Openly Dedicated

Poetry course dedication

When I got to college, I discovered there was a thing called intellectual history. Part of intellectual history, I also learned, was intellectual lineage: not just idea leading to idea, but thinker leading to thinker. Groups of writers interacting synchronously and asynchronously. Influences, meetings, letters, fallings-out, all of it.

This semester, it occurred to me that I might at least signal to my students that I come from someplace too, intellectually speaking. More precisely, I come from someones. I feel a great cloud of witnesses around me as I teach and as I learn. Those witnesses are intellectual parents, intellectual siblings, and in some cases, even intellectual heirs. These are the people whose work has shaped me, and who have shaped my work. In the most intimate cases, these are people with whom I’ve broken bread. People with whom I’ve fought, and cried. People who’ve believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, people who’ve encouraged me, people who’ve intervened at key moments. People who are with me as I think and write and teach and learn.

I have always felt that the courses I design and lead, at their best, do not deliver content so much as they mingle souls, as John Donne said letters do. My students sometimes hear a few of my stories, but somehow I wanted to communicate something in a more ceremonial way. So I came up with the idea of putting a dedication on my syllabi. My wish is that students will see how precious our time together may be, and how one day we may find we have changed each other’s lives. I want them to see that courses of study are books, but not just books; assignments, but not just assignments; credit hours, but not just credit hours. I want them to understand that a course of study is more relational than transactional. I want them to understand some of the gratitude I feel.

And I’ll confess it: I want to send a letter of sorts, a communication, perhaps even an eldritch communication in some cases, to the teachers and mentors and colleagues who have sustained me and honored me with their faith and hope and love.

So this semester, my poetry course and my film course both have dedications. The words are small and may well be overlooked, even though I did explain them on the first day of class. In the end, the words may mean little to anyone but me. But I have written them, even as those I honor have helped to write and teach and love me into being. And I am content.

Reading Film course dedication

2 thoughts on “Openly Dedicated

  1. This is a wonderful idea. I wonder if you might extend it a bit. One of the things I think people often don’t appreciate is the serendipity of the paths of life. It looks so coherent in retrospect, a tribute to the human brain and cultural evolution that seeks to impose patterns and meaning where often at the time it is lived seems conspicuously absent.

    In that spirit, a discussion of the comfort and design of the narrative making up one’s life and recognition that in the moment it is not at all so organized and apparent sounds like the right introduction to any university course. This is especially so among the diverse collection of students, many quite young and tenuously formed, who you’ll have in class. Both poetry and music are, in one sense, human expressions of grappling with this fundamental experience.

    Good luck Gardner. It is a relational experience. Most classes have very few of these characterizing them. Hence, our remembrance of our own university experiences are largely comprised of the where those relational experiences happened. And sadly it’s not in the classroom most of the time. In some sense that’s to be expected and ‘ok’ if there is a concomitant ‘surround’ to the a students’ experiences in college that layers these onto the experience. But today, many/most students aren’t residential in the college. They do not have the luxury of living the intellectual pursuit. The transactional, as you put it, dominates all other spheres and intrudes upon the scholastic. And the design of many courses is truly instrumental, intended to be ephemeral, as it is brings a person through a series of understanding toward mastery or at least expertise in a skill or economic domain. Much of maths for most students is like that. Only the gifted and blessed few see maths as symbolic poetry, which it should be for many more.

    Now I’m waxing beyond the proper boundaries of a comment. Go forth and tell us of your experiment, both after reflection but also during the journey. And consider expanding, at least a bit at the outset of the journey, the reality that our actions exist in a social milieu where part of joy and struggle is in sense-making. “And in the end
    The love you take Is equal to the love you make.” Peace.

  2. I appreciate this post, Gardner. Courses can be more than just courses. I often wonder what would happen if we discussed courses as parts of a journey (or “voyage,” to quote the Donne work you referenced). I recently explained to some of my students that a particular course was just the beginning of what they could explore on the course subject, and I encouraged them to pursue the topics further once the class ends. To your point, it may also be helpful to encourage them to consider the fellow travelers on their voyage as well.

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