Academic Anchorite: Reflections of Faith in Language Education

Trevor C. Meyer


In my recent experience documenting my life during what would have been CCCC 2020, I found myself thinking back to the long history of this thing we call education. As a junior scholar heavily invested in rhetorical theory and the history of rhetoric, I try to keep in perspective the thousands of years that the word “rhetoric” has been around, even though it is ubiquitous to humanity. Especially this week, I found myself drawn to the monastic roots of contemporary higher education.

It’s well known that teachers at university, “professors” as some of us have the privilege to be called, have a profession rooted in theological seminary, even as the educational approach has been expanded to more secular aims. Remember that all the philological hermeneutics, ways of reading and interpreting texts, come from its practice in scripture. Most widely, we see these monastic roots in the fancy regalia some folks purchased when they took their doctorate, or commonly as I’ve found, the fancy regalia rented or passed around by colleagues when their turn to sit at the graduation ceremony comes around.

We wear the long robes with poufy sleeves, the descendent of the habit, and we wear the hood signifying our discipline and alma mater, like the stoles and cords that different orders use to distinguish themselves. But in this wearing of robe, hood, and tam, we also take up a mission of education inspired by and crafted by the work of helping people save their souls. 

It might be quaint and naïve in the 21st century, but I still think I have faith in language education. However, this faith has been challenged by the rampant cuts to education over my lifetime helping to not only defund a powerful tool of economic mobility and social equality, but to also destroy the image of that possibility as well. When higher education is mostly, or only, focused on economic preparation, and not on the production of “better humans,” understood holistically as not just workers, but citizens and living beings whose life justifies their existence, we have lost the mission.

I don’t call attention to our monastic roots in hopes of returning to some theologically-informed education, or even a theocratic one as we see in some religiously-oriented schools, but rather set up the situation as I have felt it during the week of and weeks since the canceled #4C20. 

Specifically, I have felt like an anchorite.

Anchorites, for those unfamiliar, were a type of faithful who closed themselves in a tomb of sorts, an anchorhold, to be dead to the material world and therefore focus on the life of the spirit. Often, these people were given funeral rites speaking about them to their visitors, and this “holy living death,” is also understood by some to be a “living sainthood.” With such a stark ascetic life, anchorites were an independent source of wisdom and understanding, exemplified by the lives they led.

While I do not share the cosmological and metaphysical beliefs that motivated anchorites, I share a similar investment in my own anchorage.

A story fit for application letters and commencement speeches, I’ve wanted to be a professor since I was a small child, before I really knew what that meant and long before I learned about the harsh, disheartening realities of the profession I devoted my youth to achieving. Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly had my fill of the “college experience,” but more than but a few of my friends and social acquaintances, I believed in higher education and the purported mission of fighting ignorance, providing knowledge, and encouraging wisdom. I was there to get a job, but not simply to get a job. 

In graduate school as well, I found others on the same path as me, but few of them seemed to believe as I did. As I got further into my degree, out of coursework and into the desert of ABD, I came to be challenged in my beliefs about what this thing is and what I wanted it to be. Problems of labor and power in graduate education are well documented; I have neither the time nor desire to rehash them here, nor do I have the ethos and stability to detail my own experiences. 

However, it is exemplified by feedback I received on a fellowship application, one in which I outlined myself as an educator invested in the work of democracy and human flourishing: 

“That’s sweet. It would be nice if what we did in the university actually mattered, but it really doesn’t,” they said with a somewhat sad smile from across their large, pristine oak desk in a corner office. 

What stands out in this moment for me the most, other than the damage wrought on the depths of my soul, is that they were indeed honestly helping me. Were it not for their advice, I’d likely not have gotten the fellowship. They were providing advice gained from their years of experience, years of success that got them behind that oak desk, and no doubt the oak desk as well. What they had lost, perhaps, is the faith in education. 

Coming into graduate school believing in education, I left it a bit broken, perhaps wiser, but fully credentialed and gainfully employed. Having achieved my dream at a time when getting any job out of school would be a challenge, I would call myself blessed. 

“Blessed” not in the sense of Christian grace or Buddhist enlightenment, but perhaps in the sense of Aristotle’s eudaimonia, often translated as “happiness.” What “happiness” misses is the work it takes; for Aristotle it is not a static condition, but an active process. Most literally, eudaimonia means having a “good” (eu-) “personal deity” (daimon, which were thought to be intermediaries between mortals and Olympian gods). Socrates’s call to ask questions comes from his daimon, at least as Plato writes it. For Aristotle, it seems, the daimon helps those who help themselves. 

Furthermore, I have no doubt that my privilege as a cishet white man has contributed to my success, as those with different identities, whether color, sex/sexuality/gender, language, etc. would have had a harder time getting where I am, being where I have been. 

As a teacher, I foreground this positionality whenever I can, and I center the questions of power and privilege in all my courses to hope to achieve what Asao Inoue called for in his CCCC Chair’s address in 2019, “How Do We Language So People Stop Killing Each Other, Or What Do We Do About White Language Supremacy?” Teaching in a majority white, small rural town, I’ve already seen the important work to be done in this regard and the potent challenges I face in challenging the implicit attitudes built into American Society, whatever that is. 

But my mission was cut short this academic year by the pandemic, exacerbating the already challenging work of education, and furthering the divide between my students who had and my students who had not. Even at a school dedicated to providing online education materials and laptops to all students, the digital divide was apparent, as were the different relations my students had to the work of school. Those in it for the “job” quickly did the minimum to pass, while many others stuck it through to the end. 

I would also note that none of the students who communicated their challenges and frustrations with the online migration were the ones who “took the C” and moved on. Those that I had worried would give up stuck through to the end. 

It was an odd semester: I was never more disappointed and more proud at the same time.

It was missing this normalcy, both balm and bane, that dominated my reflections over the week. The only normalcy outside of the few synchronous classes I scheduled, out of respect for students’ time and emotional labor, was that my office hours, on Zoom, were empty. In the future, I wonder how this time will fill, or be filled, depending on the choices made by administrators high above me, who probably have oak desks too. 

More so than normalcy, I missed the normal break from normalcy that the conference provides. 

Although I’m somewhat of an outlier from the bulk of the 4Cs crowd, my interests being what they are, I have always found my experiences to be challenging, fulfilling, and energizing. When we break from our own home schools and our chosen home towns to come together, I always start to believe again. If this many people can come together and do this much good work, I would document to myself, then this thing we do, this practice of higher education is something I can have faith in. Whether it’s new or different sources, approaches to assignments and assessment, or professional connections, I return from a conference reinvigorated to zealously pursue this life path I have chosen and walked so long for (as it seems to me, from my few decades on the planet). 

With this break from normal and the break from the normal break from normal, I felt contained and constrained–my already-taxed faith suffering from a frustrated desire to be reinvigorated. Certainly, this has much to do with the social isolation orders (which I have followed as best I can, even while most of my neighbors have not, or have actively flaunted their disregard for them) and the loss of my campus office, but I even felt constrained by the lived space in which I wrote my reflections. 

In my documentation, I noted an increasing frustration over the week with the small enclosure of my studio apartment. Having moved to my current position only a couple years previous, the first job out of graduate school, this studio apartment was the best I could achieve with my money and time. I have student loans and credit card debt to pay, the cost of achieving my dream. I live alone. My apartment doesn’t allow pets. My houseplants don’t cuddle well. That is my anchorhold.

Even though mine is certainly more luxurious than other accommodations, I often found myself envious of the imagined environs of other Documentarians: homes with multiple rooms, filled with chaotic children, happy dogs and annoyed cats, and loved ones to help share the burdens of daily life in a strange and difficult time. I also pondered how they were handling things, whether teaching or “real life,” for those for whom those things  are different, and when I learned how some were dealing, I was disheartened. 

The popular Facebook group “Pandemic Pedagogy” began as a source of solidarity and helpful resources for teachers trying to work through the shift to online teaching, but by the time I was writing my reflections, it had changed. 

When someone might post something about their approach or plan, it would be received negatively much more than positively. When someone posted about holding synchronous classes, they were critiqued for trying to take over time when it’s needed elsewhere. When someone posted about asynchronous approaches, they were critiqued for lacking rigor or said to be not even doing their job. 

Throughout most of these contentious posts, I didn’t see teachers trying to help each other do the best they could for their students, I saw people invested in being “right,” showing off and shouting down, proving themselves to be smarter, wiser, better, and even kinder than those they criticized. While Facebook comments are well known for being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, I had expected better of my fellow teachers. It seemed to me that they had lost their faith.

If they had indeed lost their faith in education, I think I understand. 

It’s hard to stay faithful when the society around us tells teachers that we matter, but then slashes the education budget again. When “teacher” is mocked as a second-rate profession, even as posts from parents thanking teachers for their work made the social media rounds. When students are immersed in a society that values wealth above values, a precarious economy in which I get mine only by keeping you from getting yours, and we ask those students to think about meaning, connection, and language, our distance from the reality is made laughably clear to them, usually with a smirk or a sigh. Some do hear me, but I can never be sure. 

I too struggle with my faith in education, a faith running on fumes without my annual fill-up of teacherly energy and professional engagement. A faith that was challenged by the ease with which we were told: “you can just do it online, right?” A demand so deeply inattentive to the complex rhetorical, material, and emotional work that goes into teaching. We teachers know the importance of the settings around us, and I would say that each class, each course, and each student is a radically singular entity that is best attended to as such, however practicably impossible that may be. That we are able to do as well as to do well, if indeed we are doing well at all, is as impressive as it is disheartening. 

We were told to teach without classrooms. We were ripped from the places and spaces that helped make us what we were. We were anchorites without holds. 

I found myself afloat in a messy, experiential singularity without differentiation: I woke up and went to bed in the same few hundred square feet. I could feel my computer looking at me from across the room as I slept. I remembered to “go to work,” and rehearse the routine of coffee, shower, clothes– more a performance to myself than anything. But the lack of normalcy was made even more present as I tried to work against it. My attempts at self-care seemed like a fruitless routine, a hollow ritual for its own sake. 

Add on a canceled conference. 

Add on my expectations of what the profession would hold for me. 

Add on how as soon as I had gotten to where I had worked for so long to get, it was closed due to pandemic.

Add on the feeling I’ve had of scrambling to the top of an ivory tower even as it crumbled beneath me. 

Even as I became the thing I wanted to be, which is not what I thought it would be, I began to worry about what possible future there is for us at all–from an incompetent Education Secretary, down to governors cutting budgets, and administrators trying to do the best they can to keep donors, workers, students, and parents as happy as they can. 

Now, with uncertainty about whether any given school might exist next year, let alone who might be hired or paid what they deserve, I feel the doom of coming changes, both necessary and not. Like anchorite entering their cells, I feel a call to funeralize language education as it moves to a stage of living death. But this is not the death of education, only of the realities before the plague.

The death of the anchorite entering their holds is a birth of a new life focused on new aims.

At the risk of sounding naïve, I still have faith in education. Remember, this is not a faith of anything outside human experience; that way does not lead to learning.

Mine is a faith in words, a faith in the work, a faith that I hold for myself as I think ahead to the uncertain future that will meet me in August and in the year to follow–faith that I will be alive to see these words in print, not in the ground or on a ventilator, there to have someone ask me: “hey, didn’t you write that one thing?” 

Mine is a faith in our history. Even though Cicero was murdered and mutilated in the scarily reminiscent shift from Roman Republic to Empire, centuries later, Quintilian, working as a provincial under the despot Trajan dynasty, kept the faith in language education alive. Even if he didn’t live in a time that allowed for the public decrying of abuses of power, Quintilian’s work lives on and still speaks to me now. The work of rhetoric and the work of language education persists.

Through the “Dark Ages,” and into a “Rebirth” that motivated not only massive progress in technology and thought, but also fed Eurocentric genocidal imperialism, the work of words remained.

Here, now, today, we still have work to do, and I have faith in that work. From each of our own little anchorholds, we teachers and scholars have committed ourselves, however faithfully or cynically, to a mission of clearing ignorance, bolstering skills, and providing opportunities for students to not learn how to read, write, research, format, etc., but to learn themselves and the world too. 

To paraphrase Derrida’s Of Grammatology, the question of language is not simply one question among others. What we ask, what we answer, what we push and pull from the work of our students’s words is not simply another class on a list of requirements. Even though, it really is. 

The work of words is there throughout all of everything. Language is the force that holds together and the will to break apart. Language is a means of maintaining order and for breaking down structures of oppression. Language is a means of silencing and voicing, speaking out and talking down. 

Language is dangerous, especially to those in power (and language is the way they keep power, too.) 

Yes, words alone cannot do this; living in a better world takes time, effort, space, and money, but without words, time, effort, space, and money all fall away.

It’s easy to feel powerless, as I often do, when all I have is a heightened attention to scratch marks made up some millennia ago. When I ask students to read and write, not a simple rote, but as the complex, difficult and messy processes they actually are, and they seem to find it silly, strange, or drastically unimportant because they’re an “X” major, and they won’t have to write all that much, right?

From the perspective of my anchorhold, with my windows into the world and my Windows into the World (Wide Web), I see much work to do. I no longer have faith that I can change the world, at least not in the way that I thought. I have faith in the work of language education, and I have faith in those who commit to this work. I especially have faith in those doing more and better than I do, often with fewer resources, less support, and lacking the consequential amount of privilege I was born into. 

That’s the thing about teaching: in other arts/science/crafts, there’s a more immediate sense of accomplishment. I envy the landscapers who can be done with the wall they were building outside my office. I envy the mathematician who can complete their equation, the scientist who can complete their experiment, and the engineer and the architect who can finish their building. I envy the novelist, the poet, and the critic who can be done with their novel, poem, or critique. 

I cannot know whether I have done my job, not fully and not like these others. I can see the student have that lightbulb moment in class, but I can’t know that the one sitting across the room won’t have that moment until years from now. I can’t know that they’ll remember my work in that realization, or remember me at all, and I can’t even know if they’ll ever even get there. 

I suppose, education is always an act of faith, as faith is a root of education. I don’t teach my students scripture, but I help them write their own script. I don’t worry for my students’ immortal souls, but I caution them about the ethics and values they employ, and what those might mean. I don’t teach obedience to an Almighty, but I too teach them that in the beginning, as in the middle and the end, there is the work of words.

In the end, I still have my faith in this work of teaching people how to language better, faith in my ability to work in my own small ways to help others learn and grow, and continue learning and growing in their future lives as workers, citizens, parents, friends, even future teachers. Because sometimes, stuck in a studio apartment pining for the thrill of a conference or even just the dull mundanity of planning-teaching-grading, I feel like an anchorite, and faith is all I have. 

But that faith, faith in education is what brings us out from our cells, sects, and seminaries, is what allows for each anchorite in their hold, or each teacher in the classroom when we get back there, to do more and be more than they are in themselves. In the work of language education, we tap into something fundamental, something human, and something that ties us to our students and colleagues, both crumbled to dust and across the world. This faith in language is what leads me from the far reaches of antiquity, to my here and now, and out into all the futures yet to be imagined. 


Author's Reflection

"Dead Faith & Reborn Love"

Looking back, I can see the growth I’ve had as a writer, a teacher, and a human being this last year. But growth is not always pretty or positive. Part of me had to die last year, and not the metaphysical “holy living death” of the anchorite, but a part of this complex flux of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions that makes me “me.” 

Altogether, the most massive loss of life we’ve seen in a century, mostly wrought by incompetence, ignorance, and stupidity, required me to shorten my circle of care to those I actually care about. Part of me that had love for others had to die to help me learn to love myself, but such is the way of things: to change is to partly die and partly be reborn. 

It’s been a rebirth of a love of teaching; I had more students this last year of “hybrid teaching,” say they felt “more confident,” and while that might be ill-earned confidence by some elitist standard, that confidence to do and continue to do, to practice and improve, is the best I can hope for, and this little precious result, this confidence, is what I will aim for in all future classes. 

It’s also been a death of a work ethic; there was so much that I thought and felt students needed to know, do, and have, and yet I had been struggling to get them to where I thought they should be. 

The harder I tried and the more I did, the less it mattered and the worse the students responded. 

So, I gave up. But it’s been a healthy giving up. 

I gave up my grand notions to focus instead on particular problems. No more centuries-arching narratives about some dead people and dead ideas all turned to dust. 

I gave up my unrealistic standards for myself and my students, unfair as they were to both.

I had to stop loving the academy because it won’t love me back, but I can keep teaching from a place of love and help my students as best I can. I cannot invest in the greater good of humankind, because I need to invest in particular people here.

I’ve stopped believing in faith, which I don’t think I ever really believed anyway, but instead I learned to believe in myself and my students, and even the work, as little as it matters in either the smallest or grandest scheme, whether these words rot in some forgotten folder or be unearthed a century from now. 

Sometimes teaching can make that small difference, and maybe leave a trace of something better than what came before, which is all writing is in the end anyway: just marks, traces of something and someone elsewhere and otherwise. 

I would go back and tell myself all these things, but I would not hear it until I wrote it myself, until that part of me had to die, be reborn.