People in academic life, teachers and students alike, get a curious bonus — while everyone else trudges from January to December, we have a chance to begin anew with each semester, term, or quarter. In a wonderful passage from his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Thomas Merton evokes the feeling of possibility on a college campus when everything is about to begin again:
October is a fine and dangerous season in America. . . . It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful. The names of the subjects all seem to lay open the way to a new world. Your arms are full of new, clean notebooks, waiting to be filled. You pass through the doors of the library, and the smell of thousands of well-kept books makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure. You have a new hat, a new sweater perhaps, or a whole new suit. Even the nickels and quarters in your pocket feel new, and the buildings shine in the glorious sun.Here’s a suggestion for the beginning of an academic year: Make and keep a resolution or two to address what’s really urgent in your academic life.
If, for instance, like J. Alfred Prufrock, you tend to think that “There will be time, there will be time” and endlessly defer getting to work, resolve to work as though the first weeks of class are already the last few. Every semester I talk with students who acknowledge that they could benefit from this resolution — they begin with Ds and Cs and sometimes, much later in the semester, when they make a real effort, they get Bs and As. Alas, their semester grades reflect all their work, not just what happens when they get going.
If you’ve felt invisible in your classes, you might resolve to bring your invisibility to an end. Don’t sit in the back of the room or off to one side, as far away as you can be without being elsewhere. Contribute to class discussions, even if you feel uncertain about doing so. Ask questions after class, and seek out your professors during office hours. Faculty are sometimes too willing to lump all students together as iPod-toting consumerists who want nothing more from their education than a good grade-point average. If that’s not you, make your professors see who you are.
Your resolution doesn’t have to be complex. It might be a matter of simple, direct action — placing an alarm clock at a significant distance from your bed (and remembering to turn it on), or buying and using a datebook to keep track of what you need to do. (I’m always amazed to see students who have no reliable means of planning — no datebook, no PDA, no hipster PDA.)
The academic year is an almost magical construction. Here in my corner of the northern hemisphere, I always marvel that when the leaves are changing color and the calendar year is running out, everything is also beginning again.
Link » Odes to autumn (A related blog post)