Fly on the Wall – Convocation 2017: Making it Without Quacking!

Graduation is something that can never be taken away from us. Attaining a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree means so much more than just receiving a piece of symbolic paper: it represents the adoption of a new social role. I learned this firsthand in 2014 when I attended my own convocation in Athabasca. Upon donning my pink ’social sciences’ robe I felt myself literally enrobed with the status of university graduate. Countless hours of labour had paid off. Having chosen to work rather than attend my high school grad I’d never been up there on stage for something like that. It felt good. And, speaking as a ’Fly on the Wall’, I realized just how unique the distance education part of my life had been. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen once wrote an article “urging intellectuals to consider what they would want written over their dead bodies” and, despite mortality hopefully still far over the horizon, it occurs to me to consider how we may utilize our hard-won academic victories in as many life contexts as possible.

We are each not one, but many. We live many lives and embody many roles. Yet, at AU, we also inhabit the somewhat obscure niche of distance student, which many of our friends and family may only dimly be aware of. And, as AU students, it can feel like we lead a secret life as we toil in relative solitude. This can be fun in the way hidden codes, inside jokes, and bonding with friends over mutual outsiderness can be, yet surely there is something to be said for incorporating that which seems abject and foreign into the objective realm of our daily life. I wonder, then: how can we express ourselves to others as graduates?

Following Aristotle’s famous injunction to know thyself, the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre believed that to attain virtue we must feel our identities as a coherent whole. For MacIntyre, “human life is often stripped from its context, or else contexts become meaningless, playful, ironic, and interchangeable” (Maizlish, 2007). As it is, we invariably feel some unease between our mental selfhood (ipse) and our physical body (idem) (Snaevarr, 2007). Almost anyone realizes this when trying to slam dunk a basketball or learn a dance routine. Our mental life often is detached from physical reality. For his part, MacIntyre claims that we must live our mental life virtuously by embodying a “concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end” (Maizlish, 2014). The idea is to bring unity to our many selves; as graduates this means infusing our schooling into our whole lives.

Meanwhile (they were both writing circa 1981) others such as Jean Baudrillard were extolling plurality and play as a means to gain the creative freedom to define ourselves with many identites. With his book titled Simulation and Simulacrum Baudrillard claimed that “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” (Baudrillard, 1981). Was the world now all playful pastiche and coquettish cosplay, or was this sensibility a mask for a deeper malaise? If I “drop my g’s” when hangin’ out with friends is that akin to “passing” as a non-intellectual, becoming a true fly on the wall? Are we at AU condemned to leave our learning at our desks and our diplomas on the wall?

Macintyre opposed the postmodern patchwork model of personal identity. Far from an age of whimsical adoption and abandonment of identities, Macintyre believed that we live in an “age of fracture” (Maizlish, 2014). “The unity of a human life becomes invisible to us,” he explains, “when a sharp separation is made … between the individual and the roles that he or she plays.” (Maizlish, 2014). So much for forgetting our academic selves to adopt our pre-AU social roles. MacIntyre would have looked askance at AU studenthood as an aspect of our lives detached from the rest of our living. He would have asked us how we can live as a whole like this, how we can attain virtue out of incommensurate shards of self. Perhaps he would have suggested that we find a golden thread running through our education that ties it into the rest of our existence. We grow personally as well as scholastically at AU, to be sure, and in this sense our graduation represents a monumental achievement. Accomplishing anything to completion is incredibly satisfying and invariably increases our virtue. In this vein, MacIntyre may well have challenged us to find means to translate our learning more and more into our everyday lives. We didn’t spend all this time and money only to attain a better job or private fulfilment; we also sought to attain personal satisfaction that invariably we share with, or withhold from, others.

The question of how to apply our learning with folks that haven’t necessarily attended post-secondary becomes one of translation. It may be enough to speak as a good academic, yet surely we must attempt to take our educational context and make it amenable to as many others as possible. Sometimes this will prove impossible but it’s worth a try. Macintyre floridly illustrates the case:

“Imagine that we are waiting for a bus for instance, and a woman next to us all of a sudden says, “The name of the common wild duck is Histrionicus histrionicus histrionicus.” To be certain, we understand the meaning of the sentence uttered; the problem is to understand the point of her uttering it. Suppose that the woman utters sentences like this at random intervals, in which case this would probably be a form of madness. But her uttering of the above sentence would be rendered intelligible if, for instance, we found out that she has mistaken me for a person who approached her in the library some days ago and asked her for the Latin name of the wild duck. We would also understand her action if we discovered she mistakenly thought I was her co-spy and she was uttering a code sentence to be decoded by me. In each case her act of uttering only becomes understandable by being put in a narrative context.” (Quoted in Snaevarr, 2007).

Academic lingo can, after all, sound to others like linguistic hyperbole: histrionics. The literal definition of histrionics is “deliberately affected : overly dramatic or emotional” (Merriam-Webster, online). Whether it’s an affect on others of obscurantist over-emoting of ones ideas, intellectual terminology can seem needlessly weedy. One friend jokingly claims that when she read some of my Facebook statuses she literally wants to cry. And as much fun as having mysterious identities can be, we surely benefit ourselves and others if we apply our learning in a way that tangibly and understandably fits with the narratives and languages of others.

Another theorist, Paul Ricoeur, stated the importance of finding harmony within our life. If our studies seem distant from the rest of our existence then a process of alienation may lead us to give them up. Like, MacIntyre, who believed that we must avoid fragmentation of our selves into myriad identities and instead seek an inner unity to our life narratives, Ricoeur stated that we must seek concordance rather than discordance in our lives (Snaevarr, 2014). This is possible by finding an inner plot that will “synthesise reality” (Snaevarr, 2014). In this way “a plot fuses together intentions, causal relations, and chance occurrences in a unified sequence of actions and events” (Snaevarr, 2014). It remains for us to find commonalities between our divergent selves and, like actors asking what their motivation is, ask ourselves what’s my plot? What has our AU experience equipped us to express to others?

Convocation contains just such a possibility for self-understanding and expression, not only because of its symbolic importance but also because of the tangible power and pride we feel as we stand there in front of our tutors, peers, friends, and family. A new unity may dawn through our lives as our educational undertaking reaches its culmination. We may go forward with a renewed and enriched sense of purpose thanks to our educational experiences at AU, discovering a string that ties our narrative together, such that the plot becomes clear: whatever we do from here, we do it as graduates who have seen our hard work through to conclusion.

References

Baudrillard, J. (1988). Simulacra and Simulations from Jean Baudrillard Selected Writings. Retrieved from http://web.stanford.edu/class/history34q/readings/Baudrillard/Baudrillard_Simulacra.htmlMaizlish, R. (2014). ’Alasdair MacIntyre on Narrative, History, and the Unity of Life’. Society for US Intellectual History. Retrieved from: http://s-usih.org/2014/01/alasdair-macintyre-on-narrative-history-and-the-unity-of-a-life.htmlMerriam-Webster (2017). Histrionic. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/histrionicSnaevarr, S. (2007). ’Don Quixote and the Narrative Self.’ Philosophy Now. Retrieved from: https://philosophynow.org/issues/60/Don_Quixote_and_The_Narrative_Self

Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.

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