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Location: TUCSON, Arizona, United States

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


“I always go to sea as a sailor,” Melville (1819-1892) has his character Ishmael say, as his ship Pequod sets out toward its fatal encounter with Moby Dick. Melville uses this line to set up a joke about how men aboard ship do not observe the sixth rule of Pythagoras: “Abstain from beans.”

I want to use it, however, to compare sailing and teaching. Melville was 21 when he signed aboard the whaler Acushnet, about the same age as Thoreau (1817-1862) when he asked permission to use a small parcel of Emerson’s and on the shore of Walden Pond to build himself a cottage. The men were both of an age, that is, close to that of my college students—and to ourselves at the time we have gathered here recollect—young and just setting out on their lives.

I use the verb deliberately: It’s not by chance that “course” describes both a plotted route and a study plan. Each day—each class or course—is open to possibility and invention, however much I’ve prepared, planned, and practiced…

I chanced one day to see an ad in the Stanford Magazine: a letter inquiring whether any alum might be interested serving as crew aboard a 45foot ketch, to sail from Toulon to Kotor. I wrote to the address, and a few months later stepped off the TGV from Paris to meet Alan Logan. The other crew member was a French psychiatrist named Phillipe.

Sailing depends upon the wind. The best wind runs before storms. So sailing affords intense moments, like trying alongside Phillipe to maintain my footing on the cabin sole at night, in a 30knot gale, halfway across the Gulf of Taranto, struggling to reef sections of mainsail, the wind tearing at the canvas, slippery with driving rain.

Sounds a lot more dramatic than opening the door to my classroom in the morning, but that’s only because the actions are different. The risks are the same.

They’re also the ones we ourselves faced as 20-year-olds undertaking to navigate lives and careers. There are few experiences more demanding—requiring both courage and preparation—than addressing an audience at that age, at least some of their minds open and inquisitive.

There’s a cynical description of college teaching as “the act of casting artificial pearls before real swine.” I reject that.

Consider the fact that Thoreau built himself a tiny house just a few miles from his hometown of Concord. Then he wrote about the adventures in thought he undertook each day, as full of incident as any Melville reported from his ocean voyage. For after all what we have from each of them is a story, undertaken finally in imagination rather than in fact. If any part of my life has been worthwhile, it will have been those thoughts I offered to my students…


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