In Paragraph City it sometimes snows over night, eight or ten inches bleaching the landscape into cold dunes and slowing everything down a bit. To clear the walks and driveways, people can receive either flame throwers and sponges or snow shovels. Their choices are revealing.
This morning as I was shoveling out my drive I thought about one particular faculty search we ran some years ago. It came down to two people who looked really good to us, but in quite different ways as they were quite different people. The committee had screened by matching the resumes to the published job description, then screened further by looking at the cover letters and judging which candidates had the “preferred” qualities, mostly mentioned in the job posting but also the typical desirables that don’t make it into print. Then came a round of phone interviews, followed by conversations with the candidates’ references, and finally several were brought on campus for a half day of meetings, Q & A, and a teaching demonstration.
They were both well qualified, but one had more experience teaching, some leadership roles in the background, a bit more maturity, less familiarity with community colleges, less interest in teaching the remedial levels. This candidate’s classroom manner involved very clear, crisp communication; precise boardwork of a textbook quality; a professionalism that gave his listeners great confidence in his knowledge and credibility; a detachment from those he communicated with. The second candidate had only part-time experience and less of it, but was familiar with community college students and comfortable teaching levels from remedial to advanced. At the board, this candidate was much less direct and took longer to arrive at an answer, but interacted with the class more, taking a “let’s see how we can figure this out – any suggestions?” approach. No leadership background, a less impressive degree.
After their presentations the committee gathered in a room and tried to weigh the two, recalling even casual comments made during a meal or a tour of the campus. Again and again, the two candidates came out equally balanced. I knew which candidate I’d take if it were just up to me, but I could more easily justify selecting the other candidate, and really either would be a great addition to Paragraph City.
In the end, the committee selected the one I preferred – the second, less experienced candidate – though I never knew what finally tipped the committee to select this one. And I myself wasn’t sure why this one was my preference, until this morning, pushing around snow: it was just more fun to sit in the classroom of someone who wasn’t entirely about the content but was also about the student in the class and how they could think about the content.
We professors, endlessly, keep forgetting that our little classroom gig is less about what we teach and more about how the students before us must take our content and think about a lifetime of things. It’s not first and foremost art or philosophy or writing or music or math or history or literature or sociology that we teach; it’s thinking. To be a thoughtful human requires all our disciplines and more, but in a dynamic, vital way. To passively hold in my mind the reverberations of a Schumann piano concerto & the ironic operations of fate in Achebe’s “The Sacrificial Egg” & the obedient cruelty of the subjects in Stanley Milgram’s Yale experiments on authority is pleasurably enlightening and disturbing all at once. But it’s all selfish prattle until it nudges into better places the furniture of my mind and the actions of my hand and voice and wallet. At least that’s what the last shovelful of snow, wedged out from under the front bumper, said.
In Paragraph City, it snows so that I have time to think while I clear clean bright places to go.