things my cancer taught me 1: my students

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My cancer has taught me a lot of things.  Having cancer is a very educational experience.  In fact it’s difficult to learn as much elsewhere without paying exorbitant tuition fees.

I used to think, for example, that my writings were very important to me — all those books and articles I’ve written over the course of the years.  In academia, you must publish lest you perish.  I was very caught up in all that (in my own way, naturally). Yet face-to-face with my cancer, none of that turned out to be important.  I could have written a couple of more books I suppose, but then again I could have written a couple of books less.  No difference!

What mattered instead, much to my surprise, were my students.  Teaching is very undervalued from a career point of view.  As a professor you have to teach but it’s not something you are given much credit for.  And although I’m as lazy as the next prof when it comes to grading exams or reading PhD student chapters, I’ve always tried to convey the excitement I feel over certain ideas, persons and historical events.  My secret agenda, like Socrates’, was always to pervert young minds.  In some cases I was pretty successful.

What really matters are your relations to human beings, not to books.  As an academic you are related to books, but as a human being you are related only to other human beings.  It’s always human beings, never academics, who have cancer.

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