Saturday, May 17, 2014

Marching through Maymester

As my LAST last hurrah as a professor of philosophy, I'm in the midst of teaching Intro to Ethics in Maymester: a whole academic semester crammed into 14 intense days (three weeks, five days a week, three hours a day, with a most welcome day off on Memorial Day).

This is my fourth or fifth time teaching this course in Maymester. It works surprisingly well. The students are on average exceptionally motivated, as they would have to be to sign up for Maymester; most of them do so because they are tackling double or triple majors or extremely demanding degrees and need to fit in extra credits where they can. (This time I have quite a few chemical engineering majors). They actually do the fiendishly difficult reading I assign! They come to class ready to learn.

I do make a couple of concessions to the shorter time frame. I can't start off by assigning Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych. As every day of class is equivalent to a week of the regular semester, I have to immerse them in Aristotle on day one. I don't do review sessions for the exams - there is little need to review, as we've covered the material just hours before. But I cover all the same philosophers in the same depth. With one week behind us, we've already done Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and the Discourses of Epictetus and made good progress on Kant.

I can't deny that I'm a teensy bit tired. On one afternoon last week, I raced away after a full morning teaching to an afternoon school visit at Shelton Elementary in Golden; on another, I raced away to meet with three fifth grades in Niwot. One evening I spoke on a panel of middle grade authors at the Tattered Cover down in Denver. On Friday I met with 13 of my 24 students to go over drafts of their first paper, due on Monday. And then, of course, the grading will begin.

But in two weeks - TWO WEEKS! - it will all be done. Every day when I come home on the Skip, I carry in my backpack a few more of the books that were too precious for me to give away: my worn copy of Rawls's A Theory of Justice from my freshman year at Wellesley (the green cover of the original edition held together with Scotch tape, the price on it $3.95), Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia from the same year, novellas from the little one-credit course I taught once on Miguel de Unamuno, who wrote one of my best loved books ever, The Tragic Sense of Life. The bookshelves in my office are 90 percent empty, most of my books donated to fill the previously bare shelves in the grad students' basement office. Soon I'll take down the quilt that has hung on the wall above my now quite worn and shabby couch for the last two decades.

It's all poignant, but not sad - not even bittersweet. I loved writing Kant's categorical imperative on the chalkboard for the last time on Friday: "So act that you could will the maxim of your act to be a universal law." It's engraved on my heart, from writing it so many times for so many students over so many years. And yes, I'm keeping my copy of Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant isn't going anywhere.

But I am.

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