Half my Life; and In Four Weeks

Hello on a warm and humid afternoon.

Over the past few days, the humidity, the billowing, cotton ball clouds, and the sweltering temperatures remind me of my Midwestern roots or my summer working wheat harvest in Northern Texas, Oklahoma, or moving up through Kansas toward the eventual Canadian border. A 4:00 a.m. thunder explosion of about a half hour or last evening’s downpour are proof that summer is ready to commence. It is interesting how weather also has the ability to evoke memory. One of my most vivid weather memories growing up was around the age of 13-14 when we had tornados in my hometown. I was at a cast party following a community theatre performance when sirens, toppling trees, and torrential rain took out the electricity. While I remember the storm, what I remember more profoundly was the girl I was more than enamored with was stuck across town and did not make it to the party. I was beyond sad to put it mildly.

The past week has been a myriad of things. My former exchange student’s mother and younger sister are coming to visit, a visit that has been in the plans for almost a year. All the changes in the year and how that has affected the relationship with the student have been troublesome. Consequently, how everything will shake out is a bit unnerving, but it seems the parents, even a 12 year old sibling and I are on the same page generally. The change in a 17 year old will be something to experience in person. It will be an experience unlike anything I have done up to this point. It also precedes a second visit from a previous student and his family in July. I am excited for their visit as so much time has passed since COVID called Anton back to Denmark early. It will be a busy time. Then today I booked a flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will spend a week scouting things out and seeing what my first impressions of this southern county of Central America has. Everything I have heard is stunning, so again something new. The first of a number of steps to see what might happen in a year or so.

Last weekend I was blessed to attend the last service of an incredible person and organist. She is the person providing the first half of the blog title. She applied for the position of music director of the church I had just been installed in, and my senior pastor and I interviewed and together agreed she would be a wonderful fit for that congregation. That was half our lives ago as she and I are the same age (within two months of each other). Hard to believe it had been the same number of years since before she decided to retire. She had followed somewhat of an institution when she took the job and has more than become one herself. She was an amazing addition to the staff, and she has provided more of a steady hand to that parish than most will realize. I have been blessed to reacquaint with her after returning to Pennsylvania, and attending her retirement service was quite the walk down memory lane. I saw people whose wedding I officiated at. Relatives of people I baptized, and people who were on my call committee, members still in (or on – as they say there) the choir. Additionally I saw the majority of two families who made being the pastor their a joy. They have aged; things have changed, their children are already beyond high school and college, and yet one’s voice still gives me goosebumps and is as close to angelic as I have ever heard.

What I was reminded of is the faithfulness of people, something I have struggled with since leaving the clergy roster. I understand the need for order, for hierarchy, but it seems to often bureaucracy does more to damage one’s faith than assist or cultivate it. On the other hand, I still stand in awe of the profound effect clergy have on a parishioner’s faith journey. I realize how I failed in ways to manage that responsibility. I realize the truth of the words I said when I asked people to not put me in a pedestal. I noted that I could only fall off. And indeed I did. I still struggle to believe and certainly hope I was more of a faithful servant than I often times feel. I miss, at times, the preaching element, and I miss the sacramental role that does so much more to support one’s faith than often understood. I remember telling a bishop once that the best of the church was those individuals who faithfully attend worship, struggle to live faithful lives, and give of their time, talents, and yes, treasure (as it is referred to) supporting parish life and the congregation. Those earthly angels who do more to spread the gospel than those who have authority or take authority. Attending this service as well as attending services here are again part of my own faith journey, one which has been hiding, but is still nonetheless significant. I have, even as a pastor, not been one to wear-my-faith-on-my-sleeve. Faith has always been something profound and personal. I know my frailties and I know my failings. Yet, attending this retirement service reminded me of the profound faith that occurs through continual service to a congregation.

Additionally, this week was the final week of an intensive four week summer class, a class that is usually taught during a 15 week semester (including finals). Writing is not something someone can cram into one third the time and do it effectively. I believe it is a disservice to all involved, the student, the professor, and even the university, in spite of the tuition generated. Things that usually are covered over three weeks are shoveled into three days. There is no time to reflect or ponder; it is simply pushing things toward them and they are pushing it back. The grades are lower, and this is due to much more than a shortened time period. Students in general struggle to write proficiently for a myriad of reasons, from simple lack of skills when they enter college to the lack of writing across the disciplines or making writing more intentional through their curriculum. I know this statement will rile some, but studies and 30 years of experience demonstrate a pretty clear sense of what students know about writing, the importance of audience and purpose, and managing issues of syntax, grammar, citation, and the list can go on and on. Before you blame it on their phone, their texting, or other aspects, don’t. We simply do not teach writing consistently, continually, or perhaps most significant, saliently. The struggle to write well is at issue. Anyone can put words on a screen or on paper, but to so successfully, professionally, usably is more difficult. I feel a bit curmudgeonly, and, indeed, my provost told a student I was old school, but I care deeply about the writing process. Cramming 14 into 4 allows for little attention to process. Consequently the product is more often than not substandard. I also realize that students take an intensive writing course believing they can survive anything for 4 weeks. It is much less about improving skills and more about checking a box. This is, for me, where the disservice occurs. When classes are merely boxes to be checked off, the real purpose is educating, of mentoring, of supporting goes out the window. And yet, the course, while valuable and important is relegated to surviving something; it is like knowing you need a root canal. It is required, painful, but you will survive. The process goes against my teaching philosophy, but then there is the current reality that five different curriculums require this course and I am, at this moment, the only person teaching it. So . . . summer cram it is. Yea, I get paid, but I feel a bit guilty for that happens in this summer school practice.

Why might I reveal such a struggle? It is an ethical issue for me. I want students to succeed, but I believe what is taught in this class is not a course, it is a life-long skill. It is developing both insight and ability that provides students a foundation that will assist them throughout their lives. Short changing them because we can make a lot of money in the summer is wrong. So my struggle as I finish grading is that I have committed to presiding over a process that is untenable. It would not matter if I stayed awake for the entire month and tried to add more feedback, more information prior, or less work to make it easier for all. There are still objectives and assessment. There is still trying to provide even a modicum of help that will provide students something they will realize helpful down the road. I believe for maybe one or two, this might have been apparent, but even with dropping a major assignment, the work requirements were brutal on both sides. I am feeling a bit guilty that I could not do more. I am feeling disillusioned that we somehow believe 4 week classes are ethical. I care deeply about what I provide my students. I am feeling a bit like I failed them. I wish it was different. I do not want to become this.

Thanks 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.

One thought on “Half my Life; and In Four Weeks

  1. Dr. Martin,

    I’ll be the first to point out that I am not religious. I’m no Atheist, either. I just don’t feel the need to follow a prescribed God. Anyway, my point is this: I don’t think there’s any greater expression of faith than the funeral/memorial service. And even as someone who is ostensibly Godless, the outcry of faith, love, hope, and kindness which pours out of these events is found nowhere else in my life. These people are gathered to implore a Creator who they do not know exists, on behalf of someone who no longer exists in the same way they once did. They gather to pray that, whatever their loved one’s existence means now, that they will be happy. And that, one day, they will be reunited. I can think of no more noble cause. If only Religion was so simple.

    I have had similar experiences with the writing process. I was a lucky one. My high school teachers were simply amazing, and I learned an effective writing strategy that prepared me well for my future as a creative writer. I learned to take my time. To plan. To think— really think— about what I’m saying and, additionally, how best to say it with my available toolbox. I am saddened to hear that, once again, bureaucracy and “efficiency” has won out over real introspection, contemplation, and even art itself. With the eradication of several majors at Universities around the nation, I fear for a future when the public is educated only in the production of capital; not in the development of the self or their community. If it’s any consolation, a response like yours is a good indication that, despite how it may feel, you’re one of the good ones.

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