Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching Freedom

Quite a lot has happened in the last two months. It was a personal drama of sorts: me trying to figure out me. I am sure my friends and family tired of it — me constantly talking about me. I spent a lot of time with Teddy (my dog), friends, colleagues and family.

anita

Me and my good friend Anita at Arcosanti. (I kidnapped her and dragged her to a commune!)

joshtree

Solo camping in Joshua Tree (Black Rock Canyon), on my way to visit family. (What do I do when I camp alone? I read books and drink craft beer. See Part II of this post!)

nau

Wonderful conversations about Confucian ethics with a colleague visiting from China

I also spent a lot of time with my students. My philosophy freshmen completed their final exam, which consisted in conversations about justice, drawing on the ideas and arguments they learned throughout the term. I left the (very spirited) “exam” kicking myself. Why hadn’t I *started* the course in this way, with informal conversations between groups of students? It occurred to me that the best way to teach Intro to Philosophy might be to spend a week or two simply talking about what we all believe and sussing out where the agreements and disagreements are (and what questions they are interested in). Only then can we achieve passionate conversation.

It is odd teaching something like philosophy in an institutional setting, because philosophy is fundamentally about self-examination, i.e., examining one’s own beliefs, attitudes, orientations, etc. And formal education tends to be impersonal, in part because of the power differential created by a grading system that militates against what we are trying to accomplish in the humanities. Humanities students should be in pursuit of the project of becoming more free and deepening their humanity. So, I spend a lot of energy guiding students toward questioning grades and the value placed on grades. Some of them never learn, but some do. Some go on to measure their “success” by their own internal standard. Some go on to question my authority, which I encourage.

I have seen enough in my life to question any external standard of “success”. As grades and rankings become more and more meaningless, I increasingly rely on observing people, institutions and my own self. I form my own impression, and I reflect. And this is what I would like for my students — to think for themselves. I hate telling anybody what to think. I do not enjoy “professing”. I will not discipline students, who are grown adults. I do not even like being the center of attention; in fact, I mostly hate it! Sometimes I wonder whether I even belong in Higher Ed, but I soldier on, so long as I believe I am doing something valuable.

Freedom is a funny thing. I have never been so “free” in my life — zero debt, savings and investments, easy means of transportation, excellent health and a rock solid education behind me. I own very little in the way of material things, but I have so many rich relationships in my life.

At first the sense of unbounded freedom caused me misery. I invented ways to rid myself of it — land another tenure-track job, throw my savings into some real estate, enter the wrong relationships, etc. However, all these distractions made me more miserable.

Perhaps it is better to gratefully accept one’s own freedom as a rare and beautiful thing.

Happy 2018!

Sarah

Author: sarahruthjansen

Sarah Ruth Jansen is an American philosopher, writer, outdoor adventurer and bicycling advocate. Between trimesters teaching philosophy in Minnesota Sarah bikepacked the Colorado Trail (Denver to Silverton) in 2014 and completed the cross-country Tour Divide Race in 2015. In 2016 Sarah won the Arizona Trail Race. You may contact Sarah at sarahruthjansen@gmail.com.

4 thoughts on “Me Trying to Figure Out Me: Reflecting on Freedom and Teaching Freedom”

  1. You are amazing! For the grading thing, you and I know that student’s future funding is based on the “grade” which does not correspond with a Professor’s goal of broadening the student’s understanding. A very frustrating world when we both open a book with two different objectives to obtain from understanding the text. ha, Nobody was meant to read Marcus Aurelius book and centuries later the people that have his book are ever the more wiser for doing so, the same would hold true for your books that you will write. Happy writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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