Maintaining Civility in our Uncivil Country

Hello from a dining room table.

Two weeks from tonight most of us will be glued to some sort of media trying to understand which person we will call our President for the next four years. Of course, the expectation that we might find something reminiscent of 2000 is relatively high, and the worry about what will happen on the other side of the election is palpable, to a degree that goes beyond anything I have experienced in my life time. Regardless the day, the time of the day, or where I am, I am being bombarded by text messages, emails, even phone calls trying to cajole me into donating more money. Sometimes the texts seem kind and sincere. Sometimes they are trying to guilt me into believing that my lack of response to every single text means I am somehow single handedly destroying the possibility that what I hope will happen. I am tired of it all beyond anything I ever imagined possible. I actually find politics fascinating. The very fact that we are arguing so vociferously (and viciously) about States’ Rights versus Federalism some 240 years later demonstrates how difficult it is for these two philosophies to co-exist.

I know from my own studies in history as a student at Dana and beyond that much history is generally written by the victors. In addition, we as Americans have a sense of moral superiority in what we do, be it locally, nationally, and most certainly, globally. While many will find it surprising that I might find it possible to agree with the current administration, there is more truth to President Trump’s assertion that what we have done has not always been as good as we might say. Of course, he also noted, in terms of foreign policy, “I’m the only one — believe me, I know them all, I’m the only one who knows how to fix it” (NYT 26Apr2016). Foreign policy is incredibly complex. Things we do with our allies can often occur in a total 180 from other things we espouse. There are numerous examples of this and often it has to do with human rights violations, our support of dictators when those dictators serve our global purpose (only to come back and bite us later), or how we provide financial or military aid to someone less than stellar because it serves or national interest. How does this occurs as regularly or unabated as it does? Because the great majority of us pay little or no attention to most of this unless we are personally affected (and that assumes we even do something then). This really gets to the point raised in my title. We want to believe we are fundamentally civil. We have subscribed to this myth for most of our nation’s history. So what am I saying? We are naive? We are misguided? We are delusional? To some extent, there is truth in all of these things, but I will suffice it to say, we are flawed humans and we are not, by nature altruistic. We do not do things for the simple goodness of being good. For those who believe in a God, it is simply saying we are sinful. For those who would not believe in some higher power or God, regardless what you call that entity, it is we are simply flawed mortals with a fundamental selfishness that connects to our need for some sort of self-preservation. I realize this does not sound all that optimistic, but I do believe we also can act with some basic decency when we rise above our individual frailties.

That is probably what is needed now in our divisive national conversation, our disparate and selfish actions which seem to characterize what has become the norm when we disagree with the other. As I continue to write today, we have just experienced the two highest Covid death count days. Please know this: I too am tired of wearing a mask; I too am sad that some of my best friends and colleagues have not really met in person normally since March. I too have had my entire life rearranged with a postponed sabbatical and no sense of if it might even happen next fall. And yet I wear my mask. For me it certainly has dual purpose. I am that compromised person, but I am more concerned for others than myself. I do not want to be the transmitter of this virus to anyone regardless of age, gender, economic class, or health situation. Furthermore, while I am not desirous of catching this terrible virus in any way, shape, or form, dying is not what scares me, it is the long-term consequences, which we are still figuring out, that scare me. What stuns me is the selfishness of our collective and individual natures. I know this has become political, but it simply shouldn’t be. The politics of health should not exist. I understand there is an economics of health care. I know it too well. As I have noted before, when I was in graduate school emergency surgery to save my life was not covered by my health insurance because I had not had it long enough and the surgery was for complications of my Crohn’s, a pre-existing condition. Think about that for a moment. I had insurance and they did not have to cover me. That is wrong. I had not gone without insurance, and I was required to change plans. Then they could still tell me “not our monkey, not our circus.” If I had a quarter for every email, text, or contact I have received about the upcoming election in just the last two months, I would take an incredible vacation. Let me also say I am well aware that what happens in Denmark, Norway, or other social democracies in terms of health care is not comparing apples to apples, but living without insurance because it is unaffordable is unconscionable. I still believe in private sector health insurance and choice for those who can afford it, but having no option for those who cannot afford it is not reasonable. For those who have nothing, we who do pay for them. About three years ago I spent the majority of a day in the ER and was admitted for observation for one night until noon the next day. The cost of that day was almost 15 grand. I had a $200.00 ER copay that is to be waived if admitted. When I got the bill for the $200.00 later, I questioned it. I was told because I was released before noon, I was not in the hospital long enough. This sort of stuff is incomprehensible to me.

What does it mean to be civil to each other? I do not believe it means we should squelch debate. I do not believe it means we should not question things we believe to be fundamentally or ethically suspect. Civility is simple respect. The difficulty is that it is anything, but simple. Civility and/or respect or both earned and learned. How has incivility become the rule, the norm? This is an paramount question because the consequences of incivility go way beyond the individual problematic encounter. Civility requires a concerted effort to understand the other. We do not understand everything they have experienced. We do not understand how their past experiences have affected they expectations. At times like that, it requires restraint, something that seems to be in small supply in our current national process. Almost every animal learns to manage equity in their microcosmic systems, and this is not limited to humans. Civility is often dependent on balance. So what has contributed to our lack of balance, which has culminated in an profound national/global attitude of suspicion, contempt, and, if you will, uncouthness, insolence, surliness, and indecency? As it seems to be the case, too often I must offer some disclaimer, but that is not ironic in light of the topic at hand. I use social networking pretty extensively (at least for a 65 year old), and that is, in part, because it is what I teach. Yet, social judgments, which occur with every post regardless the platform, are almost instantaneous. There is little in terms of social cue, providing ample opportunity for misinterpretation. I experienced this recently with a close friend, one known to me for more than 8 years. Our text thread back and forth disintegrated into two people being displeased with the other. Finally a phone call cleared some of that up. To their credit, they asked, “Could you try not to see the worst in something?” It was a fair, but difficult question to be asked. Certainly there were reasons for him to request that. The argument from my side could be there were experiences that might have moved me into that sort of interpretation, but his concern was valid. I made assumptions. And this is on the individual level. What happens when the social platform and comments come from our leaders?

Before we go down that road, I would note that I believe anyone can choose to use or not use social networking. Almost all politicians, regardless of party or leaning do so. Too often the difficult with our leaders is they will tweet talking points, bullet points, or some other sound byte that is more complex than what is posted. I believe this is the real difficulty with Twitter. In addition, we have a willfully illiterate society. It is not that they cannot read, but rather they refuse to do so. In addition, we must question if our leaders listen to us or react more to the perceived values of a particular group. Power is often related to the finances of someone or someone(s). The difficult is when we focus on the finances, the ethics of the situation are often forgotten or ignored. When one disregards the ethics of something, the values/morals upon which those ethical mores are based are also jettisoned. Too often people believe ethics is a noun, I think we would be better served if we would see it as a verb. We act ethically. It is something we do and as such it has consequences. Pretending to support values or feigning some ethical superiority is the epitome of moral hypocrisy. Most of our struggles are not against the other, they are internal and our inability to curb our own selfishness, our own wanton disregard for the greater good.

As I think about this semester’s focus on identity, it is time we need to re-examine ourselves and our own identity, both individually and societally. There is little doubt we have difficulties, but we also have 240 years of democracy, albeit imperfect at best. It is not a cancel culture issue to be honest about our shortcomings in the past. It is not canceling culture to admit we have systemic concerns from equity to economics, from justice to caring for the other. As most historians will tell you, history is written by the victors. As I have noted from time to time this past couple of years, it is time to be honest with our past, but also to consider what kind of country we hope to be. I know that some are content with where we are and believe we are on the right path. I do not. That does not mean there is nothing of value on the other side. It does not say I believe that any one side has all the answers. It is almost always somewhere in the middle. Yet, when I believe the wolf is in the area (or in the house), it is time to do something. I believe the church tower bell is ringing once again and the alarm is real. I know there are those on the other side who claim the same. There is one way to manage that and it is 10 days away. VOTE! The issue of control and looking at the person in the mirror.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Failing at Something or Learning as a Process

This is the Bowman Clock tower on UW-Stout’s south campus located in Menomonie, Wi

Hello from my study,

I am often asked if I knew I was going to be a professor earlier in my life. The answer is a simple and straightforward NO. Not in my wildest dreams, or more likely, nowhere in the realm of possibility could I have imagined that I would become a college professor. It is interesting that some (and that includes people from my elementary years until even my mid-thirties) believed this is exactly where I would end up. Those comments always astound me and for a variety of reasons. While I did like helping others with their school work, I was not always that diligent at my own. While I always found doing well in school made me feel positive about myself, again, I was not a stellar high school student. I can remember when I got a C in Ms. Coacher’s 7th grade geography class she told me that I should not be getting a grade that low and I needed to be more disciplined in my work. I was embarrassed at the time. It was probably the first time anyone had ever really told me in some manner that I was capable. I remember struggling with certain classes in high school (generally math or science) and feeling I must be lacking in some ability because my older brother was so good at those things. I remember, however, conversely getting really good grades in English and history. I generally chalked it up to the teachers who made it interesting versus my own ability or effort. Yet, I also did very well in economics, and later in life I would do well in classes that were well outside what I might have been expected to take. And yet there was doubt. I remember one particular professor at Dana, who never assigned me a grade higher than a C (and that implies I believe I had earned something higher), which galled me beyond words. This is the same professor who had asked both inquisitively and accusingly (it seemed) when I was a prospective student, “What kind of student are you?” I think it surprised him that a 24 year old Marine Corps veteran had chosen a small liberal arts college in Nebraska. I probably did myself no favors responding, “Any kind of student I choose to be.” I do not believe he ever forgave me that retort. Of course, he would later tell me I would never pass a summer Greek course because I was not smart enough. Again, that was like giving me a license to prove him wrong.

As I have worked with a variety of students in the last 28 years in college classes, I am always humbled by those individuals who teach me as much or more than I could ever hope to teach them. I am humbled when I know I could be doing better if only I had more time (and does that seem to be the case in the midst of this asynchronous remote world). I am blessed by those students who reach out or manage to stay in my life to some degree either as a former student or beyond graduation; some whom I would now consider friends. Some who write to stay in touch, some who compose poetry, some who send me birth notices or wedding invitations, and yes, some who have even asked me to officiate their service. Professing: it is such an incredible position to be allowed to spend my life doing and living to do. And yet, it has not always been an easy ride. As I was telling someone in just the last 24 hours, I think I have witnessed the best and the most difficult of human behavior in the two professional positions which have occupied the majority of my adult life. In the parish, you want to believe people are kind. You want to believe that people are gracious, but it is not always the case. I have often said if you want to see the most honest reality of families, be around them during those hatch, match, and dispatch times of their lives. The emotions are heightened and the fears, worries, and baggage or any other former struggles, which might have been swept away, comes bubbling to the surface. I have experienced that even in my own personal family events. Then there is simply the role of tradition. When it comes to church, tradition is sacred. When things at church are changed or altered, you can get people exponentially excited, and that is not necessarily positive . . . yet when trying to get to the base of the problem, if you ask them what or where the tradition originated or why it is important, they will often simply respond because it is always the way we have done it. Therefore their argument is based on pathos or emotion. There is that rhetoric thing again. There is no real thought in that, but it is merely custom, and heaven forbid (pun intended) that we might change or evolve in our feelings or thinking. There is a joke in the Upper Midwest that goes something like this: Do you know when you have really pissed off a Norwegian? . . . they twist the knife. And so it is.

Likewise, here in the academy, there is an incredible opportunity for conversation, learning, and creativity. Yet, often when you put a bunch of really intelligent people in a room, intelligence is not always the first time to come out. And part of that is because intelligence is not always the simple thinking through of something. It requires the implementation of whatever is being discussed. That is where the rub comes in. There is the ideal world and the real world. Maybe therein lies the foundation of the term Ivory Tower. There have been times (and many) I have sat in committee meetings that really incredibly brilliant people have discussed a topic and their insight into pedagogy, foundations of learning, and other things of concern like objectives and goals are articulated in ways far beyond possibilities I could ever imagine, but then there is the common sense perspective of cause and effect. I am not sure that is always managed as well. I know that is the reason for administration, honestly. And some of my colleagues will cringe as I say that. I do believe, in general, administrators see things and realize things I cannot begin to fathom. This moves me into the business nature of higher education, something I hate, and yet, I believe I have a strong dose of common sense (thank you, Dad. I give you the credit for that.). There is the business of getting things done, and it is business. Currently, I am also fortunate to have a department chair who is better at getting to the core issue in the midst of some convoluted discussion than anyone I know. Again, another gift in my life. I have been blessed with every department chair I have worked with here at Bloomsburg.

As I have noted in previous blogs during my now almost seven years of writing a blog that Stout was a blessing and curse to me. The move from Wisconsin and my position at UW-Stout 11 years ago was difficult. I was going to be one vote short of tenure and to say the dean of my college and I did not appreciate each other might be the most profound understatement I have ever thought, spoken, or written. I can say he detested me with every ounce of his being. Of course, I probably would not have found his name in my contacts to ask to share a beer, cocktail, or a glass of wine. I could write a book about him, but that has literally already been done due to actions in his own professional life. When I left Menomonie, I felt like a failure on a number of levels. I would have lost my job in a year had I not found a new one (and I am still indebted to Dan Riordan for shepherding me through that year); I had to leave Lydia, a profound change in her life and mine. I was in my early 50s and I felt like I was starting over yet again. I was not sure what six years at Stout had done for me professionally, and I was a bit battered and bedraggled to say the least. It was a frightening time to start over, but it needed to happen. More accurately, there was no other option. It was difficult to not feel like a failure, and, to be honest, there are moments or aspects of that time where I still feel that incredible tinge, that sharp pointed stab of failing beyond most any other occurrence in my life. That is not to say there are not other failures, but 14 years of college and believing I was finally there (whatever there means) to only be required to leave was devastating.

It is amazing how time can change perception. Perhaps some of that evolution occurred at a KOA picnic table in Paducah, KY. What I know is my intentions were strong while I was in Menomonie, but I struggled personally to figure out what was required to be a professor. That is a complex statement. What we do in the classroom, while profoundly important is only part of the process. What we do to support our actions in the classroom is as perplexingly significant. It is remembering that we are always on display, and I use that word intentionally. It is much like being the pastor; many will tell you it is like living in a fishbowl. You would think if I had done the first, I should have been better managing the second, but not so much. When I was at UW-Stout I did a poor job of being the professor outside of the classroom, particularly in my first couple years. As I have noted in earlier posts, I just wanted to be an everyday person. I hoped I had left the fishbowl. The issue was more enigmatic; for my own emotional baggage got in the way of my maturing into that professional position as a tenure track academic. It was a struggle that had dogged me for longer than I realized. Not long ago, I dug out a phone number and spoke with my counselor from graduate school. We had a wonderful conversation and what I told him was simple. I said, “Don, I think I am finally content with my life.” Somewhat disturbing that it took me until 65 to get there, but too many times it seems I subscribe to better late than never.

More importantly, what I know now is I was learning things. Even in times of pain and struggle, when our emotions are raw, we are still absorbing things. Many of the things I tried to to as a professor at Stout were theoretically sound, but pedagogically I was not as astute as I needed to be and then that other element of struggling with my professorial persona created an incredibly tenuous existence; it was one I was incapable of managing. Lydia, put it to me this way more than once. “Michael, you are too nice to people and it gets you in trouble.” she said in her little Austrian accented voice. There might still be remnants of that, but I have learned much about both my teaching and myself. I am reminded of the line from the song “Kathy’s Song” –“and as I watch the drops of rain weave their weary paths and die; I know I am like the rain, there before the grace of you go I.” There is so much complexity to our life, even if we try to simplify it. At this point, I am a much better professor than I was, but foundationally, I filled in some pretty significant holes when I was at Stout. I am also kinder to myself. I am never completely satisfied, believing I can always get better, I do not beat myself up as readily. I was used to getting beat on; it was something I experienced most of my life and then I allowed those who were supposed to love me to do it well into my adulthood. It seems both appropriately foolish and unhealthy, and yet we do it. If I could give my students anything at this point, it would be to merely put in a strong effort and believe you have done the best you can. If you can say yes to those questions, it is okay. You are learning. Failure is only failure if you refuse to pick yourself and learn from that experience. I know that is easier said than done, but it is an important thing to be able to do. What I know now is in my own life progression, I needed the difficult lessons of UW-Stout to become the professor I am today. I needed the missteps of trying to manage a tenure track position, be it with colleagues or even with students, and my failure to manage my own struggles to become a better mentor, a better department or college colleague, and yes, even a better scholar. I am simply better at what I do and I hope that is something my students and others benefit from. What I realize about myself at this point is that I am better in accomplishing things when I understand what I do not want to do. It is not the easiest way to move forward, but it is indicative of my entire childhood (and beyond). At this point, I realize there are two sides to most everything. Sometimes I find myself on the wrong side of doing things the easy way, but I do figure it out. It has been a circuitous route to get where I am, but I am glad I am here. I am grateful to Emily Kahn for turning me on to this amazing vocalist earlier today.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

The Difference Between Being Important and Thinking You Are

Hello from a bit of an unpredicted appointment,

Good Monday morning from Geisinger-Danville. What began as a follow up appointment has turned into much more. I am continually amazed by the complexity of the human body, but even more so by how many of those intricacies we take for granted. I have learned a great deal about the gastrointestinal system, but lately I have been immersed in how our hearing and sense of balance is interconnected. Shortly after arriving in Bloomsburg, it was recommended that I get tubes placed in my ears. To shorten a story, I underwent this procedure three times in about four years with success as long as the tubes would stay in, but my body was not inclined to allow these small foreign bodies to stay for long periods of time. Now, because of the scar tissue, I have retracted tympanic membranes (ear drums). The pressure inside and outside the ear is not equalized and as such, it both affects my hearing (not significantly enough to hearing aids or any such thing) and seems to make me prone to recurrent ear infections. To the question is now what might be the best path forward. More time with Geisinger it seems.

It seems we too often seem to err on one side or the other. Either we believe we are susceptible to everything, falling into a degree of hypochondria or we believe we are invincible, and we choose to listen to no one believing we can overcome everything, anything, anywhere, anytime. I have been around both kinds of people and as is usually the case, either extreme is problematic. The extremes have most certainly found some prominence during this year or the pandemic. And that is understandable for a multitude of reasons. Health and a person’s sense of well-being is profoundly personal, and as such there is no recipe card in how one should approach it. For those who have been blessed with very few health issues, when something confronts them for the first time (serious or not), it can throw them for the proverbial loop. It can do the same for those around them. I remember the summer between my junior and senior year in high school when my father suffered a heart attack. Long before the days of angioplasty, stents, or by-pass, he was initially bedridden and then off work for 3-4 months if I remember correctly. Seeing him pale and mostly unresponsive those first few days scarred me, and scared me beyond words. On the other hand, he approached the follow up to his health concern like anything else in his life: matter of fact, headon, and with careful thought and seriousness. One of the most important things my father taught be was to be fair and treat people with respect. His understanding of that could be summed up in one simple phrase: do not ask anyone to do anything you would not do yourself. Or, you are never too good to do any job you expect another person to do. This has stuck with me.

When I managed a restaurant while in graduate school, one night our 16 year old dishwasher called in sick. I made the decision that I would wash dishes that night. It sort of reminded me of being back in my grandmother’s bakery, something I addressed in my last post. When one of the servers came back and saw me washing dishes, she asked why I would do such a thing. I responded that if I did not wash dishes she would soon not be serving food. She asked why I did not make someone else do it, and I noted that I could have done that, but then someone would have been washing dishes for about $2.27/hour and not making any tips. I believed that was unfair and so I decided it was better if I washed dishes myself. Someone told me some time later that seeing me wash dishes that night made an impression upon them. I did it because it was what my father would have expected of me, not because I hoped to impress someone. It is much like now. About eight years ago, I had surgery (yet again). It ended up that I was required to take FLMA that semester. When I went in to sign the paperwork to qualify for this benefit, the HR person thanked me for coming in and being so polite. At the time I came in I was in significant pain and I was incredibly weak. And yet, I remember telling her that I was only doing what they asked me to do. It seemed logical to me. She then noted that another professor refused to come in to manage the same paperwork, but argued because they were tenured, they did not have to do that. I was dumbfounded. There are so many people, who work diligently each day to make my life easier. To treat them with anything less than gratefulness is absurd to me.

First and foremost, we are all humans, single, solitary individuals who have similar entries into the world. Perhaps Caesarean than natural birth, perhaps with a loving, supporting family or a single parent with little support, perhaps with a nursery already set up and everything staged for our arrival home, or perhaps with very little in terms of a long-term plan or a clear-sense of what is needed to manage a new baby in the home. For what it is worth, I think I was probably more of the later than the former. I doubt, there was anything my barely 16 year old mother had in place for a 17 ounce preemie in 1955. She was in Texas, her homestate, but not in her hometown. The point is this: I was completely dependent on what she and others around her did to keep me sustained. First, I spent some extra time in the hospital because I did not weigh anything close to 5 pounds. I am pretty sure there was no health insurance, and I am not sure if my father was already in trouble or running to stay ahead of whatever was coming. In some ways, I might have been the least of these at that point in life. At least size-wise that was certainly the case. Regardless her readiness to be a mother, I am pretty sure she loved me the best she could. Only 14 months later, she was become a mother to a second person, my younger sister, Kristina, but she was born in Long Beach, CA instead of Corpus Christi, TX. That is some significant real-estate in terms of a change of venue. By the time a third child would be born, it seems my mother had lost custody of the two of us and was back in Texas with a husband in a state penitentiary and trying to figure out her life as a 19 year old mother of three, but with only one in her possession. From what I understand, she decided to give the second sister I call a sibling to someone in the Air Force in a sort of “Here, what a baby?” manner. To this day, I have no idea where that second sister is or if she is aware of her being sort of foisted on someone. In fact, I am not even sure how I would go about finding her.

What makes a person important? Not necessarily in a big picture, but as an individual. Each of us has value and I believe that is an intrinsic thing. What is our inherent value as a human being? Any sort of search of this usually pushes us into an economic conversation or for instance, the intrinsic value of some asset or stock, but I am more interested in the philosophical idea of intrinsic or extrinsic. Certainly, we could return to Plato and his discussion about pleasure and pain, but I am not sure that is where I want to go. Intrinsic value does, for me, have a moral character to it. It means that as moral individuals (which I believe all people are – I did not say they act morally, but rather they have moral value) every individual has through its own existential foundation inherent value. I also realize this could go down a number of rabbit holes, but bear with me. We place value on others because of a number of things that have nothing to do with their intrinsic value, but too often their extrinsic value. Again, a lot can be said about this, but I will only go as far as to say that extrinsic cannot even matter if there is no intrinsic value to begin with. Allow me to put it another way: intrinsic value is (for me) an external thing; extrinsic is temporal and therefore temporary. It also set up the struggle that is inherent in the title of this blog post.

It is easy for us to fall into the trap of believing we have value that is beyond our own reality. What if this were to happen? What if I were no longer in a specific place or position? What if I left or moved on? I have had to face the reality of that truth more than once in my life. Whether it was when I was placed in a new home, left a job, moved to a new place, or stopped being married, the world did not stop. My mother lived the rest of her life without me in it. The English and Philosophy Department at the University of Wisconsin-Stout did not miss me after I left (in fact some would say my leaving was a benefit). I dare say neither ex-wife (there are two) probably wishes they were still married to me and they might even go as far as to say their life is better without me. I know that sounds a bit harsh, and maybe even a bit tough on my own self, but I want to be honest or realistic about this.

Presently, the world seems to have an overabundance of people who believe they are more important than they are, and this is not just in our divisive political arena. Too often we believe ourselves indispensable. There is not such person; there is no such possibility. I know that after my brother or my grandmother died (within about 7 months of each other), I found it difficult to move forward, and I floundered, but I did manage. It took the help of others, but it happened. It was a time I struggled to find my intrinsic value you if you will. It was a time when I believed I had little to offer. There have been other times like that in my life too, but somehow, there is the inherent goodness of the other who has reached out and made my life meaningful. Who are those people that are your go-to people that remind you of your intrinsic value? What do they do to help you see that which seems uncertain in your circumstance? In this time of uncertainty, I believe it is necessary for us to do two things (yes, Ruth I said two things; imagine that): first, you must believe in the goodness of your ownself (and if you are struggling to do so, find someone to help you); second, you must believe in the inherent intrinsic value of the other. They are neither more nor less important, but they are important. It is then I believe we move beyond the divisiveness of our present world. It is then I believe we find a world that moves toward justice, equity, and goodness. One of the things I have noted for my students is the importance of seeing how things work together. The importance of synthesis. I believe this group found its voice both because of its incredible talent, but also because Glee pushed the importance of music and the arts back to the fore. This is their version of the unbelievably important John Lennon tune.

Thank you as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Remembering My Heroine

Hello on a Sunday afternoon,

Forty-seven years ago today, I was marching on the grinder as we called it, proud that I had made it through 90 days of processing and training known as Marine Corps Boot Camp. There was more than once I doubted I had what it took to make it through. Even though I was one of the house mice, anyone who has been through boot camp knows what I mean, I was not an honors graduate or promoted graduate of Platoon 3063 that fall. In the big picture, I was average at best. I managed the physical demands quite well, but emotionally, I had a lot yet to learn. I grew three inches and gained 25 pounds in that three month stretch, but even that was something to come to terms with. Even I got off the plane in Sioux City, my sister was the only one who actually recognized this taller, heavier, and substantially changed barely 18 year old. My bearing, my responses, and my thoughts about my own identity had changed dramatically in that summer experience. I remember attending a church youth group meeting that was a sort of welcome home event. Everyone was stunned by the way I spoke, I listened, even how I sat on a couch. I remember people saying I was an entirely different person. So to take my last two blog titles and put them together: what had I learned? Who was I? At that time, should I have been asked that, I doubt I could have answered either question in some manner that was much more than basic answers. What I remember most about that day was simply this. I was now a United States Marine. That was important to me. I was serving my country. I also know many years later, even that was, to an extent, quite naive.

The other thing I remember about that week was getting to see my grandmother again. She had written me some really important letters while I was in boot camp. They were letters that sought what I know now was forgiveness or more importantly a sense of absolution for being required to give Kris and me up for adoption when we were three and four years old respectively. What was evident in her letters was the guilt and shame she harbored because of her alcoholism which probably necessitated her choosing to allow her cousin to adopt her two grandchildren. While guilt and shame are related, they are not the same; however, they are powerful. It is easy to see them as the same, but guilt is related to the action (in my opinion) and shame is more about the consequence of the action. She struggled with the shame of what happened and how her alcoholism had necessitated a change in placement for her two grandchildren, who had become her children.

What she did do the rest of her life is work diligently and thoughtfully to be an integral part of our lives. This happened in a variety of ways. Some of it was merely by giving us the opportunity to come back to the house we both knew as home as small children. Some of it was in giving me a job in the bakery from the time I was perhaps 12. I washed more cookie sheets and baking trays than I could have ever imagined. However, as I have noted in other blogs, anytime I spent with her was a place of safety for me. The importance of that safety still resonates with me today. I think safety is a central component to our feeling valued, feeling capable, and most of all feeling loved. What I know now was I was free to make a mistake. I most certainly could not articulate that as a small person, or perhaps even into my teens, but what I do know is I was never afraid when I was with her. Fear has the potential to paralyze us; it can also compel the opposite, but when fear is ongoing, unavoidable, it is demoralizing and it establishes a reality that is painful, overwhelming, and destructive. Kris and I both felt that after our adoption. We did not understand the rationale for being adopted nor were we able to navigate our new situation with much success. Of course, what constitutes success for the three year old or four year old? What I do know is I remember more about her struggles than my own. Maybe it is because her struggles were more apparent. Maybe it is because I had ready learned to be a people-pleaser. The problem in being a people-pleaser is that it is not always effective, and more often than not, it is temporary at best.

While alcohol clouded my Grandmother’s ability to care for us (or her business) for a period of time, we were small enough to not really understand that. When I was probably seven years old, with the help of her older sister, my Great-aunt Helen, and Alcoholics Anonymous, she was able to be a sober person again. And while I do not remember an absence of her in our lives, I do remember her being more present from about 3rd grade on. I imagine, staying sober was difficult, but I think her desire to be in our lives in a meaningful way had something to do with her staying sober for the remainder of her life. I also think she had some amazing employees, who were loyal to her as well. Finally, I think her involvement with Eastern Star was her saving grace. I would understand that more fully later in life (and particularly when we were into high school. I think some of her best friends to the end of her life were the other women who were part of that Azure Chapter of the Order of Eastern Star in Sioux City, Iowa. I remember two installations as they were called. The first was when she was installed as Adah (who is the daughter of Jephthah’s daughter – see the book of Judges), which is the blue color of the star; and the second was when she was installed as the Worthy Matron of her chapter. As I looked at some things for this blog and did some research I have found that her best friend and one of the people I remember most, Bonnie Martin (no relation) passed a couple of years ago. It made me remember even more about my grandmother. Bonnie was the person with my grandmother when she passed away on that September evening. In fact, they were at an Eastern Star meeting in Storm Lake, Iowa when my grandmother laid her head in her friend’s lap and was gone.

What was it that made my grandmother my hero(ine)? It is simple; she loved me unconditionally. That is not an easy thing to do. It is, I believe, because we love more selfishly than not. We love when it is easy to love the other, but in our fragility we fail to love when the other makes the loving of them arduous, laborious, or just down right difficult. I also believe we love with the requirement of being loved back. I know in my own life the times I am most fragile is when I believe or perceive the love offered is not reciprocated or not wanted. I am reminded of the words of Norman Maclean’s incredible novella, A River Runs Through It. He writes, “Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding” (102). Or again, ““It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us” (100). One of the things I could never do was elude my grandmother, perhaps because I had no desire to do so. Perhaps it is because I trusted and loved her more than I have found it possible to trust or love anyone since. She loved me in spite of my failings. She loved me in spite of my unreliability. If there is anything I regret in my life, and there are a number of things, this might be at the top of the list.

The last time I was in Sioux City during her life, the summer of 1977, I promised her I would stop by to see her. I did not take the time. Why? I was selfish and foolish believing there would be another time. So when I left to return to Ames on my motorcycle, I had failed to stop. A small saving grace for me is I stopped on Highway 71 going into Atlantic, Iowa. I went to a phone booth (remember those?) and I called her. I apologized rather profusely and I felt guilty and sad because I had not followed through on something, and especially something I had said or promised to her. It was a terrible feeling . . . because long distance calling was something very different then, I did not call her again. The next time I heard from her (or about her, more accurately), she was gone. She passed away. I was devastated. She was still my safety person, the person I knew loved me unconditionally. She was kind, smart, elegant, and charming. She was giving, thoughtful, radiant, and I remember standing in the cemetery for the second time in 9 months and I sobbed and cried like I never had. It was a difficult time for me. What I remember is feeling completely lost. It was a warm September afternoon in Graceland Park Cemetery and I could look almost directly across the street and up the shallow rise a bit and see where I had stood in the freezing February cold some months before when my older brother passed. I would stand there again some years later as a pastor and do the committal service for my father on an even colder January. Even as I write this, there is a comfort in that place. It is where I go to find a connection with my heritage. It is where I go to connect to my past, both biological and adopted. As I have looked through this and found pictures, I have also found out my grandfather had a number of siblings and his father was a doctor. I think I have some work to do.

I think what makes my grandmother a hero to me is she was genuine. She had flaws; she struggled with things in her life, but she never lost the ability to love and care for the other. She was a person who gave to anyone in spite of her losses. I remember when she was honestly angry, she would merely say, “I am so angry I could just spit.” Something I realize now is this was her way of saying she would do something unlady-like, something I would never believe possible. She was quite beautiful. To this day I have a picture of her on my desk in my office. She was rather tall as I now remember, and almost statuesque, but I do not remember even an inkling of vanity in her. Later in life, she had things about positive thinking everywhere in her house. I think her involvement in Eastern Star and her church as well as her love for her sisters and for my sister and me became her life. I do not think she ever considered dating again, but I guess it is not something I would have noticed earlier. She worked unbelievable hours at her bakery, often 7 days a week. Hmmmm . . . maybe that is where that work ethic comes from.

What I know is she still affects me . . . from my home to my care for certain things, from trying to respect and care for the other, from having both optimism and honesty in the face of adversity . . . these are the reasons she is my hero, the person I am hopefully some imperfect version of as I carry on her vision in my life. She loved music and I can imagine her loving Pentatonix and even more so this song.

I seldom post more than one video, but something this seems appropriate in the midst of this time. This is the newer version of Pentatonix . . . still incredible.

This last video was actually posted on my birthday. Thank you as always for reading and I love you Grandma.


Who am I? Imagining Identity

Hello from my office at school,

It is strange to be in my office at the university for hours on end and see almost no one, and yet, that is our lives in this fall of 2020. If we had our pre-Covid world yet, I would be arriving in Poland this week to begin a fall semester teaching technical writing at Jagiellonian University. However, that is on hold for the year (I certainly hope we have some sense of global travel by next fall); as with most, I have no idea where we will be in a year. Even if there is a vaccine, and I am sure to be one who might be listed as needing it as an early receiver, I have concerns, particularly if the administration is trying to rush something through. Being a guinea pig for something that has not been properly vetted is more than disconcerting. However, that is not the point of this blog post, so before I digress too far . . .

Because I was not supposed to be teaching here this fall, I had no classes scheduled, and as noted in a recent blog, that was the case until about two weeks before the semester began. However, I did have some sense of where they would go with my assignments, so I began to reconsider, reimagine, and revise my Foundations of College Writing course (this is what many called Freshman Composition when we were in college, though it is significantly different than it was when I was at Dana). The complexity of composing in multiple modes and managing the citation of those options is a different animal then it was for us. An example of that complexity is evidenced by the 7th Edition of the APA Style Manual. It is over 400 pages in length. Citation in different styles is, in part, what is covered in in our Foundations course. That is not to say they have to know the various citation styles from memory, but they do need to know when, why, and how to cite. In addition, they need to be able to compose considering audience whether it is in a blog, a video, using images, a typical essay, or whatever you might imagine requires design and language. That is the foundational part of the course. Then there is something that must hold the course together in terms of theme. This is where I did some significant rethinking. In light of this crazy world, I decided to focus on the idea of identity. Certainly for most freshmen, their senior year and graduation was not what they expected. Their freshman year of college is not what they expected; and there is little in our present world situation that we can called expected (though I could argue that one on a number of levels).

While I won’t give you a rundown of the syllabus, what I have done is ask them to imagine if their parents would have given them a letter that was written when their parents were 18, generally their age now. What would they hope to find in that letter? What sort of questions that they have wondered about most of their lives might be answered there? Then I have asked to them write a sort of memoir explaining to their future 18 year olds who they understand themselves to be at this point as well as to try to describe their world, their dreams, and the way they see themselves at this point in time. And yet, I threw a twist into their writing. They have to do this “letter,” this memoir by creating their own Google Map. Through 15-18 pins and images on a map, using people, places, and events, they are trying to explain who they are, why they are that person, and what their hopes or dreams are in the world as they see it today. They have to cite their images as well as cite any interviews, phone conversations, or emails they might have received while trying to figure this out. Their final drafts and packets of peer reviews and citations are due later today. I have taken a number of phone calls and I did have them write a working introduction, which I have commented on for each of the 68 students I have. It will be interesting to see what they do as a final draft of their maps and what they feel from the assignment. To help them, I have created my own map, which I have titled “Auguries of Loneliness.” This is a title that I borrowed from Dr. John W. Nielsen. It was the title of our Winter Interim Class to Europe in 1980-81. We had read books by Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, and I have commented on the importance of that interim more than once in past blog posts. One of the things I did not realize then was how accurate that title would be as a descriptor of my life the the age of 65. My map is a bit longer than 15-18 pins, and it is still a work in progress, but this is it for the moment (,137.9074579,3z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!6m1!1s1fN2b6HFH94KfALyW-3fzXN-ic-I?hl=en). I have not completed the last three pins listed and I have a few more I am considering adding. Certainly at the moment, it does not have a conclusion, but it will happen. What I have realized in the creating of my own map is how it has required me to understand not only who I am, but how it happened. There is certainly more I could include, but it is a visual sort of interactive autobiography at the moment, one that contains what I believe are important highlights of those three categories that help me come to terms with what three score plus 5 years has accomplished. The most important thing I believe my map offers, both for my nephews, nieces, great-nephews, great nieces, is a sense of insight into a person they have not been around much in their or my adult years. As importantly, it has helped me reminisce about how various things (be they people, places or events) that have been instrumental in helping me become the person I finally believe I can be proud of. That is not to be arrogant; in fact, it is exactly the opposite. In spite of perhaps appearing that I had things together pretty well, most of my life I have struggled coming to terms with, or accepting my shortcomings. Again, I know why that is generally, but it has been hard work to get to a place where I became comfortable with my weaknesses, if I can refer to them as such. When I was leaving my position at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, my colleague and mentor, Dr. Daniel Riordan, who shepherded me through an incredibly painful and tenuous last year in Menomonie, asked me to tell him the most important thing I had learned in my six years there. And I told him, as I have recounted in other blogs, to be comfortable with my weaknesses. What I finally realized as I was leaving there was I did not have to be perfect at everything. I know it is not logical to believe you could be such, but emotionally that was what I had tried to do. It was how I had tried to make myself worthy of being in a home I was told I did not belong in. It was how I tried to prove wrong the comment that I would never amount to anything; it was how I tried to prove to myself that I was more than worthless. Stunning how those comments stay with us regardless what we logically know to be bullshit. Simply that is what all those comments were. They were wrong, illogical, and ludicrous, but they controlled my life for almost a half a century.

Today, I know the things that still vex me, but I also know that I have been blessed and supported by so many on my journey to where I am currently. I wish yet, there were things I might have been more successful in accomplishing. I am not sure I will ever believe I did my best work, but I have learned to say (and believe) that I did my best work in the circumstances that were within that moment. I often tell students a test is a measurement of what you were capable of on a specific day at a particular time. Learn from it and go on. If they know they did not spend enough time preparing, then that is on them do be more prepared the next time. If they got caught by surprise, while it is easy to blame the teacher or professor, that is probably not the best plan. If they are in over their head, then they need to figure out what they need to do differently to get their head above the surface. It is no different in life after college. There is no recipe card to fix anything. It takes a lot more than a recipe. It takes thinking, analyzing, and ultimately it takes being brutally honest with yourself when you look in the mirror. That is accountability. Another thing it requires is understanding who you are. That is a frightening thing to come to terms with, at least initially. At various points in my life, there were some concerted efforts to do that, but I was not consistent over the long haul. I think of my summer in Clinical Pastoral Education while working as a chaplain at a hospital. That Family of Origin stuff kicked me in the butt, but it was the first step in helping me to get here today. There was counseling when I was a parish pastor after my mother passed away. Then there was counseling when I was in graduate school, and I did that for almost 6 years. Each one of those steps was helpful and simultaneously painful, but it was necessary help and pain. Not always pleasant, that is for damn sure. As I am looking at my students’ maps, some of them have taken some incredible risk in laying out some of what they have, and I commend them for doing so. Reflection, introspection, honest assessment is always risky. It makes one vulnerable, but it is also necessary if you are going to come to terms with your strengths and weaknesses. What I know now is my greatest strengths become my most glaring weaknesses when I take them too far. I think it is the same for most of us. As I look back, there are those people in my life who have been there in my most vulnerable times, but they supported or cared for me. That care was instrumental in getting me were I am today. I think when I was growing up it was my grandmother and her elder sister. I have mentioned them many times. When I was in or through high school and beyond or after my time in the Marine Corps, it was the Sopoci family, the Reese family, the Peters family, my sister-in-law, or my actual cousins, the Wiggs family. When I made it back to college, in seminary, and even into graduate school, most generally it was my professors. I could create a longer list, but the point is not the names, or the lists, but rather the reality that I have had so much support along the way.

To become the person you are is not once and done. It is a dynamic and ever evolving thing. There are highs and lows; there are times of confusion and clarity. Who am I? At this point at person blessed to experience incredible people and places; a person who has a job he loves and works hard to do as well as he can. A person who still wonders what is left and is not satisfied to merely be standing waiting for the next wave to wash over him, but rather one who will dog paddle his way through it. I am not a great swimmer (and that is true), but I am a person who can keep his head above the surface. I hope as you read my map you will be able to see some of the things that have made me who I am. More importantly, I hope you might find it worth trying to do something similar. It is worth the time and effort. I think about a song that I find particularly telling for me. As my students are still working on their identities through this class, again I turn to Glee and a song that means a great deal to me on a number of levels. Peter, this is for you. I still miss you so much. I miss being able to call and share thoughts with you. Much as the Glee cast has also felt that loss too many times. There are times we can only keep on believing’, there are times we need to let it be.

Thank you as always for reading.

Michael (aka: Dr. Martin)

Nationalism is not Patriotism

Hello on an extremely warm first Monday of summer.

As you can see from the intro, I began this blog almost three months ago and it was extremely warm and dry summer. The need for rain here in north central Pennsylvania is still real. The summer was abnormal because we are still trying to figure out how we will manage COVID, whether that be as a nation, a global community, or in the other direction, as a state, a local community, or even as an individual. The summer kept me busy as I worked to rethink my first year writing class, and then refocus my views on both my own publication work as well as my teaching here rather than in Poland. However, there have been moments where I needed to step back, attempting to digest what seems to be a daily SNAFU in our national persona and what we are doing as well as who we are. . . . It is now the last day of summer. Recently, I had a birthday that pushed me into senior citizen status, and last night it got down to 32 degrees. I have sat on this blog posting for some time, trying to understand what this means to me. As is typical, I did some thinking, some researching, and some soul searching. What is nationalism? What is patriotism? First, too often we use the terms interchangeably. While I understand how that might happen, it is a mistake because they are not synonymous. Related? Yes, Second, when we conflate them, I believe it goes beyond being a mistake; it is dangerous. The well-known author, George Orwell, who knows a bit about dystopia, wrote, “Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism” (Notes on Nationalism, 1945). It is significant to see the year Orwell wrote this essay. It was written at the end of WWII, the nationalism of Germany had accomplished two things. It had plunged the world in a war that destroyed much of Europe and would lead to a Cold War. Second, it tried to justify the extermination of an entire group of people and made a substantial effort in making it happen, succeeding in the murder of six million people. The abhorrence of the shoah is beyond words. The fact that a recent article noted that 2/3 of the young people in this country are unaware of that fact is frightening. Frightening to the degree that the very writing of the sentence sends chills across my entire body.

However, before you think I see nationalism as a completely pejorative term, I do not. In the days following the attacks on September 11th, the nationalism, which I believe was blended with patriotism, was perhaps appropriate. That nationalism united us a people because of the attack from another entity. It focused us as a country, and it, in this case, united us against that other entity. There are times nationalism has a positive consequence. The struggle is to know when and how to implement it. That is complex and depending on from both where and whom that implementation comes, the complexity grows exponentially. While many Americans saw the Arab Spring as a positive event, it was (and is) also an example of nationalism; certainly a number of national entities rose up, but not as a contrast to patriotism, but rather as a reaction against a religious or phylogenetic identity. This struggle of (and against) religious law was because the implementation of that law affected the economics, the gender treatment, and everything about those countries, even down to the technological infrastructure of many of the countries involved in that event. So there can be positive consequences of a nationalistic fervor. However, it should not be confused with patriotism.

Nationalism focuses on the state while Patriotism focuses on the people (Shetty, 03Jul2016). John Dwyer, a historian at Duquesne University, wrote, “The patriot says, ‘I love my country,’ works for its good, and defends it if necessary–against enemies within and without. He strives and prays not primarily that God will bless his country, but that his country will bless God. The nationalist, meanwhile, says, ‘My country is better than yours.’ ‘My country is the greatest there has ever been.’ ‘The greatest nation on God’s green earth.’ ‘They hate my country because it is so good'” (qtd. Walsh, 01 Dec 2016). There is an incredible body of scholarship available from people across the philosophic spectrum, but there seems to be much more agreement than disagreement about the nature of these two important terms. As one of my college classmates will undoubtedly note, you can find the opinions on the other side. Indeed, there are some, but by far, it seems that most will argue that making them synonymous is misguided at best, and flat out destructive at worst.

One reality of the nationalistic fervor that has swept the world now is its very cause: that cause is the global transformation that has enveloped our work. Nationalism is a response to that globalism, which is now a fundamental basis in our present world. Through economic interdependence and our interconnectivity through technology, we are both aware and responsible for each other. While some will argue against that, it is an argument of futility. If we are affected by the other, we have some responsibility for the other. It is that responsibility that requires patriotism, but simultaneously our fragility that pushes many toward nationalism. It is not unique to the United States; it is happening in Brazil, Hungary, or Poland, but is also apparent in countries that might seem more immune because of their social democracy, countries like Sweden or Denmark. In almost every case, it is an inward-focus, it posits an argument that sees the other as the enemy to a greater or lesser degree. It is the pulling out of global alliances, believing we can somehow go it on our own. Much like the current changes in the area of higher education and remote teaching, once that practice is out of the box, it is not going back in. On the other side of this current pandemic that has turned daily pedagogy and delivery upside down, teaching in the academy as we knew it, is gone. What does that mean? The jury is still out, but many who said their teaching, that. course, cannot be done remotely have lost that argument. Certainly, there are more obstacles to manage, more intricacies not anticipated, but the change is real. Technology is the difference; it is also the common thread in both of these situations. Technology controls our communication, either individually or corporately; it is integral to our banking and commerce; and as we have been made aware, both profoundly and painfully, it can be used to support or divide us.

In just this past week, I have used technology to communicate with former students or friends in Spain, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, or Ireland. Some of that was with simple text, some with video allowing me the chance to see them where they are. I am old enough to remember long-distance phone calls and the cost of that. I am old enough to remember party lines in rural areas when using the telephone. The ability to communicate, interact, and be connected globally was unimaginable to me growing up. I remember the second time I traveled to Europe (1985) and was in East Germany. I met a seminary student named Thomas. He was about my age and had a family. He was delightful. I remember asking if we could stay in contact and how his answer shocked me. He said, “Michael, you can write to me, but I will not be able to write to you.” I remember when the Wall fell in 1989 and I received a letter from him. I was overjoyed, but there was one line in his correspondence that stunned me. He said, “We will have to learn what freedom means.” I think back to our journey as seminarians through the land of Luther. The title of that course was titled “The Church East and West.” During our three week course, the great majority of our time was spend behind that Iron Curtain. We were allowed to travel, but with a strict itinerary and on the roads we were directed to follow. We were allowed to eat, but in the restaurants we were told to go to. We listened to lectures, but those lectures contained information that was dictated by the state. I remember the most interesting lecture about Luther as the first socialist. I remember being told what money I could spend (as in type of currency) and where I could spend it. What was most astounding to me was how quickly I adapted to, accepted, the restrictions. What was more incredible to me was I did not realize that change until after we were back in the West. I had lived to some degree the stark consequence of nationalism, a requirement to look inward without realizing it was happening. The lack of freedom to communicate, read, or even be allowed to see what might be on the other side was simply accepted, and I was thirty-one. I was a veteran.

I have considered having a bumper sticker or a yard sign created that uses these three terms: Liberal, Christian, Patriotic and see what might happen. I think it would melt some hard drives or motherboards in a few people’s brains (if I want to push that technology metaphor a bit further). Patriotism is not afraid of that which we cannot understand, but I believe works to understand it. Patriotism is a beacon that offers light to those yearning to see. It is the thing that can provide hope to the other. It is the thing that embraces the other culture and allows it to still exist along side. Too often in our past, as we have opened our lands to the other, it seems we ask them to denounce their heritage, their ethnicity. I believe we need to allow their heritage to co-exist. That is not to say we are asking them to be less of an American citizen, but rather to help them see that their diversity adds to our strength as a country. It pains me as an American, and a veteran to see the divisive nature of our conversations in this time. I believe it is contrary to the very principles upon which the country was created. I also realize the idealism in that statement. I believe much of the civil unrest that is currently part of our daily experience is because the ideal and the reality too often are not the experience of many who were also born here. It is our responsibility to change that. It is our duty to practice the principles of our constitution to their fullest extent, not merely holding them up as some photo op.

The consequence, which is too often deemed pejorative, the positive result of patriotism is the strengthening of our country and can make us a country that restores the hope and promise of freedom, and can move us away from some misguided righteous indignation, a divisive politic which pushes us toward a fear that characterized the 1930s in Europe. Marginalization of the other and moving toward an isolationist policy that argues greatness will do little to reestablish our place in the world. Instead it pits us against each other, using fear as a cudgel and arguing we are victims of an unfair world. This is exactly what happened in Germany post 1933. Both President Trump and former Vice President Biden note we are at a crossroads. It is the one place I believe they are both correct. It is the argument about whether we are a nationalistic country or a patriotic country. I have used this video before, but I find it to be an inspiring and thoughtful piece that helps remind me of how others might see and support us. I was supposed to go to Ireland in August to see this group. This particular video is from a decade ago, but it seems apropos for us now.

Thank you as always for reading,

Dr. Martin

Just What Did I Learn?

Hello from my study on the acre.

Over the past week there have been ongoing conversations (messages, timeline postings, PM, texts) between some of my classmates, and particularly classmates from when I was a student at Dana College, a small Lutheran liberal arts college. It was a college for 125 years (and also a seminary at one point), but the cost of higher education, the managing of a small college in the times of enrollment struggles, and a variety of other things resulted in its closure ten years ago. What is still important for those who claim Dana as an undergraduate alma mater seems to be two things: the affinity we have for the college and for each other, and our still growing understanding about the incredible education we received as students there.

First, while I do not post my age here, in the spirit of transparency, I will be 65 this week. It is one of those birthdays that create all sorts of considerations, emotions, and simply a response of “how the hell did I get here?”It is one of those ages where we need to do some things. I have an appointment (teleconference) with someone from our local Social Security office on the actual day of my birthday to apply for Medicare. Do I feel differently? Well . . . yes, and no. I have had 8 doctor’s appointments in the last few weeks, some significant and mildly concerning, others routine. Gastroenterologist, ENT doctors, balance clinic specialists, PCP, MRIs and technicians, Urgent Care . . . as I have noted more than once, growing old is not for sissies. Of course, I guess coming into the world at 17 ounces and 26 weeks in 1955 had to create some long-term possibilities or probabilities. Perhaps, the thing I feel most genuinely as I reach this milestone, a point where many say, “It is time to retire.” is I feel blessed. I remember asking my father how it felt to be retired (He was 69 when he retired)? He said in his typical, but rather matter-a-fact manner, “I am not really sure; I am so damn busy, I don’t know how I found time to go to work.” That response neither shocked nor sounded atypical for the journeyman electrician who worked 7/12s when I was in elementary school for almost three years.

Earlier this evening as I zoomed into the meeting with the Debate and Forensics team here at Bloomsburg, it was interesting to see the events they are working on for the upcoming tournament as well as the entire Collegiate Forensics Association (CFA) year. I am humbled by the way they work together for the good of each other, but how at the same time they are not afraid to push each other to improve and think outside the box. It is thinking about the world they live in and how they might offer insight through a variety of events through tournaments to communicate and learn from each other, from other colleges or universities, and how they might learn to be better citizens, questioning and debating the important issues of their time. It is something that requires thought, research, analysis, rhetorical strategy, and continual revision and reconsideration. I believe it is one of the things that will most prepare them for life. Some ask why I spent the time because I am not their faculty advisor, and as such, I receive no release time, no financial support, and no extra time in the day for the time I spend with them. I do it because it helps prepare them not only for their tournaments, but also for how to think, communicate, and change the world around them one event at a time. I know that sounds idealistic in some ways, but it is more about practicality that some might realize. One of the things I like most is helping students to even ponder a topic. That requires some careful thinking. It requires a sense of audience and purpose (hence, rhetorical). And perhaps most importantly, it requires students to step outside of their comfort zone and believe they can do something they have never considered doing. This is probably the most important thing I learned at Dana College.

When I arrived at Dana College the fall of 1979, I was six years out of high school. I was a Marine Corps veteran, and I had managed to flunk out of college already. I was just off a year long traveling stint with a Lutheran Youth Encounter (LYE) team, which was how I found Dana to begin with, and our team’s two visits to Blair exposed me to some incredible people and a beautiful space located on the bluffs of the Missouri River. We were welcomed as a team and made to feel as if our visit mattered and that was even more so the case in our return visit. I met people like Gary Beltz, Tom Kendall, Jim Borden, Kip Tyler, Barb (now) Boltinghouse, Merle Brockhoff, Mary Rowland. Each one of them were significant in affecting my decision to apply for admission. Then there was Richard (George, Rick) Schuler, who worked diligently with me, staying in contact with our itinerant travels as we meandered for 48,000 miles in nine months. When I got to the campus, I was nervous. I was a 24 year old freshman, which meant I was a bit of an anomaly from the get-go. I was already known because of my previous year visits, and then there were the stereotypes that many placed on pre-seminary students. I was no stellar high school student, and the academics of the classroom were beyond a distant memory. Yet, I would begin my fall courses and I would meet some incredible classmates through choir with Dr. Paul Neve and in my daily classes. My involvement with campus ministry teams offered yet another place to feel at home. I met people like Kim Nielsen, Shelly Peterson, Leanne Danahy, Monty Scheele, Tom Jacobson, Danette Johns as well as reacquainted with those previously noted. While I asked to have no roommate, somehow that did not happen and I was blessed to room with Peter Bonde, one of the best things that could have ever happened. Through him, I met people like Jules, his future wife, Barbara Kalal (now) Hawkins, Paulette Strecker, and the list could go on.

That first semester was a whirlwind, and I had classes that stimulated and amazed me. The lectures were engaging and the passion of my professors was something I had never experienced. Surprisingly (and I know that even more so now), my freshman composition professor was Richard Jorgensen. Yep!! He actually taught a semester of freshman composition. I think I forced him to use a least a pen or two marking my papers. Of course then there is the fact I would eventually major in history and I had him every single semester (now we are taking a complete package of red ink pens). I met other people in my classes, Kristi Swenson, Sarah Hansen, Bob Schmoll, Michael Keenan, Nettie Grorud, and Lori Neve to name a few. There was an upper level student named Sandra Barnum, whose father was the director of admissions, if I remember correctly. I thought she was one of the most beautiful and intriguing people I had ever met. Of course, I never told her that! Each of them helped me acclimate to being a student and I found I could actually excel. This was not anything I had every experienced. I ended my first semester with a GPA of around 7 (out of 9). It was not great, but it was much better than anything I had ever done. I had an incredible interim class on the Civil War with Dr. Jorgensen, and then it was into second semester. The second semester, I was excited to return; I wanted to know what was next in store. The class next in store for me was Humanities (HUM) 107 as well as a Latin Seminar. Quite simply: that class, that series, changed my life. It was the foundational learning experience upon which I believe everything I now do is based. That is a strong statement, but hear me out.

This semester, this remote learning semester, in this pandemic world, we all, regardless of age, are being asked to dig deep and consider who we are as well as what the world is we are existing, meandering, surviving in. For my freshmen students, their senior year did not end up as expected, their freshmen year is nothing like they hoped, and the world has been turned upside down. It is at times like these we need to understand who we are? What is our identity? It is upon that question I have focused their first year writing class. Understanding one’s self is a large and complex assignment and it is certainly not figured out in a 14 week Foundations of College Writing course, but it is worth starting there. That is what the Humanities sequence did for me. It allowed me to examine my world, but also to see what the present world (that late 1970s-early 1980s world) was about. More importantly, the program, created and supported by so many Dana faculty, provided us the tools to do more than merely glimpse at our Western Culture. We were immersed in what that culture meant to all the world, but also how all the world influenced our culture. Through units, lectures, study guides, events and access to an incredible set of mentors, we were allowed to think, analyze, and synthesize. We were not told what to think; we were taught how to think. That lesson, that gift, has never left me. Few knew how highly regarded the Humanities program at Dana was. It was one of the best programs in the country (I know this because I researched it when I was coming to Dana). It was one thing to know that upon arrival; it was another thing to experience and live it. Those three semesters, those required events, and the ability to study in Parnassus was where I learned how to learn. It is where I began to understand not only who I was, but what it meant to be a global citizen. Those things sound almost idealistic to a fault at this point; however, they are anything but.

As noted, some of my classmates have a pretty serious conversation occurring on my timeline. There is passion and some descension. In light of our current world, that is not surprising, but there is also listening and pondering, and that is more in the spirit of what we were offered at Dana U, as some of us fondly referred to it. When I was a student at Dana, it was a difficult time in terms of budgets, workloads, pay, and sabbaticals. I look at all of that much differently as a professor myself. Knowing all of those things from the other side, it is even more incredible how our professors worked through all of that with no appearance of anything wrong. I knew a bit because I was a 24 year old freshman, but I also knew the staggering number of hours our professors put in on our behalf. They never wavered in their commitment to the students. The same can be said for those in many of the administrative positions, those who made sure we had all the things necessary for living and thriving on campus. What I know at this point in my life is simple. We were provided living, breathing examples of what it meant to profess, to mentor, and to care about the students who attended their class. In spite of the ever-present concern about whether or not there would be enough money to be open yet another year, the Bansens, the Olsons, the Stones, the Johnsons, the Neves, the Brandeses, the Nielsens, or any professor’s name you care to add, showed up each and every day to provide and offer us the most phenomenal education we could ever hope to receive.

Forty-one years after my arrival as a student and living on Fourth North Holling, I am in touch with some of those classmates, and yes, those professors. Some of us have followed in their footsteps, students who are now named Drs. Jeff Langholz, Ruth Mirtz, Terri Pedersen Summey, and I know there are others, but it is late and my brain seems empty. I know for me, I hope to be half the professor they were and if I succeed, I will feel accomplished. What did I learn? Too much to put into words. So much that I am still realizing what it all meant. Most importantly, I learned to dream and believe that the liberal arts we were immersed in has unparalleled value and it has created a foundation that has served me in every aspect of my being. For that, there are no levels of gratitude that can, or will, ever repay those Saints we sat among. As I reach this milestone of 65 (as it is about 18 minutes after midnight), I am humbled. While this is not the Dana choir, it is the musical arrangement of what we did in every concert, and it is one of our sister colleges. It is one of my favorite musical memories and I can still hear voices of Monty Scheele, Tom or Peter Jacobson, Amy Nicols, or Elizabeth (now) Brockhoff and it brings me immeasurable joy.

Thanks always for reading.

Dr. Martin

The Interconnectivity of Freedom

Hello on a hot September day from the Acre,

It seems that the daily news has done a great deal to separate who we are as a society and it is easy to blame the news, and that goes across the spectrum. One of the things I tell my students regularly is simply this: all news is biased. That is reality. Someone is paying for that particular outlet to continue to broadcast. They are beholden to their stakeholders, their primary financial landlines. While NPR is the only public system, there is still a bias. The struggle becomes how it is possible to find the closest thing to truth in the cacophony of completing voices? It requires listening to multiple voices; it requires a willingness to listen to things that make you uncomfortable. This is seldom something that we enjoy, and in these disparate times it seems we simply refuse to do so. However, there is a consequence for our failure to listen to, ponder over, imagine the truth in things we would rather not hear.

Argument is nothing new; it is also not problematic when argument arises, regardless the argument. I know that is, perhaps, a statement that most will struggle to accept, but much of that is because for most, the goal of their argument is the foundational problem. When I teach argumentation, one of the questions I ask my students,”What is the goal of an argument? Without exception, someone will answer “to win.” That is a common answer; it is a common perception about argumentation in general. It is, for the most part, how we are enculturated. Most importantly, it is wrong. First, it is because we see argument as something negative, and second, too often the way people argue it to attack personally (and that has become more the rule than the exception). Furthermore, all argument is based on reason, which implies that all argument has a fundamental principle of using logic (logos) and language (again logos) that functions in a logical manner. Imagine a scenario in your life – and most all of us have been in this situation – where you are arguing with someone about something. And the argument has disintegrated because it seems there is no possible mutually agreeable result. Now you begin hollering at the other and this continues; and not surprisingly it escalates, but you realize you are no longer sure what your initial point was. At that point it is no longer really an argument, but has evolved, and often fallen apart. It is now a shouting match. Instead of using logic or language, we have transformed this interaction to an emotional confrontation. Generally any logic or reason is overshadowed by the passion of the moment. This is not to assert that you should be passionless about a position that evolves strong feelings, but when pathos overtakes logos, many times the result is less than ideal. The propensity for us to fall into the trap of passion as we assert options in our current hyper-polarized world is well beyond likely. The need for either side to jump when the other gets a little testy or push boundaries seems to be the action du jour.

I will agree that our President has a particular rhetorical strategy he (and he is incredibly effective at) employs. It is not difficult to see if one will simply step back and observe. It is a divide and conquer. While we were polarized before President Trump was elected, it does not take unparalleled powers of observation to see that polarization has been put on steroids. The passion or disdain for all things Washingtonian was well into its adolescence before the 2016 election. What has happened since has moved it from something still coming into its own to a full-blown cultural phenomenon. There is no adolescence at this point. This is the equivalent of being an olympic athlete. Polarization is foundational to our national fabric at this point. Anything governmental currently evokes such rage (ironically the title of Bob Woodward’s just released book) or fury that many find it impossible to have any type of civility when our national status becomes a discussion point. It doesn’t matter if it is what used to be (pre-pandemic, that is) the water cooler conversation, the latest post to social media, or now, even a comment about the day’s events (which are crazier by the hour), the potential for a struggle, which more often than not is a stasis point, the consequence is going to most certainly less than ideal.

I am amazed how people now feel the need to either rattle that infamous big-dog’s cage, or we try to tip-toe around issues that should be discussed. This all or nothing mentality means things that are appropriate to discuss, even when they are uncomfortable, results in tip-toeing around the obvious issues that plague us (pun intended). I too have posted some things that have pushed limits, and I will apologize that I could have used better judgment. The desire for something better on a number of levels sometimes fires me up and my passion gets in front of my brain. It is part of my human failings, of which there are certainly more than one. What creates more difficulties than most anything is when we lose respect, or an openness, for the other: the other person, the other opinion, the other possibility, the other faith, the other gender (or cis-gendered and all identification – and before you jump on me for this liberal bias, I wish my sisters (three of them, who were/are lesbian) could have been treated more fairly in their lives. Again, just this week I found myself frustrated with people who could not follow arrows in a store to help maintain social distancing. When I stood there staring at the four, because I had no place to go (perhaps I could have backed my way out of the aisle, but I was trying to get my errand done and leave), they stared back. When I pointed to the arrows on the floor, the college student said in a dismissive tone, “I don’t think it really matters.” I responded calmly, but still staring, “I think it probably does.” The second student then told me, I needed to be six feet away from them. Now, ponder this: if they had not come the wrong way down the aisle, the social distancing would have never been a issue. I wanted to say this, but it was evident there was little I could say that would not merely elevate an already problematic situation. If I had continued to argue, I am sure a cell phone would have come out to capture whatever occurred and nothing positive would come of that. So I merely walked away.

While I was fuming, I needed to let it go. They did not care about their missteps because they clearly stated it did not matter. When the student then noted the social distance issue, that was a red herring and there was nothing to do with his line of reasoning. Simply: he was being a jerk and trying to assert some sort of power in a situation where they, while in the wrong, desired no accountability for their actions. My students know this about me quite well. There are three things that will cause me to respond with some passion: dishonesty, disrespect, and abuse of power. The first erodes trust; the second creates walls between individuals, and the third takes advantage of the other. Why do they know? Because when I teach argumentation I note these things. All this aside, what seems to be at issue for so many right now is the idea of individual rights and freedom. While there is much to be said about both things, there are a couple of points I believe worth raising. First, the interconnectivity of the global health crisis on things like the supply chain, the job market, the stock market, on international travel, on global companies interaction with their foreign offices, on retail and the consequence of closing stores, restaurants, bars, as well as the increasing and staggering numbers of infected people or people dying, is profound, and what has happened globally in only 6 months or so has most of us reeling. As someone in higher education, I know that everything occurring right now in the academy is antithetical to what students are to experience as they go away to attend the university for the first time. I know that what we did when we were told to show caution at 18 is really no different than what students are doing now. However, there is a difference: what we did might have gotten us in trouble, our hands slapped, or perhaps some misdemeanor police record. The lack of caution now, by anyone, not just the college student, can be possibly long-term debilitating, or worse, it can be lethal, either to the infected or the people infected by them. Anton, my exchange student was sent home early, but it was weeks, if not months before he saw his grandparents in person. While he wanted to see them, he recounted it to me like this, “I want to see them, but I do not want to kill them. I’ll wait.” He was able to demonstrate that patience, even after being in the United States for 7 months. That is impressive and just how selfless he is. I still miss having him here. This time last year we were trying to get it all figured out. He was barely here, but he had finished his first week of classes successfully. He could find his classes; he was making friends; he received band magnets, snapchat addresses, and phone numbers; and he already had six girls wanting to go to dinner with the Danish boy before Homecoming. Quite successful, I would say.

I am quite sure of two things at this point: regardless who we elect in November, the virus will still be here, and probably co-mingling with this year’s version of whatever the yearly influenza will be. Second, the polarization that is hyper-manic in this country right now will not suddenly disappear. There is much more about this I could say, and I certainly think, but suffice it to say, it would be more partisan than I care to be. This is not to say I am avoiding, but rather it is not the purpose of my blog, and as I have noted with, particularly, my Technical Writing students on almost a daily basis: audience and purpose is where you must begin to understand your rhetorical situation and how to create documentation that works. What I do hope and pray is somehow we can believe that where we are currently is not a good path. Division, dissension, anger as well as bullying, lying, and villianizing the other does not serve our local, national, or global interest. If we are going to provide a world that offers a place where all honestly have some opportunity, it is all connected. We are, to use the Biblical adage, our other’s keeper. We are interconnected, and when we work for the betterment of all, freedom can occur. It is not a political freedom; it is not an economic freedom; it is not an educational freedom; it is a freedom of the spirit. It is the belief and practice the all people have value, regardless their differences. Certainly, some will argue this is my liberal idealism. Some will say I am pollyannaish. No, I believe it takes me back to my days as a parish pastor. Whatever you do to the least of these . . . It matters to me. It would be easy to be angry and shout, and God knows, there are times. Yet, I want to believe I have been blessed to be a blessing. Sometimes I fall; but most often, I merely try to make someone think, ponder, and maybe see something a bit differently. That is my goal.

It is my identity if you will. As always, thanks for reading. Please stay safe and well.

Dr. Martin

Procrastination: A Mental or Emotional Block?

Hello from my office in the house,

I am going to head to the university shortly, mask in hand, and lock myself way in my office. There are multiple reasons for that, but suffice it to say my technology at home and I are fighting. Technology is winning, which is usually the case. It is into the third week of school already and I can honestly say I have not procrastinated much of anything since the semester began. While it has not been a normal beginning to a school year in hardly any aspect, I have found that I am invigorated nonetheless and I am working away. Yesterday I spent about 16 hours with maybe an hour off the entire day. Today is not quite as crazy, but I think I will still have about 12 or 13 hours before I call it a night. One thing that is evident is everyone, on both sides of blank stare, are working hard, but it takes so much more time to manage and do a remote class well. It is not simply putting a bunch of material in a course delivery tool and then let it go. First, the anxiety of the students is exponentially increased because they do not see me. Then there is the fact that I am not a babysitter or hand-holder. I expect people to merely do their work. I will help them if they will reach out, but I am not going to chase them. I simply will not. I am well aware of the requirement of offering some extra grace (I am a former Lutheran pastor, remember) and providing a safety net to some degree, but dang, it requires some dedication and discipline on both sides.

It is Labor Day, but it is a work day this year here at Bloom. Saturday I worked for about 12 hours on classes and yesterday was the same. Today will be similar. I think of my trolling college classmate, who honestly believes I have a “cush” job with no bosses and everyone (and I think he would like to claim even from the Midwest, he personally) pays my salary even though I do nothing to earn it. I would love to have him follow me around for even a week. I think (or perhaps not) he might have at least an inkling more respect for the hard work that goes on here in the academy, even though we are all liberal hacks to him. Yet, I try my best to be respectful to his cultish Trumpisms. Difficult, but I keep trying. And yes, there might be a modicum of truth to the idea that I am calling him out here.

As we are into the fourth week of class already, I can say I have procrastinated less than perhaps ever in my life. Much of this is due to necessity. As most of you know, I was supposed to be teaching technical writing in Krakow this fall, and leaving for UJ later next week was the plan. Covid effectively postponed those plans all the way back in May. Yet, I did not have classes actually assigned here for fall semester until two weeks before classes commenced. While none of them are new preps, three sections of Foundations of College Writing remotely is an entirely different issue. First, I have argued that most freshmen are not ready to take remote classes because they do not have the discipline to manage them. I hoped that their experience in the Covid Spring might make that less likely, but I headed into the fourth week, I am not sure. There is certain some moaning, wailing, and gnashing of teeth happening. That is on both sides of the equation. I take no joy in the failure of any student. My general response, my question I ask myself is simple. What could I have done better? One of my former students once said, “You have to work hard to fail your class.” Another, who did fail, said, “That is the best class I ever took and failed.” I was not sure how to respond to that. Suffice it to say, everyone is pretty busy at this point, and I am not procrastinating. Yet, one of the things I have learned about myself is the more I have to do, the more productive I am. This fall seems to have put that adage on steroids. Oh my goodness.

It is ever so easy to put things we would rather not do on the back burner, or perhaps not even allow them on the stove. I am certainly guilty of this from time to time. I think it requires us, however, to understand why we avoid certain things. There are certain things I do not like, but there are times I will do them to procrastinate things I dislike even more profoundly. What is it about those chores, requirements, obligations that create so much angst for me (us)? I think most often it is because we have failed, or, at the very least, feel we have failed, at that particular thing before. Perhaps we have been shamed or hurt by someone because of that perceived failure. I think in my case, there are two things that will paralyze me. First, I wish someone taught how to manage my life and my finances when I was growing up. I am not trying to blame anyone, but that was not something that happened. Money was never talked about. Money was almost a sacrosanct topic, perhaps even taboo. My grandmother did try to help when I was living with her the summer before my senior year in high school. Yet I would move back home and when I left for the service almost a year later, I understood little. The first time I got myself in trouble financially, like many do, I had no idea what to do. Of course there are those taboo topics you never discuss: politics, religion and money. I have gotten over the first two as is well evidenced in this blog, but that third, not so much. I have learned a lot, but I still wish I knew so much more. I know now communication is key.

The second thing paralyzing me is when I feel I have fallen short of expectations, regardless of whose expectations they are. I certainly know from where this difficulty comes, and I have made progress, but it is always a struggle. I see any falling short as failure. I also know this is not rational, but emotions run much deeper than logic. I think the first step is to be able to forgive one’s self. That is not an easy thing to do. Forgiveness is one of the greatest, most significant powers we possess. When we refuse forgiveness, either to ourselves or the other, the consequence can be devastating. I am reminded how my advisor, and brilliant professor, Dr. John W. Nielsen once admonished me, stating, “Michael, your theology of grace works fine for everyone, but yourself.” A few weeks later as I stood in the VA hospital in Omaha, NE, staring in the mirror at my emaciated body after losing 30 pounds in barely 30 days, how correct he was. That was the beginning of journey with Crohn’s that has now taken me into my 60s. I was in my late 20s at the time. The stress of the constant fear of failure was incredibly hard on my body. It is another area I think I should research some more diligently, somewhere in my extra time.

This morning it is Labor Day, usually a holiday, but because of our compressed schedule, we are working. I would be working anyway, but it is actually not a holiday on campus this year. El dia trabajo is the May 1st for most Spanish countries and some of the other European countries. I am not sure how we ended up with September, but it is. I remember my father’s reverence for this day. I understand that reverence much more completely at this point in my life. It is interesting how some of the things what were so dear to him resonate with me much more at this point. In a conversation with a dear, dear friend a bit ago, we spoke about the idea of work ethic. That was modeled for us by our parents, and through that modeling, it was sort of just infused into us like an IV. It was expected. I think of my first job at my grandmother’s bakery. While I ate more than I was worth, I am sure, I do know I worked hard for her because I did not want to disappoint her. That was the worst thing I could have done. Eventually I would deliver bakery goods, help with other things needed, wash more pans, and help deliver wedding cakes (as well as set up and any touch-up decorating). When I was between my junior and senior year in high school, I worked from 5:30 in the morning until 3:30 or so in the afternoon. Then I would drive to my other job (working at a greyhound racetrack) from 5:00 until midnight, and I did that six days a week. Sixteen year olds today would not be allowed to do that, but what I realize now is I learned a lot about hard work that summer. Yet, I am not sure those lessons always stuck with me. I have not always been that hard worker. I think there are spurts, fits and stops.

The times I have been the most productive, hardest working were once I started my life as a student at Dana College. I am not sure what motivated me to be the dedicated student I had often failed to be earlier. I think it was the professors who inspired me, prompted me to love learning. It was that first trip to Europe, where I really understood what it meant to learn. Learning is being a sponge. It is absorbing and pondering what is happening. There is little memorization. When you are learning and absorbing, there is no time for procrastination because you will drown in the wave of experiences. It would be overwhelming and impossible. The feeling of dread or being afraid of all that is happening is reasonable, but keep paddling. I know presently some of my students seem to be barely floating, but that is when you ask for help. Let someone toss you the life preserver. When I got to seminary and eventually to grad school, I never took the easy way. I was almost always working and going to school full-time. It was the only way I would survive financially or perhaps even emotionally as I look back. I never had the free meal ticket, but I do not regret that. I learned I was more capable and had more initiative than I had ever imagined. While there were things I did not do because there was no time, I have few regrets.

We will generally avoid the things that cause us pain, but perhaps the better thing to do is no longer allow them events or tasks to hold that power over us. If we can take control of things we will be better for it. If we can change ourselves, beginning with the person in the mirror, then the change is real. With that in mind, and continuing to demonstrate to my class how the identity things works, here is the Glee regional performance with the incredible songs from the Jacksons. Thanks as always for reading and don’t procrastinate, watch the video.

Again, thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

A New Academic Year – An Incredibly Strange One

Hello from my home office,

It is the first day of my eleventh year at Bloomsburg. It is the first day of the COVID-dictated return to campus and a time of unprecedented angst. I decided to write for a bit because I am required to update a variety of software on campus to my university issued laptop, and the only way to manage that is to VPN in and then let it run for an hour or so. I had been so engrossed in working to prepare for today, I had not actually turned my laptop off for almost three weeks. I guess that makes sense because it was about three weeks ago I finally got a fall semester schedule. Since that time it has been the sort of nose to the grindstone and I guess I never really simply closed it all up, but kept plugging away and all hours of the day as I am apt to do. Well, my good friend, and tech guru for the campus let me know I had not actually logged off for almost 21 days, which does not allow anything to update, and keeps caches at capacity. I know this, so as so many now say: my bad!

While I know how to manage courses, and I know how to teach online both in terms of technology and pedagogy, the pedagogy continues to change. I know I am going to sound curmudgeonly here, but it seems like we need to make more and more allowances for students lack of preparation at the high school level. Their lack of critical thinking skills and their propensity for being overwhelmed when pushed outside their comfort zone seems to be at an all-time high. And then, my compassionate side kicks in and says, but this is an unprecedented time and I need to make more allowances. Those two sides of me, the one my chair refers to as Sgt. Martin, and the other which would be the more grace side of Luther’s dialectic, also known as the former Pastor Martin seem to be in the epic battle of good and evil. I have had three students reach out this morning with fair questions and through a Facetime call with one, blog issues were remedied. I know the next couple days will be following email closely and trying to respond in as timely a manner as possible. . . . we are now into the second week of school and the time in front of my laptop is beyond what one might imagine. I began this morning at 8:00 after working until about 10:30 last night. I will admit, I did listen to the First Lady’s address tonight, though listening and trying to work at the same time. I will also note that she has grown into her position and her address tonight was impressive. I did not agree with every single point, but I think she spoke in a way that was relatable and thoughtful. It was hard to not see compassion and care in much of what she said. I think some will want to hate just because. I am not one of those people. At this point it is almost 11:50 p.m. and I am still working. I want to get a blog post out as I have asked my students to do the same for tomorrow. School, the university, what we want to do as a university or even what a university education does seems so counterintuitive to what is currently happening. College is a time to leave home and enter a new scholarly community, one where you can speak, listen, interact, socialize, eat together, and enter into a variety of relationships in new circumstances. This pandemic has changed all of that. While I have taught online/remotely all the way back to my time in Wisconsin, doing it all this semester with three freshman writing courses will be a challenge. I have cut some work and one does not know, there might be more, but everything you imagine in your first week of class, sitting in front of a group of new wide-eyed students is gone. The hearing of the streams of students walking stairs and coming into class is gone. When I have been on campus, the quad looks like a ghost town rather than the second week of school. The difference is stunning. Honestly, I cannot adequately explain what it does to me emotionally. I have loved my time teaching in the academy and the first day of school has always been a highlight of my existence (from the time I was in elementary school). When I was on campus for a few moments a week ago this past Monday, my eyes welled up in tears. It depressed me beyond anything I anticipated.

So more importantly, what to do? I am teaching remotely, but so far, in spite of long hours, the great majority of my students are involved and thoughtful. As typical freshmen, some struggle with the basics, but it is because they want to do it correctly. Some of my upper class-level students are still trying to come to grips with the reality of our Covid-ravaged educational process. While we have made some profoundly incredible transformative moves to manage face-to-face, hybrid, or remote options, it is the basics of meeting students and making sure they are given the assurance they have someone in their corner that still matters the most. I have been speaking on the phone with actual calls, texting as students attempt to reach out, or sending and responding to emails literally hours a day to help them feel more secure or hopeful as the semester is now up and running. Trying to manage what it means to live on campus with all the restrictions is difficult, and honestly some are not managing. That too has consequences as some were cited in town for violating state guidelines. Our President, the Provost, and others on campus have worked tirelessly to manage the reopening of campus. Some have not played by the rules to put it kindly. Earlier this evening I listened to a video from our President where he specifically used the words beg and implore to get students to manage their masks, socially distance, and practice appropriate hygiene, both on campus and in town. He was thoughtful, measured, and succinct in the consequence. It is probably our new mantra for the coming days: Mask Up or Pack Up. That puts it out there pretty clearly. Again, I understand this is antithetical to what coming to college is all about, but these are not normal times. There is little that makes this normal. Again, this is not a political statement, but rather an observation. We are in a time of unprecedented health worry; we are in a time where the call for racial justice/social justice is louder than it has been in a half a century and it is more than black or brown people calling out for it; it is a time where climate change, and again, I am blaming no one for the cause, but merely stating I believe it is real, must be dealt with or it will have unparalleled consequences for every aspect of our lives, healthwise, economically, globally, militarily. There is so much about the world that seems upside down and it can be disconcerting and easy to lose one’s bearings. In fact, I have been in conversation with someone tonight I consider a dear friend, but they went ballistic over something that I am still not sure how the one thing got attached to the other. I am still stunned over what happened, as much as how it happened. Ultimately, it makes me sad and hurts . . . perhaps some sleep will help. What is evidenced to me more and more everyday is the vitriol and anger that is on both sides of this political shitstorm (I know that is a tough term) that is a November election. I have never been so disillusioned on one hand and engaged on the other. It is like my body is a mirror image of what is happening in the country.

So . . . to something different . . . and yet it relates to all of this above. I have focused by Foundations class on the topic of identity. What makes us who were are? What helps us to come to terms with whom we are? Leaving home for college the first time is a time of identity seeking. It is a time to see where we fit into a larger family that is not our biological family, but rather our human family. It is time to realize that we are a citizen of a larger world and that world is a bit fragile at the moment. I think it has been fragile for a while, but the fragility is out front and center currently. LIkewise in my technical writing class, they will need to consider what they have to offer through analyzing job ads and creating appropriate documentation to apply, but often that takes the time to do some introspection and figuring out who you are and what you have to offer. That is a frightening thing to do. I often note that first semester freshmen and last semester seniors are not that different. They are all scared s$&^less, but for different reasons. Yet it comes back to understand how four years or more of college have changed you, matured you, readied you for a world that is not all that accepting or forgiving. That is a rather herculean task. So identity is an important concept, but even for me, as I reach a different kind of a milestone.

It is beyond unbelievable to me that I have another birthday just around the corner, but this is a much more rather time-stopping reflecting one. How did I get to this point? Certainly by plugging along, but more surprisingly again some pretty crazy odds. I am humbled that I have made it this far, but I am also grateful. I have a job I simply adore. I have had wonderful people come in and out of my life, but I have been blessed by all of them in someway at different times. Indeed, it is a strange and rather eerie fall semester, but I am still able to interact with incredible young people who always give me a sense of hope. It is certainly not what I planned, but I am fortunate for how it has turned out. I think it is about believing in possibilities and hoping for good.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin