Jim Farrell As Teacher
Reflections from St. Olaf Faculty
At the start of the 2013–14 academic year at St. Olaf, faculty were mindful of the loss of our friend and colleague Jim Farrell, who died the previous summer. We considered the immense significance for the college of Jim’s teaching philosophy and practices. We mourned the loss of a great role model and mentor. We mourned that the college had lost an exemplar of a particular understanding of the academy’s work.
So we collected – from colleagues who knew, taught with, or admired Jim – brief reflections about his teaching: short reports of how Jim’s manner, matter, and practice influenced us and the college for the good. As a collection, these reports offer satisfying personal remembrance, fitting tribute, and good service to the colleagues and students Jim loved and served so well.
Philosophy, Environmental Studies, Paracollege
Three memories of Jim as professor. First, no one I know has ever come close to Jim’s patience and ability to ask a question and to wait in silence until a student responds. I was not surprised when one student told me Jim went 20 minutes waiting for a response. Second, on too many occasions to recall, Jim would work with, assist, and engage at length with students regardless of whether the students were enrolled in his courses. For many years, this stood out to me as the high water mark we should all aspire to. Third, I recall Jim running on campus. And every time I saw him run, I thought he is running from one great meeting with students and the time got away from him, and he is now running toward another meeting and he does not want to be late.
W. Bruce Benson
College Pastor, emeritus
I admired Jim Farrell. It is difficult, maybe even unwise, to distill the many reasons down to one meta-reason, but I’m going to try. Faithfulness. I admired the unswerving, unwavering, undiluted faithfulness of his humanity. Jim didn’t teach well because he wanted to be noted for it, he taught well – amazingly well – because he was faithful. Faithful to his students, his subject, and the larger world. He wasn’t creative and imaginative because he thought being so was cool, but because his imagination was fired by faithfulness. He wanted to be faithful to life, truth, knowledge, community. Faithfulness pushed him to imagine better, more honest ways of living and understanding. He wasn’t on the cutting edge of social and ethical issues because he was a thrill seeker or an attention grabber, but because that’s where faithfulness to justice and the spirit of God compelled him to be. Even his gentleness – it did not come from timidity or a need to be liked, it came from his faithfulness to the dignity of others, his recognition that we all bear the image of God. Thanks be to God for Jim Farrell.
Chemistry and Environmental Studies
I’d like to make an offering, some brief thoughts about Jim, a teacher, mentor, colleague, friend, writer, author and lover of all nature, especially human-nature. This is not the human nature we typically think about when those words are uttered, but the connectivity between human cultures and the rest of Creation. Jim frequently reminded us that we are nature, we are gifts – to nature and to each other, and we are engaged in the continuing, evolving human-nature enterprise as stewards of God’s Creation.
I recall the first time the Sustainability Task Force read, in full draft form, the principles we had been talking about, principles that came to life in words Jim penned to paper. Here is an excerpt about energy. “Environmentally speaking, a college campus is a place for converting natural energy to human thoughtfulness. It’s a place where people employ natural resources to refine and transmit the intellectual and artistic resources we call culture. Like all other colleges and universities, St. Olaf College is an organic machine, where nature’s energy is shaped by nature’s human energy, and vice versa. We think of a campus as a place, a location, a space – and it is. But more importantly, it’s a relationship, where human designs intersect with nature’s designs in food and water, heat and electricity, cars and computers, lawns and gardens and natural lands. A campus is one way of making love to nature – or of making war on it. It’s a way of caring for the Creation. A campus is, like it or not, an ecological design.” All of us were astounded by the conversational character of the writing, the relationship centered core of the story, and the imagery it conjured. It provided the group and campus with fuel to keep doing good work, no matter the obstacles.
This pursuit of good work is framed by what I call ‘embracing the cycles’ or the ‘gift of the persistently possible,’ a gift Jim consistently doled out. Rather than lament about a particular situation or become mired in despair and anger, the Daniel Quinn novel Ishmael and the words story and opportunity soon would pop up in discussions with Jim. The narrator says, “They failed because you can’t just stop being in a story, you have to have another story to be in.” A given story might come to a close, yet another takes its place. The challenge is to rise up and recognize the new opportunity, the opportunity to use your gifts and talents to work with others who feel as passionately as you do to unfold the next story. This is jumping from the downcycle into the upcycle which can, at times, feel like you are actually in the spin cycle! Jim consistently encouraged all to step into their next story and to do so with gusto, whether it was students attempting to start an on-campus organic farm, a department trying to develop a revised curriculum, or a friend struggling to make sense of a life-changing event.
Just how does one step into the next story? In the liberal arts sense, we do it with thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness embodied and expressed by people in the careful way they think and in how they care about other people and places. This kind of thinking and doing is hard work and certainly has its upcycles and downcycles. In parallel we do this as a spiritual journey or leap of faith. Our stories are deeply interconnected – making a tangled web of beauty reflective of God at work in the world. As the earth spins on its axis, meandering through space and time, may we have the courage to embrace our upcycles and downcycles to spin through life and see the gifts of the possible, in each other, in St. Olaf and in Creation. Thanks Jim, for encouraging all to see and practice a different kind of human-nature.
As a phenomenal teacher and thoughtful writer, Professor Farrell had the reputation for changing people’s lives. When I first met this giant of a man, I expected to be impressed. I waited for him to offer a brilliant critique of consumer culture or deliver one of his famous witticisms. Instead he leaned over and asked me what I thought.
English and American Conversations
One of my favorite stories that Jim Farrell liked to tell was that when giving a final exam, he would sometimes simply ask students, “What did you learn in this class?” In modern pedagogy, we spend a lot of time thinking about “assessing student learning,” but Jim believed that the best way to assess their learning was to ask them directly. I think this story tells us a lot about Jim as a teacher. First, it exemplifies the aspect of Jim’s educational philosophy that wanted to keep the simplest and most fundamental things in plain sight. Teachers usually know what they’re sending out to their students, but not as much about what students are taking in. And rather than ask roundabout questions to determine what students learned, Jim said, why not just ask them to articulate it? This gets to the second aspect of his teaching philosophy that is so important to remember: students need to “own” their educational development – they should be conscious about what is happening to them as they’re learning. Students should be expected to articulate what they believe to be the most important ideas or issues they encounter, and they should be reminded that that is their job as college students: to figure out what they’re learning – or more precisely, to figure out what they most care about when they’re learning. I admit that I’ve never put Jim’s question on any of my own final exams, but thanks to my experience teaching with and being mentored by Jim when I was starting out, I’ve never forgotten that my job is to help students to answer this most basic question of all: “what are you learning”?
English and Paracollege
When we were both new to St. Olaf – I was in my first year, Jim in his second – Jim and I taught together on a number of occasions, on an equal number of subjects. Subjects, typically, only one of us knew anything about. With regard to our “pedagogies” (I didn’t have a pedagogy then, or ever; Jim was developing his), we couldn’t have been more mismatched. Jim’s way of teaching was, to my mind, bizarre. For one, when he was not silent, which was most of the time, he was studiously inaudible – speaking quietly with one hand entirely covering his mouth. He practiced this perverse method, however, in such a way as too grab and hold a class’s attention, to a degree I, with all my capering loonishness, could never attain. He had this, to me, absolutely appalling way of asking a question (his questions could never be answered quickly or simply) and then waiting, as long as it took to come out, for the answer. He never rushed in to end the silence, never answered his own questions, never paraphrased his questions or, once he’d posed them, dumbed them down. All mainstay maneuvers in my ill-considered repertoire. Jim was a teacher for the long haul. You needed to be his student, or his teaching partner, for a semester, or a number of semesters, to appreciate just how good he was. And it wouldn’t be Jim you’d be watching, but his students. I happily number myself among them.
Jim would gladly teach and gladly learn. He was curious about everything. He was an obsessive note-taker, never without a stack of 3×5 cards in his breast pocket. He was a great researcher, greater at getting other people to do his research for him. He was a very funny man – more of a punster than a joke-teller – preferring, again to me incomprehensible, to laugh at other people’s jokes than to perpetrate his own. He was a curious blend of real ambition and real humility. He would have made a formidable politician, at any level. The only thing that made some meetings bearable for me, when I could bring myself to attend them, was waiting for Jim, who generally held fire for most of the proceedings, to offer his summary remark, which somehow managed to incorporate all the disparate ideas on the table and transform them into a coherent, elegant, eminently practicable whole.
Whatever Jim’s pedagogy, whatever his academic skills, for me he was, more importantly, in the classroom and out, exemplary. He modeled decency and kindness, compassion and integrity. He was measured and thoughtful. He was a bit goofy looking on the basketball court, though he could really play, but he was graceful, in behavior and bearing, everywhere else. He seemed always at peace. Assuredly he had anger and anxiety in him, but I never saw him angry or anxious. He was a loving, steadfast husband and father, a devout and unassuming Christian. And he was a dear friend. My life is much the better for having known him.
Economics and Environmental Studies
As an economist, I focus on the world as it is.
Jim taught me to look at the world as it could be.
For this, I will always be grateful.
L. DeAne Lagerquist
Religion, Paracollege, American Conversations
Remembering Jim is both a pleasure and in some ways difficult, not only emotionally. Since my arrival at St. Olaf in 1988 Jim has been a constant, always nearby, steady, and with a ready, wise insight. His presence was so pervasive and I relied upon it so much, but it is more difficult than I would have expected to isolate moments.
First I met Jim in the context of the Paracollege and, most memorably for me, at Paradinners. Each week he would stand up to feed us a factoid. These were odd little bits of information, wrenched from their natural context, and used as a lens on much more. They were akin to the dense facts to which Jim introduced so many of us, faculty and students alike. They also displayed his agility of mind that saw the unexpected connection and was ready to play with words until they revealed more than most of us suspected was there.
When I became Senior Tutor my responsibility was to keep things going. I had able help from Katherine Baker and Susan Carlson. From Jim I had inspiration. Our offices were next-door to each other. Just a few steps brought me into his whimsy. Just a few steps away was a reminder of why we were doing what we were doing. A hedge against the temptation to be too prescriptive or to take the system too seriously. Certainly that is one of the messages conveyed by the Dr. Seuss hat. Yes, what we are doing is important, but maybe so important that we should be able to laugh about.
Then there was the context of the Paracollege being ‘defunded.’ Those were not easy days and weeks and two years. Jim helped us all stay focused on the learning, and not just what we were learning from the closing. Sure he was angry and convinced that the decision was wrong, but he was not distracted from the central task: the delight of learning. The speaker’s series we organized, “Some Things I Learned in the Paracollege,” was probably his idea. Certainly the ideas it articulated included many we could attribute to him.
And, even as we prepared for that ending, Jim was among those who took initiative to develop American Conversations. The dense fact approach and the bold interdisciplinary character of the program reflect his way of teaching, learning, being in the world. I taught with him in AmCon twice: once the third, early 20th century course and once the introductory one. How such a tall man, who knew so much, could take up so little room and draw out such insight from students amazed me. I wish I could say that I figured out the magic. I did not, but I hope that I caught a little of it.
Here are two ingredients: Jim loved to learn and was always engaged in it. Even when delivering something like a lecture, he managed to convey the dynamic of learning and to include his listeners in it. Jim trusted his students, and his colleagues. He expected that we would enter into the project with him, bringing as much passion and conviction and desire as he did.
Finally, because it is last on the list and because it is the way I last communicated with Jim, he brought both those characteristics to collegial enterprises: faculty meetings, writing St. Olaf 2000, collaborating on Claiming Our Callings. He was the primary author of St. Olaf 2000. Perhaps writing about the college’s mission should have been intimidating for an Irish Catholic. It did not seem so for Jim. Because he embraced the mission and was eager to do it justice, because he was humble and willing to learn, what he wrote was fresh, inviting, and accurate. Along the way he encouraged us to point out what was “clever but stupid.” My last exchanges with Jim were about the Afterword we wrote for Claiming Our Callings. I was nervous about it, worried about how we’d mange the voice since his is distinctive and mine is mine. He was confident that we could. Readers will judge for themselves. What I hope is that the readers of that piece and the students I teach in years to come will hear from me something of Jim’s delight in learning, passion for the world, and trust that they share both for the good of all.
Theater and American Conversations
He was generous with his help; wise and humble; incisive and self-effacing. It was never about him, always about you. Without preaching he helped us to think about the lives we were living. Jim possessed great humor and it was a joy to make him laugh. He never used his humor to humiliate. He loved teaching and he made his students his friends and taught me to do so as well. The unique relationship he had with me he had with everyone else who sought contact with him. It was not about you, it was about him.
Religion and Asian Studies
My first memory of meeting Jim Farrell was also the most important to me. When I first arrived at St. Olaf in 1982, the college community was still centered around the male faculty and their wives. When I was invited to tea by the Faculty Wives Club, I found it gracious but confusing for a new female faculty person. The old Division of History, Philosophy and Religion had evening gatherings for which the faculty wives baked coordinating desserts and poured coffee and tea. When it came to be my turn (or my spouse’s turn?), I was dreading the event as one more experience of being the ultimate outsider. But Jim also volunteered for that Division gathering and overturned the gender roles. He had some recipe for an unbaked pie which we put together right before the meeting. And he poured the tea. And he smiled. This may seem like a small thing, but the wisdom and compassion with which he related to me was so powerful during a time when I often felt isolated as an outsider. I saw that same wisdom and compassion again and again as Jim worked with colleagues and students. I suspect that Jim was a closet Bodhisattva.
Fine Art and Paracollege
Irreverence is a critical component of learning and living. It is not just a vehicle used to express displeasure. It is an invaluable tool that promotes the careful examination of that which we do revere insuring that the revered is not corrupted. Jim knew this and used the irreverence tool masterfully.
History and American Studies
Jim was a prolific scholar, but, not a particularly orthodox one, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knew him. The book of his that I think best reveals his unique scholarly vision is The Spirit of the Sixties, which traces the intellectual evolution of figures who helped shape 1960s activism. Jim was, after all, of a generation that came of age in the midst of Sixties social turmoil. Yet those whose stories he chronicled each came at their activism from moral, spiritual, or religious perspectives that grounded their social agendas. They did not make revolution for the hell of it, as 1960s activist Abbie Hoffman once described it, but experienced what Jim called “revolutions of the heart” that moved them to serve their communities.
Jim’s own revolution of the heart led to his distinctively moral historical voice, scholarship whose point was not just to inform us about the past, but spark revolutions in our hearts as well. Part of Jim’s approach to scholarship was the conviction that no one should work alone; that it was only in community with others that ideas became fully formed. Many of us here tonight have benefited from the care with which he read our papers or our chapters and the insights he offered us about our own work. Jim was very ecumenical in this task, devoting equal energy to a student’s work and a colleague’s because, to him, they were equally valuable.
Another part of Jim’s “revolution of the heart” was the realization that traditional teaching didn’t really reach students at the level he desired. Intellectual growth, he believed, like scholarship, emerged holistically from one’s values and in community with others. When Jim began teaching at Olaf, the lecture was the norm, so he joined the Paracollege, where small-group tutorials replaced the structured classroom as the dominant mode of faculty-student interaction. After the Paracollege ended, his small-group independent studies continued, communities that begat other communities semester after semester. Instead of textbooks, Jim used dense facts, objects of complex significance that revealed history in quirky ways, like Model T Fords or Nike sneakers. He didn’t like to be tied down to the physical classroom either. Instead, he sent his students out to look at buildings, to play whiffle golf or walk around while they discussed, even to curate an American Studies museum full of everyday objects.
Jim taught his students to, in Adrienne Rich’s wonderful phrase, claim their educations, and they did so by co-teaching with him, running their own seminars when he was too ill to come to class, contributing to Moodle forums and, after the semester ended, continuing the conversation on e-mail. Jim believed that students already had the analytic skills necessary to make sense of their worlds; they just needed to practice, as he put it, “more care and acuity” doing what came naturally. Students rightly lapped it up, calling the result Jim Farrell Studies as they followed him from class to class. Like ripples on a pond, those students brought elements of Jim Farrell studies to the rest of us, whether it was signs telling us about the waste of plastic spoons in the Cage or the expectations his students carried into the rest of their classes.
I’m really going to miss those signs in the Cage, by the way, because, if I may dense-fact them for a second, that Jim-voice was there both in their gentle, under-stated moral nudges and their whimsy. Jim once told me that editors just didn’t get his fondness for puns and other forms of wordplay; but any memory of Jim must recognize the centrality of humor to his endeavors. He never took himself too seriously; hence we remember him in part with silly hats.
These days it often feels like the outside world judges us and we too-often judge ourselves by how busy we are or how many hoops we can jump through before we are considered complete. Jim’s work as a scholar and a teacher suggests that we can – and should – do so much more for each other, nurturing each other’s spirits, bringing forth each other’s intellectual gifts, living in community, and yet never forgetting to find pleasure along the way.
English and Paracollege
For the last two months we have been celebrating everything that Jim was to us at St. Olaf College – a great colleague, mentor, teacher, and friend. A colleague who from his early teaching in the Paracollege to his recent work on the Environmental Conversations left his mark everywhere on campus. But he also left his mark forever in our hearts. He was Jim Farrell, our irreplaceable teacher, mentor, colleague and friend. He was also Jim – just Jim – someone we loved.
Religion and Paracollege
Thinking about Jim I always think of the “excellence” of our college – a complicated, delicate thing. We celebrate programs, organizations, and individuals that are excellent by any measure. We embrace familiar criteria and excel by those.
And there is another source of our excellence. Something that sets us apart from many colleges. We have always embraced a certain venturesomeness – a risk taking that plays joyful games with traditions and standards – that explores the good in unexpected and dangerous places – that questions conventions with loving irony.
Jim was a master/mentor and role model for us all in this respect. Sure, he exemplified ordinary excellence, with his patient fact-checking, his reasonableness, his clear and sympathetic discourse. But never forget his impish love of transgressions and subversions. His deft puns that exposed hidden assumptions and asked us to question them. His patient exploration of “dense facts” to reveal deep truth about everyday life.
For two decades he was a guiding spirit of our St. Olaf Paracollege, which kept a cautious community flirting with danger. And since the Paracollege closed, Jim continuously invented new arrangements of subject matters, new configurations of teachers and students, new integrations of library-learning and lived-learning, new mergers of the personal and the political. He taught us not to invest too much in familiar conventions, but to have fun with them and press on them until they give up the bubbling life of the world beneath.
We should never forget what Jim embodied: that our St. Olaf excellence is a delicate balance of the customary and the subversive. Like a solemn procession of the faculty in academic garb, with one crazy-quilted top-hat bobbing along in the middle. If you see that sort of hat again, you will know it is a tribute to Jim and to the excellence we cherish.
Jim was called to be a teacher. As much as he laughed and lampooned, he knew the life of a professor to be utterly serious: a place where the future of students and the future of communities and the future of the planet come together. A matter so serious we better be able to risk laughs as we learn.
He taught students, not subjects. In a classroom – or on a lawn or in his office – he figured out the life and questions and prospects of each individual he met. He never delivered subject matter in the abstract. He subordinated his learning to the growth of each particular student. He helped them chart a way towards the projects that compelled them.
And he taught students in the midst of the real demands raised by their concrete lives and concrete challenges – personal and intellectual. He helped them to find themselves; to know themselves in specific places; to know their own cultures in the midst of this living, finite, straining world.
He urged his community to see the implicit meanings of our habits and decisions. He invited us to acknowledge “the moral ecology of everyday life.” He invited us to teach and learn as if the future of the planet depended on it.
His absence may be palpable; his presence is no less palpable. And we can to live up to the example of his presence. A presence where he’s quipping, with a voice that urges lovingly and hopes confidently, something like this:
“If God had wanted us to live sustainably, She would have given us brains.”
Biology, Environmental Studies, Curator of Natural Lands
I didn’t have the opportunity to really work with Jim until recently. When I became Curator of Natural Lands in 2009 he invited me to lead a tour of the Natural Lands for his Campus Ecology class each spring. We would meet either by the Big Pond or, this past spring, by the pond in the Regents Building parking lot. At our starting point I talked about the history of the Natural Lands and then we walked through Norway Valley and/or around Big Pond (also known as Bakko Pond – a suggestion by Jim to honor the first Curator of Natural Lands, Gene Bakko). Jim promoted the kind of teaching you can do on a walk outside. You talk for a little while, and then give students a chance to ask questions and actually see the things you are talking about. We looked at the spring ephemeral flowers in the forest understory, the bluebird houses, the effects or prairie burning, and talked about the value of natural habitat restoration. Jim would often add a little something in his low-key manner to fill out the story or the explanation. Jim viewed the Natural Lands as an opportunity for students to learn about nature and as each student in his class picked a spot outside to observe over the course of the semester they developed a sense of place and a connection with the land.
I saw Jim as a scholar by working with him on the book of essays on vocation, entitled ”Claiming Our Callings”, edited by DeAne Lagerquist and Kaethe Schwehn, in press with Oxford University Press. About 12 faculty contributed chapters and we would meet in smaller groups to make suggestions about each other’s work. Jim’s philosophy that we can all be better by working together became evident as we made suggestions to improve each other’s chapters. To me he said something like, I know that you know the writings of Wendell Berry, but we want to make sure that our readers make that connection by referring to him directly.
Also within the last year I remember attending a dinner for faculty thinking about retirement options. Jim was there and he said he wasn’t ready to retire because the students he was working with just kept getting better and better and he clearly loved working with them. I will teach a new course on sustainable agriculture this spring and had corresponded by email with Jim about it this past summer. He worked with a student to co-teach campus ecology and I plan to do something similar with the agriculture course next spring. Jim and I were planning to get together to talk about it when he felt better. I will be especially thinking of Jim this spring as I develop the agriculture course. I already have a student who has agreed to work with me and we will carry on his tradition as best we can. He left us when he was at the top of his teaching profession, empowering students to lead and guiding them along the way.
Sociology and Anthropology
When I arrived at St. Olaf as a student 31 years ago, my older sister urged me to take a course with Dr. Farrell, as he was known then. I trusted her judgment and registered for a freshman history seminar called “The Gray Nineties,” which focused on the experience of the United States in the 1890s. Everything about the course was odd, odd, odd. None of us could initially figure out why we were concentrating our intellectual energy on an obscure decade in American history. The professor had a long syllabus full of bad puns, and he made sarcastic comments about academia (one that stuck with me was his claim that PhD programs are endurance contests more than measures of intellect). There was no sign of a textbook or anything to orient us historically. We read obscure novels (The Damnation of Theron Ware, of course) and curious historical ephemera, including a purple mimeograph of an archaic bicycling manual. Dr. Farrell had us sit around a table with him and discuss these strange things, while he enjoyed teasing the students from Chicago and telling us stories about his wife (such nuggets as “if you want to pursue something foolish like history, be certain to marry a lawyer first”). Our assignments included writing an introduction to a book that never existed, and another had us plot the geographic progression of world’s fairs in the U.S. We studied period advertisements and poetry and learned the history of sheet music. I was entranced. Like my sister, I took as many courses with Dr. Farrell as I could.
I came to learn that the secret sauce in Dr. Farrell’s teaching was not the curious subject matter but rather the trust he had in students. He showed us that academic knowledge was something open to explore, rather than something fixed for us to swallow. When I returned from a semester studying in Thailand, for example, I was full of questions and confusion. I did a Paracollege tutorial with Dr. Farrell on the Vietnam War. He told me to write my own syllabus for the course and come up with my own assignments for our meetings. The most important lesson Dr. Farrell revealed to me in that tutorial was that I was in charge of my education. All human beings have inquiring minds, he would say, and to exercise that capacity we just need diligence and confidence. When I got to graduate school a few years later, two of my professors had students design the syllabus for their course. Some of my fellow students were a bit flustered, but my experience with Dr. Farrell made the assignment feel natural. He had taught me how to teach myself, and therefore I had gotten a great liberal arts gift: I had learned how to learn.
After many years of twists and turns, I returned to St. Olaf. Dr. Farrell and I had fallen out of touch, but for me not out of mind. I vividly recall walking by the Theater building on an August day in 2001 with my sunglasses on, when I saw that distinctive tall figure approaching on the sidewalk. I raised my sunglasses and said “Dr. Farrell?” He laughed his generous laugh and that was the last time I ever called him by that name.
Working as Jim’s colleague meant I was able to study his example of how to inhabit the role of professor. Jim was a master of the academic meeting. Though he was a highly respected faculty member, he never dominated discussions. He was an excellent listener who could take in what his colleagues said and distill it into something helpful. In doing so Jim was beautifully subversive without being cynical. As a Lilly vocational fellow he helped us figure out how to articulate a sense of vocation that seemed fresh and vital. Jim didn’t mind dissent, either. In the last meetings I ever went to with him, in May of this year, I was feeling cranky about sustainability and made that known. Later that evening I was feeling sheepish (a common pattern) and I emailed him and apologized for being a grumpy anthropologist. He replied that there was a role in the world for grumpy anthropologists and that he was glad I was one. For someone who was involved in so many things over his 36 years at St. Olaf, it is difficult to think of a single enemy Jim made on our campus.
It is not surprising therefore that Jim taught me the limits of complaining. College professors can complain with an eloquence matched by few other professions – I certainly take pride in my ranting skills. Yet when I would seek Jim’s advice on the administration’s latest mistake, he would patiently listen and then move us on to what we could in fact do about the situation. That was Jim’s way. When he grew interested in environmental issues he didn’t lament that there was a dearth of sustainability education at St. Olaf; he worked patiently with students, faculty, and staff to help build an amazingly comprehensive program in environmental studies. Jim’s intellectual interests delved into the study of bad news: death, nuclear weapons, hyperconsumerism, and climate change. But his spiritual energy was all tied up in hope and possibility. It’s no surprise that even in his last days, weakened by cancer, Jim carried a plate spilling over with projects and ideas.
We talked a lot about teaching, too. When I was in a jam I would climb the stairs to his office and if he was free we would head off to the natural lands. One semester when it seemed like none of my classes were working, he patiently listened and then remarked how one of his own courses that term felt like a flop. I thought that if Jim Farrell can have a course go awkwardly that maybe it is ok if some of mine don’t work so well. I learned many things on those long walks. One of the important things was just how to have a good conversation. Jim and I drove once together to the Peace Prize Forum in Moorhead. Over the hours we discussed how to cook for our wives, the sublime delights of fast food (shhh!!!), growing up, growing old, raising kids, and everything else you would imagine talking about on a long car ride with Jim Farrell. When we approached Minneapolis on our return I remarked how much I enjoyed our conversations and he explained to me that a car was a good arrangement for male conversation. He said it was important to sit next to each other, not across from each other. We can open up better sideways, he said. That’s why those walks with Jim were always so effective.
We talked for many years about teaching a class together but it never seemed to work out. Then Jim’s health convinced me that we needed to make it happen sooner rather than later. In the spring of 2012 we put together a plan to teach two different fall semester courses in the same room at the same time. Mine was an existing So/An course called “Global Interdependence” and he created a new American Studies course called “Global Exchanges.” The idea was that I would teach about cultural flows outside the United States and he would teach about those inside the U.S., with the students then charged with figuring out the connections between them. I picked some of my favorite books (among them Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, Charles Piot’s Remotely Global) and he picked some of his (among them Thomas Scott King’s The Truth About Stories, Mary Catherine Bateson’s Peripheral Visions). We apportioned these into alternating weeks, set up appropriate Moodle forums, and then let the class unfold.
It was a revelation to be back in Jim’s classroom. I was there as a student, a professor, and also as an anthropologist. I was able to see Jim’s method, up close, from those different perspectives. I quickly was reminded that to call what he did in the classroom a “method” or a “technique” was to misunderstand his professing. He became an excellent teacher not by having methods as much as by having well-integrated beliefs. He had belief in his students, for example. He had faith that they would learn. So in the first days of class he shared this: We were to be equals in the classroom, all of us teaching and learning together. There was to be very little evaluation. Participants in the course, faculty and students alike, were invited to give what they had to each other. You can imagine how all this sounds to students who have grown up in intensely hierarchical classrooms in an age of high stakes testing. I too had my doubts and thought, “will this work?”
Jim made it work. The primary assignment for students was to develop a reflective journal about their experience in the class. Jim encouraged students to write about the readings, of course, but also encouraged them to write about their politics, their religious faith, their off-campus work, their majors, and their life after graduation. The fact that the readings tied so well into all of those aspects of student experience made broad thinking flow naturally. The other key assignment was for students to engage on Moodle. To make that happen, Jim also engaged on Moodle. He responded to questions and posed questions of his own. The Moodle forums were uneven but productively uneven. Jim liked to have the journals intersect with Moodle, and one of his favorite journal comments was “you should post this on Moodle.” Not many people did post private journal thoughts on Moodle, but I think his comments gave students confidence that their ideas were worth sharing. And share they did, in all different kinds of class discussion. Jim liked different types of small groups to go with our large, awkward circle of 35 students. But I think his favorite was when I was up front and he would sit with them, his tall frame squeezed into a small Holland Hall desk, just another member of a group generating ideas.
I learned much from Jim’s capacity to motivate students. He was not stingy with praise, and his kind words provided great energy to the class. His genuine affection for college students made his compliments seem entirely natural. He also wasn’t afraid to offer students his opinions. He asked them to share about their lives and thus felt it wasn’t fair for him not to share his own experience in return. He talked about cancer, briefly, but more about his politics, his youth, his writing and his family. I remember him once offering a denunciation of Republican environmental policy (or more precisely the lack thereof) and I recall thinking that he was being rather blunt. Jim trusted that his students would trust him on such matters, and they did. I was pleased that some of the more conservative members of the class felt quite open sharing their contrary ideas in their journals. Jim also trusted that students would do the best that they could. We had a couple of students who did not do much work, which of course distressed me. When I mentioned this to Jim, he said that he had noted it too. He challenged the students who were flagging to exert themselves a little more. But it would be fair to say he wasn’t that worried about whether they did or not. Instead, he was far more interested in the majority of students who were working diligently. The brilliance of Jim’s faith was his ability to get so many students to go far beyond the parameters of the class. We had some journals that were extraordinarily full of sparkling engagement, with the frequent comment “why can’t more classes be like this?”
There are a lot of reasons why more classes can’t be like Jim’s. Jim liked to teach in the thick of student interest. That’s why he taught American Studies, sustainability and environmental issues, and his beloved Campus Ecology course. Jim’s teaching asked students to think deeply about their personal experience, which is a highly valuable aim. But many college courses are about things distant from student experience, and the faculty challenge is to encourage students to think deeply about those things, too. Jim’s teaching was also embodied teaching, that is it came from Jim’s being. Jim’s character was patient, hopeful, caring and his teaching was too. I wish I shared more of those qualities, but all professors enter the classroom as who they are, which is an authentic way to profess to students.
Jim was also who he was because of when he lived. Given the disciplines that he taught, Jim would no doubt lament my inattention to the historical context of his teaching. Jim came of age in the late 1960s, and the cultural ferment of that period left such a mark he wrote a book about it. For him the 1960s were not so much a time of revolt and revolution as they were a spirit of change and a questioning of hierarchy. Though Jim loved intellectual inquiry, he was deeply suspicious of academic pretension. His goofy hat at academic processions served as his sign that gravitas comes not from one’s appearance but from the quality of one’s ideas (he teased me whenever I made the mistake of wearing a tie to work). An academic is a human being with a passion for learning, he felt, not a robe matched to a mortarboard.
Jim’s 1960s ethos thus found great sustenance in St. Olaf’s 1960s experiment, the Paracollege. Jim talked often about how his colleagues and students in the Paracollege gave him the courage to teach subversively. For Jim and for many others at St. Olaf the Paracollege was a tiny program that proved to be a deep well of creativity and social capital. Jim would regale students with stories of Paracollege dinners and chess-match discussions. I remember a crazy 1980s campus event where Jim debated a friend in the English department about whether one learns more from studying Dante or shopping malls (any guess of which side Jim defended?). Even after the college closed the Paracollege Jim kept it going, teaching students in independent studies, nurturing new faculty on long walks, and in the process pulling out of that well forgotten buckets of water.
Now in Jim’s absence we are to keep things going. We are fortunate that Jim Farrell remains with us in so many ways, especially in stories. Jim loved to teach the book The Truth About Stories in which Thomas King insists, “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” That became a favorite quote because Jim loved stories (and quotes). He invited students to tell him their stories, and he continued the gift exchange by telling them his. He told skillful stories in class, in his many books, chapel talks, speeches, and in his quirky lectures as Dr. America. When he passed away those of us who knew him well wanted nothing more than to gather together and tell the stories.
King ends each story in his book with this coda:
Take it. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to your children. Turn it into a play. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.
You’ve heard it now.
Writing this makes me miss my friend all the more. But here’s to continuing the story.
Kendra Smith-Howard ’99
Associate Professor of History, SUNY Albany
Jim Farrell was the first professor I met at Saint Olaf College. I enrolled in his American Studies 101 fall semester of my first year on campus. He saved me from a campus job in the caf by hiring me to be a research assistant, chaired my paracollege senior committee on “Nature and Culture,” hired me as a visiting instructor when I was a grad student, thereby bolstering my CV so that I could land in a tenure-track job. I owe my career in no small way to Jim Farrell.
No one more profoundly shaped my intellectual development and my view of the world than Jim. No one taught me more about teaching.
Jim’s teaching was fun, and touched upon fluffy topics like shopping malls. But Jim did not pander to student interests, or shy away from tough readings. He assigned enduring and important texts: William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis, Robert Bellah et. al.’s Habits of the Heart, Thomas Bender’s Toward an Urban Vision. He also taught disciplined writing by doing lots of it, and by inviting students to see the writing process by reading drafts and page-proofs.
More than topic, what set Jim’s teaching apart was how intensely he engaged with students and how relentlessly he supported them. Jim listened to students. Unfailingly and with abandon, he listened. His eagerness to learn more and read more alongside students – even if it took him into unfamiliar terrain – was also impressive. He was sensitive to students’ insecurities and fears, but also conveyed his relentless and abiding faith in their abilities. Jim was tickled when a normally-reticent student made a penetrating comment. Had Jim not said my senior year “you’re applying to grad school, right?” I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have the confidence to do so. As a teaching assistant at UW-Madison, Jim got a kick out of turning the tables and visiting me during my office hours. His commitment to students lasted long after students left the hill; he read seminar papers and drafts of dissertation chapters – offering penetrating comments (and adding a few puns). Because Jim cared so deeply about students, students confided in him and cried in his office about things beyond academics: faith, love, death, assault. And they found in Jim a patient, kind, and compassionate mentor and friend.
Jim’s teaching fostered idealism. He assigned fiction that imagined a better world. But his idealism was never pie-in-the-sky, but grounded. He offered practical steps to stave off defeatism. One key example was backwards thinking: start with the world you want, and then imagine what would be necessary for that to happen. Then plan backwards from that to conceive of the necessary pre-conditions. Another strategy that empowered students was asking students to treat campus as a laboratory for social change – annotating drinking fountains and dorm rooms with captions might seem silly, but such tasks served as vehicles for much larger thinking about how to live more lightly on the planet. Idealistic and earnest though he was, Jim was hardly pretentious or preachy.
Jim had fun. He festooned his syllabi with comic strips and cartoons, and punctuated conversations with poetry. The puns. Oh, the puns. He delivered them with a twinkle in his eye and a joyous grin. They were funny and punchy, but also symbolized something more: the playful thoughtfulness with which Jim approached daily life.
I am a better scholar and a better person thanks to Jim Farrell. He was so compassionate a teacher, so gentle a being on the earth, so curious a mind that I know I will never be his equal. But through his teaching, Jim imprinted these qualities on his students. His example inspires and coaches, even as we feel acutely feel his absence.
Jim Farrell (1949-2013)