Another fine mess.

Dr Chuck Pearson

Patch Twenty-One: Just Listen

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This is a contribution to the Fleming College Learning and Design Support Team‘s Open Faculty Patchbook, an open text for faculty getting a sense for practical pedagogy for their classrooms. Empathy has been front and center in my mind all year long, and adjusting to the intensity of the student contact in the move from the regional university back to the small college has made many of these thoughts more urgent.

One thing I realized in the process of making this move is that I had a philosophy of teaching that was just sitting there, relatively dormant. And I had a very intense teaching experience that had me fairly intensely studying how student learning works best – and that was at odds with some of the things in that philosophy document.

What I realized, about a third of the way through writing this, was that I was rewriting my philosophy of teaching.

So this is one of my more serious efforts. Acknowledgements at the end, but again, thanks to Terry Greene and the good people at Fleming for the opportunity to contribute.

The Open Faculty Patchbook

Empathy and Science Pedagogy

By Chuck Pearson, Tusculum College, Tennessee

I honestly don’t remember the point in my teaching career when I realized how hard mathematics was for most of my students.

It’s not that I’ve ever been especially brilliant at mathematics. Sure, I can do a great deal of number crunching in my head without a second effort. But when the vector calculus or the differential equations got too sophisticated for my calculations in my own graduate research, I just looked for somebody else’s software or algorithm and twisted the mess out of it to make it do what I wanted it to do. I could handle the rudimentary stuff. I was horrible at setting up any integral but the simplest, for crying out loud. I knew the guys in my discipline who could handle the hard stuff and who were on another plane, and I wasn’t one of…

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Written by chuckpearson

20 July 2017 at 23:19

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“Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole”

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I’ve got a lot of this year that I still haven’t dealt with.

I heard this song for the first time this week.

Maybe this is as good a place as any to start.

 

There’s an answer here if I look hard enough
There’s a reason why I always reach for the harder stuff
It wasn’t my daddy’s way; he was down in the mines all day
I know he wanted more than mouths to feed and bills to pay

I think the most exasperating thing about rural America is the hopelessness where there should be a wealth of hope.

I don’t think the people here are any different than the people anywhere else in the world in terms of their talents. I know I’ve taught people in these small colleges, I’ve come across people running around volunteering in these middle schools and high schools, who are blindingly brilliant and who don’t deserve to have anybody tell them anything about how limited their options are.

I think the people are are different, in so many ways superior, to people in other parts of the world in terms of their labor. So many places in Central Appalachia shouldn’t even be livable. So many of these cities are literally carved out of the mountains. Part of what I think feeds into the mythology and romance surrounding the industry of this place is the great human endeavor of going into hard, brutal land and extracting the resources necessary to make life work. Regardless of what you think about its sustainability, just consider how many people poured how much blood and sweat into making life here possible.

I don’t know about you. I get a little bit of awe, doubly so as a one-time 6-foot-2, 148-pound weakling who couldn’t dream of that much physical graft in my life.

The people of this place should be looking at hard times considering how much is possible, what next great big thing could be built, what the next path is to making this place great. And yet somehow, hope’s been taken away from them.

You can blame Washington. You can blame Nashville or Richmond or Frankfort. You can even blame college professors like me for corrupting the kids. Or, if you take a different slant, you can blame the companies that set themselves up as protectors and then laid their workers off without warning, changing their names and sprucing up an image of profitability for Wall Street.

It doesn’t change the fact that Daddy still feels like he was stuck with that mining job, that he didn’t have a way to chase his ambitions. And it still doesn’t change the fact that there won’t be a mining job for his son, and his son doesn’t know what he can do without it.

Well, somebody give him something to do.

 

I ain’t cut out for war, unless I know what I’m fighting for
And there’s nothing here but churches, bars, and grocery stores
Ain’t much money in the old-time mandolin
So I cash my check and I drink ’til I’m on my ass again

That right there is the single thing that rural America is worst at.

First off, there sure ought to be more money in the old-time mandolin. The music is far and away the best part of the cultural heritage of this place. There is this little thing that happens on and around State Street in Bristol, TN/VA (“A Good Place To Live“) called the Rhythm and Roots Reunion. It is a wonderful thing. (Seriously. Dwight Yoakam, Judah & The Lion, and Amanda Shires – who just so happens to be playing that fiddle up there, and singing those harmonies) are playing it this year, and I’m not all the way through the headliners. If you can, go.) It’s not nearly as well known as it should be. There aren’t nearly as many Rhythm and Roots Reunions as there should be, or outlets to play the traditional and Americana music that Bristol made famous.

The counterpoint to the tremendous industry and graft of this place is the disdain for the arts. Man, that mandolin might sound awfully good, but you and I both know you’ll never make a living playing it. And I don’t care how good that painting is, or how good you were in that play, why you think that’s a substitute for a good, honest job is beyond me. And who thinks they can actually make a movie in East Tennessee, anyway? That’s just foolish thinking. Get back to work.

Okay, you can get back to school. Just as long as you get to work straight after.

What, you keep putting in applications and you can’t get hired? Always knew you were a good-for-nothing hippie. Not my problem.

So many students I’ve had with so many talents simply don’t believe it because those talents have been talked down by so many people for so much of their lives. And I’m being good and not even mentioning that wonderful, elegant art we call mathematics. But if you believe the student who wanted to immerse herself in mathematics didn’t get talked down as well, you don’t know rural America at all.

We help to create the next generation’s hopelessness, and then we complain that they don’t listen or value what we have to say.

And we wonder why they keep finding their way to a bottle. Or some other, stronger drug.

 

Remember when we could see the mountain’s peak?
The sparkle off the amphibole?
Like a giant golden eagle’s beak
Now they say no one wants the coal

(Dadgummit, Isbell, using the fifty-cent words.)

We created this hopelessness through all kinds of decisions, and we didn’t just create it individually. We created it as a society.

I can marvel at all the graft and all the effort it took to make this place livable, and in their heyday, these cities must have been something. But all that industry – y’know, I won’t even say it destroyed the environment. I didn’t move here until 2011. The environment has always been something to see. But it sure changed the environment; it sure diminished the environment.

Every decision is one step farther along to taking natural beauty and resource and making it subservient to our needs. And then not really our needs; our whims.

Because this is the awful part: we do all this work to make the places livable, and then we don’t give a thought to sustaining that livability. We build up this wonderful downtown and then we let all the stores close and we create a blighted ghost town. We build the grocery store and the department store and then the retail monster comes to town and builds a bigger and better grocery and department supercenter just a few miles outside of town, and then we all go to the bigger and better and let the grocery store and department store in town die out. We allow big real estate companies to buy up land and make deals with the city government on one side of the state line to compete with that real estate company buying up land and making deals with the city government on the other side of the state line and then the county government getting revenue from the out of town supercenter gets mad and goes in cahoots with a different real estate company and we get retail monsters asking for more money than exists in the town while the small-scale, sustainable businesses in town get no attention and no foot traffic and shut down.

All the while the revenue to the cities dries up because the deals they cut allowed the real estate companies – none of which are actually in the region, mind you – to take them to the cleaners.

All of this is hypothetical, of course. None of it based on current events. At all.

No one wants the coal. No one wants the music. No one wants the simple, stable community.

No one even wants the churches anymore; check all the empty pews on Sunday morning if you doubt. Maybe, if you find the right place, all the pews will be empty because the church literally ran out of warm bodies to keep it running.

Maybe they got old and died. Maybe there wasn’t anything for them here and they just moved on.

We tore the environment apart to build all this – and we’re letting what we built rot.

 

I thought about moving away, but what would my mama say?
Well, I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day
So as soon as the sun goes down I find my way to the Mustang Lounge
And if you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town

So the children who grow up here grow up without hope.

And they grow up bound to the hopeless place.

Part of the thing that drives how people’s talents get talked down is fear. Because if they’re really that talented, they sure won’t stay here. There’s nothing here for them.

This isn’t just theoretical. There is a growing body of scholarship that deals with the difficulties that first-generation Appalachian college students deal with, and the family bond is at the core of so much of that work. Parents simply don’t know what their children are getting out of that college, and they might not care that much. Students feel a weight of pressure from both directions – to succeed and to make their family proud and then move away and leave their family alone? Or to simply not try and return home and keep the family together but wonder what might have been?

“Not try” is an option that gets taken very seriously. Retention difficulties are rampant among colleges and universities in the Central Appalachians. Many of those difficulties aren’t tied to the students’ struggle to adapt to college, or even their likelihood of success, but simply to the unbreakable bond to family that gives the obligation to return home and care for their families. That’s true even if those families don’t actually need that support. But it’s especially true if they do.

The emotional burden that comes with having opportunity and leaving that opportunity on the table in the name of your family is immense. I’m a child of late-20th-century government employee privilege; I can’t relate to that burden in the slightest. It’s taken me more than a minute to realize exactly how real and tangible and mammoth that burden is.

When people don’t deal with day-to-day living in healthy ways, there might be a reason.

 

Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole
Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole

And there’s the gutpunch. Over and over again. And maybe it does. Maybe it just does.

Here’s the crazy thing about me. I took that job at Virginia Intermont College. I was only in that job for three years. I discovered every amazing thing and every dark corner of Bristol, Virginia. I discovered the pain and the wonder of working in this place. The college closed down.

I came back.

I came to a different institution, in a different city to discover, with different amazing things and different dark corners, and yet the same overriding motivation: to talk to the talented people of this place and to tell them why they had reasons to hope. I couldn’t let go of the talented people I knew from the last go-round, but I also know that there are plenty of new talented people to get to know.

I’ve been a part of a conversation this month, under the hashtag #digciz, surrounding the ways we engage online – and, this week, the conversation has shifted (especially for me) into dealing with not just our online places, but the places where we live as well. It especially has resonated with me in addressing this place where I’ve landed that is not the place of my birth and is not the place where I was raised – but the place that has, in some ways despite itself, become my home. I am a citizen of Greene County, Tennessee, and I intend to be a citizen of Greene County, Tennessee for the foreseeable future; this was a move of choice and a move to bring stability to a life that has most certainly not been.

I’m stirred to reflection in part by the workshop I attended last week at Emory and Henry College, the Appalachian College Association‘s Teaching and Learning Institute, where I was around brilliant faculty colleagues who deal with the stresses of this region and our students within it in creative ways at their own institutions, day-in and day-out. I’m always grateful for the privilege of engaging with the faculty of the ACA institutions, because they teach me so much and they give so much of themselves for institutions that can’t give a lot in return.

But remarkably, I’m also stirred to reflection by professors in Australia and Egypt, people who I get to talk to online and who have become the deepest of friends. You learn, after a time, that all these stresses you see in rural America aren’t specific to rural America at all. There are unique contours that are a part of this specific place, but there are bigger themes to these struggles that are unique to nothing more and nothing less than our humanity.

If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.

 

The new album by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Nashville Sound, is out today. I got it overnight; I already had the pre-order set up on my newfangled-and-yet-already-outdated online music-for-purchase scheme. I got the song “Cumberland Gap” into all my playlists already, and I’m already playing it to death.

Isbell’s own story has so much to say about growing up in rural America (Northwest Alabama, in his case) and struggling to find hope. (Anthony Mason’s interview and feature on Isbell is eight minutes worth watching.) That struggle is throughout the words of the album – the recognition of the talents around him, the structures that keep that talent suppressed (and even oppressed), and the belief that a better world still can be had. Isbell is widely acclaimed as one of the best lyricists we have working today, and while it’s still early days to be considering, these may be some of his best words ever – yes, better than even Southeastern, his critically acclaimed breakthrough. These words certainly speak more directly to me than anything he’s done.

I’m listening to a song called “Anxiety” as I finish this up.

Watching the sunrise slash through the blinds
Dust in the room hovers over mine
Lying here in silence, wife and child still sleeping deep enough to dream
And oh, I’m a lucky man today, but so afraid that time will take it all from me
Anxiety – how do you always get the best of me?
I’m out here living in a fantasy
I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing

I think the most exasperating thing about rural America is the hopelessness where there should be a wealth of hope. We are living through a time of tremendous evolution and promise. We are living through a time of oppressive change and terror. There is so much history, so many incredible people, such a wealth of reasons to wonder. There is so much poverty, so many dysfunctional relationships, such a wealth of reasons to fear.

We have to be the people who speak against the fear.

Written by chuckpearson

15 June 2017 at 16:11

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LYMI.

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The very first tweet I woke up to in the four-word stories posted for #Antigonish2 today knocked me just a tiny bit sideways:

…and they mean it.

It resonated for any number of reasons.

This Antigonish 2.0 project that Bonnie Stewart has started up has rapidly become very near and dear to my heart, for no greater and no lesser reason (for the moment) than the hope that we can begin to build deeper, more accountable community among all of us, locally and globally, and use that community to build a more functional and positive world. This is the moment in my life when my own confidence in the institutions around me snaps, and while I’m not going to quit and become a hermit in the mountains, I’m going to realize that what is in existence around me is broken and there is a need to build something new, and there are plenty of people who are brilliant helpers who don’t look like what I’ve always been around and don’t believe the same things I was taught to believe and you know what it just doesn’t matter let’s get to work.

Laura, who tweeted that lovely thing, along with Kate and Tanya, who got tagged alongside me, have been people I’ve been sharing conversation with on a different social media platform who have given me opportunity to practice listening to other voices and to practice speaking more positively and more productively and giving up all kinds of assumptions. Laura, in particular, has been so wonderful and affirming to me personally, and I’ll assume I’ve been at least reasonably kind back to her given that I received such a wonderful little tag in tribute. Much of the sweetness of this spring hasn’t been found in the usual spaces, but within this new community that has sprung up, in fits and starts.

Of course, no matter how sweet a new community is, the sentiment is nothing new. We all want to be known, we all want to know people care about how we’re doing, we all want to know that the sentiments are real and not faked. We all hear people ask things like “how’ve you been, friend?” all the time. That’s not the part that hits your heart.

“…and they mean it.” That’s the hope. That’s the prayer.

And that’s what takes me back to SURF.

It’s a little bit stunning that I’ve not told the story in this space of showing up at a thing called SURFchurch in Bristol, Tennessee and finding myself welcomed welcomed. Here, have a short version: When I interviewed for the job at Virginia Intermont, in an odd circumstance that had to fit around the schedule of a Monday-Friday summer course, only one student sat in on the teaching demonstration, a kind young woman named Kayla. I made a joke or three about recruiting her to the sciences, but she had a very clear vision for her academic path, and a very deep passion for photography that kind of sounded more like a calling than a vision. Woo, I get the job, woo, I move to Bristol, woo, I start looking for churches and I start collecting a set of options and I happen to drive down a side road and see a small yard sign for SURFchurch and I wonder what in the world a SURFchurch is doing in Central Appalachia and show up one Sunday morning anyway and walk in the door and literally the first person I see is this Kayla.

These are the points that, in evangelical universe, we call “God moments”.

There were quite a few more college students (including students I would have in my own classes, soon enough) at this place, and the pastor, Matt Cross, turned out to be a Virginia Intermont alum, and there was a measure more authenticity in the relationships there immediately than there was at anyplace else I visited in Bristol, and well that’s going to be the church hunt sorted then.

Everybody at SURF was very good to me for the three years I was in Bristol, and while I was riding the roller-coaster that went from watching the colleagues from the old job broken up and scattered to the winds from afar to watching the situation at the new job steadily and completely deteriorate to nothing, I knew I had a refuge. And that pastor gave me a space to rest alongside the students I loved, and repeated to all of us four words that sustained the community and made the fellowship as genuine and authentic as anyplace I’ve ever been.

And we, in turn, learned to repeat those words to one another. Of course the students repeated those words; they could be easily abbreviated, shared on social media as a badge, turned into a slogan or a hashtag. #LYMI. But they could also be spoken. The “I”‘s in those declarative statements were implied, after all, so they could just roll off the tongue as cadence. The first two words were the sentiment, so often spoken thoughtlessly; but the second two words were the commitment, the reality that I couldn’t just say the words and let them rest halfway. I had to follow through.

I found myself saying these words to those same students, from the professor’s side of the fence. And of course I’d shown love to the students I’d had before, I’d given of myself. But this statement was the next step. It was taking that love and turning it into discipline, into a willingness to step outside of my authority and stand alongside them, to share in their hurts and fears, to encourage and to speak hope and promise, to simply listen and hear.

Of course it’s easiest to make that statement as something of an in-joke, because it’s associated with a church and it is shared with believers and it is our badge and all. But over time you don’t just want to share it with them. And in my role, I’m providing this support not just to my fellow believers anymore; I left that conservative-evangelical school in 2011, after all. I have students who don’t believe and who are very open about it, despite Virginia Intermont’s historic Baptist affiliation. That same love needs to be available to them at all. And it doesn’t just need to be spoken. It needs to be followed with action.

When the path takes you, between July of 2011 and August of 2017, from Rome, Georgia to Bristol, Virginia to Cookeville, Tennessee to Greeneville, Tennessee, from Shorter University to Virginia Intermont College to Tennessee Technological University to Tusculum College, there is nothing about that action that is easy and straightforward. You find the action that speaks to the people around you only to have to start and learn new people and start all over again. Community isn’t an automatic; you don’t just show up and find yourself belonging. Trust has to be earned, and there is work to be done just to allow your voice a hearing.

But that doesn’t change the commitment, and that doesn’t change the discipline.

Even as I was discovering that the clock was ticking on the job I hoped would be for a career, I was still facing the necessity of loving my campus throughout every up and down. Even as I was struggling mightily to adapt to a place that was ten times as large as anywhere I’d worked before and found myself drowning in the crush of people (and yes, you can drown in the crush of people in Cookeville, Tennessee), I knew I was surrounded by people who needed love and I needed to be patient and show it. The work of love is necessary, and never more necessary than in a time like this.

So I’ll ask forgiveness for the belief that a lifetime of learning and discipleship and good old-fashioned hard knocks are leading me to this place, and to these people, and to this work of community-building. And no matter how hard the times get, to the repetition of gratitude for the ears that I’ve had in this time, ears in Greeneville and in Cookeville and in Bristol and in Rome, ears in Fredericksburg and in Richmond and in Wollongong and in Guadalajara and in Charlottetown and in Chichester, and maybe even an ear or two back home on the edge of that old swamp in Hilliard, Florida. So many people have offered me such genuine friendship, and even a dose of genuine ministry. They sustain me, and allow me to do the day-to-day work with these wonderful students, and prepare me to serve beyond the city limits and beyond the state line into the world beyond.

And I’ll ask forgiveness of Matt and Sherry and the people of SURFchurch, but something tells me that they won’t be bothered if I share a little bit of that fellowship with the people of Antigonish 2.0.

Community in four words.

Love you; mean it.

Written by chuckpearson

31 March 2017 at 23:42

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One more meaning of open

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This post, and all others with the “openlearning” tag, are part of the #OpenLearning17 cMOOC that is ongoing under the auspices of the AAC&U. However, none of these posts are going be very neat reflections on the week’s events and readings, and I’m limiting myself to a short amount of time to compose them and leave them in an attempt to redevelop a discipline of blog writing. We will see where this takes us.

I was reminded a little more than a year ago of what I’ve always wanted “open” to mean in my classes.

I was getting to know a couple of pretty nifty football players in my physics classes at Tennessee Tech in Fall 2015, and was reveling in getting to further my bit of football nerd with guys who played. I remember thinking that this was going to be a bit of fun the afternoon the football player in my PHYS 2020 section dropped by the office to ask a couple of questions about the first exam and the conversation turned towards the end to his high school teammate who was quarterbacking the Iowa Hawkeyes, which of course brings out the BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN [1] fan in me, because I forever wanna go back to Ohio State, to ol’ Columbus-town. [2]

I’ve always enjoyed the student-athletes in my classes, and always enjoyed the ways they broke the “dumb jock” stereotypes – especially the football players who owned their science coursework, from the elite linebacker slaving over a copy machine in the library to the placekicker owning a physics lab by sheer force of personality to the wide receiver making the mathematics behind classical mechanics look far too easy. I’ve always felt like I understood the double life those athletes have to lead, and that I’d supported them as well as I could.

I believed that until roughly the afternoon of November 8, 2015.

I’d recognized there had been tensions building at Mizzou all fall, and I think I had heard a rumor or two about a graduate student leader organizing action in defense of both grad students and African-Americans. (Naturally, I was more concerned about the graduate students and whether they’d have insurance on their assistantships.) I know I hadn’t heard a lick about what Concerned Student 1950 was, or how that leader was so alienated by his university’s lack of concern about the racism he experienced on a regular basis that he was moved to hunger strike.

And when that alienation drove players on the football team to tell their coach that they didn’t feel like it was time for games, and their coach (and all credit to Gary Pinkel forever for his immediate support) arranged for that picture to demonstrate that he stood with those players, my lone reaction was “I really don’t have a clue, do I?”

So many others have described that disconnect, but I’ve since always thought Bill Connelly described it best when he described his own experience as a student:

There have always been two Missouri campuses, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that isn’t unique for college towns. There has always been unofficial segregation, and most of it comes by choice. You gravitate toward that with which you are familiar, even (or especially) when in unfamiliar territory. Maybe that means people from your high school. Maybe that means people of your color.

I was lucky. Mizzou attracts a pretty diverse population, in part because of the journalism school. My dorm floor was made up almost equally of students from Kansas City, St. Louis, rural Missouri and Chicago. I came from a small Oklahoma town that had more Native Americans than African Americans, but I was on a floor with quite a few black students. One became my roommate. Others became good friends.

You can find common ground with just about anyone if you try, and we didn’t have to try very hard. But no matter how similar we were in our tastes and preferences — sports, music, TV, girls, whatever — I was randomly exposed to our differences. One friend had regular meetings with an advisor as part of aid he was receiving to be able to attend the school. Another would act differently when we would encounter a black acquaintance on campus.

Little things opened a window into a different world. Things like attending the NPHC Homecoming step show, where you’re suddenly in the vast minority and having an incredible time.

It didn’t take much empathy to realize the experience of any member of any minority population is simply different. It could still be good or mostly good, but it was going to be different, and there was no way around that. And while every black student gets exposed to a white world while attending college, not every white student gets the same experience.

At one point in my life, I was immersed in the recognition of every different culture that made the modern university. You could not possibly attend Ohio State and not be made aware, and – God bless Elizabeth Gross, God bless her priorities steering admissions to the Biophysics Program at Ohio State – I was in a far more diverse environment than most at Ohio State. Students from all around the country, men and women, never as many students of color as Dr. Gross wanted but dang if she didn’t try. And then the international students, and she could have filled a program with students from China or India with the pile of superior applications from those two countries, but she made a point to push the admissions committee to take applicants from every nation seriously, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine and Nigeria and I know for a fact I’m not remembering every example. The student who followed me in my graduate lab was from – of course – Iran.

Having the best program – having the best university – meant diversity mattered. It meant we recognized one another’s voices. It meant we recognized how we thought differently, how we engaged differently with the science.

That was an incredible inheritance for me to receive. And then I moved south, first for the postdoc in Birmingham, then for the faculty job in the deepest Deep-South part of Georgia. And although it didn’t happen all at once, my surroundings began to get progressively whiter, and progressively more comfortable. And my understanding of that inheritance started to fade.

Twitter helped some, forced me to pay attention a little bit better. But the Mizzou boycott snapped me to attention. I felt comfortable, and many of my students felt comfortable. But some might be afraid. Some might be desperately so.

I made a point in my next meeting with my classes to say that this was on my heart, and a guy like me might think he understands but he might not have a clue. And what’s more, he might think it’s cool to be seeing a bunch of football players in his class and enjoy a few yuks with them about the game but he really doesn’t understand a thing about their experience, especially when they’re black and he’s white. And I promised – whenever a need was in front of them, and they felt burdened – to be an ear who would listen.

I have kept that promise imperfectly, perhaps even horribly. I jumped jobs within the year, after all. And even as I left one group of football players behind, I entered into a new class at the new place and couldn’t seem to build the connections with those athletes burdened by that double life anywhere near as much as I wanted. Part of the difficulty is simply the age difference. Once I might have that cool young prof who could do no wrong and who everyone wanted to hang out with. Now I have students who are the same age as my own kids, and I’m the same age as their fathers – or even older. Father Time, the saying goes, is undefeated.

But even in this moment of history – especially in this moment of history – we’re still human, together, in a time where the laws are being torn up and rewritten seemingly to inflict maximum pain on the people who aren’t like me, who don’t share my skin tone, who aren’t my gender. It seems to me that even pointing out the age difference is so much useless whining. We need one another, we need to be working together and not against one another.

I care about so much of this open pedagogy movement, so much about making academic resources available freely (“free” as in speech and “free” as in beer), so much about opening my educational practices to empower learners. But – with all respect to Pomerantz and Peek, and all understanding why I should read an article on the “fifty shades of open” – the meaning of “open” that matters most to me is the open relationship I need with my students.

My student’s lives are important. I don’t need to pretend that they are simply in my classroom as automatons and their engagement and effectiveness aren’t influenced by what happens outside the classroom, what happens in their families, what happens in their workplaces – and yes, what happens in Washington, D.C.

I need to create the space that allows my students to be the most open, the most honest, the most free (and “free” as in without restraints, without judgment, without fear). That doesn’t just matter in humanities or arts classes, that matters in the sciences as well. Students need to be affirmed. Students need to know their experience matters.

And I need to continue to commit myself to the willingness to listen, no matter where that listening takes me.

[1] BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN, of course, should always be spelled with fourteen “n”‘s. No real reason.
[2] to the stadium to hear the band, by far the finest in the land

Written by chuckpearson

30 January 2017 at 03:28

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I need excuses to try new things, or: Saying Hello to #OpenLearning17

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I’m getting ready to go to bed, honest.

But before I go to bed, I need to thank Autumm for reminding me of what I heard at OpenEd – that #OpenLearning17 is a thing, and is happening, and I’d fully intended on being a part of it.

Even as I’m still getting my arms around this demanding new job in this demanding new place, I am going to take a few hours of my time this spring to (attempt to) keep up with this and make a few public comments along the lines of this here syllabus. I have plenty of good reasons – nah, let’s be real, excuses – for doing so:

1. I’m still an Open Education neophyte. I threw in a couple of last-minute assists towards one open educational resource in particular that I love a lot, but OER are one thing; that’s not fully shifting your attitudes towards the classroom or your methods of teaching to give the learner more control and to give you less. I want to see more of what my peers at other institutions are doing.

2. I speak for two groups of faculty that don’t tend to get a whole lot of attention in these dialogues.

  • I’m science faculty, and historically physical science faculty (although I seem to be focusing a lot more on biology these days, darn that cross-disciplinary doctorate) and I’ve had roles in pre-professional education and pre-professional advising in particular. Premeds get a very precise list of courses they have to take to prepare for a very precise standardized exam that plays a very outsized role in their admissions process. Other pre-professionals (pre-dentistry, pre-optometry, pre-pharmacy) have different precise demands. The things asked of those teaching and advising those students don’t tend to get associated with “student agency.” How do we take well-defined – even overly-defined – curricula and bring open attitudes towards our work there?
  • I’m employed at a private (or, to use the industry euphemism, an “independent”) institution with less selective admissions in the Central Appalachians. When you think of private colleges, you think of places that have large endowments and a wealth of resources – environments that I have never worked in.  And when you hear of institutions tending towards open access, you think community colleges or regional state universities, not privates. The vast majority of my students are either local or are student-athletes drawn from a wider region (but still generally East Tennessee or border counties of nearby states). There are a lot of faculty like me, but I don’t hear too many of the voices like mine among the open education community. How do we take our rurally-educated, tradition-conditioned students and reveal the possibilities available to them?

3. I’ve had an occasion or two to start conversations locally about what Open Education is and how to go about implementing it – despite the fact that, at present, I’m not really anything that resembles a role-model. (This semester will be, I fully hope, my last pass at teaching organic chemistry for some time. Am I having my students purchase access to a vendor’s proprietary software so I don’t reinvent the wheel for a class that I may never teach again? You betcha. There’s open practices, and then there’s essential laziness, and I am fully embracing the latter right now.) I need more deliberate ideas for how I go about becoming somebody who has practices that can be pointed to, especially if (as above) I’m constructing those practices specifically within that premed-education context.

4. I still have a ton of thoughts throwing around my head about my fall, and everybody’s fall in particular, and a really stupid election, and a really amazing conference, and these people who have come into my life both locally and internationally and have been inspiration and dedication and love. I’m not going to get them out without a framework. This is a nifty and relevant framework. Let’s go, then.

5. OMG YOU MEAN I MIGHT GET COACHING FROM @GOOGLEGUACAMOLE WELL THAT’S ALL THE EXCUSE I NEED RIGHT THERE I AM IN AND I MEAN I AM ALL IN YOU GUYS

So, #OpenLearning17, then. I’m going to speak up, and probably be kind of dumb doing so, and probably leave myself open to be shouted down a bit. That’s fine. I have a lot to learn.

Be patient with me. I will be listening.

But first, sleep.

Written by chuckpearson

23 January 2017 at 04:11

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Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard #4 – Come Wind

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Officialy an ABSOFREAKINLUTELY INCREDIBLE ALBUM YOU MUST OWN NOW.

Full marks for this iteration go to the networks of Radio U, that little radio station that saved my life in grad school and that became a lot more than that, which I still check every now and again just so that I can know Where Music Is Going.

See, musical waypoints were always very easy to find when I was young. I spent almost the entirety of the ages between childhood and 21 hearing new things; going from my parents’ taste in music (on albums, on 8-track, and on the old, old reel-to-reel) to discovering country radio to discovering pop radio to discovering all the possible different formats in between to wondering why I never heard any of the songs that Donnie Simpson played on Video Soul on the radio to discovering this little thing called “college rock” or “alternative” to going to college and being immersed in that to a pair of albums that changed how I thought not just about music, but about life.

Musical waypoints became much more difficult to find after I left college. In fact, for the first few years after I landed in Columbus and I wasn’t around many people with similar musical tastes initially, I found a little bit of static in my listening. Old friends kept up with electronically helped (hooray, rec.music.christian!) and new friends found…electronically helped (hooray, rec.music.christian!). There’s something of a gap in my library between 1993 and 1996, when on a fateful February morning, Radio U came on the air.

Radio U was exactly the radio this not-entirely-mature-but-entirely-too-earnest doctoral student needed in 1996. I loved the rock, and I did listen to CD 101 and 99.7 The Blitz as I moved, but I was still a very young Jesus-seekin’ Christian and I wasn’t getting to Cornerstone Festival after ’93 and I wanted more of that kind of music in my life. Radio U delivered it, and then some.

I’m going to spare you all the waypoints that intervened, except to say that there were more than a few earnest Christian kids in Columbus, Ohio in 1996 who, twenty years on, probably still get a bit emotional when they hear the guitars that open Stavesacre’s “At The Moment”. But I’m always grateful to that station that became this Christian-broadcasting multimedia thing that gave me confidence that Christians weren’t merely interested in making shiny happy music for the masses, but actual art.


Twenty years later, without even thinking that the radio station was twenty years old, while I was figuring out how to make a Roku box work on a TV, I installed a Radio U Roku app.

And I figured I could watch and see what was Most Wanted.

I have no clue what the first song I listened to was. It was kinda pounding and kinda Klingon and I just can’t get behind that sound no matter how much I give it a chance.

Now, the second song…well.

See, there’s a formulaic Christian song structure that I get used to, even in rock styles. That track resists every template. It resists it sonically, and it resists it lyrically. Every time I think I know what I’m about to hear, the song turns left and does something just a TINY bit different.

I enjoy that.

That sticks around for a couple of days and then I can’t get the track out of my mind and in 2016 when you can’t get a track out of your mind you take to the YouTubes.

And…WELL.

Now, there IS a traditional music video for this song, and you should listen to it and watch it and stuff. But that lyric video is unlike anything I have ever seen. And it implants words into my head.



I wrote a short thing about Jimmy Eat World’s “I Will Steal You Back”
and the fight of the last two-plus years – losing an institution, regaining status (for whatever that status means), and vocalizing what is lost. That song spoke to motivation, and to ambition – perhaps a dumb motivation, perhaps a foolhardy ambition, but the hope that I could contribute to change, and that change will be for the better.

So, of course, the very first song on this album has the refrain “Things don’t seem to change; they move in place, they stay the same.” And “People never change; they move in place, they stay the same.” You make the commitment, you take action, and then…nothing.

And then, as the first song dissolves into the second, the finger goes from pointing to other people to pointing at the self.

I was always out in front of it
Waging war against the storms when I felt overwhelmed and withheld
You and I were like a pair of thieves
Stealing from rich and giving to whoever we saw fit
Now you’re over it

I’ve been wrong a thousand different times
But I don’t know, I don’t know this time
You were there through every single lie and crime
What do you think of your son now?

The title of the song is “Birds Will Never Fly”, and the resignation behind the words is VERY heavy. And the doubt.

These are the left turns I hear in the words. Who is he singing to? God? His father on earth? The next lyric is “Wait a minute, I was here for you/Now you’re sick, you’re sick/I’m sick of it too” which frustrates me as much as ANY lyric I’ve heard in forever. I suppose it works both ways; disgust in the human relationship, projecting exasperation in the heavenly relationship. I really don’t know – except the frustration mirrors my own frustration at my own ineptitude.

Frustration isn’t good. It’s a result of not living in the world that isn’t what it can be. But frustration is good in that we have that picture of a better world, and we’re not content, and we’re motivated towards greater things.

The songs that open Move In Place put voice to frustration as beautifully as I have EVER heard from popular music.

And I feel that frustration more and more pointedly by the day. I know I have purpose here (and I have moments where I get, ahem, “clarity” regarding that purpose). But I also know intellectually how hard it is to make the world better, how to encourage people to cooperate. And even with knowing that intellectually, the emotions that surround that reality are heavy.


In the time between when I started writing this and now, I started a new job, learned a new city, moved into a new house (a full month and change after starting the job), and flailed in a new laboratory with experiments that worked sometimes (and they were experiments of my own design so it’s mostly my fault; in fact I’m finishing this while I’m trying to figure out how to salvage one of ’em). It’s felt like nothing’s gone right this fall, and often.

I have needed the first half of Move In Place. A lot. And I have a series of songs that are now waypoints to me, in same way I’ve gotten waypoints for other times in my life.

It’s reassuring, y’know? I’m nearly 45 years old. I’m in all likelihood over halfway through my life. And I can still find rock songs that speak to my season and that revitalize me.

And I need that song that laments how people never change to transition itself – into a song that speaks to a thing that remains the same.

Thanks to the men of Come Wind for the soundtrack to a new era in my life.

Written by chuckpearson

26 September 2016 at 00:22

A “famous songs you’ve never heard” prelude – Jimmy Eat World

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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.

Written by chuckpearson

15 August 2016 at 23:01

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