Emergent within our adult lives are many facets to be proud of: kids, families, careers, car payments, mortgages. Yet, where there’s responsibility there’s also the potential for stress and strain and the pressing need to, as the saying goes, put on our big boy undies or big girl panties. Some realities of growing up apply at any phase of life, right? Cultural times change and so do mythologies about what sort of society we live in; while all the world may be at our fingertips along with that comes a whole galaxy of stresses and distractions to derail our AU careers.
Consternation in the face of macro-sociological reality is not a new event; an 18th Century German philosophy movement even named themselves after these twin structures of moribund bliss: Sturm und Drang. “Although it’s now a generic synonym of ‘turmoil,’ the term was originally used in English to identify a late 18th-century German literary movement whose works were filled with rousing action and high emotionalism, and often dealt with an individual rebelling against the injustices of society” (Merriam-Webster, online). While Sturm und Drang encapsulated responses to vanishing romanticism and ascendant industrialism, it remains today in such challenges as the perpetual pecking of clickbait into the limited space of our studious attention spans.
The struggle to find meaning and focus to one’s life is as real then as now, and, as students, the differences may be less than they seem. No matter how we mature in other areas of our life, becoming socially adept at kibbitzing through multiple simultaneous conversations for instance, the oldest yoke of all remains: the learned ability to affix our mental cart to one topic for prolonged succession. Attention span is surely a holy grail adult skill. In particular, good scholarly efforts remain a journey guided by, and wholly requiring, an effective attention span. There’s no cap and gown and diploma without them, just as there’s no older, wise, toddler without the underwear to match.
Whereas in the past basic life needs, like drinkable water and decent nutrition, may have vexed would-be academics, our challenges now more likely involve an excess of distractions often claiming to count as entertainment. Ground zero for this struggle, and its attendant requirement that we don our adult apparel for our adult education, is surely that magical pocket humunculus known as the smart phone. From the chemical outcomes priming our neurological pathways due to its incessant beeping and buzzing and intermittent rewards thanks to a social media like or a comment, one commentator even claims that “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works” (Palihapitiya in Haynes, online). And if that’s not enough, there’s even phantom text message syndrome whereby our brains think our phones are vibrating when by all objective measures they are not. “The phenomenon is also known as ‘vibranxiety,’ ‘ringxiety,’ ‘fauxcellarm,’ ‘phantom phone calls,’ or ‘audio illusion’ (Sauer et al., online). No one needs more ghosts to haunt their complex schedules and conflicting life realities!
Clearly those big adult britches have changed context, if not necessity. Nevertheless, we at AU are granted the possibility to allow modern technology to enliven our studies. With the right priorities and motivation, online learning has never been more interactional or held more potential for personal growth. During COVID-19 everyone, in a sense, became a distance participant in their lives and this allowed many of us to hone our already elevated learning skills. Distractions, though awfully abundant, can also be teaching moments: if we can overcome our smart phone, we will become more disciplined students. Every challenge indeed is an opportunity.
Finally, the mark of a successful scholar remains the ability to engage with material in isolation. Rene Descartes famously sat pondering a candle and wondering how he could know what he knew beyond the baseline fact that he was a knower knowing. And at AU, no matter our chosen academic major, the key to us learning is us being there, fully present and aware, to absorb course material. Whereas a good telephone conversation with our tutors takes basically the form of snaring a brick-and-mortar professor in her office, the world of online interaction means there are an awful lot more non-academic moments of discourse that compete for our attention spans. Now, online phone calls are literally a possibility at any moment. Sometimes talking, even with peer students, can get in the way of the actual writing process. Although Zoom chats and online conferences among students do imply a certain interface of beings with beings that ought to encourage the flourishing of our studies, we, in the end, remain alone in a physical location to write our essay outlines, drafts, and final papers.
In this sense, to truly buck up and get our schooling done means actually making our studies for a time more isolated, individual, and solitary. Loneliness is part of every writing project and that allows us to reflect down the mysterious hall of mirrors of our minds as they ponder and ruminate on our course material and what we can add to the proceedings. Like musical composers or thespian playwrights, it is what happens in our solitary dens that leads us to share our creativity and insights with others. Sometimes the inverse is true, but, even then, we must first read the assigned readings and answer questions pertaining to learning objectives.
The essence of learning is about learning to learn for ourselves, a core reason Athabasca is such a great university. Divested of security blankets and easy cheats, our AU student-hood teaches us the ways and means to truly succeed, such that we can say with certainty that we were the main impetus to our success. Sink or swim, our best selves will emerge with each assignment, essay, and exam. Besides rote rooting for facts and figures, our adult education focus as students requires us to combine old information into a semblance of new ideas. While some essay topics are more direct than others, the purpose of exams and assignments involves us coming up with a thesis of our own to explore, illustrate, and defend. In terms of being personally involved with out studies, there’s surely no App for that!