Critically Thinking in a Surface-Oriented World


Hello from Bydgoska 19C,

My brain is whirling,  but my body is tired, so I might sleep a bit and come back . . . we’ll see what happens. Well . . . the typical happened; much like when I make a road trip and need a break, the power nap works very well. Though this was about twice the length of what I call the optimal nap (45 minutes or so), I am awake. Brushing my teeth and a little face washing always seems to do the trick. Today we continued to attend classes and some of the students are struggling with finding their bearings and as such, did a scenic walking tour around City Center Krakow today. The sociological view of Jewish emigration and identity is a very interesting class. It is also quite interesting that in my reading I have found a number of things I can use. We went to a second class today, which is a film studies class. We will watch a number of films in 9 different languages over the next three weeks. We watched on in class today, which was a bit bizarre and I watched the second assigned film this evening back here at the dorm on the computer. While I have watched foreign films before, I am analyzing then a bit differently. My immediate reaction to both of these films is they are not your typical American Rom-Com and you would not go to the movies to feel good or escape life for a while. It is not your typical American entertainment. There is an article accompanying these first two films assigned and that is going to hopefully help me see where the professor is headed. He is a very young and rather amusing person in the class. In addition it is evident he knows his craft and there is much more to what is going on than merely a surface sort of analysis.

It is the sort of surface analysis that is really the point of this posting. I remember back to high school when Mr. Littlejohn (I know it sounds rather Sherwood-ish in nature, but let me assure you there was nothing easy for the taking here), my chemistry teacher failed me for attempting to merely get by. I can still see him when he would get angry and pound the lab table with his fist and explain, “You have no drive! You must produce!” If there is anyone who when to Riverside Junior/Senior High School who had chemistry or physics and reads this blog, I am sure they can remember him. He was perhaps the first person who really pushed me to consider the option (really the need) to do more than phone things in, as my colleague, Dr. Decker, calls it. I think I actually had a string of teachers in that realm. I remember my 7th grade geography teacher giving me a C at midterm and telling me I should never have grades as low as that. I remember being embarrassed when she said that to me. In college, probably because I had already failed out of Iowa State University, when I got to Dana College, I knew I had to get to work. What I knew more keenly, however, was the simple fact that I had never really tried very hard. Even in the service when I got accused of cheating in Communications and Electronics School because I had a 100% average after three weeks, I had not really tried that hard. I merely memorized and did my work. Perhaps it was the Delvin Huttons in the world, my Greek and Religion professor at Dana, who first challenged me. Yet even then, with a C in a couple of his classes, I did not feel challenged I felt put upon. How dare he??!! Perhaps it was more telling when he said to me that I was not smart enough to take a summer Greek class that someone really pushed me to prove to them, but more importantly myself that I was capable. It was the Donald Juels, who wrote on a paper that he “hope[d] that I learned more in the class than was exhibited by my paper.” that finally pushed me in a manner that forced me to look at myself honestly and figure it out. There was someone at each level. When I was working on my doctoral degree it was Patty Sotirin, a person for whom I still have the utmost respect and admiration. As late a year ago she was still disagreeing with me and pushing me to consider other options on a paper. Her insight and accuracy into any given situation is unparalleled. What all of this says to me is pretty simple, without challenge, at least for me, I too am content to merely do enough, but who is my challenger now? Honestly, it has to be myself. I have to be willing to work harder, see clearer (more clearly), think profounder (more profoundly) . . .  (yes, I know there is grammatical structure issues, but I was working on the parallelism of the list — I can’t help it).

What are the consequences of not doing this? What are the consequences personally and beyond? The consequence personally becomes a lack of initiative. It becomes a loss of truly dreaming. It becomes a lack of curiosity and ultimately hope. Dr. Donald Juel, my New Testament professor, wrote in my PhD recommendation, which I was allowed to see after I graduated, that he did not know my best work yet, and probably neither did I still had not done it or something to that effect. He did say that I had a tenaciousness that he had seldom seen and that I was willing to work harder than most anyone. He did believe that I would see it. To this day, I am not sure I have. I do believe I work hard, but I have too many things going on all the time, and that is of my own doing. I claim to be the victim of my circumstance, but I am not sure that is as true as I would like to make it. I need to do more succinctly what I tell my students, prioritize and then have the discipline to follow those things. I think I go through phases where I do this well and then other times not so much. I wish I knew more about more things that is the problem, and while I know that seems to be a generalized statement, there is more specificity to it than appears. If you really know me, you know that I have this insatiable desire to learn and to learn about most anything. I am more of a cultural inquisitor than I realized. I want to understand the connections and that is why this current history class the students are taking (and I get to lurk in for free) is so fascinating to me. The question that creates a foundation to this course is why is it that a stateless minority has been able to maintain its existence and prominence in world history? She is referring to the Jewish people. What she has already forced upon me is an appreciation for their tenacity and a connecting between scripture and history that goes beyond anything I had previously considered. She did that in less than two hours and she did it simply and thoughtfully. There have been moments I have felt like an undergraduate student again, wishing I might have taken the opportunity to study abroad and work on issues of culture and language. I wish I would have not given up my Goethe Scholarship to study German in Bremen before moving to Pennsylvania the first time. I do hope to figure out how to manage coming back to Poland next summer and studying Polish for 6 weeks or so intensively. I would need to do some other work in the Spring to prepare, but it would allow me to do some other traveling and learning also. I have said on more than one occasion that if I would do my life again, at least educationally, I would want to learn five or six languages fluently and then study linguistics. There is a student on the trip who hopes to work as an interpreter at the United Nations. When she told me this, she almost apologized for her dream, and I told her to not ever apologize for having a dream. She is a strong and thoughtful young woman and that is what the world needs.

Too many people are willing to merely scratch the surface, and too many educators, bosses, or others are willing to let them. What does it mean to really strive for something? Most of our students have a better conceptual understanding of this than they might admit. Anyone who has participated in a sport or learning some art form (music, art, dance) and really put in their practice time to excel does understand reaching for more than merely going through the motions. This is where the practice of everyone needing to succeed has its problems. Some are merely better and some work to be better, but we need to be honest. This does not mean we need to be brutal or uncaring, but going to far to the side of needing everyone to win or embarrassing or hurting people through nasty demeaning behavior on the other is not what competition needs to be. The consequence of these extremes is exactly what has occurred and why should be surprised. If you encourage those who need the improvement to actually work to do it, most will step up to the plate. If you help them over the elevated bar, two things happen. They will put in more effort and they will appreciate that you helped them improve. I am often told you have to work hard to fail my course. I do not let people merely fall between the cracks, but as my ACT 101 students from the fall found out, and should have known from the summer, I do expect you to step up to the plate and do what needs to be done to be successful.

What are the consequences societally? We get people like Donald Trump bullying people and an absolutely horrendous number of people supporting his boorish behavior. Bullying is not thought-provoking, it is merely provoking. Insulting takes little intelligence, it requires an unbelievable amount of fear and arrogance. It allows assholes with power to merely scream, “You’re fired!” So why is it that so many are paying attention and following this sad excuse? Because his lack of decorum on the public stage is how many of them act in their personal lives. He gives them license to continue their own sad behavior. Xenophobia, or any phobia for that matter, comes from fear and ignorance of the actual facts. It is exactly what Dr. Orla-Buskowska has been showing us in her class the last couple of days. This license for a lack of decorum has other consequences. If such behavior is tolerated, and in the case of Donald Trump’s example, encouraged, no one is required to examine or analyze the issues. Difficult problems are not managed or understood, they are merely rolled over. The extreme of that behavior will be witnessed by the students first hand when they visit Auschwitz in a couple of days. And for those of you who want to say that I am comparing Trump to Auschwitz, I do not believe he has gone to that level, but a more logical extension of the extreme than one wants to consider would allow for such things. How does Trump’s call against Latinos/as or Muslims differ from what was done in the United States against the blacks (and too often still is) in the pre-Civil Rights time? How does it differ from what we did to the Japanese post-Pearl Harbor? These are the consequences of not looking deeper or analyzing more carefully. These are the consequences when we fail to really study and understand the complexity of the world in which we live. I for one do not want to live where we should once again create places where the last words one sees on the gate is Arbeit Macht Frei. The picture at the beginning of the post is of my father in WWII. He came to Europe in that war to fight the consequence of not thinking more carefully and being willing to merely accept what was being espoused.

Well, it is about 6:30 a.m. and I have been up for about an hour or more, but I have other work to do.

Thanks for reading, as always,

Dr. Martin

Krakow for a Second Time


IMG_3489Hello from a Polish dormitory room in Krakow,

Today was our first full day in Poland as a group. It was a  busy and interesting day. We began the morning trying to square away things like having the internet in our rooms, seeing if Wifi is a possibility in our rooms, which seems more than likely to be a dream, and then getting to the university and the first day of one of the two classes as well as a sight-seeing trip around the city. I saw some things I saw last year on my stay of only a few days and I saw some other new sites. We were at Wawel Castle where I had the nicest time with Robert a year ago. I also tried to call him today, but have not successfully contacted him yet. I did enjoy the day for the most part, but as I walked around a bit on my own, I realized once again how solitary one can feel in the world. It is always an interesting thing. Because I do not know Polish, almost every banner, street sign or advertisement makes me feel as an alien. There are certain words I can figure out from my other languages, but it is a struggle for me when I feel so illiterate and wish I knew so much more. . . .  It is now about 12:30 a.m. and not surprisingly, I am awake. This is where my hours are still a bit askew. The picture above is from the salt mine outside Krakow that we will be visiting. This carving of Pope John Paul the II, the only Polish pope is one of the amazing chapels in the mine.

This evening I thought about my own first trip to Europe, which would have been about 34 years ago. I went on a Interim Trip with Dr. John W. (The Pope) Nielsen. The interim has been mentioned before in my blog. I had to read books before I left by Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann and we visited a number of places they wrote about. We traveled from Germany to Denmark, going back through Germany (only the West then) to Italy and then to France, Switzerland and Spain. It was a significant trip for me because it was my first time to Europe and it changed my life. Second, there were a couple of interesting occurrences, including my getting ill and having to go to Germany on my own. Long story short, I ended up on my own for about two weeks and learned more Germany and got to visit more things than I could have ever imagined. For those of you old enough to think of the time period. I was in Germany when the hostages had gotten out of Iran, Reagan was just inaugurated, and the world still had some similarities. A  disco in Germany was bombed at that time. As noted it changed my life. I learned how to learn. What I mean is that learning was no longer merely memorizing the writing the answers down. So many people are content to merely consider the surface or what is in front of them and they refuse to ask the tough questions. Today in the Eastern European History class, the professor, Dr. Annamarie Orla-Buskovska, who was phenomenal, noted that she wanted students to think critically and to be original in their thoughts when they wrote a response paper. I wanted to stand up and cheer.

What does it mean to honestly learn something? What does it mean to question the why? That is something that has always been a part of who I am. My poor mother. As I was merely walking down the street today in Krakow, my senses were bombarded from every direction by the sounds, the sights, and there was so much to take in. The culture is both similar and profoundly different at the same time. A couple of students noted that Krakow streets made them feel like they were in NYC, but it was so much older. Both the student who is working as a sort of tour-guide/helper, who is a college student himself and the actual tour guide who spent time with us this afternoon, were and are, so passionate about their town. There is so much history and once again, as I felt the very first time I was in Europe, I am walking through the pages of history, the centuries of what others experienced, struggled to build, died to change, dreamed to fashion, so that others can have a life they did  not have. The lecture this morning about Jewish identity and what they have managed as a people to do, which is exist and matter when they are “a stateless minority,” was fascinating to me. When there are three students along on this trip (I think that is correct) who claim Jewish ancestry, I cannot imagine what it means to listen to what we heard today. As much as I have been accustomed to considering the Jewish history because of my previous life as a pastor or as someone who studied Holocaust, and still does, some of what I heard today made me think in ways I never had. That is exciting to me. I love when what I have become comfortable with gets shaken up and I have to rethink.

I took the time this evening to read the first pages of Paul Johnson’s book, History of the Jews, as we were asked to do. It was also intriguing and made me realize a number of things I could do with my Bible as Literature course, things I have not done. I have an entire couple lectures that I could do for that class that I had never considered and as literature would work terrifically well. It does not take much to make me happy sometimes. There is so much more to consider about the Old Testament and beyond the Torah or the history. There are issues of feminist writing in a patriarchal culture; there are other writings that exist outside the Bible about Biblical characters, if I can use that term, and that goes beyond Philo and Josephus. That is what I learned the most about in my reading this evening. What is also strange is I feel somewhat like I did when I was often up in my dorm room at Dana College. I remember classmates asking why my lights were on at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. and I would tell them I was still studying. That is where I learned to honestly study and realize what it meant to actually learn something.

How is it we really come to know ourselves? How is it begin to really understand our place in a world that is so complex and difficult? I do not necessarily subscribe to the idea that the world is more difficult. I think it has always been so. It might be true that we are more aware of our interdependence on each other, but one can hope that would be beneficial rather than malevolent as it seems it is. From where can we find that soft inner voice that pushes us to do for others rather than for ourselves? Can we be selfless even some times rather than selfish most of the time? I am reminded of a song by Celtic Woman . . .  It is called “The Voice” and I will add a link to it at the end of the post. How does the world speak to us? How does our history speak to us? How do we hear the voices we need so desperately need to listen to as we wander on our own paths? I think I am reminded of this every time I go to another place. As Americans we forget there is so much more to the world than our little corner . .  .  most of us are parochial enough we are not even able to understand our own country let alone the rest of the world. When I am standing in a castle that has a history of more than a millennium I am reminded there was a lot of world before there was a United States and the culture that comes with such a spans of time needs to be valued. Their language needs to be valued. What they have brought to the world long before we existed needs to continue to be celebrated. Now before you believe I am not proud or patriotic, put it away. I merely realize there is so much more beyond Texas where I was born, the Midwest where I was raised, or the East where I now live. One of the things most impressive about our country is its diversity, not only in its people, but in its landscapes. Indeed, in a scant 235 years +, the country has had an amazing impact on civilization, but with great giftedness comes even greater responsibility to the rest of the world. I do not mean that as a political statement, but rather an ethical one.

As it is now about 3:30 in the morning in Poland, I am going to try to get some sleep. I plan to be up in about three hours and I am looking forward to another day of learning.  It has been nice to sit in my little room and ponder. Here is the link for the video.


Thank you as always for reading and I will be trying to post regularly as I travel with 3o amazing Bloomsburg students.

Dr. Martin



Remembering an Amazing Life

Hello from JFK,

It is exactly a year ago today that I would be leaving Lydia for a last time. It was an amazing day because Carissa was able to get the little tornado into the shower and wash her hair and get her a bit more comfortable. The picture here is of her that morning. My thoughts these last days have certainly been about her often. It seems impossible that a year has already past. I would be leaving for Poland on the 28th, so it is a couple days sooner, but this time I will be there for three weeks.

As I have lived through another calendar year, the reality of losing someone who affected me so significantly almost a year ago has really struck the core of my being in a profoundly different way. Seldom does an entire week go by that somehow, somewhere, some way my thoughts are not focused upon this strong, vibrant, and determined little two-digit-midget, as I called her. The loss of her stunning blue eyes, her infectious smile, and her strong Austrian accent are all things that  miss seeing, hearing, or experiencing. And she was an experience. Her interest in things economic and the world in general never ceased to astound those who knew her. Even for some time after she was living at COH, she watched for the mail like a hawk waiting for her Wall Street Journal (WSJ). She read the complete journal article by article and she had such disdain for those who did not care to understand such things. I remember her telling me a couple years before the 2009 economic meltdown that it was coming. She was so brilliant about such things.

I have heard her classes were very difficult, but she certainly knew her subject matter. Shortly after I started living next to her, she asked to see how I had my WPS pension invested. When I told her what I had done she said I was too conservative. She then performed a 10 year analysis on my pension, finding that the difference between a fixed account, which is what I had, and have, had performed amazingly close to what she had. She was satisfied, but only after she had done her due diligence. Of course, if you knew Lydia, even a slight bit, none of this would surprise you. She was careful and thoughtful about most things. This is not to say she could not be a bit stubborn about things. She certainly had an opinion about most anything. Well, perhaps that is a bit far-reaching. If it was worth her notice, and certainly some things were not, she probably had an opinion. Usually things that did not interest her she would note, albeit rather curtly and in her distinct Austrian accent, “that is just stupid”. I would have loved to take a class from her because she would have forced me to think. There is a rather successful business person in Menomonie who told me more than once. I had her for two economics classes and I got Ds in both of them.

Even now, there are moments I find it difficult to comprehend, nay, perhaps accept that she is actually no longer there in Menomonie. I wonder at times if it is because she seemed almost larger than life or if it is because I am, and was, in Pennsylvania when she passed? I was actually in Kraków, where I will be later today. I remember earlier that day praying in the church of Pope John Paul II that George might convince her to let go. That was New Year’s Eve day. Even now, a year later, I also have to say a most sincere thank you to the Langtons for coming in from North Carolina to be with her. Then there are all the amazing caregivers who cared for Lydia in the 4 years she lived at Comforts of Home. She changed so much in that time. While she was no longer safe in her home, she was quite an amazing person and still very independent when she came to live in a north Menomonie. She took care of the plants, she helped set the tables, and she was less than pleased when I would cook because I was not sitting next to her. She knew what she wanted and why she wanted it. I remember the first Memorial Day  I did a cookout for everyone. The residents and staff were ecstatic, save one person. She thought it was “okay” as she gave a look of nonchalance and waved her hand as if to say, “Do not think of yourself too highly, Michael.”

To this day I regret that I was not there that last day, but only God knows (and I mean that literally) how long she would have hung on had I stayed. To the last person, we are sure she did not want to put me through seeing her pass. I still feel in my heart that she became and was the mother who did as much for me as my grandmother did when she served as my mother when I was a small boy.  I have in my blogs compared them before. They were both independent; they had both lost their husbands before they were ready to do so; they were both elegant and had a beauty that endured throughout their days. They both had incredibly kind and giving hearts. When I think of either one of them I am profoundly aware of both how loved and how blessed I was, and still am, by their presence in my life. In terms of time, it has been 38 years since my Grandma Louise left this world. For Lydia, I cannot seem to come to grips with the reality of an entire year within the week. What I know is her loss has affected me more significantly than any other loss in my life. Is it because I too am older? Is it because I am still realizing how influential she was and how loved I was?

A year ago I was praying you would let go, only because I wanted you to leave a life that was little more than mere existence. A year later it is me struggling to let go. I cannot seem to finish everything or anything I need to do  (and that seems to be across the board). Too often I seem stuck in a haze of my own existence, but an existence missing its heart. You found your way into my heart, Lydia. You made life worth doing in ways I did not know before. You were my mother, my family. As I write this I am struggling to see the screen through the tears that have welled up in my eyes and now trace their paths down my cheeks. It is not the first time this has happened, and it will probably not be the last. I remember last Spring in class I cried more than once in class. My image as a hard-ass professor was pretty well blown.

I remember writing last year at this time you are my guardian angel and I would try to not make your job too difficult. As you know, once again, I am in George’s country; you also know that I wrote a sabbatical proposal to work on the historical fictional novel I promised I would write. I am hoping that proposal is approved. We’ll see what happens. As I approach the first anniversary of your passing, ironically I am in the same place I was a year ago. I remember lying in bed and sobbing, sobbing that you were released from the shell of the phenomenal woman you had once been; sobbing because of the hurt from the profound loss I was experiencing. Sobbing because I was not with you. As I am preparing to land in Kraków I have been up for about 36 hours and I am tired, but I am thinking of you, remembering with both joy for the amazing life you lived and how I was blessed that you loved me so much, and a sadness that I am writing about your memory, about your beautiful eyes, the radiance of your smile and that amazing accent calling my name. What I wouldn’t give to see and hear you again. What I wouldn’t give to have one of the caregivers, usually Leighann, calling to tell me you wanted to talk to me. What I wouldn’t give to have Carissa sending me another picture of you and her. I love you still and forever.


The Fundamentals of College (and Life)

 Hello from my office,

We are back to the last week of classes and the finals the week following. This semester has gone much more rapidly (at least it seems to be the case) than any other semester since I first taught the fall of 1992. It has hard to believe that I have been doing this for this long a period of time. Today is the last day of the semester, so yet again it is a couple days since I began this post. Today I met with a student, who like many first year students, the shock of the elevation of expectations and the lack of preparedness from high school is much greater than ever imagined. It is not just that lack of preparedness that concerns me, it is the fundamental lack of critical thinking and the lack of study skills that shocks me. I asked the student about their studying and if they believed everything they had done should have prepared them. They said, yes, but barely passed an exam, twice. When I asked where the problem might be, they could not come up with an answer. In addition, they were somewhat content with where they stood. I understand to some extent the response, “it is what it is.” What I am not sure of is if they were trying to merely move forward, or they had somewhat given up, or they just did not even care. I am hoping it is the middle choice, but I am honestly not sure.

I must also say I do not put the entire weight of this on the student’s shoulders. They certainly have some responsibility, but our system, both public K12 and now the university must bear some of the fault. I see so many freshman under prepared. In this particular group of summer students, we structure them to the maximum in the summer and naively believe they have learned to manage their time and academic demands in six weeks. So in the fall they are left to their own to try to figure it out. Many of them fail miserably. The consequence is academic probation, a grade point they might never recover from, and a sense of disillusionment, where once they believed in a dream of moving beyond where they come from. Of my 22 summer students, it will be interesting to see how they have done. The seven or eight I am continuing to mentor show an overwhelming sense of struggle. Only one is where I think they should be. I wish there was an easy answer to this issue, but there isn’t. It would take a number of systemic changes. Yet, I guess if a couple figure it out there is some sense of achievement or success. It is my idealism wanting everyone to figure it out.

Since starting this post, another shooting, another connection to ISIS/ISIL, another reason to wonder what had happened. Again there is no easy answer and whoever becomes the next president (and I hope it is almost anyone but Trump-well not quite) will have a significant problem on their hands. When I first heard reports of the shooting and got names, the Arabic nature of the names automatically had me wondering. That reaction demonstrates the consequence of 911 and the incidences since then. How is this different from what happened to the Jews in Germany or the Japanese in the United States post-Pearl Harbor? It isn’t and I am mortified that I am in this position. I have Muslim students, one in particular who is like my own child, who are normal,  hard working, and would never want such terror to befall their neighbors and friends. How did one faith that was basically built on prayer and giving become so violent for a particular element of the followers of Muhammad? I do not see a call for violence in their five pillars of faith.  Of course, the same can be said for many who proclaim the Christian faith for whom the golden rule is a fundamental tenet, but certainly do not demonstrate such behavior and treat those who are either different or believe differently with such disdain or hatred.

While I did not experience either of those extremes anytime lately, it is always interesting for me to see how so many are so kind or close when they need something, but otherwise they act quite differently. Students are so predictable. It amuses me on one hand and saddens me on the other. The end of the semester panic (or acceptance) that their poor choices for 14 weeks cannot be fixed by extra credit, tears, or avoidance. The belief that it is just something to do over when they have simply thrown away 1000s of dollars. Part of it is immaturity. Part of it is learned selfishness. Part of it is our willingness in our public schools to give something for nothing. Merely show up, stay out of trouble, and turn in something and you can have an A or B. I am witnessing the consequence every semester. That is not to say there are not strong or smart hard working students, but the overwhelming belief that I should go to college merely because I should is misguided. Not everyone should go straight out of high school. Perhaps most shouldn’t. All I know is the fundamentals of discipline and priorities, which are necessary to succeed in college are not fundamental to many of my students. The consequences are consequential: difficulty in finding a job and significant debt for a piece of paper that guarantees nothing.

Just my thoughts. Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin