Regal House staff are delighted to have the opportunity for a virtual sit-down with Mark Cladis in advance of the release of his book In Search of a Course, available in bookstores January 8, 2021.
How did you handle the balance between truth and ‘doing no harm’?
In Search of a Course is about finding a course for your life and a course for “the University.” The two courses interweave on almost every page of the book. In my search for a course for my life, I recount my failed marriage, my loss of faith in things spiritual and academic, and the strength of a friendship that got me through it all. Finding a course for the University entails a narration about how I got into academia, what it’s like to work in a university, and, most importantly, what higher education is all about—and what it should be.
Given the subject matter of the book—the failure of a marriage and, to some extent, of higher education—you can imagine how it could be a tell-all book, revealing scandalous secrets about my marriage and about life inside the University. I’d probably sell more copies it were a tell-all book, but sadly it isn’t. Indeed, more than one editor pushed me to reveal more personal truths. Where I wanted to stick with general, abstract reflection I was told to offer more of myself and of the people in my life. And so the book evolved, it changed, it became more personal, and I found the need to keep asking myself, “How do I write a personal, honest narrative while doing no harm to those I’m portraying?” After all, I’m writing (in part) about an ex-spouse and University colleagues. What to tell, what to hold back?
In the end, I fashioned a narrative that was honest and intimate but not wounding or gratuitous. Complexities and limitations of the main characters are revealed, but especially my own.
What social issue or problem does your work address? What difference do you hope your book will make?
As noted above, In Search of a Course is about two, related courses: a course for your life and a course for the University. The “problems” or “issues” that my book addresses are both public and private in nature. On the one hand, I address what it is to have the ground beneath you give away in an instant, such that you suddenly lose all sense of who you are, what’s important to you, and what can sustain you in an onslaught of chaos. That’s the private side of the book. The public side addresses such issues as what education is really all about, and how can education, broadly understood, address anomic lifestyles, destructive consumerism, and the toll of a rapacious economy on the social and natural world. And as the two courses are related, so are the public and private problems and the ways forward—ways to greater public and private flourishing. My hope is that readers will see themselves in the pages of the book, find some solace in that identification, and discover helpful, practical reflections as they forge their own paths to meaningful lives.
How did you work to avoid writing a book or characters that feel “preachy” or self-righteous?
I’ll skip this question and take the next one, please. What’s that? I need to answer this one? Well, OK.
I’m a professor. My job is to profess. I can’t afford to worry too much about being sententious. (Did I just say sententious? Perhaps I should worry more about sounding pompous and moralizing.) I’m certainly more comfortable with being “preachy” (to advocate for something of fundamental importance) than with being “self-righteous” (to be complacent and smug in my own moral standing). In Search of a Course, almost by definition, “professes” and “advocates” insofar as it seeks to help people on their way—their way to greater self-knowledge and joy. But it is an honest narrative. The characters—mainly myself—have more than enough flaws revealed to defeat any moral smugness.
But is it preachy? I’ll have to let my readers answer that.
What was your process like writing In Search of a Course?
The “process”—if it can be called that—was a long, rambling, fractured journey that kept pulling me along. I first starting writing In Search of a Course as a form of therapy. I was emotionally and spiritually crushed. I was writing for myself, and myself alone. Then, my friend Paul Kane and I went on an adventure—a road trip. We were searching for material, teachers, and life for a new course we wanted to teach at Vassar College—”It’s Only Natural: Contemplation in the American Landscape.” So we traveled through landscapes, met extraordinary teachers (including Native American teachers and the land itself), confronted various obstacles, and dipped into some contemplative practices. And as we journeyed through the deserts of the Southwest, I started to come back to life—both personally and professionally as an educator. I was making contact with the social and natural world around me.
That’s when the writing changed. I was no longer writing just for me. I imagined writing for a broader audience. My friends. My students. Strangers. All those seeking contact with life—a life with purpose and love.
There was a problem, however. I was soon to be hired by Brown University to rejuvenate a doctoral program in philosophy and religion that had been decimated by several faculty retirements. Brown was bringing me in to rebuild the program. Would it be prudent to craft and publish a trade book for a general audience at the very same time that I was trying to signal to the academic world that Brown is committed to relaunching a “serious”—that is, rigorous, academically acclaimed—doctoral program? Publishing a trade book can ruin a professor’s reputation. What would that do to the reputation of the new doctoral program?
So I waited. And waited. After about 15 years I decided: to hell with reputation.
Mark Cladis is the Brooke Russell Astor Professor of the Humanities and Chair of his department at Brown University. He was named a Carnegie Scholar and has received research awards from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowments for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Cladis lives in Barrington, Rhode Island, with his wife, Mina, and his three children, Sabine, Olive, and Luke.