Credit: Jason Lin
Soaking up the Brief Moments
Great professors teach you how to learn outside the classroom
By Caroline Barlott, ’03 BA on August 8, 2014
One hand was on the strap of my backpack under my narrow desk, the other was holding a pen, and as I swiftly pulled the bag upward, the pen went flying, narrowly missing my professor.
Minutes earlier, the classroom had been full of about 20 students, making it my smallest class that fall semester in my second year at the University of Alberta. But when my classics professor, Edward Blodgett, ended his discussion of the Epic of Gilgamesh or Oedipus the King or whatever the lecture was that long-ago day, the other students fled in hot pursuit of a long weekend.
I glanced up to see Blodgett walking over. We chatted about our weekend plans. He asked if I was involved with the campus community. I told him I had grown up in a small town and my friends were all outside the campus. He nodded his head slowly. The size of the university could be overwhelming, he said, even for professors. “But you have to make it smaller; do something, anything, to make it a community.” You’re at university for a short time, he told me. Make the most of it.
Until that point, I had seen university as no more than a means to an end. Having grown up in a rural setting, taking classes in auditoriums with upward of 200 students was intimidating. I went to my classes, and the rest of life happened elsewhere.
A few months later, my rental lease was up and I remembered Blodgett’s advice. I packed my books, my bookshelf and my computer — I was a minimalist by necessity — and moved from a cramped basement suite near Southgate Mall to an even more cramped dorm room in St. John’s Institute, overlooking Whyte Avenue.
The John, as we used to call it, first opened in 1949 to help students with Ukrainian backgrounds ease into university life and learn more about their heritage. When I arrived in the early 2000s, I met residents from Italy, Taiwan, Mexico and, yes, Ukraine. I was a throwback to the type of student who had initially filled the rooms.
Within weeks, I was learning kick-boxing at the university, singing in the dorm’s Ukrainian choir and hanging out with neighbouring frat boys. I handcrafted perogies, which we sold to fund a trip to a sister dorm in Toronto. I spent hours discussing lectures with dorm mates in the cafeteria. I even enjoyed my university classes more, and the campus suddenly seemed much smaller.
In the years since leaving university, plenty of what I studied in class — facts and classic plots — has left my mind, but several important lessons remain. Primarily those taught by professors who cared about more than just their students’ marks.
I remember, toward the end of the semester, Blodgett pausing mid-sentence and staring out the window of the classroom. My eyes followed his to a tree alive with snowflakes hanging in crystalline patterns on its branches. “Sorry,” he said, “I had to soak up that brief moment. The light against the snow was just perfect.”