The very first tweet I woke up to in the four-word stories posted for #Antigonish2 today knocked me just a tiny bit sideways:
What people in a community say:
“How’ve you been, friend?”
— laura ritchie (@laura_ritchie) March 31, 2017
…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.
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  fan in me, because I forever wanna go back to Ohio State, to ol’ Columbus-town. 
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.
— Coach Gary Pinkel (@GaryPinkel) 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.
 BIG TENNNNNNNNNNNNNN, of course, should always be spelled with fourteen “n”‘s. No real reason.
 to the stadium to hear the band, by far the finest in the land
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.
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.
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.
Before I can do Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard #4 (and resurrect a series that has laid dormant for over a year), I have to tell a very personal story. And it’s time to do it now.
For those of you who’ve been getting to know me in one place or another over the past couple of years – be it at Tennessee Tech or online through Twitter or what have you – there’s a bias that I hesitate to bring up too much in this climate, knowing how many people come from how many different employment backgrounds, but that’s inescapable given my own. It’s the interweaving of life and work, and the identity that we take from our work.
My grandfather was a dentist. He practiced dentistry in the military, and then settled with his wife in Berea, Ohio to establish a community practice. He engaged with his professional societies vigorously; he reached the presidency of the Ohio Dental Association, and even served as president of the Ohio State University Dental Alumni Society in his late EIGHTIES, long after his retirement. Anybody who spent too much time around him saw his “Rx for Apathy: INVOLVEMENT” motto, and his commitment to his community and his profession was awesome for me to see in my youthful years, and awesome for me to talk over with him on precious Saturday mornings having breakfast before Ohio State football games when I was in grad school.
Even as I saw the stresses over the profession when I was in grad school, nothing interested me near as much as the practice of college teaching. (The one substantial regret I have from graduate school was not pushing back when my boss shot down out-of-hand my desire to look into science education labs and seek out postdocs that were more teaching-focused. I understand why she did, in terms of the pressures on the research-one professoriate. But my heart never left the classroom, and any thought of being a research professor was setting myself up to fail.) When my postdoc failed, and the prospect of teaching at a small residential two-year college came to the fore, the picture of a life in a small town as a respected member of the community working in education REALLY appealed to me, and it felt like a thing I could make a career out of.
It bears mentioning that, in the year 2000, I was really naïve.
Fast forward through 14 years and three different jobs that I took with the feeling that I absolutely had no choice each time I moved and the thoughts in the back of my mind that I could have done better. The reason that Virginia Intermont’s failure hit me so hard, at the end of the day, is the fact that I left what I did on that job with zero regrets and it still didn’t matter. In both of my first two jobs, the institution continues on (in a different form than when I arrived at both, but it continues on) and I’m torn whether I could have changed or hidden elements of who I was or been a bit more agreeable and patient and not had to move my family around. Maybe I could have stayed at Middle Georgia long-term; maybe I felt too much principle when I left Shorter. But I see the mistakes I made at both places. I fully realized the type of professor I wanted to be at Virginia Intermont, I found a place I loved and students I wanted to serve for the long haul.
And the school failed anyway.
I tossed every application out to every small teaching-centered college or university in the universe because I’d started doing something professionally that I dearly, desperately wanted to continue and I felt like I could articulate a vision for success. I interviewed at several, and all but one of those processes failed for one reason or another. I targeted one Christian liberal arts college in particular, and went through a very full process on the phone, on Skype and over a two-day (!) in-person interview schedule to work to make that happen. At the very end of the process, they canceled the search and allowed the due-to-retire professor to stay on for another year. Failure, in your face, again.
I’ve said a good bit about the search process that didn’t fail elsewhere. I’ll always be grateful for that one job application in 2014 that didn’t fail, and the work I did at Tennessee Tech shifted my thinking about science education – and got me DOING things in science education – in ways that I really can’t count. But the job title was “temporary instructor of physics.” The vocation that I had taken so much value from was gone. And you might be treated exceptionally well in that job – and I was. And you might be listened to and valued by your colleagues in every aspect of your work in that job – and I was. But the word “temporary” is still there. The word “professor” is in your colleague’s titles and not your own. The institution devalues. It’s worthy work, but there’s inherent disrespect in how your employer classifies it.
What was once theoretical for me – the reality of jobs drying up in higher education, the tenuous nature of those who deliver the teaching that our students depend upon for that vital degree – became very real in that time, even as I knew that I was incredibly fortunate to keep full-time employment in 2014. I saw it happen in so many others’ lives as well, in so many other places that failed and in other places where people’s secure employment was suddenly changed and made less secure.
2014 was a very hard time, and made very real to me how hard things were for others. You shouldn’t have to go through awful things to build that empathy. But I’m not that good a person.
Jimmy Eat World’s Damage was released in the summer of 2013 to more underwhelming reviews than raves, and it’s still not even close to one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World albums (although to me a bad Jimmy Eat World album is still better than 90% of bands’ entire catalogs). It’s the album on the downward side of the band’s career, and it has all the foibles of that stage of a band’s lifetime.
But most songs that become my lifelong favorites have a moment where they just hit. And there was a moment sometime in early 2014, when I saw how the Virginia Intermont story was going to end, and when I heard what had just been a good steady rocker and it hit me between the eyes. And as each step of my job hunt became more vivid, each lyric from the song resonated more and more.
Here we go, here we go; we’ll take on so much pain
To feel secure – or not feel anything
I only pick a fight I’m sure to lose
So how could I not hold my hope for you?
How slowly we built the walls
In years they pile on
I will steal you back…
And my word, I had taken on pain – and put myself and my family through so much hardship and instability in pursuit of this thing that I care so deeply about. And, again, we had comparatively remained stable; we had known people who had and then found themselves without.
One of the most gratifying things to discover was that Jim Adkins didn’t see this lyric as it sounded on first listen, but wrote it as I heard it when it hit me at its hardest – as a point of commitment:
I guess you can read into it as a surface thing, like, literally wanting someone back whose grace you might have fallen out with…but I view it more like a first-person speaker in that song making decisions, rather than just resolutions. It’s more about, I think, finding yourself and being okay with yourself than it is wanting or needing something from the other person in a relationship…
So as the song became a theme for a stage of my life, the title – “I Will Steal You Back” – never was about a person. It was in part about that job title, but that’s not even the entire picture. It was about that picture I had in 2000 – that naïve vision of a stable place in a small town for the professor and for their family, a picture that wasn’t that unreasonable in my youth but a picture that has been slipping steadily out of view for most of my career. It was determination to get that for myself and my family. It was determination to stand in defense for those others around me who were struggling to have that for themselves and and their families.
I’ve been successful in one, but there is still a long, long way to go on the other.
“It’s gonna be how it is; there’s some things you don’t change.”
I’m done with telling myself that story.
(1) I have written entirely too many of these things, because I have moved my family around entirely too many times.
Real Professional Development Goal, August 2016-forever: make this the last of these things I ever write.
(2) In July of 2011, I wrote this:
I have been offered a position at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA, to teach chemistry and physics and play a key role in building that school’s natural science department. The position and the surrounding professional development is nothing short of the perfect job for this point in my career.
For those of you who came into my orbit sometime after that, and don’t know how that story ended, it ended with financial problems overrunning the college, and getting laid off not even three years later. It was not a fun time.
Now for you to be convinced that I’m crazy: I still believe what I said five years ago to be true.
With all respect and love to my friends in Georgia who were so good to me, but who I left to chase what was to me a dream of a job: Virginia Intermont was where I found and made a home. I thought I loved the mountains when I lived in Rome (Georgia, y’all) and worked at Shorter. In Bristol, I knew. I saw this forgotten and less fashionable part of the country and, being a less fashionable person myself, I found a real sense of place.
I went all-in on Virginia Intermont because I saw what was possible for that kind of school in that season of time when I was at Shorter, how the unlikely student could grow into the leader and the visionary. I built an entirely-too-vivid picture of what that looked like at VI. I wanted to see that vision become a reality, so badly that I bought a house and made Virginia Hill my home.
What I found in exchange was the truest sense of learning community, unlike any experience I have ever had. It was the greatest of privileges to be a part of it. The students I taught at VI are people I cherish and love – every last student, through the good times and the bad that we shared (and God knows, if you’re that close, you’re going through everything together). We went through as difficult a transaction as anybody in education should ever deal with. They have been faithful to me, and I hope that I have been as faithful to them. Those students, far above and beyond anything else, were worth that move for me.
But they weren’t the only benefit. The other thing I realized in my time at Virginia Intermont was how much of an island I had been on in the work that I did. The very first time I went to an Appalachian College Association Summit, and had time to talk to colleagues from places like Ferrum and Montreat and Ohio Valley and Pikeville and Brevard and West Virginia Wesleyan – and realized that these people had been talking to one another for quite some time about the same troubles I had as a faculty at a resource-limited small private college in the South – I realized what professional development what would look like for me over the long term.
Losing Virginia Intermont didn’t just mean losing the school and the students – it meant losing colleagues over several states in this precious region who had wisdom to share and who knew what the difficulty in this time of history for small private colleges looked like. It was such a benefit over those three years. It ended abruptly – I was scheduled to attend an ACA Teaching and Learning Institute in June 2014, before VI closed in May 2014. The abruptness was as hard to take as anything.
The time I spent at Virginia Intermont confirmed some things that I valued and revealed new things. I always knew how much I valued the time spent with students and how much I appreciated institutions that encouraged the development of genuine learning community. I really understood – for the first time in my young-punk career – how much I had to learn from those who had done the same kind of work I had, at the same kinds of institutions I had.
And – there is no other way to say this – I fell in love with Central Appalachia. And I longed to make that place home.
(3) I have been ridiculously fortunate to have been at Tennessee Technological University for the past two years. I had wanted to chase after better, more active learning in my classroom for a long time; I knew the benefits, and it’s not like I didn’t try to draw communication out of my students in the classroom, but I was exceptionally comfortable in a traditional chalk-and-talk mode, and in a position where I was teaching three different courses at once, as much as I loved that diversity of work, I didn’t really find myself in a position where I could push the active classroom as much as I wanted to – or, really, as much as I needed to.
Observing Steve Robinson and Paula Engelhardt in the process of implementing an active learning curriculum for the algebra/trig-based physics sequence has been, in nearly every sense, a better educational experience than anything I got out of a postdoc. This is the stuff that will make me better as a professor: finding ways to make students productively uncomfortable in a classroom setting, and creating an environment where they aren’t just hearing information but internalizing it and making knowledge their own. I don’t have all the answers, and maybe I have a ton of experience with some of this stuff, but it’s so much more valuable when the student makes an observation, draws a conclusion, carries a new experience with them to inform how they see the world.
And I have been privileged to work alongside this whole department – but especially with Mary Kidd, Mustafa Rajabali, and Adam Holley in making this curriculum work for the wider student population. The one time before in my career I worked alongside another physics educator, I was a problem child and overopinionated and I am sure I torched more than that one bridge in the process. I probably was the same here, but rather than putting me off, these sweet people listened and challenged me right back, We have been, I hope, iron sharpening iron day in and day out. I could not possibly have had better colleagues these past two years.
I have very few regrets, but not finding a way to teach like this and engage like this sooner in my career is one of them; as much good as I’ve done in a classroom in my career, I am more confident than ever that there is a better way than simply telling a class what I’m going to tell them, then telling them, then telling them what I told them.
There was a thought that simply doing this work, and refining this work to make it more and more effective, would have been the most valuable thing I could do going forward. I did have the opportunity to remain at Tennessee Tech, within this department, and I’m grateful for all the people here who supported me and invested so much in me. At several points in April, I was seriously thinking of what settling in Cookeville would look like.
That would have been bittersweet. As good as it was to be wanted, it would have involved narrowing my vision – the career spent bouncing between disciplines would be over, the advising of students at various points on academic and pre-professional paths would be over, the focus on the wider institution and on higher education would have been over. So many things that I have valued so deeply would no longer come with that place. Quality teaching is so important, and being in a role focused on quality teaching would be worthy. But there were so many things I felt were undone.
And there was that tiny little issue of a place, a place where my eldest child was finding home as well, still carrying an attachment. And wondering if there was a way back.
And I reached a point where I didn’t think there was a way.
And then things started to happen.
(4) I honestly didn’t know what to think when I received that first email, except an old colleague was there and she had been pretty high on the thought of me getting the job and joining the faculty. I honestly thought the email came too late; we were ready to decide to stay put; I had other interviews at similar schools and found in one way or another that they were after somebody to fill a very narrow faculty line and could do as well to hire a young punk straight out of grad school (like I once was) than somebody who had been around the block a time or two.
And then a phone call. And a serious conversation. And a recognition that I came from a different place and a different experience, and a recognition that they were looking for a different professor and a different impact. We agreed to keep talking. And soon.
The interview, honestly, wasn’t like any interview I’d ever had in my career. It was comfortable, from the very first moment. Many of the formalities started to be dispensed with early. I was recognized, not as somebody who was a warm body seeking a job, but somebody who had a unique skill set, a unique background, and who could do unique things.
I started to understand that they didn’t just want a physicist, or a chemist, or even a molecular biophysicist. They wanted me – who I had been, who I am now, who I could become. And I could get a picture of becoming a far better scholar in this community than I am now.
Future colleagues – for that’s what they turned out to be, and what I was able to see them as from even the first conversation – spoke directly, and honestly, and with hope. Students spoke to what was good about their experience, what needed to improve, and why they loved the place.
I’ve left interviews before being completely confused about what the job was, and what my responsibilities might be. Here, I saw a role, and I saw it completely.
I have never been so excited leaving an interview (even as I left it to scramble back to Cookeville to give an exam). The place was not perfect, but the imperfections were very clear and not hidden at all. The job ahead was clear. And I hoped I’d be given the chance.
(5) When the dust settled, on April 21, I had an offer from Tusculum College, just outside Greeneville, Tennessee, a little more than an hour away from Bristol, on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest on the North Carolina state line.
It was an offer to join their faculty as Associate Professor of Natural Sciences, with teaching responsibility across physics, chemistry, and – my word, is this really happening? – molecular and cellular biology.
There are a host of other benefits and responsibilities that come with that. But, more than anything else, it’s a return to a faculty position serving a small, teaching-centered liberal arts (and, Tusculum would remind you, civic arts) college in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s work I’m prepared for in every way, shape and form.
I am as grateful as you could possibly imagine for the opportunity.
My prayer now is very simple: for me, forever, this will be what it means to go home.
All across the fruited plain, American soccer fans made a decision about entertainment today. Some of them beat themselves upside the head with an orange training cone. In a slightly less justifiable move, some of them watched the Gold Cup 3rd Place Game between the United States and Panama. But a few hardy souls fired up the YouTube and, despite zero emotional investment, watched a poorly attended USL match between New York Red Bulls II and the Richmond Kickers. Who made the best decision?
Obviously, the guys knocking themselves upside the head with the orange training cones. But among those of us who watched soccer, we can evaluate outcomes at the Tale of the Tape.
NYRB II v Richmond v USA v Panama
Category: GOALS SCORED
NYRB II v Richmond: Seven
USA v Panama: Two
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond
Category: MINUTES PLAYED
NYRB II v Richmond: 90
USA v Panama: 120
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond again, if only for the agony of being an American supporter having to watch this USA defense. Speaking of which:
Category: TOTAL SHOTS ATTEMPTED and TOTAL SHOTS ON GOAL
NYRB II v Richmond: 32 shots, 23 shots on goal
USA v Panama: 26 shots, 12 shots on goal
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond, on both offense and offensive efficiency
Category: SHOT DIFFERENTIAL
NYRB II v Richmond: Even (NYRB II 16, Richmond 16)
USA v Panama: Panama +20 (Panama 25, USA 5)
ADVANTAGE: …honestly, how did Panama not destroy us? Seriously?
Category: GOALKEEPER QUALITY
NYRB II v Richmond: 16 saves between the two keepers.
USA v Panama: 11 saves for Brad Guzan by himself…and then penalties.
ADVANTAGE: USA v Panama. Yeah, Guzan had a dang good game. But it’s not like Mejia had anything to do for Panama…until Michael Bradley and DaMarcus Beasley took their penalties.
Category: BEST GOAL
NYRB II v Richmond: A gorgeous looping header by forward Jason Yeisley of Richmond, off a equally beautiful lofted cross over everybody by Owusu Sekyere
USA v Panama: Clint Dempsey’s decisive shot to equalize, set up by his Seattle teammate DeAndre Yedlin.
ADVANTAGE: Push. I honestly like Yeisley’s goal better, but Dempsey’s appreciation for Yedlin’s service afterwards gave me more hope…for about 30 seconds.
NYRB II v Richmond: late-season league match in the American 3rd division between teams fighting for a playoff spot.
USA v Panama: 3rd place game in the Gold Cup, the CONCACAF championship tournament.
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. And not even close.
NYRB II v Richmond: no report at press time but likely mid-hundreds based on recent performance. Absolutely uninspiring.
USA v Panama: 12,598
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. See “STAKES”, especially that “3rd division” bit.
Category: BROADCAST AVAILABILITY (English-language)
NYRB II v Richmond: YouTube, live HD streaming, totally free of charge, viewable on computer or mobile device
USA v Panama: Fox Sports 2. Fox Sports TWO? You mean Rupert’s got ANOTHER sports network that’s a bull competitor to ESPN? Who carries that, anyway?
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. And all this while the main FOX network showed a glorified friendly between Barcelona and Manchester United, adding insult to injury. USA fans, hope you enjoyed your Univision.
Category: ARCHIVED REPLAY
NYRB II v Richmond: You can watch this replay RIGHT NOW – and it’s still free.
USA v Panama: Available through FOX Sports GO with an authentication through your cable or satellite service provider, or through Fox Soccer 2Go subscription ($19.99/month, $99.99/year).
Advantage: NYRB II v Richmond, because no way I’m paying to watch that garbage. Or much of any of FOX’s garbage, for that matter. (Sorry, Rob Stone. I miss you.)
Category: EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT
NYRB II v Richmond: absolutely, positively none. I save all my USL love for the Austin Aztex (Columbus’ USL affiliate) and the Pittsburgh Riverhouds (who should be Columbus’ USL affiliate). I kind of was rooting for
USA v Panama: #yaaaaaaaaaanks? *sob*
ADVANTAGE: NYRB II v Richmond. Like you really have to ask.
So there you have it. It’s all so simple when you break things down scientifically. In regulation time, while people were charging after referees in Chester, PA, NYRB II and Richmond won this matchup going away.
Seriously, catch a USL match on YouTube when you have a chance. No, the teeming millions aren’t there all the time, but the soccer is 1996- or 1997-era MLS quality, and it reflects the growth of the American game all over. Fun sports entertainment, and you don’t have to pay for that super-expensive sports tier on your cable or satellite to see it.
Until next time, and with deepest apologies to Nick Bakay, this has been Dr. Chuck Pearson, the Stereotypical Dumb Yank(tm), reminding you that the numbers never lie.