If you’re feeling overburdened or out of place as your coursework mounts this Fall it might help to consider the peculiar case of gold rush camels. Miners heading to Barkerville, B.C. during the 1860s tried importing camels to lug their rucksacks and mining tools through steep mountain passes (UVic, online). Our experience as independent scholars shouldering the load of distance education may feel similar; often our pre-AU lives seem to leave us unprepared to overcome academic obstacles. Although we’re more resourceful than your average pachyderm it helps to grasp the context that faced these intrepid imports of cloven hoof.
The University of Victoria summarizes what may seem like an inevitable result of mismatching theoretical ability (the camels could carry more for farther than could pack mules) with the reality of what sort of life the camels were suited to lead (their Bactrian breed was suited to mountains but not the craggy harshness of the Fraser Canyon (Hibbins, online)):
“In 1862, 23 pack camels arrived in Victoria from San Francisco. Camels had been successful in the United States army for several years and it was believed that they would make excellent pack animals in the Cariboo gold rush. Between their arrival in Victoria and the voyage to the mainland, the camels found a home behind Esquimalt Halfway House Saloon and Brewery. This attraction brought crowds of Victorians and undoubtedly served as an excellent advertising tool for the brewery. The use of Camels in the gold rush was largely viewed as a failure. The camels caused problems on the trail because they frightened other pack animals. Also, the camel’s feet were not designed to traverse the rocky terrain, being used to desert sand.” (http://www.web.uvic.ca/vv/student/vicbrewery/content/making_beer/people/camels.htm)
Despite being used to long Caucasus mountain treks with nary a canteen of extra water, nothing in their past could prepare them for their time on the rugged mountain passes of BC. Even the famous Judge Begbie was carried off while riding one, much to his chagrin and to the detriment of expansionist camel policies (Hibbins, online). Not the camel’s fault for being themselves, of course, and we at AU can be forgiven for also feeling overmatched and out of our element as we re-enter schooling. Jacques Derrida quoted a wonderful poem by Holderlin that shows how we may feel about school as we approach our AU experience:
“We are a monster void of sense. We are outside sorrow. And have nearly lost. Our tongue in foreign lands.” (Derrida 33).
Being outside of our comfort zone is also part of how we learn and grow: Martin Heidegger noted that being absent is part of being present for human animals. When we’re away, folks notice our absence and we are aware of what we would (or should!) be doing if we, say, were at home studying rather than engaging in other pursuits. Heidegger describes how we humans carry each other and our contexts with us such that we are never truly away from our identity:
“What we have designated as being there and being away are something in the being of man. They are possible only if and so long as man is. Being away is itself a way of man’s being. Being away does not mean: not being at all.” (Heidegger, 64).
If we feel out of place and away from what feels natural within our schooling it helps to remember that this is our personal journey, hopefully toward enlightenment and a place of serenity, presence and comfort. While an AU student, we carry this part of us throughout our lives because, not least of which because, we could at any moment find the time that was absent to do some studying. The absence of such time becomes present as a lingering concern in our conscientious minds. In this way our studious selves are capable of discovering ourselves precisely when our expectations are challenged we learn to see study possibilities in myriad contexts.
Heidegger illustrates that: “Attunement is in a certain way there and not there. We have seen that this distinction between being-there and not-being-there has a peculiar character, and is by no means equivalent to the distinction between a stone’s being at hand or not being at hand…By comparison, being away, absence in its various forms, is not something like the exclusive opposite of being there….Only as long as we are there (da-sind) can we be away at all, and vice versa” (65).
As students, we have to find a comfort level in our studies so as to feel personally connected with our material; unlike camels, we aren’t wired to only survive in climes to which we’re accustomed. Humans are nothing if not innovative animals and distance education certainly requires us to dream up new paths to success. When our normal environment changes we must adapt; lacking what we’ve been conditioned to think of as school (a classroom with teacher, a consistent timetable), this absence impels us to be our own taskmasters and time managers. AU enables us to tailor our learning to our needs in a unique way; miners once fashioned canvas shoes for their humped steeds, and we may need to adopt our own personal equipment: earplugs to concentrate amidst household hurricanes of activity, for instance.
When we skipped class, or failed to pay attention, our absence presented itself as declining grades; likewise, we can not avoid learning as life schools us along and thus we best be choosy about what we apply ourselves to. Having chosen AU, we simply have to remember that by being fully present, with it at the mental level, we will glean as much as possible from our experience.
We don’t only have to overcome new and difficult contexts and course material: we also have to overcome the impressions made on us by our prior years in school. Our school days may have been long ago and far away, but the experience of those years is imprinted indelibly upon our psyche. Like a camel’s cloven hoofprint, or the stereotypical camel toe of yoga yore, the space between that which makes the mark and the mark revealed is worth investigating. After all, we are not the same students as in years past, yet our past experiences have molded us into who we are in the present. In this way the absent past presents itself in the present and can all too easily become naturalized. But we don’t want to be stuck in old expectations of school, especially if these were relatively unpleasant. It helps to know that each course, and certainly our AU experience as a whole, is a new life to live independent of our past schooling experiences. Unlike camels who are trapped by their genetic predispositions, we really can evolve ourselves into new students: sturdier, dynamic, creative: whatever we choose!
AU isn’t all frosted hoofprint cupcakes and caramel camel candies, of course. At my nadir, my darkest time, I had to drop a course. It was immensely depressing to lose part of my tuition money and feel like I just could not proceed. But the loss was a growing moment and I realized that it was a learning experience; if I bit off more than I could chew I could chew my proverbial cud and get back up between the humps. Key thing is: At AU success is in great part on our own terms; brick and mortar professors I have known lament getting the ‘wrong’ hours for their course when the schedules are released. Monday mornings, Friday afternoons so many possible pitfalls when students have other obligations, including the obligation to have fun or sleep in. But we need not be afraid of such eventualities; we can work at 3 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon or when the children are sleeping.
School has made us who we are in essential ways; either by our presence or absence within its walls, we were always there—in that it was a fundamental part of our identity. Our formative sense of self-involved classrooms and teachers and peers, our existence in school, preceded our essential identity, fluid though it may be. Be it in or out, school is always-already what we have made of it as we grew along. If we are doing this for our personal growth there will be calls of “why” and “what are you gonna do with that?” But learning to answer, and, as a Fly on the Wall smashed many times for the perceived uselessness of my proceedings, I know this well, is a big part of the AU experience. Our efficacy is in the meaning of our burdensome labour in the way the camel’s value is in whether it delivers the goods. It’s not like some mountain that we climb because it’s there using whatever beast of burden on offer; AU is an intimate exploration weighed down only by the gravitas conveyed by the fact that we will never, ever be the same when we are through. In this sense we are all like genius artists and intrepid scientists who have taken life into our own hands to see what comes and may.
We’re not hardwired to be unflinchingly the same. So, by harnessing our wild sides, the sides that maybe didn’t give a toss about school and led us into the ‘real world’ with disdain for education, we deign to invite our creative learning capacities into our lives. Like spitting camels, we can protest at being in harness when the going gets rough, but if we’re going to succeed, we have to bear the burden of hard work. And when we apply our disciplined productivity learned from having to somehow thrive in the world of so-called adulthood, we can make the most of our schooling. We may feel like imported creatures from foreign lands yet, in truth, we have never been more prepared for scholastic success than we are today.