Ever wake up feeling like a different creature than you were yesterday? We at AU emerge from the cocoon states of our less educated selves every day; the learning is ongoing and that’s why it’s called continuing education. As we study harder and glean faster, we may see the world anew and feel our essence morph in unexpected ways too. So instead of just faking it till we make it, let’s for a moment investigate the consequences of really being more than one self. We’re maybe a bit like the hero of Franz Kafka’s classic novel The Metamorphosis who wakes up early for his job in sales only find that he has morphed into a weird insect.
Paralyzed by the weirdness of his new physiology, Kafka’s man-sect struggles to even get out of bed; parallels with our academic minds that outgrow our past dawn worries—only to be stymied by new academic challenges like dour deadlines and study stupors—are all too obvious. Seemingly overnight, we may find that too many tendrils are occupying our grey matter such that the noodle in our noggin can barely move! For Kafka’s protagonist the struggle is literal, or literally a metaphor for workaday life itself: he “watched his little legs struggling against each other more wildly than ever, if that were possible, and saw no way of bringing any order into this arbitrary confusion, he told himself again that it was impossible to stay in bed and that the most sensible course was to risk everything for the smallest hope of getting away from it” (17) The chaos of an internalized rat race, or cockroach convention, is thus embodied in an inability to get out of bed in the morning. While a body that feels like a straitjacket can be a struggle for so many people with real disabilities and give pause to our petty scholastic worries, worries that often are more in our head than in a diagnostic manual, many of us at AU face the task of overcoming anxiety about our success rate in our scholastic endeavours.
Keep Calm and Critter On
Lead us not into a catatonic state, we might pray in our secular way! After all, academic ataraxia (a calm, unperturbed state) is achievable when we realize that we’re locomoting in our minds all the time. Kafka’s salesman realizes this too, and we can relate if we remember how many times we’ve had to calm our inner turmoil in the face of exam anxiety or a mountain of an essay to edit. Sometimes we have to surf the urge to panic. He proceeds “to remind himself that cool reflection, the coolest possible, was much better than desperate resolves. In such moments he focused his eyes as sharply as possible on the window, but, unfortunately, the prospect of the morning fog, which muffled even the other side of the narrow street, brought him little encouragement and comfort” (17) In chaos begins possibility, though. A foggy mind may be a symptom of a working mind, or at least one rife with possibilities.
Out of mental murk anything is possible, and creativity is key to making our studies enjoyable. To clear the way for clairvoyant thoughts we must present ourselves in our own minds in a way that represents who we are to ourselves. Most of us probably have moments of brilliance punctuated with stretches of procrastination; the more we accept it all the less we will tense up and resist moments of anxiety.
Speaking philosophically, what’s required is an acceptance of the ontological promiscuity our being. This especially applies to our being as distance students far removed from the comforting platitudes of brick-and-mortar campus life amidst a hive of students with whom we are very much alike.
Deconstructing Representations of our Self (Even to Our Self!)
It’s a big leap to claim that we know ourselves as well as we think we do; after all, even in our own minds we live in a hall of mirrors that represent ourselves only from one of a panoply of possible points of view. Not feeling like oneself one foggy-minded morning has nothing on considering when, if ever, we really are ourselves and how me might tease out the one seeing us from the us that is being seen and so on. But to make peace with our many selves—and especially moments when nerves get the best of our motivation and we feel liek just curling up under the covers—we best consider the gleeful impossibility of ever having a clear picture of our essence.
Jacques Derrida wryly noted that representation itself is problematic, and a desire to look behind the curtain of cognition to get to the real self (in Kafka’s book to get back to being a normal human), deceives the mind because such an idealistic goal tends to assume that we have an original essence that can be discovered or even recreated through a map or facsimile. He wrote that “this critique lives on the naivete of representation. It supposes at once that representation follows a first presence and restores a final presence. One does not ask how much of presence and how much of representation are found in presence. In criticizing representation as the loss of presence, in expecting a reappropriation of presence from it, in making it an accident or a means, one installs oneself in the distinction between presentation and representation, within the effect of this scission” (322). So we’re never as much like who we feel like we are. Nor are we ever reducible to one representation or another. In other words, there’s no outside of ourselves no matter how much we want to shake our academic jitters.
Your Skin May Crawl But You’re You Through it All
Embarking on this new journey, or continuing it for years, involves the unspooling of a new identity Yet, the me of identity is by nature many. We’re both audience and performer when it comes to being ourselves through thoughts, words, and actions. And here Mannville, Alberta’s most famous sociological specimen, Erving Goffman, is key. Among others, he noted that role distance is how we represent our performative essence to whatever key audience is at hand. Role distancing is the act of separating oneself from the role. Role Conflict occurs when some roles that have to be played contradict other important roles.
We are always ourselves playing a role and, ironically, it’s an awareness of this fact that allows us to play a healthy version of ourselves to ourselves. Being paralyzed in the mind is like Kafka’s protagonist waking up as some sort of bug. To scurry out of bed and get to work he must first come to terms with the mysteries of his evolution. And to fit AU into the larger segmentation of roles and tasks in our larger lives means we have to make peace with the contradictions and ambiguities that emerge, larvae-like, within our previous identities.
Aromatic Conifers of Potential…it’s not All About Being a Bug!
Okay, so for those who would prefer to never imagine themselves as an arthropod, metaphoric or otherwise, here’s a woodsy rejoinder: in our beloved Canadian Rocky Mountains, and across this great country, wonderful aromatic juniper plants embody ontological promiscuity too: they may live as a shrub or as a tree or even switch from one form to another over their lifetimes. Happily, most of us at AU chose to return to school life to improve our hitherto-moribund minds, jobs, or prospects. Unlike Kafka’s hero, we aren’t victims of mysterious circumstance. We picked our new role as student. And remembering this simple fact is surely half the struggle as we overcome the challenges of self-doubt along the way.