Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

This is not a post about teaching, but teaching is what I do and what I know best, and this post is about thinking about what we do.

People often wonder if I find it frustrating to be a university instructor. I teach topics that students resist a lot – in Women’s Studies, I teach with an explicitly political edge, challenging students to face up to the realities of social and economic injustices; in anthropology, I have to bring students to see the value of practices that they find disgusting or blasphemous (or both). While I have my share, maybe even more than my share, of students who really “get it”, I also have a good number of students who resist me at every turn, who are personally affronted by nearly every thing I say.

“Don’t you sometimes feel like you’re wasting your time?” people ask me. “Doesn’t it feel futile when they don’t change at all?”

The answer is that no, I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. Not in the least. Granted, it can be frustrating in the heat of the moment. Students often look to their professors for truths that we simply can’t give – what we can give are outlines of various theories and arguments and help lead our students to understand their ramifications. And in the absence of hard, fast truths, some students just shut down, and it’s a real bear to re-engage them.

But for the most part, even the most resistant student doesn’t discourage me. A couple years ago I had a student who expressed his resentment of every single thing I taught by reading a paper in class. It was, of course, intended as an insult, but I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I consider that one of my highest successes.

Wait, what? How can a student ignoring me be a success? Simple: I take a longer view than 16 weeks (the length of a semester).

Everyone knows about the Butterfly Effect, right? The idea is that in a interconnected chaotic system, like the global environment, small events can turn into big consequences. A butterfly flapping its wings in China might whip up the tiniest of atmospheric disturbances which, as it interacts with the forces in the environment, is magnified and intensified until it sets off a massive hurricane in the Caribbean.

Teaching is like that. We set off butterflies in the mind, whose wing-flaps have little effect today and tomorrow but which, somewhere down the line, might blossom into a full-blown mental hurricane – a brainstorm, if you will.

(A professor I knew in grad school preferred a somewhat more military metaphor: mind-bombs. We plant landmines, in the hopes that someday our students will stumble across them and *BOOM!* I find the image of explosions in my students heads a little overly graphic for my own taste; butterflies are, I think, a little less objectionable.)

In the long view, I don’t have to be convincing. I don’t even have to be right (though I like to think I am more often than I’m not). Being convincing, being right – these are beside the point. The real outcome of the work I do day in and day out will come months, years, even decades down the road, and I won’t be around to see it. My job, as I see it, is simply to cultivate butterflies – to lay out a set of facts, theories, and ideas and make sure my students know what they are. The ones that resist, the ones that are so deeply offended, they’ll have their whole lives to think about this stuff, to argue with it, to reason out why it doesn’t apply to them or to the people around them.

In case you’re thinking that I can take this fuzzy-headed view towards my work because I teach in the fuzzy-headed liberal arts, think again. I was an engineering major lo these many years ago, and while my professors may not have realized it, they too took the long view. The professor of fluid dynamics doesn’t stop to ask whether her student will be building missiles or wheelchairs, machine guns or microsurgical instruments, she just teaches the physics. She, too, is cultivating butterflies.

Here comes the point: we are all cultivating butterflies. To some extent, everything we do has the potential to set off a chain reaction that results in something HUGE months, years, decades in the future. And most of the time, we don’t have any idea, can’t have any idea, what that butterfly moment is or what it will result in.

What we can know is that we’re doing it. That the work we do today isn’t just about today, that it doesn’t have to be finished, closed-off, polished and perfected and done. That it’s ok to leave things open-ended, to let them unfold like a butterfly’s wings as she emerges from her cocoon, to let them surprise us with their iridescent beauty – or disappoint us with their moth’s-wing drabness.

Far from frustrating me, the part that’s out of my control is what makes it possible for me to do the job in front of me. If I had to “convert” all my students, I couldn’t do it. It’s the uncertainty of what they’ll do with what I can teach them, even the ones that hate me and hate the material and hate the class – it’s that uncertainty that makes it possible to teach at all. What about you? How do you cultivate butterflies – or plant mines – in your job? Or in your life?

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