Hugh MacLeod over at gapingvoid has set out the following rule for his life:
Seek out the exceptional minds, avoid everyone else… I am interested in the exceptional mind. I am utterly uninterested in the non-exceptional mind… I will spend the rest of my professional life working with visionaries. I know who they are, they know who they are.
Now, on the one hand, it seems like more of the typical CEO-worshipping, chest-thumping, neo-Social Darwinst, self-congratulatory BS we’ve come to expect in our economy. But!
On the other hand, my father’s told me the same thing, more or less: find the person in your field who is the best and bind yourself to that person. Seek out excellence at every turn, becuase it will rub off on you. Mediocrity will rub off on you too.
Of course, I never take my father’s advice.
The real reason I decided to write about this is because of the conversation that ensued. I was thinking that, as a teacher, I don’t really have the option of turning my back on the unexceptional — that would make me a total failure at my job, career, and vocation. There I am, thinking this, when I come across a comment (CTRL-F, “Nia”) saying:
I am/want to be a teacher. I’m going to be the one making exceptional minds, or at least directing minds towards the fields where they’ll be exceptional.
Yes, I thought to myself (as I generally do). But how?
I’m on the cusp of a new semester — classes start Monday. Every semester I imagine myself striding purposefully into class, setting down my bag, unpacking my books and syllabi and notes and water bottle and other crap with great deliberation, and proceeding to open young minds to the wonders and beauties — and horrors and brutalities, which are wondrous and awesome in their own right — of the world of culture within which they are all suspended. Then I get there. And… for the most part, excellence does not occur. Yes, I’m a newbie at this — this will be my second year, my fourth semester, teaching — and I actually think I’m pretty good at it, but by 3/4 through the semester I’m just pleased if I get papers that aren’t plagiarised, ecstatic if someone makes a comment or asks a question in class. At some point, it becomes “work” — often rewarding work, but work just the same.
I have excuses. I’m teaching community college, and the students are (for the most part) not the super-students who go on to prestigious universities but the “second rank”, the bright but not exceptional who have managed to satisfy the requirements of the system without breaking a mental sweat. They are poorly prepared for college-level work. My class (Anth 101, Intro to Cultural Anthropology) meets a social science requirement, so most of my students are there not because of any particular interest in anthropology, but because it sounds more interesting then Econ or easier than Soc. They’re young and undisciplined; they’re working adults and unmotivated.
My excuses are all lies.
The real issue is that, so far, I’ve not hit upon the way to induce excellence, to draw it forth and capture it in my classrooms. I’ve modeled myself after my own best professors — and judging by my evaluations and by the growth I see over the course of the class, to more or less good effect — but maybe their way is not my way?
So, I ask a question of whoever might be visiting this site and reading this post: how do we inspire excellence in others? How do we build that feedback loop, where the excellence around us draws forth our own best selves, which in turn pushes our intelocutors to even greater heights? I’m sure it can’t just be a matter of “be excellent all the time and those around you will be inspired”. We are not solitary creatures, but instead are enmeshed in networks of sociality, and are shaped by them at the same time we shape them back. Especially for teachers and other leaders, how do we urge our students towards excellence and away from mediocrity? Because ultimately, that’s my job — not to teach them who Franz Boas was or the difference between structuralism, functionalism, and structural functionalism, but to teach them to be excellent.
I’d really be interested in seeing how other people work through this problem, this challenge.