How One Teaching Fellow Brings Specialized Knowledge to a Wide Audience
October 30, 2022
Mat Messerschmidt, a teaching fellow in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, will present his doctoral lecture, “The Guiding Thread of Modernity: Nietzsche’s Death of God,” on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. The presentation will examine previous readings of Friedrich Nietzsche's death of God and propose a new reading of his own. Messerschmidt will argue that the death of God must be understood as the demise of an old way of relating to the body, where the body is understood as a formation of will to power — while also being the event that makes possible a new way of seeing and living the body.
It’s not a simple topic to present to non-experts, but Messerschmidt is using his experience as a grade school teacher and inspiration from a university lecturer to express his ideas. Distilling his research in this way, he says, allows him to break through esoteric concepts and reach a broader audience.
How did you go about translating your research into this presentation? What does the process look like?
A dissertation can't be encapsulated in a talk of under an hour, so I asked myself, “What would make this topic important and appealing for someone who is not a Nietzsche scholar?” Obviously if I tried to summarize everything I'd written over the last four years on the topic of the death of God, someone who was not an expert in my field would get lost and bored pretty quickly. Rather than try to make all the main points of my dissertation comprehensible to such a person, I actually decided to start the talk by posing and directly answering the question, Why should anyone care about the death of God? So a decent chunk of the talk then became a discussion of why I chose to write about the death of God in the first place.
Have you been inspired by how others (researchers, experts, etc) present information to an audience?
I taught small children at a private Jewish school in Romania for a while, and I think I learned a lot from my fellow grade school teachers there. Oftentimes school teachers are responsible for meeting much more tangible pedagogical goals than are university instructors, and these goals have a deadline. So they're more conscious of the passage of time and the need for a lively, efficient delivery. Among university instructors, David Wellbery — who served on my dissertation committee — is an incredible lecturer: lucid, energetic, engaging. I have taught two classes in the same room in which I took David Wellbery classes, which has somehow helped me channel some of his tendencies as an instructor, I hope.
What are some of the key takeaways you hope to highlight in this particular presentation?
One of my main points is that the death of God is more of a mystery than we think it is. For Nietzsche, it doesn't just mean the end of religion. What new forms of engagement with the divine are imaginable for humanity? Nietzsche doesn't answer this question in a final way, but he opens it. That observation runs against the grain of much of what is believed about Nietzsche as history's most famous atheist.
Is there a difference in what you hope fellow experts will learn versus non-experts in the audience? Do you gear your presentation toward one or the other?
I have geared this presentation toward a general audience more than toward a scholarly audience. I do plan to make some brief references to other scholarly positions on Nietzsche's death of God, which I hope Nietzsche experts will appreciate. But overall I hope to allow everyone in the room to approach the topic together.
Does presenting in this format — versus a written article or classroom lesson, perhaps — change the way you think about the topic?
In general, speaking extemporaneously definitely forces you to question some of your field's jargon. Once in a while a sentence can look okay in a scholarly article, but then, when you say the same sentence out loud while rehearsing a more colloquial talk, you're forced to stop mid-sentence and say to yourself, "Wow, you sound incredibly pretentious right now!" That happened to me a couple times while preparing this presentation. Hopefully those sorts of experiences can have a positive effect on my writing. Sometimes we hide behind abstruse rhetoric without even realizing we're doing it.