Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Welcome to fall

This is the first semester in a long time that I'm on fellowship. Not having had it for a long time makes me very much appreciate the luxury of full-time research (in! an! office!).

I'm just the slightest bit sad that I'm not teaching, though; it's the beginning of fall semester, which is pretty much my favorite time of year, and though I live in the right part of town to have the White Noise moment every year, the line of minivans and the rolling Tupperware drawers on the sidewalk don't give me remotely the same feeling of ennui.* I love it when the new students arrive (although I wish they wouldn't be quite so loud at night). I love overhearing them as they wander around campus and marvel at Berkeley, freedom, dorm food, and the mysteries of the registrar's office (of which there are many).

Done right, college is an amazing thing. You can take classes in subjects you didn't even know existed, make friends with people you couldn't have encountered before. It's the intellectual big time, and scary smart people are dropping scary smart books on you and expecting you to have read them by next Thursday.

First-years are a particular delight, because it's all so new to them. Granted, this involves a certain degree of clue-lacking, sometimes a maddening degree. (The library is. Right. There.) But they're also still new enough at this college thing not to feel like they have to fake a cool sophistication, or to be really bad at it if they do feel that way. I'm sorry to be missing my own little slice of this year's first-years--something I'm used to getting in the fall from teaching composition. They're often amazingly creative and delighted to encounter new things.

Maybe I'm nostalgic because, planning this trip east, I've been in touch with several of my own college friends. I still have fond memories of a whole pack of us first-years heading to physics first thing in the morning, through the snow, usually after a perfectly repulsive dorm breakfast. (It was in college that I learned the true value of toast.) Back then I was allowed to take physics! Imagine that. I took math, too, lots of it. I took history. I read Foucault for the first time. It was great.

I think a lot of people my age are a little nostalgic for that period of life, when you're old enough to know something but young enough to be allowed to not know things--when you're, like Queequeg, an undergraduate. I was always the kind of student who was excited to get back to school, and seeing the new students always reminds me of that particular state of openness and possibility.

By calling it nostalgia I'm already putting the memories in scare quotes, of course. There are things I really don't miss about that period of my life, and I sometimes see those things (exaggeratedly, perhaps?) in my own students. Many of the women won't speak up in class, for instance.

I remember when I realized, to my very great surprise, that I always framed objections as questions. It would go something like this:

Me: "I'm not sure I understand your what you're saying, especially as it relates to this thing on page X. I'm probably just being slow. Could you explain it further to me?"

Translation: "The passage on page X says the exact opposite of the account you just gave of it. Did you even do the reading?"

I didn't even realize I was doing this, let alone take it into my head to stop, until my fourth year of college. I could vote before I could undisguisedly argue with a classmate! It was absolutely unconscious, automatic. I had to train myself out of it; it took a few years.

On the whole, I'm glad I'm out of that phase. Still, college was a particularly delicious kind of difficulty. I hope our students find that, too. Autumn is my favorite season, noise and all.

*Don DeLillo, White Noise (1985):
The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags, with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags -- onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

I've witnessed this spectacle every September for twenty-one years.

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