Higher Education Today

Hello from my kitchen,

There is a lot I need to accomplish and I am in the midst of preparing for another semester. While the use of Course Delivery Tools makes some aspects of managing a class, lectures, grades, and information easier, to do it well is laborious and a never ending proposition. Yes, on one hand I have been finished with the fall semester since about 11:47 a.m. on December 18th, but I was, and am, not finished. I started teaching a distance Technical Writing course on December 16th and complete it in January 19th. Second semester begins on January 21st.

A quick glance at the calendar would note there are not many free days. In addition, I do need to work through some new texts for two of my classes. While there may be a few professors who recycle things. In addition, I am working to manage a second appointment to the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine. This work is a connection to both my scholarship and my life in general. The latest two articles or conference papers as well as some currently in process are all related to issues of gender and being chronically ill with Crohn’s, one of the silent diseases, a category of things where someone can look healthy on the outside, but not so much on the inside. One of the things I have realized is that the integration of life and practice is central to what I do. It is also probably connected to my penchant for process. In terms of being a composition theorist I fall into the category of process composition also. I am a process and product person and sometimes in today’s world, students will come to me with a substandard assignment and want to argue, but I tried really hard. They do realize that the world they are headed into is product driven and being nice does not always keep a person employed.

I do not think that requiring a student to go above and beyond what is require to merely get it done is wrong. In fact, I would argue allowing substandard or “but I tried really hard” work to be acceptable is to set them up for failure. As I have noted more than once, I want them to think, analyze and always be willing to work a bit harder, a bit more critically. It is also amazing that the push to get them to think or analyze and question or go beyond what our society deems good enough is suspect. I am always amazed, but no longer surprised, when I hear others accuse me of proselytizing or indoctrinating my students to accept or adopt some liberal ideology. Particularly in our present political atmosphere (and that is an entirely separate blog post). What I have noted for them or even to some who have questioned whether or posited that every college professor is a socialist, is while I am more liberal socially than some, I am probably much more conservative fiscally than many. I am that middle of the road, pragmatist. This is not because I do not know where I stand, but it is precisely the opposite. I am the product of a union-bearing, New Deal democrat, father who grew up and graduated at the height of the depression (1933). He is a person who even today would probably accuse me of being a Republican. I am the brother of a sister who once quit a job because she could collect more unemployed than working and I blew a gasket on her, so to speak. I remember retorting to her decision rather unabashedly, “So I can pay for your lazy ass.” That did not set well in all sorts of ways from either side of the equation. What I realize now is there was more going on to her struggle to work than I realized at the time. I am the professor of a student who is currently, or so it seems, being bullied as she is on a trip because she is not white. This sort of news disturbs and confounds me. This sort of nationalism that is playing out across the world right now is frightening on all sorts of levels. From my own campus to the White House, from England to Eastern Europe, from almost every African country, the hate that is espoused under the guise of nationalism is something that will destroy the world in which we live.  I am a professor who will bend over backwards for my students regardless their ethnicity or economic background to help them succeed, but they, nonetheless, still have to do their work. I am told that students either love my class or find me too incredibly difficult, and I know that people have been told to not take my Technical Writing class because it is too much work. The requirements of basic writing, communication, and having standards are not wrong. If I had a dollar for every time I have been told “but your class is hard.” I could take a really nice vacation at some point. Standards and making a person work does not make it hard, it makes it labor intensive. There is nothing hard about thinking, it is merely something someone does or should do. In spite of having labor intensive courses, I am also told they have learned or thought more than ever before. I think that is why they pay the money they do, to be challenged and to leave as someone who is competent at what they should have learned. As I have noted at other times, I both expect and give a lot.

When I look back at my time as an undergraduate at Dana, as noted in my last blog, I sat at the feet of brilliance. I also sat at the feet of professors who demanded, but generally in a grace-filled manner, our best. I remember sitting in the larger third floor room in Pioneer Memorial and taking the freshman essay writing exam. You had to pass two of three writing exams to pass freshman composition regardless what you did during the semester. When I tell my students if you had more than a couple of errors per page (and I think it was actually only one) the writing was deemed unacceptable, they tell me that is ridiculous. Oh my goodness, standards and expectations! Our world is full of them.  I can tell you that it prompted us to do our best work, even in stressful circumstances. I remember a person falling asleep in the hum lecture during art slides (imagine that??) in the large lecture hall in the Dana Hall of Science and Jim Olsen telling us all to get up quietly and leave and we all left the student there. Imagine his shock. I remember the expectations of King Rich as he would smile in his gracious and eloquent way and say, “How wonderful.”, but you knew you had better do your work and do it well. It mattered not the class, from LARP to humanities, from New Testament to German, from the Pope’s Christian Thought class to Dr. Stone’s A&P, each and every professor I had gave their all in our classes and expected us to do the same. I am not sure I ever remember a class cancelled because the professor was ill. While I know that the humanities sequence was the bane of many a student’s life, it was, is, and will forever be the class that helped me be a scholar. Adrienne Rich. the feminist poet, addressed the graduates at Rutgers University some years ago and asked what it meant to “claim an education.” She noted that your tuition is not a guarantee of being admitted to the scholarly community that is there (this is a paraphrase of her words).  The way such a group of professors worked together to help us actually understand the world in which we lived was a novel approach. They were creating scholars and I cannot thank them enough. I cannot even imagine that happening today, unfortunately. Not that we do not want our students to be scholars, but the interdisciplinary nature of that one class would be difficult to replicate in today’s academy. They worked in concert to help us understand the connectedness, the complexity, and the awe of the world we had inherited from those before us. The importance of the liberal arts has waxed and waned throughout the ages, but a recent study showed that the long-term mobility, increased satisfaction, and even the monetary gain of those with the liberal arts degree outpaces that of IT or STEM graduates (Weise, Hanson, and Sentz, January 2019). Too often I think many who think more conservatively, find liberal, even when it refers to arts, is a suspect work to be viewed with disdain and suspicion. I have often wanted to created a bumper stick that says: Liberal, Christian, and Patriotic and see how confounded people might be. If connecting things and understanding that thinking and analyzing is a product of some liberal indoctrination, what does that say about being conservative. I believe college or university is about teaching people to think in general and come to their own conclusions. I actually like having students who disagree with me in class because if forces me to consider things more thoughtfully and find a way to understand why I might have the view I do. Teaching people to think beyond what they know is essential to creativity; it is essential to becoming a productive person.

One of the students for whom I have the most appreciation in the time I have been at Bloomsburg is a student who comes from a very conservative area in Pennsylvania. The student is from their own words (paraphrased more appropriately than written) was a person who was willing to tell people with whom they disagreed where to get off and how to get there. In addition, the person did all the things and played all the roles of the dutiful offspring in spite of their own internal struggle. They struggled to accept the views and actions of those around them while one part of them was in anguish. During the various times they ended up in my class as a professional writing minor, they began to learn to lean on their own inner-voice to come to terms with their sexuality, the struggle that belief held, and what they needed to do to be happy with who they were and are. This coming out was not easy initially and it is not easy for them even now, but when they graduated, they presented me with a certificate for being the person that allowed them to feel supported in their journey. I still chat with them often and they know they are welcome in my house at anytime. Yes, even as a former Lutheran pastor, which would for some seem in-congruent  I am proud of that certificate more than perhaps anything I have been given in my decade here at Bloomsburg. I did not indoctrinate or convince them to be or say anything, I merely accepted them for who they were and walked and listened as they proceeded through their journey of figuring it out. I remember being asked to speak at that event and I noted how my sister (one of three full or half siblings who are gay or lesbian) would be astounded at how far we have come in acceptance of and going beyond the idea of binary sexuality. In my sister’s case, that lack of acceptance contributed to what would result in her mental illness and premature death. Some of my more conservative friends would say that I am going against the Bible; they would say this is an abomination. One of our major denominations is struggling with this very issue as I write this. I am continually saddened by those who believe they can play God and know how God will judge better than God does. I had that very conversation with my father about my sister when he struggled with what he believed would happen to my sister in terms of salvation. Certainly there is more that can be written here, but my point is through both my college and seminary education, I have found that God is more compassionate than we are. At least I hope so.

It is difficult when sons and daughters move beyond their parents’ positions or understandings of the world in which we live, but I believe that is what is supposed to happen. If parents have done their jobs well, they work themselves out of a job. Again, that is what Dana and beyond taught me. The professors I had at Dana were profoundly faithful and good people, but they were also intelligent and driven to share what I think Luther understood as vocation. Does the work you do make a difference in the world and may the lives of other people better? If you go about your work in this manner than it is never merely a job, it is a vocation. Again, a word that is often maligned. If someone goes to a vocational high school today it is because they are not as smart or capable. I hear this regularly. I only went to vo-tech. People who go to Penn College of Technology are sometimes thought to be less intelligent or capable, but I can tell you that the beauty and comfort of my home is the product of some of their work. They are more intelligent and capable in those areas than I could ever hope to be. I am not sure where I learned to be as open to possibility as I am. I know that not all of it came from my own upbringing, and that is not to speak ill of my blue collar background. Those who have read my blog with any consistency will know that. Perhaps where I learned to be more open and accepting is because of that woman who served as a mother to me from about 18 months until I was almost 5.

I have written about my Grandmother Louise on numerous occasions in the past. I have referred to her as my hero, her home as the one place I remember happiness and safety. I have noted the similarity between her and Lydia at times, or the fact that some of the things in my own home today are connected to that early childhood home and memories of that place (sometimes consciously, but more often unconsciously). I think much of my acceptance and attempts to be gracious and giving come from her. Education is about giving and teaching. It is about offering insight and allowing the student to take it and figure it out. It is allowing them to become adults and citizens. That is what Dana did for me. That is what I try to do for my students now. If I can be half the professor those in Blair were to me, then Dana’s legacy does continue to live. It is appropriate that I remember my Grandmother Louise today because it is the 107th anniversary of her birth. I still miss her and I wonder what she would think of where I have ended up. I love her beyond words. This was actually one of her favorite songs.

I think of her often when I hear songs by Bread or Simon and Garfunkel, and I can see her standing at her bakery table decorating cakes and listening to and singing along with the music on the radio. Indeed her legacy also lives in me.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

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