Sunday, September 20, 2009

It's Fall Again!

Though I am no longer teaching, the beginnings of the fall semester still strike me at the cellular level. Growing up with parents as college professors, I learned, long before I ever called the roll of my own classes, that the fall semester brings its own unique sense of anticipation and excitement. Still today, former students write to me, sharing their plans for the year or seeking advice on careers or graduate school. Outside, the air gets cooler, the mornings brisker, I'm hit with a flood of memories - of shivering in the bleachers at football games, practicing marching band routines, pulling all nighters to the sounds of ABBA and Cat Stevens, and washing formaldehyde out of my pores after a day in gross anatomy class.

Though I am no longer teaching, this year feels especially intense. Perhaps it is the unsettled mood of our country; over the past month we’ve witnessed anxious angry crowds and mourned a long list of individuals, from a senator to writers to actresses to rock stars to television journalists, many of whom contributed to changes that at one time were undesirable or unthinkable in our country. Most of us have suffered more personal losses, from childhood friends to relatives to a beloved pet. As our lives and society shift at breakneck speed, fall feels like the comfort food of the seasons, a warm blanket that we snuggle in as we release the fiery freedoms of summer and the losses of the year, and brace for the icy incubation of winter.

Though I am no longer teaching, I am laying out a plan for the academic year, something that was required of me every year of my career in academe. It’s an exercise that takes place in the fall as teachers start learning their students’ names and reacquainting themselves with returning colleagues. Faculty members are asked to articulate their “goals and objectives” and, later, when the spring semester winds down, they’ll be evaluated on their progress with respect to the same.

Though I am no longer teaching – at least in a university setting – I am still compelled to step forward at teachable moments, to discover new knowledge and to share my insights with a larger audience. I am still convinced that anthropology, widely shared and applied, will make and, indeed, already has made, a huge difference in the world. I am equally convinced that science - and my own specialty of biological anthropology - is absolutely essential for our continued existence as a species on this fragile blue marble.

Though I am no longer teaching, I am still convinced that each year, every year, I must search for ways to share the most important lessons that I have learned. These include the importance of passing on an academic/intellectual legacy – a set of ideas and practices that provide context and history to how I study the natural world in a manner modeled for me by my mentors and teachers. Now, as a senior scholar, I may rearrange, add on, or remodel the elements of this legacy, but the fundamental supports remain the same. This legacy molds the ways I learn about the past and present worlds and influences the paths I envision to a sustainable future.

Though I am no longer teaching, I want to provide an overview of what to expect to see on my blog this year as if we were sitting together on the first day of class. Expect me to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by focusing on the relationships that we humans have with other species and the environment. These relationships are essential for understanding humankind’s place in and responsibilities to the natural world and they are inextricably tied to our ability to heal, change and create a better world. Expect me to talk about our need for love and beauty, a drive to form positive, emotional connections with other species, nature and our fellow human beings, and the vital importance of working toward something that is bigger than ourselves. I promise to live, write and photograph in keeping with my mentor, Dr. Brues’ adage that “Everything is relevant if you’re smart enough to see it.” I’m very likely to talk in the next few blogs about the relevance of anthropology to analyzing complex issues of health care and environment , for I believe we humans we’ll either grow together by confronting these challenges directly and honestly or we’ll surely drown, much more quickly than any of us expect, in a swill of greed, fear, ignorance, and arrogance.

Though I am no longer teaching, I am still propelled out of bed in the morning by the love to share what I’ve learned and the drive to discover and experience new things each day. Whether I express it in words or pixels, this love is why I do what I do. And despite the rancor and vitriol and raw fear of the debates we’ve heard of late, I genuinely believe that we’ve yet to experience our greatest goodness, and the opportunities for this present themselves every day.

And so, though I am no longer teaching, I wrap myself in my blanket and prepare for the days ahead, and share a line from one of my favorite movies, The Lion in Winter, spoken by Katherine Hepburn, in her Academy Award winning performance of Eleanor of Aquitaine.
We have such possibilities my children, we can change the world.

IT's Fall Again!