You’ll never know whether you had any impact on your students or not. Because if & when they do appreciate you, it won’t be until years later, when they mature and begin to think back over their influences. And by then you’ll be long gone from their lives . . . or dead. – Ap Zylstra
I was not in my nearly 30 years in higher education a good professor. I rarely attended faculty meetings and had to be dragged kicking and screaming to graduation ceremonies. I was especially loathe to serve on committees. What colleges routinely expect from full-time instructors in the way of extracurricular “governance” activities was not in my DNA.
I gravitated toward teaching for two reasons. One, I was fascinated by cultural history and the so-called ‘Great Human Questions.’ Two, I coveted the luxury of 17-week’s vacation each year. At the ripe old age of 45 I completed a MLA in the Humanities and was immediately hired at a University in Michigan. Three years later I landed my ‘dream job’ at a two-year college in Naples, Florida.
Elsewhere (The Teaching Years: Selected Letters, 1984-1999) I have chronicled the ups and downs of my mid-life career change. Hair turning gray the night before standing up in front of my first class, barely finishing my notes at 3am for lectures to be delivered five hours later, not being able to hand out a syllabus/class schedule on the first day of class because I had not yet read the textbook and had no idea what material to assign from week-to-week. The stress was palpable and over the years played havoc with my blood pressure.
And yet, after only two years of teaching in Naples I was nominated for District-Wide Teacher of the Year. The following year I was nominated a second time. In spite of my fears and shortcomings, I was apparently doing something right.
Perhaps it had something to do with my obsession. I would wake up nights in a cold sweat wrestling in my mind with the relevance of humanities and the liberal arts. Students then and now no longer go to school for an education. With a snooty sense of entitlement they fork over tuition for a certificate they can peddle to an employer for a paycheck. A humanities class? Cultural values from long ago and far away? All that boring religion and philosophy and literature and art stuff? That my new chosen field of study was widely considered a waste of time was more than a slap in the face. It was a life-threatening invalidation of my raison d’être.
Mine was an existential compulsion in our newly emerging “post humanist” environment to drive moneychangers out of the Temple of Education*. And now and then I managed to save a lost soul or two. Student reviews were complimentary; some even wrote letters of praise to my superiors to place in my personnel file. Once a barefoot girl named Ruth stood up in class and shouted, “Hayes is God!” Okay, so maybe she was eventually institutionalized and given shock treatments but my reputation blossomed and students flocked to my classes.
[*President Trump just released a budget blueprint that calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities, along with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Department of Education’s International Education Programs, the Institute for Museums and Library Services, and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.]
A former blues musician returning to school in his late 20s, Timothy sat way in the back and never said a word. On the first in-class writing assignment he froze and when the final bell rang was still staring at a blank page. I relaxed my standards and encouraged him to take the assignment home and finish it at his leisure. Astonishingly, Tim trotted in the next day and handed me a remarkable 30-page paper entitled, “Science and the Concept of God.” That was the first of a treasure trove of essays Tim submitted as he cycled through a handful of my courses in humanities, philosophy, and art history.
“Why,” I asked a couple of years later in a letter of recommendation to the University of Colorado, “would I unequivocally recommend Tim to your institution? The quick answer is because there is a fire in his gut. The better answer is because his mission is a collective quest on behalf of all humankind. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that he has caught hold of and visibly manifests a notion that we teachers should remind ourselves of from time to time. Namely, that education is not facts, not grades, not degrees. Arts and ideas are the living artifacts of our cultural ground of being, and a liberal arts education is thus nothing less than the awakening of a soul to its rightful place in the ongoing human narrative.
Tim Lyons is a modern‑day pilgrim who instinctively understands these things. If in his quest he happens to stumble onto your campus, give him the keys to your library.”
I confess I was secretly proud of that letter, but nevertheless surprised to receive a few months later a humbling ‘thank-you’ from Tim that means more to me than any teaching award possibly could.
The fall semester of last year was the first semester of my return to school. In order to ease myself into the new situation (after 8 years away from tests, etc.), I took only two classes: Philosophy and Humanities. After registration and before class, I told my sister that I had the same professor for both classes. Well aware of the frail state my confidence was in, she was worried. She knew my impression of “what college is all about” would be defined in that first semester and that if my “bubble” were burst it might turn me away from the direction toward which I had committed myself. So much seemed contingent on this one professor. She was afraid I’d find myself lost again. I cannot tell you how fortunate (lucky, fated, blessed?) I feel to have had you as the professor in my first college classes.
During the first test, for instance, I was so nervous that at one point I seriously considered walking out of class and never stepping foot onto a college campus again. You may or may not recall, but I didn’t finish that test on time. I knew I had done the best I could but figured I had to accept the fact that it wasn’t good enough and maybe I wasn’t “cut out” for such things. Presumably, seeing how much I cared about the test (by the sweat on my forehead, etc.), you let me bring the second essay to you the next day. My confidence increased from that point on. I got an A+, and the comments you wrote were extremely encouraging. You were there, not to enforce a testing procedure, but to teach, and you had faith that I was there to learn. At the time you couldn’t have known how important that single test was to me. But it was in that one significant instant, my first test in 8 years, that you gave me the chance I needed to find a footing in my new direction ‑ in my new life. Of the things you’ve done for which I’m thankful, this was only the beginning.
Incidentally, during the second semester, I did have a professor in one of my non‑humanities courses that, had he been my first professor, might have made me think of college as a nightmare. But, because of the confidence I had gained in your classes, I nearly memorized the book and got 100’s on all his tests. I was usually the only one to get better than a C. People did poorly in his class, not because he was a difficult teacher, but because he was there to fulfill the hours written into a contract. He was not there to teach. You, on the other hand, would light fireworks in my head. Lecture after lecture, you would make connections between art, science, and philosophy that would put my mind in an electrical storm for the whole day ‑ week ‑ semester. Most, if not all, of these ideas are still raging around in there. Still, class would end, and everyone, myself included, would simply leave ‑ talking about the weekend or whatever. I was astonished at this. It seemed so unjust to me. Here you were giving this incredible lecture, and when it was over, we all just left, saying nothing more to you than “see ya’ later”. I was probably the most moved and therefore the most guilty. Aside from whatever rattle the torrential flight of my pen caused, I was silent. Off hand, I specifically remember the Medieval to Modern, Impressionism, and Cubism lectures, each of which left me ignited. Those lectures came across so lucid and well-structured it seemed to me they could be published. I would be so charged, (having been a musician) I literally and HONESTLY felt the absence of applause. Walking through the silence, I would leave class with ideas jolting through the whole of my existence. I would hardly say a word about it. I realize how exaggerated that sounds ‑ it isn’t ‑ that is EXACTLY how I felt.
Then after the semester was over, and your much-anticipated summer was beginning, you went well out of you way to photo copy almost 200 pages of literature for me. This shows, without question, your dedication and commitment to your vocation (hope you don’t mind that word). When I was well out of class, and even town, you continued to do what you so successfully do; you continued to teach. My family and myself were very moved by this (my mom and sister have both been teachers). I have not yet had the time to fully indulge myself in reading the stories and essays, but I hope to make the time soon.
I start school at University of Colorado at Denver this coming fall semester. I have little doubt that the letter of recommendation you wrote for me played a large part in making this possible. It was more potent and meaningful than anything I could ever have hoped for ‑ or even imagined. When I read it to my sister, she simply said, “That letter, in itself, is a work of art. It’s beautiful”. I agree. It was like poetry. I feel certain that it helped in my being accepted, but the letter is and will continue to be far more than something that helped me get into a college. I don’t know if I have ever been the recipient of such powerful, inspirational and tangible encouragement. Words can’t express what that letter means to me. No matter what happens in the future, I will keep a copy of it with me ‑ for the rest of my life.
In anticipating the years of school that lie ahead of me, I can hardly imagine encountering a more supportive, encouraging, comprehensible ‑ and most significantly ‑ dedicated professor. There is no way any “thank you letter” could express the appreciation I feel for the positive effect you have had on my life. The term “thank you” itself is entirely inadequate.
But it’s all I’ve got.
And that was the last I heard from Tim for over twenty years. On the one hand, the gist of the frontispiece quote by my major professor in graduate school, Ap Zylstra, is not entirely accurate. Sometimes we DO receive encouraging praise from our students. Nevertheless, time does indeed erase memories and sever connections as teacher and student inevitably go their separate ways. At least, that’s the way it used to be, before the Internet.
Imagine my delight to learn from googling Tim that he is now Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). That his initial humanities essay on “Science and the Concept of God” evolved into a British Journal for Philosophy of Science publication entitled Scientific Realism and the Stratagema de Divide et Impera. That he dedicated it, in part, to me.
“When I was in grad school…,” Tim emailed me recently, “I set my sights on publishing in the British Journal for Philosophy of Science. For my fellow grad students and I, that was our gold medal. A few years after starting my job, when I got news that the paper I had submitted to them would be published, I was so excited that I closed my office door and jumped up and down. (Looking back, it’s probably the publication that locked in tenure for me, and it remains my most frequently cited text.) I mention that to you and attach that text here for a couple of reasons. First, my initial exposure to Kepler and Newton was in your humanities class. And you’ll see in the paper that, when I finally got a chance to study their primary texts, I discovered some really exciting stuff as it bears on the debate in which I’m engaged, the scientific realism debate. Second, and more broadly now, it was during your lectures —and in working up that paper you mentioned— that I became enchanted with the central questions at issue in that debate. (Amusingly, perhaps, or at least to me, I’ve wholly left behind the concept of God stuff, but retained my fascination with the epistemic status of scientific theories.) Third, even more broadly, as I write this, I can’t resist saying something about the principles, or whatever they should be called, that I’ve tried to champion to whatever extent I can, and which allowed me to forge out my own position in the debate. When combined the principles amount to something along the lines of, embrace epistemic humility while insatiably seeking truth, or seek truth without claiming to possess it. Although it’s a continual struggle to live up to them, those principles are my fires; and it is no exaggeration to tell you that they were ignited within me in your classroom and while you were speaking to us. Fourth—and for these reasons—you’ll see your name in the acknowledgements of the BJPS paper, not that my including it did any justice to the gratitude I’ve felt for more than two decades! What I really want to say is that, in a number of very significant ways, that BJPS paper is yours.”
All-in-all not a bad life – ‘vocation,’ Tim would say – as seen looking downhill from my retirement years.
I was admittedly a green broke instructor who never accumulated a bunch of fancy degrees and awards like real professors do. But I stayed faithful to my self-imposed mandate to teach the few, not coddle the many. Along the way I quietly climbed Maslow’s hierarchy, and am humbled to have been able to ignite a fire or two.
To touch the future, who could ask for anything more?