“Okay. What are you going to ask?”
“I have no idea, but how often will this opportunity come up? I have to ask a question. I’m going to. I’ll think of something while I’m in line or I’ll make it up when it’s my turn. Here I go!” And with that one of my closest friends stood up, stepped over me and bounded down the isle of the Winspear Centre to wait for her chance to question author Margaret Atwood and musical artist Alanis Morissette at the Festival of Ideas last Friday.
Up until that point in the evening, the questions had focused on the origin stories of these two women, their approaches to writing, aging (and consequentially, the rules around flirting), and hair. These questions had been shared by the evening’s moderator Jared Bland who had compiled the questions from none other than Atwood and Morissette themselves. As the two women responded to one another’s inquiries (and eventually to those of the crowd), they produced a thoughtful and witty dialogue. It was a dialogue that the audience seemed to be sad to see end when the line for questions was cut off and the closing remarks were made – BUT, it was a conversation that did not end on the stage.
When the audience streamed out into the lobby, flooded out towards the street, and flowed into the downtown underground, the conversation continued. It continued as each audience member shared their thoughts on the evening with one another. In the case of my friend and I, we returned to the case of the question. There had only been enough time for the first five or six audience inquries, so she hadn’t shared her question with the guests.
“So, did you think of a question to ask?”
“Honestly? No. I would have probably just said the first thing that popped into my head.”
“Like, ‘what’s your favourite colour?’”
“Yeah! Or maybe ‘isn’t it ironic....’”
“Mmm... oh. Oh! – you could have just sung a few lines of the song and nothing else. Just sang. Made eye contact with both of them, and then just sat down.”
Although we continued to suggest absurd questions that we (perhaps thankfully) did not ask the main attractions, the two of us did eventually begin to discuss matters of communication, the quote unquote rules of gender that (as Atwood and Morissette’s conversation around reviews of their hair had pointed out) impact the ways in which members of our culture interact with and view one another.
Having the opportunity to question and interact with the writers, researchers, and innovators that we study is a privilege and a perk of attending a post-secondary institution. Whether we get to hear from the likes of Margaret Atwood, Alanis Morissette, Joe Clark, or Severn Cullis-Suzuki we are in a lucky position. Although social media can sometimes make it seem as though these individuals are merely a tweet away, the reality is that having the opportunity to share an experience with them is a rare one. Events like the Festival of Ideas are merely one way that the university helps to put us in touch with the innovators that we study, but it certainly isn't the only way.
Although we might not recognize it all the time, our classes also provide us with opportunities like these, as our profs introduce us to the works, theories, and achievements of these innovators. Sometimes our profs actually are these innovators! And by interacting with them, attending classes, and participating in group discussions (in or after class), we get to join the ranks of the innovators. We get to practice being the articulate, thoughtful, budding academics that we are.
My friend summed up the opportunity that our university experiences provide us with best when she said “I have to ask a question.” That’s why we’re here. Or at least, it’s why I am.
So, if you had the chance, what questions would you have asked Atwood and Morrisette?