Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New Year

When it comes to marking a new year, I'm with the Persians or the Jews. January 1st is a perverse abstraction; I wager that no Canadian can feel newness in the depths of darkness. March 21st, the first day of spring (at least, elsewhere) makes good sense, and it imbues the new year with hope and vitality. But I think Rosh Hashanah nails it just about perfectly: September just feels right for a new year, what with its unsullied scribblers and corduroy pants (oh, for corduroy to make a comeback...).

This year, it would be even better for the school year to line itself up with Rosh Hashanah: that is, later. How can September be here already? How can the summer be over? And how on earth can a person accumulate 60 emails between dinnertime on Labour Day and the next workday morning? I'll say it again: September comes at you like a water cannon.

But secretly, I love this time of year. I know, I know, the lunch line-ups are longer, and the parking's a little less choice - but there's a frisson to this time of year that you can't reproduce. Even when I'm not teaching (sniff!), I love being surrounded by new students, new choices, and new possibilities. And I really find the transition from research-time to teaching-time interesting. I love having the students back on campus because they sharpen our excitement for what's next and our regret for what's past. I love the way September causes us to mark the passing of time in unfinished manuscripts and unpolished (ahem) course outlines.

At the end of the day, I am a cultural studies scholar of the old school – the Birmingham School, with its experiments in open education and working-class empowerment. Working at a major Canadian public university challenges that vision of social progress in all kinds of great ways. Here as elsewhere, the struggle between research-intensiveness (to build reputation, conservatively, or to serve knowledge, more liberally) and teaching-centeredness (for conservatives, to use public monies efficiently or, for liberals, to keep alive the great public role of universities as class-altering structures) is pronounced, particularly in the humanities.

How do we resolve that struggle? Or, better, how do we keep it alive?

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