Friday, May 23, 2008

The touch that heals

Historians tell us that the tradition of Touching for the King's Evil fell out of favor in the 1700s, but a similar tradition continues in academe, where the king's touch has been replaced by the provost's gaze.

Of course we don't believe that the touch of the sovereign's hand can cure what ails us, but the desire to be touched by a powerful person lives on in modern life. Attend a high school football game in small-town Ohio and note how all the children line up, stretch out their hands, and fight for the privilege of being touched by the players as they take the field. Politicians know the power of touch to make voters feel exalted, and fans fight for eye contact from a celebrity, whose mere gaze is powerful enough to validate the fan's existence.

We like to think that we in academe are above all this sort of superstition, but I'm not convinced. For the past three years I've served on a committee charged with organizing pedagogy workshops and other events designed to enrich professors' teaching skills, and while many faculty members attend these events because they sincerely desire to share ideas and learn from their colleagues, others use a very simple criterion to determine which events to attend: "Will the provost be there?"

The question may indicate a certain level of respect for the provost, particularly if the provost is actually presiding or presenting material at the workshop; however, that's not often the case. Usually the question indicates not a desire to learn from the provost or benefit from the provost's expertise but a simple desire to be seen by the provost--in particular, to be seen attending a pedagogy workshop, to be perceived as a faculty member dedicated to continuous improvement.

Thus it is not the provost's mind or will or thought that draws participation; rather, it is the provost's gaze, a gaze believed to have the power to deliver the untenured faculty member into the wholeness and security of tenure. A gaze that can motivate exhausted faculty members to attend pedagogy workshops during summer break--there is no greater power in academe. Neither outside experts nor local talent nor hands-on workshops nor free tote bags can attract the attention aroused by the gaze of the provost.

So why waste the time, effort, and money to plan meaningful workshops? From now on, let's just line up the faculty on the mall and let the provost pass by and gaze briefly into each set of eyes. "I see you," she will say. If this simple ceremony does not transform our campus into a center for innovative teaching excellence, then at least it ought to cut down on the incidence of scrofula.

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