The Serious Center of Things

ribbon-cuttingI suspect that most fads start with a good idea that then gets twisted or overblown. Similarly, within any fad there are people who work discerningly and unfaddishly. The challenge is to perceive the good work in the mud-flashy mix. (Yes, mud flashes; that is its great selling point.)

I have sometimes satirized the trend on college campuses to have a Center for Best Practices (or Second-Best Practices, for that matter). So on Friday, when I attended the Grand Opening Ceremony for Yale’s newly located Center for Teaching and Learning, I was delighted to see something serious and substantial in the works. I then asked myself what made this center different (in my perception) from the larger trend. I remembered Andrew Gelman’s recent post on the importance of understanding our own contradictions and inconsistencies.

First, I have seen Yale from the inside for many years–as an undergraduate, full-time staff member (during my years off), graduate student, and writer. (I lived in New Haven and used the Yale libraries when writing Republic of Noise in 2009-2011.) When I know something from the inside, I am more likely to perceive the non-ludicrous within it. I remember the passage in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (where we are first introduced to Jude’s son, Little Father Time):

In the down-train that was timed to reach Aldbrickham station about ten o’clock the next evening, a small, pale child’s face could be seen in the gloom of a third-class carriage. He had large, frightened eyes, and wore a white woollen cravat, over which a key was suspended round his neck by a piece of common string: the key attracting attention by its occasional shine in the lamplight. In the band of his hat his half-ticket was stuck. His eyes remained mostly fixed on the back of the seat opposite, and never turned to the window even when a station was reached and called. On the other seat were two or three passengers, one of them a working woman who held a basket on her lap, in which was a tabby kitten. The woman opened the cover now and then, whereupon the kitten would put out its head, and indulge in playful antics. At these the fellow-passengers laughed, except the solitary boy bearing the key and ticket, who, regarding the kitten with his saucer eyes, seemed mutely to say: “All laughing comes from misapprehension. Rightly looked at there is no laughable thing under the sun.”

I remember pondering those words in high school and for many years afterward. They seemed both true and not true at the same time.

stained-glassOn Friday I had a poignant sense of the “inside”: the CTL is now located where the Catalog Department used to be–where I used to assign call numbers to books, day after day. In those days we still used the card catalog but were moving to an online database. I saw many changes in the works but did not anticipate that the space would one day be a bright, roomy, variegated center for tutoring, presentations, meetings, practice with technology, and much more. Some of the old details–like these stained-glass windows–still remain. The back door–through which we entered in the morning–still has a plaque that says “Private–For Staff Only” (or something like that).

The tour guides spoke thoughtfully when taking us through the rooms. They emphasized repeatedly that the technology was there to assist professors and students with what they were trying to do–not to get in the way or dictate what they should do. No one was obligated to use technology just because it was technology. But there are rooms where professors and other instructors can try things out before taking them into the classroom.

music-librarySo I was influenced by the quality of the tours and conversations. In addition, Yale has long emphasized the life of the classroom. From Timothy Dwight’s lectures (transcribed by his devoted students) to the residential college system to the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute and Education Studies program, Yale’s emphasis teaching stretches far back in time and outward into public schools.

This does not mean that Yale is protected from fads and faults; not at all. Yale needs sharp skeptics and questioners as much as the next being or building does. I simply mean that there is something promising at work, something that seems to cut through the usual jargon. I think of Chapter 85 (“The Fountain”) in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which Ishmael hypothesizes that the spout of the whale is “nothing but mist”–and adds that “from the heads of all ponderous profound beings … there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam.” He concludes the chapter memorably and funnily:

While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition.

And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor –as you will sometimes see it–glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions. Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

Image credits: I took all three photos on Friday, January 27. The third photo is of the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, which adjoins Sterling Memorial Library and the Center for Teaching and Learning.

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