I get "bucket lists". I do. It's a reminder to drink all the marrow from life. But usually it's reinforcing an idea that life would be so disappointing if you didn't see that band live or visit those three countries or buy that car. Our students posed a few questions to the mentors this week about bucket lists, roads not taken, and inspirational moments. I'd like to take a stab at all three by way of re-imagining the bucket list idea a bit.
We've spent the last 7 weeks of the summer with our students doing research, research that has purpose. This research is meant to help make our communities stronger by encouraging a better sense of solidarity over land and water. Such purpose reminds one of the bucket metaphor. You fill the bucket, and now it becomes useful, purposeful. I think this is what I was searching for in my life, and how I fell into academia...or at least eventually made academia less like a Jack Nicholson bucket list and more like the LAKES REU.
I used to fly fish a lot. This seems like a digression, but I promise it's relevant. I worked at an elite fly fishing shop in Scottsdale, Arizona while I was in graduate school, and I probably spent more money than I made trying to go after the next big bucket list item. I needed THAT rod. I needed to fly fish Alaska. I needed to fly fish the flats of the Caribbean for bonefish. I needed to swing flies for steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. I needed to land a monster brown trout in the hidden streams of the White Mountains. So I did all those things and more, and it was great. But my bucket was not really full. I got to thinking that maybe I should just become a career guide...maybe even a fly fishing celebrity? It's not like an academic job is a sure thing anyway. But it just felt too...contrived to stick with such a bucket list approach to fly fishing.
And yet I attacked academia like a bucket list, too, trying to fit into some standardized idea of what an academic looks like. If I had X amount of conference presentations, or a certain amount of journal articles, or a particular grant, or if I had some famous professor say how meaningful my work is to contributing to the literature, then... Just...if. Well, I didn't do any of those things. Maybe it felt too robotic? Too much like a...bucket list?
I remember about the time I started to realize academia and fly fishing were not about checking off things on my list. I noticed that I started to appreciate both much more, and I also started to actually do those things on my academic bucket list without trying quite as hard. Basically, I tried something different, something that focused less on me and more on what my life could mean for others. Trite sounding, I know. But seriously- how much terribleness happens when we take a self-centered, myopic view of the world? If there is anything I see as a consequence of the larger neoliberal political economy in the past fifty years, it's an encouragement of this mindset. The bucket list mindset. It guts public education and puts the foxes in charge of the hen houses. It tells us to let others suffer and die without ever really knowing their story. It lets a watershed deteriorate and lakes become eutrophic.
So the LAKES REU was actually kind of an anti-bucket list item. It was our way of doing something for students and the community and the university. I never intended it to get so much attention and praise, but I do think that's what happens when you think of the purpose of the bucket in a different way than prescribed in pop culture. The real bucket is a process. It's the process of helping along all the lovely things, both for people and nature. We also ended up allowing the meaning of the watershed to develop in different ways for different people along the way, hopefully to our collective advantage. Elise and Sadie were my students this summer. They functioned marvelously as a team, but they each got something different out of the experience. Neither of them approached the REU as something to build their CV or to check off their bucket list. They seem focused on the real bucket question: What do I want my life to mean? And I could not be prouder of them. I hope many others will spend just 5 or 10 minutes with Elise and Sadie this week at the Raw Deal in Menomonie on Wednesday or at Gilligan's in Chetek on Friday. It honestly won't even take that long to see how impressive they are or how hopeful we can be about our future, in spite of where the larger social forces are pushing us. My anti-bucket list has a personification in these two students from Colorado and Massachusetts. And the LAKES REU has simultaneously become my "alternative" career and the experiences therein, my inspiration.