“An American Child”

Good early morning,

It is shortly after 5:00 a.m. and as is typically the case, or so it seems, I am awake and my brain is racing along with possibilities than what seems reasonably conceivable to me. What is reasonable might be the first question to ponder. As I get up most mornings, or more accurately awaken, I read three to five different news sources,  from ones referred to by “my” President as “fake news” to the one that should be called “the President’s friends.” Why might you ask? Because I think I need to listen to a variety of voices and then decide where I stand. One does not think critically unless challenged to do so. As I work with more than 70 freshmen writing students this semester, it becomes more and more apparent to me (and this is my own opinion) that our public school system is in dire straits. We are not teaching students to think critically; we are not teaching them to think beyond the obvious and analyze the learning situation; and finally we are not teaching them how to connect their learning to something else they are learning or to make connections across disciplines and situations. We seem content to teach them to memorize or to learn to jump hoops to manage the standardized test that somehow demonstrates they are capable. The consequence is students who are very nice and want to do well, but the tool box they have from which to draw their tools or skills is pretty sparse.

Yet, I find myself conflicted. Certainly we have a requirement as their professors. We are to take what comes to us and prepare them academically, socially, and critically to enter a world that is in a most precarious position (again, my opinion). The current fight between the reality of globalism and the somewhat knee-jerk reaction of nationalism (or nativism as it was called this past week) has two incredibly powerful philosophical ideas of what we how we are to proceed to manage this complex world that is interdependent, whether we like it or not. I have witnessed this not merely here in the United States, but when I was in Ireland last year the Brexit vote was in process. When I have been in Hungary or Poland, or read about some of the neighboring countries, the struggle to become an accepting world of the other versus keeping to ourselves is dramatically apparent around the globe. Just today in Egypt there is news of difficulties; Turkey has had its own issues and some of my former colleagues from Wisconsin have been affected by that. Students in our universities are unsure of their status because of issues in their own countries or the third iteration of a travel ban, which has been challenged again by Hawaii. What is the world we are preparing our students to enter? How do we understand it? What does our obsession with technology and how it is being used as evidenced on an almost daily basis done to how we understand ourselves, our world, or what we can believe to be real or truthful. The irony of the revelation that the Trump family themselves posted information from the Russian infiltrators, which was genuine fake news, did not go unnoticed by me or many others. The overwhelming propensity to jump on anything posted and use it within our own context or for our own partisan viewpoint has made anything posted suspect. What are the consequences?

The consequence is there is no trust. There is no decorum. There is little possibility for a national conversation, or forget national, even interpersonal one-on-one conversation with someone with whom you might have some fundamental difference in opinion (please note I merely said opinion). We cannot seem to have any opportunity to discuss most anything because we have to win; we have to prove we are right. The consequence is a fragmentation beyond anything I have witnessed in my life. And yet, I am that American child. What does that mean to me? It does mean I had opportunities that many in the world did not, and still do not, have. Even though I was on a third family by the time I was less than 5; even though my biological parents were probably not the most suited to be parents; even though I struggled as an adopted child for many reasons I have laid out in earlier blogs, I had opportunities many others did not have. What I know now, as I am older and as I noted there is more of my life behind me than ahead of me, is there have always been people who were kind enough to lend me a helping hand, people caring and generous enough to offer me opportunities that would not have been available without their help. I di grow up in a time that even blue-collar, poorer kids on the Westside of Sioux City, Iowa believed in possibilities. We believed in that American dream, and I am quite sure that most of our parents hoped we might have opportunities for success that went beyond what they had experienced. I have often said that I innately understood that my parents wanted me to go to college, but they did not know how to help that occur. They thought it mean merely get good grades, but even then they were not sure what constituted good grades. I think more they saw good grades as scholarships because they did not have the money to help me get to college. In fact, they had no idea what the cost was. I remember many years later (almost 10) when I was a senior in college finally and my mother could not understand why I had to work or seemed to be broke all of the time. When I told her how much it cost me per credit hour to take classes, she told me I was lying. When I showed her the costs, her response in utter disbelief was, “How can you afford to do that?” My response was, “How can I afford not to do that?” Costs back then are a mere fraction of what students are paying now. The investment in education is astronomical, and the competition for a position after college is certainly more extreme.

Yet, most of my students believe in that dream . . .  I believe the dream is a bit more difficult to imagine for students today. I believe the dream is a bit more illusive, but is that a good thing or a bad thing? That, I believe, depends on the person. When the dream is more illusive because of one’s social economic class it saddens me; when the dream is more illusive because of someone’s birthplace or status, the color of their skin or their gender, their sexual identity, it causes me pause because then the dream is limited to the few and in contrary to whom I was raised to believe we are as a country of opportunity. Again, before you want to jump on a particular bandwagon, I am not trying to stand in opposition to our laws or points that seem to be touch-points for argument. I could certainly argue that I am one of those who had to work much more intentionally to make my way out of a blue collar neighborhood. Again, before you think I do not respect the trades or unions, you have not read much of what I have written about my journey electrician father or older brother, or two nephews. You are not aware of my summer jobs working in packing plants, co-op fertilizer elevators, harvesting wheat, waiting tables or bartending for 2o years. As I write this I am sitting in a Starbuck now, in Chantilly, VA, guests of yet another culture of people who have blessed me. Egyptian/Sudanese and as I have watched the people coming in an out I have seen Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Black, and I am probably the minority. Those things actually do not frighten me, they give me hope.

What I believe being an American child gave me was hope. It allowed me to dream of possibilities and options. It allowed me to be proud of a country that seemed to be a beacon of hope not just for an adopted middle class small boy from NW Iowa, but for the rest of the world. My first trip to Europe as a student, as I have noted before, allowed me to see the world as a place to learn, a place to explore and realize how the centuries of history in the Vatican, in Aachen, Lubeck, or Copenhagen had a connection to what I was learning in Blair, Nebraska. What I realized in that trip, which was the consequence of the generosity of Harold and Dorothy Wright, was the world was a walking history book that need to be absorbed and learned. As I have been blessed to be on the other side now and take students to Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany, Austria, and Slovakia this time is to realize how much Central and Eastern Europe has to offer to my understanding of our changing world. I have mentioned more than once, I am not sure I had any idea what the future would hold for me, and even at this advanced age, I am not sure. What I do know is it has been quite a journey and one that I do believe being the American child offered me a sense of perspective and opportunity I might not have had. Because of the generosity of a little tornado, I am able to now help others. I am able to offer opportunities that go beyond what I knew at that age. It is ironic that it was not an American native, but one who came to America to continues to bless me so I can bless others. Amazing how life works . . . but it continues to do so. With that, I offer this video.

As always thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin (that Riverside child)

Lucha de Probabilidades

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Buenas Días,

I had an excellent day today in spite of the fact that I got to by office by 7:15 a.m. and it is 9:15 p.m. and I am still here. I do plan to leave shortly, though I might try to be back at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning. While tomorrow is supposed to be a day where I am not on campus, I currently have 5 meetings, so I think I will be here for quite a while. Fortunately, they do not begin too early, though I do have a 7:30 meeting at the diner, so I will be up one way or the other. Today I went to my Spanish class and have gotten it scheduled so I can be there both class periods. It was really enjoyable, and while I felt a bit rusty on some things, other things I had learned on my own came back pretty quickly. What I noticed today is that when I was called on my pronunciation was pretty strong. That was a good feeling and I think someone, who regularly kicked me on some things, might have even been slightly impressed.

While I have been working on some important things and made some major life changes to manage some of those things, I have found out how fragile I am and how much I need to be really disciplined in what I am doing. My latest trip for testing revealed that the stress of the holidays and beyond, and the travel, probably did not serve me well. I think my failure to manage my diet as well as I had been doing also was a contributing factor. That being said, now I have to redouble my efforts. It is something I can do. I think we are always playing the odds on things. Sometimes intentionally and other times unaware. I am always stunned when I see people who really seem to take their fitness seriously and then I see them smoking cigarettes, for instance. It is times like that I realize that the addiction to nicotine must be exactly that. I cannot imagine that someone honestly wants to affect their body in such a negative way when working so hard in other ways to maintain or enhance it. Yet there are other ways I believe we harm ourselves because of the lifestyle we either feel compelled (perhaps almost in a VD way) to lead or because we merely do it without thinking. Because I started the semester in such a dismal condition, I have felt like I have been playing catch up from the outset of the semester. From more than a week before the semester began until late last week, the number of times I have been in bed before 9:00 p.m. is probably greater in that month than the entire previous year. It is what I had to do merely to maintain and make it through my classes.

Now I am working to catch up and get ahead of things. I actually feel like I have more on my plate right now than I did last spring when I was starting to prepare for tenure. That is a bit frightening and disconcerting. . . .  Welcome to Friday. I have been in front of people most of the day and it is Wisconsin cold out, so that is my day. I did not make it in here as early as I wanted, but I have been productive nonetheless. I have worked on tutoring an ESL student who works tremendously hard at learning and mastering English. It is actually fun to think about why things work they way they do. Today I got a picture (or actually a poster) that is being hung up around campus for the faculty union. It is the picture that you are seeing at the beginning of the post. It is a bit surreal, and it was also taken before I lost some significant weight, so I look like a fat toad, sad as that is.

I have been working on this post for a week and I’m still not done. I guess that explains how my week has gone. I am not sure the coming week or two will be any better. What I am realizing is that the odds I have been battling in more areas than most realize have taken their toll on me more than I wish to admit. While I have gotten things accomplished, the sum total have not been enough. I am reminded of one of my father’s saying, ” The faster I go, the behinder (sic) I get.” That seems to be the story of my life. However, some of it is of my own making, I am not merely a victim here. I am a bit frustrated with the insinuation, especially by one who should know better, that somehow we only work 17 hours (though it was noted as contracted) per week. I am reminded of another conversation in which it was noted that if we teach in the summer or do summer work related to publishing or other things, it was our choice. Again, it is my interpretation, there seemed to be no appreciation or belief that some of those decision felt more obligatory than optional because of things like tenure or promotion. I think of how sometimes it seems we are squeezed by both sides. The local paper, as they feel obliged to do yearly, printed all of our salaries in the local Sunday paper. Again with little explanation of how those salaries are determined or what work went into the degrees to earn those salaries. So now some people, as I expected, comment in the local paper that only our salaries are the reason for increased tuition. Then the administration notes we are contracted not even part time. So between the two extremes, it seems we are vilified. So I try to focus on two things: first, I hope to support my colleagues. Second, I work hard to support my students. Those are the two groups that really are affected by what I do or don’t do. I know when I hear something positive about my teaching that means more to me than just about anything. When I was awarded an outstanding teaching award at my previous institution that was probably one of the best things that happened in all six years. I know that the great majority of my colleagues work tremendously hard. Parece que estamos a menudo en combate contra las probabilidades o simplemente un siglo XXI versus de Sísifo.

Well, I think it is time to head to school. I have sat at the diner for more than an hour. Somehow I have again misplaced my office keys. I am not sure if I left them in my office on Friday or they are in my jacket at the dry cleaners. I did not hang them up and so I am afraid it will be a day or two yet again before they reappear, as magically as they disappeared. I have a great deal of grading to manage, but just keep plugging (all outside the 17 hours). Perhaps our Snyder Amendment papers need to go to more people on campus. I was looking back at my blog from a year ago. It is a bit boggling to see what was accomplished in the past year. The changes that occur are always merely part of our daily lives, but when you look back at them collectively, they seem so much more monumental. I have learned so much about myself during this year. I think it is that learning that helps me be more comfortable with the decisions I have made and where I am at this point. . . .

Good morning, it is yet another day and about 4:28 a.m. and I am still in my office. I will admit to an hour nap on my floor about 12:30, but otherwise I have been working steadily and getting things accomplished. It will be a long day as I have things pretty much straight through from 7:00-4:30 today, but I will make it through. I am actually feeling pretty reasonable at the moment. That is actually the reason I am typing on this and hoping to finally get it posted before the morning hits (or the normal morning). It is yet another case of understanding the obstacles to accomplishing what needs to be done. I always struggle with how much to respond to students’ work. I could merely put in grades, but that is not going to help their writing. There is so much more. I do have to figure something out, but I believe that the only way to become a better writer is to write. If I assign it then I need to look at it carefully and try to respond in a way that is effective for the student and yet efficient for me in the bigger picture. I am not sure I have ever learned how to do that. I am sure I am not the only English (or any language for that matter) professor who feels the pain of this dilemma. It is interesting how each step of the way, from graduate school to getting that position to getting tenure to . . .  you always think it has to be easier on the other side, and then you find out it is not really that much different. The papers are still there and they require as much work. I actually enjoy teaching composition and seeing the light actually go on. I love when a student who did not like writing suddenly decides it is not that horrific after all. I am excited when a student comes to the realization that writing has value. I feel accomplished when someone sees that the passion I have for what I do is actually inspiring and the result is their wanting to work more diligently. It is pretty simple to make me happy. Just do your work.

As we are into the fifth week of the semester already, I think I might be able for the first time to see that I can get on top of all the things that are out there. I might have to put in a couple more days like this one, but it will pay off. So in the meanwhile, I will keep working on all the things that are necessary for later in the day. I hope that wherever you are and from wherever you might be reading this that whatever odds you are facing, you know that the battle is worth it. There is so much that matters in the world in which we are living, working, and existing. In some ways it is always a gamble. With that thought in mind, I will leave you with one of my favorite artists (amazing that he has been gone for over 7 years). His narrative style and amazing instrumentals were something I so appreciated and still do. Thanks for listening to one of my favorite songs of Mr. Fogelberg. Ironic that I found it in two languages.

Thanks as always for reading.

Dr. Martin

Grace and Dignity on Either Side of the Tracks

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Good morning,

It is almost Wisconsin-cold here in the Upper Susquehanna Valley this morning, but it is still nonetheless manageable. I got up extremely early to deal with some issues and will be on the road again before the day is out. It is now Friday evening and I am back in Gettysburg. Driving about 500 miles today has taken it’s toll on me. Sometimes I’m rather astounded that I used to think road trips were fun. I did stop on the way back because I needed to take a break. I got something to eat and also took a nap at a rest stop. Some of the morning events reminded me of how little I know about some things. While I generally like to believe that I am someone well-informed that was not the case this morning.

As I observed and listened to what went on I realized how difficult things are for so many people. It forced me to reflect again on what I believe is the ever widening gap between those who have things and those who do not; the difference between those who worked hard to try to get something only to lose it and those who seem to get things with little or no work. It was actually part of the conversation I had this morning. Furthermore, and I should not be surprised, it is showing up in my little corner of the world as the university has decided to change how tuition will be charged and subsequently be collected. One can be sure that students were not included in the decision and, for the most part neither were faculty. What I understand is some were given the “opportunity” to attend a meeting on the Friday of Thanksgiving break. Otherwise, as a whole we were not given much notice either. From what we can tell the board of governors has decided that students can make up any budget shortfall. I could say much more about this decision and the process, but I will refrain, at least for the moment. At Bloomsburg this reduces the forecasted deficit, which seemed a bit sketchy to begin with from 1o million to about 3 million. I am waiting to get some final figures. What this will do to students, to programs, and to the state system does not appear to have been part of the decision-making process. The absurdity of it, at least at this moment, is beyond my comprehension. It will price many low income students and families out of the market, again widening the gap between those who can afford college and those who cannot.

The title of this blog posting is actually a quote from a story I heard this morning on NPR. It was a story about a children’s book and about a boy on a bus. The little boy with his Nanna lamented the things that he did not have, while his Nanna tried to help him focus more carefully on the things that he did have. I am generally not inclined to buy children’s books, but I might have to get this one. The author and illustrator, both Californians, wrote about things they experienced growing up. As I have noted in blogs past, I did not always have what I wanted but not once can I remember not having what I needed. I was actually very fortunate. As I consider the events of today, I am reminded about how decisions are made and so many people have little to no voice in those decisions. I know that I will be attending some meetings this week and into the semester. While I am not sure if anything can be done to reverse the university’s plan, I, for one, will go on the record to say it is unjust and not very well reasoned.

However, as I noted, I should not be surprised. Reflecting on some of the news stories over the last two weeks and the decision of the Koch brothers to spend almost one billion dollars on the next election, I need some assistance. Someone help me understand how that is democracy. Someone explain to me how buying an election creates trust in our system, in the people, or in the elected government. I cannot see it. It is manipulation. I cannot imagine the founders of this country believing that this would be what they hoped or believed could happen to their grand experiment. In fact, I heard the most fascinating address or lecture tonight about the state of politics in Pennsylvania. The bottom line in that address was basically that no one elected in the legislature needed anyone else nor did they feel beholden to them. Even though we were the only state to not re-elect an incumbent Republican governor, The election of Governor Wolfe was actually vote against the former Governor Tom Corbett and not vote for the Democrat. Our esteemed and knowledgeable speaker went on to note that the legislature is both the most Republican and polarized it has been in the last half century. It was actually a very fascinating and frightening address. Perhaps the last important point that directly affects those of us in higher education is that while the electorate wants something done to fund education that is mostly at the K-12 level. The entire thing was quite depressing when I think about it carefully.

That actually brings brings me to my point or focus in this post. A few years ago there was a somewhat vocal, but short-lived group of protests against the so-called one-percent-ers. While the initial argument was against so few having so much wealth, the protests were not focused entirely on that and too many others, in my opinion, jumped on the proverbial bandwagon; the consequence ended up with the initial message about unfairness or injustice becoming diluted. As the one-percenters unabashedly try to buy the next election, as a board of governors decides to put a burden, one created by an ex-governor, who took $90 million from higher education during his four years ~ something supported by the legislature ~  on the backs of students, the opportunity for many students to be educated within the Commonwealth becomes more unobtainable because of rising costs. The plethora of other consequences or fall-out from this decision is exponentially troubling, but I will leave that for another time. While there are certainly cases of the stereotypic millennial entitlement, there are many other students who work so desperately hard to take advantage of the opportunity to be educated. I know this to be the truth because I see it daily. In spite of the debt they must take on to receive an undergraduate education, many students work hard both in their classes and in extracurricular jobs, hoping to eventually graduate and make a difference in their lives. I think of some students I know quite well, ones who are prime examples of this. Paying meticulous attention to everything that concerns their education and working tremendously hard with such myopic focus, they actually miss some things they should not. However, I’m not sure it is possible to see the consequence of those actions at times. Even though I have felt the sequela of that perceived demand, and its aftermath, I guess if I step back, just maybe, I can understand why. Perhaps the sophistic elegance and grace used at times is more necessary than I’ve been willing to realize. I still don’t like it, but perhaps, at moments, I can at least comprehend it’s necessity.

While I am certainly not extraordinarily wealthy, I have to admit that I have a few worries. I have worked hard with 14 years in college, but I’ve also been fortunate. Without the care of many over the years, I would not be where I am. What I’ve tried to do is to give to others and return the good fortune that I have been blessed to receive. I grew up in a part of town or we were called river rats. It was a blue-collar and and certainly one of the poor sections of town. As I previously noted there were times growing up but I’m sure my parents struggle mightily to even give us necessities. But the people on my block and in my neighborhood worked hard. They asked for little, if anything, and they live their lives with grace and dignity. There is the saying about growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. I’m not sure I was on the wrong side, but, on the other hand, I’m not sure I was on the right side. Maybe I grew up actually on the tracks . What I am realizing is maybe it was to being on the tracks that forced me to keep moving. Because logically, if one stays in that place, the outcome would be to get run over, not a particularly wise not pleasant outcome.

When I realize that we all have our story, and no two are the same, I’m compelled to believe that each story has value. To fail to believe in the value of the other is to lose sight of the founding principles of democracy. When we fail to treat others with grace and dignity, we fail them, but more significantly we fail ourselves. This past week, in my Foundations class, we spoke about the value of each person’s language and what they bring to class. We talked about the difference between standard and nonstandard language. The language someone brings with them helps them understand who they are. It creates an identity. One of the many things that I am tasked to do is to move that language into academe. To help the student claim his or her place as someone hoping to become a scholar. Sometimes that’s a tall order. But more importantly I can only assist I cannot make someone do it. I know this from my own experience. I’ve also watched someone over the past year work tremendously hard to overcome previous choices. It is something they have done on their own. Most of the time, it has been a joy to watch.

Perhaps it’s because I still feel I am on the tracks at times that I work so hard to help others move from one place to the next. Well I’m not sure that I do it with all that much grace I do try to do it with dignity. That is all I can do. So it is almost 4:00 a.m. Perhaps I can go back to sleep. . . . I did sleep, but as is often the case I needed to go back, edit, proofread and then work on this some more. I am always amazed by what I find in my writing, especially when it is done at some early hour of the morning. What I see, not surprisingly, is even at that time, my brain goes faster than either my voice or my fingers. I miss things. I make illogical jumps. It is now Monday and I am facing student conferences, grading, revisions, and other things. Then there is the life outside of here that always seems to disappear. It is time to get organized yet again. So I am off to do just that.
As always thank you for reading.

Dr. Martin