The Experiment’s On Me

24 Mar

Tuesday as I drove to campus, I could feel my muscles tensing; my body and mind were getting ready to explode out of the blocks into a track meet of a week.

To make the metaphor more specific, try high hurdles. More hurdles, in fact, than I could count.

There was a proposal to write … followed by the Thursday meeting in which I would pitch the proposal … followed by hosting a Thursday colloquium in which our community service learning students shared their experiences before an audience of students, faculty, and administrators.

Not to mention a school newspaper meeting followed by a dormitory writing group. Or teaching a class on the HBO series The Wire, followed by sitting through a night showing of this week’s episode.

Then, oh yeah, what some would rather narrowly define as my “actual job” – the teaching, grading, and advising of students.

And, like a more hellish version of one of those special TV offers, “that’s not all!” With the above, I also get three probably hour-long discussions with colleagues from other disciplines, all regarding Community Service Learning, the program that I direct at Assumption College.

Walking to my office Tuesday – watching enviously as students lolled in the first warm weather of spring – I told myself that a wiser man, more steeped in the ways of time management, would know when to say no.

Or at least postpone. Focus on doing fewer things better. In a week like this, weren’t these three chats – with an ethicist, a graphic artist, and a psychologist – ill-timed luxuries that this English professor couldn’t afford?

This question lingered an hour later, during Ill-Timed Conversation No. 1, which involved my teaching partner, sociologist Rich Gendron, and Philosophy professor Josh Shmikler. The subject was Josh’s guest appearance in Literature of Social Responsibility, a dual Sociology/English course in which students experience both traditional texts and community service through the dual lenses of  sociology and literature. This year Rich and I chose to build the course around the Home Box Office series The Wire; when Josh heard about the course last fall, he’d written to express his interest, and we’d invited him to come speak about ethical dimensions of the series.

An idea, of course, that I loved – if only this particular discussion of ethical dimensions wasn’t taking place an hour before class – a complicated session about the violent and disturbing second section of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Still, the deeper we delved into the dimensions of Josh’s ideas on The Wire, the more I quit looking at my watch. It didn’t even matter that our conclusion – that Josh should move his lecture back from this week until next month – gave me one more class to teach this week. I plunged into our 75-minute class feeding off the fresh energy of our philosophical colleague. I infused my lesson with that fire: It felt like one of my best lessons of the year.

I had little time to rest on my laurels – I forced myself through an hour of grading until it was time for Ill-Timed Conversation No.  2. This commenced when Graphic Design professor, Patty Harris, walked in to discuss the possibilities of putting one of her courses to work for non-profits, many of whom need upgrades to their websites. For the second time that day, I felt the profound pleasure of watching the wheels turn in the mind of a colleague from another discipline. Imaginative and innovative, Patty kept questioning and brainstorming until my original idea – little more than a hunch – became her own conception, so much more comprehensive than anything I had in mind.

Now it was well after 5 p.m. Tuesday, and I am seldom productive past 8 at night. But I surprised myself. I worked on and off until midnight, writing the proposal and grading, planning and networking. The same wave of energy swept me through Wednesday’s and Thursday’s classes, grading and advising – as well as my Provost meeting and our CSL student colloquium, in which students shared their CSL experiences (an entire blog unto itself).

When Friday finally rolled around, I didn’t have much left in the tank for Ill-Timed Conversation No. 3, with another prospective CSL professor, Sarah Cavanagh. Still, I perked up as she explained her work in “positive psychology” – which includes a blog in Martha Stewart’s web universe – and how that could lead to a course in which psychology students worked at after-school programs.

I made the natural assumption that her students, like my own charges in both sociology and journalism, would be practicing their skills on observing the clientele and staff at the agencies.

Then, finally, I got what she was really talking about – the students would be reporting on the effects of volunteering … on themselves! “The students would be the subjects,” she said, smiling.

Of course! It should’ve been obvious – charities generally strive to remind us that service is a two-way ministry – but for the third time this week, a colleague in another discipline had given me that eureka moment of seeing a familiar concept in a startling new light. I walked away with a deep satisfaction, and more intellectual energy to carry into my last two classes of the week.

But the biggest insight didn’t come until Saturday morning – after my first good night’s sleep of the week. That’s when I realized the students weren’t the only subjects of experiments in positive psychology.

It turned out I, too, was a subject.

Every one of those supposedly ill-timed conversations turned out to be just what I needed – an extra dose of enthusiasm, passion, and imagination, all serving to lift my performance to a higher level.

Which probably explains why Friday, instead of taking a break, I emailed my friend who teaches Environmental Science.

Wouldn’t he like to chat about his discipline and service learning?

The experiment continues.

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