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A Mission Unfinished

By Noel Kent

In the recent French film, Of Gods and Men, a small group of monks dwelling in a remote village in the Atlas Mountains find themselves caught amidst the savagery of the 1990s Algerian civil war. Threatened by the indiscriminate violence of both government forces and the Islamic rebels, the monks fear for their lives and those of the local Algerian community to whom they are devoted.  A night comes when they gather to discuss whether or not to abandon the monastery and seek safety. One monk declares simply, “The mission is not finished.”  They elect to stay and carry on.

“Are you retired yet?” Professors, like myself, deep in their 60s (in both age and appearance), and with decades of work in the academy must expect to field such queries.  But one also imagines that there may be an edgy subtext here, something along the lines of “how come you are still on the job at a time when people your age are retiring all around you?”  Or to cut to the chase, “How at your advanced age do you justify your presence on campus?”

So working in defensive mode, I have developed a stock reply which goes something like, “Well, I’m still working and they still send me a check every two weeks or so.”  On occasion, I also add,  “Just can’t take such a big cut in income,” a line that never fails to generate sympathetic nods of understanding. But lately, my response is more from the heart, and rather about the gratification, the fierce joy an educator derives from being connected to students and colleagues.  Why should I give up this career when it is more satisfying now than ever?  And mimicking that French monk in the film, I might even mutter something about the “mission” being not yet complete.  

Considering Legacy

The roots of this began a decade or so ago when I started taking the legacy thing seriously. Nothing too strange about this. As the prospect of the career winding down—and time running out—becomes more real, many of us begin assessing what our contributions have actually amounted to over the years.  For me at least, a record of modestly respectable scholarship just doesn’t seem quite enough of a return for the privileged life I’ve led.  Especially given the disturbed state of the nation and the world.
Indeed, as America sailed into the new millennium under a leadership that reacted to 9/ll by lashing out with a so-called “war on terrorism” on innumerable fronts, and seemed to glory in denying the burgeoning crises of climate change, environmental decay, and growing economic inequality and desperation, it became clear that our students were inheriting an increasingly unstable, nay, perilous world.  At home and beyond, they would be confronting a set of unique challenges and a volatile Pandora’s box of fears. Clearly, the search for scapegoats to blame would intensify.  Given all this, the most genuine late career contribution I could make might lie in helping them to meet these challenges.  Not as a researcher, but as a teacher and mentor. 

Actually, engaging with students had always been something of a joy. “I teach because I have to teach,” a colleague’s bold reply at a faculty teaching seminar to the question, “Why do you teach?” It could easily have been my own.  A prime goal had always been to support students in becoming independent-minded, empathetic citizens with the skills and commitment to engage pressing issues of the day.  To think seriously about what the responsibilities of democratic citizenship are and see the vital connections between discrete processes.  And perhaps explore the classic (and oh so messy!) questions of what we might owe each other and what a genuine Great Society might look like. 

Inevitably, the question “Do you really have something of value to offer?” has reared its ugly head.  We are talking, after all, about someone more than 40 years older than his students. Old enough, indeed, to be their grandfather, which means being light years away from the cultures and technologies they inhabit.  Hell, I’m not even on Facebook and don’t text.

But this cuts both ways.  This same age gap also furnishes the life experience, knowledge, and historical context crucial to understanding the world in a way the students simply can’t. I’ve been around this block enough to learn that while change is unceasing, much of what passes for novel and innovative is actually déjà vu, new actors acting out old patterns.  Moreover, mature academics no longer need to worry about the stuff younger ones worry about.  Having neither the time nor the energy to play the old ego games, we can be refreshingly straight in the classroom. This might include casually debunking any pretensions of being the all-knowing sage and revealing our own vulnerabilities.  And perhaps kindly, respectful, but astute grandfathers get listened to in ways that older brothers or fathers don’t.

Time to Put Teaching First

Making teaching central meant making it more relevant, effective, and personalized.   The task was to reconfigure both my courses and interaction with students.  However, there was no need to start from scratch.  Like so many other faculty, my rather traditional classroom had gradually during the 1980s and ‘90s given way to a provocative mélange of small, Socratic-type lectures and dialogues, burnished by films, role playing, debates, small group problem solving activities, guest speakers, and so on.  If students learn from YouTube, then use it.

My old style of managing the classroom also needed a makeover. It was time to take some risks.  These days, I tend to move around the room more physically, trying to improvise creatively (and humorously) to bring in students from the periphery; at times, throwing out anecdotes, questions and provocative streams of analysis, expressing personal feelings; all in all, deliberately keeping students slightly intellectually/emotionally off balance.  And under the assumption that entertainment and education are compatible, spooning them together.  After sitting in on a recent class, a friend smilingly called the experience “quite a show.” Once, such a remark might have been taken as criticism; now, it seems highly complimentary.  

But classroom chaos is accompanied by structure.  Let’s turn off digital devices and engage each other.  I expect rigor in oral and written work.   Papers are due on the day they are due, get evaluated meticulously, and are handed back the next period.  Interviews for those with problematic work are mandatory.  At the end of each week, students get a short message summing up the week’s work and pointing out what we will be doing the next week.  

 Above all, I strive to convey the message that even though we may indeed be habitués of an impersonal, anonymous university, this professor wants to be here, right now, in this classroom with you, and respects your experiences and ideas.

And the students?  In a past academic life, there were semesters when I hardly bothered with student evaluations (maybe because they were not terribly good).  These days, I scrutinize evaluations, especially negative ratings or comments.  Over the last half-dozen years, the ratings have soared on questions I care about such as:

The instructor fulfilled the goals of the course.
The course made me think hard and carefully.
The instructor seems to enjoy teaching.
The instructor maintains an atmosphere of good feeling in class.
The instructor encouraged class discussion.
I developed greater awareness of societal problems.

Especially gratifying are the anecdotal remarks that indicate something of value is indeed occurring. To quote a couple of characteristic ones from a recent course on ethnic and racial identity …

I enjoyed most of the class. It drove me to think more about relationships and caused me to think about my own identity. The most valuable aspect of the course is the thought processes that the content caused me to have, and the new world views that I have acquired because of it.
From this course I gained a greater social awareness, and I am forcing myself to evaluate identity issues in my life and the life of those around me.

and about their instructor…
He’s willing to help his students and he’s very passionate about this particular subject.  He helped us broaden our perspective on the continuous societal problems and to approach problems by using our critical thinking skills.

He shows concern when students receive a C– or below on papers.  His conferences helped better understand what he wants from students.

Notable were the number of students who mentioned service learning as the crowning piece of the courses.  Around 2000, I began integrating community service into the curriculum and all students now are required to complete 17 hours in community service projects. There are collaborations with homeless shelters, programs for children and teens in public housing centers, agencies promoting literacy for immigrants, high school groups working on ecological projects, and more.  This work gets linked to major course themes.  Over the years, students’ reflection papers have made me a true believer in the power of service learning to amplify classroom work and, more importantly, to provide students with perspectives and experiences that enlarge them as human beings.  Some representative comments:

Volunteering at the Next Step Homeless Shelter at Kakaako, I felt like I benefited more from the experience than the people at the shelter benefited from my time spent there. Volunteering…totally changed my perspective on homelessness…

This experience helped me not to stigmatize people into certain categories.  The truth behind every individual is different and sometimes we need to stop and see that.

Such enthusiastic student responses stoke a teacher’s enthusiasm.  They encourage me to take more risks, embark on more “quirky” initiatives in the classroom and outside.  They confirm the sense that (contrary to some popular wisdom) we older professors can indeed engage in the best sense of the term with today’s students:  They affirm that those of us who came of intellectual age in the 1960s and ‘70s can remain dynamic teachers and mentors well into the 21st century.  (All the while, taking an impish delight in referring to ourselves as “relics).” 

Unlike the monks in Of Gods and Men, I am probably not in any immediate peril, just someone approaching the end of a lengthy academic career.  But not quite yet.  Not as long as the passion burns and not as long as the mission remains unfinished.

Noel J. Kent is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, and the author of such books as Hawaii, Islands Under the Influence. He is a historian with a specific interest in race and ethnic relations, and also a community builder and activist since the 1960s. At the same time, he tries to live each day as well as he can, with a little wonder, a little humor, and some generosity of spirit.