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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.

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