left-hand-of-an-apostle- albrecht durer

Albrecht Durer

I had not done well. I thought I had lost myself a job. A college professor job. I stood in a classroom scattered with my interviewers and a few students, bereft of anything but the certitude that I had not done well.

The questions ceased.

I gripped the podium.

Many years pass between the beginning of a doctorate and the end. Many transformations. It is the introduction into not just one new world of knowledge, but several worlds. Every scholar is trained to inquire after a multi-verse.

Everything for me, every vast new realm, collapsed into a singularity at that podium. Interviews are like that. There is something like a black hole about them. They draw everything in. They last all day. Sometimes several. Everything condenses to a few brief hours.

I gripped the podium.

“Do you have any last words you’d like to share?” the chair of the department asked. I admired him. I admired them all. That was probably the worst part. I wanted to be a part of something special with these people whom I admired. But the fact was that I had not done well. It made me miserable. I felt sure I could not keep it from my face.

Did I have any last words?

“Yes,” I said, voice low, determined. Something in me held firm like steel.

Lots of teachers want to give their students every word they ever learned. Every new universe. Every theoretic constellation. There was once a time when I wanted that, too.

But now I only wanted to say one thing.

The crowd became distracted before I could say more – something about dinner, and excitement over drinks. I waited for a few moments.

Moments in interviews are endless. “What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent,” says Hopkins of something else entirely, and of interviews. Time folds in on itself. Certainly that is what the careful scrutiny of even a kind audience can do. Time constricts itself into contorted layers of immensity.

“I do want to say something,” I offered again, unable to recognize my own tone.

The room quieted. I stared out at them. This was, as far as I was concerned, my last chance. The singularity would not hold for much longer.

My last chance to say something that I knew about myself, or that I knew I could be. Something about who I might want to be for them as their faculty member, their professor. I just wanted a chance for one thing. One more thing.

I focused on the students, felt the steel flare as if struck.

“I want to ask questions with you.”  

That was it. That was all I said. That is all I know as a student, a scholar, a teacher: how to ask questions. That is what knowledge is. Universes don’t expand unless we ask questions. That is the one real power I have – for all the languages I know, the books I’ve read, the arguments I’ve waged. That is the one real power.

Asking questions.

I like that it is not a power at all. Questions can only be owned by someone who isn’t interested in mastering them. Every question gives itself away. Lets itself be taken away by others, made their own. Questions can really be shared. Questions can unfurl.

My role as a scholar is to know where questions come from, to know how questions form us. My task is to embody what it means to ask questions, to ask really good questions: the kinds of questions that fold in upon themselves in layers of immensity. What more peculiar and valuable courage can I teach, except to be unafraid of questions?

Or, most peculiar courage of all – dare we ask questions about God?

I want to ask questions with you.

I could think of nothing more to say. I am not the greatest or most interesting scholar, but I know about great and interesting scholars. I do not know everything, but I know where knowledge hides. I am not the most talented person my students will ever meet, but I am talented enough to make room for their talents to grow beyond me.

I want to ask questions with you.

It was all I wanted to say.

I let go of the podium.

(I got the job.)