Atop a noble steed I gallop toward my fate. Wait, really? Topic sentences, like essay themes, can seem a bit pedestrian unless they’re backed up by some substance. If we just write freely without notes we’ll end up having learned very little and saying even less. Our AU education allows us to extend the basis of our being as we learn new ideas and means to express ourselves. Instead of meandering aimlessly from one trite assertion to another, our writing, applied topically, will unleash the inner ferocity of our minds in action and demonstrate our learning.
Few transcendental thoughts appear of their own accord; magical mind morsels have to be stimulated into action. Contrary to cliché notions of open-mindedness where we open our brains and receive input, sometimes the winning creative ticket begins with a direct assertion such as common sense is inherently ideological rather than practical. From there the mental horses can hoof off in all directions. Key to demonstrating the facts and concepts for our tutors is to place them in a context that lets the ideas flow of their own accord. Happily, Athabasca provides a paradoxically perfect space for us to express ourselves because anywhere and anytime can be classroom time. Personally, I find paper notebooks, snail mail journalism if we will, to be useful tools for when random epiphanies arise. What remains for us is to be ready to learn when the inspiration strikes, and to discipline our biases and predilections.
Meanwhile, on the external stimulation side of the ledger, other species can be a means to new experiences and ideas. Interacting with a horse therapist one journalist records the following experience:
“He led seven horses into the round paddock and then directed me to stand in the middle with him.
“You just need to wait here,” Greg explained. “The horse will choose you. Trust the process.”
A couple of ranch hands encouraged the horses into a gallop. They ran around the perimeter twice in one direction and then twice the other way. I followed them, turning my body in a circle as they thundered around me, their manes flowing, nostrils snorting, and hooves pounding the hard-packed earth. The force of their power vibrated through every cell in my body.”
Thrills in one’s being need not be the stuff of hyperbole. When we take a position on a topic it can often feel like the topic is choosing us. Life, too, may come to feel like a series of incidents that happen to us rather than because of us. This can be exciting or exasperating, but, academically, things are bit more cut and dried. If we haven’t studied our marks will be poor because, unlike in the drama land of scripted entertainment, we can intuit truths that we’ve encountered beforehand. Just as horses may or may not sense certain personality types that suit their fancy, we in our interpersonal realm come to be aware of who we’d like to be around and to whom we’d best say neigh. Education as adult students is quite different: by definition, learning is about acquiring new material rather than applying old methods to achieve familiar results. Some of the best AU moments may actually challenge our preconceptions. For instance, a course like PSYCH630 reveals just how many therapy approaches there are in the clinical world and how much the way we think about reality frames the way we experience it.
Nevertheless, to saddle up to success implies that we are open to what may happen and not merely projecting beliefs onto the world. Being open to opportunity and learning is in a state of mind, an attitude, and itself a starting point. The philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer states:
“Reality always stands in a horizon of desired or feared or, at any rate, still undecided future possibilities. Hence it is always the case that mutually exclusive expectations are aroused, not all of which can be fulfilled. The undecidedness of the future permits such a superfluity of expectations that reality necessarily lags behind them. Now, if a particular case, a context of meaning closes and completes itself in reality, such that no lines of meaning scatter in the void, then this reality is itself like a drama” (Gadamer, 112).
Like being chosen by a therapy horse, answers to key life questions and explanations of complex theoretical import may suddenly congeal and clarify in our minds eye. The key as a student, however, is to remain open rather than dogmatic, even after we’ve added a few new arrows to our epistemological quiver. Whereas adulthood can seem like an accumulation of wisdom, we’re wise as students of life to not resist the upturning of our intellectual apple cart. The question remains: when is it wise to open our minds to the will of the wisp where flights of fancy lead us to new and exciting educational moments? A great starting place might be to challenge our preconceptions by selecting asssignment topics that we don’t feel comfortable with or that don’t tickle our intuitive fancy.
As an undergrad sociologist I was drawn to Marxist and critical theorist interpretations of modernity, the type that spoke of iron cages of rationality (Weber) and social cohesion explanations of behavioural conformity (Durkheim). Yet, when writing a key final assignment for SOCI337 I chose Talcott Parsons, whose structural functionalism claimed that society, by nature, is fairly static and upheld by shared beliefs rather than fundamentally conflicting issues of economic class and social status. As it turned out, the horse I thought I picked also picked me. My 20-something self suddenly understood all those grim faces at Wal Mart on a Saturday afternoon; all those shoppers were stampeding about not because they were brainwashed and believed no other world was possible but because they chose to embrace being a part of something bigger than themselves as they attended a grand cathedral of conspicuous consumption.
Whereas a century ago the sociologist Thorsten Veblen had noted that keeping up with the metamorphic Jones led middle class folks to adopt expensive and time consuming aesthetic expectations for themselves and their families, Parsons had concluded that belonging to a conscious group of lifestyle shoppers was actually what people found fulfilling for the simple reason that it strengthened social bonds of belonging. Reality as it is came clearer to me than reality as I thought it ought to be and, for one essay anyway, a particular ideological horse had chosen me for a ride because I’d opened my mind. So, next time you’re not sure what to write your assignment about maybe just see what grabs you when you withdraw your beliefs from the facts at hand. Destiny, by definition after all, is partly something we receive by allowing it to pick us. From there, taking a position can be like shovelling our mental stables of ambiguity and ambivalence that we may better inhale the invigorating air of raw reality.
May the hoofbeats of inspiration commence.