It’s that time of year again.
Catching up with marking, marking final exams, composing final grades.
A time of endings.
A time of marvel and awe. A time to marvel and to be awed by the awesome. May we all aspire to the joyous freaky magic Heavenly Assumption Of The Blessed Guitar.
Students finish courses. Students move out and move on.
A time of marking and markings, students marked by their time here, in your class, in this year; for graduating students, a longer time in this place as a whole. It’s easier for people like me to see how we’ve been marked by students, changed by them; I always get a poignant sense of this in the last class at the end of the teaching term, before the liminal interzone of the exam season begins. As a student, I remember some sense of this but I also remember moments over the years—and they still continue to happen—of realising what some prior scholarly phase meant. How it marked you. That can take years to sink in, and further years to reveal itself to you. If only we could have course evaluations a year later; and two years on, five, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty…
And then there are regrets: three teachers I was thinking about yesterday, those thoughts triggered by tangential conversations. Two of them, last seen over a quarter of a century ago at secondary school, may be dead by now. (I hope not.) They taught me to ask questions. (Another teacher who taught me to question everything—via Bac philosophy—is alive and well and was made an MBE in 2009 for services to education in Belgium.) The last and most recently seen (in 2003) of these good people died ten years ago. Passover and the topicality of exile brought him to mind; and he had been haunting me all through the UBC No Confidence affairs and now that they are settling down into the slow hard work of reconstruction, this would be a moment to tell you about someone special.
It was 1991. I was a first-year undergraduate. I was an awful first-year undergraduate, reading law. (This was with perfect 20/20 hindsight an error; but erring is integral to learning, and to helping others later with learning, again with that same retrospective vision.) Past-me is not the special someone here, though. That was him. He was already in his eighties when a stroke of weird fortune (and the equally weird Cambridge reciprocal supervision-swap system connecting colleges) landed him with teaching me undergraduate Roman Law. Justinian, justice, and a pre-introduction to jurisprudence; the civilising importance of rights, respect, and the rule of law; a pre-introduction to philology and its interconnectedness with social and political thought and anthropology, around for memorable example the deep meanings of code, codes, coding, coded, decoding, codifying. What privilege means, and how its many senses—and “underprivileged”—are bound together; it was from him that I first heard what is now the most current use of “privilege,” that of social inequality. He taught me to look at words closely. As a fellow extreme myopic, he showed me that taking your glasses off and peering at something up close is an ability, not the contrary; it is to him that I owe slow deep close reading; and, to some extent (my father having been the first influence here), poetry.
It is always surprising how much of this I remember; and he is responsible for that; and certain words—code and privilege for example—will always resonate, enriched by what he added to my understanding of them. Whenever I say or hear someone else say “I acknowledge my privilege,” he is there. After the weird awesome luck of somehow getting into what at that time was one of the degrees at one of the universities that were the hardest to get into anywhere; meeting jaw-dropping “privilege” that was literally “entitled” beyond even Vancouver’s wildest dreams; and confronting the complication in life—embodied “even” in Cambridge Fellows—of the extreme privilege of being extremely learned coexisting with its opposite, a precarious existence of financial and employment instability lacking all the socially-standard material marks of economic affluence: having the further haphazard good fortune to cross paths with someone special like him is a privilege in the positive sense, and to be treasured forever.
An exemplary man—kind, gentle, brilliant, funny—in perfect balance of light and heavy and perfectly balancing scepticism and optimism, never resorting to cynicism (or not with undergraduates, anyway, nor when meeting with an ex-student ten years on). I remember one of my fellow supervision-group members and I being much quieter than usual around him, in humble awe: that someone could also balance sweet-natured generosity of spirit and bravery, brave beyond Boy’s Own gung-ho stories and Bond muscular masculinities, all while wearing a (just as properly English, on this St George’s Day) nice suit and often a snazzy tie? You see, Kurt Lipstein was also, in the words of his Guardian obituary, “the last survivor of a generation of German refugee lawyers who came to Britain in the 1930s.”
As you might imagine, Professor Lipstein marked me.
Did I show these good people enough signs at the time, that they were appreciated?
Did they know this moment would happen to me later?
Had it also happened to them?
Did they have the wisdom to know that it would and that it wasn’t about them but about something bigger, knowledge itself?
And that wisdom was what made them part of that bigger thing?
Is this the living beating heart of the “universitas” of scholarly community and academic culture, a continuum across and connecting generations, time, space?
It’s a strange time of year, like Hallowe’en a time of a thinning of the veils between worlds.
Students may start to look more blurry transparent fleeting, and I feel like a ghost walking empty silent corridors. Transparency is all very well until taken to extremes, falling into the vice or ill of exceeding proper mesura. And then I feel if anything even more ghostly and haunting when around students who are “studying.” Misty wisps of Information And Content weave around them, trying to be breathed in; mischievous teasing will o’ the wisps of Ideas And Synthesis try to escape; all frustratingly invisible to the insensible hapless student, exhausted by a long term and the hours of study, in need of sleep, sometimes actually asleep. I feel closer in spirit to the ghosts of Material For Study than I do to the living corporeal student.
But then you see individual moments of illumination; or study groups questioning and discussing; and you see that The Great Quest is alive and well, as there is hope for Information to be analysed, digested, and alchemically Processed into Knowledge. And then I feel that we’re all becoming more ghostly together, while Knowledge becomes more substantial.
It’s also been half of year of musical losses. One way to honour and commemorate them is to embrace their haunting, as it and they become a more integral and integrated part of you. Vanitas, memento mori. As you and they become both more ghostly and more substantial AND MORE FREAKY AND HUMAN together.
Marking and marked.
Aspiring towards true princeliness, true nobility, de nobilitate animi.