The saying goes: the devil makes work for idle hands. And yet, in the next breath, there’s an aphorism stating that hard work is its own reward. So maybe those who toil are doing so because the devil made them do it! Did we merely enroll at AU to further some masochistic need to affix our noses to the grindstone of academic life? I mean, we could have bettered ourselves with a less taxing hobby or maybe taken a different job. Something drives us to be at AU and it’s more than just a need to better our resumes. To investigate the meaning of that inner impetus that drives our studies suggest the discovery of some cosmic wheel of inspiration that hums deep within out fundament. Our essential fulfillment may depend on realizing what’s at stake in our studies: we’re searching for a better life.
AU isn’t about merely sitting and filling time, wiling away the hours in study as we unconsciously await our all-too earthly fate as mere mortals. The part of us that embodies our AU selves has a journey all its own and this speaks to the essence of our identity. Everything we feel and do illustrates who we are. And yet, even when speech—communication—is possible, there remains the rejoinder: was this me, was this the real me that emitted a thought or murmured a sound? In the right (or wrong) social contexts we can even feel like ventriloquists, merely mouthing the proper or expected answers on demand. Are we ever wholly ourselves and do the textual shards we express reflect enough of us to make it all worthwhile? There’s a certain paralysis in trying to say or write what we mean and have it feel authentic. As writer’s block in a course essay can attest; overcoming these nerves is key to academic success.
‘You Can’t Take it With You; Realizing What’s Missing as We Write Out Our Hearts’
A languid tear caught the face of a sheet of lined paper in the moment I crumpled it into a haphazard ball. I’d been away from my home and its wood stove, out on an anthropological leave for a couple of days is how I’d put it. Partying and socializing, basically, conducting fieldwork in a sense. But now was time to settle back down and write and rekindle the home fires. But what was I working at? The intention of my original article had absconded like a ghost amidst weeds, a wraith only a chipmunk can see, and even its tiny seeds seemed to have vanished like a mustard seed through the eye of a needle. In a way all ideas, all sentiments, are things that, by nature, do get lost. No wonder Neil Young sang about wanting things that lasted forever. But it’s in our pouncing after these glowing moments of erudition, with temerity and bravado, that we discover a key to academic success. Reading and writing is hard work and there are no manual directions—Ikea instructions seem a minor ‘eek’ in comparison to writing a well-worded assignment.
To have something to say on a course topic is to allow something truly new to enter the list of learning objectives. At the very least, we have to imagine new combinations of interpretations. Jacques Derrida reminds us of nostalgia for those fleeting origins, those magical flights of fancy that bring us new dreams and illuminations: “it is inspiration itself, the force of a void, the cyclonic breath of a prompter who draws his breath in, and thereby robs me of that which he first allowed to approach me and which I believed I could say in my own name.” (Derrida, 176). Even when we speak with silvery tongues the incantations our hearts know to express do not assure us that the sentiments are ours alone. Our greatest exaltation, even the meaning of our greatest life’s work, may belong to another mind like some stray linguistic trash that blew into the yard of our mind. Or our ideas may be merely from chance, like a sleepwalker who mumbles a haiku.
Henry Miller and Arthur Rimbaud
Back at my home station, at my study pedestal—where copious notes and frazzled essays are created—I began to question all of this. Is expression about facing an inexorable abyss of meaninglessness? I’m no special case; we’ve all wondered nihilistically. Henry Miller discuses the epochal (and short-lived) poet Arthur Rimbaud whose life in the 1800s burned fast and bright, halfway through he gave up poetry altogether, and then was extinguished like an ember under an avalanche.
Rimbaud’s poetry starkly fenced and illustrated the reality he found in what is now the region of Mogadishu. He was far from snowstorms but the elements of nature, and the whimsy of natural creativity, was in every word. There remains the inexorable fact that the element of communication (to whom are we writing and why?) is itself always in question. What are we saying when we really say something? In course work we must be sure to apply our perspectives to the relevant theories and heuristics on hand, but, beneath that, we want to ask our personal point of view. It’s alright to disagree with what we’re being taught if we can tease out where our intuition’s empirical origins lie. Intuition, after all, rarely lies. To bring our heart to our coursework suggests that we feel personally about the topic.
Even though we write each assignment with the tutor as our stated target, and our academic ilk as a possible audience, we also want to write things that express our authentic selves such that we don’t feel as though we merely passed time in school. Learning how to learn is a theme that includes learning to put ourselves into all that we think, feel, and do. Academic mindfulness, if you will. Each time we break linguistic bread we enter communion with our fellow beings, our readers, in a way that suggests, or even assumes, that some force of expression is passing between the participating parties. Magical, almost!
Miller, for his part, claims that Rimbaud is a unique specimen. We distance students may relate, as our unique journeys set us aside from our handier or more practical brethren in the physical realms we inhabit. Miller says that Rimbaud “is in our world but not of it; his allegiance is elsewhere. It is his mission to seduce us, to render intolerable this limited world which bounds us” (Miller, 55). To shatter these fetters we must allay our pride, that which leads us to do good schoolwork and set aside no extra time for literary dalliances, and seek out those terrifying, shadowy, nether regions of expression that are the stuff of poetry—of art—of life itself. Do we ever really say anything and does it really matter? Miller concludes that, despite the foibles of language, the written word elicits more than tears and angst: “language is a means of dealing with the unutterable and the inscrutable. As soon as the symbols become inscrutable on every level they lose their validity and effectiveness” (56).
Look too closely at a textbook’s gloss and the veneer seems smarmy; study too deeply and you need a break from the churning words. But the meaning of what we learn, that it may invest in us so deeply that we emerge changed and born anew, that is the value of distance education. And in this moment of return to my study sanctuary I remembered that I am not alone, not part of what Miller called “a species in danger of being extinguished altogether” (vii). No, thanks to the glorious rebirth potential of AU I still share in that magical experience of distance education. Winter may be season of discontent but, when we have our studies, we have purpose.