Faculty Summer Reading? (Go Team!)

Sometimes watching a “team” is obvious.  Beach volleyball, basketball, crew–it is obvious how those are team sports and how the teammates have to work together.  But sometimes the “team” aspect of an enterprise is less clear.  Think gymnastics or swim team or golf team or weight lifting team where the “team” aspect is not explicit.  I have always admired the sport of wrestling–and been fortunate to watch some tremendous wrestlers here at school–and what intrigues me is the individual nature of the sport AND its team concept. (Trust me–we are getting to Faculty Summer Reading!) How are the individual wrestlers a team?  If you ask them, they will swear that they are.  Part of this stems from practice together where they make each other better; “brotherhood begins in shared pain” observes Ursula K. LeGuin and wrestlers will swear to that.  Another part of their “team” consciousness derives from their knowledge that a particular performance–a freshman who avoids getting pinned and so saves points is treated as a winner and a senior who knows he needs a major decision or a fall to help his team will be distraught if he only “wins”–really needs to be seen in context.  Well, faculties are like that kind of team–or they should be.  They should make each other better, share sacrifice, and know that their work needs to be seen in context.  We toil in the same vineyard but often many rows away from others.  One year when I taught full-time I went almost a year and didn’t see one particular faculty member (on a full-time staff of about 60) because of the way our schedules worked.  But knowing that person was out there are doing great work was a source of comfort and inspiration.  I often feel this about colleagues who work at other schools–I am sad that we are not in immediate proximity but I am so happy that they are in the vineyard–though I can no longer see them.

When you are not in immediate contact with people it is important that you have shared experiences to go back to–and a shared narrative that animates your work.  That’s one reason that schools should be conscious and conscientious about telling their story (and in addition to the “official” story there should be a funny, irreverent “unofficial” history). The narrative binds everyone together–and gives those who rebel a firm place from which to do so–they also serve the narrative.  How do you get a faculty from disparate disciplines, ages, places in their lives, interests, and abilities to have shared experiences? Faculty summer reading can be a way to give everyone a common experience and have them engage with a colleague that they may barely know. They’ll be a better team.

For the past 12 years our faculty has engaged in summer reading.  At the time we decided to do this I was asked what I would do about people who wouldn’t do the reading–and if there was no punishment wouldn’t EVERYONE stop doing it.  It struck me then–and seems so even now–that it is inadequate to hold yourself to the lowest common denominator.  If you do, then the people who don’t or won’t do the work control the agenda.  I know that not everyone on the faculty reads the assigned book each year (I have been teaching English for 31 years so it’s tough to fool me on the reading). But I’m always impressed by how many do the reading and thrilled with the discussions I have with them–and those are the people I really want for colleagues.  We usually break into small groups for a 45 minute discussion and then come back for reports.  Sometimes a book is central to the theme for the year or was chosen as a form of “professional development,” but often I pick a book because it interests me for some other reason.

I list below the books we have read and just a couple of sentences about choosing them and responses to them (except for the first and most recent book I can’t remember the exact order off the top of my head).

 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling. 2001. This was our first book.  Students were beginning to come to us with the book as part of their experience and we thought it would be great to have it as part of ours.  I loved that it was  a”school book”–about Hogwarts with teachers and students and the issues that bedevil all schools.  Almost everyone loved it (and many people went on to read the whole series as it came out–and watch the movies, too).  Still, a couple of people thought it offensive and objected on religious grounds.  But we talked about it.

Herakleitos and Diogenes, Guy Davenport.  “Why not whip the teacher when the pupil misbehaves?”  “A choirmaster pitches the note higher than the choristers can manage. So do I.” “People who talk well but do nothing are like musical instruments: the sound is all they have to offer.” “Education disciplines the young, comforts the old, is the wealth of the poor, and civilizes the rich.” Diogenes.  Or, from Herakleitos: “Character is fate.” “One man, to my way of thinking, is worth ten thousand, if he’s the best of his kind.” “One cannot step twice into the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.” “Knowledge is not intelligence.” Easy to read, lots to discuss–this was probably our least effective summer reading–go figure.

The Miracle Worker, William Gibson. A great story about a great teacher AND a local theater company was putting the play on in August (and we got about 50 people reduced price tickets) and had a wonderful time–and we got to discuss what made Annie Sullivan a great teacher.

“The Palace Thief,” Ethan Canin (movie, The Emperor’s Club) This long short story contains a marvelous moral problem when a young teacher finds himself compromised by a decision he makes and by a student who cheated and a powerful parent.  The administration, the teacher, the students, are all rendered wonderfully and, though the movie differs substantively, it is also worth watching.  This text inspired quite a bit of discussion.

Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom. A book about the relationship between a teacher and student that endures–and the lessons that get taught.  An interesting aspect of this was that I had at least three people tell me that they could NOT read it because they were living with people struggling with terminal illness and it was too hard for them.  Morrie’s favorite line, “Love each other or perish” by Auden. “Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find your way to such teachers, you will always find your way back. Sometimes it is only in your head.  Sometimes it is right alongside their beds.”

Night, Elie Wiesel Not a “teaching” book so much as it is a book about fathers and sons and community, persecution, repression, rebellion, faith, and doubt. A powerful and short reading that brought about dialogue but also quite a bit of silence–not a bad thing, that.

Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer A terrific book on “who” teachers are, not just what they do when they teach.  This book inspired discussion and lives.  Discussions of pedagogy (“Technique [pedagogy] is what you use until the teacher arrives”), power and authority, the paradoxes of teaching and learning, knowing-teaching-learning in community.  A book I return to again and again for sustenance and inspiration.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok More fathers and sons–and the way that our interests guide our lives and the importance of having great teachers in our lives.  Sometimes those great teachers can be suffocating (think Freud and Jung)–I had a great teacher once who told me he was worried about mentoring particularly gifted younger colleagues because he dreaded the day they would rebel.  And the young must eventually take their place.  I was pleasantly surprised when several faculty members told me that they went on to read other books by Potok. Really fine discussions.

As Nature Made Him, John Colapinto Nature versus Nurture in a BIG WAY.  Identical twin boys are born to a couple in Canada and during the circumcision of one child his genitals are mutilated.  A doctor with an exemplary reputation and tremendous charisma convinces the family to “reassign” this child as a girl–through surgery, upbringing, and drugs. IT DOESN’T WORK! But the pain involved in finding that out is extraordinary–and the arrogance and irresponsibility of the doctor is breathtaking. This raised all sorts of questions for us on definition of masculinity which, as an all-boys school, we need to confront. It also raised questions about teaching of boys–and girls.

Choosing Civility, P. M. Forni As a whole school–freshmen to faculty (and our Parent Organization)–we read this one summer and then were fortunate to have Professor Forni come and spend a day with us. We spent the year crisscrossing the ideas of the book in our convocations and classrooms.  Teaching students is about more than the work in the classroom–we usually say that just “information” provides an incomplete education–you need “formation” as well as “information.”

The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch This inspirational (and sad) story allowed us to use the phrase “Be the first  penguin” for a year. When the penguins gather at the end of an ice floe–someone has to go first and dive in–has to take a risk.  Not all risks will work out–but there is great wisdom in the observation that “Not all change is growth, but without change there is no growth.” We want to encourage risk in our faculty in their pedagogy and we want to encourage risk in our students in their course selection and co-curricular interests.  We spent a year encouraging risk and asking each other to “be the first penguin.”

Phineas Gage, John Fleischman This extraordinary story about a railroad worker who has an accident that shoots a 3 and a half-foot tamping iron THROUGH his skull in 1848 is illustrated with pictures, brain scans, and other cool visuals.  Questions about our frontal lobes and identity, the history of science, the location of the “person” all abound in this telling of the tale.  The book is not extremely well-written but it is a handsome book–short and easy to read.



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