Monday, December 31, 2012
Looking back and trying to look forward
During the academic year, I am often out of the house before 8 in the morning, finding that the first few hours in my quiet office are the most productive. So during the holidays, it has been a treat to begin my mornings sitting in front of a lit Christmas tree with only my reading light on, watching the blackness outside turn blue before winter appears out my window. I drink my coffee and read Daniel Deronda. Occasionally I simply stop to look at the Christmas tree and let my mind wander toward the new year while Twig parks himself on the top of the sofa cushion behind me so that I can sometimes rest my head in the curve of his neck and listen to his purr.
I have spent the last couple of days reflecting on the past year and trying to think my way through the next one. It has been a frustrating, disheartening task. This is in part because the academic year, since I returned from my idyllic sabbatical, has been dominated and even at times overshadowed by attempts of the central administration, the Faculty of Arts, and the Department of English to plan for funding to the University of Regina to be cut 3% a year, possibly for the next three years.
I have been teaching for thirty-six years, and am watching an institution to which I've given my life--the idea of the university, not simply the U of R--attempting to transform itself into a professional school. What has happened to the university's commitment to ideas, curiosity, engagement, a sense of life's complexity, and a sense that one individual's confusion and passion have been experienced countless times before by others and that there are at least some reliable questions one might ask? Parents and politicians--and hence students--are now convinced that familiarity with the world's ideas and questions are less important than a definite job at the end of four years. What has happened to the process of finding oneself, to spending four years thinking about self and world and how those two things might relate to one another? What has happened to adventure? Does one really know at 18 that one wants to become a petroleum engineer? And what happens when there are no more jobs for petroleum engineers, when we have all bought electric cars and the oil supply has collapsed? Does that engineer know how to live, how to adapt, how to find a new purpose?
Human beings don't plan very well. We are particularly bad at planning on the long term, and even worse when our planning should take the needs of others into account. We can see that this failure is endemic in Canada. Not protecting the environment, but rather considering how we can best benefit financially in the immediate future from selling mineral rights is not effectively planning for the future or for future generations. Not finding a way to improve the lives of our Aboriginal peoples is certainly not thinking long term or of others. Allowing the divide between the wealthy (and even the comfortable) and the poor to increase is not planning for the future, because such a future is likely to involve rebellion or push-back of some kind. Taking money out of education, which is the best predictor of health, and putting it into health care is certainly not planning for the future. Putting money into the health care needed by people living on the street rather than housing them is not a long-term solution. I have a sense that our leaders are not willing to take the long-term solutions because the short-term response at the ballot box might challenge their views and their actions. But what are leaders for? Did we elect them just so they could do whatever it takes to get themselves re-elected?
In the face of these failures, I have felt that the university (as an idea) provided a place to reflect, that its many disciplines provided a variety of perspectives from which to consider the challenges of the present historical moment. In the Twitterverse, pundits and gad-flies and politicians attempt to provide immediate answers; politicians in particular are hampered by the society's expectation that they not to waffle or change course. The university moves at a more human pace; here the only expectation is that we not simplify, that we don't ignore evidence, that we don't assume that a single individual has enough perspectives to see the challenges of a new problem or the potential implicit in change in all its complexity. If politics is the story of individuals attempting to put their stamp on the future, the university (again, as an idea) is about a community's commitment to reflection, to complexity, to conversation rather than edict.
I'm not sure we can plan with the idea of long-term student needs in mind. Our administration has argued that more students are demanding professional or pre-professional programs like petroleum engineering or marketing. Yet we are told that student engagement is down--perhaps because professional programs do not prompt the kind of engagement required by Fine Arts, Arts, and Sciences. Professional programs are focused on an end product--the piece of paper that leads to a degree and a secure job--not the journey. I wouldn't suggest that students enrolled in the professional faculties like Nursing or Engineering are not thoughtful; I would suggest that a cultural language devoted to destinations rather than journeys, a cultural preoccupation with jobs rather than lives is skewing their expectations and perhaps their curiosity. What happens when the university has built an infrastructure of programs and professors only to find that times have changed? As Ezra Pound once said, "Literature is news that stays news." The same is true of history, philosophy, and all the sciences, though each of these disciplines is also attuned to change, to revolution. Indeed, they are committed to making that change.
Behind the Christmas tree, the sky has turned an improbable pink, and occasionally I can hear the falling needles clink against a glass Christmas ornament, providing the perfect setting for my sad contemplation of my own future. I have loved teaching this term. At the same time, the endless meetings and crises have been exhausting. Hence I'm faced with the conflict between "duty to self" and "duty to others" that Austen exposes so well in Sense and Sensibility. What is happening to universities all over the world is breaking my heart. If I were simply thinking of my own well-being, I would retire in 2014. I've found myself on the edge of this decision numerous times in the last months, only to step back. Because the truth is that I will not be replaced. The credibility and practicality of the English Department's Creative Writing program in particular will be questioned. Yet I feel that it is creative people that our society needs at this moment. Yet if I continue to teach, what will I do with my own creativity, which is hobbled and hampered by an atmosphere so tense and fraught?
Well, I'll go back to reading Daniel Deronda, Eliot's last novel, wherein she considers what one might call the ethics of identity. Both Daniel and Gwendolyn Harleth wonder who they are: their dogged and passionate posing of that question leads them to consider a whole range of ethical choices they must make. Eliot won't give me any answers, but she'll suggest a way of thinking things through. It is, perhaps, the questions that count, though they don't make one comfortable or self- satisfied. That is, perhaps, the best way to begin a new year.
at 9:57 AM