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 (https://firstname.lastname@example.org,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)