On Apples and Academics

This past Sunday I joined some of my fellow anthropology grad students (and one token archaeologist) for an afternoon of apple picking at Vergers Petit et Fils, near Mont St. Hilaire.  Having been at McGill for five years now, a trip to an orchard each fall seems like a quintessential part of experiencing Montreal in all its seasonal glory (as is the annual visit to its springtime counterpart, the cabane à sucre).

A day spent outside under apple trees, eating apples, picking apples, putting apple ketchup on an apple and pork sausage, tasting all the many kinds of apple cider (Léger, Tranquille, Cidre de Glace, “Champomme”) got me thinking about…

Apples. Yes, that’s right.

More specifically, it got me thinking about how much we all need more days spent immersing ourselves in the world beyond the Roddick Gates (where the apples grow), away from the laptop/library/lab. It also made me realize how hard it is to actually do so.  It’s a shame that a day of apples – the fruity symbol of knowledge itself – left me feeling guilty for having spent so much time away from my work, which most simply described, consists of learning.

Why is it that time spent ruminating in physical stillness, isolated in spaces completely cut off from the outside world (yes, Leacock building, I’m thinking about you), is deemed productive time, while time spent indulging in physical activity carries the stigma of being for the intellectually weak and lazy? Sometimes even the most necessary physical things – like bathroom breaks or eating – feel like stolen time away from the mental torture involved in, say… oh, I don’t know… preparing a dissertation proposal.

This, in my experience, is very unfortunate; some of my best ideas have manifested themselves after I’ve gone for a walk, or a bike ride, or after I’ve done a few downward dogs.

I recently watched the movie An Education (I know I’m very behind the times) and one short, otherwise inconsequential scene, is a perfect example of the experience I’m trying to describe in this blog post about apples.

The scene takes place in a pub close to the Oxford campus. Teenage protagonist Jenny has snuck off to be with her man-friend David, using a university visit accompanied by his two friends, Helen and Danny, as an excuse for a racy weekend away.  Helen, who is not usually the most erudite of women, makes a rather astute observation about the relationship between book learning and bodies: “Why are university girls so strange-looking? They can’t all have started off that way, can they? I mean, most girls aren’t born ugly, but most girl students seem to be, so there must be something about these places that makes you fat, or spotty, or shortsighted.”

Okay, so let me clarify by saying that I do not in any way think that all university girls are ugly, nor university boys for that matter.  So why did I find this bit of dialogue so funny? Maybe because getting caught up in academic work can certainly make one feel ugly. To be honest, the stereotype of the absent-minded professor with chalk on his behind and elbow patches on his corduroy blazer from having spent so much time with his elbows on the desk, head in hands (hard at work ruminating, we assume) sometimes hits a bit close to home. In other words: Yes, Helen, there is something about these places.

As professional ruminators, it is all too easy to get trapped in one’s own headspace and forget how one appears to the rest of the world. Personally, I’m going to heed Helen’s warning and refuse to become that academic, slowly disconnecting from, well, myself.

If more apples mean less peer-reviewed papers published with my name on them, so be it.

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