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Teaching When the Air Smells Like Smoke

Recent Comments by Professor Karl Plank to the Davidson College Faculty and the Board of Trustees

October 11, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Karl Plank
Professor Karl Plank

New York City. Tuesday, September 18. 10:41 p.m.

"Last evening when we left the office, the air smelled like smoke again. . . 2 years ago, I ran away from a Ph.D. program in English, frustrated with what felt like the impotence of language in a world dominated by images, with the passivity of critical thinking in a country obsessed with production and action. But everything I've seen this week has shown me how baseless my frustration was. From the moment the second tower burst into flames--when all we could do was stand there mute, or repeat the same cries over and over--it was obvious that part of the difficulty of getting through this was going to be finding the language to describe it. Since then, not only has the poverty of our vocabulary for discussing what has happened to us been painful, but the lack of imagination so many of us have shown in thinking of ways to respond intellectually seems to me to be politically dangerous. A will to interrogate rhetoric and a suspicion of habits of thought are the only things that can give us some purchase on the situation."

"In peacetime, teaching the humanities has often been looked on as the pastime of the decadent or the hopelessly liberal. Now, that work--raising the level of public discourse by training people to think and speak better, and to stretch their critical and moral imaginations--looks essential, and I miss doing it and having it done to me." (George Weld, "Journal," www.likeanorb.com, September 18, 2001.)

These words were written by George Weld, a photographer and writer in New York. One of the places where he did "that work" and had it done to him was at Davidson. He graduated in the class of 1995. His conviction regarding the liberal arts in a time of crisis reflects the wager that virtually all of us made when we took up our vocation: that our [pre]occupation with language, history, and culture was not only pleasant but pertinent; that, at a time when the air smells like smoke and we ourselves are humbled in dismay, our work may matter.

It is important that George has been where he is. His chronicle of photographs and words testify to both the horror and the hale of human spirit in its moment of crisis. Yet, if he had been here during these recent weeks, I think he would have been buoyed by the faculty's engagement of that work he deemed essential. In response to a request for comments upon your teaching during the week of crisis, I have received a rich supply that frankly both humbles and inspires me. Though time alone prevents me from speaking of each one, I feel compelled to share with you some of this account.

While news from the 11th was so fresh in mind, most all of us found it difficult simply to teach as normal and some questioned that even if it were possible to do so, would it be appropriate. Not a few devoted special time in class for reverential silence and presented students a supportive context in which to express their concerns. They gave time to the need of their students to speak of the events directly, yet maintained an awareness of the class's particular medium and idiom as conversations proceeded with cross-cultural sensitivity in French, German, and Spanish, as students wrote personal responses in literature courses as "record[s] of themselves for themselves, and for their children" (Carol Acree-Cavalier, English Department), as they gave impromptu speeches in Oral Communications where fluency increased as they spoke from the heart (Bonnie McAlister, Theatre and Speech Department), and as they painted images that gave shareable form to their feelings. Making themselves vulnerable in the process, some discussed the question of relevance: are "theatre, and art in general, relevant in moments of crisis and incomprehensible tragedy?" (Sharon Green, Theatre and Speech Department); and, in a course on Modernist Literature, "is it possible to discuss and/or write books when your country may be at war and your capitol is under attack?" (Suzanne Churchill, English Department), a question that, of course, alerted the students to the life-setting of so many of the authors they had read and would yet read.

For others, the topics of the syllabus and field already converged directly with concerns of the day: a Civil Liberties class discussing the laws of search and seizure (Mary Thornberry, Political Science Department); a class in Genomics studying the detection of biological weapons (Malcolm Campbell, Biology Department); a seminar on Moral and Legal Responsibility considering group and corporate criminality (Lance Stell, Medical Humanities Program); and, a seminar on Autobiographical Memory researching the phenomenon of flashbulb memories, "memories of what was happening when significant news was learned" (Kristi Multhaup, Psychology Department).

For still others, the syllabus topics seemed remote, but important to pursue in their own right as a symbol of not surrendering to terrorist interruption of what we deem important to do to. In a psychology class scheduled to discuss perception and color vision, the instructor recognized that the topic itself was not directly related to the events of the 11th. She opened the class with the admission that she was not an expert on grief management, terrorism, or national policy and would not presume to offer advice in those areas. Continuing, she affirmed that she did, however, have expertise to teach the psychology of perception and would do precisely that but, at the same time, it was important for the class to understand that her lecturing was "an act of faith and defiance, in the wake of the previous day's events" (Greta Munger, Psychology Department). The fact of the class itself took on symbolic freight.

Of special interest to me was the group of teachers who found in less directly-related topics of their syllabi issues that nonetheless emerged with surprising resonance and pertinence: the Classics course where one spoke of the Trojan War as a "defining event, . . . an event which changed everyone's life forever and became the marker of reference for everything else that happened" (Jeanne O'Neill, Classics Department); the class in Writing Non-Fiction where students found in an essay on Vermeer a guide to "breaking the cycle of vengeful violence by learning to view the Other as individual--a lesson that Vermeer's paintings of individual women can teach us--and by acknowledging that, much as individual criminals are responsible for terrorist acts, so are other individuals from the same ethnic, national, or religious groups not responsible and should not be treated as criminals" (Cynthia Lewis, English Department); the American Literature survey where the Puritan Anne Bradstreet's poem, "Upon the Burning of Our House," offered its line "pleasant things in ashes lie" as a national metaphor, but with a cautious reminder "to grieve thoroughly before attempting to interpret the burning as an experience to learn from" (Carol Acree-Cavalier, English Department); the course in Music of the United States where the attempt to define the blues exposed its "critical therapeutic function of translating suffering into sound" (Neil Lerner, Music Department) and the choir rehearsal where singers, at dusk, translated sound into consolation, closing with the singing of Rheinberger's "Abendlied"--"Remain with us [Lord], for evening descends and the day is over" (Ray Sprague, Music Department).

Lastly, the Humanities section that found itself dealing with the book of Nehemiah, a writing that documents the return of a group of exiles to their homeland and the rubble of their fallen temple. The discussion leader, Professor Hansford Epes, noted that reading Nehemiah "provided an opportunity to think about what makes a nation or a people, the tangible monuments of its physical setting or the ideas that at their best the people wish to have shape, guide, or inform them. . . I was using a not especially familiar section of the Hebrew Scriptures, one perhaps of more scholarly interest than general, but it suddenly became more pertinent than antiquarian. And my point, perhaps, lies not in the merits of reading Nehemiah, but in adding to [the] evidence that each of us somehow endeavored to find whatever opportunity lay nearest to hand in our personal and professional--can one really separate them?--effort to seek light in darkness."

As our former student noted: "Now, that work . . . looks essential." And perhaps, our efforts in these few weeks have clarified what that work is and what drew us to it in the first place: not the pretentious confidence that our efforts suffice in the face of dismay, but the trust in the testimony of our varied materials to guide us in the smoke of dark times. Though caught in the tremendum of the day, we say no to vain cynicism whenever we cross the threshold of our classroom door and, even with defiance, do what we do. It is not our answers that escape vanity, but our questions, our struggle to understand our time in dialogue with the texts, sounds, images, and data that have been our passion. We affirm that the struggle to understand is meaningful, that the pursuit of what it means to be human, in all its facets, illumines. This is not only our opportunity, but our obligation.

Karl Plank is Cannon Professor and Chair of Religion and Vice-Chair of the Faculty, pro tem.

Click here for more on the Davidson community's response to the terrorism of September 11.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is ranked in the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson is currently engaged in "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.

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