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Letters to My Students

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Created: March 2, 2002
Latest Update: March 2, 2002

E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

Verstehen: I forgot to verstehen . . .

Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, February 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

Retirement is good. Finally, I am getting enough sleep. Two months away from Chancellor Reed's enforced labor of four classes and as many students as we can cram into the rooms, I am sleeping a little later every morning, and getting more of the lectures and definitions and conceptual linking written for you.

Oh, there's still not enough time. There never seems to be. I haven't got up the current issue's painting of the stork from Botswana eating the corn cricket. I love that bird. I'm not so turned on by the corn cricket, but, whatever. I'll paint it next. I just needed to write to you first.

These are the messages that I suspect matter the most. And I almost deep-sixed this whole file of letters yesterday.

I was trying to clean up the moot court page, clearing out what didn't work, so that it will be better for moot court in the Fall of 2002. I looked at the collection of letters to my students, and I had written one in the last couple of weeks. I had to get that stork painted. I had to get up the verstehen file. And, anyway, I didn't even seem to know what these letters were for. I couldn't categorize them neatly under a neat sub-discipline of sociology. Oh, shades of colonization. The academy as empire.

Even the name spoke of confusion and nostalgia, but for what? What was missing in the education I offer you that I so longed for, so wanted to bring back from that other time, when I was young, for you. I remembered my cat, a little black cat I had in college, in graduate school. Her sister cat was named Mademoiselle de la Champmesle. After one of Moliere's mistresses, as I recall. But I can't remember her name, the black cat, that is. She loved kittens. She just didn't like having them. As soon as her kittens were born, she'd split, and leave them for Champmesle to nurse, or to come and find her to nudge her back to her litter. Such confused role behavior for the fifties.

But this time, Champmesle was having the kittens. (I guess there were still homes for kittens in the fifties. Those memories escape me.) Champmesle, the "good" mother stayed to nurse her kittens. But as their eyes opened, and they grew a little steadier on their feet, the little black cat became interested. We found her one afternoon, in the study, a lizard in one paw, a kitten firmly controlled by the other.

"Here, see, lizard," she seemed to be saying as she pushed the little kitten close and pinned the lizard down firmly. She loosened her grip on the kitten, and it staggered back a little. Determined, she popped it back, right in front of the terrified lizard.

That cat was a born teacher. She didn't want to settle in to nurse her litter; we had to hunt her down for that. But as soon as they could stand on their little paws, she was ready to teach them to do the things she loved to do. And she was willing to include her sister cat's brood, too.

I thought of her this morning, as I rolled out of bed, suddenly knowing that I had to write this letter to you. Finally, I realize how much it cost me to be so tired. There wasn't time to linger over pleasant memories. I was so hurried I didn't even notice as they hurried by. I had time to think this morning . . . what was her name? that little black cat? no, her sister cat wasn't Mademoiselle de la Champmesle . . . Champmesle was probably one of their offspring . . . and he was a he, we had miscalled that at birth. He grew up shaped like a truck driver or a weight lifter, a little Sylvester Stalone, and we had named him after Moliere's mistress . . . oops! He had a delightful personality, Champmesle did. How could I have confused him with his mother cat? . . . oh, well, that's why we record data, and don't rely on memory . . . And I remember what happened to him . . . he wandered off a couple of blocks and went to live at the Chi Omega sorority house where he was treated like a celebrity. . . he loved it . . . and after a while, he never came home anymore. . . . sorority girls were much more fun . . . but he still visited with us whenever we passed by . . .

. . . interruptions. Pace, David. No time for editing, so just my notes to end this tale . . . .

Now, it's discretionary time that lets us smell the roses of memories like that. And that time to linger with our memories is what stirs up the old apperceptive mass so we can see our present lifeworld through different eyes, a different perspective. That happened to me this morning. I wakened, and didn't just jump out of bed to rush to get up an essay for class tomorrow. I took a few moments to wonder why I was having those memories. What roses had I missed?

verstehen, tyron was saying Bernstein. - I didn't have time to conceptually link that to our not teaching German anymore. to our not having the time to read the whole canon now that it's grown so - it was so easy to figure out that he was saying verstehen and then get onto discussing the concept that I never thought about what the pronunciation told me. that's the trouble with being in a hurry, with being tired. I miss things I ought to see. I miss the roses growing wild beside the railroad tracks. being a naturalist in an urban environment is hard - and it's not enough to visit nostalgically the old city parks.

And then this morning as I thought about those crazy kittens and their mixed up kitten-rearing from the fifties, I realized that I didn't verstehen. I had failed to see that the verstehen incident meant that there were whole worlds of learning that have disappeared from the academy. we don't even teach german. and, you know, through all of this, and through writing essays and topic indexes on verstehen, I don't think I ever remembered to tell you that it means "understanding." - we're moving too fast. I needed to retire - because I need not to miss these moments, these memories.

Like my funny little black cat of the fifties, I want to bring a priceless lizard to you, and pop you in front of it until you notice how exciting a lizard can be. No, you don't have to work at catching lizards. You don't have to learn german to understand verstehen. But I do need to take a moment now and then to realize how verstehen has disappeared from the new urban environment, and to rescue some of my memories of verstehen for you.

I need the time we spend together in my office. I need the rest, so I have the energy to dredge up my memories. And sometimes I just needs to sit and think, as our old poster suggested in the SSRC, and listen in good faith. I need these letters, even if I don't write regularly. Neither do you. And maybe I need to consider that neither of us has the discretionary time anymore to write. So sometimes we let it go.

I don't know what the ultimate pattern of our communication will look like, but I'll bet it won't be absolutely regular correspondence. No time for regular anything in the conflict of demands we face today.

But I won't deep-six the file of Letters to My Students. I need to now it's there, for when I remember my little black cat, and finally have a moment to conceptually link her to verstehen.

love and peace, jeanne