My name is Elizabeth, and I am a forever student.
Say it with me now.
“I am a forever student.”
Even though I have 2 degrees, working on a 3rd, and am technically now a professor, I will never stop learning (nor do I wish to).
I believe that it is a healthy endeavor to always strive to learn something new. Reading is a good way to do that. So is doing (experience — and mistakes — make the best teacher?). Combining both is even better.
Now I’m not suggesting that you read the dictionary or encyclopedia from A-Z, or read all non-fiction (though if you haven’t ever read a non-fiction book for fun, might I suggest you pick one up. I promise you they are not boring). In fact, using a well-written book of fiction as an instrument to replace reality with a fantastic place of wherever an author’s imagination took them is a learning tool in itself. Teach your dreams to become reality, and perhaps become a better writer in the process. Ideas of one person can only hope to manifest other ideas in another. Such visions then sprout and grow and produce masterpieces such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Once and Future King”. History (as in non-fiction) often influences the fiction and forces the reader to constantly be on their toes to distinguish one from the other. This is most prevalent, I think, in fictional autobiographies such as those by Margaret George. And then there is Umberto Eco, a writer and scholar who manages to produce novels of splendid prose, short witty anecdotes of travel, and also essays on linguistics and physics that he writes in such a way as to grasp your every intellectual sense.
Teaching, on the other hand, is one of the best methods of self-instruction I have ever come across. The more one teaches, the more one learns. I know from my own experiences that I learn from students, from their questions and insights; I learn from the material I read to make me a better teacher (and keep me ahead of the students). This applies to both academic instruction and coaching in the gym.
I’ve often heard that as you specialize you learn more and more about less and less. I can understand that — once I think I know all there is to know about a hero such as Ajax, I come across a new article or book that provides a whole new store of information. Yet as I’ve delved deep into the work of Greek hero cults and iconography I’ve neglected my studies of other aspects of ancient Greece — not to mention ancient Rome! So every now and then I make an effort to brush up on that material.
Now I find that I have to maintain and expand my knowledge of these subjects. I’ll be teaching a course on Greek and Roman mythology through epic literature (Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Metamorphoses) to undergraduates at the University of Richmond in the fall. I’m pretty excited, to tell the truth. I get to write the syllabus and design the class in a way I see fit. Of course “Xena” will play a role, as will other modern pop culture tributes to ancient mythology and epics (“Troy,” “O Brother Where Art Thou” and “Percy Jackson and the Olympians”, to name a few). But what is really great is that it’s forced me to check off a few things on my forever “to-do” list, such as “re-read Virgil and Ovid”. I had forgotten how engrossing the stories are, even in translation.
My parents just started a summer course on Homer’s “Odyssey” taught by Norman Austin (a very distinguished professor). His approach to the epic literature is different than my own, and I’m always curious to hear what my folks have to say about what Prof. Austin’s lecture of the day focused on. Learning from other teachers, who have been teaching a long time, is an opportunity one should never pass up. Seek the brilliance of others to help your own mind shine a little brighter. Go out and take seminars on new and familiar subjects. If you’re good at a skill, or just interested, take a class in it to learn more. No matter how good you are at something, there is always someone out there who is better. No matter how much you know on a particular subject, there is always someone out there who knows more. These are friends you want to make.
So is networking. Some may claim that’s an ugly word, but it’s a necessary one if one wishes to be successful. Not only because the saying “it’s not what you know so much as who you know” is one of the truest sayings ever to leave man’s lips, but also because you can learn from people who know things. This sounds like a simple concept, one that should be self-explanatory, yes? But too often do we neglect the best resources we have for information: each other.
Be humble, be modest, be eager to learn. From something as simple as drawing a picture to something as complicated as speaking Navajo to something acrobatic such as a back tuck… there’s always something new to pick up.