Professor Faust, in Goethe’s 19th century rendition of the Faust legend, is in his university office contemplating suicide. While an earlier story by Christopher Marlowe had Faust wishing for ultimate knowledge, Goethe’s professor believes he already has all the knowledge he will ever need and yet is unfulfilled. He sees his teaching and learning as empty and futile. He says, “But the consequence is, my mirth’s all gone. No longer can I fool myself I’m able to teach anyone how to be better, love true worth.” Faust is having not only a teaching crisis but also a basic human identity crisis—what is sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome.
All the life and cheer has gone out of life for Faust. He counts his learning for nothing.
He decides he will kill himself by drinking poison, ironically from a cup that had once been used for family celebrations. In this sad contemplation, Faust is interrupted by his servant, and the two of them eventually go out of the study for a walk. Once out of the office, Faust sees life happening—people walking and laughing, and enjoying one another’s company. He breathes air, hears music, and gets a temporary stay of execution.
Having taught this text many times, I am often reminded of days that I have doubted my teaching, and there are times in my office that I would rather be outside enjoying nature and other people. Sometimes in the midst of grading papers I will opt for a stroll across campus, and I am nearly always surprised at how the shortest walk around the grounds or to the library and back clears my head and lifts my spirits. Wallace Stevens once wrote, “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake,” and Wordsworth famously said, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” My experience tells me these writers knew what they were talking about.
However, research about walking in nature is now confirming, at a scientific level, what the poets knew long ago. A recent book, The Nature Fix, by Florence Williams notes that Wordsworth is believed to have walked about 180,000 miles in his lifetime, much of it mentally composing poetry, and author Florence Williams posits that he “intuited the neuroscience in both psychology and cognition.” As an English professor, I love it when science finally catches up to poetry.
So, what are the implications for us in the “ivory tower” or for teachers in concrete buildings everywhere, some of whom are in classrooms without windows? I certainly hope none of us is contemplating drinking poison, family goblet or not. But, if most of us are honest with ourselves, we find our spirits lagging from time to time. Some may even feel a bit resentful come springtime when the students are playing Frisbee or soccer outside as teachers look wistfully out the classroom window, dutifully checking the commas in the Works Cited pages of the stacks of research papers—not something to feed the soul, but important just the same.
Maybe at least sometimes the Rx we need is to take a break and go outside for a short walk. I added a “walking office hour” to my schedule so I can walk with a student to help him or her figure out some career goals or just get to know them better. I have walked often with a colleague, and in brisk weather the effect of alertness is better than caffeine to prepare for the long afternoon class. I keep a pair of walking shoes under my desk, and when the doldrums descend upon me, I go outside, take a walk, and begin afresh. Just seeing the green in nature, revives me, even if it is patch of moss in winter. I think of the lines Dylan Thomas writes of, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” and believe it will drive my life also, in teaching and in living. Or, as Wordsworth has said,
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Teachers of students of all ages struggle with wanting to give their best teaching to their students, but we have to know that without the daily refreshment that comes from giving ourselves a break, we can’t be our best. Part of the answer is in just getting out of the classroom or office long enough to renew ourselves, and for those of us who can get out in nature a few minutes a day, even better.
Written by Kathy Dillion, an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Harding University in Arkansas. Dillion works with teacher candidates to prepare them for teaching careers.
Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English