Monday, April 26, 2010

Did I miss anything?

First off, apologies for my recent silence. As I'm sure some readers have already inferred, I have not been able to attend to this weblog over the past couple of weeks because I've been busy with teaching, writing, grading, and all the other aspects of my work at Saint Joseph's University. This happens to be the last week of the spring semester at SJU, so I expect to get even busier in the coming days: as readers who have taught probably know from their own experience, the end of the semester and the period of final exams can provide faculty with an intense mental and physical workout. Despite the work that awaits in coming days, I hope to post an occasional word here between now and the time that I submit my spring grades to the registrar.

With a grateful nod to Garrison Keillor's practice of reciting a poem each day on The Writer's Almanac, here is a poem for the end of the semester by Tom Wayman, entitled "Did I Miss Anything?":
Question frequently asked by
students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren't here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I'm about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place

And you weren't here
I hope that you'll forgive my inability to indent "Did I Miss Anything?" as its author intended - you'll be able to see what I tried and failed to do in this regard if you click here. More importantly, though, I hope that you'll agree that the sarcasm of Wayman's poem belies its positive message. I have never been tempted to offer absent students any of the caustic replies presented by Wayman, but I believe that there is something profound about his conclusion about the classroom serving as "a microcosm of human existence / assembled for you to query and examine and ponder."

As another academic year comes to an end, those of us who are involved in education - as teachers and as students - would do well to think about how we approach the academic enterprise. Do we regard teaching and scholarship simply as a way to make a living, or is a vocation that offers a sense of joy and fulfillment? Is learning an end in itself, or is it simply a means to other ends - economic success, prestige, or power? Does the time we spend in the classroom raise questions that remain with us long after we've moved on to other things?

My prayers for all readers who are busy with end-of-semester business, whichever side of the desk you find yourself on. Please spare a prayer for me, too, as things wrap up on Hawk Hill. AMDG.


At 4/26/2010 4:23 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

How well I know of what you write! I had 35 years of such pressure and that terrible question: did I miss anything important? Love that poem and I will share it with my former colleagues. [I had my answer, but it was a bit tasteless, so I won't share.]

At 4/26/2010 9:45 PM, Blogger Salvatore said...

I know it well too! Because I ask it all the time... :-P Great poem though, I think you should carry around a laminated copy and hand it to a student that asks, and then collect it at the end.

Hope you finish the semester in one piece! Saw you walking on Lapsley today but you looked like a man on a mission so I didn't say hi.


At 4/27/2010 5:31 PM, Blogger dpr1982 said...

Apologies that this post is unconnected to the poem's content, but after clicking the link to see it in its original shape, I visited the Univ. of Toronto Library homepage out of curiosity, and noticed a photograph of the library's exterior. Being an architecture buff, it immediately seemed to me that Toronto shared -- I'm being opinionated here, but most will probably concur -- the plague of brutalist architecture. Georgetown's Lauinger Library is also a member of that insane movement. Their version of brutalism is 3 years younger but not that much more attractive (maybe a little): Wikipedia confirmed that it's brutalism, and provided the date of construction.

As if that weren't enough randomness, here's a fascinating article about Ontario public schools and Canadian national identity at the turn of the 20th century that I skimmed after doing a search for the Toronto library:

Just call me James Burke.

At 4/27/2010 9:47 PM, Blogger Joe said...

@Barbara: Glad to hear that you liked the poem - I hope your former colleagues enjoy it as well.

A related phenomenon I've discovered are the students who tell you ahead of time that they'll be absent and wonder what they're going to miss. As much as I appreciate the courtesy of being told ahead of time, the implication of the question remains the same.

@Sal: If you provide the laminated copy, perhaps I'll consider it... I have heard of professors handing the poem out on the first day of class while discussing attendance policies, so I suppose there is some precedent.

Thanks for the good wishes - I hope your undergraduate career is wrapping up well. I probably WAS in a hurry when you saw me, but I still would have returned the greeting if you'd said hello.

@David/"James": Thank you for the enjoyable tangent. I'm actually among the minority of Hoyas who likes Launinger's architecture. I'm glad that not every building on campus looks like that, but it does have a certain something - it helps, perhaps, that I spent an important part of my misspent youth working, studying and procrastinating in that building.

Speaking of misspent youth, I'm not at all surprised that you managed to find all that info - I went on many similar tangents in my own years in law school (who knows how much of that I would have done if the Internet were more fully developed in my undergraduate days).

At 4/29/2010 10:17 AM, Blogger dpr1982 said...

After reading your response, Joe, I must come clean. Britain's Prince Charles (who in addition to his organic agro-horticultural pursuits is also an architecture buff) wrote in a book of his that the modernistic addition to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square was like a carbuncle on the face of an old friend. He meant it in a non-flattering sense of an unwanted invader, but I would reverse that phrase's meaning: the "carbuncle" that is Lauinger, due to my love of Georgetown, is now something, after all these years, about which I must admit I would be a bit sad if it were to be demolished.

(Of course, if a spectacularly attractive library were to replace it, I confess I would probably not object.)

At 9/04/2010 9:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just have a quick question on the meaning of "microcosm of human existence"?
thanks :)

At 9/05/2010 11:47 AM, Blogger Joe said...


I think that line could be read in two ways, each of which is compatible with the other. You could take the "microcosm of human existence" to be contained in the material studied and discussed in the course, but I think you could also take it to be included in the group of students taking the course, who represent humanity in microcosm with their different backgrounds, perspectives, etc. That's just my read, though - you're free to interpret it differently.


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