“Dead Poets Society” for Skeptics (or, How to Inspire Your Way into a Godawful Mess)

“This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.”
–Mr. Keating

Last Friday, after a long day walking around London, we ordered curries and sought a little cinematic comfort food. We settled eventually on the quintessential Inspirational Teacher film: Dead Poets Society.

I remembered the movie as fun but philosophically naïve. As guiding principles go, “carpe diem” seems to have all the intellectual heft of a Dos Equis commercial. I mean, I’d love to seize every moment, but when am I supposed to fit in laundry, groceries, and thank-you notes?

As a teacher, I’ve found my work nourishing, and occasionally magical, but never terribly heroic. It’s a quiet, daily grind. So where does Hollywood conjure up these human motivational posters? Isn’t the inspirational teacher just soothing movie gibberish, like talking animal sidekicks, or One True Love? Continue reading

Art Museum in Utopia

Visitor: Hi, excuse me. I’m sorry. But I was wondering if you have any better art.

Tour Guide: Better art?

Visitor: I mean, take that sculpture over there. The happy, fit, attractive person depicted in a totally positive and humanizing light.

Tour Guide: Which one?

Visitor: Exactly! All the sculptures are like that. Or look at that painting of people just napping, while the others give each other backrubs and prepare salads.

Tour Guide: You mean “The Serenity of Having No Problems”? Is there something wrong with it?

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The Voldemort of Calculus Classes

This year, I encountered the world’s worst calculus class, a mutant-frog specimen of undergraduate mathematics: UC Berkeley’s Math 16B. It’s an exercise in cynicism; a master-class in spite; a sordid and cautionary tale of everything that can go wrong in curriculum design.

16B is my blood-born nemesis. Neither can live while the other survives. Continue reading

Wealth, Acclaim, and Fancy Catered Lunches (or, Why I’m a Teacher)

Occasionally, friends ask me why I teach.

You could ask the same of any profession. Why did you become a grant-writer, a therapist, a sanitation engineer? Why dentistry? Why human resources? In crude and reductive terms, I see four basic justifications for any vocation:

  1. Compensation. Take air traffic controllers. They work longish hours in a maddeningly stressful workplace, but take home excellent money (over $100,000 per year) and can look forward to a long, well-pensioned retirement.

  1. Perceptions. Compared with air traffic controllers, most professors earn less money. But they draw another sizable benefit: prestige. Humans are social creatures, invested by nature in what others think of us. High status is no small thing.

  1. Quality of life. A pleasant workplace, friendly coworkers, reasonable hours, a short commute—all those little frills around the edges of a job sometimes matter as much as the job itself.

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Ray Bradbury is My Anti-Vonnegut.

My Vonnegut phase lasted from ages 22 to 25. I read every book he’s written, even the crappy ones (hello there, Slapstick). I loved his voice, his humanism, the jokey poetry of his anecdotes. I’d often argue that Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is only his fifth-best book (beaten by Cat’s CradleJailbirdGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater;  and Mother Night).

By the time I hit Breakfast of Champions, though, I’d fallen out of love. His cynicism grew stale, and his dark, dry wit began to feel like knee-jerk pessimism. Vonnegut felt like a guy at a party I’d spent too long talking to. We’d run out of things to say. His negativity was beginning to grate.

So here I am, age 26, in need of a new literary imagination to commune with. I want somebody who, like Vonnegut, writes science fiction but transcends the title “science fiction author.” Somebody with an imagination as vast as Vonnegut’s, with a voice as distinct, but with a poetic idealism to replace Vonnegut’s vernacular realism. Vonnegut growls. I want somebody who sings.

Enter Ray Bradbury.

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