I started classes on Wednesday after a week of orientation at University of Maryland. Returning to being the one getting grades rather than giving them is daunting after 2 years away. I am teaching one class (French 103) and taking 4, so it should be a busy semester. Hillsdale set an interesting standard for higher education orientation. The small school environment meant that most of our technical and logistic questions had been answered before even arriving on campus. Students were coddled, protected, and cherished even. Or so I now feel in comparison. Orientation was a time of inspiration, rather than education. We attended lectures on the “higher things,” heard talks about the noble world of academia into which we were entering. We were inspired, edified, ennobled.
My orientation this past week has been the opposite, which is not to say that it wasn’t useful. For a week I sat in meetings about grading, technology in the classroom, how to effectively teach a foreign language, and how to provide a welcoming classroom environment for students of alternative lifestyles. Yes, these were all good skills to acquire. But by the end of orientation, I just needed someone to remind me about the noble world of academia, about the joy of learning.
And then, on the last day, a professor got up to speak about why we pursue graduate studies. The goal, she reminded us, is to add something new to the world of knowledge and study. To appropriately explain the terrifying joy that this task is, she read us the end of this poem. At last, an orientation that I understand.
The water seems suspended
above the rounded gray and blue-gray stones.
I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.
If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.
If you tasted it, it would first taste bitter,
then briny, then surely burn your tongue.
It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.
-“At the Fishhouses,” Elizabeth Bishop