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Academia is often referred to as the “Ivory Tower”. When I first heard this metaphor, I had a beautiful image in mind of a delicate, cream-coloured fairy-tale tower on a green hill, against a blue afternoon sky. I juxtaposed this image against a reading of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. In book two, the heroes Guyon, Palmer, and Arthur are lead by a woman, Alma, into a tower. In the tower is a library. There are also three people there: Eumnestes (good memory), Phantastes (imagination or foresight), and Judgement.

The characters and library are an allegorical commentary. They explore how the mind works to research, remember, and to imagine the future. In that tower, Arthur reads a history of England, which helps him on his quest. Externally, I made links between other texts, some historical, some fictional, and had a constructed view of English literature, history, and fantasy that helped me to make sense of the world – all returning to that image of the hero reading a book in a tower. That’s been part of my academic path.

So imagine my bemusement when the Ivory Tower was used as a negative metaphor. I didn’t immediately understand. But the image of academia as an ivory tower, disconnected from the real world, has a foundation in reality. This is why I say this semester is a reality check. I’m looking critically at the institution from inside the tower. And it’s a much needed perspective for graduates; it’s healthy to be aware of the reality of academia. After all, I’ve dedicated most of my adult life to it. That’s where I think my department is doing a great job of being honest, and, like Phantastes, supporting the foresight we’ll need to have as we continue our academic quests.

This semester, I’m taking a course called “Public Intellectuals in Canada” with Dr. Joel Deshaye. In this course, we’ll be questioning the place that intellectuals and academics have outside the Ivory Tower. We’re encouraged to challenge the ideas we have and redefine old ideas to be vibrant and connected within the real community. For me, this is how courses should be focused: moving beyond discourse to action and involvement.

I have another course that’s focused on narratology and comics with Dr. Nancy Pedri. Popular culture is a massive force that has just begun to be serious. That’s an important shift making our tower open to the new ideas and alternative histories that inform our imaginations, and so, our possible futures. I’m also impressed that Dr. Pedri has taken the time to design the syllabus with transferable skills in mind, so we’re getting valuable methods that will help us in the real world. We’re working on one piece of writing over the course of the term to be (hopefully) submitted for publication, as well. This is a vital skill that isn’t always explicitly taught. I’m very impressed that it’s built into the course.

My last course is creative, with esteemed local poet Mary Dalton. Even though I don’t have a creative focus, Memorial’s Master’s program allows students to explore both creative and academic tracks. Not many programs have this level of flexibility, and this was a big factor for me choosing this program over others.

I’m lucky to have the opportunity to attend a series of sessions on career development, as well. I went to Dr. Danine Farquharson with the germ of an idea in my head to have an English department-specific workshop with Julie Bowering, who works at MUN’s Career Development Centre. Dr. Farquharson was receptive and supportive, and has put together a whole series for our department to ensure student success.

So, while the image of the Ivory Tower might be negative, there’s a better allegory being built here, one that looks critically at our roles in the world and in the community. Spenser’s tower has had a lasting impact on the way I view the Ivory Tower, and I like to think I’m meeting good Judgement here at MUN. Call me an optimist, but I think that honest valuation of the role of academia is exactly what a program needs, and I’m proud that MUN’s English Department is doing it.