Walking and Wondering

Good early (sort of) evening

My intentions of writing more this month have been hijacked by the end of a semester, managing my health yet again (I know it has daily requirements, but it has created yet another dilemma), and attempting to get ready for some holiday things, which have all gone by the wayside as the health issues have taken center stage yet again.  As I write this I am in my at home office upstairs between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. trying to get some things accomplished before the day gets hijacked by other requirements. IF I am to be completely candid, parts of what followed began last summer, and I will try to work them into this entry, but then again, doing so might reveal how randomly my brain seems to work, and that might not be the best thing into which I should offer insight being as some of my followers here are my students.  One of the times I was working on this blog was while students were filling out evaluations; I actually do not worry about evaluations and there is so much that can be learned by them. I also realize the difficulty in the use of such instruments on a variety of levels, but there is no simple way to have students respond to an opportunity to give some sort of response when it is one of the few times they have power (and they really do). They believe all too often they are the customer in what has become our business-based educational system. It is not by accident that we have an Education Secretary, one who is immersed in the Republican Party, charter schools and voucher programs, and has made her fortune with her husband through Amway, perhaps the most Ponzi-ed of all companies in American history. I do know people in Michigan who have directly benefited from the charter schools she has specifically implemented, so I need to also be truthful in that disclosure. However, the idea that students are customers-first is fundamentally flawed for me (another blog posting).

As is the case for most of us, the end of the year creates a time where we often reflect, ponder or imagine what might be in the future. There is so much I have pondered as I have considered the year that is almost over. I began the year in Europe and I will end it there. Yet that is not anything particularly new; it is, I realize, how I have begun every year for the last four, and a few earlier in my life also. On this day four years ago, I began a journey of a different sort. It was the day when I began a final journey with Lydia. It was the day she crawled into bed and really did not get up or eat again. It was the day when I began a watch that I could not finish. Thank you even today to Nathan Langton and his family for doing that. I think about the life you lived and how your life of travel and destiny took you places that you perhaps never imagined. Traveling has become my second education, and integral to my life. I know that some of you will say that seems to be a normal process for me, but it has not always been so. I grew up not knowing much outside my own little town of Sioux City, Iowa. Travel for me was across town and a big trip might be 50 miles away to Beresford, South Dakota. Seldom did I get beyond the tristate area of Sioux City, South Sioux City, NE or North Sioux City, SD, one could be driven to in 10 minutes and one could be walked to in 10 minutes. My first plane ride was to MCRD, San Diego.

One of the times I attempted to create this post, I had just returned from a leisurely three-plus mile walk around the Mayberry of the Eastern Shore. Cape Charles, VA, also known as Cape Chuck or simply by its zip code of 23310, is a sleepy, but waking-from-its-slumber town that offers a place with beautiful scenery, quaint little businesses and a changing landscape that seems to illustrate that its ability to stay off the radar day has perhaps come to an end. Through the graciousness of a colleague and another mutual friend, I have had the opportunity to visit here four times over the last 2+ years. Even in that time the development had picked up and businesses have sprouted up in once abandoned store fronts from a post-WWII era. Once a harbor on the Chesapeake, it no longer had the influx of people and commerce and got a bit forgotten. Somehow the rediscovery has changed both the view and the visitors. I think that is how life works. We discover ourselves and we are discovered by others, sometimes in spite of ourselves. I am still, at times, trying to figure out who I am and what I want. What I believe more and more is we are a somewhat dichotomous, contradictory, paradox (how is that for redundancy, but done intentionally). We both want and push away; we both yearn for and reject the very thing we desire. I think this is the thing I have most realized about myself. Is my life little more than a phase, traveling, both literally and figuratively, from one thing to the next, seldom cognizant of where we will end up? Certainly we can breakdown our lives into phases or segments. Surely we can imagine those what if?moments where a single decision could have moved us in a very different direction than what has occurred. My first philosophy professor is probably smiling from wherever he is as I wonder how much determinism is actually who we are.

This morning up early, I have been working on multiple things as I write this: a winter term class, a Facebook post, course content, managing recommendations. There are those who believe we are on break now so there is nothing to do. I have done some relaxing (mostly sleeping and recuperating) this past week, and there will be some more, but there are so many things I still want to accomplish and explore. I think that has always been my difficulty. It is more than merely a cliché phrase of “too much to do and too little time.” It is not an imperative that is imposed upon me, it is me wanting to do what Robin Williams noted for his students in Dead Poets Society . . . it is about believing I have something to contribute. I am not always sure what that is, but I am passionate about figuring it out. This past week I received in the mail my offering to the Facebook empire through the form of a picture album of the time I have been on this social media country. I had inscribed on the first page: “If I make the lives of others more meaningful, I make my own life more meaningful.” It is something I have said for quite sometime, and I can say without hesitation, it is my life. There are times I have lost sight of that. There are times when I have helped others expecting something back. That is a problem and something I have noted in these posts, before. Help with expectation is not really help, it is self-serving. It is something I am trying to change in myself. It is also about boundaries and there again is another post. We are certainly the products of our past. The baggage we carry from all sorts of ways can keep us from reaching or even attempting to reach our potential. More significantly, it can keep us from imagining such potential.

I see this on a daily basis when students are either not willing or incapable of seeing beyond the immediate. When I hear something like “but I tried really hard,” and their work does not demonstrate an end product that even reaches mediocre. Some might question my standards and expectations, and that is fair, but I expect little less than the best they can do. Why? It is all about what my previous provost noted is potential. She noted that all people have potential, and on that I will agree. It is encouraging, motivating, requiring them to use that potential that I believe education is about. Again all three of those adjectives are necessary if potential is to be even within the realm of becoming reality. I think this is what John Keating (Robin William’s character) was trying to get his students to realize as he asked them to gather round. There is an irony when he asks what verse will they contribute a Ethan Hawke was in his first real starring role. Robert Sean Leonard, who plays the tragic character of Neil Perry (and is almost 50, what the heck??), has done quite amazing things from that first acting gig. Gale Hansen, who played Charlie Dalton (Nuwanda), has gone on to be a film executive. I took the time to look up some of the others as it was known to some that Robin Williams wanted to work with beginning actors in this amazing film. I have read that there was a grave concern about the movie even being accepted and I listened to a funny quip when the screenwriter was told by someone the title was made up of three terrible words. The significant part of the movie for me has always been Keating’s push to make the students think for themselves. Something outside the norm in the crackerjack 50s where everything was to be predictable and measured. I am not sure we are that different now. While there are certainly a lot of things that are open for consideration that were beyond the imagination in 1959, there are still too many cookie-cutter ideas that control who we are and what we think. Go to college! Study the right things! Do what is successful and will make you money! As I have asserted in other posts, there is so much in our system that screams out . . . just do what you know works. Do not think for yourself, merely jump through the educational hoops and it will all work. I know students who do remarkably well in college and they hate their lives. They are studying something because their parents told them this is what they will do if they want their parents to foot the bill for their education.

As someone who straddles the line of a liberal arts background, and with apologies to my dear colleges in Mathematics or Sciences, and as someone who wants to puke every time I hear STEM at the expense of the liberal arts. I teach writing for the real world, a world in desperate need of qualified individuals from every background who are necessary if we are to have a cooperative and thoughtful world. I teach students how to become people who will use their communicative skills in vocations across the spectrum. The importance and use of critical thinking and thorough analysis is not the property of the STEM academics. It is a liberal arts foundational principle. Sorry! I guess my rant side came out for a moment. I was blessed to teach a Bible as Literature course this fall and I had a terrific group of students. More importantly, a number of them spoke about how much they learned in the class and how they will take what they learned about both study and critical thought with them long after the course. That is what I hope happens in all of my classes. I tell them regularly, I do not want them to memorize things; I want them to synthesize things. I want them to think and analyze things. I want them to question, albeit respectfully, but I do expect them to use their brains, their voices, and their determination to become something more than they were when they came into my class. As I write this, I just heard that General James Mattis has submitted his resignation as the Secretary of Defense. This four-star Marine General certainly has a widely considered history as a Marine officer, but he demonstrated today that he is principled. He is considered an intellectual combat officer and one who is both thoughtful and eager to engage and defeat enemy. It will be interesting to see what follows in terms of replacement and the condition of the Pentagon. The reason I raise this issue is we live more and more in a world that seems to have lost its direction, either in terms of a moral compass or in sense of any consistency.

All of this has me walking, wondering, and weighing what might happen next. I am concerned because there is little long-term consideration of the consequences. I speak regularly about the importance of understanding what it means to claim something, to be actively involved in it, to determine some of the possible outcomes, but also to understand what others might do in response. This is what I study most. How does what we do affect the audience for whom it is intended? Those of my student who might read this are probably rolling their collective eyes. As you consider this over next few weeks, I hope you have a blessed and memorable holiday season.

With that I leave you this scene from Dead Poets . . . enjoy.

Thanks as always for reading,

Dr. Martin