Fly on the Wall—A Marathon of Learning

Distance education can seem like a marathon: a lot of work over a long time with the end goal seeming to recede ever-further into the distance.  Like snowshoeing through falling snow, our trail can seem, at best, nebulous.  Marathons also imply suffering rewarded with moral and physical gratification.  At AU our struggles over months and years are worth it but we have to pace ourselves.  A young man in ancient Greece, who ran that first forty-two-kilometre marathon literally, delivered a message of the victory of democratic forces at the town of Marathon.  Upon his arrival he dropped dead on the spot; “Pheidippides ran from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens in order to relay news of the victory.  He only said, “We were victorious!” and collapsed and died from exhaustion,”  (The Athens Marathon, 2016).  Let this tragedy be a warning to us all, lest we burn ourselves out in our academic exuberance.

To manage our exertion at AU requires a fine tethering of our ambitions for productivity and our whims toward inspiration.  The latter can propel us forward in great bursts of progress, but the former are the shoes we choose for long term success.  Seeing the rest of our life as the learning process it is can provide a framework for managed progress.  Having a purpose in the rest of our life, as with the incipient democratic forces in their battle at Marathon, can only help grease the levers of our academic minds.  Maybe we have big dreams over the rainbow of our graduation or maybe we just know that it’ll feel great to finish this one course, but the key is to place ourselves in a larger context.  There’s a reason so many marathons (on pavement or on snow) involve charity; otherwise, why push ourselves at all?  “Because it’s there” is too trite an explanation to be taken seriously when we consider how much work it takes to woodshed our way to academic success.  Without a larger goal we’d all probably just ramble around writing blogs or something.

Six months is a marathon period in which to complete our individualized study.  What we don’t want to do is push ourselves too hard or too constantly, lest our inner academic ticker fail in our quest to meet challenging time requirements.  It’s one thing to resolve to do well and another thing to be unrealistic.

Back in the Day

Back in high school gym class we’d often do cross-country running.  A few students would burst ahead at the start (some so they could dally amidst shadowy cedar shrubs and commit various minor misdemeanours such as smoking cigarettes).  Others would waffle around at the outset only to be whipped into some semblance of a jog as the teacher finished taking attendance.  Maybe he’d even blow his whistle, but that’d merely elicit laughter.  At AU our tutors aren’t there to badger us into our senses any more than college profs in a brick and mortar setting are paid to politely ask us to affix our eyes ‘up here’ or to ‘put our thinking caps on’.  In our university, as in our lives, we have to be our own self-starters; if we fail it’s largely down to us that we didn’t bother to think about the consequences of our actions or inactions.

It’s with the third set of gym students that another problem arise; these kids would run and keep running, pausing to catch their breath but only doing so while slowing to a mild pace rather than by plopping down in some old lady’s petunias.  These students worked hard and their taxing effort paid dividends.  They might actually make the track and field team, for instance, or find true love at the finish line as their runner’s high kicked in and they locked eyes with a hitherto-unnoticed classmate.  These students aren’t unlike our seat-locked student selves, bound as we are to our desks in our chosen study cubby.  They had engaged in a bargain between their present selves and their future selves; if they applied themselves physically now, then they’d reap great rewards (not to mention grades) in the big metaphysical later.  A balanced flow is key to success at the marathon of distance education.

Zeno’s Paradox: No One’s Getting Anywhere

But there will always be a little bit more to study, more to write and more to do.  That’s life itself; it’s tough to just be.  Conversely, and here we may know this well as we write final essay assignments, there could also always be a little (or a lot) less in terms of our word count or our flowery verbiage.  Footnotes can themselves stretch into eternity, like some Flying Spaghetti Monster of linguistics.

Sometimes it can feel like we’re moving fast but going nowhere.  This sentiment actually has ancient origins.  Zeno of Elea noted that if a tortoise and a hare (remember that tale?) began a footrace at the same moment they would each have to transect half of the total course distance.  And then a half of the remaining half and so on.  Problem is, unlike we at AU, who know full well we’ve finished a course after we’ve sat on our keisters for three hours writing an invigilated exam, the leading hare is cosmically condemned to cross ever-teensier halves of the remaining course.

In principal, says Zeno, anything of substance is infinitely divisible into sections and the same goes for times and distances.  By this logic, to literally get from one tangible place to another is impossible because there will always be a halfway to the end left to go, no matter how tiny the increments.  Karsten Harris summarizes Zeno thus: after a series of segments of the race, “sequences decreasing unendingly in constant ratio” not unlike a series of marked intervals on a real race track or cross country skiing circuit, the rabbit “will never catch up” as the number of distances increase while their individual size decreases.  (Harries, 374).  We’re talking about an infinite surplus of fractions.  There will always be one segment left to cross, no matter how tiny the distances become.  And to cross it one must first go halfway whereupon another, albeit smaller, halfway appears.  No microscopic view can bridge these endless and ever-smaller gaps.  As such, the turtle is destined to never quite lose to the faster rabbit who will eventually tire out of frustration and go stomping off towards a Briar patch.  This leaves the turtle the victor by acclamation!  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but consistency is the ticket to ride the gravy train of success.  Small progress will lead inexorably to long term progress if only we don’t get overwhelmed by how much we must do and how teeny our academic feet may feel.  All we can do is put one foot in front of the other in this war of attrition.

Success by Faustian Bargain; Getting Somewhere by Getting Our Priorities Straight

At AU, the race to course completion is largely in our minds.  To the outer world we’re sitting the same at our laptop no matter what we’re working on.  So, to avoid burnout we have to mix mental pleasure with mental toil.  But we do so at the risk of sliding into sloth and indolence.  There’s the famous story of Faust who made a bargain with the Devil in which Faust exchanges future benefit for present benefit.  At first the outcome looks dicey for Faust’s soul but then “God is persuaded that, despite Faust’s errant ways, Faust is worthy of salvation.  So he strikes a bargain with Mephistopheles: if he can persuade Faust to abandon striving and seek rest, Mephistopheles may claim his soul.  Faust is so weary of academic learning that he dabbles in magic.  Rejected by the Earth-Spirit, he contemplates suicide but is called back to life by Easter bells.  He takes a walk, during which he encounters a beautiful young virgin, Margarete (Gretchen), and then a black poodle, which he takes back to his study.  The dog transforms into Mephistopheles, who signs a pact with Faust: if Faust should ever rest from striving, he will lose his soul.  At first, Mephistopheles tries to delight Faust with japes and drunken gatherings.  Faust’s only desire, however, is to renew his acquaintance with the modest Gretchen.” (von Goethe, 1808). To give ourselves a temporary pass from striving is a great idea.

Hard work today is generally conceded to yield rewards tomorrow; yet we may also deplete our intellectual resources if we push ourselves to study harder and faster and thus poison the academic well of our future selves.  Let’s not condemn those future selves!  On the other hand, if we work hard at school and then play hard at other sedentary mental activities at our computer we may slowly lower ourselves out of joy at our studies.  A change of scenery benefits our brains; maybe not a marathon but perhaps, like Faust, a walk.  Who knows what or who we will meet? Inspiration at the very least.

Finding Our Pace, Finding Our Purpose

To walk is not to run, however.  Many a well-meaning person has sought relief from their academic toil only to find themselves in the ultimate classroom of aesthetic and sensory ideology: a gym.  The idea that we must push ourselves in all things goes back to ancient Greece, it’s true.  When democracy was in its infancy there birthed the idea that citizens were bound to one another through their responsibilities as voting participants.  “L.  Siegfried, a German philosopher said it this way: ‘When Greeks were fighting at Marathon against the spiritually unconnected mass of Persians, they were fighting as people who had clear awareness of the right for a free political life.  The consciousness of mankind …  was born at Marathon.  We, the people of the West, must always kneel respectfully to the place where human dignity was established.’” (The Athens Marathon. 2016).  Yet, what is shared in the anonymity of a modern gym or when we take a study break to play a computer game with online friends?

Perhaps we undermine the dignity of our studies when we work hard at playing without really considering that everything we do is a form of learning—with a purpose and a meaning.  We can no sooner evade our sense that there’s meaning in all that we do than we can put aside our coursework and engage in tasks truly frivolous.  We’re always on the racetrack of life.  Perhaps only when we see existence as a classroom will the struggles in our academic courses attenuate to acquire a sense of natural comfort.  After all, we’re always learning while we’re conscious, and what is life but a race course, the attitude to which makes all the difference.  If our coursework translates into us learning to struggle, then that would be a tragic outcome of our foray into distance education.

References
von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. (1808), Faust: Der Tragödie erster Tei., Gutenberg.org.  Retrieved from: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2229
Harries, K.  (1972).  ‘Zeno of Elea’.  The Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vols.  7 & 8.  New York: Macmillan Publishing and the Free Press.
‘The Athens Marathon’.  (2016).  Apostolos Greek Tours.  Retrieved from https://www.athensmarathon.com/history/.
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