Doing Hard Things 2015-02-11

It is almost time to give students enrolled in my Spring 2015 classes their first midterm. It's almost always a shocking experience for most. I write challenging tests. I recently told students that reading BYU Biology Professor Steven Peck's A Short Stay in Hell is a helpful thing to do in preparation. I'm mostly joking about that. But it is a worthwhile read, though I'm still trying to figure it out myself.

There usually comes a time during each course that I read the following poem to my students. It is my favorite and I think nicely expresses my teaching philosophy, which is simply: do hard things! Take challenging classes. Get your butt kicked! Only by doing so will you get the knowledge and skills that truly matter. Learning should be challenging and fun.

Now for the poem:

The Man Watching by Rainer Maria Rilke

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler's sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.