Failing at Something or Learning as a Process

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

Hello from my study,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

I am a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and the director of and Professional and Technical Writing minor, a 24 credit certificate for non-degree seeking people, and now a concentration in Professional Writing and Digital Rhetoric. We work closely to move students into a 4+1 Masters Program with Instructional Technology. I love my work and I am content with what life has handed me. I merely try to make a difference for others by what I share, write, or ponder through my words.

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