Across the globe, the New Year is celebrated at different times of year. My own preference is to begin the New Year in September–the date used in the Gregorian, Eastern Orthodox calender; for this is the time when, everywhere, students and teachers alike, are returning back to school. To be sure, on January 1st, I never fail to make New Year resolutions, some of which I actually keep. But in September, I feel differently. Instead of focusing on self-improvement, my expectations run high when the new school year begins. Satiated with all the diverse, lackadaisical, and serendipitous happenings of Summer, I am right up there–at the gate–ready to take off. Enthused and excited, I think: A new year, a new beginning!
I attribute some of these positive aspirations to nostalgia, and my early summers spent at Lake Hawthorne. In mid-August, not long after the brown-eyed susans blossomed, the huckleberries ripened, and the katydids arrived, we would begin to plan for school. It was a memorable event. My mother would drive my sister and I in our old, maroon-colored Dodge to the nearest large town, about forty five minutes away. Wandering along the streets inhabited by white, Victorian buildings, their paint often peeling down the sides, we would shop to buy new outfits for the first day of school. The selection in this rural town was limited to say the least, but we always found something–typically a red/blue plaid dress with a white collar and ruffled sleeves. No matter, it was never the actual style of the dress that was important: Rather, it was its newness, an important symbol that conjured up for me the idea of a a fresh start and a propitious beginning. To accompany the dress, we bought very sensible shoes, the ugly, brown, lace-up type. Then, we would stop by the five-and-ten cent store–now an artifact of antiquity, to be sure–where we would very carefully finger through and select from among the wide array of three-ringed notebooks, paper, and pens. I hesitated, convinced that my choice of which items to buy would determine my academic success. Best of all, before driving home, we would visit the local luncheonette, where we sat at the counter, and slowly savored an ice cream soda. Back at the lake, I imagined myself on the first day of school, dressed in my new outfit, and armed with my ‘lucky’, hand-selected writing implements. A renewed sense of confidence came over me. I knew that I would not be shy on that first day. No, I would be thrilled to see my old friends; glad to make new ones; and–in those brown shoes–start off on the right foot with my new teacher.
More than fifty summers later, it is that time again. Time to get ready for a new academic year. Already I have noticed recent graduates stopping by the office to catch up and say their final goodbyes; new students visiting in search of housing and perhaps to reassure themselves that their investments in the CCT Program will payoff; faculty straying back from out of town with tales of their summer exploits, and, of course, the book store nagging faculty to turn in their book orders. Refreshed and stimulated by my month-long vacation, I am eager to start. However, just as I did as a youth, I follow some rituals. First, I prime my pump, putting all my recent reading materials on the floor, and slowly savoring each. Each book has become a part of me, a new window through which I can look at the world. But, my attachment to all these books constitutes a major problem for me as well: how will I ever decide what books I should assign, and which I should leave out? Without a doubt, I will include The Stag Hunt, and for sure, Epstein’s introductory chapter in Generative Social Science.. Likewise, in my discussions on networks and emergence, I will use Paul Pierson’s Politics in Time and Beinhocker’s wonderful book, The Creation of Wealth. As part of this sorting process, I fiddle, and faddle, and fiddle some more, changing the reading assignments, the sequence of classes, and even the style of the font. Having become a convert to blogging, I also integrate an on-line component into my courses. Eventually, I am satisfied–I think I have it right.
Then, before going home, I check out Howard Rheingold’s blog, and look at his syllabi posted there. In one, he includes a short film clip, produced by Michael Wesch and his students at the University of Kansas. Entitled A Vision of Students Today, the film takes me aback. It all too compellingly coveys how our traditional teaching styles are less and less relevant in today’s digital environment. I stop. I pause. Tomorrow, I determine, I will revisit my syllabus, taking this film into account. In the meantime, and just to be on the safe side, I will stop at the store on my way home, and buy a new outfit to wear on the first day of school.