Every September, I have the same dream: I am not going to graduate from college. The undergraduate kind.
I did graduate, seventeen years ago in 1995. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be found out (unpaid library fines, unsigned Bursar receipt, the other Math requirement I “forgot” or assumed could be exchanged for a very similar course in Philosophy or French).
This fall, I didn’t have the dream. I think it’s because I am not back at school. September 1st, officially, is day one of sabbatical.
Starting a sabbatical in September is impossible. It’s the least serious month of the year. It ushers in stuff, gets things rolling, suggests. But September doesn’t actually do anything. Unless you count school-supply-buying and calendar organizing accomplishments.
If September were an essay, it would be perpetually in-process. September is the opening paragraph that you need, after eight weeks, to stop tweaking. But you can’t. Those first sentences are like sirens.
That’s why I thought I would bypass September by finishing some writing by August. A few days ago I shared one section of what I thought was my completed article, “Complexity Circa 1993: The Discovery of Pedagogy.” Because they are friends who are also scholars, these readers are supportive, honest, and know something about writing and its swift seasonal shifts.
They helped me see that the essay has a lot of pieces to it, but not quite the puzzle–challenging but not yet targeted.
To me that means one thing. The essay’s stuck in September.
I love September—the air, the promise, the clothes. But I tried this year to skip it, to move from summer to winter without bumping into the awkward reality of what early fall knows: you’re going to have to add some layers. Soon.
So before October arrives, I will bring some December into my article. For as much as I detest the winter, I think it symbolizes the kind of seriousness a polished product needs. The dark days of December through February are dense but short, deep but with a very clear direction. At least in New York, when the sun’s gone by 4 30pm, the goal is to get to and from your destination with clarity. It’s cold and windy outside, hot and crowded on the trains. You want to finish the day, get on with the night.
I may not be teaching, but I can’t escape September’s writing lesson. A good essay looks behind and ahead at the same time. It has an arch, a story to tell, and is firmly grounded in this moment. And while the light of a bright, first paragraph matters, it needs to answer to the realities of deep reading.
In a time when research, especially in the humanities, is critiqued for not making things or saving people, it takes just one attempt (or 1,000) at producing a serious idea for print to realize: the scholarly essay is a feat of incredible invention. To do scholarship, you must think like September but write knowing that December will ask for reckoning.
And when you do that, the essay transgresses seasons and transforms what the French philosopher Foucault called “the order of things.” Process and product, September, December and the rest; it all mixes up when you want to make meaning.
Welcome back to school.