Updated: Mar 24
Last week 22-year old Amanda Gorman put poetry at the top of the news cycle. After four years of deformed rhetoric, dog whistles, and Twitter rants filled with sentences bordering on senselessness, poetry broke the internet.
And what does this have to do with Canadian institutions of higher education?
There is, I believe, a fundamental yearning for hope and poetry at this particular moment in time. Gorman offers us a balm to the soul and a space to explore our grief and our relief in the midst of a global pandemic. However, she also gives us a clarion call to action, so that we can experience moments of grief without feeling the inertia that often accompanies despair. “Even as we grieved we grew… Even as we tired, we tried.” This deceptively simple rhetorical strategy transforms language, marking our moment of discomfort while also moving us into the future. Tired and tried are ALMOST the same word – with a slight alteration in the placement of “I”. She reverses where “I” lives in the word, which changes our relationship to the past and moves us into the future. Where do “I” want to go? Where do we want to go from here? She asks us. The stakes have rarely been higher.
And as we design for a post-COVID world, we must ask ourselves, how do we design for a hopeful and resilient university?
Gorman and universities do the work of reminding us where our legacies live and to whom we are connected through the power of narrative knowledge. Gorman’s poem is rich with others’ voices located at diverse points across time and geography, connecting us to the knowledge, wisdom, and insight of our predecessors. “History has its eyes on us”, Amanda Gorman reminds us in her inauguration poem. By referencing the Broadway smash hit Hamilton, Gorman transports us to another moment in a history of nation-building that is so integral to the American cultural imaginary. Amanda Gorman plays with this line to imagine a future that is already writing about her and this moment in time. She creates – through poetry – a performative space that harnesses past, present, and future in an act of dynamic simultaneity.
Her poem resonates at a point in time where we are on the precipice of new beginnings, of building a post-COVID world.
Gorman embodies critical hope: she doesn’t tell us everything is going to be alright now. Instead, she acknowledges that as messy and difficult as any transformation is, we are at the point of becoming something other than we are, we are at the moment of crossing a threshold, and we need to cross it – both as individuals and as institutions. Her poem gives us a roadmap into the future.
In gifting us a poem she gives us our experiences back to us as something coherent that is, otherwise, incoherent. Gorman takes fragmented, disorienting, and confusing feelings (and we have a LOT of feelings right now) and transforms them into art. In this act of creation, she makes our deep discomfort into something beautiful. And she gives us an entry point – an invitation – where we can participate in a moment of generativity – of future-facing legacy building – through the power of poetry.
Ira Shor, in Empowering Students defines hope as “challenging the actual in the name of the possible.” In higher education, students do this in the most wonderful, brave, courageous, audacious ways – because they can still see possibility. Adam Grant, in Originals, talks about young geniuses and old masters, and argues that young people haven’t been entrenched in the structures and systems where they think and see in a particular way. In contrast, Old masters tackle a challenge over a long period of time to master it through experience.
Universities have the potential to be anchors of hope in a civic society because these institutions bring together old masters (professors) and young geniuses (students). If we design for it, and amplify (instead of squashing) the audacity and curiosity of youth, we can guide and learn alongside this new generation. Young geniuses have hope and joy without cynicism, while professors can help them navigate systems and structures through their experience in order to engage in deeper social and systemic change. Amanda Gorman is a young genius, connecting words together and flipping them ever so slightly to change the entire world: “Just is” is not “justice” despite their similarity in sound. It is in that difference, in that repetition with slight alteration, that gives new meaning and forges hope in those gaps. In difference we find a way forward, we find a roadmap into the future, we find those spaces where we can build something new. And it is where we find renewal and redemption.
— Dr. Jessica Riddell, Executive Director, Maple League of Universities