Remembering an Incredible Professor

Hello on a Sunday evening,

I am fascinated by corresponding dates. My adoptive father and my second wife had the same birthday. Lydia’s birthday was the same day of the year my adoptive mother passed away. My great aunt passed on my sister’s birthday and was buried on my niece’s birthday. Yesterday was Anton’s birthday and it is the day my department lost an irreplaceable colleague. And as an addition, now his services will be on the birthday of my adoptive mother. Certainly, at some point we will search for another faculty member, but that is a replacement of a department position. I had often said if and when Terry Riley retires, we would realize all the things he did behind the scenes. To the complete shock of our entire department, he passed away early Saturday morning after a brief illness.

In spite of the fact he was on sabbatical, his black Nissan Frontier pickup occupied a parking spot in the Bakeless parking lot as he arrived at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. each morning (and that included weekends) where he occupied his sanctuary at the far end of the hall on the first floor. He worked diligently at his desk on the latest QualTrac data, the most recent scholarship on something about teaching that fascinated and inspired him, or he was intent on figuring out some new pedagogical possibility as he had delved into the world of online or distance class delivery. As I often came into the building early we would meet in the hallway and one of us would initiate, our morning greeting. As I am prone to do, I would inquire, “How are you?” His response was always the same, “Doin’ fine.” And he would mosey on in whatever direction he was going. When I had a question about the long-term history or typical practice that puzzled me, I would go to Terry. I always found him at the computer desk engrossed in whatever his present task was. I would request permission to come in and he was always gracious and invited me to sit. When he was speaking with or listening to you, there was a focus and intensity. Not one that made you uncomfortable, but rather one that assured you that he gave you his undivided attention. And as he listened, you knew he was pondering and thinking. The ambiance of his office is something to behold and it felt like you had just been granted an audience with the Holy Father.

Students adored him and he was a champion of and for them. His mind was always active and he continually looked at ways to prepare and support them both in the classroom and the life they would live beyond Bloomsburg. As a consummate teacher, he was unceasing in his desire to share his insight and wisdom with any and all who cared to listen. He was passionate, but never pushy; he was both grandfatherly, in the best way possible, but uncompromising with little patience for bullshit (and I use that word intentionally) because the few times I saw him angry, the piecing look through his rimless glasses was a look you did not wanted focused in your direction. Over the past decade I have worked with Terry as a committee member when he was the chair and also as the chair of a college committee where he came before that committee. He was always pleasant, but in a sort of perfunctory manner; he was goal oriented and again had little time for foolishness. He was completely and meticulously prepared and he anticipated most questions before one could ask them. I remember once at a university level committee meeting where another long-serving faculty person questioned the legitimacy of a proposal. That person was on the university committee and Terry was bring something forward. Dr. Riley carefully and successfully filleted at person without every easing his voice or sounding angry. He almost had a Bilbo Baggins quality that provided him the opportunity to annihilate you and you would thank him.

Terry’s indefatigable labor behind the scenes, from the union to assessment, from committee work to learning things to share with us, was something he did freely and quietly, but he supported the department and the college with every ounce of his being. As evidenced in what I have written, Terrance (his given name) was an extraordinary human being, but in my mind what made him most extraordinary was his humble and unflappable demeanor. He simply did his work. He was gracious, but tough in his own way. He was serious about what he did, but had a smile and wry sense of humor that could disarm the most cynical. He was a colleague’s colleague. The loss I feel is great, but I have colleagues that have worked with him much longer and those who have shared moments because of proximity, and their shock and loss is legions beyond mine. I am not sure he knows how much he was loved by those of us fortunate to share in his department. I once said to him, “Mark is the Assistant Chair and Tina is the Chair, but you are the Dean of the Department.” He smiled and responded in his knowing tone, ” I am glad you understand that.” When I first interviewed at Bloom he called me into his office and asked to chat. He told me that he was pleased I had a liberal arts background. He asked my colleague why they did not interview me sooner. That vote of confidence from him meant more to me than he ever knew. I am blessed that I have lived in the presence of a Renaissance person these past 10 years. I hope we will continue to shine for so many the way he did. I will miss our morning greeting, sir. In this week of Thanksgiving, I give thanks for you. I have used this video before, but in many ways Terry was a fatherly figure to all of us.

Thanks for reading as always,

Dr. Martin

Trying to Make Sense of Our Illogical World

Hello after a quick trip to Cape Charles and “Life on the Half Shell” and now weeks beyond,

It is the end of the Bloomburg Fair week and Anton has had the week off of school. He has become a fair aficionado, but I guess that is something he can always take back to Denmark. It is quite amazing to me that we have finished 5 weeks of classes already and in a day or so, Anton has been here a month. The reality and accuracy of my father’s words are once again ringing in my ears. If you think time is going faster, you have no idea of what it will be when you are my age . . . and he was about the age I currently am. He is accurate that it surely seems to go by more quickly, and what I thought being he was so old when he offered those pearls of wisdom, as he was so apt to do, does not seem so old. Anton has learned an important lesson about the conservative nature of rural Pennsylvania this past week (albeit a bit surprising in terms of the degree of cluelessness of the pettifoggers he was subjected to). While walking around the fair, some of his CC classmates decided to inquire if he were Democrat or Republican. He wisely, and accurately responded, “I am Danish.” Unfazed by such an answer, they inquired a second time, “Yes, but are you Democrat or Republican?” He again tried to help them understand,  “I am Danish, and we do not have the same political system as you have here in the states.” This mystified our budding conservative politicians, and so they once again asked, “But are you a Republican?” He noted, as he recounted the episode, that he realized as a visitor to the states he did not want to argue or create a problem so he simply tried to explain Danish politics. When he noted that Denmark is a country of Democratic Socialism, our young Central Pennsylvania Republicans decided attacking him as a socialist was the thing to do. He recounted that for the next hour they decided it was their job to convert our Danish visitor to the incredibly wonderful ideals of our current Republican party. Again, Anton noted, he did not want to create difficulties, so he listened and listened, and listened . . . and got a painful lesson in the current state of American politics. To be fair to his classmates, I am not surprised they did not understand him, I am not sure that many adults would. More importantly, I learned how astute and thoughtful, how polite and intelligent my Danish, surrogate-son-for-a-year is. Anton notes regularly that he realizes that Denmark is a small country and most people do not really understand where he is from. Part of the reason I chose Denmark as a possibility was because I have been to Denmark, because I attended Dana College, and because I have a Scandinavian heritage (Norwegian, but still Scandinavian).

Since I last blogged, which was a blog that took more than a month to complete, about half that time has passed, but it seems that my life has been consumed by school and a 16 year old. Having Anton there to keep me in line has been a busy and rewarding time. He forces me to consider something besides work, and that is not a bad thing. Another difference is that I have been required, in a way mandated, to be more efficient and effective. I know this next week will push me to see how well I have started to integrate those differences as I have a ton of grading and commenting to do, an office to move again (because of a moisture and mold issue) and simply managing all the other things that are life. My alarm now goes off at 5:45 a.m. and breakfast is on the table at 6:15 a.m. One of the unexpected side effects is that I am also eating a healthy breakfast in the morning and it seems to keep my day on track and my mornings more positive. Managing things around the house, I find myself more focused and much more organized. Some things need to happen yet this weekend, but all in all, there is a sort of two thumbs-up atmosphere around the acre. Undoubtedly, I am relearning the need to prioritize and as I write this I am finding I can do this. During the first weeks that Anton has graced my home and me with his presence, I have learned so much. Anton demonstrates an incredible intelligence and insight, but he does it with a sense of inquisitiveness and grace. His smile is affable and his willingness to help is always present. One of the things I find most enjoyable is Anton’s ability to wonder about things. He understands the world and business in ways that belie his age (of almost 17). Then there is other part of being that age and male, or so it seems in my conversations with others. I can ask things and he is so cooperative, but then he seems to completely forget there was any conversation pertaining to said issue. As I have spoken with colleagues and even the parents of his friends, I am finding he is completely normal.

I am trying to remember if I was like that. If so . . . to my parents, I am so sorry. No wonder you might have been exasperated at times. I believe it probably more true of my time than I would like to admit. I know if my grandmother wanted it I was pretty attentive, but otherwise, I was a bit remiss in my work ethic. The other night we had a conversation and I heard again the interrogative, why are you so logical about things? I do not know that I was always that way, but the more I think of it, perhaps it has always been the case. I remember as a small child trying to make sense of what it meant to be adopted and wondering why I was told some of the things I was. I remember asking more than simply why about something. I have this insatiable need to understand. I am not sure how that developed or from where it came, but it has continued even until today. I am always asking why something is not possible. I know for some of my supervisors or for some in the administration, I create some consternation from time to time. Yet, that is not my intention; rather I am trying to see how we can get things accomplished more effectively or efficiently. I am trying to understand why so many are content to not really understand the why or the possibilities. During the fall, my students have made Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities real-life for me. They are the best and the worst of times, or so it seems. I think what amazes me most is how they react to the need to put in more effort, to think more critically, or merely even to do their work and follow directions. Yesterday it was something as simple as please cut up your paper in paragraphs and put it into an envelop and bring it to class. There was a method to putting it in an envelop and not having their peers see the paper in advance, but I ended up getting 9 additional envelops for one of my sections. From time to time this semester, be it at school or in the daily news, I find myself struggling to make sense of the things that seem to happen on a regular basis. Have we become so insensitive, so narcissistic, so selfish that we cannot begin to imagine the needs or perspective of the other?

Over the last couple weeks I have been a bit obsessed with either grading or reading (and making breakfast and dinner for a 16 year old). I have four books all looking at the rhetoric of racism  . . .  or the history and the rhetoric we use to further the racial tendencies that most of us refuse to acknowledge. When I raised the possibility of white privilege the other day, the response or look from some made it hard to ignore that some believe we are in a time of what some might call reverse discrimination. What I find interesting is they are not mutually exclusive, at least in my mind. I believe there is truth to the issues of age, gender, or religious discrimination. I believe there is also white privilege at the same time. I can both benefit and be harmed by the reality of what happens in our country. What I have found as I have aged is I am much more attuned to the hardships that others face through no fault of their own. When I see a black or brown student being viewed as suspect merely because of their color in a store it hurts me. When I see a person struggle because they are an American citizen, but they are bilingual because of their background and, in spite of their hard work still struggle with their language skills, I am embarrassed that we do so little to support them in their working to achieve their own American dream. I remember my great-aunt saying her prayers in Norwegian when I was small. I remember listening to other languages from my predecessor generational relatives because they were bilingual. Perhaps I did not know they struggled, but it seemed we were much more gracious then. I know there was discrimination, but I was taught to be tolerant. And contrary to your thoughts that I might have been the product of an academic/liberal upbringing, I was a blue collar kid from NW Iowa. I grew up in one of the poorer sections of town, at least economically more depressed than some because I did not live north of 18th Street; I did not live in Morningside, the Northside, or Indian Hills as it was called. I did not live in the Country Club area, but what I know is I had stability and amazing friends. I grew up with a family where my father worked 7/12s and often 8 hours away and I saw him perhaps 36 hours very six weeks or so for three or four years. Nevertheless, I grew up working part-time jobs when I turned 16 and I was not given everything I wanted.

Perhaps what I realize again is my father was also a logical person. You did what was necessary to make it work and you treated others as you wanted to be treated. My father believed in a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. He told me more than once there are no free lunches in the world and he worked hard. I think I have acquired those traits from him. As I listen to the people who occupy the inner sanctum of Washington, those inside the beltway, I find myself more and more appalled by their behavior and the rancor and vitriol that seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I believe they perhaps epitomize the selfishness and narcissism I referred to earlier. There is nothing logical about the way they behave. What is logical would be our decision to throw them out with the implementation of term-limits. This is not the first time I have argued this, and it will probably not be the last. Well, I could go on, but I have worked on this post for far too long without its completion, so I will leave you with this as we are headed into Halloween, which is also the anniversary of the reformation and Luther’s posting of the 95 thesis on the castle door at Wittenburg. What if we could come together like this video? Is it logical, perhaps not, but it should be.

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

 

Gratefulness 40 Years in the Making

Cześć w chłodniejszy poranek z Krakowa,

What I have said is “hello on a cooler morning” from the sort of intellectual capital of Poland, the former capitol city, Kraków. It is actually by 7th time to this city of a little over a million people. With sites like Wawel Castle, the picture at the top of this post, Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of the city, Oskar Schindler’s factory and the second oldest university in Central Eastern Europe, each day is a living, walking-tour through 8 centuries of history (or more), but the importance of Kraków as a trading, political, and religious hub begins in the 13th century. Each time I return, I am amazed by some source of beauty and what seems to be of significance that I might have missed on a previous visit. My trip to Kraków comes on the heels of 5 days in Moscow, a first time for me to be in Russia, and before I begin another Polish language immersion for 7 weeks. In 1980/81 I traveled to Europe for the first time, allowed the opportunity by the yearly interim travels of Dr. John W. Nielsen, and the generosity of Harold and Dorothy Wright, who unexpectedly and through no deserving on my part, paid my way to participate on that class, appropriately titled “Auguries of Loneliness.” There was so much to learn on that trip and part of it was health things, which I now know were a precursor to what has happened since.

That trip was more than merely reading Hemingway and Mann for me; it was infinitely more than traveling to places I had only observed or pondered in our Humanities art or religion lectures. It was a life-altering experience; it was an awakening to learning how to learn. It was a realization that America, in its youthful arrogance, was much more a product of millenniums of progress than we might care to admit. From sitting in a pub with a shot of aquavit and an elephant beer to walking through St. Peter’s Basilica, from listening to the music of Buxtehude, the Danish/German organist at the Cathedral in Lûbeck, to tromping through the snow in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, my life was going through a daily transformation that provided an astounding foundation for the person I am today. When I went to Europe as a sophomore student at Dana, I was not a typical sophomore, I was 25 years old and I had already spent time in the Marine Corps. As I have previously noted, if it had not been for a couple other veteran students (Mike Keenan first comes to mind because we both ended up on 4 North Holling as freshmen), I am not quite sure how that first year might have gone. Yet, as a person beyond the typical college age, there was so much to learn both intellectually and academically (and they are not the same), but I did not realize what that even meant at the time. It was more than memorizing and then regurgitating what I had studied. It was so much more about synthesis and integration and understanding that we are products of our historical and cultural background. That is what professors like Drs. Nielsen (all three of them), Olsen, Brandes, Bansen, Jorgensen, or Stone would teach me. That is what Hum events, a student church council, and choir tours would engrain in me.

This summer I am back to Kraków for yet another visit. While more of them have been in the role of the Pope and bringing students, this one is again (for a second summer) about being a student and taking a Polish language immersion class. It is about preparing for an event that is still more than a year away. I have been invited to teach technical writing at the School of Polish Language and Culture at Jagiellonian University. The university is the second oldest in Eastern/Central Europe and the alma mater of Nikolas Kopernikus (Polish spelling), and Pope John Paul II. It is overwhelming to consider that I am walking in the same hallways as such people and being offered the opportunity to teach in the spaces. I am reminded in a world that has become increasingly nationalistic that the faculty of this university were all imprisoned when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The Jewish Quarter in this town is next to Oskar Schindler’s factory, and the town of Oświęcim is nearby (you know it by it more infamous German name: Auschwitz). After education, travel and cultural immersion are, I believe, the best way to spend one’s money.  Through the immersion of being in that place, the cultural experiences and learning the language of the other helps one begins to understand how they think and what they value. That realization came from sitting in Bodil Johnson’s German class for me. It came from the struggles I remember in Dr. Delvin Hutton’s Greek course.

I remember the day I received a message that Dorothy Wright wished to speak to me in Parnassus. I walked from Holling to PM and trudged up the to the second floor late afternoon on a rather blustery fall day. Dorothy pulled me aside to sit at one of the tables and told me she had known my grandmother. If you have read this blog with any frequency, and one post just recently, you know that my grandmother was (and is) my hero. Dorothy and she were acquainted somehow (I think Eastern Star). She inquired about my going to Europe with Dr. Nielsen for interim. I had attended the interest meetings, but because I was paying my own way through college, there was no way I could afford the $1,500.00 the trip would cost. When I informed her that I had decided not to go, she asked if finances were an issue. I told her (somewhat lying) that it was one of the issues. In reality it WAS the issue. Then she informed me that she and her husband, Harold, were willing to pay my way. I was dumbfounded. I asked her if I could think about it for a day. She said, “Certainly.” And I was allowed to go. I do not think my feet touched the ground all the way back to Holling Hall. The Wright’s generosity changed my life. Through that interim class of 1980-81, both the places and some of the people, I was transformed into a person who wanted to be a sponge and learn everything I could. I have often noted that trip is what encouraged me to believe I could eventually go on an get a PhD and (want to) become a professor. This past year, through the generosity of yet another amazing woman, I was able to endow two travel abroad scholarship funds where I presently teach. One is in the name of that latest benefactor and the other is in honor of Harold and Dorothy Wright.

I was in Blair one day in early June for only a few hours. I did stop to see Dorothy, who is still alive and quite well. I wanted to thank her in person for what she had done for me almost 40 years ago. We, as Dana alumni, speak regularly about what was (and is) called the Dana Difference. Harold and Dorothy Wright are a prime example of that difference. They reached out to a young man who was not a typical student, but who was, much like many others, trying to figure it all out. If it were not for an incredibly brilliant man, who began at Dana and obtained his PhD from Oxford, and his willingness to do all the tedious and laborious work to arrange such interims, 100s of students would be less culturally aware than they are. Dr. Nielsen’s insatiable passion for teaching others both in the typical and the global classroom is still affecting me. He set the bar high for those who want to emulate what he did. There is a bit of an irony that 46 years ago to the day as I write this, I was taking my first plane ride to MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot) in San Diego, California. Certainly my time in the Marines would shape many of the attitudes and practices I still hold today. However, there have been so many plane trips since then. Dr. Nielsen took me on my first trip to Europe. This trip is my thirteenth, and has included five days in Moscow to visit the Russian student I had in class this past year. While it was only a layover, I was also in Finland for the first time. Beginning next week, I will be taking Polish (a second immersion class) 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 6 weeks. The plan is to do the same next summer. While I will teach the fall of 2020 in English, I want to be able to communicate on a normal level with my students in Polish.

Slavic languages are inflection languages meaning that the endings of the words are changed to reflect how the word is being used in the sentence (a quick example in Polish is the word for cheese. Ser is the word for cheese, but to denote something with cheese it would be serem). It has not been difficult to understand the grammar for me, but there are seven cases instead of four and there are sounds that our English-speaking mouths are not used to creating. There are also sounds that my 60+ year old ears have some difficulty ascertaining. That is part of the fun. While I can say simple things from my first foray into the language, it is my hope that the summer course will create a more profound foundation usage of this language, one that overlaps Czech, Slovak, Russian, and Ukrainian. Grammatically there is a lot of similarity, but the Latin versus the Cyrillic alphabet creates an additional learning curve. I am also grateful to my Bloomsburg colleague, Dr. Mykola Polyhua, who has been so gracious in creating the foundations and relationships I now have here. Gratefulness is not something that occurs once and disappears. It is something that becomes part of who we are. It changes us, and allows us to hopefully change the lives of others. What I know as I am into my 60s is I have learned so much, and yet there is still so much to learn. I was thinking about it as I walked the streets of what is called Stare Miasto (Old Town) today. If all goes according to plan I will turn 65 when I am in Poland next year for a six month trip of more language and teaching. Some ask me when I am going to retire. It is one of the questions I guess people feel compelled to ask as they see my white whiskers and grey hair. I have no plans, at least presently, to do so. I am so blessed to be able to do what I do and love doing it. Again, the very fact that I can say any of that is because of Harold and Dorothy. Their generosity changed my life. I had no idea that a requested meeting in Parnassus would be so life-changing, but it has been exactly that . . . and for that I am grateful beyond words. As I work at the table in my little Air BnB, I am still astounded by the fact that I am able to be 4,400 miles from my home doing what I love to do and having a job that allows and encourages me to do so. Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where I teach and direct a Professional and Technical Writing program, has been so supportive of my work and continues to be so. It is yet another place to which and whom I am grateful. I feel undeserving of such blessings, but somehow, I have been blessed beyond measure. I hope to be half as much a blessing to others. My thoughts about a sort of paying it forward as they say. Somehow this song came to mind.

Thank you always for reading.

Dr. Michael Martin

 

A Wonderful Job and Some Amazing Students

Hello from my little office on the acre.

Many times it seems we have a tendency to only verbalize the negativity we see and feel. I am not sure if it some makes us feel better or if we believe people will somehow feel sorry for us, but I think we are profoundly mistaken on both accounts. I am guilty of this at times also, but I think I generally try to find the positive in most everything I do and in most things I experience. I have a smart ass saying (those of you who know me have undoubtedly heard me say this at times). I believe all learning is positive; when it goes well it is positive; when is sucks, I am positive I do not want to do it again. So there you have it. When I was a seminary student, we were required to do a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and, of course, we were required to take a number of pastoral care and counseling classes. When someone had just finished their upper level pastoral care and counseling course or had finished a unit of CPE, you would hear some specific phrases (known as active listening responses) come out of their mouths (e.g. It seems I heard you say . . .  or did I understand you to say . . .  or when you said this, _________) and we would respond in our best pastoral voices, “Shut the F up!” There you have it: pastoral care at its finest. While that is all true, what it helped us all realize is that we are not really good listeners. Another acronym we came up with, particularly after a really difficult day in clinical or perhaps after failing a Greek or Hebrew exam was that was another AFGE . . . . which stood for Another F-ing Growing Experience, and certainly life is full of those. I smile as I think back on those times because I was fortunate to have some of the most outstanding seminary classmates: Tim Christensen, Karsten Nelson, Steven Blenkush, Kathy Vitalis Hoffman, Tim Quarberg and Sandy Van Zyl, Sue Volden Gunderson, Wilbur and Deborah Holz, and the list could go on. To this day, 30 years later, I am blessed by their presence in my life. Some certainly more than others, but I am still in touch with them. I am amazed that it was 30 years ago (plus a few months) that I found my way to Pennsylvania the first time. It was a bit of a shock for this Midwestern boy, and a much greater shock to my former wife. Being a pastor’s wife was not quite what was expected and I certainly did not always do the best job of being a husband when I was trying to balance being a clergy person to the 3rd largest Lutheran church in the NEPS and being a husband. I had a lot to learn.

It is hard to fathom that I have been back here, but this time in Northcentral Pennsylvania for almost 9 1/2 years. It is the longest I have lived in one place since I graduated from high school. When I left Pennsylvania in 1992, I was pretty sure I would never come back to the Keystone State, not I am not quite sure I will ever leave. Not that this is a bad thing, but it is certainly not where I expected my life to go. However, I am here at Bloomsburg for that long, and I must say it has been the most amazing and wonderful experience of my life – and I think I can say that both personally and professionally. That has been a pleasant surprise. It has also taken some hard work, but anything worth holding on to is worth working for. Sounds too cliché, but it is certainly true in this case. When I came to Bloomsburg the summer of 2009, I was excited and petrified. I was also feeling tremendously guilty for leaving the little tornado in Menomonie. The move was precipitated by both my inexperience as a tenure track professor and a dean who had decided I was the bane of his existence. Nonetheless, because of a wonderful previous Stout colleague, who would become a present colleague, and even more astounding friend, I was given a new lease on my academic career. While there have been moments of doubt and frustration, the overwhelming feeling I have had since coming to Bloomsburg is simply to be blessed. The department is full of incredibly talented and thoughtful people. They are both strong in the classroom, but there are some prodigious scholars in their particular fields, from Renaissance Literature to a Writing Center and from American Literature to Creative Writing. I still feel like a duck out of water sometimes with my Professional Writing and Rhetorical background, but there has been progress. On the larger scale, I have been involved in committees from the department to the college to the university level. I have learned so much and been fortunate to be exposed to so many remarkable scholars across the university. In my work with the union, I have been put in situations where I am asked to look at issues of labor and fairness and learned the complexity of people’s lives. Every day there is something new to consider and ponder . . .  and yet that is not even what I do most of the time.

As with any faculty person at a comprehensive university, the great majority of my time is spent in the classroom, preparing for the classroom, or grading what comes out of the classroom. Yet still there is more . . .  there is advisement, there is more counseling that one might think as a student struggles to figure out more often than not why they are in college in the first place. I am not sure we have done this generation of students much good by insisting that college is the only way to become a happy, successful person. There are some people who either are not ready for college at 18 or others who should consider other options. Many of the students, however, are merely trying to understand and do the best they know how. Most of my students are good people. Most of them feel an almost staggering level of pressure to perform well . . . and understandably so when someone somewhere is ponying up 100K for their undergraduate degree. That is a breathtaking amount of money for a possible piece of paper that might find them a job. Yes, you read that correctly. There is no guarantee. Yet, they come, much like the mantra in the movie, Field of Dreams.

This semester I have five preps and five sections. That is an overload in more ways than one, but the classes are not full, so overall, it is pretty manageable, and two of the classes are distance, which is an entirely different experience. Much more could be said about that, but there is a time and place for those classes and my Technical Writing class this semester is such a time and place as I have primarily nursing students who are in clinical two days a week for most of the day and beyond and then have a full class schedule besides. This semester, even though we are only into the third week, I have been really pleased with the level of engagement and commitment of the students across the board. It has been one of the best semesters I have experienced in that way. Many of the students are “claiming their education,” which is a foundational article I have them all read. I thought about discarding it because I have been using it for a while, but I hear again and again how it makes students rethink their educational process, which is the intent. So for now, it stays as a required reading. The nicer thing of having a few less students this semester is that I have been able to write more thoughtful and insightful response to their blogs and I hope to do the same with the work they will be turning in.

During the Winter Term, I wrote pretty copious comments on their work for my distance technical writing course and people were please with what they heard and what happened in the class. I have found it you will take the time to let students know you are really paying attention to their work, even when you raise the bar, they will generally rise to the occasion. I was able to do that well, while at the same time traveling around Poland, Italy, and Spain. It was really rather enjoyable. I would get up in the morning and have things commented on before they were up. Then when they looked at things there was usually something there on a daily basis. It worked well. Students are complex people, no different than their professors. We have lives outside the classroom also. The difference is that we are supposedly better as we grow older of balancing things. That is not always true. Furthermore, if we think about it logically, when they do not do something, they affect themselves, perhaps a group from time to time, and then there is some disappointment I imagine from the people who have sent them to college, hoping against hope, they will succeed. When we fall on our noses, which does happen at times, we affect 50, 70, 150, 250 people. Failure to answer an email or grade something in a timely manner is much more overwhelming and disconcerting for our students than we sometimes realize.

What I know from just three weeks into the semester, I have been blessed with some extraordinary students this semester, but that is not a one time thing. I have some magnificent students every semester. I have had wonderful students, whose ethnic background is Columbia and speak English as a second language. I have had a student who is has now earned a doctorate in pharmacy, and is Egyptian and Sudanese. I have been blessed with students from rural Pennsylvania with graduating classes of 50, and they come and work hard and conscientiously hoping to make a difference. I have been blessed to travel to Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, who are studying political science, nursing, biology, business or Russian and they grow up so much in the three weeks they travel. I am blessed to have had students from Spain, Greece, Sudan, Russia, and other countries and I feel sometimes they teach me more than I could ever teach them. I had no idea when I was growing up that I would become a college professor. In fact, I do not think such a thought even crossed my mind until I was in my early thirties. Then when I realized that was where I might actually go, I was probably as petrified as I noted at the beginning of this post. I was not smart enough to be a college professor. At least that is how I saw it. Now I lay awake at night and wonder about why rest is a verb most often even though we call it a noun. I wonder why we cannot do some things that would make life so much easier. I wonder what I can do to merely be better tomorrow than I was today. Why? Because my students deserve that sort of pondering. I am so extraordinarily blessed to be at Bloomsburg in a department of phenomenal colleagues and in classrooms with curious and fundamentally good students. Here is my idea about all of that. I am always trying to imagine things, so in an appropriate way, in spite of the fact I have used it before, I offer this (it is however a re-mastered video from their collection).

I hope you enjoyed pondering and thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin

Unexpected Travel

Hello from the Capitol of Canada,

In spite of many travels, and a couple of previous journeys to what I have referred to as “East Detroit,” more accurately called Windsor, I have never really been to Canada. However, on a cold winter night, that seems somewhat reminiscent of a Wisconsin or Minnesota January, I am in Ottawa to help judge the CFA tournament being held over the next two days. My suitcase had little time to collect any dust, even though it was a wee bit chilly when I reclaimed it from the attic steps last evening. We are staying at a Fairmont Hotel, which is stunningly beautiful. We had three different universities represented on the bus, and one student had also just returned from the Poland winter trip, so talking a bit about our Central/Eastern European experience was enjoyable. It is interesting to listen to a student perspective on an event, especially something that lasted almost a month and covered almost 15,000 miles.

The bus trip today was pretty basic today, though we had two drivers. This necessity was because one of the drivers did not possess a passport, so entry into Canada was not an option. I know from past experience, both sides of the border have gotten more intense about their border security and I am quite sure the Americans would probably be the tougher of the two sides. Nevertheless, we arrived at our accommodations for the tournament and I was pretty stunned by the beautiful castle that appeared in front of us. The Fairmont Chateau Laurier was unlike anyplace I have ever stayed anywhere in all my travels. The picture above is one I took walking back from Friday night’s dinner. While in Ottawa we had the opportunity to visit and tour the Parliament Complex. It was beyond words in terms of beauty and the majestic aura that enveloped is as we walked the vaulted halls to the Senate Chamber or the Library of Parliament. The reverence that was shown by the people touring was also impressive. One think I could not help but notice, whether it was during our trip in Canada or throughout Central/Eastern Europe, how people stood on corners an obeyed the walk/do not walk signals. Seldom, more likely almost never did someone walk without the appropriate signal. Certainly in Bloomsburg and most anywhere I go in this country, people do what they want with little regard to what is proper or with minimal respect for what is deemed reasonable. I see it in terms of which side of the steps people walk on, which door they will exit. And heaven forbid you look at them questioningly. They will look at you like how dare you judge their actions. A couple of years ago I was walking on a campus sidewalk and a group was coming toward me. They were spread across the entire walk and all on their phones.i moved as far to the right as possible, but it was soon evident that I was going to get run into. So I stopped and stood motionless. When the young man realized he about to run into someone, he looked led up from his phone and stared at me. I merely stared back. He walked around, but muttered that I should get the fuck out of the way. My response to that was not vulgar, but I let him know that his lack of respect was neither reasonable or would it be tolerated. I asked his name and told him that I had no problem turning him into the Dean of Students. The group looked at me like I was the unreasonable or disrespectful one. One thing that continually boggles me is the growing lack of decorum that continues to become the norm rather than the exception in our society.

We are taught please and thank you from very early and I believe there are certainly few parents that would be prone to encourage disrespect in their sons or daughters. I have written before about how my grandmother impressed upon me around the age of 8 that I should always strive to be a gentleman. At eight, I thought that meant I should always remember to say please and thank you. I would learn that it would mean so much more, and there are times I failed to keep the promise of an 8 year old, but the older I have gotten, the more I realize the profound importance of that admonishment. I strive hard to be that person. As I have noted again, there are persons to whom I own an extreme and serious apology. For me it took a lot of soul searching and work to realize that I was worth more than I was told. It took a great deal of hard work – and at times I still fail – to realize I do not need to build myself up by taking advantage of others to be okay. I did not need to drink to the point of drowning my fears or hurts to be able to make it past that next crisis I could create. When I look k back, again as noted in earlier blogs, I spent probably two decades walking a fine line between managing quite well and a next time I drank way too much ending up either dead or in treatment. In a regrettable situation or maybe in jail. I am not sure I have ever stated it quite as starkly I am here, but I think perhaps it is time to do so.

I watch students and I want to warn them, but I know all too often they need to figure it out for themselves. I see stupidity, but I was that person, and long after I was 21. Sometimes it takes something tragic or life-changing. I had both instances and I still did not figure it out. I think for if it took age, some significant luck, and God’s grace. I am quite sure that there are people from my past that would be, or perhaps are, flabbergasted I have gotten to this point. I always tease I a slow-learner, but there is more that a small bit of that is true. Slow or stubborn or both. I think one of my most difficult things is admitting I am wrong, or that I have made the same mistake again. The place I am most likely to make a mistake is in trusting people. During the summer I listened again to someone who felt they wanted to reach out an share their story. Perhaps it is my narrative ethics background and my own propensity for story telling. Perhaps it is because I have this innate desire to help, particularly when it makes sense because of my own background. Again, I believed the best intentions of the other. Then they needed help, I was willing to help. When they needed an ear, I was willing to listen. As is generally the case, I will go above and beyond, but somehow I am still surprised when the same thing happens. I should begin to realize that I must be more guarded, but then I am afraid I would lose myself. Still, more often than not, people are genuinely grateful. In the case at hand, common sense, which I do not always pay attention to and that is the bane I must manage, would tell me even though they are complaining about their situation, it is their situation and it is who they are. You cannot change it or them. I do not believe I am trying to change them, but rather help them to manage whatever that issue is. Again, a learning event.

However, I did digress from the travel. Canada was amazing and the city of Ottawa was beautiful. The one thing that did catch me a bit off guard was number of homeless people I encountered on the streets. The caring part of me is always wondering what happened for a person to be in this situation. Was it their own bad choices? Was it things beyond their control? When you meet them on the street, the difference in what created their problem is not apparent. They are sitting on a cold sidewalk with a cap, a cup, and an outstretched hand. I think of a former colleague who ended up in such different place than when I first met him and how difficult it was to see and manage all the emotions and other things that created so much of our response to him. What causes the spiral? I know this in my own family. I see it in other families. Back to my initial thoughts and notes about traveling. A person told me some time ago, the best money you can spend is on travel. I could not agree with them more. Travel changes you. Travel allows you to reconsider who you are; it allows you to reimagine the world in which you live; it provides you an opportunity to learn so much more about others and yourself. Each time I go somewhere I am compelled to look more broadly, more deeply. I know that each time I am confronted with a new circumstance, a new culture or language I find myself pondering where I fit in all of this. There is so much to learn and the more we soak it all up, the more open, willing, and able we are to imagine life beyond our own little confines. I think that is what life is about. Seeing beyond. It is why I take the chance to listen to and interact with students. There are times it seems the effort is inconsequential. There are times it seems the effort is merely taken without any regard for what is given, but ultimately, it is about helping others see more than they are able to see in themselves. I believe that is a fundamental part of being a professor. It is not what I do, but who I am. It is what I profess; it is what I live it is how my life will go on long after I am gone. With that in mind, I offer the following song, part of the new Homecoming album from Celtic Woman.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Languages, Locations, and Learning

Hello from our traveling classroom,

We are currently on the bus after about 48 hours away from Kraków and off to the Ukraine. As we left Lviv, in the Western Ukraine today they were celebrating Orthodox Christmas. A number of students commented on how differently they celebrate the day. While we gather with family in homes and around a dinner table and tree. The people of Lviv were out on the streets in force walking around, purchasing things in the Christmas Markets, and celebrating the day. The importance of the holiday and its significance in the church year was also well noted by the music coming out of many of the churches. I am always amazed by the differences that culture and history bring to the holidays. I remember my first trip to Germany during the holidays, and the importance of Advent for Advent and Christmas for Christmas. Some things remain the same. The excitement in children’s eyes and the hope that their dreams of whatever they hoped for might come true.

What many students noted was how the Cyrillic alphabet made them feel so much more out of their comfort zone. While only a few speaking any Polish whatsoever, many feel they can somewhat figure things out. Of course, the few students taking Russian classes at Bloomsburg could barely contain themselves as we crossed the border. As they saw their first Cyrillic signs, their excitement was palpable. The second thing most will remember is the time spent at the border crossing. Friday night’s crossing took about three hours as our passports were gathered and stamped twice within about 200 meters. Today while it still took significant time, and even though we were required to get off the bus at the Polish checkpoint to have our passports stamped, we spent less time. However, I will admit, it did seem interminably long. The last time I felt so examined at a border was when I traveled to East Germany in 1985.

I think what most impressed me with our weekend was how different the atmosphere between Lviv and Kraków is. Our tour guide noted that Lviv, which has some strong ethnic connection to Poland, is about 10 years behind the post-satellite revival of Kraków. Certainly those things were evident. For students, they noticed the difference in both what I would would term infrastructure and in personality. In Poland, with attempts to greet and thank others in Polish, the people are gracious and will help the predominately English-speaking student. A few students noticed a marked difference during the weekend in Lviv, and yet others felt the people they met to be quite kind. Lesson learned? Each person who travels will have their own experiences and perceptions. That is the case with life in general, but I think the reality of that is heightened when traveling abroad. Perhaps, the more diverse the language and location, the more profound the learning will be. For James Slavinsky, a Language and Cultures major, with a concentration in Russian, the chance to meet and speak to a person with whom he has been writing for some time, the time in Lviv will be life changing. As eight of us joined together for dinner shortly after our return, the joy on his face was undeniable. He said, “I’m ready to pack my things and move there tomorrow.” One cannot promise such an experience for everyone, but creating and maintaining relationships with people you might meet can create life-long possibilities. Last night I had dinner with Robert and Katarzyna Para, the father of Bloomsburg alumnus and former student, Maria Para. For the fourth year in a row we found time to get together and share a meal and conversation. Amazing what a dinner with a student and her father at my home in Bloomsburg has evolved into. What a wonderful relationship has been developed from these journeys.

Being open to the possibilities is essential. As Dr. P (his moniker or perhaps term of endearment, and I do mean it is used fondly) noted during our walk back to Bydgoska yesterday, it is about the experience and the big picture. As someone who gets caught up in the details and needs to understand things too completely at times, it was good to be reminded of this. Going with the proverbial flow is the rule of the trip. This is particularly the case when there are 50 people scurrying from place to place and country to country. As this is written, I am sitting in a little breakfast place we discovered two years ago. It is the best place for breakfast in all of Kraków, and that is saying something in a town of fabulous restaurants and over a million people. Called Castor, it is a bit understated, a bit nouveau, a bit hipster. But the food, which you can watch being made in the little kitchen, is astounding. These are all experiences one can have during the time outside of classes. Oh yes, the classes, more about those in the next posting. In the meanwhile, thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin (the traveling professor and foodie)

So Much in Seven Days

Hello from Kraków and from Oświęcim,

Our traveling group has spent a busy week listening intently in classes, learning their bearings around Kraków, and attempting some simple greetings in Polish. At the same time, trips to Wawel Castle, the salt mine in Wieliczka, the Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz, or today to Oświęcim (known to most of the world as Auschwitz) provide each person not only the opportunity to walk through a metaphorical history book, but to come face to face with a side of our humanity that pushes the limits of our very understanding. It is one thing to read about the Shoah (perhaps the more appropriate word for Holocaust) or watch a movie, but it is an entirely different matter and experience to stand in Block 11, enter the gassing showers, or see first-hand the scale and scope of how 1.5 million people were systematically killed over a four year period. It is some quite different to watch the movie, Schindler’s List, and to walk in the very space those events occurred. Tomorrow as students visit the museum, one which provides a stunning, multi-sensory, and unforgettable walking exhibit, most will never forget that 48 hour period of their lives. It is such a profoundly different set of circumstances when you realize that most of what you see, touch, or feel has been in existence long before Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, or America for that matter was founded.

That is what happens for most students when they push the boundaries of their experiences, either geographically or educationally, and, of course, a study abroad allows for both. As we walked 4 kilometers in the Wieliczka Salt mine, Joe Davis, a sophomore Supply Chain Management major and ZCOB LC mentor, noted the mine was the most amazing sight of his life. As we stood in the expansive chapel, which is both 85 meters below the surface of the earth and 50 meters high, students stood speechless and in awe of what they were experiencing. I would encourage you to go online and look at the mine, but be ready to sign up for next year’s trip. Remember that people have been working in the 9 levels of the mine for a millennium. Remember that much of it was excavated and carried out by hand for centuries. Consider the fact that the Nazis used it as an armament factory during the Second World War because no one could see it. Consider the fact that at one point, 70% of Polish national wealth was based on this commodity we pour on our food.

How do you manage 50 people? Dr. Julie Vandivere, professor of English and director of the BU Honors Program, and four student mentors have Telegram down to a science. The group has also done things to enable communication and cohesiveness. The entire group, divided into subgroups, spent part of New Year’s Day attempting to escape game rooms. Some were more successful than others, and for the sake of transparency, the faculty leaders also participated on their own and failed miserably. So having a Ph.D. is no guarantee of success, and having multiple Ph.D. in one room might be a disadvantage, but those of us who had never experienced Escape Rooms before learned a great deal. Each day brings a new experience or challenge, but being someone familiar for at least some of us, makes anything manageable. While I have not personally been to the mecca of NYE experiences in the states, Krakow’s City Centre surely does the last night of the year well. The revelry of 70,000 people from all over Europe is certainly festive and something anyone in attendance will not soon forget. However, you do not have to be out for NYE to experience something very different as you walk the streets of the Middle Ages city. Snippets of conversation overheard have included responses like “They park on the sidewalks; people actually pay attention to the ‘don’t walk’ signs; or the food is amazing.”  . . .  and I can attest to that. Food is flavorful (even street food), well prepared, and very affordable. If you are hungry in Poland, it is your own fault.

Today students have reflection papers as well as outlines for their final papers due in most of their classes. They are working hard, but learning that creating appropriate and thoughtful documentation is more demanding than they expected. I have found this to be a common experience as I have returned for  a fourth year. Focus and critically thinking to synthesize their own majors into what they are being asked to examine takes some work, but analysis and synthesis are critical components of being a global citizen. That might be the most important metamorphosis that is occurring, 24 hours at a time. As I read news back in America and simultaneously glance at the headlines here in Kraków, somehow 140+ characters do not illicit the same importance for the occupants of Eastern/Central Europe. That is not a political statement, merely an observation. As one student noted last year, “It is a big world.” Each day as we travel, the reality of that statement is more completely understood by our varied little group of Bloomsburg students. On Friday, the 5th of January, we will board the bus for a weekend trip to Lviv, Ukraine. In spite of being a somewhat traveled-person, this will be my first time to the Ukraine. I am excited to travel farther eastward in Europe. Central/Eastern Europe has an important historical connection to our immediate area of North Central Pennsylvania. This is also an important learning moment for many students who have those connections. Each day is a new osmotic experience and when we return, the cumulative effect of our shared time will make each of us  thoughtfully different people, but much of that difference will only be realized as we continue our individual journeys in the months and years ahead.

Thanks for reading. More from the Ukraine.

Dr. Martin