Why is college important HERE?

Presented to the freshmen of Tusculum University Class of 2023, on 17 August 2019.

The promise of the meeting this morning is about being successful as first-year college students. I don’t want to take away from this theme. You need to understand why you’re here, what binds you together as students, and how your purpose in being here is the first step in your success.

The charge I originally took for this talk was the topic “Why College Is Important,” and frankly, I don’t want to take away from this theme either. I need you to know that the time you spend in this space isn’t just important for you; it’s important for your family, it’s important for your community; it’s important for our nation and our world.

But I want to focus in on these themes a little bit.  I want to talk about why higher education is important, why your success is important, and why it’s important in this place.

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Many of you are not from around here originally. I wasn’t from around here originally; I grew up in Hilliard, Florida, so far north in Florida it is more useful for me to tell people I’m from South Georgia, and before I moved to this region I worked in what we call “Southern Appalachia”, doing research at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and later serving on the faculty of Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. Those places are of the Appalachian Mountains. But they’re not where you live now.

I moved to Central Appalachia in 2011, to take a job at a place that doesn’t exist anymore in a region I had heard of but didn’t understand nearly as well as I should. I made a very deliberate decision when I took the job that I work on building connections with the people of the region, especially people involved in education. I expected I would fall in love with the countryside, the mountains, the roads.

Tusculum freshmen - 17 August 2019 - 06I did not expect to fall in love with the people as forcefully as I did.

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(There are at least two freshmen in this room in those pictures. I’m incredibly glad they’re here. My own goal for myself, over the next few years, is to get to know these places well enough that there are a lot more than two freshmen that I’m aware of and have pictures of from before they showed up here.)

The people of this region, ultimately, are why I stayed, first in Bristol to our north, then in Cookeville, Tennessee to our west, and then here.

If I can share one piece of wisdom, both for those of you who have stayed in one small community for most of your life and for those of you who have come here from outside of our place in the world, and have you remember nothing else, it’s this: get to know these people you are in school with. They have a host of stories to tell you, and they are so wonderful in so many ways. Get to know the stories and the lives of this place.

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There is a host of data from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is the federal/local partnership that advocates for the region, that will tell you how much distress there is in this part of the world, and how much need there is for economic development. That’s not entirely wrong. One of the core reasons for being a college student in this time and in this place is to help provide for the development of the region. Your desire to learn basic sciences and health sciences, your desire to teach, your desire for entrepreneurship – all of your education to this end is not just something you’re doing for yourself, and I hope you know that up-front. You are going to be contributors to the communities where you land, and much of that contribution is going to be economic. You’re going to draw people to invest money in the region, you’re going to make money and spend money, you’re going to help other businesses be successful and you’re going to help other people make money and spend money.

We preach the parent’s lament a lot: we want you to be better off than we are. And education exists, in the public’s eyes, for economic growth. We can’t dismiss that reality.

But economic growth is not the only thing that’s important. And, bluntly, to put that much hope into economic growth downplays the character of the people of the region. It’s a short path from talk about the strengthening economies to talking about the mythology of the desperate conditions of Appalachia, to the construction of the narrative of people that need saving.

Nobody ‘round here needs saving. Have you traveled some of the roads in Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina? Have you seen some of the architecture, the artwork?

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Have you heard the music and the culture? These people were creating greatness long before I really understood this place existed, and they’ll keep creating greatness long after I’m gone.

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And the economics of this place isn’t the economics of South Florida or of the Philadelphia/New York corridor. It would be NICE to have a lot of the money running around, don’t get me wrong. But you’ll find that a lot of money isn’t necessary to live well here. And money is not something that’s valued by several communities here; other things come to the fore, like family, community, country, faith.

In the context of THOSE values, and in the context of things that money can’t buy, why do we need education?

Well, you chose to come to Tusculum, for all kinds of reasons – whether that was scholarship support or athletics or just because the place was convenient for one reason or another. And it’s important for you to know what this place values.

One of the things that I do is advise pre-professional students, mostly students pursuing disciplines like pharmacy, physician’s assistant, and allied health disciplines like dentistry and, yes, optometry. And one of the things that I ask those students to do before applying to a school to study that health profession there is have a look at the school’s mission statement and other things that communicate what that school values. It’s an important way to know that when you’re interviewing to join that school’s programs, what you care about lines up with what they care about.

And you came to Tusculum. How many of you know Tusculum’s mission statement?

Well, let’s have a look.

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Listen to the words used.  A JUDEO-CHRISTIAN environment – we have a very distinct faith, but we do not privilege the Christian experience over the experience of other people who recognize Abraham as one of the founders of religious faith. CIVIC arts – we care about how you engage with the public as an informed citizen. LIBERAL arts – that’s not a political viewpoint, but it means the same as COMPREHENSIVE in this case. We don’t just care about you learning the stuff in your particular program, the stuff that’s your major – we care that you partake in all the ways of knowing that have made up the human experience. MEDICAL arts – we care about people learning the best science, technology, and human engagement that can help people heal in the best way possible.

CAREER preparation – we want you to have a job, but not just to make money in the short term, but to satisfy you for life. PERSONAL development – we care about who you are as a person, and we want you to be the best person you can be.

Oh, the one other way you tell what a place values? Listen for the words they repeat.

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Tusculum uses the word CIVIC every place they can. We care about your CITIZENSHIP. We care about your place as a member of this society, and we care that you contribute to that society in the most productive, positive way possible.

So many of the things you learn as a student here are to help you be the best citizen possible. You need to see other examples of communication and expression, in speech and English classes, so that you can be the best communicator you can be, so what you care about can be expressed to those around you. You need to be informed as completely as possible, both about what’s happened in the past – your history – and about the knowledge that is building your future – our science. You need the best background on your faith you can get, so you can not merely speak the language of faith to those around you, but you can be encouragement to others to live that faith out better. And you need the arts, to appreciate the creativity of others in this place and express your own creativity on your terms. Encouraging creativity in others and in yourself is part of your best citizenship, too.

All of you need to bring your best selves to this process of education, and to take the education itself as seriously as possible, no matter what place you’re from, no matter what place you’re going. The values that Tusculum believes in are important no matter where you live.

But I hope you see that there’s something distinctly Appalachian about them – the idea that there are things that are more important than economic output, than workforce development, then even personal fulfillment. What we bring as citizens to our whole community matters. How we engage with one another, how we make everybody’s quality of life better, and how we make one another as positively informed as possible.

When Tusculum is at its best, we are both bringing in the most promising students from this region and the most promising we can find from far afield. And we’re making sure those students are leaving as the best citizens they can possibly be, for now and for decades to come.

And we are persuading you that there is a place for you here, among these mountains – in much the same way that I was persuaded, not even a decade ago, that there is a place here for me.

There are two other things I can promise you. Obviously the choice wisdom at this stage of this kind of a talk is to pay attention to your professors and to heed their wisdom. And look, you should. For one thing, we do have egos, and they need to be fed. My ego is raging. Running my mouth in front of y’all is a thrill. I’m not gonna lie about that.

But we also know a lot of the territory you’re dealing with in these next months and years, and we’re not gonna lie about that either. And it’s not just the academic stuff – it’s the life stuff too. Some of us were undergrads a lot longer ago than others, but we all remember it. We all remember the prof who gave us our first F on an exam. (Roger Lautzenheiser, Calculus I.) We all remember the prof who opened his office to us and gave us an hour when we expected five minutes. (Roger Lautzenheiser, Calculus I.)

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We all remember the moments of crushing heartbreak and the moments we came to grips for the first time with depression. If we have never come out as LGBTQ, we remember being in the room with the person who came out and the affirmation they needed.

So know that we as profs have been through a lot of this. Talk to us.

But also know that it really doesn’t matter how good we are at what we do, in terms of defining Tusculum’s quality and Tusculum’s greatness. The dirty little secret is that people with PhD’s in physics who can teach physics and chemistry are a bit of a dime a dozen. If I left Tusculum tomorrow, Tusculum could find somebody to take this job. And they could find someone pretty quick. I will obviously do my best for you, but it’s not because I feel like my position is all that sacred.

The thing that makes Tusculum famous, and the thing that Tusculum will be known for in the years, the decades to come?

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It’s sitting in front of me right now. Not one thing. 400 of you.

How you learn from us is meaningful. But how you learn from one another is what stays with you. You’re not at your best here because you need to show respect to that PhD. You’re at your best here for the people sitting next to you, because of your responsibility to make THEIR time here as important and as meaningful as it can be. You’re at your best here because when you leave here, you need to have the education and the relationships and the capacity to live together that the world around you needs to see lived out.

The mission you just heard there is for you to take up and hold up. You need to prepare for a life after this place. You need to take this space to develop yourself mentally, emotionally, spiritually. You need to prepare yourself to be a citizen of these mountains, this nation, and this world.

This is your task. You take it from here.

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The full slide deck was prepared with Google Slides and is available for your review, with credits for all images.


The story of one new graduate student


My mind keeps returning to a road trip to Western Massachusetts in January of 2012.

Don’t pay much attention to the hiding child on the left. We’ll talk about her another time. (And yes, young one, your time is coming.)

We took that exceptionally talented child on the right to a college there to start an academic career. There was promise all over the thing. Certainly, there are memories of the fear that comes with taking someone who has been so much at the center of your life for the better part of two decades on one part of the trip and driving back home without them. But it was an incredibly joyous trip as well, in no small measure because we saw the promise in the place, we saw how tight-knit the community was, and I knew what it was like to join a small, tightly-knit community across the country from my home myself, and how completely that place informed who I became.

There are so many of us, especially those of us who have benefited from higher education over the course of our lives, who make trips like that and who want what we experienced so desperately for our own children.

This is what you need to know: That promise we saw in January 2012 was never fulfilled.

I will still look back on the decisions we made in that part of life and insist we didn’t make a mistake – the child didn’t, and the parents didn’t. In another era of our history, I do believe that the promises made would have been taken seriously, and all parties would have understood the commitments they were making – especially parties involved with a college that was part of an institution with a nine-figure endowment, resources that placed the institution among the genuinely elite.

But the way that my child’s education progressed through 2012 and 2013 laid bare for me, in a way that had never been clear to me before, how completely cynical our higher education apparatus had become, and the extent to which my child was far more of a revenue stream for that institution than a student to be supported through their education. Even through a career that I had spent at independent colleges in the midst of real economic stress, I worked alongside people who took the needs of the students with the utmost seriousness and who would put other priorities aside when the human needs of a student were being threatened. We did that even as we became increasingly convinced that our own needs weren’t going to be cared for by the institution, and our own futures were increasingly uncertain.

But over the course of a year, I saw the decisions made by this elite institution we had put faith in repeatedly put revenue to the institution over educational experience.

I watched my eldest child discover activism, in a real and tangible way, as the realization that the experience they had been promised would be diluted at the hands of students who provided immediate revenue to the college, and that if those students put underrepresented populations of the college under threat, the sanction they’d receive would be inversely proportional to the revenue they could provide.

We had hard conversations over how we needed to receive the financial support in keeping with our real need, not the need that the College Board’s proprietary paperwork was communicating, and we wouldn’t be able to keep that child enrolled in that place without real consideration. Again: I’ve worked at these places for over a decade now. I know how the game is played. But the institution simply did not care, and frankly ignored everything I ever said.

The experience we had at that school – the experience that talented child had at that school – ultimately failed. We all made mistakes along the way. But at one point in our history, you could have confidence that the institution would have interest in making sure that the student would be cared for throughout it all.

At that one place, that concern never materialized.

For a while, that was our major experience of our own children’s higher education. And that experience was being further colored by the economic failure of the institution where I worked, a place where I was confident on balance that we were doing right by our students. If you ever wonder why I have the deepest of suspicion of where we stand in higher education in the early 21st century, there are a host of reasons for that. When that child decided to stay away from school for a season of life, I had a very difficult time arguing.

I don’t think we understand nearly as well as we should how precarious our nation’s leadership in higher education is – and how much of that leadership we have already lost. When you make all of your decisions about the bottom line and you alienate the people who are predisposed to be your ambassadors, not just for one season of time but for a lifetime, you lose the trust that the whole enterprise runs off of. And then you wonder why so few people respect the academic knowledge of the professor, or the place of the institution as an employer and an economic center worth investing in.

Trust is not something that you’re guaranteed. It is not birthright. It is earned through evidence that accumulates over years, decades, generations. That evidence is slipping away, and our institutions’ place in our nation’s conversation along with it.


The institution’s promise may not have been realized.

The child’s promise was.

After that season away, there was a decision to restart, half on a whim, at a regional university, if not in our backyard, at least a few yards over. The failure of the institution placed me at a sister regional university, and we discovered that there’d be tuition benefits at one place by virtue of me working at the other. It was a no brainer.

One of the classes, potentially in support of a poorly-articulated health science path to be named later, was general biology. It was taken under an instructor, Cerrone Foster, who I still haven’t met, much to my own consternation.

I have told the story many times in many circles of the phone call that I received halfway through the term; the professor, working on online postings, minding his own business, when the phone call from the child comes unexpectedly, fraught with all the uncertainty that comes with your relentlessly-independent child calling unexpectedly…


(The salt of the father who cut his pedagogical teeth on General Biology I being told by his eldest child that he hadn’t sufficiently shilled for Genetics will be set aside. Grudgingly. There is still salt.)

The absolute enchantment that was awakened by an instructor who cared deeply about the discipline she taught, and who cared about the individual students in the room and nurturing their talent instead of making sure revenue stream obligations to the school were met, is something that even now, four to five years on, we haven’t contained. The student with a wrecked grade point average and every reason to be cynical about higher education for the rest of their life became deeply passionate about every biology course ahead, making the major change that would become permanent, learning not merely to understand the discipline but to explain it to the students who would come after them.

Cerrone Foster, I do not know you, but you lit a fire, and it continues to rage.

A group of students flanked by two biology researchers, with the students in the middle roughly the same age as the researcher at the right was when they started college. Shamelessly stolen from that researcher’s social media feed.

Over that time, I wound up returning to the region myself, and we wound up living and working within an hour of one another. I’m not going to pretend that the prospect of landing where my eldest child was going to college wasn’t part of the appeal of a move to East Tennessee. But I wasn’t remotely prepared for the vigor and energy with which that child embraced East Tennessee, and made the place genuinely her own. It remains the most stunning part of the entire story.

Two summers, we’ve even shared the same employer; while I’ve taught summer classes online to varying degrees of success, that child has been front and center in reaching students who would be first-generation college admittees and ensuring they know that the things that make those students who are the very fabric of this part of the world know they are valued and important. At this place, in the summer of 2018 and the summer of 2019, I firmly believe the child has done more important work than the father.

The obvious conclusion to this story is that the child finally and triumphantly finishes that degree, and is grateful for the role that regional university has played in their life, and then chooses to move on to the elite university that will finally allow them to achieve their full potential.

The plot twist is that when the graduate school application process happened, and multiple options were considered, only one was taken with urgency and seriousness.

And that is how my eldest child, Catherine Pearson, early-college recruit and early-college dropout, completed their degree seven and a half years after starting, with honors, and chose to pursue their graduate education at that sterling doctoral institution…

…East Tennessee State University. PhD pre-candidate, Biomedical Sciences.

And how their father, who has lived through higher education in his entire career and knows the risks of the undergraduate and graduate institution being the same regional university, could not be prouder.

The job, you see, isn’t merely quantity of enrollment or retention or even assessment of standards. The job is making sure the student knows what their identity is, gains a fuller understanding of the world around them, and knows their path to realizing all the promise that is captured within them.

I saw clearly how I’d find that path among these mountains.

I never expected, and I don’t even know that I wanted, my own child to find their own path through these mountains.

And that is why East Tennessee State University is one of the most successful universities I have ever known. They did something far, far more important than providing my child with an education.

They provided my child with a home.

2019-05-04 14.13.56

What I did over my spring break

The Newest CCM Bracket Ever - Final

I worked on an all-time Christian music bracket.

I am dubbing it “The Newest CCM Bracket Ever” and I’m going to run voting on the “matchups” in the bracket on my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I’m not going to go bonkers explaining myself on here; this blog exists for reasons that are very, very different than this type of deep-woods critical/analytical nerddom.

But I have explained myself. And I’ll let you read and explore on my new site.

#NewestCCMBracketEver will now be a thing.

“Am I the last of my kind?”

I started this cycle of writing a little more than a year ago. I said that we have to be the people who speak against the fear.

I’m feeling the need to bring the writing full-circle. And I’m feeling the need to go back to Isbell to do it.

“Last Of My Kind” is the song from The Nashville Sound that I’m not supposed to like. The story of the disaffected white dude isn’t the story we need to hear right now, after all. You don’t have to look at the newspaper too close to know that the troubles of the white dude are pretty darn minimal. The recent weeks have brought stories of sexual assault from all corners, and powerful people are all to quick and happy to minimize the real pain that women feel. The tensions that exploded forth from Ferguson and remain very real with a fresh evidence every week – the story of Bothem Jean being only the latest painful example – continue to remind us that we do not treat African-Americans with anything resembling equality before the law. A president continues to issue statements that minimize the tragedy a colony of the United States has lived through for a whole year, with seeming intention to paint everyone concerned as beneath being called American citizens; that minimize the tragedy of migrants from nations to our south, with seeming intention to paint everyone concerned as being beneath the right to live free of fear.

The idea of taking a song sung by a Southern gentleman called “Last Of My Kind” seriously is a joke in that context.

Except it’s not a joke. The fears behind that song are very real.

I know, because I feel them.

I couldn’t be happy in the city at night
You can’t see the stars for the neon light
Sidewalk’s dirty and the river’s worse
The underground trains all run in reverse
Nobody here can dance like me
Everybody’s clapping on the one and the three
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

If you’ve been here for a minute, I don’t need to remind you that my places are rural.

I may need to remind you that life in rural places can be hard. You’re away from the creature comforts that make life convenient; the trip to the store for the serious shopping might well be an hour, maybe more. You sure better be able to solve problems without going around the corner to buy a solution.

And it gets harder as more people give up on the lifestyle. It gets lonelier as people give up on the lifestyle. What does make the rural lifestyle work is the community – the people who you share in the problem-solving with, the people who you can shoot bull with when things do get difficult.

That’s a broad human concern, sure, not merely a white man’s concern. But when you live among these mountains, the white men are the only men you find. (And the theology of complementarianism is real; you make friends with too many women and people are gonna look at you weird, and then they’re gonna start talkin’.) As the families can’t make ends meet without moving to a population center, as the jobs shift to the cities and away from the small communities, those men increasingly go away, and those that remain get more and more alone.

And if you’ve never lived it, you don’t understand the distrust the city brings.

Graduate school was a lot of tension for me. I grew to love Columbus over my six years at Ohio State, and I grew to know my way around the city and know what made it special. But it was very much a city. I was very much an alien in that place. I knew where I belonged, and it wasn’t Columbus.

When I took the first faculty job in Cochran, Georgia, when we bought the house on Pansy Street in the center of town, just a short walk away from that US highway that ran through the center of town, just a little walk longer to the Middle Georgia College campus, I felt like I’d done it right. I recognized the patterns in the community. I recognized the singing in the church. I recognized the banter of the patrons in the Huddle House, for crying out loud.

And the other thing I recognized was the distrust. Those people in Atlanta didn’t understand what life was about, you see. They’re always chasing after their status. The right car, the right house, it’s all keeping up with the Joneses. And why would you want to do that to live in a place that doesn’t have the beauty of living among the pines? We may work a little harder to keep this town up and running, but that work is worth it.

But in 2018, those towns are getting smaller. And more and more people are deciding that the work isn’t worth it.

So many people with so much to do
The winter’s so cold my hands turn blue
Old men sleeping on the filthy ground
They spend their whole day just walking around
Nobody else here seems to care
They walk right past them like they ain’t even there
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

The fear lies in becoming them, you see.

Where I’m from, we help one another. One person gets down on their luck, another person has the resources to pick ’em back up. One person’s car gets broken down, another person gives ’em the ride. We sure wouldn’t do what those people in Atlanta do with the people who are homeless outside, we sure wouldn’t just leave them there.

You city folk are so wrapped up in the problems of your life that you don’t see how empty your life is.

Of course, that’s the narrative. Nobody stops to ask about the people who have need in the small town, though. And nobody stops to ask about how easily the help flows to those who have lived there all their lives, and nobody stops to ask about how abandoned the people with brown skin wind up being in those places. May God have mercy on you if you have a funny accent.

It gets very easy to justify your actions; justifying your actions is how entire church council meetings run. One group of kids want to use the basketball court, we’re excited to have them and we hope they’ll join the church. The other group of kids want to use the basketball court, we need to be careful when they’re around and they have to be well supervised; nothing needs to get damaged, you see. The language is carefully selected, always. The skin color of the kids makes not one whit of difference, of course not, why I never.

And besides, we’re talking about letting them use the basketball court. We’re not like those city people who fence and chain-link around the basketball court. We’re better than them, you see.

Anything to make sure you know that we’re not becoming them.

As I reflect on it, the phrase “unconditional love” really was funny to me when I first heard the Jesus people use it at college. Maybe it’s what my parents tried to practice, but I certainly didn’t see a whole lot of unconditional love day-to-day when I was out of the house. The church, the band parents, my friends, my teachers even – they loved the good kids and they didn’t love the bad, and there were clear definitions on who the good kids and bad kids were and you better know then cold.

If the words of Jesus were foreign and spectacular and enchanting when I was a freshman in college, there was a reason for that.

Maybe the protagonist here really got a better education than I did. Maybe he was around a lot of people who would have stopped for the people sleeping over the air grate. Me, I know I’m on the brink of 47 years old and I’m still undoing the education I got.

Daddy said the river would always lead me home
But the river can’t take me back in time and daddy’s dead and gone
The family farm’s a parking lot for Walton’s five and dime
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

The ways that the people of these places have made their living keep going away, too.

You know Walton’s five and dime, right? Many of you shop there every day. If you’re in a small town, you might covet the convenience of the Walton five and dime. The Walton five and dime might even get sold to you as an architectural and engineering marvel.

Of course, the Walton five and dime is a steamroller for your city’s business, and they’ll pick up and leave you with nothing at a moment’s notice. (And if Walton doesn’t get you, Bezos is going to take his cut.)

So here we are. The small town of his youth is gone. The old businesses are gone. The farms are gone. The mines are nearly gone, and they don’t employ near as many people as they once did. Even the schools are increasingly gone.

It is no wonder that, increasingly, the people are gone.

I tried to go to college but I didn’t belong
Everything I said was either funny or wrong
They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans
Laughed when they gave me amphetamines
Left me alone in a bad part of town
Thirty-six hours to come back down
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

This is the verse that hurts me the most.

When you’re academically talented and from a rural place, your worlds clash in all kinds of ways. It becomes painfully apparent that you don’t need to stay where you are for very long if you want to make anything of yourself. (If the place makes you awkward enough, the principal might tell your parents to pull you out of the school long before it’s time you graduate.)

So you get out of town. And you fall into the circles you’re supposed to fall into as an academically ambitious person. And the people in that circle turn out to not want a single thing to do with you, because you’re a backward redneck who is just going to hold everybody back. (If you’re backward enough, your college roommate might just sneak a request to housing behind your back to get away from you so you can’t pollute his circle of friends at all.)

At the end of the day, I was incredibly fortunate. I didn’t go to MIT, after all, or even Georgia Tech. I went to Rose-Hulman, in bee-yoo-tee-ful downtown Terre Haute, Indiana[1], and there were enough people who were hayseed enough from towns not just like Seymour, but like Rensselaer and Oaktown and Brazil, that I could find my people, and proverbial iron could sharpen iron. A lot of how I found my own centering that has sustained me in the places where I worked came from the time I spent with the men who saw the ways that the things from Hilliard, Florida that made me were like the things from the Indiana communities that made them.

But then you still go to graduate school, and you go on the postdoc, and you go to professional meetings, and you work beyond the boundaries of your region, and you still feel the tensions. You become a professor and you have position and you have reasons for doing the things that you do and you have people twenty-five years or more your junior wondering why those things are, questioning those things, actively looking down on those things.

I’m forty-six dang years old. I should have gotten past the insecurities that come from not having the sophistication that other elites have a long, long time ago.

I should have.

I find that the pain just deepens. And the fear remains.

Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear
That might be true in Arkansas but I’m a long, long way from there
That whole world’s an old and faded picture in my mind
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

And the fear remains. Mike Warnke, for all the baggage that his stories carried, said one thing that has always stuck with me – there are a lot of us who take a whole lot of pride in our lack of class, in our lack of sophistication. We feel like that language we talk with is something you can’t touch. The backlash against political correctness is a product of that very pride, that stubborn attachment to saying the things we’re not allowed to say.

I visited Arkansas – seriously visited Arkansas, beyond a stop on the interstate in Texarkana headed west – for the first time at the first of the month. I was there for an academic conference, so I saw a lot more of the ivory tower and a lot less of the rural places that I know and cherish. But even on the University of Arkansas campus, Fayetteville is right there. It’s a small sports town; pride in calling the hogs trumps pride in making books and education resources open and accessible.

On the way there, I listened to a couple of episodes of the podcast that Elizabeth and Matt Bruenig are putting together.  One of the episodes that really hit me, driving just past Little Rock, was a discussion of social mobility. (The key discussion starts around 34:30 minute of the podcast.) Towards the end of the discussion (around 47:05), this dialogue happens:

Elizabeth: …because the liberal approach to social mobility is, well, the one way you can have a decent life, essentially, is if you escape your family.
Matt: Right, yeah, this is an aspect of social mobility that doesn’t get talked about too much. There’s a lot of focus on “does it exist?” “How can we make it happen?” But one of the downsides of social mobility that is not weighted at all in our discussion is that if someone significantly changes their class position in society, they almost certainly become somewhat alien and foreign and weird and disconnected from their parents, from their community as children, their friends, and that sort of thing. Because class difference being what it is, it’s hard to relate to people across classes.
This is something that’s actually heavily covered in the literature of integration. People who talk about cultural hybridity, y’know, scholarship kid integration. People whose parents are part of one culture, and they themselves become assimilated into American or white culture. There are benefits and harms, and one of the harms is, you become alienated from the culture of your birth, and therefore from your family and your home country. But it also has a very real class component.
Which we’ve seen in your case.

[jump ahead through some from random stories to 52:25]

…you notice the suspicions that they have before you even go out and become socially mobile, because you see the anxiety that they have and the suspicion that they have around upper-class people. Some of that is worrying about embarrassing themselves, worried that the person is going to look down on them, and so there’s not a lot of desire to be around or interact or that sort of stuff, because there’s so much difference and will it be uncomfortable and will they think less of me, and all that. And that just gets transmuted onto you, because you’re that person now. You are the people that we really didn’t like all that much, and that we were worried about feeling, y’know, looked down upon.
Well, there used to be intimacy and warmth, and you were just one with everybody else, and now there’s a distance.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You’re not one of everyone else. There’s some aspect of “Aw, that’s great. He made it.” And that sort of thing. But different. And alien. And all that sort of stuff. That’s just an unavoidable thing. If you’re going to have high levels of inequality, and try to move people between the strata, the starts are going to form different communities. Working-class people will not hang out with upper-class people, for the most part. And so, that’s just the nature of the beast. And social mobility just means that people become alienated. And I’m sure it would be the same for the reverse as well. I assume the reverse doesn’t happen all that often…
…well, the reverse, you see, so, my parents have friends, and you hear them talk about, they have children that don’t do well. Who drop out of college, and then have all sorts of struggles, and they become points of shame.
And they become problems. So they don’t relate to the children anymore, as just people who are part of a different class. The whole mission in life becomes trying to repair the child.
Right, bringing them back into the class.
Bringing them back into the class. It can never be the situation that you’re comfortable with them being a member of a different class. Because it’s a shame. With your peers.

It occurs to me that listening to these two very intelligent people from two very different sides of the track in east Texas talk that unconditional love is something that has been lacking for a very long time. And not just in one direction, either. And fears of all kinds are things that are very real.

This may not be an appropriate or politic time to talk about those fears. But in many ways, that’s what makes them fears. There is never an appropriate or politic time to talk about them, because bringing them into the open makes us face the worst parts of ourselves, and it’s never convenient to do that.

Here’s the inconvenient truth: as a nation, we do not love one another. We do not love people from the rural places. We do not love people from the heart of the city. We do not love people who improve their position in life. We do not love people who lose their position in life. We do not love the white man. We do not love the black woman. More than anything else in the world, we do not love the person who does not fit.

We love our narratives, and if a person doesn’t fit the narrative, we are all to happy to cast them to the curb.

So, am I the last of my kind? Maybe.

But there are a host of other kinds out there. There are all kinds of others who feel the pain and agony of learning that the place they live is not for them, and wants nothing to do with them. Their fears are real.

We have to be the ones who speak against the fear. But maybe the way that we start is by saying that it’s okay to be afraid. Whoever you are.

And yes, that goes for the white man too.

2017-02-25 16.03.09

[1] Yes, “bee-yoo-tee-ful downtown Terre Haute, Indiana” is a joke. The Rose-Hulman campus is pretty beautiful, no doubt. But it’s as far removed from downtown Terre Haute as you can get.

A statement of academic purpose

We cannot allow our curriculum to be set by Wall Street.


I am increasingly viewing my own work as an educator from two different sets of eyes. One pair of eyes is my own, with all of my experience and all my frustration at what is available to students, and with all the motivation to provide better options for my students.

The second pair belongs to my eldest child, now well into their 20’s, as they navigate through the extractive pits and snares that so many publishers have left in the traditional regional university.

We shared a moment of frustration one Friday afternoon wrestling with the homework solution associated with the campus’ recently-adopted inclusive access option. The problem was straightforward enough, but the software wouldn’t accept the obvious answer. There was even a fit of the frustration every physics student knows well – let’s just toss ANY possible answer around that possibility into the software, because I know the calculation is right. Nothing was accepted.

I suggested “try 0.674 instead of 0.67.”

“No, Dad, that’s too many significant figures.”

“Try anyway.”


I know exactly why that worked, of course, because I used that exact software over a decade ago, before it became a pawn of the academic publishing monolith who is pushing that inclusive access option on a whole campus of unsuspecting students. Despite the code existing within their software to check for significant figures, that particular question predates the code – and never has been revised. It checks within percentage tolerances – in this case, plus or minus 0.5%. It would accept 0.671 meters to 0.677 meters, in this case – but the answer was based on multiplying a sine of 22 degrees by a measurement of 1.8 meters. The correct answer, by significant figure rules, must be 0.67 meters.

That same dumb issue has existed for over a decade. And, at least in one class of problems in the software, it’s never been fixed. And the price of the software keeps climbing – the two-semester access to that software, which is required, is now $127.50. Of course, buying the access in a bundle with new textbook – or even with other coursework, under our fancy inclusive-access scheme – will lower your costs.

Because of course you don’t want to pay too much for software we haven’t overhauled in a decade.

I have been quietly working in my corner over a decade of my own, from Shorter University to Virginia Intermont College to Tennessee Technological University and now to Tusculum University. I’ve been learning the ins and outs of a different piece of software, called Moodle, which is open-source learning management software. And the way I’ve been learning it is finding better ways to deliver homework to my own students, in a fashion that lines up with what the software from the for-profits can provide, but is more immediately customizable to what I’m trying to accomplish and that I can be more accountable for.

I don’t need to work in the corner anymore. As the costs that are placed on our students become more and more oppressive, the work I do increasingly needs to be in the open. And other people like me who are working in their own corners need to be called into the open as well.


One of the most vividly informative experiences I’ve been able to have in my career was the chance to work in the Innovation Lab at the Online Learning Consortium’s Innovation conference in Nashville in April 2018, and through the connection with Keegan Long-Wheeler of the University of Oklahoma, to help moderate a conversation on “Online Lab Science” (the website for that conversation may be found at onlinelabsci.keeganslw.com). It became clear from listening to faculty, program coordinators and instructional designers in that conversation that the reason for many to be interested in how laboratory science coursework could work online was rising pressure from their own campuses to have science curriculum online, to complete a fully online program. Many science faculty had reservations; many online program coordinators and instructional designers reported back that their own faculty were resistant or simply rejected the idea out of hand.

My own interest in how laboratory science education could be brought online was a product of Tusculum’s need, for the repurposing and development of a physical science course that would allow students to complete general education requirements exclusively online. I was qualified for this work because of my previous experience; I had previously brought two courses online at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia – astronomy, based on Seeds’ Astronomy: The Solar System and Beyond, and a “survey of natural science” course based Trefil and Hazen’s The Sciences. I have found both books to be tremendous resources, and so my own curriculum development for those courses was relatively minimal. Labs were not terribly sophisticated, either; the astronomy course “lab” was star observations and a video presentation that only two students (in a class of four) completed successfully, while the survey course had no lab at all and only a few hands-on activities. I implemented publishers’ online materials for the purposes of assessment (MasteringAstronomy for Seeds, WileyPlus for Trefil and Hazen), and the course was very ordinary, both in terms of material covered and bimodal student outcomes. The only grades I gave in these classes were A, B, and F, and the students who “earned” the grade of F did so by failing to complete a large fraction of the course requirements, stopping out before the course was done. And the work that the students did in those courses were the very definition of “disposable assignments” – locked in an learning management system, to which access to the course was closed off at the end of the term.

My last online course before this year was in 2011. In the intervening years, it is increasingly apparent that major publishers and other vendors have seen the desire of instructors and institutions to outsource the development of curriculum to save time, and have provided the resources to match that desire – with all the trappings that come with purchasing designed equipment and proprietary software. Publishers in particular have made their course materials increasingly extractive, designed to maximize their profits at the expense of taking permanent course supplies away from students. The “inclusive access” plans that Pearson PLC or Cengage Learning are marketing with increased intensity to professors involve providing access to online textbooks and proprietary software for the period of time the student is enrolled in the course, at prices that are well reduced from the list price of the textbook. The catch, of course, is that the online access is cut off at the end of the term, so that the publisher doesn’t lose any of the value to the cynical student who will sell the text at term’s end. In a subtler way, laboratory kits that suppliers provide for purchase, by their very nature, provide enough unique equipment for a single semester’s study, and are designed to only allow the student to do work in the context of a class. When the kit is out of material, replenishing that material can be prohibitive to the student whose curiosity is heightened.

All of this reinforces the concept that the knowledge the student is obtaining through their coursework is disposable and only exists to allow them to complete course requirements – not something that is permanent and can be carried with them in relevant ways throughout life.

This flies in the face of my hope for education, as something that is genuinely empowering and that can be carried with the student not merely for the duration of the course, but beyond.

One of the least realized promises of the world we have created with the Internet is the capacity for students in different places to communicate knowledge with one another as part of their process of learning – peer teaching over distances and in different geographic contexts. In parts of the world such as central Appalachia, exposure to authentic diversity has to be an intentional effort, and it is not done easily through student recruitment. Connection to students at other institutions from cultures that are apart from central Appalachia – even outside of the microculture of the rural online learner – can help the student go beyond the textbook towards authentic learning. After all, we are preparing our students not for a world of knowledge scarcity, but knowledge abundance (Weller, 2011; Stewart, 2015) – the literacy of the student is not going to be determined by their recall of a wealth of facts that they could look up elsewhere, but for the capacity to use that information in creative ways and communicate the applications of their understanding, both to their neighbors and the wider world, not merely by traditional communication and presentation but by networked means.

I work at Tusculum University intentionally, because of the place of the institution within the central Appalachians, because of the freedom provided by the institution’s independence from the state, and because of the civic arts tradition of the institution that obligates me to be the best possible citizen of the region, state, country and world. If my belief is that education is empowering, and I am an experienced practitioner of education in ideas that are freely available, it follows for me personally that I have a moral obligation to share my expertise and resources as freely as I am able to do so in faithful service to the institution that employs me.

I am incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in meetings like OLC Innovate, and I don’t want to minimize that gratitude. But a majority of the publishers and vendors who support such meetings and who engages in sales at those meetings are working to extract the last possible dollar from the students who use their services, not to provide the first available dollar to support the learning of the student (language borrowed from Shirky, as reported by Young, 2013). It is critical to me to be able to work out means to support student learning separate from publisher resources, using as many resources that the student can keep for themselves permanently.

The open education movement fits alongside these goals (as introduced by Biswas-Diener and Jhangiani, 2017). Open education is best known in the substance of Open Educational Resources (OER), freely accessible textbooks and similar resources that can take the place of the textbooks and proprietary software that students are sold. The free availability of these resources is the most frequently reported appeal of OER, and in an environment where textbook prices are spiraling out of control, that appeal is obvious.

But again, publishers can cynically use the pursuit of “low cost” to sell more extractive resources, resources that limit access and communicate the wrong lessons about the applicability of coursework beyond the classroom. So it is important to take the practice of education beyond simply the communication of free resources and the implementation of OER in coursework, to philosophies of open pedagogy (DeRosa and Robison, 2017). We seek not merely to have students use freely accessible resources, but actually develop their own educational creativity to provide their own material to add to those resources, and in the long term, for infrastructure to exist that’s sufficient for students to produce their own resources that will meet them at their point of need. In this we approach the full realization of education as empowerment; we do not merely teach students facts or ask students to complete cookbook laboratories, we provide students the structure necessary to use the resources available to them to make knowledge most relevant to them, and even to extend that knowledge as scholars in their own right and communicate that knowledge to peers as widely as possible.

We don’t merely want our students to be the best possible scholars we can be; we want them to set their own direction through that scholarship. In an environment that seeks to eliminate our students’ agency, we want to provide our students with a climate that allows them to take the most complete control of the resources at their disposal, and use those resources for their best benefit.


The results of a rather remarkable study were released on July 26, 2018.

The study addressed student attitudes towards the increase of textbook costs. The headline data from the study were the kind made for newspaper headlines – 43% of students surveyed reporting that they’d skipped meals to afford textbooks and class materials; 85% reporting that class materials were a source of financial stress, in line with tuition and a greater source of stress than highlighted items such as room, board, and health care; just shy of 70% of students who worked while in college saying books were a major reason they needed a job; disproportionate minority impact.

That’s not the remarkable bit.

The remarkable bit is that the survey was a product of Morning Consult, who was contracted to complete the survey by Cengage Learning.

Cengage dunked on a problem they helped to create, in order for them to promote…their own solution (emphasis my own):

“The survey’s results should be a wake-up call for everybody involved in higher education. This is especially true for the publishing industry, including our own company, as we historically contributed to the problem of college affordability,” said Michael Hansen, CEO, Cengage. “The data is clear: high textbook costs pose barriers to students’ ability to succeed in college.  Too many learners today are making painful tradeoffs between course materials and bare necessities like housing and meals. Our industry must embrace what students are telling us. That’s why our company has developed a new subscription model that lowers costs.

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cynical.

I will always be grateful to Nicole Allen of SPARC for putting this cynicism into stark relief:

I will freely own forceful distrust of Wall Street solutions to a problem that Wall Street created, and I will own that distrust even more forcefully given the doctoral degree I hold, and the advanced degrees we’re required to hold as faculty of the institutions where students deal with these problems most. The theory is that we earned those degrees because we’re capable of coming up with explanations for difficult circumstances, and solutions to difficult problems. We should not protest our own helplessness when it comes to the costs our students bear.

And frankly, when it comes to solving those problems, I’m far less likely to trust Wall Street than I am to trust the people of the land around me. The places where I live and work weren’t so much planned as they were carved out. The terrain is some of the most difficult in the country, even the world. The blood and sweat and ingenuity of generations past allow me to make my life here doing the comparatively comfortable work of making scientific knowledge understandable and accessible. If they feel like somebody’s getting rich for no good reason, somebody’s probably getting rich for no good reason.

We cannot allow our curriculum to be set by Wall Street. We cannot allow what is presented to our students in classrooms and in study to serve corporate aims. We must clear space for what our students study to be subservient to our students’ needs, first and foremost – in cost, in accessibility, in permanence, in creativity, in empowerment.


I’m publishing this today in parallel with a third and final presentation in a cycle of talks I’m giving surrounding my work in non-majors physical science teaching online, at the Open Education Southern Symposium at the University of Arkansas. Similar material was presented at Transformative Teaching and Technology conference at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI (where slides have been uploaded) and at Appalachian College Association Summit XXI in Kingsport, TN

The past two years have completely redefined who I am as a scholar. I have been on this path for a very long time but the past two years have provided multiple opportunities for me to actually put what I’ve been doing into a meaningful context, and to realize that I have something very important to add to this conversation.

The people cited below – and in particular, Rajiv Jhangiani, Robin DeRosa, Keegan Long-Wheeler, Bonnie Stewart, Bonnie Stewart, and by the way did I mention Bonnie Stewart – have been incredibly generous with their time to make sure I had points in this document right and to lead me to this point. I cannot possibly thank them enough.

My “second postdoc” as instructional staff at Tennessee Tech laid much of the groundwork for this direction; thanks to Steve Robinson for the offer of the job and for being a spectacular (accidental?) mentor in STEM education research, to Paula Engelhardt for also modeling spectacular work, and to Mary Kidd, Mustafa Rajabali, and Adam Holley for being wonderful colleagues and collaborators. 

Laura Gogia has collaborated with me on a publication that indirectly fed into this work, and I’m completely in her debt for her work and her support. Rissa Sorensen-Unruh did spectacular work editing that volume, and has also fed into spectacular conversations going forward.

I also owe a mammoth debt to Karen Cangialosi, Maha Bali, Ken Bauer, and so many others in the open education community (and I’m certain I’m not remembering names of key folks!) for important conversations at points in this process.

Lastly, to Autumm Caines, Jim Luke, and Lee Skallerup Bessette, who in so many ways are People Without Whom.


Biswas-Diener, R. and R. Jhangiani. 2017. Introduction to open. In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. London: Ubiquity Press.

DeRosa, R. and S. Robison. 2017. From OER to open pedagogy: harnessing the power of open. In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. London: Ubiquity Press.

Stewart, B. 2015. In abundance: networked participatory practices as scholarship. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 16:318-340.

Weller, M. 2011. A pedagogy of abundance. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy 69:223-236.

Long-Wheeler, K, and Pearson, D.C. Online Lab Science. Website archive produced for OLC Innovate 2018; onlinelabsci.keeganslw.com.

Young, J.P. 2013. Clay Shirky says MOOCs will matter, but worries about corporate players. Wired Campus blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education online (audio of quote lost).

2018. New survey: college students consider buying course materials a top source of financial stress. Press release from Cengage Learning with associated infographic.

Why a professor buys his books from the bookstore

2018-08-17 11.33.05

Friday, I made a visit to my campus bookstore, and I bought my books.

The guy who runs Tusculum’s bookstore, Cliff Hoy, is a great guy, and the work that Tusculum’s bookstore does is first-rate. Whenever I’ve had weird requests, he’s been able to honor those requests, and he’s been accommodating when I’ve poked my head into the bookstore to see what the students experience when they come through. (He even put up with my dad when my dad came through to pick up university[1] swag, and my dad will wear a campus bookstore manager OUT.)

This spring, I put in front of him the weirdest request I’ve ever put in front of a bookstore.

I told him that I wanted him to order textbooks that I already knew that the students had free access to. And that I was going to ask the students to buy them anyway.

I still don’t know if he really believes me, but he ordered them, and I then I did the weirdest thing of all: I bought the first copies. And I bought them new, not used.openstax

I wouldn’t do that for just any book. But I did it for books that have that logo over there in the upper-right corner.

Those who have known me for any length of time know that I’m a shill for the OpenStax project. That dates back to 2012, when I stumbled into a reviewer role for one of the first OpenStax textbooks, OpenStax College Physics. There are a ton of other open textbook projects that have come and gone, even publishers that have released materials with Creative Commons licensing that have then pulled that licensing back like so much toothpaste stuffed into a tube. OpenStax has been pretty darn steady for six years now, and is only gaining momentum in terms of the volume of material that is made available in the freshman and sophomore curriculum. The OpenStax bookshelf for mathematics and the OpenStax bookshelf for the sciences have filled out splendidly. (Memo to OpenStax: give me a Differential Equations text and an Organic Chemistry text, and I’m giddy.)

But I get why adopting OpenStax texts makes a guy like Cliff nervous. One of the key features of the OpenStax texts is that the text material itself is published under a Creative Commons license – specifically in this case, CC BY 4.0. That license means the content of the text is freely available to all who want it – and, in fact, a student can access both the text of the physics book and the atoms-first chemistry book online, the whole thing, and they don’t have to pay a dime. I just told him that I was giving away the thing he’s trying to sell, to obtain revenue the university[1] can use.

And I’m trying to persuade him to buy in to that game plan when my namesake textbook publisher is selling him a game plan that will address affordability in a different way.

I sure don’t believe that every professor should buy their own books. The precarity in our own industry is also real, and you shouldn’t take for granted that a professor is making a living wage, let alone enough of a salary to buy textbooks. But I do believe every professor should seriously consider the costs students encounter from within their shoes, and ask seriously if their textbook selection is playing a role in making those costs unreasonable.

hashtag_norelationOne of the things I’ve spent time working on this year is a full game plan for how I do scholarship at this late stage of my career. And increasingly I feel like an important part of doing that scholarship is promoting the sharing of knowledge in ways that the likes of Pearson Higher Ed and Cengage Learning can’t understand if they’re going to fulfill their business models. The basic science knowledge that’s in a major publisher’s textbook is fundamentally the same as the knowledge that’s in an OpenStax textbook (or the freely-shared, Creative Commons-licensed textbooks from another old friend of mine).

We don’t want our students to feel like the knowledge they need to succeed is limited to a publisher who wants to take the student’s hard-earned money in exchange for that knowledge (or their parents’; after all, I’m helping my own child with textbook purchases this week). We want our students to know that they live in an age of knowledge abundance and we want them to use that abundance critically, to their full benefit.

And that benefit needs to be as much of a win/win as it can be, for everybody. I’m not at a public university. (My child is, and frankly, there are some profs who ought to be ashamed of the costs they’re making their students bear.) Some of my students can carry the weight of purchasing textbooks. And we need to make that purchasing process something that they don’t dread.

I’m giving my students that message. Yes, you can download the text; I have it on my iPad, and I’ve got links to the content I’m teaching that you can have on demand as you work on your homework. But you can also have the hard copy. Some of you do better with the real live book than reading your screen. You’ll pay a little less than $50 for the physics book, which I’ll use the whole year. You’ll pay a tad more than $60 for the chemistry book, and that’s the whole year too. That’s a price that Pearson Higher Ed (#norelation) and Cengage Learning can’t compete with. And I know where OpenStax’ profits go – right back into making the resources free for the students who do need free, right back into making that Differential Equations and Organic Chemistry textbook I’d love to see.

So that’s what I’m telling my students. The textbook is free. Please buy it.

And I wanted Cliff to know that I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

[1] This post originally said “college” in these spaces. Cliff, in his generosity, felt compelled to mention that if I left “college” in this piece, someone might find out and fine me the going rate not saying “Tusculum University“, which I hear is $10. Cliff is a wise, wise man.

The reason for my work; the reality of my work

As I start a new academic year, I find myself becoming increasingly intentional in what I do, why I do it, and what my long-term goals are.

I’m on the wrong side of forty-five years old. Although my grandparents’ longevity is a point in my favor, it’s more likely every day that I’m in the second half of my life. I hope I’ve learned my big lessons by now, and from here, the rest of life is fine-tuning.

And increasingly, observing the circumstance I’ve found myself in is how I’m informing who I am and how I work.

If you are unaware, you need to know it now: I am a product of two college implosions, two events over the course of three years that have defined my career.

The first implosion, in 2011, was driven by doctrine. A group of conservative Baptist pastors and community leaders, having pushed for nearly a decade for control of Shorter University’s board of trustees, chose the moment of a key leadership transition emerging from institutional strength to enforce its prerogatives on the institution’s faculty and staff. I was fortunate enough to leave just ahead of that moment, and I didn’t have to choose sides along the fault line – but the earthquake that resulted literally drove a community apart, and the institution has never totally recovered.

The second implosion, in slow motion through 2013 and 2014, was driven by economics. A very different Baptist institution struck out an independent path, but one that was not sufficiently decisive or sufficiently targeted to its community. The college simply failed to meet economic obligations – reporting obligations to the federal government, payroll obligations to faculty, debt service obligations to banks. Those failures led to Virginia Intermont College being voted out of SACS COC membership in 2013, and in the collapse of a intended merger with Webber International in 2014, followed in short order by the close of the college. Foreclosure proceedings initiated by Highland Union Bank in late 2016 turned out to be nothing more than a fait accompli. There’s no straight line between Virginia Intermont’s troubles and the economic struggles of the wider community of Bristol, Virginia, but an empty campus on a hill overlooking the city does not help.

This is my context. Rome, Georgia, is towards the very southern edge of the Appalachians. Bristol is straight to the heart. I live in Greene County, Tennessee, now, working at the newly-christened Tusculum University, close enough to Bristol that my wife has her library job in Bristol back, and that my youngest child appeared behind a desk there a couple of times this summer herself. The house in sight of Intermont Hall is still our property. More than a bit of money for my offspring’s education goes into the Tennessee Board of Regents’ regional university in Johnson City. I’ve given a couple of solos in the choir of the downtown Methodist church in Greeneville.

There are roots down now.

Daily it becomes more and more apparent: this is the end of the line. We don’t just live here now. This is home, and we’re not picking up and moving anytime soon.

And that immediately means that I’m deeply invested in the position I have at that school in Greeneville, with specific goals to accomplish.

2017-03-15 18.22.35

A March day after snow on Old Tusculum Road in Greeneville.
Photo taken by the author.

There are a host of differences between Shorter University in 2011 and Virginia Intermont College in 2014. But what they had in common is what is closer to my heart, and what they had in common is why I’m so motivated in the work that I do.

When the New York Times publishes articles about college students, when you see a news story on a cable news network about college students, the odds are that the caricature that is presented to you is of a student at an elite place. That might be one of the Ivy League universities, your Harvards or Yales – or a corresponding elite private university, like Stanford or MIT. Or that might be a student at a state flagship, like Michigan or Virginia.

In Tennessee, inevitably, there are two caricatures: the Vanderbilt student, the private elite prep kid being taught by the liberal radical professors; or the University of Tennessee student, inevitably in Knoxville (not Chattanooga, certainly not Martin), the salt of the earth being taught by the liberal radical professors.

(Never mind that the most prominent professor in Tennessee is in all likelihood Glenn Harlan Reynolds, whose most prominent popular output may be prolific, and may even be radical, but is hardly liberal by any popular definition.)

Vanderbilt University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, combined, have almost exactly 29,000 undergraduate students.

My estimate is that there’s approximately 260,000 undergraduate students in Tennessee.

That’s about 230,000 students who aren’t accounted for by the caricatures. In this state alone. That’s not even thinking about the whole country.

At a certain point, we have to get past the caricature, and get past who we’re told the students are, and address who the students actually are.

My entire career has been about who the students actually are. Even in graduate school, the students I taught at Ohio State were students who benefitted from the land-grant tradition of the university, and who had a much clearer path to get in the door than the elite rivals at “that school up north” in Ann Arbor. They were plenty fine students, and I saw their equals, even their superiors, in my first full-time teaching job.

My first full-time teaching job was at the old Middle Georgia College, in Cochran, about an hour south of Macon, 45 minutes southeast of Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, and otherwise close to nothing but ground.

Middle Georgia had some advantages. It was one of the few old “junior colleges” in Georgia with dormitories, which made them well-equipped to make a move to four-year status (and, with the merger with Macon State in 2013, that shift into what’s now known as Middle Georgia State University was consummated). It had a well-established pipeline to Georgia Tech and the old Southern Polytechnic, the two major STEM-centered four-year universities in Georgia. And there was a new early college program on campus – the Georgia Academy of Mathematics, Engineering, and Science, or GAMES – that brought young elite students into the school’s orbit.

But if you can imagine a rural college in your mind, Middle Georgia was more rural than that. The random university of your caricature is ten times larger than the city of Cochran. Cochran reminded me of nothing more or less than the town I grew up in – Hilliard, just south of the state line.

In fact, moving to Middle Georgia was sweet to me for one overwhelming reason – when my family drove the back roads to visit my mother’s side of the family, south of Atlanta, we drove up US 23 – right through Cochran, the last chance for Dairy Queen before we hit the interstate in Macon.

I suppose I was different from the very start. Your picture of the college might be the ivory tower. My picture of the college emerged from the window of my car, driving to visit my grandparents, in the forests of middle Georgia.

And I quickly found that the students who frequented a place like Middle Georgia were more remarkable and so very different than the students everybody else told me about.

Exit 39 I-16 for Georgia 26 CC BY-SA 2.0 Ken Lund Flickr

Interstate 16, westbound from Savannah, encountering an important exit just past Dublin without much civilization in sight.
Photo by user kenlund on Flickr; CC BY-SA 2.0.

I have always been a bookstore rat, and I love my college bookstore, no matter what college I’m at. It’s one of the central points on campus. It’s where my father stops to pick up campus merch. It’s where I stop to pick up junk food for an evening writing. It’s where I hear what the students are saying.

One of the most important stories of my career happened in the campus bookstore at Middle Georgia College. Two young black women were complaining, somewhat loudly, about the dumb prof they had and the dumb textbook he was making them buy.

I of course took a deep breath and smiled. I’d picked my books as intentionally as I could. I was locked into a set of texts for many of my courses because of relationships with Georgia Tech and colleagues I worked with, but when a course was my own responsibility, I was very serious. And I had been able to find a paperback copy of a textbook for my Interdisciplinary Science class that was a major publisher text, from two very respectable authors. I adopted that paperback without a single second thought. I wish other professors were as intentional as I was.

I then saw the young women. They were my students.

I looked. They were complaining about my textbook.

I hid my dismay and I talked to them. They were as polite to me as they could be considering they were complaining about me just a few seconds before, but I was able to disarm them and we were able to be honest. The textbook’s price was ridiculously bad, even for a two-semester course, especially for a cloth cover. One student was very frank with me about the stress that was on her budget. I kept positive about the text – it was, it is a great text – but I got the message clearly, and I hope I was able to let those women know they’d been heard.

It was 2001. I was twenty-nine years old.

The textbook cost $95.

Several years on, we consider that “cheap.”

The last eighteen years have been one education after another about those kinds of stresses, the burdens we put on the students who aren’t among our elites – not elite by academic background, not elite by economics, not elite by social standing. That education hasn’t merely been at the small junior college, but at the large regional university (Tennessee Tech) and at the church-related private colleges (Shorter, Virginia Intermont, and now Tusculum).

We communicate all sorts of mixed messages to these students about their value. They’re part of the agenda to advance college completion among our population, but our media continues to avoid conversation about them and continue to focus attention on Nashville and Knoxville. We want these students to remain in our state, but the state and our captains of industry are stingy with the jobs they create, and are stingy with salaries when they do give in and create those jobs, and resist any effort to make the negotiation of fair salaries accessible. We want these students in our educational institutions, and we trumpet the statistics of students who take the steps to access these institutions, and we still erect all manner of roadblocks to those students affording that education. Some of us don’t even pay any attention to those costs at all.

We require a textbook, we require a learning platform, and we don’t bother to make ourselves aware of the burden we create.

We’re not talking about a fraction of the students we educate. We’re talking about the majority. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s statistics are required reading for anybody who works in higher education – the students whose assigned federal financial aid cannot cover the cost of attending a public institution are the norm in America, not the exception. There’s story after story of students for whom that burden I saw in the eyes of that Middle Georgia student are very real.

For some funny reason, this crisis of need doesn’t make the evening news, and the media continue to bray about ideological oppression – even the higher education media, who should know that the majority of undergraduates, with these real and ever-present stresses, don’t even think about what the students at Reed College think about.

These needs are part of the reality I work in, day in and day out. They’re part of the stress in central Appalachia. And if I’m here for the long haul, I need to be focused on how I can work within my institution to help.

Posted: No Tresspassing. At Virginia Intermont, circa Fall 2015.
Photo taken by the author.

I took Virginia Intermont’s closure very hard.

There are a host of people of resources all around this region, even within Bristol, Virginia. Those resources could have been leveraged within an institution to make it viable. The institution could have engaged with its community to raise everybody’s value and worth, to position it to give back to a region it took so many resources from. The institution could have been saved.

Instead I watched good money after bad poured after doomed energy companies and retail investments that drained money from public coffers. I watched a city I came to care about deeply in short order set out a course that inflicted damage, rather than heal it.

It’s hard to understand me without understanding that. I have always, from my very earliest memories, believed unabashedly in the power of education. I didn’t need a ton of resources to set myself up for achievement beyond my wildest dreams – just a few books and the support of my family and loved ones. But even those resources are out of reach for so many.

And the cost of education that my own family was able to afford for me steps out of reach of so many more every day.

In this place, my aim is to work to create an institution that is public-minded. If we’re deciding as a society that the bachelor’s degree is an essential credential for our population, then that bachelor’s degree ought to be accessible for as many in this population as possible. We ought to consider who that undergraduate is – and we ought to rid our imagination of the idea of the student right out of high school, for the student well into living their life, working at day and studying at night, is every bit as much of that reality. We ought to consider everything when it comes to accessibility for all of those students – the quality of our primary and secondary institutions, the openness of our doors to those students, the capacity to study as their schedule allows (and our own willingness to be inconvenienced for their sake), and the costs that we ask those students to bear. And we ought to be as aggressive as we can in pursuing resources that support those students – not merely when they get within our doors, but before they arrive and as they pursue employment after they leave.

The students who attend institutions like Tusculum University are far more representative of those who seek undergraduate education than students who attend the caricatured colleges and universities of our media. We need to talk about that caricature more aggressively every day, and replace the caricature in the public imagination with the real undergraduate, the undergraduate we’ve burdened as a society, the undergraduate who is the real future of our society.

Because I learned nearly two decades ago in Cochran, and I relearn every day, that so many of those students were so much more capable than society believes, and all those students need is the faith of a community around them.

They may even move these mountains. Their parents, their grandparents have done it before.