This photo pretty much sums up how I feel this day before Back-to-School. Airborne, off-kilter, and sparking, it’s only a matter of time before I crash and burn–live!–in front of a glassy-eyed student audience.

Classes at Keene State started today, but since I don’t teach on Mondays, I’ve had an extra day for pre-semester prep…and panic. I’ve blogged before about the back-to-school jitters I experience every fall, and this year is no exception. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve taught writing and literature to sleepy-eyed students…the thought of a new crop of staring faces is enough to induce a sickening sensation that vaguely approximates the feeling of sliding and careening off an ice-slicked road. In other words, the thought of a new semester feels a lot like Imminent Disaster.

Considering I started my pre-semester panic on Saturday, when flocks of incoming freshmen descended upon their dorms with parents and piles of possessions in tow, it’s probably good that yesterday I got away from all that by driving down to North Adams, Massachusetts, where I visited Mass MoCA–the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art–with Leslee and Rachel. Although our favorite installation was Mark Dion’s serene Library for the Birds of Massachusetts, an indoor, walk-in aviary featuring a scattered library of natural history books, an assortment of ornithological paraphenalia, and a flock of lively African zebra finches, my most interesting photos came from Cai Guo-Qiang’s multiple-gallery installation, Inopportune, with its exploding cars and arrow-studded tigers.

I blogged about Mass MoCA last summer after I saw Ann Hamilton’s corpus in the Museum’s industrial-sized Building 5 gallery. This year, Cai Guo-Qiang’s ode to the chaotic and careening fills this same 300 foot-long gallery with the surprisingly balletic beauty of nine airborne cars, each emitting shafts of multicolored, pulsating sparks. The exhibit is a silent one, so you experience the dream-like sensation of walking through a suspended action scene. It’s the usual Hollywood car chase complete with exploding vehicles, but with a twist as flying vehicles hang in an oddly pregnant pause, almost ready to self-destruct.

Although I’ve never flipped a car, I’ve experienced winter’s fish-tailing “fun” enough times to remember (vividly) the weightlessness you feel when your vehicle’s speed and spin make it clear you have lost your grip on pavement. Not being a big fan of spinning and twirling carnival rides, I understandably don’t like it when my car turns into an implement of whirling nausea. Even so, walking amid and around flying cars, I found myself enthralled by the sheer beauty of it all. Hurling without drivers in a room where time has stopped, these nine cars aren’t careening toward disaster or mayhem. Instead, they are dancers caught in the joy of soundless music, hanging aloft and multicolored, as fun as fireworks. Could it be that even in that split second when a driver loses control and realizes her or his car is going to fly, flip, and explode, there is a moment before the awakening of panic when adrenaline’s natural (and necessarily amoral) response is an ironically joyful yee-haw?

In my own case, I have a hard time relaxing into panic; instead of letting myself get swept away by a surge of adrenaline, I go rigid and wide-eyed. After all these years facing the same old back-to-school panic, you’d think I would have learned how to ease into that feeling, letting it permeate my being rather than fighting it. Theoretically, I believe panic is a wave that can be smoothly ridden if you allow yourself to roll with it…but instead of surfing I almost instinctively slam on the brakes, screaming, while cranking the steering wheel wildly this way and that. Wanting to control everything at all times, I can’t stomach the flowing sensation of being fluid and afloat.

As New Orleans hangs in the dizzying suspension of waiting for Hurricane Katrina to pass, I feel more than a bit silly for panicking about my job. Even if things go poorly tomorrow–and logically, I know they won’t–one wrecked class is never the end of the world. Instead of fighting my fear, I should embrace it, recognizing the sparks of anxiety as being another sort of energy, the psychological combustion that pushes my internal pistons. After lying awake in bed last night planning my Freshman Comp class in my head, I woke this morning and wrote my last-minute syllabus in a relative flash: a whole summer’s worth of scheming finally on paper, printed and ready for student consideration.

For even my careful, seatbelt-wearing self sometimes takes risks, inspired perhaps by the poetry of careening cars. Although it’s a small leap to completely re-design a 15-week course the day before it begins, it’s a leap nevertheless. This year I’ve scrapped the textbook I’ve used for years and sent my tried-and-true assignments to the recycle bin: starting tomorrow, my freshmen and I will be facing a new book with fresh eyes and renewed curiosity.

At least that’s what I tell myself now in the adrenaline-laced excitement of it all. Deep down, I know that despite the novelty of a new approach that excites me, the time will come when my students become (alas) bored with me, my syllabus, and my best-laid pedagogical plans, dismissing them all with a cooler-than-cool yawn. There is, after all, something worse than Crashing and Burning with a disastrously wretched class. The worst fate that can befall a professor is the inevitable tragedy of being shot through repeatedly with the cruel arrows of a bored student’s disinterested stare.

    Be sure to check out Leslee’s account of our Mass MoCA trip, including cool links to more pictures of Cai Guo-Qiang’s flying cars and perforated tigers.