Fly on the Wall—Last Student in the Classroom, Last Tree in the Forest

Convocation as the Cure for the Isolation of Distance Education

Fly on the Wall—Last Student in the Classroom, Last Tree in the Forest

What if someone threw a party and nobody came? Convocation is our party and we can cry if we want to, but not it won’t be from loneliness.  I skipped my high school grad to pick up an extra shift of work but I’ve always been grateful that I had the foresight to attend my AU convocation.  Distance education can be an isolating experience, but, when we finally reach our goal, there’s few more joyous occasions than standing on that stage in full regalia and being honoured with a degree.  As a current MAIS student I anticipate a future trip back up to the tail-kicking town of Athabasca that sits along a noble river of the same name.

Just imagine, though, a classroom bereft of every last occupant except for a single pupil: you.  The setting sun is shining through the windows and casting long shadows between the rows of empty desks.  Only the hum of the janitor’s vacuum can be heard somewhere down the hall; outside a chorus of crickets are tuning up their leg-pipes for another dusky recital.  Distance education can almost seem like being left behind in school as others misunderstand what we are learning and are dubious or sceptical about what we are going to do with that nebulous degree we’re seeking.  After all, we were functional adults already, so why go back to school like younger people.  It all can appear a bit unnatural and backwards.  Yet, as the proverbial final students in class, we can find joyful solace at convocation as we realize that we are far from alone.  Students of every age and background receive degrees from AU and are bonded by the fact of their success and the knowledge that their accomplishment is something that no one can ever take away from them.

Convocation is our time to be recognized and to feel prideful; many people say they’ll go back to school someday and complete their degree but we few stand alone as putting our academic ability where our imaginative mouth is.  In that moment on stage we also realize our unique position in society.  So much of schooling is a social product, memorable most for interactions with teachers and students that are of a less-than purely academic nature.  In contrast, so much of our success at AU has been about the solitary grinding act of cracking those textbooks day after day.  It’s a life of perpetual homework which can be a blessing in terms of not commuting to class but a curse when we’d like to have a friend to swap thoughts with.  Like Sandra Bullock battling her demons in desperate cosmic isolation during the movie Gravity, or like Sylvester Stallone shadow boxing with sides of beef on tender-hooks during the classic film Rocky, the essence of our academic success has been about our own motivational prowess and intellectual capacity to endure.  Others have helped us in ways we can never repay, to be sure, but the iron core of our journey has been a story of solitary fortitude.

Like a Tree Without a Forest, an AU degree is an Exercise in Noble Endurance

Parallel to our life outcome as degree-receiving attendants at convocation—and even those who aren’t graduating can benefit greatly from the foretaste of future success convocation provides—another image comes to mind.  It’s one of a lonely old Douglas Fir tree on Vancouver Island and is the topic of a renowned book by Harley Rustad.  Big Lonely Doug won the CBC best non-fiction for 2018 award and, as someone whose day job is in reforestation while he continues as an AU student, I found its prose comparable to the journey of Athabasca life.

In his tale of a tree given reprieve from sawblades, Rustad illustrates, both intentionally and perhaps unwittingly, two key aspects of life and flourishing as an AU student: separation from the vicissitudes and minutiae of daily social life and the inevitable and ineffable nature of our being embedded in culture itself.  Left without its original chthonic surroundings the tree is an archetype of solitary strength and, given the human reality of its authors’ circumstances as a forestry worker, the book is largely about the culture wars associated with the conservation of nature and the realities of industry.  Rustad details the machismo and bravado of old school lumberjacks, “men who stalked the forests of British Columbia in search of big timber … fallers, who lived and breathed the bush, without glamour or glory … (such that) companies capitalized on their Machismo” (Rustad, 66).  Likewise, he notes the desire of environmental groups to balance the needs of job-creation with the needs of species preservation.  As AU students we are never far from our socio-political environment, embedded in culture itself, and yet, in the splendid isolation of our studies, likewise separated from the vicissitudes and minutiae of daily social life, we interact with course materials almost as though we are the only one in the world.  After all, we’re often the only student in the room when those great eureka moments of learning occur!

Our Own Cause and Consequence of Our Success

If a tree falls in a forest it makes a sound, unless one thinks like a solipsist, but if an AU student skips a study date with themself there will be nobody there to feel guilt but the guilty party!  I’ve been there and it can be like being lost in the woods like Little Red Riding Hood with a book satchel.  And if I don’t get back on track with my time management things can get awfully dark.  Being a good student, then, is about managing priorities.  Our natural learning environment may seem like a classroom to others but at AU we stand academically alone.  To succeed we may have to overcome the tendency to seek help from peers; we’re a classroom of one, after all, and a trip to study hall may not be an option.

Paralleling this struggle between the collective nature of classrooms and the individual nature of AU studies, Rustad discusses the twists and turns of activist opposition to clear cutting vis a vis the industrial desire to maintain shifts at their mills.  He notes activist actions that range from spiking trees (to thwart chainsaws), to chaining themselves to the trees, to building and occupying treehouses to protect the trees.  Rustad pillories the glorification of “romantic scenes of a logger hiking through a forest and felling a large Sitka spruce with his chainsaw” (Rustad, 106) while painting a picture of professional idealists fighting the system while painting a comfortable lifestyle for themselves.  At times he falls into the trap of stereotyping both sides, and not necessarily imagining an economic solution that will allow workers to feed their families and burrowing owls to build their homes.  We too can be the Norman Rockwell painting of a stereotyped and isolated scholar.  However, a short trip to the local community college may be the cure for our academic struggle and AU itself has great resources for students to meet up on social media.  Convocation taught me just how many other students there are!

Convocation Challenges Stereotypes

We may appear to ourselves as dull dweebs perpetually bent, Cratchet-like, over our textbooks, but that all ends at convocation—where we find out that we’re pretty normal students.  If not dorks, we might feel like flighty dropouts clinging to academic realms as away of hiding out from real life.  In any case, a trip to convocation (for ourselves or others) would quickly allay our fantasies and set us straight about how real, and really admirable, our studies and student lifestyle are.  A lot of folks can’t even stick to a budget let alone take on a distance education course; we have lots to be proud of!

This AU stuff is real, maybe even more real than at other universities where the average age of attendance suggests a lesser degree of adulting and responsibility.  Next, we’ll dig deeper into the stereotypical narratives of graduations and convocations and consider imagery of their nature as invariably a lens of propaganda as well as a means of glorifying job well done.


Rustad, H.  (2018).  Big Lonely Doug.  Vancouver: Walrus Books, House of Anansi Press.

Rustad, H.  (2018).  ‘CBC Best Canadian Non-Fiction of 2018’.  Harley Rustad: Writer, Editor.  Retrieved from

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