Sunday, March 02, 2008

WILLFULLY UNDERPREPARED: WHY 'PROSE NARRATIVE: THE NOVEL FROM BEHN TO JAMES' WILL TAKE YOU ONLY SO FAR IN LIFE

For so many years while growing up the threat of university looms over our heads with this almost intangible vision of future potential and regret, passion and insecurity, that it's a little startling, ten years after graduation, to be confronted with the piece of paper that sums up what it all came down to: digits on a page, and letters on a graph.

My company in Japan for one reason or another needed transcripts of my university grades, and, because I didn't have them, I had to get them. I faxed York University kindly asking them if they would kindly send them my grades halfway around the world, and they kindly replied. (Quickly, too.)

And so now I sit in an Internet cafe in the northern Philippines and stare at what four years living at the outer edges of Toronto, Ontario amounted to:

Introduction To Filmmaking I
Introduction to Filmmaking II
Film Art: An Introduction
Good & Evil
Psychology and Politics
Aspects of Theatre
Major Authors in English Literature
Introduction to Creative Writing
Screenwriting II
Theories of Filmmaking
Science and the Environment
European & British Novel: 1880-1930
Modern Canadian Fiction
Screenwriting III
Modernism and Anti-Modernism in American Culture
Intermediate Prose Workshop: Fiction
Prose Narrative: The Novel From Behn to James
The Canadian Short Story
Studies in Contemporary Drama
Advanced Screenwriting
Senior Prose Workshop: Fiction and Non-Fiction.

And, well, that's it. Four years. One degree. Down the gown and slap on the funny looking cap, strut across the stage, pick up your diploma, and don't slam your dreams on the way out. Welcome to the world, kid. "Next!"

I'm a little astonished at the lack of, well, range in the courses I took. Outside of electives that were forced upon me -- like the ghastly 'Science and The Environment' -- and electives I willingly took in my first year, like 'Good and Evil' and 'Psychology and Politics' -- the rest of my studies revolved exclusively around books, movies and writing.

At the time, that was all I wanted to study, so I was happy as a pig in shit. (Which makes me think: are pigs really happy in all that shit? Just wondering. I'm sure even pigs would prefer a jacuzzi sometimes.)

But I've spent the last nine years in Asia catching up on all the stuff I never studied in university. Politics. History. Law. Asia. Language. Sociology. Anthropology.

And I've come to believe that it's all for the best, that it's better to suddenly confront life on its own terms, outside of the framework through which we glared at it in our late teens in early twenties. By studying narrative exclusively for four years, I was then able to view my own life as a narrative, and the world as a story in which not only I but everyone else were central characters jostling for attention. A few years after graduating I realized I was ignorant in basically everything about the world, and I had to follow my instincts from country to country and learn along the way what it was all about.

Sometimes I think that the idea of a university itself is almost a quaint one, especially in this intense Internet era where all of mankind's collected knowledge is essentially available at the push of a button. I was part of the last generation that graduated university without ever googling anything, that actually checked out books from a library when a paper was due, that had never used email or Facebook or MySpace in the downtime between classes. Today, do we need systematized sources of knowledge? Do we need courses? Maybe we should just tell kids to follow their instincts for four years, then shove them into situations that have little relevance to anything that they actually studied.

Willfully underprepare them, in other words. You think the world is one way and it turns out to be another, and another, and another, and maybe the university experience is all about building your confidence in what you know, so that when you're truly, majorly fucked over by what you don't know, you'll have some kind of artificial edifice in place that will hold you up and keep you hurtling down the rapids of daily existence.

I don't know.

There's very little, I don't know, utility that I learned from my classes, and I certainly remember more about my one year running and racing on the cross-country and track-and-field teams than I do from my four years immersed in seventeenth century literature and twentieth century film theory, but I guess that whole experience, from eighteen to twenty-two, can be used as a kind of time-gap, a necessary pause, a flimsy but somehow formidable shield against all that will come later on in life, both good and bad, glorious and banal. If you're lucky, you can simply learn a little more about what you like, and then later, after you graduate, you can discover that there actually are other, larger, denser worlds than the tiny, temporary ones you imagined were so grand and complete at such a young and foolish age.

After all, even utility has its limits, and I do know for certain that there's a great many courses from the above list that I've forgotten almost completely, and I also remain convinced that rarely, if ever, will I end a job interview by saying: "And I just want to say, sir, that if you ever need anybody that's got some big-time experience with the Modern Canadian Short Story, well, look no further, bro."

Nobody sitting across from me in a job interview would be interested to hear those words escape from my lips, but perhaps somebody somewhere in Tokyo or Manila or Manchester someday might, and understanding this elasticity of the human experience, the curiosity of the human animal, the natural urge to delve into that which is other, is what took me the longest to learn.

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

I'm someone who agonizes over which courses to take every term in college, because I wish I could take them all...and I'm always complaining how I don't have room in my schedule to take any anthropology or sociology classes (even though some are so cool, like anthropology of gossip or tourism). But I take it so seriously as if not taking these college courses means that those subject areas are closed off to me for some reason...the college bubble is so blinding...ahhh yet blissful