One course that helped me overcome academic anxiety was PHIL 360: East Meets West. In it I learned to keep calm and appreciate and cherish all of life’s moments, including angst-filled moments of deadlines. Writing the final assignment, I’d pause and really taste the words of assigned authors such as Aldous Huxley. His book Island serves to remind anyone to take stock of where they really are at in a given life moment. Huxley writes: “the bird cocked its head and looked at him first with the right eye, then with the left. After which it opened its orange bill, whistled ten or twelve notes of a little air in the pentatonic scale, made a noise like somebody having hiccups, and then, in a chanting phrase, do do sol do, “Here and now, boys; here and now, boys.’ The words pressed a trigger, and all of a sudden he remembered everything” (Huxley, 5-6). Remembering where we are on our AU journey helps us recall how far we’ve come and how much success we can draw upon in moments of nervousness.
To adequately accomplish our goals we have to calmly collect ourselves and press into service that greatly under-valued, yet absolutely-crucial-when-reading-and-writing (not to mention that third R, ‘rithmetic) skill: attention span. Attention span is a skill akin to crocheting or weaving or operating a circular saw. It’s also the first thing the birds in Huxley’s book chirp: “Attention!” (Huxley, 1962, p.1).
At AU attention span may be the skill to acquire, so that the passing of time doesn’t lead us to pass by our studies. Anxiety begins where our focus lapses and we feel a loss of control. Remember how high school teachers used to implore us to be self-starters? They’d employ the phrase “no one is going to baby sit you when you go off to college”. Well not only does no one baby sit us at AU there’s not even a professor or fellow student in the building! Like common courtesy or table manners, we grow into the skill of attentiveness. To be effective learners we need to adopt a certain rational and scientific mindset to our studies. As with literacy itself, our development carries us along in Elias’ “civilizing process.” He elaborates, “scientific modes of thought cannot be developed and become generally accepted unless people renounce their primary, unreflecting, and spontaneous attempt to understand all their experience in terms of its purpose and meaning for themselves. The development that led to more adequate knowledge and increasing control of nature was therefore, considered from one aspect, also a development toward greater self-control by men” (Elias, 1975)
A humorous, and slightly tragic, example of how culture has changed is provided by Henry Miller. Flea infestations in 2019 tend to be a thing of the past, but imagined pestilence is alive and well in the likes of exam and deadline anxiety. Here’s how Miller describes his friend’s sense of being overwhelmed and persecuted:
“‘Apparently the boss wanted to get rid of him. But since he had nothing on Osiecki, he was at a loss how to do it.’
‘So that’s why he puts the lice in your desk every night, eh?’ piped O’Mara, slipping me the horse wink.
‘I don’t say that he does it. All I know is that they’re there every morning’ and with this our friend would begin scratching himself” (Miller, 2004, p. 257).
A tickle can become an itch and shortly grow into a huge annoyance. That’s the disease of procrastination and its attendant anxiety. It can be a compounding challenge. If we tell ourselves “I’m stuck, I’ll phone the tutor during her hours” we all too easily slip into that coma of life itself. And weeks go by. Tick tock. Ominously our contract date creeps into view over the horizon like some apocalyptic asteroid. Soon it glows menacingly. But we need not be afraid; “keeping calm and studying on” means that we can take charge of our studies as well as our leisure. Maximum success doesn’t mean maximum strain so much as being aware that it’s in our own hearts and minds that our success originates and is perpetuated.
If we feel plagued by deadline nuisances in what ought to be an exercise in growth and development, then maybe it’s time to just chill for a bit and get perspective. We are the animators of our academic sojourn, the creators of our own destiny. Where once university education was only the domain of dorm-room denizens and classroom attendees, our learning has the capacity to evolve far beyond our struggles with the pests of procrastination.