In the spirit of the new year, here are the remarks I gave earlier this week at a Convocation for first-year students at my university:

A Jesuit educator wrote about the challenges of designing a curriculum for the rapidly changing world: “Current problems will in all probability no longer be current when the youth completes his [or her] education, and so by attempting to fit him for the present the school may unfit him for the future.” Now, Allan P. Farrell was writing about the 1930’s and it would be easy for us to laugh--if he thought that was a rapidly changing world, he should take a look at 2012.

But it’s not so simple as that: one of the challenges of college education, whenever one embarks on it, is the challenge of trying to learn what one might need for a future that one cannot fully imagine. What I love about liberal arts education is that, in all its wild impracticality, it refuses to try to predict. In fact, rather than narrowly striving to guess about the thing that’s about to happen in a year or two, the liberal arts education that you’re embarking on is designed to teach you about the past, help you ask big questions, and to demand that you work to shape the future--your own and that of your generation.

In order to get the most out of your education, however, you are going to have to step away from the now for a moment. This morning, Colum McCann said that some of what you’re facing will be very hard. One challenge that you can be sure to face is the challenge of moving being a consumer of information to being an active thinker, striving to educate your mind. We live in a thrilling world, one full of evil and danger and also full of great joy and we know this because every time we look down at our devices, every time we pass a monitor, every time we turn on our tablets and laptops, we can see what is happening anywhere in the world. But that glorious instant access comes at a price. We skim and click, we text, forward, like, and share, but rarely do we ask ourselves to pause and think. As one journalist describes his own love/hate relationship to Google “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski” (Carr 227).

I exhort you to dive. Dive as deeply as you can. You are great Jet Skiers. But you didn’t come to Fordham to get better at skimming the surface. That’s not what this four years of your life is for. Your college education is the moment to learn how to dive, to dive deeply and discover the treasures buried far beneath the surface. That means training and practicing, remembering how to be still and just read--doing nothing other than reading--for longer and longer stretches of time.

In her 1929 essay on women’s education, Virginia Woolf writes about trying to follow an idea as it swims away from her--her thought, she writes, “to call it by a prouder name than it deserved, hat let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until--you know the little tug--the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line…” Her thought swims away from her grasp when a guard shoos her from the riverbank--she’s interrupted by another.

Now, it is we who interrupt ourselves. As you embark on your college education, I wish you patience and I exhort you to cultivate the strength to dive deeply into your studies. You can always go jet skiing next summer. 

Cura: A new journal of art and action

Late last spring, a group of Fordham students got together with Sarah Gambito, our Director of Creative Writing. They were frustrated that all the work they were doing on the student literary journal resulted in a pretty little booklet that sat in stacks on the radiators of our building, ignored. How could they convey their passion for art and their desire to change the world in ways that would touch other people?

Lots of brainstorming, conversations, coding, and a few visits to Zuccotti Park later, and Cura is the result. I’ve been tweeting about this for a while, but I haven’t written about it here.

Cura is going to be an online magazine, available on Kindle and with a number (how many? we’re not sure yet) of print editions. Four times a year, we’ll publish a prompt, each one related to the theme, and select the best art—fiction, poetry, photography, or any new media that can be displayed on a website—we get in response. The students write the prompt and they’re also writing the Muse, the blog that riffs on that prompt.

Our theme is Home.

Our first prompt is “What does your white picket fence keep out? And what has slipped in?”

Our first deadline is October 17th.

But that’s not all. We are committed to art and action and with the theme of home we’ll be hosting some fundraising events to benefit Covenant House, a nonprofit that benefits homeless youth. Any money we make from sales of the print journal will go to Covenant House, too.

We are so excited about this! I am super proud to play a small role as a faculty advisor. I hope that you’ll pass the call for submissions to all your friends, that you’ll submit your work, and that you’ll come back at the end of the month and read what we’ve put together.

Anne is as good as any man

The semester started just after Martin Luther King Day. Right around then, I got an email from a colleague whom I really like. Her son is in 6th grade. The 6th graders in his class were doing reports and, as part of their assignment, had to interview someone. Would it be o.k. for a 6th grade girl to interview me about women’s suffrage.

Sure. After all, I had just been reviewing the suffrage movement in preparation for my beginning of semester lecture (something I ended up not giving, as it happened).

But then I got her email. She was researching Seneca Falls. 1848. America.

That’s not my specialty.

I panicked, then calmed down. After all, this was for a 6th grader. Her very smart, focused email was as much about women’s lives before and after the vote as anything. I could do this.

Oh, and when would I be available to come to her school to be videotaped.

Oh, no! Part of me did not want this at all. Part of me wanted it a little too much. On the first day of teaching, I took a taxi across town to meet this young student. Was I really so narcissistic that I would travel across town to be videotaped by a middle schooler? Was I such a procrastinator that I would take time out of my day for this rather than create that calendar for program administration that I always mean to create? Half mad at myself for wasting my own time and hers, half excited, I signed in at the school.

As soon as I met her, I knew I had been right to come. We went to the library where I met the AV teacher. We talked about how she got interested in the topic (through a longstanding interest in equal rights for women). She set her flip camera up on a tripod and set the tripod on top of a stack of thin books, a series about marine invertebrates. She asked me to kind of repeat the question in my answer as she planned to edit her own voice out. She had a couple other coaching questions for me. And when I answered one question honestly, she laughed nervously and, departing from script, said, “Oh, that turns out to be a stupid question, doesn’t it? Let me ask a different one.” Once or twice, my answer pleased her and she squeezed her arms in tight to her sides, lifting up her shoulders and scrunching her eyes in delight.

I don’t know why it took me until then to see that this was the very best thing about teaching, this was really one of the coolest, most exciting things I had done in a long time. I am so glad that I let that young student interview me!

After all, when I was in 6th grade, I ran for president (and lost) on a platform of unilateral disarmament and the Equal Rights Amendment. My slogan? "Anne is as good as any man." One of my favorite talking points was why I chose "as good as" in lieu of "better than." (I felt that my superiority was for me to prove.) My campaign poster—with a picture of me in my favorite batik unicorn t-shirt--is in my office to this day. 

Mrs. Dalloway at 85

[Here is the homeless op-ed I mentioned yesterday.]

Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway was published on May 14, 1925. It takes place on a single day in June, 1923, and follows the lives of two Londoners who never meet: Clarissa Dalloway, a society hostess, and Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran who commits suicide. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus are connected through shared thoughts and through plot: Septimus’ doctor arrives late to Clarissa’s party, delivering news of the young man’s death.

You might not notice it at first, but Mrs Dalloway is an anti-war novel. Woolf was a lifelong pacifist and all of her sympathies are with the veteran, Septimus. Furthermore, Woolf herself suffered from occasional but severe bouts of mental illness, and knew, too well, the cruelty and inefficacy of early-twentieth-century mental health care. One of the novel’s key insights is that war has ongoing effects, years after its conclusion, on both veterans and civilians. At the end of the novel, when Clarissa thinks “in the middle of my party, here's death,” Woolf means us to hear more than just the shallow concern of a hostess; she also means us to hear Clarissa’s empathy.

If this were the book’s only lesson—that war is bad, that its damage spreads beyond the battlefield—we might all agree and congratulate ourselves that we now do slightly better by our veterans than we did a century ago.

Mrs. Dalloway has a much harder lesson to teach us, however. In contrast to Clarissa, two young women in the book take a more sanguine attitude to war. There we can find a lesson about how civilians are complicit in encouraging a culture of war. First, Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth passes a street band and the march she hears bring her thoughts immediately to war and death. Elizabeth imagines a deathbed scene in which an attendant opens the window, lets the music in, and a dying person finds consolation in the “triumphing” march. Elizabeth’s meditation comes just pages before Septimus’s death: there, we see him struggle to open a window to leap to his death. There is no music; there is no consolation.

Elizabeth’s naivete retains some charm even as it gives us pause. By contrast, Woolf makes Septimus’ teacher complicit in his death. Miss Isabel Pole “lecturing in the Waterloo Road upon Shakespeare,” as Woolf herself had done as a young woman, encourages Septimus in his ambitions, “Was he not like Keats? she asked … and lit in him such a fire as burns only once in a lifetime.” Here, Woolf depicts something much more dangerous than a crush, for in encouraging Septimus to admire Keats and read Antony and Cleopatra, she is encouraging him towards martyrdom.

When Virginia Stephen taught at a working men’s college, she, too, had an enthusiastic young student to whom she taught Keats. But a 1907 letter describing the scene, is all jest and avoidance: “I can tell you the first sentence of my lecture: ‘The poet Keats died when he was 25: and he wrote all his works before that.’ Indeed—how very interesting, Miss Stephen.” Mocking her inane remark—and her students’ bland acceptance of it—the young Virginia refuses an authoritative voice.

Where Woolf eschewed authority, her character seeks it, down to her very name: Isabel, so queenly, and Pole, so erect. And Miss Pole’s teaching has the desired effect: it creates of Septimus a young patriot, “one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.” The fire that she has lit in him conflates poetry and a crush on a teacher with England itself. When Septimus returns from the war, traumatized and unable to feel, literature has turned to poison, and all he can think is “How Shakespeare loathed humanity.”

Mrs. Dalloway shows that music and literature can as easily be brought into the service of violence as of peace. The lessons Elizabeth and Isabel Pole draw—and teach—about music and literature feed the culture of war. However, the lesson Woolf asks us to draw, is far different: in a world at war, as animals full of violent impulses, we must refuse to be complicit in encouraging young people to martyr themselves. In 2010, as the United States continues to fight two wars and as each season brings us a new young person, inspired to do violence in the hope of martyrdom, we would do well to reread Mrs. Dalloway, and look again at what we teach and how it can work on behalf of peace.

Girls Write Now

If you read litblogs, you’ll have heard of Girls Write Now. Lauren Cerand is the Board Chair. Tayari Jones and Maud Newton are on the board. So am I. Truly, it is humbling and thrilling to be in the company of such inspiring women. But it’s the girls who inspire us all.

If you don’t know about Girls Write Now—this brilliant non-profit that pairs NYC high school girls with women writers—or if you haven’t yet given them a little Christmas/Hanukah/Eid/year-end donation, now is the moment for this amazing little non-profit is trying to raise $50,000 this holiday season, to keep their programs running and to expand them to serve more girls in need.

You can click right here and make an express donation through the Network for good.

At Girls Write Now's Holiday Soiree last month, I spent a festive evening with many of you at the Center for Fiction, where we each reached out to friends and family, writing letters for the Annual Holiday Appeal. I took this time because I believe, to my core, that helping girls write will change the world. Those letters have elicited a warm response, and to date we've raised $18,706. I wrote 34 letters that night to friends (and won the prize for the most letters written!); so far those letters have brought $625 to Girls Write Now. Every little bit counts.

Girls Write Now is on the rise. You may have heard that on November 4, Brooklyn high school senior Tina Gao joined founder and executive director Maya Nussbaum in accepting the 2009 Coming Up Taller Award from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, distinguishing Girls Write Now as one of the top 15 after-school arts and humanities-based programs in the country.

I came to my first Girls Write Now event to hear Tayari Jones and Janice Erlbaum read from their work; I stayed--and went on to join the Advisory Board--for the girls. As a Virginia Woolf Scholar, I guessed that other Woolfians and feminists might respond to the power of the mission, too, so last spring I made Girls Write Now the beneficiary of our silent auction. So moved were the 200+ attendees that we were able to raise more than $2,000.

When people hear about Girls Write Now, they give to Girls Write Now. It's as simple as that. Won't you please consider giving and help me spread the word?