Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hopes for students--and other people who start their lives again in September

If all goes according to plan, this will be my last fall on campus.  After turning  five, I have spent every year of my life beginning a new adventure in September as a student or a teacher, and I have learned to associate the changing light, the dropping temperatures, the fresher mornings and the changing colours with the pilgrimages and promises that schools and universities offer.  Inspired by George Saunders's remarkable and moving commencement address (link below)--yet knowing I'm not nearly as wise or as funny as he is--I'd like to think about what I'm hoping all students find and accomplish in the coming year.

I hope they find a problem that matters to them, to their discipline, or to their community and go some distance toward solving it, or at least learn what the challenges are.  When I think about what society is going to need from our fresh young faces, I think about people who can creatively solve the problems that we and our institutions have collectively created.  (Many of those problems are created by the nature and history of those institutions, so they could always think about how to change or challenge them.) I'd also like them to see that in some ways this is what the university is about.  Professors don't simply show up at the front of classes and drone on about what we already know about some privileged body of knowledge that has been handed down to us.  Most of us have just come back from our own adventures in learning about the world through the lenses of our discipline and trying to solve the problems that have piqued our curiosity.  We'd love to share that.

I'd like them to learn to think about evidence, about where it comes from, about how it can be found, about how it illuminates the world, about how it can be bent and mis-used.  When we're not ideologically driven, we base our decisions on what we know, on the "facts" as far as they can be found.  But there are lots of ways to know more, to seek out dissenting opinions, to find evidence that is not immediately apparent, to figure out how to gather evidence more carefully.  At the same time, we need to realize that we're all ideologically driven:  each of us has a world view that shapes how we interpret the world.  That world view is like our skin:  just as we do not think every day about how our skin holds us together and separates us from the world, we do not think critically about our world views because, in a slightly different way, they hold our experiences, our families, our communities, and our historical moment together in our minds.  They help us explain to ourselves the world we have experienced.  But we need to learn about the blind spots our world views create.  We need to learn how our own hopes and dreams and fears colour what we see.  And we need to be committed enough to evidence as an ideal to attempt to get just a little bit farther beyond what is immediately apparent to us.  That's what it means to grow.

I'd like them to find their own individual, credible voices.  Unfortunately, the models of academic writing they read suggest that they need to write using a very formal vocabulary--one they really can't manage--and to use lots of words, preferably jargon, to impress the professor.  But each of them has an individual perspective on the world and a particular way of speaking about it, one that incorporates the language heard in their homes or communities or among their peers.  I'd like them to find a way to harness their individual voices and perspectives to the kind of clarity we expect from young thinkers.  I'd also like them to consider what I mean by "credible."  No comma splices:  semi-colons at the ready.  Unified, well-developed, coherent paragraphs that allow the reader to glide on the back of the careful, considered thought.  A credible voice comes out of the knowledge that when we pay attention to the details of our prose--to punctuation and syntax--our readers trust us more.  A credible voice also assumes that it isn't just putting in an appearance, doing an essay to get the assignment done to get the credit for the class to get the degree to get the job.  It's a voice that recognizes its own potential power and that believes that power can matter in the world.

I'd like them to just be curious.  Give me curious students, no matter what their background (or lack of it) is, and I can teach them almost anything.  Alice Munro has said that curiosity is the only guarantee for happiness, and I think she's right.  Times change, circumstances change, people change--and not always for the better.  But if our interface with the world is curiosity, then we carry the seeds of an attitude that says "Aren't people interesting and mysterious?  What's happening here?" and so find the energy to get through difficult times.  Curiosity implies a basic sense of wonder:  that the world is designed in some way to capture and deserve our attention.  This is probably my most important life skill, and I suspect that, in this respect at least, I'm not entirely idiosyncratic.

I hope they get chances to use their imagination.  Their imaginations are going to be one of the most powerful ways they can approach that question or problem I spoke of earlier; in fact, it's probably the only way they can find their way beyond the half-answers to questions other people have found.  I'd like them to look up occasionally from their books and their smartphones and their computers and spend some time in wonder at the world around them.  I hope they people watch in Common Ground:  people are so endlessly interesting, and these little snippets give us occasions to wonder about what it means to be human, what our communities and our cultures are up to.  They are occasions for kindness.  They are occasions to consider beauty of people, of the built and natural environments, which in turn take us out of ourselves as we stand in wonder before something besides our own desires and thoughts.  Their imaginations are their most powerful ethical faculty.  How can we decide how to treat someone who is different from us, how can we make judgments about what we should and should not do, if we are not imagining that other person's life or other options open to us?

I hope, in short, that they--and you--are beginning a mind-bending but joyful adventure next week.
You will find George Saunders' remarkable advice for graduates here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Still lives; stilling life

I'm pretty sure this photograph is slightly out of focus, and I haven't quite lined up the horizontals and verticals, but the minute I took it, my camera folded into itself and said its battery needed re-charging.  This is where I have been spending my mornings trying to get Twig to come out of himself, and it's a spot that only gets occasional sunshine, so it's unlikely I'll be able to take the photograph again and get the same effect.  But in some ways, that's okay:  it's a metaphor for my mood toward the end of August.   There is something gorgeously ripe about August.  The days can still be hot, but the nights turn cool in a way that is cozy and comforting.  The produce at the farmer's market has hit its peak. The blue of the sky is brilliantly clear in the dryer air of August.  Tonight as Bill and I walked along Wascana Creek just north of the RCMP Museum, the moon bobbed above the horizon, full, huge, and a pinky-gold that I've never seen before.  Quite likely the moon will not be that large again until it reaches the full next August.

Nor will I put the season's first apples in the silver bowl again this year.  Just like the sunshine in my comfortable corner and the harvest moon, the first apples are a once-a-year event.  In some ways that's helpful:  singular events keep us aware of the passing of time in a way that's celebratory rather than infused with our mortality. 

Yet like the photograph above, this all seems slightly out of focus.  My relationship to time--probably one of the most complicated relationships in my entire life--has been a bit different this summer because it's my last one before retirement.  I've tried to keep up a full schedule of writing, tried to make good headway on the Woolf book, in spite of the fact that I still have much to do and could, perhaps reasonably, just sigh and give up until I retire.  Yet I've also been trying to spend more time with my introverted cat, Twig, who really wants me to retire--perhaps more than anyone.  He thinks it's so cool that I hunker down to have my coffee with him in the morning.  These moments, when I sit where the sunshine is above, have slowed down time, almost stilled it. 

I'm more and more aware that each moment in my life, like the first apples or a harvest moon, is one I cannot have again.  Whether it's August or February, moments have their singularity, and I would like to find a way during my last year of teaching to frame such moments--in focus or even a little bit out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blooming in August

The American Cliff Swallows fly 10,000 km each spring from their winter home in Goya, Argentina, to arrive on March 19 in Capistrano, California, where they nest in the Mission San Juan, which has been a ruin since an earthquake in 1812.  My mother used to refer to this often, perhaps because it expressed her sense of wonder or because it said that at least one thing in this uncertain world could be counted on.   Bird migration, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is not entirely understood.  The birds may navigate by the stars or by changes in the earth's magnetic field.  They may know it's time to go when the food supply in their winter home runs out or when the sunlight comes from the right angle for the right number of hours.  A new generation of birds can travel in winter to somewhere they've never seen and return the following year to their birthplace.  Knowledge comes into play, but so does instinct.

My mother would be surprised to learn that her references to the swallows is the source of one of my nicknames for myself:  birdbrain.  I've long known that light influences my moods, that when the days get short I become anxious and moody (in the past, I would have simply said depressed), that when I don't see sun for a number of days, the energy drains right out of me, that sunny days with lots of sparkling moving shadows bring joy and energy.  The effect is both mental and physical:  light affects my mood (which I somehow imagine residing in my head), but my body seems to feel its own joy or despair that is visceral, seemingly independent of circumstances.  I may know that I live a charmed life with a husband who sees me as I am and loves what he sees; a smart, companionable daughter with a deep heart; a job that I've always loved; and a new two-car garage in the offing; but my body will tell me otherwise.

So what is this other part of me paying attention to now?  It can't simply be the cooler days, which I've loved.  Perhaps it's the cooler nights or evening shadows that have a different quality.  Are they longer?  More tenuous?  I've been learning all summer, more or less, but learning at the end of August and the beginning of September has a very different mood. It's counter-intuitive, this sense of new beginnings.  Robert Pogue Harrison, in his wonderful book Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, looks both historically and fancifully at the sense that universities are gardens.  The ancient Greeks moved their schools to small gardens outside Athens after the death of Sophocles.  University campuses often contain elements of gardens, something like the University of Regina's "Academic Green" or the "Diag" in Ann Arbor.  (And now, appropriately, we have a literal garden behind the library where we're growing tomatoes and peppers.)  The University of Michigan had its enormous Arboretum, a wonderful place to study among the blooming trees for final exams.  I'd like to add my own metaphor to Harrison's thoughts:  teachers plant seeds and then trust that they'll grow.  We assume that the soil--the student's character, and the growing conditions--the society around us, will ensure that the seeds take root, but we do so with a disinterestedness that's crucial to the project of a culture renewing itself, not cloning professors.

I first knew I was in the grip of September-itis last week when I read John Macfarlane's "Editors Note" in the September Walrus.  He talks about their interns who "stay with us for six months--long enough for us to show them the ins and outs of magazine publishing.  We invite them to story conferences and production meetings.  We offer them seminars in substantive editing, copy editing, art direction, and freelance writing.  We find them mentors at other news organizations.  What they do for us is check facts."  Macfarlane goes on to say that they do not fetch coffee and that fact-checking is the lifeblood of a publication's reliability.  The description of the help these young people get, along with Marfarlane's list of where their interns have ended up made me want to begin life all over again.  I remember sitting in the periodical room of the University of Michigan graduate library after I`d taken the last exam for my M.A.,  reading the want ads from the New York Times and the Detroit newspapers, feeling that I could not go back to the life I was living but had no idea how to do anything else.  Last week, I felt the most unaccountable urge to get on a plane for Toronto and beg Macfarlane to give this 63-year-old-woman a chance to check facts.  Never mind Bill, Veronica, Twig, Sheba, and the new term--my last new term.  I wanted to start something entirely different, to see where my life would end up if I`d been able to tie that sad moment  in 1976 to my September mood and follow the thread of the new life I could create.

My second symptom of September-itis came when I read this sentence:  "The argument indicates Impressionism's range:  it begins in phenomenological intensity, then becomes an epistemological question, an existential endeavor, and an ethical good."  This is from Jesse Matz's wonderful essay on "The Art of the Novel:  Impressionism and aesthetes."  She's writing about the changes to the novel that come at the end of the nineteenth century with the work of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, whose characters depend on impressions for information about the world they live in and the people they know.  Woolf of course is one of these writers who focus on the characters' experiences, not on plots with a rising conflict, a crisis, and a denouement.  In that single sentence--albeit in jargon-landen shorthand, Matz encapsulates the subtle shape of these novels.  Intense impressions and perceptions are called into question and become the basis for wondering what the character knows--and hence who the character is.  Such questions, insofar as they are honestly asked, are always ethical. 

I wasn't reading this essay in the enormous 900-page The Cambridge History of the English Novel for my work on Woolf, but for one of two entirely new classes I will be teaching in my final year at the University of Regina. So I'm still blooming after all these years, whether it's anticipating a new term or thinking about a new life when I retire. Perhaps being a bird-brain has its advantages.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Aspiring to music

Since Saturday was the only day over the August long weekend that rain wasn't predicted, and since it was, by almost anyone's standards, perfect, Bill and I didn't so much seize the day as seize the weather and drive up to Rowan's Ravine for a picnic.  I love the drive itself, particularly the rolling hills, sometimes golden with canola, sometimes grey-green with grain.  I love the cairns some farmers have made of the stones they've hauled out of their fields.  I love the shoes and boots and runners a farmer has put on his fence posts and power poles, and noted there were a few new arrangements of these.

When we got out of the car at Rowan's Ravine, though, I realized what I particularly like about the spot.  Aspens.  The park has been heavily planted with aspens who make their own susurating music.  I suspect that most people don't go to the park for sounds, unless they're particularly fond of the mosquito buzz of boats.  It's clear that they go for the beach, for the pleasure of sunshine and clouds, and the open horizon of a large lake set in the midst of prairie.  They might actually go to make noise.  I heard children screaming with delight, grousing with uncooperative siblings, arguing occasionally with parents.

But realizing that part of Rowan's Ravine's charm is the sound of its aspens made me attentive to sound.  As we walked, we came across a colony of barns swallows out to scoop up afternoon tea while they flew around in the sunlight.  I simply stood among them for a while, watching their aerial antics among the trees, watching them change direction in a wingbeat, and listening to their cries, which my Audubon tells me is a sharp kvik-kvik or wit-wit.  There is something so sharp and pointed about their cries that contrasts completely with the arcs of their flight that I found delightful. 

The gulls, too were noisy, as they always are.  And boats were being hauled in and out of the docking area on big-motored trucks.  But as any Saskatchewan poet will tell you, one of the remarkable things about sunny afternoon on the prairie, even on a prairie lake, is the light.  In the context of being attuned to sound, I wondered whether prairie light has a sound, or whether it creates around its beams a profound stillness and silence.  After our picnic, while I finished my local berry cider, I simply sat watching trees and clouds, listening to aspens, finding myself compelled to take photographs of shadows.  Light makes sound, as anyone knows on a windy winter day when the heating of the snow creates wind.

And surely, the play of light on aspen leaves as they make their softly sparkling music, has some sound.  As Don McKay told the poets at Sage Hill, both mathematics and poetry aspire to be music--sound that is both an abstraction and yet deeply  meaningful to us.  The very physics of music suggests it is a quality inherent in our world.  Perhaps just as light is both a wave and a particle, so it gives rise to sound but also has at its core a deep stillness that is kin to shadow.  Maybe the feet on the farmer's power poles are dancing to it.