Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Day One of Being a Student Again

Having had three years away from the hallowed halls of academia, I was justifiably nervous about going back to grad school. I worried about being the stupidest person in class (particularly after I started getting into my assigned reading), or about getting a two-year bout of writers' block, and a whole list of other less significant concerns. Today was the first day back, and last night, I barely slept at all!

I really needn't have worried so much. Yes, the work load seems ridiculously overwhelming, and yes, I have no idea how I'll ever manage to do it all AND get in shape for the army, but at the same time, I know that I am where I should be. And, nearly as importantly, I am where I want to be. This for me is bliss, sitting in classrooms with people who actually appreciate rather than mock the things that fascinate me. Being able to indulge in deeper conversations about topics that most people, honestly, have never even heard of. Having brilliant professors with years of experience in the field and multiple publications, who believe that I am worth investing their time and talents in. This is my Shangri-La.

Tonight went well. My first class, Modern European Military History, was with my favorite professor and mentor, Dr. Saxon. I knew he was going to aim some difficult questions at me, and sure enough, he did. I drew a blank on the first one, but when he questioned me on the reading, I was able to redeem myself. Our assigned reading for the week was the first three chapters of Townshend's Oxford History of Modern War, which, I am sorry to say, is not very interesting reading, and Jakob Walter's memoirs Diary of a Napoleonic Foot Soldier, which was so riveting that I was unable to put it down and wound up staying awake until nearly three in the morning (two days ago) reading it. The memoirs covered Walter's experiences serving as a private in three of Napoleon's campaigns (1806, 1809, and 1812). The 1812 campaign was the disastrous attempt to take over Russia, during which 600,000 troops went to Russia and only 25,000 returned. Most starved or froze to death, rather than being killed by the Russians. Walter's account tells of using dead bodies to sit on by the fire at night (to keep from freezing), eating such things as cow entrails or congealed horse blood because there was nothing else, and being constantly tormented by thousands of lice. Considering how desperate the men were for food, there is no doubt in my mind (nor Dr. Saxon's, when I asked him) that cannibalism also took place, although Walter does not mention it (but then, since the memoirs were written for his family, it is unlikely that he would have).

My other class tonight was Historical Methods, with Dr. Melton, whom I never before had the chance to take. I learned tonight just what I missed by never taking any of his classes - he is a terrific professor! His lesson was engaging, humorous, and highly applicable to all of us in the class. His requirements for the class are tough, but reasonable. I am really excited about having his class this semester, even though methodology classes are, by and large, quite dull. I think Dr. Melton is creative enough that he will make this the exception to that rule. I only wish that we had class more often than just once a week!

Tomorrow I have my remaining history class, Reading Seminar in Modern European History, and my first ROTC class. My reading seminar looks promising, although the reading for the class is arduous. I still haven't quite finished Cosmopolis, so that will be how I spend the early part of my day. Too bad I can't just put it under my pillow and learn the material through osmosis!

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"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"