Yesterday was my last day of teaching until September of 2012. My feelings about that are complex enough to rattle me; I feel as if I should be simply and straightforwardly delighted, but that's not what I'm experiencing.
On the one hand, I will miss my students terribly, particularly the crew in my English 251: Expository and Persuasive Writing. They were a thoughtful, hard-working bunch, and reading their penultimate essays was thrilling because most of the time there were none of those pesky little mechanical and grammatical errors that stood between me and the worlds, experiences, and ideas on the page. In our conversations in the hallways, my colleagues and I can bemoan the reading and writing skills of the current generation of students, but this group showed me that this is only half the story. I found that by keeping my focus on their development of credible, powerful voices--which meant getting their commas in the right place as well as articulating fresh ideas in the most concrete language that belonged to them--that I could get them to work very hard on their writing. Class discussions, which I admit sometimes ranged too widely, were very much an exploration of the ideas and experiences that saturate the early twenty-first century. I loved spending time with them.
My students do me a wonderful service by keeping me from becoming an old fart--something I dread. They talk freely and critically about their own age and time: how they often feel more disconnected than ever despite the "social media"; what the next Canadian government would look like if their age group voted en masse, but how apathetic their generation is, in spite of sites like Vote Compass Canada which asks you questions about your beliefs and then tells you which party to vote for; how their age group is more interested in knowing than in learning, and how that "knowledge" is often seedy and vulgar. They want to know all the gory, trite, and salacious details around the latest shocking You Tube video, but they don't think about the consequences for the individual of being represented that way (and probably for a digital eternity) online. One student spoke of his pride at setting his mother straight about some little online factoid she didn't know, only to be embarrassed a moment later when he realized how rude he was and acknowledged that his mother at least knew how to learn. I will miss my students and the window they give me on the present historical moment, a window I'd never have otherwise.
On the other hand, I'm delighted to be able to follow Thoreau's advice and "simplify! simplify!" My daily lists only contain four or five things, and I feel a sense of focus that I don't have when I'm involved in teaching and administration. No meetings. No late essays to remember not to lose and to mark. No dashing off to the library to put material on hold because of a change in copyright laws. Last weekend, when the demands of teaching were winding down, I found myself delighted to begin reading Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man in preparation for my book on Virginia Woolf's Aesthetic of Engagement. I do so want to write about the way philosophers have shifted the aesthetic question away from an attempt to define art to a consideration of beauty and of the role is plays in our everyday lives. Beauty is undefinable, they have concluded, and because of that we need to talk about it, thus bringing to our lives conversations about some of the things that matter most. Each person's sense of beauty is completely individual, and may even provide some insight into who we are. Thus, Woolf's use of beautiful forms for her novels urges us to explore and talk about their meaning, a meaning that is never fixed and absolute. After quite a number of years, this project is coming into focus, and I'm excited about being able to finish it.
I'm also excited about my next novel, Soul Weather, which explores how we make ourselves at home in the world. More, it begins with Heidegger's observation that our moods radically colour our views of the world. For a prairie person (which I now am), what influences mood more than weather? How we all kvetched this winter, not over the cold so much as over the lack of sunlight! So what's going to happen to our experience of the world once we've screwed up the weather so thoroughly that it's entirely unfamiliar, unhomelike? This will not, of course, be a rant about global warning as much as it is an exploration of the various ways we wrap home around us like a cape or huddle in it like a cave that protects us from the world.
But all this freedom to play with words and ideas is also frightening. What if I can't make the best use of it? What if the book on Woolf doesn't hold together or doesn't give us a new view of her work? What if my characters are boring, unbelievable, or predictable; what if I can't fashion an original, surprising plot that is both gripping and a metaphor for my ideas? Ideas are delightful when they're broad, abstract strokes. The devil is always in the details. So I'm also experiencing some transition anxiety. In April, I'm going to try to ease myself into these projects while I also hang on to the do-able, everyday tasks of being an academic. I'll finish my marking. I'll get a new issue of Wascana Review online. But I'll also be reading madly.
Sheba's made the transition beautifully. My wild little girl settles down right next to my netbook and rests her chin on the back of my left hand. Admittedly it's a little hard to type, but slows me down and gives me a moment to think about my words before my fingers spew them onto the screen. An animal's affection is just exactly one of those daily beauties one wants to spend a moment thinking about.
The photograph of the railway/walking bridge in Saskatoon was taken by Veronica Geminder. You can find more of her work at http://www.flickr.com/photos/veronica-g