When or How did it (or What Just) Happen(ed)?

Hello from the acre,

Today I spent some significant time at Starbucks in a neighboring town working on a couple of important things. It was a bit of a long weekend as my wonderful fragment of a GI track seemed to demand more attention than I was prepared to provide, but it won out as it usually does. It is shortly after 9:00 p.m. and I am already in bed for the night. I am quite the exciting person, let me tell you. It seems after finally getting grades turned in, and letting up a little, my body noted a reprieve and went into shutdown mode. This was a common occurrence, especially when I was an undergraduate. I remember how my mother would be so angry that I was ill most every time I came home for break. She could not comprehend that I had actually worked that hard at college, or that college could be so stressful and exhausting. She had no idea what cramming 164 credits into four years did or managing to double-major and double-minor with a 3.7 grade point required. This past year it was not the GPA or majoring or minoring, it was chairing committees and revising a complete program. It was serving on statewide committees and union events that took time. It was reimagining courses and just basic life that made things more exhausting. It is the reality that all those things first mentioned happened in my twenties and I am no longer in that decade.

That is the first part of the title coming to roost. When did those decades from 20-something to 60-something happen? Where did that time go? It is hard to believe it will be 30 years ago in a month or two that I flew to Allentown, PA to be driven to a little borough called Lehighton, Pennsylvania to interview to become one of their two pastors. I remember being told by a stately woman on the call committee I did not look my age. I remember clearly going back to graduate school at 40 to begin another Masters and eventually roll into a doctoral program. I remember being in Wisconsin and having a 50th birthday where I celebrated both a decade and a dissertation. How did it happen that I am an age where retirement is a reasonable conversation? Well, I guess it is all the things above. Certainly some of that aging is because of the Crohn’s and the substantial and frequent complications that have necessitated more surgeries and other care I would rather forget than remember.

Along the way there have been people come in and out of my life, much as anyone else’s life, some by choice (both mine and theirs), some by change of location, and some because circumstances change and the reasons for holding on seemed too much of an effort to exert. There is another group who have taught me a difficult but important, lesson in trust, and that consequence has made my life somewhat difficult, but I am hoping to overcome that difficulty as quickly as possible. It has taught me an unequalled understanding of too many people’s commitment to their word. The lesson has been painful on a number of levels, but I will figure it out. Some of that will require sacrifice on my part, but again, it’s manageable. As I move into a sort of new phase of my life, I am reminded daily of how blessed I am.

Over the past almost 20 years, I have found that being single has had a number of benefits. Being single and never having my own children has also had benefits, and some sense of loss from time to time also. As I move into this new phase of imagining something new on a number of levels, there is both excitement and fear. I think that is always how it goes. I have spent a good part of my life, and long before these last two decades, trying to control the variables. I have been successful at times and failed miserably at perhaps as many moments. I am reminded of the words of a counselor I had all through graduate school at MTU. I owe my life to him. He was probably the one single person who did more to keep me going than any other person in my entire life. He and I spoke often about the seeming unending tension between my personal and professional lives. I use the plural intentionally. It is hard to believe I left Houghton 15 years ago and how much has happened in that time.

What stuns me even more at this point is how a happen-chance meeting on a sidewalk has so profoundly affected my life now. That is the third part of my question in the title? What just happened, or more accurately, what is happening? While I have mentioned being married (and it is twice for those counting), and I have at times noted some interactions with them as a sort of tangential topic from time to time, I say very little about them. While there are a myriad of reasons for that, suffice it to say, I learned a lot from those times in my life. In addition, I must surely shoulder some blame for the failure in each relationship. I think what I have learned most profoundly is what I could or should have done differently as well as taking accountability for my part in those failures. What I also know is I have tried my best, for a great deal of this 18 year period, to take as few chances as possible. The one chance taken was not a mistake and I learned some valuable lessons yet again. I think the past 18 years have provided an opportunity for me to learn a great deal as I have watched others. It has provided me an opportunity to reflect and analyze both who I am and what I value in a significant other, if you will. I think I would be a much better pastoral counselor today than I was 30 years ago. I think I would be a much better spouse than I could have hoped to be earlier in my life . . . and it is not rocket science . . . in fact far from it. Communicate with the other, trust the other, and never ever lie, even little white lies, to the other. I know I failed at all three of these things in my previous marriages. That is nothing of which I am proud, but I need to be honest. I have always struggled to admit my failures and my mistakes because they so devastated me. I was both embarrassed and felt unworthy, regardless the degree or level of failure. I was too afraid to lay it all out there, which is so foolish. During the last 6 months or so, I have been blessed to be able to change that. During the fall, I made a decision to let a number of situations that caused me a lot of stress to go by the wayside. There is certainly a consequence in making that decision, but my heart feels better by doing so. I have to thank another perchance meeting of a colleague on a Friday afternoon for helping me achieve that. While her conversation was about one specific mutual former student, I did it for all who had the same situation. It will prompt some other changes this coming week, but again, it is all good.

What has been most amazing is how helping another has created a gift in my life that I never anticipated. Through texts, conversations, phone calls, and some driving, it seems I have stumbled upon both an academic and personality soulmate. Through sharing thoughts about assignments, readings, classes, and even food (all things that geek me out) I find myself more joyful, more content, and more capable than I have felt for many years. I am not sure what has happened, or even what is happening, but I am more able to merely take each day for what it is than I have been in anytime of my life. I have learned more about myself through the daily pondering of topics and conversations than I ever remember doing. What just happened? has been a question crossing the internal screen in my head more times than I have fingers. And , uncharacteristically, I do not need an answer. I do not need to know where or why. I am not concerned or afraid that I do not have it all figured out. The most important thing that seems to be happening is I am content with my life on a grander scale than I have been for years. Are there still issues or irritations with things I wish I could control? Yes, but they have to do with other circumstances, specifically ones alluded to in the earlier portion of this post. Most of them will be managed if I can sell the Harley. Those of you who know me, know that is a difficult pill to swallow, but that is the consequence of my deciding to let some other things go. I will survive that and it will save me both significant money each month and I will be a little safer. Almost 900 pounds cruising down the road it a lot of weight. There are some health things that make this decision more palatable also.

So as always, there is a lot happening. I will be beginning my 10th year in Bloomsburg later this summer, and so much has happened. The picture that is at the beginning of the post is a testament to some of that time. Two former students, who were once in my freshman writing classes graduated with advanced degrees over the past couple weeks. One stayed with me last fall during her pharmacy rotations, and she received her PharmD from Shenandoah University. The second, who also lived with me for a summer, received her MS in Instructional Technology. I was honored to be invited to the hooding of one and to actually hood the other. This summer I am not teaching for only the second time since arriving at the university. I plan to spend the summer working on writing articles (hopefully three), learning Polish (in an intensive language program) and spending significant time seeing where my life might go next. I am excited about all three things. I am richly blessed and I know that I can only do it all one day at a time.

As always, thanks for reading.

Michael

But I need an “A”

I need to take a walk before I get caught up in this little writing project. It is gorgeous outside and a perfect day of sun, little wind, and a moderate temperature that makes you want to lie in a hammock and do your best Rip Van Winkle impersonation. The past few days have been a veritable smorgasbord of experiences with weather from exceedingly gorgeous, a monsoon for COLA graduation, to sufferingly humid to London type fog and drizzle. I am currently sitting at a table waiting for an Amtrak to take me to Philadelphia, where I will catch a ride and get back to Bloom about 11:00 this evening. I plan to do work on the train. This is a somewhat first experience for me because I have not been on a train since 1994, and that was from LA to San Diego. I have some grading to do, but I am hopeful I can complete it today. . .  Not as much done on a blog as I would have liked, mostly because I was trying to manage some other technological issues and that was not as successful as I might have hoped. Today, which is now Tuesday, feels like Monday and I am trying to manage my grading completion, a workshop at noon and other handy things that are on my plate. Seems I have more irons in the fire than fire, but it will get done.

Over the last few days, like many of my colleagues across the nation, we have been grading, commenting, and trying to finish up a semester and another academic year. I am sure I am not speaking only for myself when I say that I am continually amazed by an increasing number of students who believe that merely coming to class and sitting in their seat most of the time constitutes participating in class and that they are engaged in the class. I am pretty sure I am not speaking only for myself when I say that many students read only a minimal percentage of the reading, the course content in the course delivery tool, or even the syllabus, but they want you to respond to them as if they are an engaged, critically thinking, or thoroughly analyzing student in your class. Finally, I am pretty sure that I am not the only person who wonders why are these basically good people willing to spend someone’s hard earned money as they sit lackadaisically hour after hour both in class and in their room more interested in their phone, the latest story additions on Snap, or posting something of great importance on Instagram. That is a really profound way to invest the 100,000.00 they will send for their Bachelor’s degree. And then, of course, as grades will be released today, I will get emails or phone calls, texts or tweets asking why they did not get the grade they need. Somehow they need an A. This past week I met with a student who is an advisee. He has managed to accumulate 89 credits (which is one credit short of being a senior), but is not really close to where he needs to be to be able to enroll in the specific program he had decided to pursue. Doing some thoughtful and careful analysis of a transcript and after a few questions, I asked the student, honestly and carefully, “Why are you in college? What do you want to do?” To his credit, he responded, ” I am not really sure what I want to do or why I am here.” This is after about 3+ years of course work. He noted that his father wanted him to have opportunities and not be like him in terms of having to break his back and knuckles at what he did everyday. First, I understand the father’s desire to have his son go beyond what the father was able to do. That is what parents do. Yet, I believe the son would have been better served, after speaking and listening, by going to a technical college and doing something with his hands and mind.

More significantly, at this point, for the son to graduate with what he hoped to do, it would take a year of classes at least, and achieving all As to get his GPA where it needed to be before he could even get into the program. In addition, if he got in, it would take two-two and a half more years to finish a degree that has very little wiggle room in terms of getting things finished. That would be three to three and a half more years another 50K minimum for an undergraduate degree that would not pay him nearly enough for the loan debt he would incur. I asked him to go home for the weekend and think about options and come back on Monday. He did and we are pursuing a different track and some different options. There are more than enough articles about the value of a college diploma, but there is certainly not enough being said about what happens when students come to college undeclared and then seem to find it so much easier to merely sleep-walk their way through that degree, hoping it all falls into place somehow. He noted that his parents were asking questions, but he did not even have anything to tell them yet. That raises an entirely different issue. What makes college worth the investment of time and money? Who decides? I believe there are some people who are not ready to come to college. Simple as that. They have no focus; they have not real plan; and they have little sense of discipline as to why they will move toward some degree in something. While some undeclared students are much more savvy about what they are doing, and, therefore, can move toward something even when they are not sure what it is, most are wasting a lot of time and money. I was such a person, and, as some know, both if you have known me throughout my life or have read my blog for some time, I flunked out of college the first time I tried to be a student. I was not ready, either mentally or emotionally, and it requires both. To get this student into a path that both he, I, and my department chair thinks will both serve him as well as allow him to graduate, it took phones calls, visits, reconsideration, a moving around of a number of pieces and more phone calls and pondering, but it appears to be a possibility. And even yet, that guarantees nothing. It will take specific hard work and focus on the part of the student and something he will have to do in every class for the remainder of his time at Bloomsburg. There are no promises of As or of even graduating. It takes discipline and hard work. To do less than that means you might end up here longer; you might (will) spend more money than you care to do; and finally, you will learn hard lessons about what happens when you merely think needing the A will result in the aforementioned A.

In conversations with my colleagues, I believe we have some similar ideas about how students fit into being a collegiate trying to finish a degree. Some are simply not ready to be in college. The age of 18 does not guarantee success; neither does the legal age of 21 guarantee that someone can drink responsibly. They should stay home and work for a year or two and realize how much better off having a degree might be. There is a second set of students who are just smart enough to be here, but they come from an underprivileged situation and an underprepared background, but they understand the opportunity, and while they will have to work hard to maintain, they are willing to put in the necessary effort to continue to improve. I love these students because they are passionate. They are academically often underprepared, but that is not their fault. This is a difficult group because they walk such a fine line between hanging in there and being overwhelmed. Yet, they are aware of the tremendous opportunity that is there for them should they succeed. These are the students who are the most gratifying in some way. Depending on the mission of the system and the support of the university, these students can make a significant difference in both their own life and the life of others. There were a number of these students who walked in graduation this past Saturday with a sash that said “First Generation.” These are some of those students. Most students I meet are capable students, but they still need discipline and they need to be willing to work hard. This is the majority of students, but the difficulty is they have never had to be that disciplined or work that hard. There are a lot of reasons for that, but that is for another time. The problem with many of these students is they are just lazy. My colleagues and I find them the most frustrating. They want something (everything) for nothing. These are the students to come to class unprepared. These are the students who wait until the last minute to attempt to write an assignment or a paper. These are the students who are unwilling to look beyond the obvious to understand or think about something. They are, to use my one of my closest colleague’s terms, phoning it in. They made an appearance, showed up, stared at me in class, and left without as much as a single um during the entire class. If that only happened in one class, I could chalk it up to a bad day. However, it seems they have a bad week or a bad semester, or a bad college career. Two years ago a student missed class for 6 weeks. No note, no email, no contact, but he managed to show up the last week. He noted that he had been sick for those six weeks, but he did not go to the doctor. When I told him he could not pass class and did not need to come back, he looked shocked. When I told him he could retake the course, I doubted he would, and he hasn’t

The point of this paragraph is to question the rationality of going to college. I know that might sound a bit stunning being as I teach college, but I do not believe everyone needs to go to college. I do not believe we can serve everyone well simply because they come into our classroom. There is another group of students I did not mention that I have. They are the smarter than average students who have a clear sense of why they are here and what it means to work toward a degree. These students have taken the values and the discipline they have from home and are willing to put it to work. I have met some of these students in class and I have met some of these students on the travels to Poland and the other Central and Eastern European countries I have been fortunate to travel to over the last four years. This past week, a student, who had worked very hard and was set to graduate, was involved in a tragic auto accident. It left her with a TBI and she has been rehabbing ever since. She was at graduation to receive her diploma. While there is not guarantee how things will go for her, it was a testament to her, her family, and her caregivers, that she was there. If only we could all realize how fragile we all are and how every opportunity we have – yes, even college – is a gift that should not be taken for granted. It is something to take on and work toward with every fiber of our being. For us on the other side of that blank stare, we realize more than you might know how important what we do is. Too often you think we are picking on you, being unfair to you, asking too much of you when we are not content with you turning in work that demonstrates less than you are capable of doing. We are not trying to be anything, but honest and fair. Too often, and even more so at private colleges, at State Universities, students and their parents are treated as customers. I apologize, but I do not see you as such. You come to college to be educated. That means you are learning how to think more critically than you have before. It means you are learning to analyze a situation more thoroughly than you have before, and it means you must be able to synthesize education and experience to be the best possible citizen and employee you can hope to be. Your money buys you the opportunity to of that, and that is all. What you do with that opportunity is entirely up to you. I will provide the best I can. I am human and so some days I will not be perfect, but I will admit when I need to improve and I will be honest when I have failed. I ask the same of you.

Sincerely,

Dr. Martin

When Geography Becomes a Place

Hello from Starbucks,

I am in another Starbucks and I know that it is more than merely another trip to the green mermaid branded coffee shop, in spite of that fact I have not been in this individual Starbucks before. As I walk in I see the familiar colors, the familiar layout, the typical board of options and even similar bathroom layout. The look is similar to one in one I have visited in PA, CA, VA, WI, UT, MN, IA, or IN. Yes, NYC, IRELAND, POLAND, CZECH REPUBLIC, AUSTRIA or CANADA. I think you get the point. They want us to feel at home, to feel familiar and welcomed, in spite of the fact that they got into some serious boiling water for their lack of welcome in the City of Brotherly Love not long ago. Branding is something all of succumb to whether we realize it or not. I believe some of the more successful branding campaigns in history include the aforementioned Starbucks; others include Apple, Microsoft, Hershey, or Harley Davidson. I am sure there are others you can name, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind for me. Terms like “the Big Three” referring to General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler once powered Detroit, but that is no longer the case. Companies that were standards of my childhood like Sears and Roebuck, J.C. Penney, or Montgomery Wards have fallen by the wayside of clothing or tools giants and now even the behemoth Walmart must be trying to figure out what to do with Jeff Bezos and Amazon as they seem destined and determined to become the one-stop-online-shop (OSOS) of everything. It seems the only thing that can rival them are the things they need like Google or other technology to support their continuing growth into most anything and everything. The reality of entrepreneurship on steroids seems to characterize what Bezos is doing. Of course, it can be argued Warren Buffet did the same thing, only 30 years earlier, and did it more by beating the pavement than wiring it together by technology. While I must admire their foresight and ingenuity, I cannot help but be concerned about the consequences. Where will the convenience and the OSOS cost us more than save us. Perhaps it is appropriate that the acronym includes an SOS.

I sort of went on a roll there, not realizing how all of that fit together for me. I think I find myself questioning more frequently and more critically some of the things I see happening on a regular basis. At times it makes me feel like a curmudgeonly aging white male, much like the uncle I have mentioned in a previous blog or two. The irony of that questioning for me is I will not have to deal with the consequences as long as my students. I will not see how the consequences might fundamentally change daily life as I have known it, or they know it now. Certainly technology has fundamentally changed how we communicate – or fail to – how we write, how we manage information – or fail to – how we shop, how we believe what we see or hear – or don’t. Again, I could go on, but you get the idea. I believe that technology must be seen as one of the profound contributors to the discord, the lack of decorum, civility or general lack of manners that seems to be plaguing us today. Or more accurately, our human addiction to our gadgets and the subsequent usage. Yet, I do subscribe to the belief that there is a rhetoric of technology. All I have to do is observe students anywhere on campus. Before they are out of a classroom as class is dismissed, their phones are out and they are consumed as they try to see what Instagram post or snap story they have missed in the last 50 minutes. They can see their way forward as if their cell phone is a seeing-eye dog (service animal) helping them get to their next class as they wander around like zombies in that 20 minute interval. They can walk up steps, down steps, between people or order without looking up as if the phone is their brain in their hand. Yesterday, I inadvertently left my phone somewhere on campus, and I realized shortly after it happened, and even had some sense as to where it was, but I did not follow up and get it until this morning. So I was without it for almost 24 hours. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did have my iPad at home and I did search out it’s location last evening and saw that it was probably where I suspected. I did get an email this morning that it had been turned in. So there was some surety that it was not stolen. That is helpful, but I did not feel like I was at a disadvantage with no phone. The continuing growth of the technological influence on communication and writing is something I ponder almost daily, and while I could say much about that, I will wait for another post to speak about that.

While I noted in my last blog I do not want a do-over, and that stands, if there is something I wish I might have done earlier, it is sort of two pronged. I wish I would have growth up in a time where learning other languages was encouraged. That was not something that was ever mentioned in my household. I had a great-aunt who could speak Norwegian and prayed in her native language, but that was the extent of any exposure I had. Related to that, I wish I had been taught about the importance of travel and experiencing other cultures. Certainly part of that ability was having the financial resources, and that definitely was not the case. What I am grateful for is that I enlisted in the Marines out of high school. That certainly offered me opportunities to learn about places outside of Sioux City, my NW Iowa town of 100,000, which I believed was a pretty big place. The second thing that did a great deal to broaden my horizons was to meet the Peters family. The pastor and family that came to Riverside Lutheran Church as I was getting out of the service. They had been in NW Iowa before, but this stop of the itinerant pastor’s existence included time in Germany before returning to the Midwest. It was their use of German in daily conversation, as well as a son who became a great friend and a serious crush and more on a younger sister, who is also still a treasured friend, that started me down the road of loving to learn language. It is now 40 years later and this summer I will enroll in the second intensive language program I have ever done. This one is a speaking language, however; the last one was Greek and I crammed two years into 12 weeks. This was much more about reading and writing. Yet, I remember the first time I heard Dr. Craig Koester read Greek in a Johannine Theology class. It was like listening to a story teller. His ability to read Greek as if we were reading English with inflection and tone, pauses, and appropriateness was unlike anything I had ever heard. I could have listened to him all day. What I learned in all of this, which I am just now really coming to terms with, is how much I was fascinated by language. I have said more than once, I wish I had gone into linguistics.

In the second half of my life, I have traveled much more frequently than in the first half. While I was 25 when I went to Europe the first time, the trip that changed my life and my perspective of what Europe was and how important it was to my understanding who I was as an American, I did not make a second trip out of the country as a civilian until I was almost 30. That trip was during the time I was in seminary and I went to then what was known as East Germany. It was a country behind the iron curtain, and it was an experience that revealed to me things I have seldom seen or experienced since. That first trip through Checkpoint Charlie is an experience that changes one’s life. While I have noted this in earlier posts, what still stuns me the most is how quickly I acclimated to the restriction of travel, ability to shop where I chose, or eat whatever or wherever I wanted. I remember how completely unprepared I was when I asked a East German seminary student I met to write me after I would leave and he said that was not possible. Perhaps more importantly, I remember when the wall came down later and he wrote to say hello and to tell me how they would have to be taught and learn about the concept of freedom. We take so much for granted. This past January, while traveling with the Eastern European Study Abroad group, we went to Lviv, Ukraine and sat at the border for 3+ hours. All of this freaked out our students a bit, but my memory of a much more serious investigation when we went into East Berlin in 1985 told me this was not nearly as ominous. Yet each experience when you live it causes a reality check that colors our understanding of the other person. What still causes me pause is how we are all human beings, but we seem so affected by our contextual situation that we can view what we deem apropos or tolerable in such profoundly different ways. It begs the question why and how? Again, I do realize some of this because of the same journey to what was then the Eastern Bloc. Thomas, the seminary student who could not write to me, noted when he could that he would have to be taught the concept of freedom. If one never has something, it is difficult to realize what it means. It is the same overall concept I am trying to convey in this post. It is one thing to see a country on a map and realize it exists. It is also something to see it in pictures or videos when another person has taken them or posted them. It is something entirely different when you have gone there and experienced it. There is an issue both in the contextual situation and then the experience of language. I think it is when the two experiences, which affect most of our senses, that we are compelled to see how we move from geography to place. It matters not whether it was German, Danish, Italian, Spanish, Polish, and most recently Ukrainian (which adds a different alphabet to the mix), there was always some point where I felt overwhelmed by the experience. It is interesting how we try to accommodate, or perhaps not for some, the other, particularly when we are in their country. I have always found it necessary to attempt to use their language and show deference to their customs. As we age, however, we are more aware of how we can Anglicize most any language with our unique American accents. I had this conversation with someone just recently as we were addressing the idea of how we  acquire another language more completely, which is so much more than learning vocabulary and managing to read and comprehend.

Too often, I hear students or others say, I took ______ (you can insert the specific language), but I cannot really use it. What they are implying is they cannot speak adequately. Yet what does that mean? For most, it is a combination of both vocabulary and accent. What does it take to sound like a native speaker versus a person who is merely trying to string some words together in another language? What happens when we struggle with the language so much that we are merely trying to pronounce the words (lacking both structure and inflection)? The first thing that happens is fear. The second thing is we no longer try because we become overwhelmed or embarrassed. As someone who has three different languages using Rosetta Stone on their computer, it has become more and more apparent to me why they manage the lessons as they do. Learning a language is all about employing all your senses because each sense affects your cognition in a different manner. It is where you begin to see the geography as a place; it where you begin to see the people as an individual. It is where you begin to see the complexity of the world in a way that makes it more about exploration and learning than comparing and contrasting. What I have realizes is the best way you can spend money is by travel. The more you travel, the more you realize how people have the same basic needs regardless of language, culture, location, or any other noun you wish to add to the list.  We want to be happy, healthy, and somehow make a positive difference. Time to grade some more as the end of the semester is upon us once again. As far as a video, I have decided to use Enrique Iglesias. Amazing how passionate the Latino/a culture is.

Thanks as always for reading and I hope your semester ends successfully.

Dr. Martin