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Thursday, September 1, 2016

September Miscellany

The light is changing.  It's not only that the days are obviously shorter, but that light comes into my house in places I had forgotten it reached.   It is far enough south that it peeks in under the large pine trees in my front yard and streams through my south-facing living room window, irradiating whatever I'm reading for a few minutes every sunny afternoon.  The trees have changed as well:  gone is the supple transparency I wrote about in mid-July.  Now their leaves are a dustier green and they susurrate and whisper drily.  Perennials have nearly finished their second blooming and are no longer using their energy to make seeds or attract pollinators but to store it underground in dark root caves.  We see senescence all around us, as if the summer's sunshine were suddenly translated into the trees that are turning golden.  It is a time of transformation.

For the first time since I retired, I regret not getting back into the classroom.  This is partly because I worry about becoming an old fart without each generation of new students helping me grasp their view of the world.  It is also because (in spite of my tremendous poetry group) writing is lonely, and at the same time you are engaged in making something that is as close to your vision as possible.  That's really the only way it can be, for the first couple of drafts.  Unless you have startlingly generous friends who will read and reread a 450 page manuscript on Woolf's aesthetics, you send the third or fourth or fifth draft off to a publisher for judgment.  The first two years of my retirement were incredibly productive:  Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement and Visible Cities have both gone off to publishers.  I have no idea what readers will think of them.  Yet in that uncertain frame of mind, I'm supposed to start another couple of projects, my next novel, Soul Weather, and some poems that are slowly cohering around a couple of themes.  In the classroom, I got feedback straight away, and if it wasn't enthusiastic I had many other strategies in my pocket.  Teaching, I knew where I was; writing, I have no idea where I am.  But that's the point, isn't it:  that terror and exhilaration of parachuting your mind into new territory. 

Because I'm missing teaching, perhaps, I've been tuned in to thoughts about that radical act.  (At least, it ought to be radical.)  So here's my September Miscellany.

Soul Weather is starting slowly after the revision of the first handful of chapters I wrote in 2011.  Fortunately, I have a lot to learn about my young characters' intellectual lives, so in a sense I am creating some classes for myself.  One of my young characters is writing her honours paper on Simone Weil, so I have begun by reading her biography.  Yet there I ran into another reason I miss teaching in Francine du Plessix Gray's description of one of Weil's favourite teachers whose pen name was "Alain."  Alain thought that doubt was the most direct route to enlightenment.  Part of my job at U of R was to teach "critical thinking."  The first step in the process was always to define what we meant by this oft-touted practice.  It doesn't mean simply to be critical.  Perhaps Alain's belief is helpful:  critical thinking means keeping doubt nearby.  If  doubts don't arise, by all means move onto the next step in critical thinking: figuring out how an argument has been built and what its consequences are.  But starting with doubt is no bad thing--in a classroom or an election year.

Alain's view of what education is is also helpful: "Alain's high-minded view of education... was to turn schools into 'centers of humanity' that could fight against prejudices, violence, and injustice.  The conversations sometimes lasted until the bistro closed down at 2 a.m., and occasionally the friends moved on and saw dawn come up at a cafe in the Halles market" (27).  Only in Paris, perhaps?  If I didn't actually tell my students that their imaginations were their most powerful ethical organ, I at least taught that way.  Our task in reading almost any text is to teleport ourselves into the mind, attitudes, and experience of the writer in order to enlarge our own perception of the world and the myriad humans in it.  One hopes that this experience implicitly fights "prejudice, violence, and injustice."

Education also finds its way into writing about the economy.  As I have said to anyone who will listen, the often discouraging group of students who inspired me to retire came of age in The Great Recession, when their parents told them not "You go to university and get an education," but "You go to university to get a job."  In a parallel response, universities have been emphasizing and giving more support to faculties that turn out "job-ready graduates," like Business or Engineering.  As a result, Faculties of Arts are finding that they are barely holding their programs together.  But not so fast.  The flexibility you learn in the Faculty of Arts is not useless.  It gives students a couple of advantages they might not find elsewhere.  They can frame and solve problems; they can do research; they can write clearly.  And they have learned how to live.

Last year about this time, Atlantic Monthly published an article written by Derek Thompson entitled "Technology Will Soon Erase Millions of Jobs."  Thompson describes the closing down of factories and the cultural breakdown in communities like Youngstown Ohio.  He suggests that the age of union-protected, high-paying industrial jobs is over.  The group of affected people, mostly young men, need a couple of "skills" taught by Arts.  They need to know how to live.  They need to have an idea of what the "good life" is.  When their pay cheque no longer guarantees their status, they need to know how to create meaningful lives, volunteering, or making something.  He witnessed those skills in Youngstown, where one of the factories was turned into a "makerspace":

"You don’t need any particular fondness for plasma cutters to see the beauty of an economy where tens of millions of people make things they enjoy making—whether physical or digital, in buildings or in online communities—and receive feedback and appreciation for their work. The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than 400,000 hours of YouTube videos and 350 million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose."

Karen Schubert, a writer with two master's degrees now working as a cafe hostess, describes the disappearance of traditional work this way:  "The evaporation of work has deepened the local arts and music scene, several residents told me, because people who are inclined toward the arts have so much time to spend with one another. We’re a devastatingly poor and hemorrhaging population, but the people who live here are fearless and creative and phenomenal.”

To end my nostalgic miscellany about education, let me simply tell you this.  People who read books live on average 23 months longer than people who don't.  First, that figure already accounts for things that affect health outcomes like gender or socioeconomic status.  Second, that's books.  Not blog posts.  Not FaceBook.  Not newspapers or magazines.  Books.

You know the writer's fantasy:  that he or she will change a life or save a life with a book.  Now I can!  So back to the loneliness of writing.

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