Posts Tagged ‘university’

I had barely been at university for twenty minutes before I realized how inadequate it could make people feel. I had just sat down near the top right of the cavernous lecture theater for Introduction to Fiction when a young woman dressed in pink and white arrived.

She looked so upset that I immediately asked, “Is everything okay?”

She burst into tears. “Can I do anything for you?”

She shook her head, and sat for maybe a minute, sniffling. Abruptly, she fled up the stairs of the lecture theater and disappeared into the hall.

Possibly, she broke down because she was embarrassed that a stranger had noticed her. But I imagined that, like me, she was new to the campus and overwhelmed by the experience. During my first year, I remembered her many times, as well as my own inability to help her, although I never saw her again.

Not that I ever broke down and cried, but I could understand how someone might want to. My first year of university was a time when most of the assumptions by which I lived my life changed. I was abruptly free to do almost anything I wanted, but with that freedom came a vast indifference. It was all the same to the university whether I attended classes or not. Nobody care if I handed in assignments. Whatever I did, the university would continue to grind on the same as ever, processing whatever data it had about me exactly the same way as it would any other data. I had deliberately gone to a university where few of my high school friends had gone, and now I was feeling lonely with the intensity that only teenagers have.

The second semester, if anything, was worse than the first. Noticing that the subject matter got much more specific in second year, I had deliberately arranged my first semester so I could take second year classes in my second semester.

Consequently, I felt massively inadequate. The teaching assistant, let alone the professor, seemed so much more knowledgeable than me that I despaired of ever equaling them. How, I kept asking myself had I ever imagined that reading through my high school library could possibly prepare me for university courses? My grades were high, but I felt like I was surviving by luck alone. I was an impostor, elbowing myself in to a place I had no business being, and it was only a matter of time before I was denounced as the phony I obviously was.

I started talking every chance I could during the tutorial, hoping that, as unlikely as it seemed, I might make up in participation what I lacked in knowledge. The ploy seemed desperate, since I had already figured out that, unlike high school, university reacted to results rather than effort. I was steering a narrow line along the edge of panic, sure that I was about to fall off at any second.

One day, a woman in my tutorial with whom I had had coffee once or twice remarked about how much I seemed to know.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “I just know how to fake it.” If the words were flippant, my tone was anything but.
She looked dubious, so I added, “Seriously, I just know how to make the most of what I do know.”

Later that day, on the bus home, I realized that, in trying to sound modest I had said something important and true. Over the next few weeks, I started thinking of the possible implications.

One of my courses was Romantic and Victorian Literature, and we had spend an inordinate amount of time on Wordsworth, who was the professor’s and teaching assistant’s special interest. But, when we turned to Shelley, I was able to correct something the professor said in lecture, and one tutorial, it was obvious that I knew considerably more about Shelley than the teaching assistant did.

These instances cheered me immensely. Even more importantly, in thinking about them, I realized an obvious but important fact: I was never going to absorb all the possible knowledge in the world, as I had vaguely assumed possible in high school. In fact, I was never going to do as much as win a general overview of all possible knowledge. The best I could was find a niche or two of expertise.

On other subjects, the best I could do was sound attentive and learn a few basic facts – faking it, if I was feeling cynical, or accepting my limits, if I was being realistic. No matter how much I tried, there would always be people who knew more than I did on some subjects. But that didn’t matter because, that was reciprocal – in my chosen specialties, they would be as out of their depths as I would be in theirs.

In some ways, I never have outgrown my childhood wish to know everything. Decades later, I still prefer to be a generalist, knowing a little about as many subjects as possible rather than a lot about a single thing. For better or worse, I have what my partner used to call “a magpie mind,” that’s always being distracted by shiny new tidbits of information.

But more to the point, that was the end of most of my feelings of inadequacy. I was – or could be – on an equal footing with almost anyone, if only I chose to make the effort. True, there might sometimes be geniuses whose expertise I could never match. But I could choose to win a rough competence, and even geniuses would have areas where they were less than brilliant.

With these conclusions, I learned to live with myself, as well as freeing myself to admire experts without jealousy. I still had flashes of inadequacy, but, in general, I never thought of myself as an impostor ever again. At worst, I am only ever a person at the start of a particular learning curve that I might or might not choose to ascend some day.

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For academics, their thesis defense is often a highlight of their lives. Not for me. My defense was over so quickly that I almost felt disappointed. In fact, it was so quick that sometimes I almost wonder if I’m really entitled to the Master’s degree that the diploma says that I earned.

Probably every grad student sweats over their oral, and, nine times out of ten, I’m told, it’s wasted anxiety. A successful grad student is a form of prestige in academia, and few supervising committees will let a candidate defend unless they are likely to succeed. A failing student makes their committee look bad, so, while committee members may harrow a student who’s preparing, and ask a few tough questions at the defense, they’re generally not out to cause problems.

However, as a grad student I didn’t know the situation. It didn’t help that the one defense that I witnessed so I would know what to expect was a last ditch effort to squeeze the student out the door before she used up her time in graduate school. Unlike most defenses, that one was testy, especially since the candidate obviously had trouble thinking on her feet and several inadequate answers resulted in extended cross-examinations. When she was finally told that she had passed, you could see the tension draining out of her. Watching her, I got the idea that a defense was an ordeal, and success was by no means as pre-ordained as it usually is.

In addition, I had my own reasons to be nervous. I was writing about science fiction – and not science fiction old enough to be of historical interest, like the H. G. Wells thesis that had been successfully defended a few years earlier. My subject, the fantasist Fritz Leiber, was new material, and, in many department members’ eyes, somewhat dubious. I had heard enough remarks to realize that, were I to fail, several tenured faculty members would not be unbearably disappointed, and never mind that my thesis was original work and almost guaranteed publication.

As if that wasn’t precarious enough, my thesis supervisor was the department’s token humanist. By working with him, I had announced to the entire department that I was not in any of the popular critical camps, such as the feminists or the post-colonials. It wasn’t that I disagreed with these camps politically or socially, you understand – quite the contrary. But, unlike members of these camps, I had been heard to express a number of heresies. Books were to be enjoyed, I had insisted at departmental meetings, and not simply studied. Moreover, I had often said that conscientious critics should fit the theory to the work, not the work to the theory. Such ideas amounted to a questioning not only of critical method, but of how most members of the department worked. Under these circumstances, I didn’t feel I could take my defense for granted.

My particular worry was my second reader. The thesis supervisor wasn’t a problem, or he wouldn’t have been working with me in the first place, and all his objections had already been handled while I was struggling with the drafts. Similarly, the external examiner was a minor fantasy writer, so he was unlikely to be hostile, even though he would probably ask some questions to determine the extent of my knowledge.

However, the second reader was a problem. He had made the odd comment that suggested that he disapproved of my subject matter, and he hadn’t had time to read my thesis until just before the defense, so I didn’t know what points he was likely to bring up. About all I could do was prepare some explanations of why my subject was worthy of attention, readying a defense in depth that guarded against every attack which I could anticipate. And, being imaginative, I could anticipate a lot of possible attacks.

With these worries, I spent a fitful night the day before the defense. The morning was worse; tap me on my shoulder from behind, and I would have exploded like a Prince Rupert’s drop. Mercifully, the defense was early in the morning, or I might have collapsed in fetal position in the nearest corner.

I sauntered into the room with all the nonchalance of a condemned prisoner being taken for execution. But to my amazement, my own defense was nothing like the one I had witnessed. My supervisor and the external examiner asked a few questions to probe my knowledge, and I found I could not only speak but summon some eloquence as well.

However, all the time, I waited for the second reader to pounce. To my eye, he looked abstracted, a little impatient, as if just waiting for his chance to shoot me down. Yet, apart from a comment that Leiber hadn’t done anything in forty years as effective as his story “Coming Attraction,” the second reader took no part in the discussion, although my supervisor turned to him several times.

I couldn’t understand it. But, finally, my supervisor asked the second reader if he had any questions. The second reader muttered something, and my defense was over, fifteen minutes after it began. I followed tradition by leaving the room while the merits of my work were discussed, and, anxiously fretted to Trish about what the second reader might be saying without me in the room.

But I needn’t have worried. Less than twenty minutes after my defense began, I was called back and told that, apart from a few exceptionally minor corrections, my thesis was accepted and I had my second post-secondary degree.

The second reader disappeared almost immediately, and the supervisor explained his strange behavior. The second reader was subject to petit mal, moments of mental blackout in which he could barely function, and an attack had hit him during the defense. However, rather than plead illness and ask for a rescheduling, the second reader preferred to act as though nothing was wrong and nobody had noticed the lapse.

To this day, I still don’t know if the second reader planned to give me a tough time. Possibly not; he had a reputation for being exacting and a bit grumpy, but also fair. But after all my uncertainty leading up the defense, his reaction was so much of an anti-climax as to be ironic. More relieved than I could possibly explain, I went off to treat my supervisor and external examiner to an afternoon-long lunch, at which I polished off a bottle of retsina by myself, and barely noticed the effects.

Later, I started wondering if I had missed something. I wondered if I could have been better prepared for life as an academic if I had faced a withering and ruthless quizzing and managed to stand my ground. It all seemed too easy somehow, and, although no one complained, to this day I often feel like I obtained my Master’s under false or irregular circumstances.

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I spent several years of my university career hitchhiking to and from university For the first two years, I’d bus to work, then hitch from the campus to downtown Vancouver, or even home to the North Shore. Later, when I moved closer to campus, I’d regularly hitch while waiting for the bus at the foot of the hill, hoping someone would stop and save me a few minutes.

To many today, this hitchhiking must seem appallingly dangerous. At the time, though, it made me only slightly uneasy. I was an ultra-fit young male, so I was in minimal danger. Besides, I rationalized, I further minimized any danger by hitching only to and from campus – as though, just because someone was associated with the university, they wouldn’t be predators. Sometimes, too, I got such a good ride that I saved my bus fare.

People being what they are, I’m sure that hitchhikers, especially young women, must have been harassed and abused. But, if so, the university took care not to publicize these incidents. For many years, the university actually encouraged hitchhiking, setting by three hitching posts where people could wait for a ride. I was a grad student before the hitching posts were dismantled, and many people protested their removal, even though times had changed, and the campus women’s groups were complaining by then about such an irresponsible policy.

All that I can say is that I never had the slightest problem. The first few times I hitched, I was nervous, but in those days I was telling myself that I needed to be more adventuresome, so I overrode my apprehensions, and soon learned to take them for granted. For better or worse, hitching seemed an adventure. It allowed me to meet people I would never otherwise have met. Often, for a semester at a time, I had regular rides, although I rarely knew the names of my benefactors, for all the far-ranging conversations that we had.

Of the hundreds of rides I cadged, several stand out. One was from a battered pickup truck containing two long-haired musicians and their dog. They did a hilarious fire and brimstone preaching routine to a banjo accompaniment, and insisted on performing for me on the spot, the driver wedging his banjo between his stomach and the wheel, and taking his hands off the wheel to strum. They made me feel hopelessly straight, but I was proud that I could enjoy their company.

Another time, a ride let me out at Main and Hastings. Even then, the intersection was the heart of Vancouver’s skid row, although those were prosperous times and the area was much safer then than it is now. But to a sheltered kid like me, the intersection felt like dangerous territory. I walked eight or ten blocks until I got to the business section, and only relaxed when I boarded the bus for home.

Yet another time, in my second year, I got a ride to North Vancouver, a couple of miles from home, which was an easy jog to home. At the time, I was uncomfortably aware that I came from an affluent municipality – never mind that my family was no more than middle class – and went to great lengths to hide the fact.

Consequently, I lied to the driver about where I lived. When he went on to ask if I were interested in car-pooling, I lied again, saying I was about to move. After he dropped me off, I went half a mile out of my way to pretend that I was heading towards the area where I said I lived, and kept looking over my shoulder all the way home in case for some reason the driver might be following me. My nervousness was due to my discomfort at having lied so lightly, and was directly responsible for me resolving to eradicate or at least minimize my lying – not so much for moral reasons, so much as because of the complications that a lie could cause. Even then, I could see how ridiculous and unfounded my behavior was.

All these episodes were years ago, and I haven’t hitchhiked since. Probably I wouldn’t now, unless I was with at least one other person. But, although in retrospect, I think that I was lucky (perhaps my naivety protected me), I can’t help feeling nostalgic for a time when hitchhiking seemed a natural thing to do, and trusting yourself to strangers didn’t seem rash.

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Looking back, I sometimes think that my youth was not nearly as mis-spent as it should have been. A case in point: the night I helped to erect the dragon crossing.

The idea began as a joke at the university Medieval Club. Newly moved out from my parents’ house and feeling I had missed out on the socializing at university because I was too busy commuting, I had joined as soon as the fall semester began. Loosely connected to the Society for Creative Anachronism, the club centered largely on dressing up and some moderate drinking in the pub. Punk or new age, it definitely wasn’t – but we enjoyed the thought of what we called “freaking the mundanes” by wearing costumes and doing the odd bit of impromptu theater. Probably, we weren’t nearly the novelty we imagined.

Anyway, we were talking one night about how to publicize the club more. The ideas kept getting sillier as the night wore on. Vaguely remembering something I had seen a few years before, I proposed the idea of a dragon crossing: a sign on the university ring road, with some spray-painted giant tracks going across the road nearby.

The idea wouldn’t do much for publicity, since we couldn’t admit what we had done without risking the wrath of the campus authorities. At best, it would give people a chuckle and get them thinking of things medieval.

At least, so we hoped and so we began preparations. One Club member, who had worked as a flagger on a road crew the previous summer, produced a Yield sign that she had somehow acquired (we didn’t ask how). I produced some giant stencils of foot prints, and someone else some paint.

In theory, we had everything planned. We would gather at the pub for some liquid courage, and wait until closing time, when fewer cars would be on the road to spoil our handiwork. One person would wait up the road and act as a spotter, in case campus security found us. A couple of others would dig a hole for the sign while others painted the foot prints across the road.
In practice, things went with less than Mission Impossible ease.

After the pub closed, we drove to the park next to the campus, and climbed the hill to the ring road. We even thought to turn the cars around so we could make a quick getaway if necessary (we were so proud of that detail).

The hill was steeper and, in the dark, more crowded with trees than we remembered, but with a few stumbles and moments of disorientation, we reached the road. For a long time, that was the last thing that went right.

Crouched in the scrub alder, we waited for the cars to thin out. There were far more than we expected. When we finally psyched up enough to start work, we could barely get a few minutes of work before the spotter called out a warning and we scattered like rabbits with pounding hearts.

A traffic sign, we soon found, needed a far deeper whole than any of us imagined. It also needed packed earth around the base of the post if it wasn’t going to sag.

As for the footprint templates, they would have worked a lot better if anyone had remembered to bring masking tape to hold them in position. It didn’t help, either, that cars kept running over our work before it had dried.

Eventually, the inevitable happened, and campus security surprised us by coming on us from the direction in which we had no spotter. We scattered, quickly getting lost – only to find that one of us had kept her head and, knowing the campus cop, assured him that we weren’t doing anything really destructive. But, good middle-class kids that we were, we were terrified, and called it a night.

A few days later, in the cold light of day, our efforts did not match our vision. The Dragon Crossing sign looked distinctly amateurish, the post it was on had a definite tilt to it, and the tracks were smeared with tire marks. But they made the campus paper, leaving us in paroxysms of regret at the thought that we couldn’t claim credit.

Still, someone must have noticed our efforts. A few years later, the science fiction club produced their own Mutant Crossing, with green glow-in-the-dark footprints. “Immortality is ours,” those of us still on campus murmured. But the truth is that all of us had been scared straight by our own daring, and almost getting caught, and would never again do anything wilder than wear medieval costumes on campus.

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I was at the Simon Fraser University book store downtown this afternoon when the cashier recognized me as the instructor for a class she had taken over a decade ago. That sort of recognition happens less often than you might expect, although I must have taught five or six thousand students overall. But it does happen once or twice a year, and never fails to make me edgy with the start of panic.

Partly, my panic is due to the fact that so much has happened since my instructor days that I hardly feel like the same person I was then. My ambitions, my career, and my whole outlook have changed dramatically since then – and not just once, but two or three times. I’m not much for nostalgia, thinking it a form of self-indulgent depression, so I don’t particularly welcome the unexpected reminders of the past.

For another, my interactions with a former student is necessarily very different from the one we once had. I am informal to a fault, but, in the past, the student-instructor relationship put us in an unequal relation. Now when we meet, the relationship is more equal. Or it should be. But the former inequality still colors what happens unless we are very careful. And the last thing I want to be is condescending, or assuming a superiority I no longer had nor wanted in the first place.

Even more to the point, one or two meetings with former students haven’t always gone particularly well. One former student lives in my neighborhood, and we often exchange a sentence or two when we encounter each other running, but, with other students, the encounters haven’t been so smooth. One student looked me up asking for a recommendation for graduate school at a difficult time in my life, and was put out when I told her – truthfully – that under the then-current English Department chair, my recommendation wouldn’t do her very good. Another met me coming out of the Canada Games Swimming Pool in New Westminster, and only my sense of my own ridiculousness kept me from sucking my gut in while we talked.

But the main reason these meetings make me feel uneasy is that I wonder how I am remember. By my own estimation, I was a committed instructor with scintillating lectures and a good rapport with students – but, by that same measure, who isn’t? The fact that my evaluations and frequent rehiring suggest that my self-estimation is not complete fantasy doesn’t help any, because (for all I know, at times), I could be meeting one of the handful of students who disliked me or complained about a grade.

Told that I once taught someone, my first impulse is to blurt out something like, “Well, I hope you have happy memories of the class.” But that would sound like I am angling for the very approval that I want, making it impossible for me to know if the reply was sincere or given out of pity. At the very least, it would put the ex-student on the spot. So, instead, I make small talk, hoping that I will gradually pick up the impression of what the student thought of me.

And, usually it is positive, as I would know if I used any sense in the matter. After all, why would someone reveal themselves to me if they had any animosity? They’d either ignore me or bop me on the head with the nearest blunt instrument the moment my back was turned. But logic has little to do with my reaction, so I am always disconcerted by these meetings, and probably always will be.

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The concept of alternate worlds has fascinated me since I first heard of it as a young teenager. Not just the big ones, like a world where William the Bastard went down to defeat at Hastings and a Saxon England looked to Scandinavia rather than the Mediterranean for culture, ir the Haida had an empire built on muskets and the slave trade when the first European explorers came by, but also the small ones of my own life. Sometimes, in the few minutes between turning off the light and falling asleep, I like to think of them.

For instance, if I hadn’t had trouble pronouncing a hard “C” sound when I was six, would I have become so interested in reading and writing? If an elementary school coach hadn’t ignored my request to run the half mile and made me determined to prove him wrong, would I have started exercising regularly?

And consider the girls I had a crush on in elementary school. If I had ever had the courage to date one of them, would we have split after a few months? Would I have preferred them to the girls I met in high school? Perhaps we would have married, and had children or even divorced.

Similarly, if I hadn’t dropped off the track team after my first year at university, would I have eventually reached the Olympics in the days before it became so tarnished and tawdry? The idea is not impossible, since a couple of those in my training group did go to the Olympics, although my chances of being in the final, let alone the medals, would have been remote – that’s why I dropped out in the first place.

Then there was my choice of grad school. I had a double major in English and Communications, and I applied for both. But the Communications Department was only admitting grad students in the Fall, and I was desperate to get out my dead-end job and back to school in January. So, I gave up the studies I’d planned to do in imitation of Irene Pepperberg and Alex the African Gray and started looking for a literary topic for a thesis instead.

For that matter, what if I had stuck out the poor job prospects after I had my Master’s degree a few years later and gone for a Phd.? We almost certainly would have had to travel, if not for another round of grad school, then certainly to find employment. Would we have gone to some place like Edmonton or Toronto? Or would the search for tenure have led me to life in the United States? Or perhaps I would have stayed as a lowly sessional instructor, doing twice the work for half the pay as tenured faculty, and bitter for having wasted time and money on a degree that did noting for me.

And what about the trauma that almost destroyed me? (you’ll excuse me if I decline to give details) Had I had less of a sense of responsibility or a belief in human goodness, or made a different decision in a couple of places, perhaps that sequence of events need never have happened. But if it hadn’t, would I have had the courage to become the freelance writer I had always dreamed about?

That’s the trouble with imagining other outcomes. You can’t just change one event and manufacture a happy ending. Sometimes, the imaginary outcomes are no better than the real ones, or fortunate events can come from disasters. And most outcomes, I imagine, have more than a single cause or result.

Still, playing at alternate worlds gives a satisfyingly complex view of the world, especially if you suspect that the idea of an afterlife is based on nostalgia or wishful thinking. While I regret very little about the outcomes I have actually had, somehow it’s comforting to think I’ve taken eveny opportunity, that nothing is ever wasted, and that all the other paths I might have taken are metaphysically close at hand yet forever out reach – if only in my imagination.

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