What I Learned and Why It Was Worth It.

I have three days to write a term paper on Plato. For some reason, as I sit in my room trying to write, I find myself hitting a pretty firm wall. I can’t bring myself to write it. I have a good idea of what I WANT to write, but getting the words out and stringing together sentences just doesn’t seem appropriate. Isn’t that just writing!? This is only a hunch, but I think the strange kind of hesitation that I feel is related to what I want to write. Since the paper itself isn’t happening, but I know that I need to be writing to process the ideas, I have decided to write here about my process of writing this paper.

This paper is a big one for me and not just because it’s worth the entirety of my grade. Actually, I have come to care much less about my grades. Probably because this is also the last paper that I will ever have to write for a course. That’s right! I am three days away from no longer being a student who has to sit in classes for requirements, do readings according to a set schedule, etc. etc. And I get why people are so excited for this moment. I am nearing the stage when I get to read and write all of my own stuff. This will be a true transition in my career, a new phase, a new experience, and a new way to do philosophy. I am starting to feel very grown up (or something) in this field.

It’s also a big paper for me because it will represent the end of a very difficult semester. I’ve struggled through each semester of graduate school for various reasons, and this semester was ripe with stress. Taking three classes, two extra seminars, teaching one class of my own, doing an internship, taking on an assistant ship, and becoming a mentor was quite the load. Not to mention that I spent the past four months working harder then ever before to stay in my relationship, to challenge myself to approach my latent fears differently, and to grow. I always grow. So, even though I have work and meetings already planned for Tuesday and beyond, turning this paper in on Monday will feel like the end point of a big, semester-long journey.

Despite all of that “stuff,” this has been a very rich semester for me. I learned a lot from teaching my class this semester on race and diversity. I learned a lot about my girlfriend and what she can help me learn about myself. And there are MANY, MANY other things that I learned that I can’t quite place. In all of that learning, there were as many upsetting, disturbing, unsettling, and troublesome moments as there were inspirational, impassioned, encouraging, and “right” ones. I can’t say it enough. This was quite the semester!

I know that I have grown and changed dramatically since the summer. The way I feel is different. The way I think is different. The way I speak is different. The way I listen is different. I read, I engage, I teach, and I write differently. Even my signature has changed. Over and over again. Each week it’s new (isn’t that significant for something?!? Dad? Don’t you know something about this?).

One thing that I felt changing for me this semester was my presence in the classroom as a peer and student. I wasn’t especially excited about any of my classes this semester. One in particular I absolutely abhorred. But in each class that I went to, I spoke up. I asked questions. Most of the sessions were so boring and dry anyway that I figured there was nothing to lose, only something to be gained, if I could muster the attention span to formulate a question that I was actually interested in posing to the group. And I asked a lot of questions. A LOT. And when the question that I asked started a lively conversation, I was always pretty pleased with my effort. I was also really pleased to learn something from what came out of it. I wasn’t asking from a place of already knowing the answer or having my own opinion (and I decided to abandon awhile ago any idea that I know better than anyone else)-I found myself asking genuine questions because I really wanted to think about them. And I found that I really gained from hearing other people’s views. Sometimes their comments were illuminating, other times confusing, and most of the time, they helped me think again. Sometimes it wasn’t even what they said, but how they said it, or how they approached my question, that was the most interesting part of it.

My experience of asking real questions in all of my classes was rewarding. I was proud of myself for starting conversations. For initiating a group reflection and sustaining my own. I started to realize that I might actually have a knack for asking questions and getting others to think with me. I felt something that, in this dimension of my life, used to only happen on very rare occasions. I felt a sense of confidence.

Once I identified that this was what I was doing in my classes, I realized that my ability to ask questions has also been one of my greatest strengths in teaching. Like many people I suffer from the “imposter complex”: “I’m only a grad student! I don’t know enough to be influencing young minds! What if mess it up? Or get it wrong? What if they see right through my facade?!?!” So to counter this, I dropped the facade. And I started to “teach” by asking questions.

I know that I don’t know what I am teaching- I am not an expert, I don’t have the answers, and I don’t want for my students to think that I am expecting them to regurgitate what I say. But I do know that I can present a problem to the class as it is raised in a text or lived in the “real world” and I can ask them questions that get them to think about them. My favorite days in the classroom are those when we have group presentations because I don’t come with a prepared lecture or even knowing what the students will present, and I know that it is my task to identify themes, isolate problems, highlight key ideas, pause to create space for discussion, and facilitate a process that develops organically. The whole process is very unexpected and spontaneous. On those days, when connections are made through responding to what others bring to the table, I sometimes feel magical. Seriously. It’s what others call “flow.” I’m in it, things are moving, and stuff is happening. And I am the one directing it while my students are the ones propelling it.

This has all started to generate some new thoughts about how to proceed. New strategies are in order. Those that are different from the old ways of saying, “I’m right, now just listen to me.” As I prepare myself for my first major conference presentation and talk to experts about things that I don’t know anything about (law and Irigaray, for example), and as I hold on to my desire to keep making videos on youtube, I am trying to pay attention to the great value of keeping things open. Instead of reading from papers to make sure that I get all of the points right to show what a strong argument I am making, I think I will do better (whatever that means) to present the issues, offer my thoughts and the connections I have made, and raise more questions.

And what does this have to do with Plato again?

Despite my general disinterest (to put it lightly) in the things that are most frequently associated with Plato- especially all of his talk about the Forms and our souls–I have had a hunch over the years that I would need to go back to the Greeks. I mean, all of my homeboys have. Nietzsche did it. Foucault did it. Husserl said that we must do it. And at the beginning of the semester I was not thrilled to be reading Plato. I just don’t get it. I don’t like talking about souls as if they really exist.

As it turns out though, I really didn’t get HIM.

Plato, the philosopher, the writer, the author (maybe) of so many famous dialogues between Socrates and his interlocutors, is amazing for what he did, not just for what he said (and Socrates–but their true identities are complicated). Plato/Socrates wanted to compel people to make the philosophical turn, to turn toward philosophy, to live the examined life, to critically reflect on their lives and themselves. The dialogues are often contradictory, they leave questions unresolved, and the arguments within are often quite poor in terms of logic and viability. But to focus on those things is to miss the point. Plato/Socrates engage people to think. They engage us to think. They don’t leave us with answers, but rather move us in the direction of a philosophical way of life. Plato/Socrates were after the same thing that I am after.

It’s what I call, philifesophy.

Who knew that Plato and Socrates would also become my homeboy(s)? And how the hell am I supposed to write a paper with an argument about Plato now without somehow attempting to ENGENDER a contradiction in action?!

Now more than ever I have an openness to not-knowing my position (and I have a deeper appreciation for what that means). I have a great sense of humility because there are so many things that I know I do not know. And I have more respect for those who help me learn how to put myself into question. My peers, my students, my philosopher-friends.

So, it seems to me, that the real reason why this semester has been so big and significant and incredible and challenging is because it has been a semester of integration. My philosophy has been informed by my life. My life has been shaped and influenced by my philosophy. It feels good. I feel open. I feel content with the groundlessness of it all and excited about the possibilities that this brings.

Now, as I turn back to my books and attempt to write this Plato paper and turn it in a for a grade in just a few days, I realize that there is a sense of gravity around bringing this semester to a close. With it’s submission I will officially be moving into a new phase of my program, a new phase of my career, and I will have time to appreciate that I am in a new place in my relationship.

I am deeply grateful for this semester–It has changed me. I feel like I am a different person now. And, more than that, I think I am a better person.

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