never become something routine or mundane. A valuable lesson taught by a talented and cherished colleague who is deeply missed. 

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