If I want this blog to be popular, I should not talk about a lot of things. Instead, I should talk about Michael Jackson and Winnie the Pooh. And martial arts.
The least popular posts on this site, by far, are those relating to poetry. Especially my own poems. I am neither insulted nor surprised. Poetry is a punishing art, difficult to understand and often arrogant – and it is dying. The art is simply dying. The soil from which it used to grow is now thin and drained, and we prefer other kinds of beauty over its demanding obscurities.
I love a dying art. Ah well. I am morbid enough to think that is sort of awesome, and I am ridiculous enough to hope that it destroys my promising career in some kind of epically tragic fashion. Wouldn’t that make a great TV documentary?
I should perhaps take a note from those happy folks over at WIT, who are both relevant and lively. But they are so good at it, and I care so little to be bothered with relevance, that I think I will leave that to them.
Another route is belligerence. I could set myself against everything they say at WIT (or somewhere), angrily deriding – I don’t know – women or everything or what have you. That could never work, though. Despite being trained in an extremely vicious martial art, I am (like Winnie the Pooh) made of fluff and I am not really interested in fighting anybody unless pressed. All my threats are empty, and my years at Marquette have trained me to be depressingly reasonable.
Or perhaps I should be hilarious and thought-provoking, like my friend and colleague, Eric Vanden Eykel. Still I doubt I could be that provocative or funny at any point in time, so again I think I’ll leave that task to my superiors.
I am left with the posts of mine that are most popular: Michael Jackson, Winnie the Pooh, and Krav Maga.
What do these have in common? They are not quite related so much as they are relatable. People can relate to them. We know who Michael Jackson is – and God help us all, but he is still one of the most fascinating personal train wrecks of the 20th century – and Winnie the Pooh reminds us of our childhood, and Krav Maga is interesting for its brutality. All three of these things are far more digestible than some prancing stanzas from a poem, or some stubborn post defending metaphysics.
Given all this, I wonder with a smile if I should sell out. I could dedicate all of my future exercises in Internet-writing to popular culture, and to childhood memories, and self-defense. I could throw in videos and other shiny things, and write with endless sarcasm.
But isn’t that the same challenge I will face as a teacher? The struggle to take an (apparently) irrelevant topic like theology, and to make it interesting? I never much liked the teachers who seemed desperate for me to like them and their topics. They’d pack the syllabus with all kinds of baubles meant to show me how damned entertaining their subject was, filling the silence of their insecurity with excitement and activity.
It seems to me, however, that the task of a teacher is not to prove to students that the things they already find interesting are interesting. They know that part coming in. The task is to show how those interests can relate to things they’ve never thought about before; the task is to show how learning expands us. It doesn’t just rattle us. (Sure, learning can be earth-shattering and mind-bending, but we try too hard to make as if it were all that way when it obviously is not.) It doesn’t just comment on the latest news.
Perhaps my students will not care. More than likely they will not care. But I don’t care that they don’t care – I care to show them anyway.
And I want to show them.
I must be willing to reach across the distance of my expertise and their interests. It is my task to reach; it is not their task to adopt my preferences and obsessions. I must try to be relatable, and not merely accurate. Will that involve the occasional reference to martial arts? Probably. But not exclusively. We can’t stay there.
We have to keep going. We have to reach higher.
I recently stood in front of a group of graduate students, speaking for part of a class on Hans Urs von Balthasar. I was showing them some of the relevance of my dissertation project. We came, of course, to poetry. We had to go there, and I felt deep dread at the inevitable. Still, I put together notes and prepared myself. All the while, in my mind I screamed, “Dear God, who cares about poetry? Nobody cares about poetry! How am I going to show them poetry?!”
I smiled as if I were not in the middle of berating myself for adoring something as imperious and irritating as poetry. I smiled, and set about showing everyone that poetry reflects to us the truth of who we are.
It was not exactly easy. But I think, somehow, it worked. I had to work for it – I play-acted part of the poem I had selected, making obvious what was hidden in the beautiful words – but that’s what it means to reach across a distance. We worked for it, both the students in front of me and myself. We both worked.
So perhaps there is some happy medium for me, one where I don’t have to surrender my own interests entirely and don’t have to write about only Michael Jackson. (Believe it or not, I do eventually get bored with him.) Some medium where I do not need to be feminist or belligerent (or both?). Until then, I suppose I should write about that time in Krav Maga where we wore helmets so we could run at each other swinging sticks…