Monday, September 07, 2009

A new year, or An open letter to students stumbling across this blog

Don’t worry, I’m not slipping back into lax blogging habits—Kristen was here for the last ten days, so I was on vacation from everything, blogging included. Of course, today is Labour Day and classes begin for me on Thursday, so I’m looking down the barrel of what I need to get done and starting to sweat a little.

Or, well, I should be starting to sweat a little, but the day is making it difficult. It is bright and sunny and cloudless, but there is a little bite in the air that speaks of autumn. This is, and has been for as long as I can remember, my favourite time of year. I love the sense of renewal and hope the new school year tends to bring, like untouched snow or a blank piece of paper. I’ve always felt like this in September, even during the dark years of teenage angst when school was a trial and a burden. For a few weeks I could imagine it would be otherwise, and then one day—in my last year of high school—it was, and university proved an even better and more rewarding experience.

In the New York Times today there is a collection of advice for new university and college students written by such academic luminaries as Stanley Fish, Harold Bloom and Martha Nussbaum. Should any students happen across this blog looking for info about your English prof this fall, I highly recommend it—as well as anyone else who stumbles into my humble little spot on the InterTubes here. There’s some good advice there, especially that of Gerald Graff, Gary Wills and Nussbaum. Harold Bloom’s advice to discover the Great Books is near to my heart, but try not to be turned off by his high-handedness.

Also, Carol Berkin’s bit about how not to alienate your professor is a bit of wisdom to write down on the first page of all your notebooks. Seriously. Write it down and commit it to memory.

Seeing as how the Times was remiss in not asking me for my own wisdom on starting your university career (obviously, some wires were crossed somewhere), I’ll share here what I used to tell students about to start at the University of Western Ontario, my alma mater. When I was in the final stages of my doctorate and teaching as a sessional professor, I also worked as an advisor to students enrolled in the Media, Information and Technoculture degree. Before talking to them one on one, I addressed them as a group and said (more or less) the following:

One of my favourite professors during my undergraduate degree was fond of saying that university was your last opportunity to fail magnificently. What he meant by this was that these coming years are your time to try out new things—new ideas, new ways of thinking, new modes of yourself—and to put who you are to the test. You should not be afraid of failure, because we learn more from failing magnificently than succeeding blandly. Many go into their degree knowing exactly what they want to do and be, and find themselves suddenly discovering that they were wrong—that that degree in physics, or business, or pre-law, or political science, or yes, even English, was not for them. At all.

This of course doesn’t happen to everyone. Many, if not most, cheerfully soldier on through with little existential angst. To a certain extent, that is unfortunate—a little existential angst in your early twenties is a rite of passage, and good for the soul. When and if it happens, remember the old adage that no crisis should ever be wasted, and strike out in different directions (just as Martha Nussbaum suggests in the Times)

I am somewhat more hesitant to encourage my students to fail magnificently then was my own professor, not least because in the face of ever-rising tuition and a tenuous world economy, such advice is costly at best and frivolous at worst. But its spirit is always sound, for it speaks to that greatest of human virtues: curiosity. If I have any one piece of advice, it is this: be curious.

(It is serendipitous that my last Weekly Wisdom quotation was on this very subject).

Speaking as an educator, there is nothing more soul-destroying than apathetic, indifferent and incurious students. University is a time of discovery and exploration, whatever your degree. It is an inescapable fact that the student who muddles through with a C average, having done the bare minimum and cared nothing for anything more than is necessary to pass, gets the same degree as the student who works hard and finishes with an A. There are those who hold up this fact as evidence of a bachelor degree’s fatuity, but those are the same students who mistake a degree for the piece of paper they get at the end.

University is process, not product. It is transformational: I see this every year when the light bulb goes off for students and some idea or philosophy or author or school of thought changes everything. It is also not for everyone—some people find comparable transformative experiences travelling or working or going to college. Being open to those possibilities however, to any possibilities, is the start of wisdom.

So be curious. Ask questions. And I’ll see you in class on Thursday.


Jon said...

good advice chris... let us all hope for the best though... and maybe we won't just be reproducing the dominance and deference education that i was subjected to in graduate school


Dallas said...

This advice is great! Even though I'm certainly not at the beginning of another school year, I think this is excellent guidance for anyone who is embarking on a new anything. Thanks :)

Lesley said...

And here I hoped for you to say: be afraid, be very afraid. :)

I agree, be curious, ask questions, get involved, don't be afraid of your professor. I also agree that you'll end up in a place you didn't think you would in the beginning. From the sounds of it though, not only do you have interesting courses but you're a thoughtful and caring professor. So your students should be eager to work with you on these.

Most of my professors at UWO were scary and uninvolved. Wish I had had more who were interested in NOT watching us fail.

Can't wait to hear how the school year goes!