David Bentley

Professor David Bentley, winner of the 2015 Canada Council Killam Prize, delivers his lecture “Simile, Metaphor, and the Making and Perception of Canada,” in the President's Lecture Series at Western University on November 25, 2015. 

Near the beginning of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the wizard Prospero gives his daughter Miranda what sounds a lot like a lecture. In it he explains how the two of them came to be stranded on an island, and why he has used his magic to raise a tempest to bring a ship and its passengers to shore. For him, time is of the essence, so he is worried that Miranda is not paying attention to the story that he is rapidly unfolding. “Do you attend me?” he asks urgently, “Do you hear?” “Sir, most heedfully,” she replies, “Your tale would . . . cure deafness.” She has indeed been listening and attending: she has been fully present in the moment and heard every word.

To my mind, one of the most interesting words in the dialogue between Prospero and Miranda is “attend” — and it is the word that bears most on success at university.

First of all, and most obviously: attend lectures, labs, tutorials, and review sessions. At university most of these things are not mandatory, and for countless reasons — tiredness, laziness, “no one will notice,” “the professor is boring,” the TA “doesn’t like me,” “I can borrow the notes from someone,” “I had to do the readings or an assignment for another course” . . . — it is tempting, at least from time to time, to avoid the very things that your substantial fees are providing for you. Don’t: you will miss out on possibly crucial stuff. As a meme I read recently puts it: “The world is divided into two types of losers: Those who can’t extrapolate from incomplete knowledge.” Don’t be one of them.

But to attend in the sense of being physically present is only the beginning. The Oxford English Dictionary gives one meaning of “to attend” as “to direct the mind or observant faculties, to listen, apply oneself” — in other words, to be fully present in the moment or, as Miranda says, to attend “most heedfully.” If you come to a lecture with a cell phone and decide to check your text messages, or to go on Facebook, or to browse the internet, or to watch porn, you are not heedfully present in the classroom. You have absented yourself — put yourself in another dimension and damaged, or even destroyed, a part of your learning experience. And you may well have done the same for students sitting beside or behind you.

Since you ask, another way of attending at university is what I think of as the Western way of studying. So, you’ve been out with friends, binged on TV, had a few whatevers (it happens), and you get back to your room at 2 a.m. happy but befuddled. Splash some cold water on your face and crack the books, jot down some ideas, sit in creative contemplation on an assignment for half an hour or so. You’ll be amazed at how much you remember and how good you feel about yourself in the morning. Believe me, it works: I’ve been there, and still go there.

Finally, you should take care to attend to yourself — to your mental and physical wellbeing, and even, strange as it may sound, your appearance. “Dress for success” is not an empty slogan, and in Mean Girls wearing sweatpants on a Monday (when, as everyone knows, you should look your best) doesn’t work out well for Regina. “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” says the European designer Karl Lagerfeld; “You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” (Apparently, Lagerfeld doesn’t know many athletes.)

The English poet John Keats puts a more positive spin on the matter: “Whenever I find myself growing vapourish [i.e., depressed],” he wrote in 1819, “I rouse myself, wash and put on a clean shirt, brush my hair and clothes, tie my shoestrings neatly and in fact adonize as [if] I were going out — then all clean and comfortable I sit down to write.”

For Keats, attending to his appearance was a key to banishing depression and to being in the right frame of mind to write what we now know to be some of the finest poems in the English language. For Lagerfeld, caring about how you look is a sign of having control of your life. To both Keats and Lagerfeld, neatness and slovenliness are the outward and visible signs of the states of mind that are conducive to success, or failure.

Attending at university is not just a physical act. It’s a way of using your time, in Prospero’s words again, “most preciously.” Indeed, it’s a way of being.

David Bentley is a Distinguished University Professor at Western University. He is the Carl F. Klinck Professor in Canadian Literature, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Bentley is the founding and continuing editor of Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews and the Canadian Poetry Press and the Director of the Canadian Poetry Project. He was the winner of the 2015 Killam Prize, an award that recognizes exceptional career achievements.


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