I was one of those kids who looked forward to the start of school. Not that I loved getting up in the morning or doing fractions, but I was usually bored by the end of summer. More importantly, I always loved the feeling of starting new, with a blank slate and endless possibilities.

I don’t have any desire to take another class. Grad school cured me of that. But I am thankful that every fall I get to walk into a classroom and teach, to relive that idea of starting over, with 50 somewhat impressionable students who all can get an A if they work hard enough.

It turns out that my blog is about a year old. I started towards the end of August last year, as I geared up for the Toronto Film Festival. Looking back, the blog’s been about what I expected: periodic bursts of writing followed by long passages of silence. As I start anew this fall, with another two college classes and another jaunt to Toronto, I’m tempted to start over with the blog and pretend that this year will be different, that this year I’m really going to buckle down and try to write every other day or at least every week.

And maybe I will. But as I turned 40 this summer, I took stock of my life and finally admitted that part of my personality is akin to boom and bust–furious moments of activity balanced by quiet moments of “recovery.” Odds are, that’s how my blog will always be, despite my best intentions.

Fortunately for the few faithful readers who’ve stuck with me, I’m about to enter one of those manic times. For some reason, being at the Toronto Film Festival brings that out in me. Not only do I want to see 40 movies in 10 days, but I want to write about them and share my experiences with you. And what always surprises me is that even my friends who don’t care about film seem to enjoy my Toronto blogging. So look for a festival preview post on Thursday, with a rundown of what I’ve already seen and what I’m looking forward to.

But in advance of that, here’s a “speech” that I’d give my college students tomorrow, on the first day of class, if I was brave enough. Excuse the meanderings of a college prof comfortably entering middle age.
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To read and to learn is to understand.

Our culture has taught us that our first instinct should be to mock, to condescend, to distance the unfamiliar even more from our daily lives.

But I firmly believe that one of the highest goals of learning and of art–literature, music, painting, film, etc.–is to reveal something that we haven’t seen before or perhaps have forgotten, and by doing so to connect us to each other and to help us understand.

Therefore, the first goal of learning and reading should be to understand as best we can what the speaker or author is trying to communicate. In saying this, I am necessarily making a moral claim–that we shouldn’t jump to analysis and certainly not to judgment until we have first waded to understanding.

In this class, you will often read things that you disagree with, that I disagree with. I assign those to teach you to read first, to wrestle, to grasp. Only after that can we declare what we think. And at that point, we must declare what we think if we are to show the author any respect at all.

Let me throw down a challenge. Do not construct your identity based on what you are not -> I am not a geek. I am not a cheerleader. I am not the guy sitting in the third row. I know what it’s like to say what I’m not. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I assert every day that I am not my parents. Even as the evidence piles up that I am exactly like them. And declaring what you’re not has its value, but don’t let that be your foundation. Instead, construct your identity based on what you are or, even better, what you want to become. And when I say ‘become,’ I’m not talking about your profession but about your character.

Many of you are sure of what you want to do in life, but most of you will change professions many times. If you had told me at 20 that I would be teaching media theory, writing movie reviews, and tutoring high school students, I would’ve laughed at all three possibilities. But that’s what I do.

But my career is not who I am. Rather, it’s the choices I made in my twenties that have defined my character. Those are what have made me who I truly am. And the same will be true for you.

I’m sure that many of you will go home today and email a friend about this boring professor who wants you to be a better person. As if that ranked in even the top 50 most important things in your life: right above cleaning the stain in your bathtub and right below finding out which episode of Family Guy is on tv tonight.

You’d be surprised, though, how little that mockery bothers me. It’s not that I don’t care what you think. In fact, I care deeply what you think, and I look forward to hearing it throughout the semester. Especially if your ideas clash with mine.

No, your mockery doesn’t bother me because it doesn’t define me. I am defined by my character, and that’s stable enough to withstand any ridicule. And that character arose out of choices I made when I was your age, choices that involved reading and learning and understanding. I hope the same will be true for you.