Something happened recently that hasn’t happened to me in 33 years. I began the fall semester without a class to teach.
For nearly all of us, at some point in our lives, fall carries an academic connotation. When summer ends, school begins. For me, since I started my master’s in English at Northern Illinois University in 1984, that has included teaching. Even when I left the tenure-seeking ranks of the professoriate and returned to the University of Iowa, where I still hold a writing and editing position, I remained fortunate to keep my finger in the teaching pie as an adjunct.
But due to a chain of circumstances, this semester I did not walk into a classroom full of bright, eager faces of college students, at last some of them ready to learn. On top of that, one of our children is finished with college, and the other, while entering her senior year at the UI, is living on her own, so we had no household denizens stepping out the door this year for the first day of classes.
Of course, living in Iowa City and maintaining a job at the university, I was still surrounded by the activity and trappings of the first day of school. The Pentacrest was full of students marching back and forth to class (punctuated this year by a massive gathering at midday to watch the eclipse). My writing at work has shifted significantly to “welcome to the new academic year” types of assignments. And on my bus ride to work on the Iowa City Community School District’s first day, I delighted in watching out the window as the procession of elementary students with their moms and dads streamed down Friendship and Court streets toward Lucas and Hoover Elementaries.
These are the rituals of autumn in an education-oriented community. For me, these have typically been no mere atmospherics but also very real actions that require preparing the way — writing syllabi, ordering books, assembling coursepacks, preparing first discussions and then walking into that room with the group of learners with whom I will traverse the path of learning and knowledge over the next four months. These have been not just regular but also defining activities for me.
This is not a lament. I will have a fall class to teach again. But for me, thanks to their absence, this year has carved in stark relief how the rituals of life can so profoundly shape our sense of self, our sense of purpose and our sense of place. But with loss always comes gain. And this year, thanks to no classes to teach, I am more in tune with the rhythms of nature at this time of the annual journey than ever before.
The beginning of the “fall” semester, to be honest, has also always been rather disorienting for me. That psychic link between the start of school and the beginning of autumn can be a huge mismatch. Sure, there are hints of yellow and red on some trees, and the sun is setting noticeably earlier. But it’s still summer. The equinox is a month away, and Labor Day — the unofficial end of summer — is our first break in the academic calendar, not the overture to the semester. Those few weeks at the end of August and beginning of September have always been perplexing to my sense of rhythm in the seasonal changeover.
But not so much this year. While our academic activities swirl around me and still do affect much of my life, they have not slammed down the artificial barrier that comes with being consumed by a new semester. It’s still summer out here in the real world — the world of nature. The cicadas are still buzzing, the heat and humidity are still rising and swirling, the tomatoes are still growing.
Often, when I’m teaching, those manifestations of summer life are suddenly thrust into the background of my consciousness because “fall” has started. But this year, they flow on in their natural stream in my mind and senses. I am fortunate since this year I am also in the midst of a project that involves taking seasonal photographs of the prairies of our midland home. On the prairie, summer, while waning, is in full bloom, and luckily I’m still psychically and physically right there with it.
I know that most people have jobs that rarely if ever align with the seasons, and the traditional academic position in fact does follow the rhythms of nature’s changes more than most. But the disruption in my typical teaching activity this year has given me the shock of recognition that our artificial work and life constructs can easily divert us from our relationship with the natural world. I know that when responsibilities call our attention, they can easily consume us. But we also have a responsibility to live amidst the inescapable interconnections we have with the natural world, which leads to the care and respect it so desperately needs from us.
Summer’s still here. Live in its moment.
Thomas Dean is ready for autumn, but in its own time. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 227.