Monday, January 13, 2014

The Last Semester Ever

Today is the first day of my final semester as a tenured professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado. The final semester EVER. The retirement package that I have irrevocably accepted specifies that I am not eligible to teach at CU for the first five years of my "retirement."

Now, after this semester, I'm going to be teaching Maymester, our mini-semester with an entire full-credit course crammed into 13 intense and exhilarating days. This summer I'll be teaching chapter book writing in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. I dream of returning to DePauw to teach another semester there sometime. So I'm not done forever with teaching. But this is my last semester of teaching in the way I've done it for the last twenty years.

I'm teaching three courses:

Intro to Ethics, in a large lecture format with a wonderful TA to do the grading for me. This is one of my "signature" courses. I've taught it so often - one year I taught it FIVE different times - that it's now so deeply embedded in the very fibers of my being that I hardly need to prepare. We start by reading Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych, the story of a life gone wrong. Then we read seven great works from the history of philosophy, advice manuals, as it were, for how to make one's life go right: selections from  Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the Discourses of Epictetus (my own personal favorite), Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, Nietzche's Beyond Good and Evil, Sartre's existentialism, and the neo-Buddhist Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. On the final day of the semester, I ask the students the following question: if they could give only one of these books to the young Ivan Ilych to change the course of his life, which one would it be? The answers vary from semester to semester in a way that fascinates me.

Ethical Theory. This is a 3000-level, upper-division course primarily for our majors. Here I'll offer an in-depth examination of three dominant ethical theories: consequentialism (Mill), deontology (Kant), and virtue ethics (Aristotle). We'll read contemporary essays as well as classic texts, and close with reading a book by feminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker called Moral Understandings, which will problematize much of what we did throughout the semester. This class will be fine, but when I teach at the upper division I'm always haunted by the thought that I wish I knew more about my subject. I wish that I myself were a consequentialist or a deontologist, that I myself inhabited one of these theories in a deep and passionate way. I'm not. I don't. I find some powerful appeal in all of them, but I'm not a card-carrying member of any of them. This makes my teaching more fair and even-handed perhaps, but also less energized.

Fairy Tale Transformations, a one-credit course that I invented, taught through the Norlin Scholars honors program. This is going to be my little labor of love, something I arranged to do back when I was at DePauw and knew that I couldn't return to business-as-usual in my teaching career but had to make sure I had some sweet small islands of happiness just for me. This course should be tons of fun. We'll not only read shifting versions of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and Cinderella, but we'll also attend the CU Opera production of Englebert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, screen Disney's Snow White, listen to a guest lecture by fairy tale scholar Donald Haase (visiting campus this semester) on recent film representations of the Grimm Brothers, watch the East German fairy tale film Die Goldene Gans with a guest lecture by a brilliant professor in the German department, pore over recent feminist-inspired fairy tale picture books, and write our own reinvented tales.

And then the semester will be over. It will be a poignant day for me, that last day in each of these three classes. But not a sad day. I have yet to have one second of regret for my career transition decision. I have never in my life been more confident of any choice I have made. But for now, over the next three and a half months, I'm going to love this life as much as can before I embark on the new one.

My plan is to skip merrily and fearlessly across this flower-strewn bridge that I'm shortly to be burning.


  1. The Stepsister's Tale won't be out until June but if you'd like to have a Skype visit with an author of a retold fairy tale, let me know.

    I'm almost through Philip Pullman's retold Grimm stories; his intro and commentaries are wonderful.

  2. Synchronicity! I haven't been following your blog, so this was the first I heard of your decision to retire from the University to pursue writing and a "future of frugal contentment," as you wrote back on September 29. Me too!

  3. Tracy, I'd love to pursue this possibility! I'll email you privately.
    Sophia, yay for frugal contentment for both of us!

  4. How beautiful! Pound's evanescent moment. To be held and let go... not lamented, not longed for, not reproduced. Christ! G_d's anointed. Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done, Claudia! Go forth, respond and be responsible.