Before I can do Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard #4 (and resurrect a series that has laid dormant for over a year), I have to tell a very personal story. And it’s time to do it now.
For those of you who’ve been getting to know me in one place or another over the past couple of years – be it at Tennessee Tech or online through Twitter or what have you – there’s a bias that I hesitate to bring up too much in this climate, knowing how many people come from how many different employment backgrounds, but that’s inescapable given my own. It’s the interweaving of life and work, and the identity that we take from our work.
My grandfather was a dentist. He practiced dentistry in the military, and then settled with his wife in Berea, Ohio to establish a community practice. He engaged with his professional societies vigorously; he reached the presidency of the Ohio Dental Association, and even served as president of the Ohio State University Dental Alumni Society in his late EIGHTIES, long after his retirement. Anybody who spent too much time around him saw his “Rx for Apathy: INVOLVEMENT” motto, and his commitment to his community and his profession was awesome for me to see in my youthful years, and awesome for me to talk over with him on precious Saturday mornings having breakfast before Ohio State football games when I was in grad school.
Even as I saw the stresses over the profession when I was in grad school, nothing interested me near as much as the practice of college teaching. (The one substantial regret I have from graduate school was not pushing back when my boss shot down out-of-hand my desire to look into science education labs and seek out postdocs that were more teaching-focused. I understand why she did, in terms of the pressures on the research-one professoriate. But my heart never left the classroom, and any thought of being a research professor was setting myself up to fail.) When my postdoc failed, and the prospect of teaching at a small residential two-year college came to the fore, the picture of a life in a small town as a respected member of the community working in education REALLY appealed to me, and it felt like a thing I could make a career out of.
It bears mentioning that, in the year 2000, I was really naïve.
Fast forward through 14 years and three different jobs that I took with the feeling that I absolutely had no choice each time I moved and the thoughts in the back of my mind that I could have done better. The reason that Virginia Intermont’s failure hit me so hard, at the end of the day, is the fact that I left what I did on that job with zero regrets and it still didn’t matter. In both of my first two jobs, the institution continues on (in a different form than when I arrived at both, but it continues on) and I’m torn whether I could have changed or hidden elements of who I was or been a bit more agreeable and patient and not had to move my family around. Maybe I could have stayed at Middle Georgia long-term; maybe I felt too much principle when I left Shorter. But I see the mistakes I made at both places. I fully realized the type of professor I wanted to be at Virginia Intermont, I found a place I loved and students I wanted to serve for the long haul.
And the school failed anyway.
I tossed every application out to every small teaching-centered college or university in the universe because I’d started doing something professionally that I dearly, desperately wanted to continue and I felt like I could articulate a vision for success. I interviewed at several, and all but one of those processes failed for one reason or another. I targeted one Christian liberal arts college in particular, and went through a very full process on the phone, on Skype and over a two-day (!) in-person interview schedule to work to make that happen. At the very end of the process, they canceled the search and allowed the due-to-retire professor to stay on for another year. Failure, in your face, again.
I’ve said a good bit about the search process that didn’t fail elsewhere. I’ll always be grateful for that one job application in 2014 that didn’t fail, and the work I did at Tennessee Tech shifted my thinking about science education – and got me DOING things in science education – in ways that I really can’t count. But the job title was “temporary instructor of physics.” The vocation that I had taken so much value from was gone. And you might be treated exceptionally well in that job – and I was. And you might be listened to and valued by your colleagues in every aspect of your work in that job – and I was. But the word “temporary” is still there. The word “professor” is in your colleague’s titles and not your own. The institution devalues. It’s worthy work, but there’s inherent disrespect in how your employer classifies it.
What was once theoretical for me – the reality of jobs drying up in higher education, the tenuous nature of those who deliver the teaching that our students depend upon for that vital degree – became very real in that time, even as I knew that I was incredibly fortunate to keep full-time employment in 2014. I saw it happen in so many others’ lives as well, in so many other places that failed and in other places where people’s secure employment was suddenly changed and made less secure.
2014 was a very hard time, and made very real to me how hard things were for others. You shouldn’t have to go through awful things to build that empathy. But I’m not that good a person.
Jimmy Eat World’s Damage was released in the summer of 2013 to more underwhelming reviews than raves, and it’s still not even close to one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World albums (although to me a bad Jimmy Eat World album is still better than 90% of bands’ entire catalogs). It’s the album on the downward side of the band’s career, and it has all the foibles of that stage of a band’s lifetime.
But most songs that become my lifelong favorites have a moment where they just hit. And there was a moment sometime in early 2014, when I saw how the Virginia Intermont story was going to end, and when I heard what had just been a good steady rocker and it hit me between the eyes. And as each step of my job hunt became more vivid, each lyric from the song resonated more and more.
Here we go, here we go; we’ll take on so much pain
To feel secure – or not feel anything
I only pick a fight I’m sure to lose
So how could I not hold my hope for you?
How slowly we built the walls
In years they pile on
I will steal you back…
And my word, I had taken on pain – and put myself and my family through so much hardship and instability in pursuit of this thing that I care so deeply about. And, again, we had comparatively remained stable; we had known people who had and then found themselves without.
One of the most gratifying things to discover was that Jim Adkins didn’t see this lyric as it sounded on first listen, but wrote it as I heard it when it hit me at its hardest – as a point of commitment:
I guess you can read into it as a surface thing, like, literally wanting someone back whose grace you might have fallen out with…but I view it more like a first-person speaker in that song making decisions, rather than just resolutions. It’s more about, I think, finding yourself and being okay with yourself than it is wanting or needing something from the other person in a relationship…
So as the song became a theme for a stage of my life, the title – “I Will Steal You Back” – never was about a person. It was in part about that job title, but that’s not even the entire picture. It was about that picture I had in 2000 – that naïve vision of a stable place in a small town for the professor and for their family, a picture that wasn’t that unreasonable in my youth but a picture that has been slipping steadily out of view for most of my career. It was determination to get that for myself and my family. It was determination to stand in defense for those others around me who were struggling to have that for themselves and and their families.
I’ve been successful in one, but there is still a long, long way to go on the other.
“It’s gonna be how it is; there’s some things you don’t change.”
I’m done with telling myself that story.
(1) I have written entirely too many of these things, because I have moved my family around entirely too many times.
Real Professional Development Goal, August 2016-forever: make this the last of these things I ever write.
(2) In July of 2011, I wrote this:
I have been offered a position at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA, to teach chemistry and physics and play a key role in building that school’s natural science department. The position and the surrounding professional development is nothing short of the perfect job for this point in my career.
For those of you who came into my orbit sometime after that, and don’t know how that story ended, it ended with financial problems overrunning the college, and getting laid off not even three years later. It was not a fun time.
Now for you to be convinced that I’m crazy: I still believe what I said five years ago to be true.
With all respect and love to my friends in Georgia who were so good to me, but who I left to chase what was to me a dream of a job: Virginia Intermont was where I found and made a home. I thought I loved the mountains when I lived in Rome (Georgia, y’all) and worked at Shorter. In Bristol, I knew. I saw this forgotten and less fashionable part of the country and, being a less fashionable person myself, I found a real sense of place.
I went all-in on Virginia Intermont because I saw what was possible for that kind of school in that season of time when I was at Shorter, how the unlikely student could grow into the leader and the visionary. I built an entirely-too-vivid picture of what that looked like at VI. I wanted to see that vision become a reality, so badly that I bought a house and made Virginia Hill my home.
What I found in exchange was the truest sense of learning community, unlike any experience I have ever had. It was the greatest of privileges to be a part of it. The students I taught at VI are people I cherish and love – every last student, through the good times and the bad that we shared (and God knows, if you’re that close, you’re going through everything together). We went through as difficult a transaction as anybody in education should ever deal with. They have been faithful to me, and I hope that I have been as faithful to them. Those students, far above and beyond anything else, were worth that move for me.
But they weren’t the only benefit. The other thing I realized in my time at Virginia Intermont was how much of an island I had been on in the work that I did. The very first time I went to an Appalachian College Association Summit, and had time to talk to colleagues from places like Ferrum and Montreat and Ohio Valley and Pikeville and Brevard and West Virginia Wesleyan – and realized that these people had been talking to one another for quite some time about the same troubles I had as a faculty at a resource-limited small private college in the South – I realized what professional development what would look like for me over the long term.
Losing Virginia Intermont didn’t just mean losing the school and the students – it meant losing colleagues over several states in this precious region who had wisdom to share and who knew what the difficulty in this time of history for small private colleges looked like. It was such a benefit over those three years. It ended abruptly – I was scheduled to attend an ACA Teaching and Learning Institute in June 2014, before VI closed in May 2014. The abruptness was as hard to take as anything.
The time I spent at Virginia Intermont confirmed some things that I valued and revealed new things. I always knew how much I valued the time spent with students and how much I appreciated institutions that encouraged the development of genuine learning community. I really understood – for the first time in my young-punk career – how much I had to learn from those who had done the same kind of work I had, at the same kinds of institutions I had.
And – there is no other way to say this – I fell in love with Central Appalachia. And I longed to make that place home.
(3) I have been ridiculously fortunate to have been at Tennessee Technological University for the past two years. I had wanted to chase after better, more active learning in my classroom for a long time; I knew the benefits, and it’s not like I didn’t try to draw communication out of my students in the classroom, but I was exceptionally comfortable in a traditional chalk-and-talk mode, and in a position where I was teaching three different courses at once, as much as I loved that diversity of work, I didn’t really find myself in a position where I could push the active classroom as much as I wanted to – or, really, as much as I needed to.
Observing Steve Robinson and Paula Engelhardt in the process of implementing an active learning curriculum for the algebra/trig-based physics sequence has been, in nearly every sense, a better educational experience than anything I got out of a postdoc. This is the stuff that will make me better as a professor: finding ways to make students productively uncomfortable in a classroom setting, and creating an environment where they aren’t just hearing information but internalizing it and making knowledge their own. I don’t have all the answers, and maybe I have a ton of experience with some of this stuff, but it’s so much more valuable when the student makes an observation, draws a conclusion, carries a new experience with them to inform how they see the world.
And I have been privileged to work alongside this whole department – but especially with Mary Kidd, Mustafa Rajabali, and Adam Holley in making this curriculum work for the wider student population. The one time before in my career I worked alongside another physics educator, I was a problem child and overopinionated and I am sure I torched more than that one bridge in the process. I probably was the same here, but rather than putting me off, these sweet people listened and challenged me right back, We have been, I hope, iron sharpening iron day in and day out. I could not possibly have had better colleagues these past two years.
I have very few regrets, but not finding a way to teach like this and engage like this sooner in my career is one of them; as much good as I’ve done in a classroom in my career, I am more confident than ever that there is a better way than simply telling a class what I’m going to tell them, then telling them, then telling them what I told them.
There was a thought that simply doing this work, and refining this work to make it more and more effective, would have been the most valuable thing I could do going forward. I did have the opportunity to remain at Tennessee Tech, within this department, and I’m grateful for all the people here who supported me and invested so much in me. At several points in April, I was seriously thinking of what settling in Cookeville would look like.
That would have been bittersweet. As good as it was to be wanted, it would have involved narrowing my vision – the career spent bouncing between disciplines would be over, the advising of students at various points on academic and pre-professional paths would be over, the focus on the wider institution and on higher education would have been over. So many things that I have valued so deeply would no longer come with that place. Quality teaching is so important, and being in a role focused on quality teaching would be worthy. But there were so many things I felt were undone.
And there was that tiny little issue of a place, a place where my eldest child was finding home as well, still carrying an attachment. And wondering if there was a way back.
And I reached a point where I didn’t think there was a way.
And then things started to happen.
(4) I honestly didn’t know what to think when I received that first email, except an old colleague was there and she had been pretty high on the thought of me getting the job and joining the faculty. I honestly thought the email came too late; we were ready to decide to stay put; I had other interviews at similar schools and found in one way or another that they were after somebody to fill a very narrow faculty line and could do as well to hire a young punk straight out of grad school (like I once was) than somebody who had been around the block a time or two.
And then a phone call. And a serious conversation. And a recognition that I came from a different place and a different experience, and a recognition that they were looking for a different professor and a different impact. We agreed to keep talking. And soon.
The interview, honestly, wasn’t like any interview I’d ever had in my career. It was comfortable, from the very first moment. Many of the formalities started to be dispensed with early. I was recognized, not as somebody who was a warm body seeking a job, but somebody who had a unique skill set, a unique background, and who could do unique things.
I started to understand that they didn’t just want a physicist, or a chemist, or even a molecular biophysicist. They wanted me – who I had been, who I am now, who I could become. And I could get a picture of becoming a far better scholar in this community than I am now.
Future colleagues – for that’s what they turned out to be, and what I was able to see them as from even the first conversation – spoke directly, and honestly, and with hope. Students spoke to what was good about their experience, what needed to improve, and why they loved the place.
I’ve left interviews before being completely confused about what the job was, and what my responsibilities might be. Here, I saw a role, and I saw it completely.
I have never been so excited leaving an interview (even as I left it to scramble back to Cookeville to give an exam). The place was not perfect, but the imperfections were very clear and not hidden at all. The job ahead was clear. And I hoped I’d be given the chance.
(5) When the dust settled, on April 21, I had an offer from Tusculum College, just outside Greeneville, Tennessee, a little more than an hour away from Bristol, on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest on the North Carolina state line.
It was an offer to join their faculty as Associate Professor of Natural Sciences, with teaching responsibility across physics, chemistry, and – my word, is this really happening? – molecular and cellular biology.
There are a host of other benefits and responsibilities that come with that. But, more than anything else, it’s a return to a faculty position serving a small, teaching-centered liberal arts (and, Tusculum would remind you, civic arts) college in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s work I’m prepared for in every way, shape and form.
I am as grateful as you could possibly imagine for the opportunity.
My prayer now is very simple: for me, forever, this will be what it means to go home.
All across the fruited plain, American soccer fans made a decision about entertainment today. Some of them beat themselves upside the head with an orange training cone. In a slightly less justifiable move, some of them watched the Gold Cup 3rd Place Game between the United States and Panama. But a few hardy souls fired up the YouTube and, despite zero emotional investment, watched a poorly attended USL match between New York Red Bulls II and the Richmond Kickers. Who made the best decision?
Obviously, the guys knocking themselves upside the head with the orange training cones. But among those of us who watched soccer, we can evaluate outcomes at the Tale of the Tape.
NYRB II v Richmond v USA v Panama
Category: GOALS SCORED
NYRB II v Richmond: Seven
USA v Panama: Two
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond
Category: MINUTES PLAYED
NYRB II v Richmond: 90
USA v Panama: 120
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond again, if only for the agony of being an American supporter having to watch this USA defense. Speaking of which:
Category: TOTAL SHOTS ATTEMPTED and TOTAL SHOTS ON GOAL
NYRB II v Richmond: 32 shots, 23 shots on goal
USA v Panama: 26 shots, 12 shots on goal
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond, on both offense and offensive efficiency
Category: SHOT DIFFERENTIAL
NYRB II v Richmond: Even (NYRB II 16, Richmond 16)
USA v Panama: Panama +20 (Panama 25, USA 5)
ADVANTAGE: …honestly, how did Panama not destroy us? Seriously?
Category: GOALKEEPER QUALITY
NYRB II v Richmond: 16 saves between the two keepers.
USA v Panama: 11 saves for Brad Guzan by himself…and then penalties.
ADVANTAGE: USA v Panama. Yeah, Guzan had a dang good game. But it’s not like Mejia had anything to do for Panama…until Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley took their penalties.
Category: BEST GOAL
NYRB II v Richmond: A gorgeous looping header by forward Jason Yeisley of Richmond, off a equally beautiful lofted cross over everybody by Owusu Sekyere
USA v Panama: Clint Dempsey’s decisive shot to equalize, set up by his Seattle teammate DeAndre Yedlin.
ADVANTAGE: Push. I honestly like Yeisley’s goal better, but Dempsey’s appreciation for Yedlin’s service afterwards gave me more hope…for about 30 seconds.
NYRB II v Richmond: late-season league match in the American 3rd division between teams fighting for a playoff spot.
USA v Panama: 3rd place game in the Gold Cup, the CONCACAF championship tournament.
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. And not even close.
NYRB II v Richmond: no report at press time but likely mid-hundreds based on recent performance. Absolutely uninspiring.
USA v Panama: 12,598
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. See “STAKES”, especially that “3rd division” bit.
Category: BROADCAST AVAILABILITY (English-language)
NYRB II v Richmond: YouTube, live HD streaming, totally free of charge, viewable on computer or mobile device
USA v Panama: Fox Sports 2. Fox Sports TWO? You mean Rupert’s got ANOTHER sports network that’s a bull competitor to ESPN? Who carries that, anyway?
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. And all this while the main FOX network showed a glorified friendly between Barcelona and Manchester United, adding insult to injury. USA fans, hope you enjoyed your Univision.
Category: ARCHIVED REPLAY
NYRB II v Richmond: You can watch this replay RIGHT NOW – and it’s still free.
USA v Panama: Available through FOX Sports GO with an authentication through your cable or satellite service provider, or through Fox Soccer 2Go subscription ($19.99/month, $99.99/year).
Advantage: NYRB II v Richmond, because no way I’m paying to watch that garbage. Or much of any of FOX’s garbage, for that matter. (Sorry, Rob Stone. I miss you.)
Category: EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT
NYRB II v Richmond: absolutely, positively none. I save all my USL love for the Austin Aztex (Columbus’ USL affiliate) and the Pittsburgh Riverhouds (who should be Columbus’ USL affiliate). I kind of was rooting for
USA v Panama: #yaaaaaaaaaanks? *sob*
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. Like you really have to ask.
So there you have it. It’s all so simple when you break things down scientifically. In regulation time, while people were charging after referees in Chester, PA, NYRB II and Richmond won this matchup going away.
Seriously, catch a USL match on YouTube when you have a chance. No, the teeming millions aren’t there all the time, but the soccer is 1996- or 1997-era MLS quality, and it reflects the growth of the American game all over. Fun sports entertainment, and you don’t have to pay for that super-expensive sports tier on your cable or satellite to see it.
Until next time, and with deepest apologies to Nick Bakay, this has been Dr. Chuck Pearson, the Stereotypical Dumb Yank(tm), reminding you that the numbers never lie.
This is probably going to be a series I work on literally for the rest of my life, at this point. I’m averaging six months per post.
But, because it’s July 4th, a story came to mind.
My first Cornerstone Festival (RIP) was 22 years ago this year. It may not be what you think of when you think “bachelor party”, getting together with old friends and driving to a Christian rock festival, but it was mine, and I enjoyed the music more than a small bit. And I enjoyed the company more. Some of my favorite people from my just-completed undergrad (and a couple of dear friends from Franklin College) came along with me for the trip, we camped on the grounds, we saw more people with piercings and punk hair and tattoos for Jesus than we had ever seen in our lives; it was a moment in time I’ll always be grateful for.
The debate of the week had to do with John Austin’s debut record, recorded for Myrrh/Glasshouse Records – one of the new major Christian imprints of the moment that was going to be all about the artistic singer-songwriter, but artistic with INTEGRITY because after all it’s a Christian label. Austin had recorded a couple of demo tracks that my friend Dave got when he went to Cornerstone in ’91, “The Embarrassing Young” and “Island Girl” – and he couldn’t stop raving about those tracks, and he was excited for the full album. But when he got it, he was deeply disappointed because of the overproduction that went into several of the tracks, most notably “Island Girl”, which he loved.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Glasshouse was still too beholden to the Christian music apparatus of the era, which lacked any sort of creative edge whatsoever. There were creative artists on Glasshouse, but precious little of what was recorded registered – and what did register with the ears of people like me got too little love from everybody else. Glasshouse Records didn’t last nearly long enough, nor did John Austin’s major label deal.
But a bunch of kids who were bound for grad school and advanced degrees (and one who was bound to find his car battery had gone dead over the weekend) still enjoyed a show on July 4, 1993, one of the last sets of the festival. And Austin brought the goods. I know I’m a nerd who likes cheesy stuff, but lines like “Could’ve been a legend if I’d died in my prime/Could’ve been a poet if I’d known how to make the words sound alike” and “I don’t know the language, but I’ve got the accent down” have a permanent place in my brain; Austin’s witty songwriting and the tight music made me a fan.
And while I’d listened to the demo tracks Dave had and REALLY enjoyed them, when I heard the fully-produced stuff, I never really found myself missing the stripped-down quality. I’ve kept the album – and those songs – front and center in my CD rack, and then on my mp3 player, and then in iTunes, for a couple of decades now. Austin never has gotten the attention he merits, and it’s a shame.
“It’s the Fourth of July”, John Austin said towards the end of that set in Bushnell, Illinois 22 years ago. “Here’s our national anthem.”
Forever not knowing the language; forever having the accent down. Thanks for the tunes, John.
So, I got this stupid piece on STEM education shared several hundred times on my timelines this weekend, and while it was something of a respite from the seventeen gazillion hot takes on religious liberty, it’s still an elite thinker decrying our national emphasis on STEM and saluting the liberal arts and I needed it like the proverbial hole in the head.
Can I tell you what I’m sick and tired of? I’m sick and tired of people telling me that I have to make a choice between work-ready STEM education and deep, reflective humanities learning. 
I have a novel proposal: why not both?
Why not serious, intense learning in mathematics and physical science HAND IN HAND with reading both the “great books” AND great books from other cultures? Why not promote better numerical literacy AND historical literacy (and, dare I say it, religious literacy) among the populace? Why not get our engineers better education in sociology? Why not get our writers better education in physical science?
My own undergraduate education was at what we’d call now a STEM-centered institution. But a funny thing was written into the academic requirements at Rose-Hulman: ten courses in the humanities and social sciences, what we derisively called “hummers” back in the day. And one of those “hummers” had to be in a “non-Western” discipline, so we wouldn’t stay locked into cultures that were our own.
Here’s the thing that I didn’t expect when I started my education: that I would wind up with a history minor despite myself. I took Western Civ with Bill Myers because I had to fill up that first-term schedule, and even before I had my first cut at Lit & Writ (the required freshman comp course at Rose), here’s this historian taking my writing and telling me it was good writing on the one hand but it had no specific examples and was terribly weak on the other. And then I had the moment of realizing that it was because in skimming all the books I was assigned, I wasn’t actually READING them and getting those specifics that Myers needed in the first place.
I thought I’d beat that “non-Western” requirement by taking Russia in the 20th Century, because of course I’d been taught about the Red Menace in high school and I could totally ace that one. But William Pickett at once captured us with the reality of the day’s headlines (this was ’91, remember, the end of the Soviet Union was very real) and at the same time drove us to explore how the history set up the present, and not to just read facts but to explore causes and debate interpretations.
(Hey VI honors students – when you got a question in class that started “affirm or deny”? That was all Pickett. I am nothing if not unoriginal.)
And all of this was happening at an engineering school where I was getting one whale of an education in physics. And every time I work to explain an idea like freefall or magnetism or the structure of the atom, and I lapse into a story about the imagination of men to see the workings of the universe that others couldn’t see, I’m drawing on the challenges that Myers and Pickett put in front of me when I was an undergraduate myself.
To give in to the lie that STEM education puts the liberal arts under threat is to give in to low expectations. Using a thinkpiece like Zakaria’s as a bludgeon to try to rally one more effort to save all that was good, right and 60’s in education is missing the point.
We treat the term “liberal arts” as if it’s MERELY the humanities, maybe with sociology thrown in for balance. We NEVER address the natural sciences or mathematics as if THEY are liberal arts as well, that the study of the foundations of STEM are ALSO necessary for the living of a balanced, whole life. And by so doing, we create conflict where no conflict is necessary; we create an excuse to dial back one form of education or another.
We need better education, across the board. We need better math education. We need better social science education. We need better engineering education. We need better fine arts education. We need better biology education. We need better humanities education. And yes, of course, we need better physical science education.
We need more impact, more effective communication, more outreach, more of everything, across the board.
The short-sighted among us will continue to remind us that money is limited, and resources is limited, and we have to conserve everything. Bluntly, they have decided that their money isn’t worth spending on doing better by those they consider to be unworthy. We need to tell a different story – that this time in history demands an increase of investment, not a decrease, and to keep our wallets in our pockets while people put false choices in front of us is to submit to our decline.
I’m not ready for decline. If you are, get out of my way.
 Okay, Zakaria probably doesn’t believe in that false choice either, and I’m potentially knocking down a straw man. But let me be plain: the headline set up the straw man, and the way this thing got shared on social media enhanced it. And in the times we live in, where everybody is searching for every last excuse to cut funding from every last educational practice, for my money, enabling the straw man is sin enough.
(I started writing this in June. Lawd, what a summer. This may yet turn into a series; in case you missed it, here is part 1.)
I would like to start this second installment by apologizing to the continent of Australia. For many, many of you, the title of this post does not apply to you.
But it does apply to the overwhelming majority of people in the United States, and it certainly applied to me as I began my college radio career.
I honestly don’t know what I expected when I heard that Rose-Hulman had a college radio station. I know that I had discovered “alternative music” (you know, R.E.M., the B-52’s, 10,000 Maniacs, Midnight Oil, and all those other important bands that MTV played…I was even really hip and had the Smithereens’ cassette tape) and there was a radio station at Baldwin-Wallace College, across the street from my grandparents’ house, that played some REALLY exotic sounds, like the Sugarcubes (from Iceland! how exotic! who had this lead singer named Björk! how exotic!) and Siouxsie and the Banshees (see? not Susie, but Siouxsie! see, I’m hip!). I was absolutely certain, I guess, that I would find even more exotic stuff, and the music I would listen to would be SO elite and would blow SO many minds and I would just be the coolest person on the planet.
I was kind of bummed when, on my arrival, that old WMHD program director tried to impress on me the importance of the blues and of this other old guy named Elvis Costello. Old folks. I wasn’t up for the old folks. I was up for the new and the cool.
But as I went through my DJ training, one thing that the station manager  impressed upon all of us new DJ’s, and the thing that was so much of the ethos of college radio in the 80’s and 90’s, was always listening and playing something new. People wouldn’t tune in to WMHD to listen to “Pinball Wizard” or “Love In An Elevator” (or even “Blister In The Sun” or “What I Am”) for the hundred thousandth time. They would listen expecting something they didn’t hear every day, and what you should do is look for the best of the stuff that other radio wouldn’t play.
It was in that season of my life that I flipped through the old College Music Journal and read a writeup on a new album by a band I’d never heard of with a name I thought was cool – Hunters and Collectors. And I had just noted the album Ghost Nation in the new music stacks.
Let’s give this a spin, shall we?
Here is track 1.
It wasn’t terribly exotic. There was a bit there that satisfied the nascent Midnight Oil fan in me, which made sense because Australia. But it was, at its core, a unique take on straight-ahead rock and roll.
I liked it. I liked it a lot.
It wasn’t something ABSOFREAKINLUTELY INCREDIBLE THAT EVERYBODY MUST BUY NOW, or anything like that, mind. This isn’t a story of a song that radically changed my life. It is a story of a song that gently, but consistently, nudged how I approached music.
I quit seeking the newest, freshest, most exotic sounds. I wouldn’t run away from them if they turned up, mind. But what I wanted was the best songs. Even in 1989, there were so many different artists doing things that didn’t get major radio play or any serious notoriety. We were there, in part, to be the champions for the best of those.
Of course, I soon found out that Hunters and Collectors had a great deal of notoriety halfway around the world. I discovered their back catalog (and much of the best of it is on Soundcloud – if I wanted to talk to you about songs that will change your life, I would totally be talking to you about “Holy Grail” right now), and discovered just how big of a deal they were.
And that’s a whole NEW layer on how the young mind develops – that your experience of the world is not everybody’s experience of the world, and music that is completely new to you is famous somewhere else, and what is old, dry and boring to you is revelatory to someone else.
This is obvious stuff, but these are the lessons that 18-year-old minds need to learn.
There was only one shirt I could have worn today.
Let me repeat, and make it clear: I am very grateful to be at Tennessee Tech. I am pleased to have a place on this campus, and to continue to teach that algebra-based sequence that has been the focus of so much of my professional life. In a very difficult economy, I’m blessed beyond compare.
But I know where I was supposed to be today.
And, what’s more, there were a couple of hundred students who had their first day of classes today away from the place THEY were supposed to be, faculty and staff who are in places away from the place THEY were supposed to be, and a couple of people left behind in that place missing the people who were supposed to be there. I heard from you with texts, with Facebook messages, with tweets. I prayed for you, and my heart broke for you.
#VIfamily is real, and even if I was only a fleeting part of it, those of you who had that impact on me are in my heart forever.
Nil Sine Numine. Nothing without guidance.
And for Virginia Intermont, until we meet again.