for Alex Perry
I’d been sitting across the desk from him for what seemed an eternity. He was hunched over my paper commenting on every one of the dozens of red notations he had written there. We were still on the first page. Jonathan Smith, “You describe Dwight L. Moody as ‘infamous’. Do you have any idea what that word means (not waiting for me to answer)? You should never every use that word to describe such a figure as Moody.” Why didn’t I just get up and leave? I had slid down in my seat to the point I was about to fall onto the floor … well this was perhaps more the description of my self-esteem than my physical body.
It had all started just a little over a week before. I’d conferred with another professor in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago where I was a new student. How I got there is another story, but needless to say, with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a graduate degree in business administration and only one religion course on my transcript, this was not a place where I felt at home. I was a floundering homeless academic living under an overpass, a high speed highway travelled by my classmates who all had graduate degrees in religion or history or language. This professor had asked me if I’d yet worked with Professor Smith. Learning that I had not he directed me, seemed a command actually, to contact Professor Smith to arrange to work with him.
Dutiful and responsible if nothing else in this graduate program, I mustered my courage and made an appointment to meet with him. When I walked into his office he seemed barely to notice me, but eventually asked my business. I told him that I had been referred to him by another professor and I was there because of that. “Hmmm,” he said looking at me quizzically, “so why would you be the sort of person I’d want to work with?” Oh wooo! I had no answer whatsoever for that question. I can’t even remember what I did, but it surely was little more than to stand there with a dumb look on my face. Finally, he said, “Well okay then. Write me a paper and leave it next week.” I muttered some sort of agreement and left.
I don’t know why I chose to write on Dwight L. Moody and late nineteenth early twentieth century revivalism, but that’s what I choose. I’m guessing the paper was 12 to 15 pages long. I dropped it off the next week and made an appointment to meet with Smith in a couple days to get his response.
That response was, as I have described, nothing short of a bludgeoning. I felt humiliated and stupid and grilled and belittled and hammered and embarrassed … just to begin the list of my feelings. However, I sat there and listened and took notes and tried to keep from crying. Certainly in this fog of emotions I was experiencing there were some thoughts of what I might do with my life given this state of failure. Yet, then a voice, Smith’s voice, that now seemed so very faint and far away somehow penetrated my awareness. As he stood up extending me the paper he said, “Not a bad paper really. Revise it and have it back here next week.”
As I found my way outside of his office I experienced the strangest sequence of changes and awakenings. Did he just say, “Not a bad paper?” Did he just ask me to revise it and get it back to him? Surely this means that he hasn’t sent me away for good, drummed me out. He wants a revision! Oh my god, it wasn’t that bad! As I walked along it suddenly dawned on me that I had just had my first real learning experience. This man thought enough of my work to take it deadly serious down to my every choice of words. It mattered to him what I wrote and mattered in the greatest detail.
It was a moment of awakening and transformation. To have someone take my work seriously enough to give it the full measure of criticism in service to my learning, my education, was something I’d never experienced before in this way. It was my first true learning experience and I knew that from that day forward I would take myself as seriously as had Smith. He had somehow seen something in me I hadn’t seen in myself and that isn’t the way it should be. Not only did this experience set the course of my education, it set the course of my career as an educator.