I was part of the distinguished stage party at Hanoi National University International School’s graduation celebration last month (in the foreground on the left, under the bust of Ho Chi Minh).
Yesterday wasÂ National Teachersâ€™ Day in Vietnam, a day on which Vietnamese college students return to their high schools & high school students to their elementary schools taking gifts to their former teachers. TheÂ night before last I was invited to a big party & singing competition at the International School of Hanoi National University. It was a lovely, typically Vietnamese affair, which is to say wonderfully welcoming & relentlessly cheerful. The International School is a success story during a difficult period for Vietnamese education.
The singing acts–all composed of students, faculty, or staff–varied in quality, from barely passable to semi-pro, & they went on for far too long. A lot of the songs advanced commonplace sentiments about the value of education & the importance of teachers, but by far the most popular combined such sentiments with a strongly patriotic, even martial, strain. This feels distinctly odd to liberal, Western ways of thinking about education, but it makes sense here given the strong Confucian & revolutionary / communist traditions of contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the choreography & musical arrangements retained a hint of the Soviet aesthetic.
The Confucianism of Confucius is, as David Hinton notes,1 quite different from the Confucianism of that philosophyâ€™s subsequent evolution:
The brand of Confucianism wielded throughout the centuries as powerâ€™s ideology of choice focused on select ideas involving selfless submission to authority: parental, political, masculine, historic, textual. And the â€œsacredâ€ Ritual dimensions of these hierarchical relationships only made them that much more oppressive. It is this aspect of the Confucian tradition that has become so problematic in modern times, for intellectuals came to recognize it as the force that was preventing . . .Â modernization.
At the same time, and much in evidence on Teacherâ€™s Day, were the Confucian virtues of filial piety & ritual. There was a great deal of sentimental celebration of teachers & parents–teachers being seen as auxiliary parents due virtually the same respect as oneâ€™s mother & father. The event, held in a hotel conference room, was in every sense a deployment of ritual, with many formulaic exchanges between teachers & administrators & between teachers & students. David Hinton, in his introduction to his translation of The Analects, writes:
It was in this context that Confucius extended the use of Ritual to include all the caring acts by which we fulfill our responsibilities to others in the community â€“ hence the entire weave of everyday social life takes on the numinous aspect of the sacred.
The ritual mode is clearly evident in Vietnam in a way that surprises Western visitors, if they notice it at all. This can be as simple as the way one hands an object like a key or the change from a purchase to another person–with both hands & a slight bow. It is one of the things that draws me back again & again, despite the fact that I find some of the actual, formal rituals–like the singing contest–hard to throw myself into with the complete abandon of the Vietnamese. Even the retired Rector of the International School was still going strong after three hours. Which is about when I slipped out. There were a couple of other Americans in attendance & it was clear that we were unable to make the leap into sincere participation. Some of this is language, but not all. All cultures make use of ritual, some more consciously than others. Americans have plenty of rituals, but we generally donâ€™t call them by that name and we do not cultivate them in the same way as the Vietnamese.
There are several people in my academic department who have been around the university more years than me, but I have the second most “seniority in rank,” an admittedly obscure academic concept that just means I’ve been a full professor longer than all but one of my colleagues, even though there are others who have been at the university more years. I mention this not to claim any sort of status, but as the context for the fact that I find myself much-consulted by younger colleagues & even (occasionally) deferred to by others. It’s the first time in my life, I think, that I have had this sort of role. I find it daunting, in fact. This was really brought home to me today when I was given the responsibility of chairing my department’s Tenure & Promotion Committee in a year when we will be conducting third-year reviews for three tenure-track colleagues.
The third-year pre-tenure review is a kind of temperature-taking that is designed to inform both the faculty member who is being reviewed & the department about the faculty member’s progress toward a successful tenure process three years down the road. It is in everyone’s interest to get the review right & to be a transparent as possible in setting out procedures & assumptions. Based on my earlier job of chairing a difficult search committee, I have a reputation for running transparent evaluation processes, which may be one of the reasons I got this job. I don’t mind, though it will mean a good deal of relatively boring clerical work (in which I have the good fortune to be assisted by the best department secretary I’ve ever encountered); another thing about being, institutionally at least, an old guy, is that you develop a grudging respect for the various institutional procedures. In my department, such procedures have operated most of the time more effectively than not, though there have been a couple of spectacular exceptions.
I spent the morning scheduling meetings & sending emails to arrange peer evaluations of classes, met with the committee, brought the chair of the department up to date, then went off to teach my classes. At an institution like mine, all of this other stuff is supposed to be about teaching those classes, bringing our knowledge & experience as scholars into the undergraduate classroom. That, finally, is why we go to the trouble to get the bureaucratic details right. It is east to forget this, especially when you have been around a long time & many processes have become routine, nearly invisible to conscious reflection.
The Clarkson semester began yesterday, though my classes start today.I’m back from six weeks in Hanoi & a week at Zen Mountain Monastery & now the rhythm of the year shifts into something that feels more like routine. The idea, of course, is to keep it from becoming merely routine. I know it is not true for all — or even most? — artists / writers who teach, but I find that teaching keeps me fresh, at least most of the time. (One can turn anything into a grind.) I have the good fortune to work in an institution that gives me nearly complete freedom in choosing what to teach & how to teach it, so, for instance, the theme for my first-year students this term is “Why Life Sucks.” We begin with Gilgamesh, Job & a couple of other old texts, them move on to the Modernists Kafka & T.S. Eliot & Melville before ending with Margaret Atwood’s post-modern, post-apocalyptic novel Oryx & Crake. A good time is insured for all, hijinks ensue & etc.
We’ve had a run of warm weather but it is beginning to look a little like fall. Some of the maple trees have begun changing color & just now when I looked up I saw out the window that the pines in the front yard are dropping their old needles. I can hear a bullfrog in the ditch across the road, a loon up on the pond . . .
The shadowy caricature lurking behind every designated Emersonian Poet-as-force-of-nature is the poet as local crank, missing out on history while re-inventing the wheel.
I’ve been meaning to say how much I enjoyed being a judge at the poetry slam sponsored by Spectrum at Clarkson with MC Rives. The quality of the poems varied considerably, but the quality of the spirit held up very well. At least until the end when some of the poets who had been eliminated chose to leave before the winners performed. Not a lot of class in that move, kids. What I noticed, also, was an almost universal tendency to go on too long. Several of the poets / performers presented pieces that made their point effectively in, say 90 seconds, but then felt compelled to go on for another minute with what almost always amounted to explanation, commentary, or mere repetition. Still, an enjoyable evening that we need to repeat.