I am Haunted by Humans

Hello from Manassas, Virginia,

It has been an incredibly taxing year on all involved in higher education. From students to faculty, from staff to administrators, the consequence of the pandemic has been felt by all. While that is perhaps an obvious statement, what is not as obvious is the degree to which it has affected the world of academe. This is in no way meant to underestimate the difficulties of the rest of society, but rather to focus on the world where I spend the majority of my time. I know too well that some of my former classmates believe being a professor is an easy, part-time, no-accountability, proselytizing venture where I am paid to do as little work as possible. I can assure those in that camp that this past year, more than any in the time I have taught, has been more demanding and laborious. It has been more overwhelming and frustrating, and more of a learning experience than any of my previous years spent in the classroom (and ironically, I was not in a classroom the entire year). The best way to describe asynchronous, remote learning is as a time I was never scheduled to be in class and simultaneously, unless I was sleeping, never out of class. It was like having 75 independent studies or more each semester.

Am I glad I experienced it? Yes, I learned an incredible amount about myself as well as about my students. Do I want to do it ever again? That is an emphatic “hell no!” While I might have worked harder than I ever have, I can tell you I felt more ineffective, more like a failure than anytime I have taught. I can also tell you I got more trashed (taken to task) by students than ever before . . . and some of their complaints and concerns were valid (but they had little willingness, it seemed, to see the other side of what happened.) I should note that it was not every student. Most certainly, there were students profoundly understanding. Bottom line seems to be I certainly failed to do the best job ever done in classes, and that is in spite of the extraordinary time spent trying to manage this asynchronous world. Am I frustrated by that? Without a doubt. Why? Simply – I take a lot of pride in what I do, and I do believe I owe students the best I can give them. On the other hand, pedagogically, it was evident that asynchronous remote learning is not the best delivery method for some classes, and that is for a variety of reasons. However, the world of education (and this goes back to our public school systems for starters) seems content to treat students as customers. This is not something to which I willingly subscribe. I cannot be convinced such a plan is helpful. Can I do the checks and balances of tuition and fees as well as state or federal support that make a university education financially solvent? Yes, I probably can. Yet, if we only see our students as dollar signs or retention objects as the be-all, end-all of what we do, what does it mean to profess, to learn, to reflect, to become a scholar? When students become the consumer (e.g. the boss) of their classes, I become a substitute, the purveyor of information. I become a person whose worth or value is determined by someone who brain is not fully developed. I am evaluated by the whims and preferences of someone’s attitudes versus what they have actually done or learned.

I was told recently (and by someone for whom I have incredible respect) that I am too metacognitive and that my students do not want to be pushed in that manner. There are two struggles with that statement. First, I believe the person who told me this is undoubtedly correct (I always want to know the why about the why). And second, and perhaps more importantly, to believe that education is a recipe card or a rubric, which is what this implies. Such an understanding is foundationally wrong. As one of my undergrad colleagues (who is now a professor as I am) reminded me, our advisor, the late Dr. John W. Nielsen once quoted the three word phrase from the Upanishads, “”Tat tvam asi.” Or to put it another way, “the essence are (and this grammatical difficulty is intentional) you.” It is about reflection and understanding who we are as well as the what we are; it is about understanding the manifestation of ourselves and how we (or it) is part of something so much larger (and I would add also important). If we can only see our students as some dollar sign, as having their value determined by the tuition they generate, we lose sight of our role as educators. As noted, I am as well aware of the business aspect of our system as anyone, but I would like to believe that my argument is about more than some idealistic belief in being the professor.

Allow me to put it in a different context, view it from a different perspective. As noted more than once, I am that first generation college student. My parents did not pay for my education, nor did they plan to do so, and the reason for that was simple. They could not afford to do so. When I first went to Iowa State University, I flunked out. When I eventually ended up at Dana College, I was petrified I was not smart enough to be there, Fortunately, with hard work, some wonderful classmates, and an incredible faculty, I learned that I could do the necessary work. Yet, during my first year, I did not know how to learn. I knew well how to jump through hoops. The Marine Corps had taught me this if nothing else. I remember an Introduction to Business Management course. We had multiple choice, take-home, open-book exams. Those exams were written so intricately, that it would take three of us, each working diligently through the book together more than an hour to manage the 25 multiple choice questions. However, we did it (and after notating our exams with where we found our answers) we generally received an A on the exam. However, that was not, nor is it education. I can say with no reservation that I remember nothing from that class. It was actually through my Humanities sequence, I learned the concept of integration and synthesis. Those three semesters and my interim in Europe reflecting on the works of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Mann, my being in a cultural classroom 24/7 for a month with Dr. Nielsen compelled me to rethink everything. I finally understood what it meant to study or learn (theoretically, conceptually, and practically). It was soaking every drop up. It was looking beyond the obvious, and it was not by following a rubric or recipe card. The integration required to become a professional is not a dichotomous process, one separating classroom and experience. For too much of my schooling, especially back in own public school upbringing, we had two kinds of teachers. First, rote memorization was what we did. There was little difference from English to history, biology to geography. The difference was whether the teacher figured out how to keep me interested or made the process enjoyable. What that admission means is telling. We have been stymied by the process of learning most of our lives. We had (and perhaps still believe we need) to be mollified. I struggle when my students say, “I only want to read what I am interested in.” I balk at the idea that somehow I need to give them every element as if they are trained responders.

So what is the answer? I am not quite sure, but whatever it is, I am quite sure it is neither simple nor will some conceptual response manage it. Why? Because in the words of the feminist poet, Adrienne Rich, it is the students’ response-ability that matters. It is the agency we take as humans to be accountable, and through which we claim an education versus receive one. However, we are selfish. We want things on our own terms. As I write and ponder, I am intrigued by what it was our professors at Dana seemed to do so effortlessly, so seamlessly. If you speak with Dana alumni from education to science, from humanities to the arts, it seems there were outstanding faculty, those who inspired student to take charge of their education. That small college on the bluffs of the Missouri had already created the scholarly community Rich speaks of in her commencement address to Rutgers University (some 25 years later). This does not mean there were never shenanigans. What? No one ever drank on our dry campus, certainly not! Ha! I remember two characters on my floor when I was an RA, somehow believing that having half the campus on our floor and two 16 gallon kegs in their room would not be noticed. They were quite sad when I made them open the taps and pour the rest of the beer down the drain. I remember when one floor on campus decided to make a swimming pool out of the shower. When a faculty person’s daughter knocked the barrier down a flood ensued down the hallway, and, of course, they were not on the first floor. Oh, the memories. And yet we survived . . . all the time afforded an incredible education at that Danish Lutheran College. In spite of being known as the “Holy Dane” campus, there were certainly times when we put Luther’s quote of “if you are going to sin, sin boldly.” into action.

What does it mean to be educated? Yet again another difficult question, but at this point I believe it is about thinking, analyzing, and integrating. It is not memorization; it is not a recipe; it is, however, something different for each person. It is being honest with one’s self and knowing in their heart if they really did the best work possible. It is the wisdom of self reflection. I can still see Dr. Nielsen’s lecture on the “allegory of the cave.” As my floor-mate, and incredibly brilliant professor, Dr. Langholz noted, it is remembering the times we were pushed to ponder the complexities of our humanity by the likes of Drs. Nielsen and Jorgensen, be it philosophically or in light of our national history. Dana taught me to go beyond what was average. Dana taught be to listen and reflect, to ponder and imagine, to never be satisfied to merely complete an assignment. I miss that in some of my students. That is not to say all. I have some really good students; I have some who want to go beyond, but it is difficult for me when they merely want to know what to do without pondering the why they are doing it. For me, it is seldom enough to merely get something done. It is that very nature that is also sometimes to my own detriment. I realize I am seldom satisfied, even with my own work. I want it to be better. I want it to be more thorough; and I want it to be meaningful above all else. Perhaps that is why I am where I am.

In my last blog, I noted the passing of an incredible influence in my personal and academic development. Since that time, it has come to light that another classmate, and ironically a mutual traveler on that Interim trip also passed from our grasp. Lisa (Hansen) Madsen, who was a year ahead of me in terms of our time at Dana, passed, even more ironically, the same day as Dr. Nielsen. I note that because she was an incredibly kind and thoughtful person and an important part of our traveling group that winter term. I note it because her husband was my head resident and also a profoundly important part of my Dana experience. It is always stunning when we lose people we have known most of our lives. She had the most radiant smile and she brightened any room she entered. I am saddened beyond words to learn of her passing. Perhaps, in my own piety, she and Dr. Nielsen met at the gates and began yet another journey, this time as two humans beyond the grasp of our understanding.

Our lives are complex and more unpredictable than we often realize. Perhaps it my age; perhaps I am becoming the curmudgeonly Norman Thayer from the movie On Golden Pond. Perhaps I am realizing I have much less time left than what I have lived and I want to somehow make a difference. Sometimes I feel there is so much left to do. Sometimes I wish I knew what I knew now, except I had realized it half my life ago. As Markus Zusak wrote in his novel, The Book Thief, “I am haunted by humans.” I wonder about the reflection in the cave more often than not. As I post this, I cannot help but remember it was 48 years ago today I graduated as the first graduating class of West High School in Sioux City, Iowa. Amazing what I understood life to be then and now.

The glory days were well beyond then. Thanks 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.

3 thoughts on “I am Haunted by Humans

  1. Micheal I totally agree with you. This was my last year teaching and I too felt that I was not very effective using zoom as a teaching platform. Students need face time with instructors. The human element of education was missing.

  2. The pandemic was a tough time to learn. I have serious trouble learning when I am not in a class room every day asking questions and taking notes. The most difficult classes I have taken were the ones where there was no lecture and things were just posted online. I always had trouble finding the information I needed in these classes and spent a majority of my time waiting on an email. I never thought about how this impacted professors, I never knew that professors were receiving so much flak from their students.
    You used the term meta cognitive to describe the way you teach. This is to think about the way we think. I understand this but some students need to be told exactly what to do and when to do it. The issues I had faced in technical writing were that tasks always seemed so open ended and not having rubrics to guide me would mean I would set off on the wrong foot and be lost in the paper. Although I got lost and this made me think, sometimes it would feel like I did not know where to start. A lack of creativity is a huge problem I have, I think I should have taken some philosophy classes or something. I think I am too narrow minded to think about the way I think. That being said I think I definitely should think more about the way I think.

  3. Dr. Martin,

    The pandemic was a very difficult time for me and my family. When it came to school or our regular day jobs, it was not a fun time. I can understand why it might’ve felt like you weren’t helping your students as much as you would’ve wanted to but you definitely made an impact. Learning online has its ups and downs. For instance I was working more hours at my job because I didn’t have to go into school. I’m starting to appreciate online classes more because It feels like I’m given more time to study and do work for every class I have.
    What it means to be educated to me is how we perceive life. You can have all the degrees you want but does that really mean your knowledgeable in all aspects of life? Being educated to me is your experience and how you learn from those experiences. Through my academic career, I’m learning more of what it means to really comprehend what you take in. When you say you are not too satisfied with your work I can understand that because I too am never satisfied. Sometimes I just simply have to turn things in because the due date is already up. When I see or hear about professors that get backlash for just doing their job, that’s when I don’t appreciate what they have learned in life. We all have our hard times, professors don’t need to add to that stress.

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