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Magical Thinking

Tell Me a Story

The Alchemy of Teaching Jeremiah Conway’s The Alchemy of Teaching: The Transformation of Lives was released by Sentient Publications. He lives in Portland, Maine, and is an award-winning professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Maine.

What inspired this book?

My book didn’t emerge from any set plan. It grew, instead, from observations about the personal changes of students in my classes. The stories emerged as memory devices—tools for responding to that insistent voice that accompanies certain experiences: “don’t forget this.” As stories accumulated, I realized they crystallized around a guiding conviction that what drives many people into teaching is the chance to affect and alter lives.

Another prod for writing was the realization that educational literature frequently neglects this dimension of teaching. It gets buried under comprehensive plans, organizational restructuring, and curriculum reform, or is studied from such an abstract level that the messy, often riveting actuality of human change is lost.

Why the title?

Jerry Conway Image Alchemy is an ancient tradition that sought to take ordinary metals and, by subjecting them to various processes, transform them into precious ones. Something analogous, I think, occurs in education, whereby we take up the ordinary substance of our lives and through processes of question and listening, conversation and shared examination, make possible that rare and precious thing—the growth of human awareness.

Please talk about storytelling as a teaching tool.

For me, stories are essential in teaching. They are attentive to the specific circumstances and conditions of lived experience. They affect us on multiple levels—perceptually, intellectually, imaginatively, and emotionally. They tug on our dream life; they get under our skins. But their pedagogical importance goes beyond this: While recalling us to the personal, they do so in a mediated fashion. In reading well-crafted stories, students know they are studying a life, not an abstraction, yet there remains some distance from their own lives (no matter how close the stories strike). Of course, there is much more to teaching than storytelling—argument, theory, interpretation, and dialogue all have their place, too. But, for me, stories are irreplaceable. They figure centrally in all of my courses, as my book makes clear.

How do teaching and philosophy ideally interact?

Philosophy isn’t a set of doctrines or an abstract set of general beliefs. It is an activity—wherein one pursues meaningful life possibilities through the careful questioning and examining of basic assumptions. Nietzsche described philosophy as involvement with life’s extraordinary questions, and he didn’t mean the most esoteric inquiries, but the most basic, the ones we ordinarily overlook and avoid. Of course, the pursuit of such questions may occur in solitude. But I think the most opportune context for philosophy is, as Socrates realized, the place of engaged conversation. My philosophical nirvana is a place of genuine dialogue, which approximates my vision of the perfect classroom.

Have you ever lost faith in teaching/learning?

Sure. There have been times when I wondered whether I was making much, if any, difference, times when I wasn’t connecting with my students, when I felt old and out of place. But, to date, I haven’t given up the struggle. Faith isn’t something fixed and permanent. It’s something one fights and sacrifices for, sometimes in fear and trembling. Teaching spurs are won through trial and error, experiment, and considerable failure.

How does writing help you in your work?

Writing is a chance to learn what one has to say and, in paying attention to one’s words, to discover what one has to think, not simply in the sense of identifying one’s assumptions, but in showing the incredible gaps within and among one’s thoughts. These spaces are cause for humility and grounds for future growth. In writing this book, I came to a deeper understanding of how I teach and what I teach for. Writing makes possible a way forward.

What’s next?

Over the past year, I have been increasingly occupied with the topic of friendship. I’m particularly interested in the effects of current technology and the explosion of social media on human relationships, especially friendship. We’ll see where the writing takes me.

Jeremiah Conway

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