Showing posts with label higher education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label higher education. Show all posts

13 January, 2020

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”*

I had recent conversation about higher education and my thoughts on returning to the classroom, and while digging through some old files (looking for something else) I found this word collage. Names have been changed, and I apologize to the family of A.A. Milne and the creators of The Flintstones.


"During this review period (... one calendar year [January 1, 2008- December 31, 2008]...) your TEACHING SCORES -- RANGING FROM 1.17 TO 1.37 AND AVERAGING AN OVERALL 1.25 -- ARE BETTER THAN THE DEPARTMENTAL MEAN FOR BOTH YOUR RANK AND THE LEVEL OF CLASSES YOU TAUGHT. Students comment on your entertaining style and your pedagogy. "
Your annual performance evaluation for this year is as follows:
Teaching: 2
Service: 1
Professional Development: 1
Overall: 1.8
{NOTE:  3=Meritorious performance. 2= Satisfactory performance. 1 = Unsatisfactory performance}

"Your self-evaluation with no supplemental materials offers little evidence of service contributions and no evidence of professional development..."


{NOTE: ON COURSE EVALUATONS, the lower the number the better. So a 1 = to an 'A'}

To: The Grand Pooh-Bah
Sent: Wed Mar 04 07:37:20 2009
Subject: Meeting to Discuss Annual Review
I am sending my annual review back signed, via campus mail, and I have saved a copy for my records. However, as you will notice, I would like to discuss it in more detail sometime soon. My score for Service does not reflect my contributions on the Steering Committee THIS academic year – which I did mention (and I thought, at some length) in my self-evaluation. Also, as with my evaluation last year, I am at a loss as to what I can do about Professional Development, as most of the opportunities that might apply are either not conducive to my schedule or too expensive.
Moreover, I am still left with the impression that being a good instructor means little or nothing… which seems ironic to me, since that’s what I was hired to do.
I am on campus on MWF and I teach from 7:30-12:40.  Is there a time soon that we could sit down and chat?


_X_ I will schedule an interview to discuss this review.
__ I will not schedule an interview to discuss this review.

From: The Grand Pooh-Bah
Sent: Wed 3/4/2009 10:29 AM
Cc: Pooh-Bah No. 2
Subject: Re: Meeting to Discuss Annual Review
Main Office staff makes my appointments.
Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld

* Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

28 August, 2013

Gators People Live in the River, 3.3: Who Are You?

And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself? ― Rumi

When we struggle against our energy we reject the source of wisdom. -- Pema Chodron

My mistake was in checking my email.

I ought to know better. No good can come from reading email or looking at the news before my feet even hit the floor. It's bad practice. But I also suspect I'm not the only one who checks email, checks Facebook before doing something incredibly wise like 1) put on pants or 2) drink a cup of coffee. The first is simply a matter of form; I do not engage with my fellow man while my manhood is showing. The second is a matter of self-knowledge and common sense. Everyone who knows me knows that the world will have a much better version of me after a cup coffee. (Black, please. No cream. No Sugar. If you must add something, add bourbon.)

But because I sometimes use my cell phone as my alarm clock, I've gotten into the habit of putting it in Airplane Mode and keeping it bedside. (This is a habit I need to break.) I know there is nothing important enough I can learn from my phone that won't wait long enough for me to stand up. Humdrum habits.

This particular time, like most mornings, I didn't do that. I took it off Airplane Mode immediately, and once the phone found WiFi signal, I had a new message waiting on me. The subject line: Who Are You?

Hello, Mick:
I'm writing because I found out you were hired to teach composition at the University of Louisville, where I was formerly the Director of Composition.  I have connected with you on LinkedIn but that in no way qualifies as an endorsement of your teaching qualifications or skills.  I am not a reference for you, nor will I be used as one, so I hope you didn't list me as a reference.
Do you have a master's degree in English from an accredited university, and do you have graduate coursework in Rhetoric and Composition?  Be honest and forthright because I will find out the truth and you will NOT be teaching at UofL without proper credentials.

My reaction -- as described by Amanda -- was visceral. 

If he had been in front of me, I could have ripped his tongue from his mouth. And I haven't raised a hand to hurt a human being more than a decade.

I'd nagged and prodded and somehow talked my way into a little work that would allow me to set up a home base in Louisville. The Universe had been kind enough to let me have that, and I was (and am) grateful for it. The whole identity theft issue made me laugh because while some may find my lack of traditional ambition and my politics criminal, I am not one. 

Not yet, anyway. Give it time. We will all be criminals eventually.

My response was immediate and relatively articulate for as livid as I felt:

I did not list you as a reference. I reached out over LinkedIn when I assumed (because the website indicated as such) that you were still the Writing Program Director at U of L.
I attended Morehead State University and earned my MA in 2003. I have taught developmental, first year, and creative writing. I have been and still am a writing tutor. I have been a working journalist, and I'm a damn fine poet.
I neither wanted nor asked for your recommendation, and I don't care if you were the the Director of Composition or the Wizard of Oz. I am a fine teacher, a good human being, and you are an ass.
That response didn't do much to wash away the waves of hatred and wishes for a voodoo doll in his likeness. You want to be a stick up my ass? We'll see, we'll see...

I sent a second response, in which I gave him my phone number. I told him if he had any more questions that he was welcome to call me and I would be more than happy to tell him off via the phone.

After that, I sent an email to the current Director of Composition at U of L and copied the secretary and departmental HR rep, explaining that 1) I am myself and 2) that somehow, I managed to receive the most unprofessional contact from a colleague since having to interact with that pompous ass of an English Department Chair at Arizona State.

He -- the former Director who emailed me at 7:30 in the morning on a Saturday -- apologized. We have each made our conciliatory gestures. At this point I am more annoyed by someone's breach of professional ethics in disclosing my identity theft debacle to someone outside the university than I am by his reaction. 

Annoyed, but not surprised. Just because I'm back in the classroom doesn't mean I've swallowed the Kool-Aid, Dear Readers. I am there to teach. That some other people are there to maintain tenuous little fiefdoms is part of the minefield we have wrapped higher education in.

22 August, 2013

Gator People Live in the River, 3.2: Blue Horse

There's nothing worse than being put in a position where you have to explain yourself to someone who may not be worth the time, the effort, or the energy expenditure. I make it a habit to NOT explain myself. I think of self-explanations as the same as having to tell someone why a joke is funny. If you have tell someone why the horse being blue in August is funny, then you've wasted your time.

When I left JCTC after concluding the first half of my HR Paperwork Blitzkrieg, I drove back down Third Street to the University of Louisville. After finding some creative parking, I made my way onto campus and into the Bingham Humanities Building.

The building is built in the shape a rectangle. This would lead one to believe that the building is easy to navigate.  Once inside, however, the combination of knock off Frank Lloyd Wright minimalism, asynchronous office numbers, and Dantesque signage is clearly designed to confuse the first time sucker rather than inculcate him with a sense of warmth similar to the last stage of hypothermia.

After stepping off the elevator and walking far longer than I thought thought I should have needed to down off season academic hallways, I found the right office. But Linda, the person I was supposed to talk to, wasn't there. Instead, I was greeted with a Post-It note informing me that she was in some room in the basement.

Fuck me, there's a basement to this place? Is that where they imprison failing graduate students and abandoned developmental writing programs?

My intention was to try and find Linda in the basement. Except that I couldn't find the elevator again. It was as if the wall had simply swallowed it up, along with any hint of a stairwell.

Salvation came eventually in the person of Linda, who said she was glad she hadn't missed me.

Is there really an exit, I asked, or is it just an existential concept?

Linda blinked the way a dog blinks after being told to stop chewing on a slipper. I have been told before that I should not tell jokes because my delivery stinks. I reject this criticism, however, based on the fact that humor is as much about context as tone. And within the context of being new to the university, being new to Louisville, as a matter of fact -- something that was very much known to my new soon-to-be bosses at U of L -- and being a last minute hire to teach a class, I figured that I'd have a shot at a chuckle. Sartre references almost always work, and secretaries are not immune to the malaise of academic idea entendre.

And she blinked.

I have the utmost respect for secretaries and janitors because they run the world. The people who file your W-2 and the people who clean public bathrooms are more important to the overall running of the world than any administrator, politician, or cop. And I had no intention of confusing or upsetting Linda. I was merely trying to relax, be friendly.

We rolled past the awkward beginning and into the paperwork. When we got to the I-9 I produced both my Ohio Driver's License and my passport card -- the latter of which should have been enough (as per Column A.)

She blinked.

I think I need your social security card.

I don't carry it. The passport usually works.

She blinked.

I'm pretty sure I need your social security card.

I don't carry it. It's ragged. It's my original social security card. You're not allowed to laminate it. It's as thin as toilet paper.

She xeorxed a copy of both my driver's license and my passport, but would not let go of the social security card.

Fine, I said. I'll bring it with me to orientation.

On my way to U of L, I had decided to tell them about the criminal background check snafu at JCTC.  I considered it a form of professional courtesy. Though my initial face to face contact with Linda had given me some reservations about following through, I ignored that instinct and went on ahead with my well-intended disclosure. After all, it was funny. Right?

She blinked.

I explained it again.

She blinked.

I asked if I needed to write a note to HR or something, just to keep on file.

She blinked. Then she sat down at her computer as if she intended to write an email to HR herself. She offered to let me write an email myself. But, she pointed out, the HR person was gone for the day (after 2pm on a Friday) and would not see it until Monday anyway.

I told her I'd send it over the weekend or some other time. I had her lead me out to the elevator --which, magically appeared not 20 steps from her office door.

Once I escaped, I made for a nice well lit place with cold beer.

10 February, 2013

Losantiville Lines: Baboon Among The Savages; Code of the Road

The code of the road is to share;
we only have ourselves out there. - The Rev. Peyton's Big Damn Band

The last time I battled the flu was the last time I lived in Losantiville. That time included a trip to Urgent Care for X-Rays and some somber dancing around the results by the staff who insisted I go directly to Good Samaritan Hospital. The nurses told me not to worry, that they had called ahead, the hospital was expecting me. That led to more tests and more worried faces, and the news that I would have to be admitted overnight because someone from Oncology needed to look at the X-Rays; naturally, none of them worked on the weekend. There was a growth in my right lung about the size of of my forefinger, and they weren't sure, but it might.... might, they said... be cancerous.

It turned out to be a viral form of the flu that had exacerbated because, at the time, my then-wife and I didn't have the health insurance for me to go to the doctor when symptoms first emerged.

For years after, she would bring up during various arguments that I never went back for my check-up.

It should be noted, however, that while I have had bouts of the common cold now and again, I never contracted the flu again.... in spite of not getting a flu shot... until now.

I can only conclude that Cincinnati hates me.

This flu, AKA "something bad going around" kept me in bed and not at my teaching gig at NKU this past Monday. It also kept me away from writing, since I was feverish and unable to focus on anything resembling a printed word. And thanks to the lingering malaise that is this damnable flu, I was forced to cancel a trip down river this past weekend in order to try try try to kick it out of my system once and for all.

But it appears that the worst of it has passed, thank Gawd.

The fever cropped up again Thursday afternoon, and broke overnight, so I was able to go to NKU. I barely felt up to the task, but I didn't want to NOT go in again. Catching up for one day missed is difficult enough. You get behind 2 classes, it's starts to become a scheduling nightmare. Too much tug on the end, something else gets shorted when you try give the same time to the stuff you missed for being sick.

Luckily, Friday was a workshop day. Rather than set out basic rules, I gave a general explanation of the difference between a workshop and a peer editing session. Then I sat in the groups and modeled the behavior. Or at least, I tried too. Getting some of them to get over that hump of insecure silence can be a challenge. In the past I've used author cover letters. This time around I'm telling them what to focus on. This far the amount of work this draws from the students in workshop is about the same as I remember in the past. Some students engage; others don't. There were more students participating than in the first round, simply because they're more comfortable.

But I haven't managed to turn myself into paint on the wall yet... i.e, my presence in the groups is still necessary. I have high hopes though. I've always maintained that a good teacher teaches in order to make himself irrelevant. Students decide to take a hold of and direct their own education -- the floating heads call that agency -- and upon learning what they can from the teacher, move on to other more suitable teachers.

Anyhow, that's the way it's supposed to work.

But this generation of college students -- those who fall within the spectrum of those who are what used to be called "traditional students"-- are all products of Bush II's failed NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND educational reform.

The results of it's replacement, RACE TO THE TOP, have yet to be seen, but I am skeptical of any positive impact because nothing has fundamentally changed in how teachers -- particularly K-12 teachers -- are required to teach.

On Friday, I noticed one of my students playing on his phone during workshop. I expect a certain amount of that -- most all of them have smart phones and have used them to look up things related to class -- but when I asked what he was doing, he said he was just "catching up on some news," like he hadn't a care in the world. His group is a quiet one and no one has really taken a leadership role. (That's not always necessary; I much prefer when everyone takes a part of the leadership role.) I asked the student to stop and use the time for course work instead. He balked at it.

I talked to him after class, and he balked again. He pointed out that he paid $4,000 to attend NKU -- saying, I can only imagine, that it is his time to waste. (I seriously doubt it's his money... he has the air of yet another Entitled Boy, that perennial cultural disease.)

Then I told him it was rude. That seemed to throw him; apparently of all the things he's been called out for, rudeness has not been one of them.

I have to admit I'm surprised.

But etiquette, like cursive script, isn't assigned much value anymore.

The only difference is that etiquette is one of the cornerstones of civilization, and script writing is a product of that civilization.

And while I tend to agree with Ambrose Bierce that civilization, on the whole, does very little to civilize mankind, it does make things go smoother when you say "Please" and "Thank You" and try to see how your actions, however innocuous they may be, impact those around you.

A few years ago, I might have handled it differently. I might have said nothing, or treated like a class discussion without naming names. But I am less inclined to worry about the feelings of a spoiled kid with as chip on his shoulder than I am about how his sense of entitlement is going to affect those around him. And before you think I'm one of of those who will rant about "these damn kids today," be aware that I am aware I used to be one of those damn kids that someone else bitched about. This one student's sense of entitlement is nothing new, even if my response is different.

29 January, 2013

Losantiville Lines: The Keys To The Kingdom

As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly. - Arthur Carlson, WKRP IN CINCINNATI

Probably the most succinct explanation I've ever heard or read of what's wrong with this place. Me, in relation to the quote above.

Being caught here as I was, over the weekend -- between illness, the weather, and the spinelessness of the Tennessee Division of Greyhound Buslines, I was left to cough up a lung and ponder the universe in the shadow of Porkopolis. This gave me a chance to try and get through a smallish pile of student writing that must be returned tomorrow when I exchange it for a fresh pile -- the unending cycle that is the educational machine.

Thank Crikey I'm not interested in being hired full time. This sentiment is not a reflection of how I feel about the students in my classes, as much as a recognition that other than a few new bells and whistles, the institution of higher education is no different than it was when I left (translate: ran screaming) from ASU in December 2009.

Perfect example: I received a circulating email in response to concerns raised by part-time Lit and Language faculty to the current chair in meetings scheduled for the purpose of airing such concerns and offering suggestions to improve the plight/make more comfortable those who do most of the work for little pay and no real recognition... since other than teaching classes that tenured faculty refuse to teach, part-timers do nothing to make the institution look good.

We are not a marketable bunch. Though a few of us are, I dare say, reasonably attractive.

I should note that I did not attend either Open Door session, which were scheduled on a Tuesday and Thursday... days I am not on campus. (They are, coincidentally, days that most part-timers are not on campus either. Draw your own conclusions, Dear Readers.)

The primary issue raised, according the email, was office space. Part-timers share the same corral on the 5th floor we shared when I taught at NKU in '04-'05. And apparently, those who went to the open door talks mentioned space as a priority.

It was not mentioned in the email, but I do wonder if anyone brought up access to health insurance. NKU DOES allow part-timers access to the institution's health insurance plan -- after 3 years of consecutive employment. Which means, if you're actually interested in having a full-time job, that you're pretty enough to screw but not to take to a family reunion. (Keep in mind that it is damn difficult to stay consecutively employed as a part-time instructor. That means you have at least a class every term... including summer, when enrollments are low, and spring, when a large number of First Year students run screaming from college campuses.)

Of course, the Chair has no say over what the Bean Counters in the administration bunker do. And a potential for access is better than no access at all, right? Carrot by any other name....

The solution to the aforementioned space issue? Give every part-timer his or her own key. This way, I suppose, it will feel like we really have an office and are taken seriously as professionals. Which, of course, is utter bullshit.

I should mention again, however, that I am less interested in being afforded the label of "professional" than I am in being treated like a human being and not a cog.

I got a set of keys instead.

I should also mention that every part-timer was going to be issued a set of keys anyway.

The solution, as I see it, is to have armed guards on campus.

Because lately that's the solution to all educational problems, and a blog is no place to think outside the box.

On a tangentially related note, Mount Carroll crank and all around lousy person Nina Cooper is running for City Clerk. She has built a very patriotic looking website to assert her candidacy, which ten people in town will see. (Five of them might actually vote for her; but she is one of them, and the other two are her co-hort cranks, Alderpersons Bob "The Amoral Pontificator" Sisler and Doris "I'm Not Dead I'm Just Plotting" Bork. The other two I'm giving her for kindness and statistical accuracy.)

04 March, 2012

Shipping Out to Boston: The Beantown Massacre (Verse 3 and Chorus)

Harvard makes mistakes too, you know. Kissinger taught there. - Woody Allen

The Harvard Law states: Under controlled conditions of light, temperature, humidity, and nutrition, the organism will do as it damn well pleases. -  Larry Wall 

If I don't trim my shit back soon, I'll start looking like this.
Harvard Bums are extraordinarily polite.

According to Neil, this is due to the fact that the cops will haul anyone off who gets in people's faces too much with their panhandling.  Mostly, they linger around the entrances to certain stores and under awnings and whisper their request for spare change as you pass.

In my experience, though, most panhandlers are pretty polite (with the exception of the Coney Island Stooges) ; because even if your mother doesn't teach you at some point that you get more flies with honey than vinegar, (sometimes a cliche is just a cliche) then life most assuredly will. Even if it's an act. Even if, while you try and play the role, you fantasize about snapping the mark's neck and tearing his head off.

Ok. So that was me working customer service. But the same general rules apply.

We were both a little hungover on Sunday, so we didn't get started until late. The quickly fading daylight was working against us. Personally, I blame the rum. I always have a hangover when I drink it... even the Good Stuff, which that most assuredly was.

But we managed to rally after some conversation, water, aspirin, and Laura's Sloppy Joe's and baked brussel sprouts. Over the course of our conversation, one thing became clear: the grand plans I had for Boston would have to be cut back... ever so slightly.

I have a relatively short list of Writerly Meccas... places that, for purely literary reasons I feel the need to go and just soak it all in... the stuff that helped make the writers and the writing that endures for me. And yes, even though Boston is One Of Those Cities that's historically important... The Tea Party, American Revolutionary War, Blah, Blah, Blah... Lowell, Massachusetts resonates for me a little more.

Lowell is the birthplace and final resting place of Jack Kerouac, one of those writers academes love to hate and many other writers hate to love. He's most well known for On The Road, the book that, if you read it when you're 18 makes you want to quit whatever you're doing and travel.

Of course, it's all carnival now... an economically depressed blue collar town that, once a year, becomes a bastion for hordes of Kerouac wannabes who don't understand the final tragedy of the man or his work. Desolation Angelsis one of my favorite books, and tops the list of my favorites of Kerouac's. (Followed by Mexico City Blues, and Tristessa.) Desolation Angelsis supposed to cover the period of time in his life before he wrote On The Road. But in many ways, it sums up everything about the man – his hopes, his hang ups, and his sense of failure, his idealism, and ultimately, his bitterness.

Idealists are grumpy most of the time, and generally have the greatest cause to be... because the world rarely lives up to our expectations. Because the dream is rarely realized. And if there's a recurring theme in my travels thus far, it's that dreams – although necessary and worth the risk – often don't come true. Or worse, they do, and don't measure up to the ideal.

We could have made it up to Lowell and had a quick look around; but I didn't want to sprint through just to say I'd been there. Neil and I decided instead to go to Harvard. As a former academic wage slave, I thought it was important to go to Harvard Square – the heart of academic entitlement – just so I could tell myself that The Machine didn't beat me.

My relationship with Higher Education... as it continues to be called, though now with a bit more irony and disgust... is nothing short of antagonistic. We understand one another, H.E. and I. As the last institution that failed me, and I believe, that continues to fail most everyone who can't afford to go someplace like Harvard, I end up howling alone about these failures. Because only a rare few are willing to admit I'm right, and most everyone – including the poor bastards who have still made careers out of it – is unwilling to accept the fact that they're slaves at worst and lackeys*at best. 

We walked down the hill and caught a bus that would take us straight to Harvard Square. It's a very pretty place, actually. Well manicured and cared for. Lots of brick. It was a Sunday afternoon, and on the chilly side, but there was still a fair amount of hustle and bustle. As we made our way to the Harvard Campus, Neil told me his story of the Harvard Occupy... when some of the nation's most entitled students – many of them the sons and daughters of the 1% – gathered to camp on Harvard Square to protest whatever it was they thought they were protesting... probably the fact that they don't get automatic A's for simply being accepted to the university that can boast, among it's many luminaries and graduates, former President George W. Bush... proof positive that a rich Daddy and a sense of entitlement really can get you somewhere.

At one point, Neil told me, the Harvard Occupy started to attract non-Harvard folks – particularly the homeless population. This, naturally, could not stand. After all, when a bunch of entitled kids who want to camp and have an excuse to cut class – other than the ones their Daddys give them – nothing works like a short scamp into wretched liberalism. (Which , of course, is allowed in college. Like “experimenting” with drugs and casual homosexuality. As long as you graduate on time and get a real job, what you do between class is no one's business, and, like the long hard tradition of sodomy in secret societies, is never discussed.) The homeless problem is one of those that the Occupy Movement has yet to cope with. There's still a fair amount of middle class pretense among the Occupiers who fail to understand that the very same forces that create homeless and poverty are the very same forces that are robbing them of the ability to have a nice house in the burbs, 2 cars, and three large flat screen televisions.

The Harvard Administration saw fit to close the Harvard Yard. Literally.

Wretched Liberal Dumpster Diving is one thing. But the HOMELESS? ON CAMPUS? Mixing with the best and brightest that private schools and trust funds (and scholarships for the statistically relevant poor kids) have to offer?

Something horrible could happen....

Something like...

I don't know...


No. The potential for class and culture miscegenation could never be permitted.

The common refrain in Neil's dialogue was that Harvard – separate from the students – was the kind of place where the only thing that mattered was The Work. And for anyone who knows better, The Work is something different for everyone. The Work is something sacred; because in the beginning was The Work. And the Word was with God. And the Work was God. And the Work carried on in spite of all -- including a society that neither appreciates nor encourages Good Work to be done. When I asked Neil how he felt when he first got his job on Harvard Campus, he smiled. Then he told me about his initial impressions of the place and how it surprised him that no one who actually worked at Harvard was actually all that snobbish.

“I was the one with the chip on my shoulder,” he said.

The only time Harvard people get bound up, Neil insisted, was when they're impeded from their work.

I don't think I believe it's as simple as that everywhere else; but I like to think it could be.

Neil is one of those guys who always looks for the best advantage; he's smart enough, and multi-talented enough. He says that if there's any advantage to the shit hole economy it's that people will have to learn how to Do Things On Their Own. He says it could be the best time for people who can engineer their own futures.

That's the narrative that feels good. God knows I like it, and or some people it might even be true. I don't know know if it's true for me. But in the end, maybe knowing doesn't matter. Maybe the journey doesn't count on knowing. Maybe knowing doesn't matter.

Maybe it's something else.

Now, when I was wandering around around Harvard Campus, I paused in front of Widener Library, and I even rubbed the shoe of the statue of John Harvard.

It's not really a statue of John Harvard. Rumor has it that the real John Harvard couldn't be bothered to sit for the modeling, so he sent someone else. Which means that everyone who rubs the toe of the Harvard statue for good luck is really rubbing the toe of some heretofore nameless academic. Huzzah!

The image that struck me even more deeply than the veiwing Widener Library... which, thanks to Hollywood, reminds me of  a young and beautiful Moira Kelly

She could've borrowed my razor anytime. Until One Tree Hill. That was just.... just horrible.

and a hairy Joe Pesci

Thanks to Hollywood script writers, literate bums can get laid by exotic beautiful, well-read women** .

was the large number of homeless people huddling in Harvard Square.

If the weather was warmer, I'd think they were waiting out the cold. But it wasn't warmer. And they were there, anyway. Huddling around the doors of the shops where Harvard faculty, staff, and students shop, are the broken, the lost, the free, and the brave. They try and stay warm, politely ask for a small piece of humanity, and endure... in spite of the fact that the conservative hordes and the wretched liberal scamps don't seem to understand that they, too, are part of America... and a part of the American Dream that has never lived up to the idealism that birthed it.

Being on Harvard's campus, though, I  couldn't help but be bowled over. Just a little. It's not a big campus, really. But it's a well-maintained one, and one that started simply with a collection of books and a pile of money. Used to be, that's all it took to start a university. And it's the tension between those two things... knowledge and finance -- that continues to define the problems higher education still has.

It's also the tension between those two things that defines most of our problems as a culture, I think. I won't bore you with the history of literacy in Western Civilization; but I will say this: Democracy would not exist without it. An Educated People are a People who are less likely to be fooled. An Educated People understand the gravity and the freedom of Self-Determination.

But it's also true... and it's becoming increasingly so... that you don't need a college degree to be Educated. Thomas Carlyle said the only true college is a library of books. And Neil, while I don't share his optimism, does have a point: we may be at the one of those rare high water marks in human development thus far where the access to information and the ability to Do is unparalleled.  If we decide to take the risk. If we decide to throw off the old dreams and old metaphors.... like that one called The American Dream, which dictates that success comes from Gumption and from Doing All The Right Things.

Instead, maybe we should find The Work and do it no matter what. Even if it means Doing What Seems Like the Wrong Thing. Because in spite of what we're told, The Work matters. And it doesn't always pay. But it's always necessary. And we should be annoyed when the world conspires against us getting it done.

And sometimes, you end up being a bum and people think you're nuts. But there's enlightenment in that, too. There's enlightenment and there's humanity when you learn to look past what you see.

*For a proper definition, please refer to the Parsons Dictionary of Often Used Words and Phrases.
** In case you didn't know... DOESN'T happen much in real life. Or, at any rate, not to me. Not that I'd object, to being proven wrong, though...

[Thanks for reading! Sorry with the delay on getting this one posted. My next blog... on my temporary return to Mount Carroll and my plans for the next stages... south and west... is forthcoming. 

A special thanks to Nelson Bonner and Jennifer Payne for their contributions to the travel fund. I will be putting it towards necessary supplies and travel costs. My exit window is 3/21 -4/1.

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18 May, 2011

Open Letter to the Alumni Association

Dear Sanctimonious Leeches and Intellectual Parasites:

I would very much like to thank you for the glossy quarterly publication in which you highlight the accomplishments of those past, present, and future graduates who you feel distinguish the grand Alma Mater in this age of for-profit degree mills and economic and educational disparity. I have always felt especially grateful to have attended because of the people I met there, student and faculty alike, who encouraged me to grow and to think and have helped me to become the fully realized human being I am in the process of becoming.

Among them, one teacher stands out more than most. And I would mention his name, but since you have never mentioned him in the aforementioned glossy publication you insist on mailing me every three months, I can only conclude that he continues to toil in the shadow of an institution that neither notices nor cares that he has set upon the world more artists and free thinkers than your College of Business has loosed successful entrepreneurs. As a matter of fact, I'm fairly certain that your College of Business – which, allowed by your President and Board of Regents, and in a premeditated and unholy fashion, swallowed whole the English Department from which I managed to graduate … twice … – has done little more for the world than set upon it an army of mediocre middle managers, all of whom were made to retrain their replacements when the companies they worked for sent all the jobs overseas.

Now, this teacher I speak of is a great poet and an amazing human being – and though that statement is a bit repetitive, I feel, nonetheless, obliged to mention both since you may not have yet made the connection. He had done none of the things that merit attention from the College of Business graduates who have risen to offices of institutional power and affluence... the poetry haters who used to pass out ruffies to sorority girls at parties the way priests hand out wafers of bread on Sunday. As a related aside, consider this: people who claim to hate poetry or to not understand it have clearly missed the point. Granted, the Modernists – Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and the like – sort screwed over those of who came after because they removed poetry from the trust of the people and deposited it in the sorry Savings and Loan otherwise known as the modern college and university system. And because of those dead sorry bastards there's a lot of even sorrier living ones who have never known that poetry is a more potent aphrodisiac than chocolate.

But this does not excuse you, leeches and parasites, from the guilt you share in the whole sale theft of the American Dream. Whole generations have come up believing they need you to succeed, and if they can't afford you that they aren't worthy. And if by success they mean living the half life of a cubicle caught middle manager, techie toiler, tax payer, and amasser of debt, then your Ponzi scheme has succeeded. You rotten sons of bitches.

Along with the glossy magazine you send me every three months with the pictures of the unknowing poster children of the apocalypse, you often send me letters asking for money... a tithe, no doubt from the income you feel like you have helped me to earn. And while I would gladly spend that $25 on beer for the teacher to whom I owe so much, or for any one of the people– poets and artists all – who have graced me with their friendship, there is very little you can do, either in your form letters or in your glossy magazine to convince me that I ought to contribute to your war coffers.

If, after receiving this letter, you still feel the need to send me the glossy magazine every three months, it's your postage, not mine; the same goes for the letters you send that have gone unanswered until now and will again after I finish. But if you have any respect – scratch that – you are at all concerned about the time wasted by the poor dumb kids you put on the phone to call and try and talk me out of the little bit of money I manage to gather up, remove my phone number from your rolls; because not only will I try and convince them they need to drop out and go find themselves, I will also try and talk them into setting the the Administration building on fire before they leave under cover of night.

You are weasels of the lowest order, the spoilers of healthy minds and rapists of good solid souls. You will get no more of me.


Mick Parsons
Mount Carroll, IL

06 October, 2009

Scotch and Semantics

The Department Chair was a dumbass and everybody knew it. Everyone knew it so well that nobody ever brought it up – least of all, to him.

I’m supposed to see it as one of those All Too Common Petty Injustices of Life. When people find out what I do for a living, they either act impressed or they roll their eyes; construction workers tend to roll their eyes more than anybody else – like, Oh. A TEACHER. Actually, they could almost respect that. But when they hear I work at the university they think Oh. A COLLEGE PROFESSOR – which means I’m further removed from real life than a corpse. It doesn’t matter that I’m not really a professor. I used to try and explain how that’s a rank and not a job title. I used to try and explain how Professors were tenured and taught half the load I teach, with fewer students, and made more money. Then when I talked about money somebody would usually say, “But no one gets into teaching for the MONEY, right?” That’s supposed to make it all okay; but you try telling a pipe fitter that passion for his work is more important than how much money he makes. You’ll get laughed out of the bar. It didn’t do any good to explain that I wasn’t some hot shit PhD, but really more of an academic ditch digger, that I taught general ed classes that everyone had to take but no one wanted to. So I stopped. And I avoided talking about my job as much as possible.

Linda, my wife, tells me I need to be happy. She’s in league with my mother, trying to convince me that the problem is me. Every job, they tell me, has things about it that make it horrible. My mother calls from Ohio to just to tell me over and over that I need to “just play the game.” That I need to do things to improve my standing in the department. “Why don’t you go back to school,” she asks, “and get your doctorate? Then you can get a tenure-track position and you’ll feel better.”

I always tell her the same thing. I tell her there’s no point. I’d been out of school for nearly ten years. I’d have to retake the GRE, find money for application fees, and there was no way I could work full-time. We’d probably end up having to take out more loans, and Linda and I were both still paying ours off. Linda echoed my mother’s sentiments, though not her solution; she’d never say so, but the added financial strain of me going back to school would be too much for us. She doesn’t have to say it because we both know it. Besides, I didn’t really want to go back. Too much hassle for too little pay off.

Linda worked in a home for troubled children; it wasn’t a state agency, but one of those for-profit agencies that state governments use to cut spending. She liked her job most of the time; she enjoyed working with the kids because it fed something inside of her. Maybe it was the maternal instinct that went unsatisfied because we didn’t have any kids of our own. When she first started working there, sometimes she came home and cried because of the stories she heard about the families the kids came from. She didn’t make a lot of money, but there was plenty of over time since turn over was so high.

Usually I beat her home; one night, though, I stumbled home drunk because I stopped off at the bar after work and she was standing in the kitchen waiting for me.

“You need to be happy,” she said to me.

“You make me happy.”

She wasn’t convinced and the expression on her face told me so. It also told me it had been my turn to cook.

I tried to look as apologetic as possible. She just shook her head and opened the cabinets. I took a beer out of the fridge and got out of her way.

“You need to find something to DO that will make you happy,” she repeated after I sat down on the couch. “I can’t be the only thing.”

“I have other things.”

She started banging around in the kitchen – her way of telling me she didn’t feel like cooking, but that she would anyway because she didn’t want me to set myself of the apartment on fire. Christ. One small grease fire after a few scotch and waters and you’d think I started the Chicago Fire. It looked like she was going to make pasta alfredo. “Like what?” she asked.

“The track. The casino.”

She snorted. “Yeah. Between your bad luck at the track and your worse luck at Blackjack, I’m lucky we’re not living in a cardboard box.”

“I didn’t see you complaining when you were do so well at the slots.” She chopping fresh garlic and putting water on to boil. Try as she might, she couldn’t be really upset with me. I was grumpy and crude and, as my nearly adult daughter told me on her last visit, “prone to unhealthy behaviors,” But I always came home, didn’t fuck around, and we didn’t really fight all that much. Plus, she liked that I was a little crude. A little rough around the edges. Sometimes, anyway.

“You need to be happy,” she repeated. “Do what you need to do so you can be happy.”

If only it was that easy. I had stopped off at the bar because I needed to get the bitterness out of my mouth. The previous week, the Department Chair Dr. Nealy announced an instructor meeting. I didn’t usually go to meetings – they were a waste of time. But with all the recent budget cutting initiatives – which included a hiring freeze, enforced furloughs, pay cuts, and ratcheting up class sizes and course loads – not to mention all the gossip about more impending lay offs for the Spring Semester, I thought it was a good idea to go and listen. After all, it was in my best interest, right? It meant canceling my office hours, but it wasn’t like any students were going to stop by anyway; they’d rather send panic inspired emails filled with spelling errors and misused vocabulary. So I left a note on the door of my windowless basement office and trudged upstairs.

When I got to the room where the meeting was going to be held – it was an empty classroom – there were already about a dozen people there. Mostly women, but since the majority of the instructors were women, that was no shock. Colleagues, though I use the term loosely. Collegiality had gone out the window the previous year when the first round of budget cuts put us all at odds. There were more of us than there were jobs. The recession meant less state money and, in the words of the University President, “some belt tightening.” I survived the cut – fuck if I know how – but my year long contract had been reduced to a semester to semester one. Meanwhile, the Board of Regents had been so pleased with the President’s handling of the budget crisis that they awarded him with a $10,000 bonus. I guess their definition of belt tightening was giving him 10 instead of 20.

There were two other guys, sitting near the back. I’d talked to them once or twice and occasionally got listserv emails from them about irrelevant things. I didn’t say anything to them when they looked at me, but I nodded. They nodded back. I found a seat in the back corner, catty corner to the door, wishing I’d had a drink beforehand.

The first three rows were filled with women. Some things never change. During the first few weeks of classes, the girls filled the front rows; they were dutiful, polite, and raised to be people pleasers and respecters of perceived authority. They sat up front so they could make a good impression because they believed that I’d assume they were smarter because they sat in the front. The ditch diggers sitting in the first three rows sat there because they wanted Dr. Nealy to notice them. He was a tall, distinguished black man – the first black man to hold the position of chair in the history of the department. He was authoritative and looked cool at the same time. His PhD was in Southern African-American Children’s Folk Tales. He’d learned public speaking from growing up in a church deep in Southern Georgia; and though his accent had been meticulously educated out of his mouth, he still spoke with the cadence of a southern preacher. And like every sermon I’d ever heard, the cadence meant more than the content. Usually, by the time Nealy was finished speaking, the gaggle of women were absolutely entranced and suffering from the kind of rapture I’d only ever seen in porno movies.

I’d explained this to Linda before; but she just shook her head and told me I related everything to sex. “If I didn’t know better,” she said, “I’d think you just didn’t like women.” Then she called me misogynist. But she smiled when she said it.

The room was filling up. More people showed than I expected; but there were always a few hold outs. I was little jealous not to be among them. I didn’t want to care, and the bigger part of me didn’t. I didn’t want to worry; but the bigger part of me was. That’s what becomes of young cocky assholes; we get older and get married and find careers. We set ourselves up so that we have no choice but to wake up and go to work and whittle away the minutes of our lives until retirement or daily frustration gets us in the end.

I had closed my eyes to wait until the meeting started. The usual kinds of chatter was filling the room. I wanted to relax, but the desk was uncomfortable. That hadn’t changed much either. I never remember the desks being comfortable. When I was a student, I thought it was some plot to keep us from getting too comfortable. As an instructor I had come to know that was gospel.

I knew when Nealy walked in because the women hushed themselves. When I opened my eyes, he leaned back and sat down on top of the desk. Like cool teachers did. And then he spoke.

“I understand,” he began, “that there’s been some concerns – some GOSSIP circulating.” He smiled and chuckled. The women chuckled with him. “Some GOSSIP and MIS-conception about hiring and firing and recent economic inconvenience.”

You know you’re dealing with semantics when your boss calls the worst recession since the Great Depression an “economic inconvenience.” I closed my eyes again and kept listening.

“It’s a difficult time for us ALL,” he went on. I could hear him flashing his bleached smile, along with the subtle sound of quickly melting resolve. Nealy’s changed quickly; he picked up the pace. He probably sensed that he was in control of the meeting and he didn’t want to linger any longer than he had to; he probably had a tee time to catch with the Dean. “And I UNDERSTAND, that SOME people MAY BE NERVOUS…”

My head was starting to hurt and my throat was dry. I should’ve brought my flask.

“But there’s NO REASON to be CONCERNED.”

Pompous jackass.

“Excuse me…?”

I opened my eyes because I heard a little birdie speak. The little birdie’s name was Jun Van Oort. By some fuck up of fate shed was one of the most senior members of what Nealy often referred to in mass emails as “the instructor pool.” When I read that it reminded me of some 1950’s office with rows of typists in pleated skirts succumbing to sexual harassment. June had been an instructor longer than anybody, except for another pedantic crone named Teryl Meeks who smiled a lot and spoke up very little except to say “Don’t rock the boat.” And at some point June had decided to take it upon herself to be our representative.

Her voice was tiny and warbly. We’d talked before, and even though I couldn't see her face from where I was sitting, I knew exactly what she looked like: a small face, long narrow nose, deeply wrinkled skin, shallow cheeks like pock marks, and little bird like eyes that peered out from behind thick reading glasses that she wore all the time. She liked to wear make-up, but it did more to accentuate her age than conceal it.

“Excuse me?” She repeated herself.

Nealy shined his bleached smile down on her and I thought I saw her body quiver just a little.

“But we’ve heard there will be more cuts in the spring.” I imagined that she practiced her little speech in front of the bathroom mirror while she was slathering on Mary Kay. “Won’t that mean larger classes for those who stay?” There was a twittering of agreement from the rest of the gaggle. “The language in our new contracts is a little vague on…”

Nealy raised his hand in a way that reminded me of DeMille’s Ten Commandments. June and twittering gaggle fell silent.

“I’m not responsible for the language in the contracts,” he boomed. “That comes from the Dean’s office. All I can tell you…”

Here we go.

“… is that we’re still going to need to staff classes, and with our student retention rates improving, chances are we’re going to need all the people we can get.”

I looked over at Teryl Meeks. She was at the end of the third row, close to the door. Her hands were folded neatly on her desk. She wasn’t too concerned. Of course, it helped that her Dad was a Professor Emeritus in Linguistics. She knew she wasn’t going anywhere.

“But,” June chirped. “But we’ve heard…”

“Gossip,” Nealy pronounced with an expression of judgment that shamed June into looking down at her desk. Then he smiled his most radiant, cunt melting smile. “I KNOW,” he said, standing to address us at full height, “there have been RUMORS saying THIS and saying THAT…”

Praise fucking Jesus. The desks creaked and cracked as the women all sat up to take in his every syllable that fell from his lips.

“… but you KNOW what THEY say about IDLE GOSSIP!” He laughed and the gaggle laughed with him.

My head was hurting worse. Shit.

“LADIES…” he spoke grandly, and then, as if he just noticed the three of us who pissed standing up, “… and GENTLEMEN,” he smiled. The benediction was coming soon. “Times are HARD all AROUND.”

Really? I thought. I knew how much money he made. He wasn’t struggling like the rest of us. Not by a long shot.

“But we’re SURVIVING. And we will CONTINUE to SURVIVE.”

I half expected a musical refrain. Maybe a verse of Glory Hallelujah or I Will Survive. The other two guys sat stone faced. They knew Nealy was a dumbass. The women knew it, too – so long as he wasn’t around. Again I was jealous of the ones who had the sense to skip the meeting. I could’ve stayed in my office and surfed the internet or gone ahead to the bar to ring in happy hour. I looked at June Van Oort. She was nodding like a true convert. Teryl Meeks was smiling. Nealy was basking us all in his bleached shiny fucking smile.

Just when I thought the meeting was over and I could escape, Nealy kept talking. He went on and on about how many times he’d been in the Dean’s office trying to get us a fair shake. He told us he was on OUR SIDE and that nobody knew BETTER THAN HIM just how much we contributed and just how important we were. Money and security were important, he said. But he knew we aspired to MORE.

“After all,” he said, “No gets into teaching for the MONEY.” He laughed at his own joke. The gaggle laughed with him.

I groaned audibly.

The room fell silent and everyone turned to look at me.

Nealy stopped smiling. “Did you want to add something…?” He was trying to remember my name. I didn’t bother to fill in the blank for him.

“Yes, Rick,” June said. She wasn’t smiling anymore either. “Did you want to say something?”

My name’s not Rick, either. The bitch had been getting my name wrong since first time I met her. Though, to be fair, if you’re not really paying attention, Rick sounds a lot like Nick Rafferty. I wasn’t going to bother correcting her, either.

“Nope,” I said standing up. My ass was numb from sitting in the desk. “Looks like you all have everything sewn up. But I do have a STUDENT coming to SEE ME, so…” I walked out of the room without finishing the sentence, left the building, left campus, and headed straight for the bar.

After I explained all of this to Linda, she kissed me and told me she knew I was brilliant. I didn’t believe her, but I liked to think she believed it; and sometimes, that had to be enough. Her dinner was fantastic; better than anything I could’ve cooked even if I hadn’t come home drunk. She brought me a large tumbler of ice water – her way of telling me I needed to stop drinking for the night – hugged me, then put her shoes on.

“Where you going?”

She sighed. “I told you,” she said. “I’m picking up an extra shift tonight. Over time.”

I’d forgotten. That was why I was supposed to cook. “Tonight?”

“All they do is sleep,” Linda said. “It’s easy. Somebody just has to be there in case.”

She grabbed her purse and the car key. “Will you be alright?”

I wasn’t sure. “Sure.”

She kissed me. I really like her kisses. I hated when she picked up overnight shifts because I didn’t sleep well when she wasn’t home. But we needed the money, and it would give us the weekend together.

After she left I dumped the water and took out the bottle of cheap scotch I kept stored in the cabinet above the sink. I had class the next day; but I also wanted to be able to sleep, and I didn’t want to have to think about any of it anymore.