The Wisdom Page 


A Skype-With-Webcam Session and
Exchange of Letters with Alan Nordstrom's Students


Dr. Alan Nordstrom is Professor of English at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. In addition to teaching Shakespearean and Renaissance literature, Alan teaches a course on personal essay writing. More than a decade ago he began using my book GETTING A LIFE: Strategies for Joyful & Effective Living as an idea stirrer in this course. The book's 21 short chapters focus on different aspects of living, and present my personal thoughts on skillful and not-so-skillful ways of dealing with them. Students read an assigned chapter and write an essay out of their own experience on that general topic or something related to it. Over the years Alan developed a set of class notes to further stir student thinking as they approached each of the book's chapters. In late 2008 Alan and I created an online course for self-motivated learners based on my book and his class notes. Called Wisdom 101 it has been a popular addition to The Wisdom Page.

Both Alan and I are equipped for Skype video conversations, and as we communicated with each other in this way we became enthusiastic about the medium. Compared with talking on the telephone, Skype-with-webcam gave us a much greater sense of "being with" the other person. As his Spring 2010 class progressed, Alan had an idea. When his students had completed their tour of GETTING A LIFE, I would join the class via Skype for a question and answer session.

It happened.† The Rollins I.T. folks equipped Alanís classroom with a camera that pointed down the long conference table where the students sat, placed microphones at intervals along the table, and connected Alanís laptop to a large flat-screen monitor situated where everyone could look at it.† Fifteen hundred miles away, I sat in my home office on the second floor of a 150-year-old farmhouse on the south shore of Prince Edward Island, Canada ó sometimes facing the webcam, and sometimes facing my computerís monitor.† The students had prepared great questions, and I did my best to respond in a helpful way.†

Clockwise: Eric, Amanda, Kelsey, Lauren, Hannah, Jessica, Erin H., Emily, Lily, Bean, Alexis, Brooke, Erin D.

Professor Alan Nordstrom

Cop Macdonald on webcam

From my perspective, and Alan's, it worked. But how did the students feel about our online session and the book? Alan's next assignment to the class was this:

Having read Cop's Getting a Life: Strategies for Joyful and Effective Living, having perused his, having conversed with him via Skype in class, as well as having written an essay and some talking points on wisdom—now please share with Cop something you make of what you've learned or are still learning. Write to give him some feedback from your perspective regarding his project of helping humanity to wise up.

Reading the letters from these bright and articulate young people was a delight. Whether the student brought up points of agreement or points of difference, every letter was a sincere, personal expression from the heart. I responded, both to the class as a whole and to each student individually. The students agreed to have their letters and my responses posted on The Wisdom Page, and they all appear below. The students and I hope that you enjoy the letters and our exchange of thoughts about life and wisdom.

Copthorne "Cop" Macdonald

The Letters

Cop's letter to the class as a whole:

April 11, 2010

Hello Everyone,

In response to your †thoughtful and heartfelt letters I will be writing to each of you individually.† But I also want to express my appreciation to the class as a whole, both for your attention to the material as the course progressed and for those amazing letters.†

Whether you and I were in agreement or disagreement didnít matter.† What did matter to me is that each of you is alive, aware, and deeply engaged with life.† Your letters made that clear.† It is difficult being on the threshold of your 20s decade.† So many immediate challenges.† So many unknowns. Iíve been there too, of course, and the memories of that time of my life are fresh.†

As some of you pointed out, you canít expect 20-year-olds to find themselves at the far end of the wisdom spectrum.† I certainly donít expect it.† As the research of University of Florida wisdom scholar Monika Ardelt has pointed out, the wisest old people tend to be those who have had major life challenges and have managed to work through or around them.† Out of a challenge resolved comes a broadened view of how things work, a greater sense of personal empowerment, and increased confidence in oneís ability to face future challenges.† The 20s are a time of exploration, experimentation, and perhaps at some point, commitment to a passion.† Each of you shows every sign that you will be living this time intensely.† And to the extent that you live it attentively, in the learning mode, you will grow in wisdom, challenge by challenge.

Mary Oliver was a Pulitzer Prize winning American poet.† She ends her poem ďThe Summer DayĒ with a profound question.† I donít expect that you will be able to answer it today, but itís one of those questions, as Rilke suggested, that is worth living until the answer eventually comes.†

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down,
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

All the best,


The exchanges between individual students and Cop

    1. Alexis
    2. Amanda
    3. Brittany
    4. Brooke
    5. Courtney
    6. Emily
    7. Eric
    8. Erin D.
    9. Erin H.
    10. Hannah
    11. Jessica
    12. Kelsey
    13. Lauren
    14. Lily