What Twitter was, what Twitter could have been, what Twitter is

As much as I tried to resist the end, I had a breaking point, and the breaking point was this.

Tweet from Elon Musk: "My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci" December 11, 2022.

The tweet just had it all – it was a remarkable intersection of bullying, malicious, and callous. Bullying comes first, of course, because any tweet targeting an individual from Twitter’s 44-billion-dollar overlord will have the impact of focusing the masses against that individual. Malicious, because that individual has been the epitome of selfless service in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, at a time where we need more selfless service and not less; when we attack the public-minded, people’s willingness to think of the public atrophies. And then callous, because trivializing people’s use of pronouns to clarify their identity takes the marginalized and shoves them further to the margins.

Elon Musk is a lot of things. A responsible leader is not one of them.

And if this is what engagement looks like on Musk’s Twitter, then I’m out.

As I’ve struggled with this reflection on the Twitter Era of my life – and make no mistake, it was a pretty extensive and defining era, and it’s now done – I have drawn very little on the very naïve and very rose-colored celebration of what I discovered in mid-2013. That was only halfway through a very fateful year, and I hadn’t yet tapped the power of the networks that wove their way through that very extensive social media website.

I am going to start here instead: if I hadn’t discovered Twitter and the people within it in 2013, I very likely would have been out of academia within a year, maybe two.

When Virginia Intermont failed, I tried to find a position through my tried-and-true methods, and I went 0-for-every-attempt. There is something about the stench of failure attaching itself to you when you leave one (doctrinal, fundamentalist) institutional collapse for another (financial, managerial) institutional collapse. I had a very steep climb to present my CV as representing somebody who was successful at what he did and who could make an institution be successful in kind.

Somehow or another, in my first fitful days of using Twitter seriously, my Twitter feed told another story about me than Shorter’s exodus or Virginia Intermont’s bankruptcy. Somehow, through a connection with an old friend, somebody in the Tennessee Tech physics department followed that Twitter feed, and when the time came, amazed that I was somebody who was available and who could do a job for a place.

Word passed from professor to chair, and I didn’t just have a job, but a teaching experience that changed me and made me more effective in the classroom. And I had an instant positive reputation when I stepped on campus.

When Twitter worked for those of us in higher education, that’s how it worked. It was scholarship that was accessible, it was framing that was positive, it was a presence that connected in ways obvious and subtle. It was the best possible edit on the type of scholar I envisioned myself being; it was a way to bring what I did in the classroom in front of the widest audience.

The years of 2013, 2014 and 2015 were absolutely incredible for me. Even as I lived through the collapse and failure of one institution, I found that I had supporters in places I could never have imagined, cheerleaders of the sort I would have never dreamed. Twitter put those heroes in my life in place. I will forever be grateful.

The reality I’m facing now is that I tried to hang on to a time of ignorant bliss in my use of social media, and I tried to hang on to that for at least six years beyond its sell-by date – if I’m being generous.

It was ignorant bliss because, as in so many things, I had it easy as a straight white dude. I never got the tiniest measure of harassment because of my use of Twitter, and I was able to find my voice on my own terms without being shouted down because of one thing or another.

There are plenty of anecdotes you could choose from, but they all point to the same place: people who are marginalized in academia are likely to experience harassment on platforms like Twitter, and as much as we may want to use those platforms to amplify others’ experience, all they wind up amplifying are the avenues through which they receive hate.

Some people work through that, and I marvel at that. In so many ways, Tressie McMillan Cottom’s continued presence on the platform will keep me from turning away from Twitter entirely; she used the site brilliantly before I showed up, and she may well keep using the site brilliantly after I go. But as I’ve gone through the last few years of my career, I find myself turning more and more away from the voices I see and wondering more and more about the voices that I’m missing.

What was at once powerful, dangerous and ultimately ill-fated about Twitter was its capacity, because of its open nature, to amplify voices the American white male would have otherwise never heard. #BlackTwitter was a total revelation to me because I heard such a different edit on the experience of “Western civilization” from anything I’d ever been taught. I heard hints of experience from other cultures, from other places in the world, from communities I would have never imagined resonance with. If you read, and you were intent, you learned, even in bursts of 140 characters at a time.

One of the fundamental elements of that education is that any step back that the experience of white males in America took would be something that was received as oppression. In retrospect, it is the starkest of coincidences that my experience of Twitter’s ideality aligned with the end of the Obama presidency, and the noxious backlash that was the rise of Trump.

The tempting thing is to say that Trumpism was the poison that ruined Twitter, and the one odious man unleashed powerful forces that ultimately served to undermine healthy dialogue and make the website unusable. But again, if I said that, it would be from a place of privilege, as a person who never experienced the harassment that made the site unusable for so many from the onset. The forces were there all along; they were merely made more visible in 2016.

Tressie called it herself, long before the election, even before a single primary had been contested.

Tweet from Tressie McMillan Cottom: "but it's important, I think, that we know that we always have in us the impulse to elect a President Trump. Always." January 28, 2016.

Connecting the political realities that gave us 2016 to the failures of Twitter is at once a stretch and completely obvious. Those realities made social media a maddening place to engage.

So many of us chose to continue to engage, even when the toxicity emerged above the surface. Most of us who made that choice connected to a time when Twitter worked for us, and Twitter delivered news, networking, and notability in a fashion that other social media simply couldn’t. Twitter was broadcast media at a bite-sized scale, and even when the 5G signal to your phone weakened to 3G or maybe even no-G, when other social media failed, you could still get Twitter updates. The phone app was absolutely killer compared to other social media. When a breaking news event happened, it was the closest thing to monoculture I’ve experienced in adulthood; it felt like the entire world was sharing the happening with you, in real time.

All these little benefits outweighed the toxicity and the undercurrent of racism, prejudice and hate fueling the platform and lurking ever closer to the surface. The connection with the whole world (or at least my little conception of the whole world) was just too attractive to overcome.

I had the option to cut out of Twitter in 2016, when Mastodon began and I discovered like-minded people on that platform (both Twitter castaways and those who could never access Twitter) that I could engage with at length, at a level of depth that I could never achieve on Twitter. Even at 280 characters, there’s only so much depth you can plow. I was able to use the platform and the format of Mastodon to do deeper thinking and deeper connection, but with a smaller range of people.

I engaged fully and fruitfully on Mastodon for about eight months. I never left Twitter. I gave Twitter more and more of my time again. Ultimately, I quit using Mastodon entirely.

The alternate edit to my social media life is what it would look like if I’d broken my ties with Twitter, remained on Mastodon and engaged fully on the networks there – who I might have discovered with the time and patience invested, how my social media practice might have evolved instead of fractured, what I might have invested more fully in. Mastodon, it is clear in retrospect, was fully worthwhile. There are people in moderating roles over the open-source social network who are deeply interested in cooperating with one another to maintain safety in the space, to make room for all voices to engage in a conversation.

As the Musk takeover of Twitter loomed, I found myself taking up a long-forgotten space on Mastodon anew – much more slowly and much more intentionally this time. I had to settle myself that Mastodon was not broadcast media, and never would be. I had to settle myself that I was going to join a smaller community, and take benefit from engaging with that community, rather than using that community to amplify my voice loudly. I had to recognize that the community wasn’t just going to sustain itself on a billionaire’s largesse or Wall Street compromises, and I had to actually put forward resources to sustain that community myself.

Instead of just using somebody else’s space, I had to help make it work for the community.

These are lessons I should have learned long ago.

There is a pipe dream that I still have that Twitter, as a company, long before the fait accompli that was the Musk takeover, would have learned lessons about what excluded people from the platform and made a more safe space for a wider variety of people.

To do that would have required humility from the white men who have been the primary movers behind Silicon Valley from day one. It would have involved admitting that other people can see the problems with Twitter more vividly and more expansively than they could with their own eyes. It would have involved taking real and tangible guidance from people from different cultures, people from literally around the world, who could see a better, healthier way forward.

It would have meant forsaking a little bit of engagement, a little bit of venom, for something more vibrant to take root.

But that isn’t the way that this culture works. And Twitter is presently hollowing itself out to become an echo-chamber shell of its former, vital self.

So this famous tweet becomes the epitaph. No other way to end my time on Twitter than repeating this. For just a little bit of humility, the internet could be a better place.

Tweet from @actioncookbook: "USERS: we love twitter but it has problems TWITTER: great we'll fix them USERS: do you want to know what they are TWITTER: absolutely not" January 5, 2016.


Seeing this statement in print is absolutely surreal:

I didn’t set out in this gig to be distinguished anything. There’s only one goal I’ve ever had in doing this stuff that I do at the college level: I want students to be as excited about chemistry and physics as I am, and I want to give them the language to be able to communicate that excitement to others. Anything else is gravy.

And my career isn’t a career that has taken any kind of proper path. I’ve left places repeatedly, for reasons understandable and mystifying, sometimes both at the same time. Somebody check the record books: I am certain I am the only person ever to receive an endowed professorship who has five different full-time faculty jobs on his CV, none of them research-driven, all of them – and let’s be absolutely direct about this – all of them one flavor or another of grunt teacher of chemistry and physics.

People like me don’t get calls from their dean saying “the institution has an endowed professorship, and we want you to hold the title.”

And yet here I am, with a job at this place that calls me “distinguished professor.”

That tells you something about the place.

I’ve said before that I work at a very important place, a place embedded in the Appalachian Mountains, a place that puts its focus on how undergraduates are taught. It’s now twice in a calendar year that this institution has communicated to me, in real and tangible ways, that the things I value are the things that it values – one time when I was promoted to full professor, and now with this endowment of my position.

Places that put the undergraduate student at the center of their mission and support the education of that undergraduate in tangible ways are rare and are becoming rarer. When exploring my options at the point when I applied for this job, the positions that I could find at four-year institutions that didn’t demand some sort of publishable scholarship and that devalued the teaching role of the professor were few and far between. Undergraduate research is important – my colleague in chemistry is an expert at that – but it doesn’t overtake the importance of the work in the classroom.

Choosing somebody with my record and my practice in education sends a message. It’s not enough – it’s not even entirely necessary – to have a robust publication record to be successful at this place. Being successful at this place means doing the work in front of students, day in and day out, and being seriously reflective on the successes and the failures that come with doing that work so that we all can continue to improve at the art and practice of instruction – the very thing that we should be primarily equipped to do at these institutions.

(The press release mentions my work in quizbowl, too! I’m very grateful to be at a place that makes this particular passion of mine not only part of its programming, but part of how I’m valued and something that they can value as well.)

Endowments don’t just fall from the sky. Someone caught the vision to make the substantial sum of money available to feed into the continued success of the institution. In this case, that person was Verna June Meen. Her gift to Tusculum in honor of her husband, who was quite the chemist in his own right, isn’t just responsible for the funding of the position reflected in my title, but the building where I work – the Meen Center for Science and Mathematics. It’s a spectacular facility, the best facility I’ve been able to call a workplace in my career. Frankly, everything about science education at this place is the best kept secret in Tennessee, and I’d like for it to be a little bit less of a secret.

The Meen family will long be remembered at this place for all they’ve done to make a fundamental transformation of science education possible. I taught in that great legacy science building, Tredway Hall, at the start of my time at Tusculum – but there’s only so much modern science that a building constructed in 1928 can support. The Meen funding that made the building possible also supports this endowment and, in turn, will support the maintenance of laboratory equipment in the building and further undergraduate research in chemistry that will go forward. The funding is not just for me; the foresight of how the money is being apportioned means it is for all of us, and that is something that satisfies me deeply.

Between the Meen funding and the USDA and Appalachian Regional Commission support in addition to other private funding that supplemented the costs of construction and the outfitting of the building with lab equipment, we’re confident we can be on the cutting edge of science education – education that isn’t merely rigorous and effective, but accessible, meeting the students of this region at the point of their need.

Accepting this title is a spectacular honor – but it’s also a profound responsibility. I have a little bit more of a bully pulpit than I had before, and I feel a very real obligation to communicate anew the importance of constructing our institutions in ways that allow everybody who comes across our path – particularly those who come across our path wanting to study the sciences – the opportunity to succeed, to realize their dreams, and surpass them.

For six and a half years I have been supported in ways large and small by this campus community, by people who have since moved on, by people who have come onto campus, and by people who have stayed. That support has been doubled and redoubled over the course of this brutally difficult year, where professional successes have been wedded with the worst heartache.

The realization strikes me that there are people who are working overtime to make sure that my “Real Professional Development Goal” of April 2016 comes to fruition.

I’m grateful, so grateful to the people who have made Tusculum University my home.

(Thanks to April Lane for the photo.)

One year

I wish I had coherent thoughts to share on the awful anniversary of losing A.

This is a thing that reshapes the calendar. Instead of the arbitrary end of year that we define, now there’s this very definite thing, and here’s one month since this thing, six months since this thing, one year since this thing that totally upended our lives.

I hope you’ll allow me to just share some notes, observations on the year gone by and the realities that have come with it.

What you will never be ready for is the waves.

There was an analogy for grief that I was familiar with even before December 4, 2021. It compared grief to wandering around in a box. Every time you touched the walls of the box, there was searing, unrelenting pain. When the loss first happens, the box is very small, and you can’t help but run into one of the walls. As you get further and further away from the loss, the box expands. The pain is no worse when you run into the wall, but the walls get further and further away, and you have more room to get around without the pain.

The analogy is fair, and it describes life well – except nothing can prepare you for what that pain is like.

The sadness from losing a child is unlike anything you could possibly ever know. It’s unfair even to call it sadness, or melancholy, or any other word. It is this gaping, painful hole, and there is nothing you can do to ever fill it. You can get through some of life without triggering the pain, but there will always be something to trigger it.

Maybe it’s a song that A. loved. Maybe it’s the realization that I haven’t played a game in a year because that was the game A. and I played. Maybe it’s a candy that A. made.

And maybe it’s just the stars at night.

The last night A. was with Kristin, the stars were exceptionally bright. They lingered under the stars, marveled at the beauty of the night sky. It is so odd – I’m the physicist of the family, but I’ve never been able to appreciate the night sky anywhere near like how A. was able to. I lament the experiences we could have shared, and did share in fleeting moments, and never will again.

Any of those experiences, and any of many others, starts the pain.

And when the pain comes, it comes in waves. It’s not one moment of pain, and then it’s gone. It’s surging pain, rising and falling many times in succession, each that follows worse than the last. You can’t bear to stand under the weight. You can simply sit or lie, and lament.

What we miss.

What we have lost, never to return.

What could have been, and never will be.

Sometimes you are able to feel the waves fade while you’re awake, and you can feel other things again. But sometimes the waves just crash and crash and crash, and you just have to be swallowed by them, hope that sleep relieves the pain somehow.

What is at once relieving and frustrating is how little outwardly I’m able to show the signs of this. Depression has been a theme of my life, and I’ve put together tactics to manage the physical symptoms of depression. Those tactics reached the point of second nature in the months before A.‘s death. These have been new sensations, but the time-developed tactics for managing them have worked. I was able to resume functioning in the day-to-day relatively quickly.

But managing isn’t the same as going without feeling. When the waves hit, the pain is no less severe. And there are times when the response is simply the need to stop.

And there is damage that’s been done, in ways that I am only starting to account for. But taking stock of that damage is probably for another time.

One of the ways I have recognized that I manage the pain that comes with grief and depression is simply to continue doing, no matter how difficult that doing feels.

There is always academic work that needs to be done. I was a year into my appointment as department chair when this reality took hold. We’ve moved through this year as positively as we could. I can’t express enough gratitude to my department, my fellow chairs in Science, Technology and Mathematics, and to my academic administration for the support they’ve given me as this year has moved forward.

I’ve been the best professor I could be while dealing with the weight. I always have my own standards for my work in the classroom and in the lab, and what actually winds up happening as the term goes forward is never good enough compared to those standards. Somehow I wind up building connection with students anyway, and I’m able to have some positive influence in their lives. I’m grateful to those students.

But, inevitably, I find other things to stuff my days full with. And that’s where the conversation turns to quizbowl.

With the easing of the pandemic conditions, as we’ve moved into the fall, we’ve been in position to restart face-to-face competition in the places I care about the most. I can’t talk about quizbowl without talking about the faithfulness of friends in East Tennessee, including Dren Rollins, who was literally at my side the instant I heard the news about A. Many of us who care about academic competition in East Tennessee have been working to rebuild a competitive circuit almost from scratch, and we’ve run a couple of tournaments in the fall and look to run a regional championship as a prototype come the spring. I look forward to the fruition of the quizbowl game in the place I call home.

But I dove most heavily into high school quizbowl when I started at Virginia Intermont, and the schools of Southwest Virginia still hold my heart.

This fall’s restart of the Southwest Virginia Academic Team Alliance (SWATA) circuit is the quizbowl outreach work I’m proudest of. With those schools, the coaches had a clear vision of what kind of competitive structure they needed, and they were able to communicate that to me; I’ve spent much of my time this fall implementing their vision and rebuilding with them the competition we had before the pandemic hit.

There were online competitions in the state scholastic bowl format that ran during the pandemic – one of our SWATA schools won a state championship online, even – but online competition has a very real disconnection, and we lose the community that is generated when our small, rural schools can come together in one place and celebrate the excellence in learning they’ve achieved.

I’ve found that I’ve missed that community throughout the pandemic, and I’ve needed that community now more than ever.

The day before this one year anniversary, I spent in Castlewood, VA helping their small high school run their first ever Saturday tournament. I spent it with the high school teachers, students, and families that I care about most in this region, taking the next steps in establishing and developing this community. I spent it getting very real support, in ways visible and invisible, possibly in ways that the people feeding into me weren’t even aware of.

I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to SWATA for letting me support them in building their competitive community, and how much I’ve needed them caring for me this fall. They have honestly become my church family, in all the ways I need a church family. I can’t list all the people who deserve thanks for their consistent fellowship.

All the support of all the people who have fed me the good things in this year can’t fill the hole, and can’t keep the pain from showing up when it is expected and when it is least expected.

The magnitude of the loss in our family can’t be overstated. I’ve mentioned before that A. was our stabilizing force. At times when others were hard to talk to, A. was always very easy to talk to, and the snark that inevitably turned up was forever good-natured and made the conversations inevitably funny. The image that will stick with me from the last days of A.’s life will be the child and their mother seated on the loveseat, trading library stories and commiserating on the difficulty that comes with working with the public. We miss those conversations more than we can bear.

A. had her own means of support – with cooking, with decorating, with all kinds of little actions that made a holiday even more alive. I will confess to not sharing A.’s affinity for Halloween, and taking the joy from the spooky. But A. found ways to bring joy to every holiday. It was very easy to decorate a Christmas tree with A. around. It’s obviously not the same now.

There are very few traditions in our family that are meaningful now; without A. around, the weight of the missing person dwarfs any benefit that we might get from continuing the same thing. I never really understood why the holidays were so difficult for the grieving before going through this. But the holidays can bring reminders everywhere, and the waves begin to crash anew.

Today, as much as any day this year, I really felt an obligation to write through the waves. I’m grateful for A.’s life, and I’m grateful for all that A. created in this world. But as I find a way to navigate a world without A. – as surreal a thought as that still remains, one year on – I’m finding gratitude for all the family, friends, and loved ones who help me navigate.

Gratitude doesn’t change how much I despise navigating this path.

About OER (and not-so-O-ER) in organic chemistry

I did a DuckDuckGo search this morning about the big news in my universe, the coming availability of the McMurry Organic Chemistry textbook as an open educational resource.

It’s really telling what the hits were.

Obviously the first hit is going to be an ad. The internet in 2022, even when you use a privacy-first search engine.

But look at the hits that follow.

The very first hit isn’t from Cengage, the current publisher of McMurry, or from OpenStax, the open educational resource (OER) powerhouse that’s negotiated the right to publish the text. It’s not a news article from a journalist about what is a ground-breaking agreement to provide OER in a traditionally cost-heavy discipline.

The link from an ed-tech company, Aktiv.

This company – formerly 101edu – has tools it swears by for the generation of organic structure and mechanism, the types of tools that are potential killer apps for automated homework submission in the discipline. In the context of the publication of any old new edition of a quality textbook, this really makes perfect sense.

But trumpeting the release of a resource that eliminates one cost for students by appealing for professors to have their students to pay a different cost – what that cost exactly is, the website doesn’t say, but one campus bookstore lists it at $61.25 – well, that’s certainly a choice.

And Aktiv’s trumpeting of their new relationship with McMurry’s OER goes beyond their own release. The third link on the page is from Marketwatch, the fourth is from PRNewsWire. Scroll down the page, and the sixth is from Business Insider. It’s an all-out PR blitz, using the name of this groundbreaking OER effort, from…an ed-tech company.

So I’m not sitting in this chair looking at the release of this new OER as an unambiguous good.

We do have to look at the situation with clear eyes. The cost situation surrounding the teaching of organic chemistry has been disastrous, and it’s been disastrous for some time. The costs for an organic chemistry course can be overwhelming.

A generation ago, you could count on dumping $300 for all the materials in the course. Now you can count on dumping $300 for just the textbook. The lab manual, study guides, and associated are extra.

McMurry Organic Chemistry going to OpenStax changes all that. That core cost – and the cost of several student ancillaries, including the all-helpful solutions manual – are going to be OER by Fall 2023. Openly licensed. Free of cost for electronic versions. A vastly reduced cost for print versions. That part of the news is an unambiguous good. So much of that initial cost of the organic course is going away, and not a moment too soon.

McMurry’s own motivations for the transition are laudable – he recognizes the burden of textbook cost, and he wants to help with that burden, in memory of a son. McMurry’s donating his licensing fee from the textbook to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, out of gratitude for the life of his son Peter, who suffered from the disease. “If I can take the most popular organic book and publish it for free, then there will be no competition, and even more people will read the book…And I like the thought that everyone who reads it will see Peter.

So McMurry approaching OpenStax to make the textbook available freely seems like a win-win. McMurry gets to do something large to make an impact for a host of students, and OpenStax claims what is a top-flight textbook author to gain new impact for the OER movement broadly. And the hole that what becomes OpenStax Organic Chemistry fills was glaring – OpenStax had OER available in so many biology disciplines, and in introductory chemistry and physics disciplines, but nothing for that pivotal course on the pre-medical path. There were other organic chemistry efforts (LibreTexts is always reliable for OER on the gamut of chemistry disciplines) but none that were organized and comprehensive, and that could gain the trust of a wide variety of faculty. McMurry has that trust immediately.

But in order for OpenStax to get access to McMurry Organic Chemistry, it had to negotiate with Cengage – the for-profit competition. And that’s where I start to have my moments of pause.

The quote from Cengage’s, ahem, Senior Vice President for Academic Product is laughable on its face. “We are fully committed to providing affordable, high-quality learning solutions for students…We are excited to think openly and collaboratively with key partners like OpenStax to ensure that we, and our authors, are able to reach as many students as possible in new and highly accessible ways.” I can’t imagine for a second that one of the core companies responsible for the textbook affordability disaster that OpenStax is providing a corrective to is “fully committed” to textbook affordability. Oh, just for fun, here’s my DuckDuckGo search for “cengage webassign per semester cost”:

Fairness where fairness is demanded: $124.99 per four months is the cost for Cengage Unlimited, the inclusive access program that gets students access to Cengage texts and homework systems like WebAssign. But the student doesn’t need access to Cengage texts if faculty are savvy about their choices and utilize open and affordable resources. Why advertise the full cost if textbook affordability is the goal?

(If you haven’t done so before, browsing SPARC‘s website about the real costs of inclusive access programs is must-view stuff. You should ask real questions about what costs your university has handed over to textbook publishers – and passed on to students.)

My feelings are very mixed as I recognize the game that’s afoot. OpenStax and Cengage need to come to agreements if OpenStax is going to get the massive OER win that its acquisition of McMurry Organic Chemistry is. OpenStax needs to deal with Cengage.

But Cengage is not a fair player in this market. McMurry Organic Chemistry will still be provided by Cengage, in its inclusive access program – despite the fact that it’s an open textbook and charging for access to that textbook won’t be necessary. It’s not in Cengage’s interest to trumpet McMurry’s OER status to students – only in press releases when it can claim it’s interested in “affordable, high-quality learning solutions for students” that they’d prefer to charge $125 per semester for.

It is really down to faculty to call things as they are, and to make sure they’re making the best solutions for their courses available at the best possible prices – and when possible, making those prices zero.

Much of my summer has been spent writing chemistry problems within Moodle.

I’m trying to code an online homework system for general chemistry, for my own students, in my own way, to take the final step towards driving their textbook costs to zero. We’ve already got OpenStax Chemistry: Atoms First. We’ve got the laboratories I’ve written for our own interactive lab manual in Moodle. Putting the homework on Moodle as well cuts out packages like Aktiv and WebAssign and – while it’s not quite of the quality that the for-profit providers can bring – it’s still something appropriate for my classroom, at no cost.

It’s not necessary for me to do this work if I want free homework systems for students. LibreTexts is actively developing their ADAPT homework system, and their next step is getting the tools in place for organic structure and mechanism. There is an organic chemistry homework system in place and available for professors right now free of charge – OpenOChem, a project primarily out of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with collaboration from St. Louis College of Pharmacy and Centre College.

And, of course, there are old-school solutions, like pencil and paper homework, with the professor writing novel problem sets and grading them in novel ways.

If we’re really serious about learning resource costs for our students, we need to be aggressive in our attack. We don’t just need to keep ownership of a new OER for organic chemistry in the hands of the major publisher who will just find new ways to extract costs from students, or hand over the OER to an ed-tech firm who PR-blitzes their way to sales of a new product on the back of the OER. We need to make sure we free students from costs any way we can, and make knowledge accessible to as many students as possible.

You may have the money to put down on the online homework and lab resources. But I’m in the central Appalachians. I will have those conversations with students one-on-one after the class is gone about how they’re going to be able to afford the $40 for the one online homework system I’m asking them to purchase – not even the $500-$600 that comes from purchasing everything new. You may not think $40, or $80, or $125 is an undue burden if you’re serious about learning STEM. You don’t know my students. I’m telling you it is mammoth, and if we can clear those costs, we retain those students better.

That’s why I see the open organic chemistry textbook being advertised by an ed-tech company and I stop to wonder if we’re really looking out for students here, or just PR wins.

Again: the big story is good. Thanks to John McMurry for putting his textbook into the open. Bully to OpenStax for negotiating the availability of the text for us all.

But we can’t think for a second that one major textbook becoming openly licensed is the end of the learning affordability battle.

Looking back on the journey – on LGBTQ+ acceptance

Not quite eight years ago, Alan Jacobs wrote an important short letter to Christians who were struggling to come to grips with the reality of our cultural acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals and relationships that fell outside the bounds of what so many of us have heard describe as “traditional marriage”. It started with the raw reality:

Many Christian organizations, as they think about their treatment of gays and lesbians, and their theology of sexuality more generally, are “evolving,” or “in process,” or “on the journey.” And make no mistake, this is a journey on a one-way street: no Christian group is moving from greater to less tolerance of same-sex relationships.

Increasingly, I am recognizing that I took my first irreversible steps on that journey a decade ago, when I made the decision to leave a tenured post at Shorter University.

At the time, I did everything I could to frame it as an aspirational move, something that was for my best benefit and something I was doing with my best hopes for the institution I was leaving behind.

But very quietly, I was deeply fearful that I was approaching a moment when I would have a document placed in front of me, and I would either have to sign or not sign, and by making that choice, I was going to reject one group of people for another.

One group was the traditional Southern Baptists I had moved to Shorter to serve. I went to Shorter in 2003 very intentionally, and with the deepest of gratitude for the Baptists of my youth that had built my picture of salvation. The faith that I had come to, after all, wasn’t something that I had entered into casually. It was something I interrogated seriously during my freshman year of college, talked through and prayed through (and occasionally fought through) thoroughly with my loved ones through the subsequent years, and built a deliberate foundation of integration with my academic life as I went through graduate school. I’d taken the position and worked through to tenure at Shorter as a culmination of that path.

But I also had come to know several gay and lesbian individuals in those eight years at Shorter, and had seen how difficult navigating the climate of Christian education was for them. I’d even had a couple of students come out to me in the deepest of confidence, and trust me to the point of spitting out descriptions of themselves they had always prayed weren’t true. I’d listened, mentored, accepted them in student groups, even seen them perform. A couple of those students didn’t just become friends, they became people I could trust in return.

I didn’t want to be forced to decide between them. So, in so many words, I ran, and prayed that I was wrong to run. And, sometime in late October of 2011, all the fears I had carried were realized.

But the words of the prophet continue to be true: if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

I don’t merely accept Jacobs’ description for organizations. I have seen it playing out for me personally. The reality of those students’ stories – and the realities for so many students I have seen take similar paths since – forces me to reject the idea that they have chosen a path for themselves, and they could simply choose to be straight if they just wanted to. Listening to the “Side B” Christians tell their stories (stories like Wesley Hill’s have been especially influential to me) are especially persuasive; these are people who are committed to traditional Christian disciplines, deliberate about the self-control of celibacy, and who still describe a gay identity that is not chosen or malleable. This may not be every believer’s tale (Jackie Hill Perry’s testimony stands as a counterpoint) but increasingly those counterpoints appear to me to be exceptions that prove the rule.

The more I engage with LGBTQ+ individuals in my scholarly circles, the more I value their contributions; the more important they become to me. And the more that my failure to decide in 2011 continues to haunt me.

Because the truth of the matter is simple. I really have no reason to worry for the fate of the young Southern Baptist. He is in a position of power. He will have advocates. He will be quite fine. The young gay man or lesbian woman – or, as I would come to understand later, the closeted trans individual – was living in a place of fear, and those fears were put into tangible words in October 2011. Those people needed people to act on their behalf – even if that action was to simply say that a new president and a new board were asking things of them that were simply unacceptable.

If I had been forced to choose, I would not have been able to sign a lifestyle agreement that would have forced me to disown my LGBTQ+ friends and family.

I may yet have done the right thing by leaving before I had to make that statement publicly. I don’t know. But the decision still casts a pall on the end of eight amazing years.

As the years go on, what happened at Shorter feels like the first wedge of many that have been driven between me and my heritage as an evangelical Christian.

Perhaps the most significant wedge was driven on November 8, 2016.

The rejection that I felt that day as so many friends and neighbors celebrated the election outcome was overwhelming. And it was rejection. In retrospect, the result of that day completed the process of stealing the term “evangelical” from me and believers like me. Instead of how I’d identified with the term for most of my life as a Christian – in the context of the Great Commission – it was now irrevocably a political identity, a white Protestant (and not even necessarily someone who had a “born-again” experience) who wanted to “make America great again” by slashing taxes and defending borders, who felt a measure more freedom to speak suspicions against those whose culture didn’t line up with someone who was properly obedient to authority.

I was asked to accept as one of my own a man who was vulgar, callous, verbally abusive, and obsessed with his own celebrity. I was told he was a “baby Christian” and he was yet chosen for us in this time, and anyway he certainly wasn’t that corrupt enemy who had never stopped campaigning for the Presidency since her husband first took office.

I couldn’t. I can’t. I’m still appalled that I was even asked, by men who surely knew better.

With every passing day it becomes more and more obvious that the good Southern Baptist men will be quite all right. They have power. They have advocates.

As much as I love the Southern Baptist Convention, and care deeply for its people, I am not a good Southern Baptist, nor have I ever been. I may have been born into the United Methodist Church, and I may attend a United Methodist church now, but I am not a good Methodist. I am not a good evangelical, or a good Protestant, or even a good Christian.

And it is long since time I stopped pretending to be.

And then I am reminded that I was never asked to be a good Christian.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are…

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

The person of Jesus Christ has never let me down. He’s never spoken to me out of a place of anything but love. When he’s used his harshest words, he’s reserved them for those who would pretend to be pious and holy but who find ways to keep people shut out and weighed down. And when he’s given me commands that have anything that to do with personal holiness, those commands are for private consumption, with the assurance that while others may look at outward appearances, God sees the heart. The essentials of the Law, through the voice of Jesus Christ, have far more to do with loving my neighbor wherever I might find them, even if my neighbor looks nothing like what I expect.

Alan Jacobs, at the end of his essay, asks a simple question:

Either throughout your history or at some significant point in your history you let your views on a massively important issue be shaped largely by what was acceptable in the cultural circles within which you hoped to be welcome. How do you plan to keep that from happening again?

And, increasingly, it seems to me that the answer is simply “by loving our neighbor as ourselves.”

In a year when I have been the recipient of radical and generous welcome and love from people who I would have least expected to receive that welcome from as a born-again believer in 1990, the least I can do to be consistent in the practice of my faith is extend that same welcome I have received in return, to declare once and for all to my LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors that I love them for who they are, and I accept them as they are, without condition, without apology.

After all, this isn’t the first moment in our history when we’ve allowed the culture to shape what we see as acceptable.

In 2017, people within conservative evangelicalism, particularly those centered around the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention felt the need to make a statement on human sexuality and gender roles to add to their doctrinal positions. That was the genesis of the Nashville Statement, a statement of doctrine that attracted support from a wide variety of  conservatives, including people who have found themselves on opposite sides of positions since.

As I read the words of the Nashville Statement on August 29th, 2017, I slowly realized that the same decision I had no desire to make in 2011 was in front of me again.

Article 10:

WE AFFIRM that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.

WE DENY that the approval of homosexual immorality or transgenderism is a matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.

That reads like an even more explicit demand than the demand that was made of me in 2011. It reads as a demand to place rejection of LGBTQ+ individuals – rejection of their very identities – as an essential of the Christian faith.

I cannot. This statement is one I cannot elevate to a place alongside the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I had to dismiss the Nashville Statement, out of hand. It does not represent the practice of my Christian faith.

And as I did that, I realized that the journey I started on six years previous was complete.

The majority of the text above this was written in 2017, at that point of realization.

I revisited my thoughts multiple times over the course of the intervening four years. I was nervous about making that statement of my path on this journey public. I knew how many bridges I could be burning by making that statement.

Ultimately, it stayed private because I didn’t want to burn those bridges. Even as I made that realization that I had to choose between two sides I cared about deeply, I couldn’t bring myself to take that final step of declaring my choice.

And I resisted taking that step as I was well into the final stages of raising a queer child myself.

The regrets I have over my relationship with A. are few. My youngest child knew how deeply she was loved and cared for. Our final exchange was words of love spoken, freely and without reservation. But we simply did not have many conversations about sexuality or gender identity, and the theory I was turning over in my mind didn’t turn up in our relationship. The work I’d done to become LGBTQ+ affirming was locked down in WordPress, not part of the actual conversation we had. It should have been. I didn’t make clear that given the choice between the two sides, I was absolutely siding with my child and peers like her. I should have.

Steps to make the world better might be fueled by regret, but they shouldn’t dwell on regret. What is necessary now is to make clear that I am a Christian, even an evangelical Christian, and that I affirm those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer – as they are, without condition. There are those who say I cannot be both Christian and affirming. I reject that as a false separation.

I’m still going to be more conservative overall. I value self-denial, as part of the holiness approach to faith that is my Wesleyan heritage. For that reason, I have a strong affinity towards the “Side B” approach towards sexual ethics that the likes of Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet practice.

However, part of the reality within evangelicalism in this era, as I’ve argued, is not just concern about sexual ethics but a rejection of any sexual or gender identity that isn’t traditional – even if the person claiming that identity holds to traditional Christian ethics. Further, it’s incredibly presumptuous for me to make ethical claims about a person who holds a sexual or gender identity different from mine. It’s far more important to welcome and listen to all people of all sexual identities and gender identities, and to hear their approach to their ethical being. Hence: affirming all who identify as LGBTQ+, as they are, without condition.

The experience of my last month tips me over the edge. As part of my Upward Bound teaching that has forged new relationships between me and a large group of students, I’ve dealt with many students who have had some kind of trans or non-binary identity. The use of pronouns has been a part of the practice of teaching these students, and some of those students asked for me to be aware of their pronouns on the survey I had them fill out on day one, without prompting. (A line for pronouns will be part of those forms going forward, based on that experience.)

Almost without fail, the kindest, most compassionate of the students I taught – you might even say the most Christlike – were the LGBTQ+ students. Far from being indoctrinated in any one worldview, they were the ones open to experience and developing enthusiasm for things they hadn’t thought before. I have reason to worry that we’re shutting those students out of a natural spiritual home for them, following a man of sorrows that society rejected, because they don’t see the person of Jesus Christ in the people who claim his name who are ascendant in the American culture at this moment.

That failure of recognition, more than anything else, drives my concern and my response to publicly proclaim that I’m affirming of these identities. At the end of all my reasoning, I still believe Jesus Christ desires relationship with all people, where they stand. In the name of pursuing cultural dominance, Christians have effectively made conforming to traditional sexual ethics, in discipline and in identity,  part of the terms of approaching Jesus – an extra condition that I don’t believe stands up on study of scripture.

In that regard, I don’t merely believe it’s appropriate for me, as an evangelical Christian, to offer welcome to people who don’t conform to traditional sexual or gender identity, without condition.

I believe it’s necessary.


In April 2016, after clinching a job offer to join the faculty of what was then Tusculum College, I wrote the following introductory words:

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.

Well, I’m on my way to succeeding at that goal.

When I arrived at Tusculum in August 2016, I set a more formal goal for myself: to put together the accomplishments necessary to be promoted to full professor within eight years. On scanning the faculty handbook, I thought that was the most realistic time frame to accomplish the tasks necessary to earn the promotion. So much of the circumstances surrounding the doctrinal situation at Shorter (despite the “tenure” that I earned there) and the financial situation at Virginia Intermont had kept me from thinking about the long term in the positions I held between 2003 and 2014, and the position I took at Tennessee Tech in the aftermath of Virginia Intermont’s closure was temporary by its very nature. I took the position at Tusculum with the long term in mind.

When I looked at the position I found myself in at the start of this academic year, and as I was talking to other colleagues about their standing and reviewing the faculty handbook, I realized I had the teaching accomplishments and the service experience, if not the breadth of scholarship, that I needed to take a shot at that promotion a couple of years earlier than I had planned, and so I decided in October 2021 to submit a promotion portfolio.

Forget 2016 to 2022; my life has changed a lot between October 2021 and February 2022.

The news of a successful promotion application is a lot more hollow now than it would have been then; celebrating anything is not appropriate in the aftermath of December 4.

But I need to take a moment and reflect on where I am, and on this successful step towards making this the last stop in my career.

I’m not at a perfect place. I was warned away from Tusculum, externally and internally, before I accepted this job, and over the course of my first year at Tusculum, the reasons I was warned away did come very clear. Not only did we struggle to retain students in our program, we struggled to retain faculty, and the original vision I was hired under in 2016 almost immediately dissolved into the necessity of my work in chemistry to maintain a shell of a program. It speaks to the widespread instability that, six short years later, I’m the senior faculty in the department and I’m working overtime to maintain connection to the institutional memory.

This is not a promotion that comes with tenure, because no position at this institution comes with tenure. I will enter academic 2022-2023 on a five-year contract; that is the closest thing to academic security that I can get here. That by itself is a foundation for the concerns many have had about me making a career out of this place, and I understand them.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued in many forms of late, this institution cannot love me. I don’t even have to go back 48 hours to identify the last move the institution made that I fundamentally disagree with. The person who took the very photo attached to this post, who had her role in recruiting me to Tusculum, is no longer at the institution, and I’ve never gotten over that.

This community cannot love me, either. Coming face to face with the people who supported the change our country went through in November 2016 was bitterly painful, and the reverberations from that change strike me anew daily. The damage we’ve taken from living here, directly and indirectly, is much to bear.

This is a broken place to live and work.

That is true alongside this statement: I have never been at a place where I have received so much professional and personal support. From day one, people went to work to clear a path for me to establish novel scholarly work, to teach courses across the sciences with excellence, and to serve the educational community outside of the campus. The love I’ve received from the students of this place has been real and substantial, and they put trust in me that makes every goofy stunt I pull in the classroom work. There have been key points in the past six years where deans, faculty peers and administrators have gone to bat for me personally to make plain that I belonged on this campus, that the work I was doing for this campus was good, and that I would benefit the campus over the long haul. I’ve been supported, my program has been supported, and my college has been supported.

And of course, in the awful aftermath of December 4, the outpouring of support from this campus community has been incredibly tangible and sustaining.

This is a broken place to live and work. I love this place and am fully invested in it.

I am not satisfied with the work I’ve done to reach this point at Tusculum University. My scholarship still isn’t fully realized, and I’ve learned entirely too well to allow that scholarship to take a back seat to the teaching needs or service needs that exist on campus. I’m grateful that the work I’ve put into the campus has been seen and recognized, but that doesn’t change the fact that I still have a lot to do in order to be the kind of scholar I envisioned myself becoming in August 2016. The successful work I’ve put in to the General Chemistry and General Physics sequences only serves to underline how much more work there is still to do to make those courses as robust and as legible as they need to be. I’m still a weak upper-division professor at best, and I need to equip students emerging from physical chemistry with more tools to be successful at the discipline – and to gain a love for the discipline at the same time.

But I have spent most of my time in academia being my own worst critic, and setting standards that go beyond anything the institution will ask of me. That pattern will continue through the end of my career here, I fear. What I’ve just received – from my dean, from my faculty affairs committee, from my provost, from my president, and from my board of trustees – is the kind of affirmation of my work that I’m incredibly fortunate to have, and I do not take that affirmation for granted in the slightest.

I moved back to the Central Appalachians in August 2016 intentionally, out of a real love for this region and well aware of all the realities that came with it, with the intention of putting in the work necessary to make this place a home.

I have the most complete support possible from this institution that brought me here.

And my youngest child is buried here.

The past two decades of my career have had many twists and turns, and I would be a fool to speak in absolutes. But it will take a very, very strong wind to blow us away from here now.


Remarks made during the celebration of life of my youngest daughter, December 10, 2021.

This is one of the challenges of taking all that swirls around my head about Anna and making them coherent. I still remember the exchange on Twitter that we had over that short bio, and I’ve seen versions of that short bio pop up here and there. “People don’t need to know anything about me” looms over anything I might compose here. 

So know up-front that Anna would have been kind of uncomfortable about anything we might say or do in her memory today. I mean, she would have smiled through it, and she might have even thanked us for being kind. But I can’t shake the feeling that she would have, deep down, have continued to protest “people don’t need to know anything about me”. 

I honestly hope that she would have understood the basic tension that is at the core of this first rememberance, though, and why assembling a service of this sort is a balancing act. Those who studied or worked with A. Pearson already understand that tension, because I’ve already called her “Anna” twice. As Anna went through education, development of artistic identity, and life, the name of A. came to the fore, and would have been the way that Anna would have been known more broadly had she had her way. 

A memorial service shouldn’t be an introduction, but this one has to be. For those of you who have most recently known A., you need to be introduced to Anna Grace, the daughter and family member who was so loving and faithful. And for those of you who only knew Anna Grace, you need to be introduced to A., the film artist who was finding  a voice to talk about humanity in its fullness. 

Part of the reason that I feel like A. developed an attitude of “people don’t need to know anything about me” is that, ultimately, there was hope that the work done would speak for itself. One thing A. put into a video resume for a job application was the statement “seeing examples of strength in media can empower those who feel powerless”. A. wanted to see people of all kinds, especially minorities, were represented in media. A. wanted to tell stories, and wanted those stories to impact people. 

One thing that, much to my regret, I don’t have a lot of good examples to fill in are examples of stories that Anna wrote when she was young. I wish I understood why I didn’t seek those out. It may have been the desire to allow her private writing, things that she created that Dad didn’t see. It may have been a feeling that stories weren’t my responsibility in her education, that I was more equipped for the math and science and hard facts. Or it may have been this nagging feeling in me that the stories were just fanciful, that sooner or later there would be a moving away from stories and towards more practical ways of living. So little did I understand, so little did I know. 

I suppose part of my hope, and my eternal frustration, was that A. would decide to tell the story of herself at some point, and use that story to impact how others saw themselves. I don’t know if it was humility, or shyness, or just reticence to be the center of attention. But that story simply wasn’t forthcoming, and I should have known that it wouldn’t be forthcoming. 

So it is up to us to tell that story today. 

Anna would have wanted you to know that she is gay. “EXTREMELY gay”, she said to us once or twice. That wasn’t an identity she took on out of any sort of rebellion, and Anna could have kept that quiet from us if she had wanted. There was never a partner; I never met a girlfriend. 

But queerness was part of the core of who she was. Anna cared about queer lives; she was surrounded by art and popular culture informed by queer identity, and aspired to create some of that art of her own. 

Anna had nonbinary identity that detached herself from female gender. Anna used “they/them” pronouns alongside “she/her” pronouns. Again; this was without demonstrative insistence; you’ll notice that I’m using female pronouns here, and Anna didn’t correct us on our use of pronouns or name once, despite the fact that it became obvious later that she really did prefer the minimalist “A.” Anna clearly identified with the trans community, and that identity should be celebrated as her life is celebrated. 

So many of you know A. from her student work in film at ETSU, and from her leadership of Buc Films. That was the turn in identity that was most surprising to me. We knew a shy, homeschooled child who had ambitions but very little in the way of flesh and bones to apply to those ambitions. Attending the local regional university was a small surprise to me there; I was expecting her to choose someplace smaller. Getting as deeply involved so quickly in a student organization was a bigger surprise still. But caring so much for the organization that she took on the mantle of leadership? I’m still amazed at that growth, and I still have the greatest admiration of it. 

I say this to take nothing away from the many talented artists and media professionals who educated Anna. But Anna’s greatest education came from Buc Films itself, from the experiences working on the machinery of filmmaking outside of the classroom, from the engagement with other filmmakers and actors who made the creation of films possible, from the practice of leadership in good times and difficult times – and COVID provided the most difficult times. If you had even the smallest role in Buc Films over the last four years, thank you for everything you gave and thank you for the ways you fed into my child. So much of who she became as an artist is because of you.

Obviously work as a dedicated filmmaker is difficult to come by, and it turned out that Anna has good librarian genes. First in Bristol, then in Johnson City, Anna was able to help a library as that library had need, and was in short order able to help for pay. The job at Johnson City Public Library was a constant throughout Anna’s final years at school, and when the college years were done, the full-time job at JCPL was hard-won. 

Every account of A’s work at JCPL is uniform: dedicated, passionate about the work done the right way, reliable, willing to do whatever was needed. It was never Anna’s intention for JCPL to be a permanent job; there were still goals and filmmaking ambitions that spanned the country, the type of ambitions a simple library job could not support. But if it had been necessary, there’s no doubt A could have stayed at JCPL for as long as she wanted, and eventually have led. 

I do need to make sure that I emphasize one more aspect of identity, one defined not by the name Anna or A., but the name “Dubba” – double-A, Aunt Anna. We have agreed as a family that as much as she might have loved all of us, she loved no-one as much as she loved niece Wendy. When you looked at the slide show, you saw the greatest joy in the time spent with that precious granddaughter of ours. 

(I’m sorry if I’m being a stereotypical father about this, but I have to mention the baking sometime, and this is as good a time as any! Anna was so good with creativity and inventiveness – I have a crocheted quiz bowl buzzer set, for crying out loud! – and nowhere did this express itself more vividly for me than with what Anna created in the kitchen. So many of you know A for the sauces she created. I selfishly appreciated Anna’s invention of the buckeye pie – peanut butter pie with chocolate topping around the edges, so the product resembled the top of a buckeye. And the cinnamon rolls! As big as your head! Anna took such pride in those cinnamon rolls.)

Dubba was the most stabilizing force in our family. Even from the youngest of ages, the child had an even temper and a measured response to every situation. Very slow to anger, very quick to hug. The conversations on the loveseat between Dubba and Kristin were too many to mention, especially after Anna started working at the library. Dubba’s presence in Johnson City made sibling Catherine’s life easier in so many ways, especially when an extra pair of hands was needed for Wendy. And Wendy had just started to figure out how to call Dubba by name. 

This is what we’re missing the most right now. This moment calls for stability, steadiness in the face of the ultimate grief. There was one in our family who we could count upon to be a rock, a steady and sure friend to rely upon. For that to be the hole in our family now is unspeakably cruel. 


There are words of comfort that are usually spoken at the end of these services. Those of us who claim the faith that is so common in this part of the world will talk about the hope they have in this moment. I hold on to that hope. I’ll talk to you about it if you want. 

But I also know that talking about hope in a time like this is incredibly hollow for many. This death was the most senseless, the circumstances the most horrific. And I can feel the tension in between my daughter and me even now as I try to put words of hope into place. 

I believe firmly it’s important to recognize who A had become as an adult and try to order our world to be better, as A was striving to make the world better. I think that’s the best way to remember A and carry A along with us. 

Do good work, first and foremost. Whatever you do, even if it’s not at the station of life you aspire to for the long haul, do your best and make the greatest impact you can. 

Care about the art in your world. Find talented people and support them, both with words and with money, and empower them to make the art that is most fully themselves. 

If you have any motivation, any at all, create. Make your own art, on your own terms. It doesn’t have to be something big or grandiose, although if you have the desire and the means, you should. But as big as a film or as small as a cinnamon roll, make a thing. 

Give to the A. Pearson Fund at ETSU in any event (by mail at ETSU Foundation, PO Box 70721, Johnson City, TN 37614; on-line at etsu.edu/give; select College of Arts & Sciences and note A. Pearson Fund). That will support local creators as they move forward with their education in radio, TV and film – especially film.

Love your people – fiercely, and without compromise. Be steady for them. Be someone who is reliable and trustworthy in good times and bad. 

I will take this one additional point of privilege. No matter the circumstances of this death, it has driven home for me anew how short the life expectancy of queer people is compared to the general population. Funerals for the LGBTQ community happen too often at this age, and too many of those deaths are deaths of despair. Too many people who hold my Christian faith hold queer people at arm’s length, worried about sexual practice or changing personal identities rather than simple welcome. I have been guilty of that arm’s length treatment before myself. I’m recommitting myself to welcome of all people, especially queer people, without judgement or condemnation. I hope you will too. Love should be extended in every direction, without condition, without reserve. 

I pray you’ll leave this place empowered to do your best work, your most creative work, and to support others to the best of your capability. 

Let it be so.

What are we afraid of?

The realization that starts this off is that I lived just outside of Rome, Georgia for eight years of my life, between 2003 and 2011, and I never visited the Chieftains Museum.

The Chieftains Museum and Major Ridge Home is a site dedicated to the preservation of Cherokee culture. The namesake of the home is a uniquely American character in every sense, a Cherokee who fought alongside American forces in the War of 1812 (and who got the title that became his name, Major Ridge, from Andrew Jackson himself) and who built for himself a relatively secure way of life before the passage of the Indian Removal Act at the behest of President Jackson in 1830. Ridge was a negotiator and signatory of the Treaty of New Echota that laid the groundwork for the infamous Trail of Tears. Ridge took blame for the suffering that followed, and (depending on whose history you read) Ridge was murdered or executed for treason, along with his son and nephew, in 1839.

So I’m aware of that history now. But the point at the onset of this essay remains. I wasn’t aware of any of that history while I lived in Floyd County, Georgia. Why not?

It’s not like I didn’t have reminders. There was Cherokee script at key locations throughout the county, much of it pointing towards the Chieftains Museum, but also on the very seal of the county itself, as you see. I don’t recall anybody speaking negatively about that history, or saying that we should ignore the history.

But I don’t ever remember any compulsion to study the history, either. And I’d showed up in the area to go to the Southern Baptist college and teach physics and chemistry. As my time at that college went on, I got pressure to integrate my teaching of physics and chemistry with my practice of Christian faith, and I was having trouble figuring out how to make that work. I reached a point where I started to feel like doing the cultural work was something that was above my pay grade. I have classes to teach. I have students intimidated enough by the subject matter of those classes. Let me do my work.

That was the context that drove me, not merely away from Native American history, but away from all business of culture, race, and identity, and away from that business before, during, and after my time in Rome.

At the end of the day, the language I cared the most about was mathematics. I wanted students to be able to communicate what they saw in the natural world with the algebraic equation, with measurements with units, with differentials and integrals. English was the language we’d dialogue with, but if it didn’t serve mathematics, I didn’t care much about it. And that gave me grounds to cast all kinds of concerns about culture to the side, because of the common ground that mathematics provided for me.

For us, of course. But for me.

The way I saw it, the other problems I dealt with were important enough that I didn’t need to spare the time to go through a museum to learn about somebody else’s problems.

Overcoming selfishness is a lifetime’s worth of work.

So let’s talk about where I first heard the term “critical race theory” in the current context.

Of all places, it was on the Shutdown Fullcast podcast, the group of chucklebums that I listen to talk about college football and other things. Spencer Hall got to read the key passage from the email that completely passed by my ear at the time (around 14:00 is the point where the email is read and immediately dissected):

It is disgraceful to see the lack of unity and our fiercest competitor Sam Elinger standing nearly alone. It is symbolic of the disarray of this football program which you inherited. The critical race theory garbage that has been embraced by the football program and the university is doing massive irreparable damage to our glorious institution and to the country. It has got to stop.

The email was quoted in a Texas Tribune article about controversy about the school song of the University of Texas, “The Eyes of Texas”. It was such a troubled and tormented email, the writer misspelled the name of the Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.

I like football, and I follow football for a host of reasons. For better or for worse, one of those reasons is represented here: the strain on campus life in microcosm. The email was from a rich donor implicitly threatening his continued contribution to the school if players on the team didn’t stand in front of the band and sing the song that has its roots in minstrel shows, and where historical controversy still swirls around its connection to Robert E. Lee’s post-Civil War insistence that “the eyes of the South are upon you”.

As a purely empathetic matter, it is a bit understandable that Black athletes might not be 100% comfortable singing that song.

But what’s that bit about “critical race theory”? And what specifically is it, and how’s it being used in the argument?

That I even have to be asking the question is evidence that I checked out of the rhetorical back-and-forth in the runup to the 2020 election. The fact-checking site Snopes gives a summary of both the rhetoric and misinformation that led to the previous president launching curbs on diversity training in September 2020, and perspectives on the current controversies from the end of May 2021. I needed them both.

I’m not going to get into the legal theories or the sociological foundations of the thinking that makes the formal structure of critical race theory what it is; I’m not a legal scholar nor am I a sociologist, and I know my limits. But I can make one key point from reviewing the background: to many of us who live and work in disciplines that have a strong tendency to be overwhelmingly white, the challenging thing about critical race theory is the assertion that racism doesn’t have to be an intentional act or a malicious posture. We can work in environments that have racist impact, and we can make corrections to those environments that eliminate the racist impact.

College athletics is the seat of a lot of racist impact. The benefit of college athletics is supposed to be the free access to the college education for the athlete. But that benefit has been handed out unevenly. The most reliable independent measure of graduation success for student-athletes, the Adjusted Graduation Gap, reports in 2020 a 21.5% gap in graduation rates between top-flight conference (Power-5) football athletes who are Black and the general full-time population, compared to a 2.1% gap between white athletes from the same population.

That can’t be satisfying to anybody. We ought to work to make achievement better for everybody who comes through our gates.

Gaps like this persist throughout the whole of higher education. They’re well documented. I’ve always been concerned about the demographics within physics, a discipline that has been dominated by white males from the moment it was recognized as an academic discipline. The American Physical Society collects data on these gaps, and they’re stark. The graph on degrees awarded by race and ethnicity is so broken, the degrees awarded to white students has to be rescaled in order to just make the differences between bachelor’s degrees and PhD’s awarded for other demographic groups legible.
URM Physics Average 2020 graph
(Even then, the bars for Native Americans are miniscule. I don’t even know how I address that in this post.)

We can talk about these issues with the same hand-wringing about low academic achievement among underrepresented groups that we’ve engaged in since the 1960’s, or we can ask serious questions about the environments that these students have to work in. How are these environments welcoming to white students in ways that they aren’t welcoming to Black students? Or to Native American students?

There are all kinds of thinkers taking the question of our environments and their welcome to underrepresented minorities seriously, and I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in conversation with some of them. The idea that there is a specific culture to physics and chemistry that welcomes people who are willing to conform and asks people to leave their identities behind is starting to have real appeal to me. It explains the monoculture I’ve experienced in other scientific environments, and how I’ve felt stifled by that monoculture. I’m asking questions about how I can ensure students can be more fully themselves in my classroom, and advocate for students to be more fully themselves in other venues they find themselves in.

The upshot of all of this is that I’ve started wondering if I’m a critical race theorist.

Of course I’m not somebody who can compose the legal theory or the sociological scholarship to develop ideas that are publisher of my own. But I’m still totally exasperated with the status quo, and I’m not satisfied with answers that fall into the same way we’ve tried to address the clear inequities that exist. What is the harm in asking if the reasons those inequities exist are part of our history? Or part of our tradition?

I still remember reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ groundbreaking Case for Reparations in the Atlantic for the first time in 2014. I was always going to read it; I have always taken a great deal of joy and reward out of a well-documented piece of longform journalism, and The Case for Reparations was every bit of that.

The essay wasn’t something that brought the usual joy, though. It was something that put in front of me a great deal of history, history that my high school education hadn’t put in front of me at any point. Predatory contract mortgages for buyers in “redlined” neighborhoods, white terrorism and the failure of reconstruction, racism embedded in the structure of the New Deal, stolen wealth around every last turn. It awakened me to a new set of stories that built a very different narrative around the American Dream – and who the American Dream was for – than anything I had learned previously.

I also remember who in my universe took The Case for Reparations seriously – nobody.

On the one hand, this is what I’m having trouble understanding. The narratives of our history – the history of all of us, the lived experience of the injustice the dominant population has served to those who originally lived here, or those who were brought to this continent in chains – are available to be read, to be listened to, to be reckoned with, to be understood. It’s a history that doesn’t neatly fit what we were taught in school, but it’s a history that is available and accessible. Why shouldn’t we take that history seriously?

On the other hand, history of exactly that sort was there for me for eight years when I lived in Rome, Georgia, and I simply never availed myself of it. I wasn’t from around there anyway. It wasn’t my ancestors that agitated for native removal, who created the conditions that led to the Trail of Tears. It wasn’t my ancestors who bought and owned slaves and who fought in the Civil War. It wasn’t my problem. I just lived there.

“I just lived there”, of course, is part of the problem when you sit back and listen to the people who the land originally belonged to. There’s privilege in being able to buy land and buy a house and live somewhere, and that privilege might not be fairly obtained.

It begins to occur to me that the seizure of land from natives in the 1830’s and the redlining that was so commonplace in the 1950’s are two sides of the same coin – a white-dominant society demanding control of all it can survey, and using every method in the book – whether illegal, immoral, or otherwise – to ensure that control.

If I didn’t know that we were above such shameful things, I might call it the work of white supremacy.

It also begins to occur to me that I might not be able to persuade you that we’re above such shameful things.

As I’m writing this the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention meeting is starting, and messengers have gathered in Nashville to conduct the business of the convention. In the midst of all kinds of other strain and scandal, this was the meeting that had a group of Black pastors and churches on the brink of leaving the Convention, and the core issue at hand for them is the straw-man version of critical race theory. The six presidents of SBC seminaries – all white – declared in November 2020 (on the heels of the murder of George Floyd, no less) that critical race theory was incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal document that has been used as a bludgeoning tool to drive people who don’t fit within the SBC’s increasingly fundamentalist theology out of the denomination.

Black pastors within the convention cried foul – many of them hadn’t taken any concern with critical race theory at all, and were simply pointing out injustices in policing and law enforcement that were at the heart of our current national moment. It raises the question anew – what is, to these people, critical race theory? Is it simply legal and sociological ideas, reserved for discussion in academic institutions? Or is it any statement of an idea that questions how white people treat minorities?

What are we afraid of? What is going to happen if we hear stories of injustice from 1830 or 1950 or 2020 and acknowledge that white people were genuinely at fault? What collapses if we listen to the realities of our story as a nation and ask if we do need a new explanation for why every conflict has favored the racial majority?

What idols do we worship that need to be torn down?

What selfishness do we hold on to that needs to be given away?

I attended the 2021 meeting of the Open/Technology in Education, Society, and Scholarship Association (or #OTESSA21) as part of the Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences as May turned into June. The idea that I’d attend a “congress of humanities and social sciences” would have been laughable to me at one point in my life. But age has done nothing for me beyond giving me the capacity to listen to others’ stories and reckon with them for a while.

And as it happened, the week before OTESSA started, there was a discovery outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where native children had been taken from their families and placed in the care of the Roman Catholic Church as part of a process of assimilation into Canadian society. There had long been documentation of how difficult the environment of the residential school had been, to the point of extremes.

And this led to the discovery of a mass grave of the bodies of 215 children, of all ages – from the brink of adulthood to as young as 3, all apparently from the time when the residential school had been open and active.

For a meeting that already had a focus on efforts to build relations with the Canadian North on the terms of those who live there, this discovery was an earthquake, and what already would have been full of reflection became an immediate reckoning and, for this Yankee, surprisingly painful conversation. It necessitated pausing and listening intently.

The conference started on what’s known in the United States as Memorial Day. My “memorial day” became something quite different, and nowhere near as patriotic as my friends and neighbors might have liked.

I hadn’t believed I was signing on to this meeting for listening to reports of indigenous storytellers delivering their stories over powerful technology to children at isolated schools and libraries, or of indigenous scholars using open pedagogy to engage students in finding their place in a national effort towards truth and reconciliation. The word “colonial” took on an entirely new meaning, and I had to wrestle with it not merely being a historic term referring to the process by which my ancestors came to their presence on this land, but a continuing process by which those of us who are white and European set the terms of academic engagement, increasingly for the entire world, while ignoring other forms of what we call “scholarship” that have been and continue to be practiced by indigenous people who the land belongs to, and who belong to the land.

I will probably look back at OTESSA 2021 not merely as starting a relationship with a new professional association, but reevaluating my entire relationship with the land and with the people the land belongs to. It was as educational as any meeting I’ve ever attended (even if I only attended online), and the education I got was one I did not anticipate.

So, for now:

My name is Douglas Charles Pearson, Jr.

I have spent much of my adult life living as an uninvited settler across the lands of the Cherokee, within the borders of the nation claimed by the United States unlawfully and immorally by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

I’m grateful this land has received me as a guest.

Opening the online homework system

I had a whale of an idea for a roundtable presentation for the first meeting of the Open/Technology in Education, Society and Scholarship Association (OTESSA) in 2020. It was going to be a conversation informed about how I dug into making my own online homework system throughout the late 2000’s and the 2010’s, and lessons that could be taken from that experience and the benefits of making that content available to share.

The grandiose idea was that I’d get people who worked similarly in disconnected fashions together in the same room – perhaps even with some folk who provide infrastructure for open education – and have a serious conversation break out. I had a collaborator for the conversation lined up and everything. It would have been great.

The conference was scheduled as part of the Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences in May of 2020.

Hey, guess what the pandemic canceled?

I got a place in the program for the parallel meeting of OTESSA in 2021 but the online nature of the conference (and the correspondingly limited attendance for the online meeting) wasn’t going to facilitate anything that resembled the kind of roundtable discussion that I’d originally planned. So I transformed the context of the conversation into a sort of online poster.

And, because this work is centered on a meeting connecting the open practice of using technology, I shared the poster for all to see and appreciate. It’s hanging at https://homework.aftonopen.com/.

The conversation I’d planned turned into a narrative – of my own experience building my open tools in isolation, connecting with the open education community, and the realities of the past pandemic year making me rethink the benefits of freely sharing and centralizing resources.

I hope you’ll have a look and read my own narrative, If you have any similar narrative to share, let me know; the blog is open and can be contributed to. I’ll toss it into the open again when the fall comes around, too.

Module covering Boyle’s law concepts, programmed on Moodle

The pressure never stopped

Tomorrow, we’ll start classes at Tusculum all over again.

I’m still not entirely sure that I’ve recovered from the last round.

I went into town a couple of nights ago to pick up a nice big dinner for the two of us. I stayed in the car and let the curbside service bring the meal to me.

It really struck me how full the parking lot of the restaurant was. And not just that restaurant, but several other restaurants in the neighborhood. A good night for the local eateries, both the chains and the local mom-and-pop establishments.

It was like nothing had ever happened to make going to restaurants fraught at all.

David Leonhardt of the New York Times reported on a road trip he took from Washington to St. Louis to help is mother get her COVID-19 vaccination. The mere fact that he had to take that road trip is indictment enough of our botched effort at fighting this virus. But the complete failure of seriousness from the population at large doing the bare minimum to fight the virus – social distancing, wearing a mask – was completely dispiriting.

At least, it would be so if you didn’t live among that complete lack of seriousness and deal with people failing to do the bare minimum on a daily basis.

In this part of the world, the dispiriting realizations happened a long time ago. We’re polarized into two groups: people who work in dangerous settings who understand the risks that the virus brings on and take all the necessary precautions, and people who don’t care. And it’s hard to feel anything but the reality that the people who don’t care are winning.

In events that should have surprised absolutely no one, it wasn’t a couple weeks after I offered that everything had been OK that the COVID cases and the contact tracing started to impact my classroom in earnest.

Labs were scrambled and adapted as best as they could be. I shifted class meetings for physics entirely online for a spell, because that’s how everyone was most comfortable. I made similar decisions in biochemistry, even though especially towards the end of the course I kept myself in “hyflex” mode because there were students who wanted to be in the classroom, conventionally.

It is tiring to teach with an earbud and a microphone in your ear, writing your notes on a USB-connected drawing tablet rather than on a whiteboard. I wore out more easily sitting in a seat, attached to a computer setup, than I did when I could wander around the room and take advantage of three whiteboards spread out around the lab. These are things I would have never imagined, especially being the person who grew up around computers and who discovered the wonder of the internet in its infancy.

In my very naïve mind, the internet was a freeing thing – breaking the limitations we had on being gathered together in one place and building relationships as we’re spread out across town, across the state, across the country. Those of us of a certain age remember the future of videophones we were promised, families smiling as they’re gathered around the device that shows the faces of those who are miles and miles away.

I’ve not seen nearly enough smiles as we’ve gotten used to Zoom over this past year. I’m seeing fatigue and wear – when I see faces at all. For most of us, the novelty of seeing people in another place on camera has long since worn off, and most of us would just as soon have that camera turned off.

Zoom isn’t freedom at all; it’s a chain, and a tight and painful chain at that.

And yet the expectations to complete the semester as if everything is normal remain. When Monday arrives, and the semester starts, syllabi will be submitted as they normally are, a learning management system will be loaded with course material as it normally is, the students will have homework early on in the term and will have quizzes and exams they’ll be preparing for as they normally do.

I’ll manage this around sports schedules. If anything was blissfully abnormal in the fall, it was the lack of necessity to release students for athletic events; some practices went forward as usual, but precious little of the competition did. Since November, the competition schedule has started coming back; athletes are traveling to games and meets as they normally do, the results of those games are coming back across my Twitter feed as they normally do, and as classes start, the schedules the athletes keep will play havoc with my lab schedule like they normally do.

I chair the committee that’s responsible for academic standards. We reviewed academic misconduct cases and academic suspension appeals from the previous semester as we normally did. The machinery to withdraw students from their courses due to suspension moved forward as it normally does. The awful realization among students that appeals are exhausted and the consequences are real hit like it normally does.

Everywhere on campus, as the events surrounding a new semester take place, is the earnest and deliberate effort to start a new semester as normal.

But nothing is normal. Nothing has been normal since mid-March 2020.

We’re ten months into this pandemic, and we’re under unrelenting pressure to continue to do this work as if things are normal. That pressure isn’t coming from any one person, or any one group of people, or any monolithic administration that’s insensitive to the needs of the workers and the students.

If anything, the higher up you go in responsibility, the more the pressure is felt; the more you realize that it’s not any one person or any group of people deciding that normal must go on, the more you realize that the entire society has decided that normal must go on, that no one sees the desperate need to slam on the brakes, that the entire public demands that life remain unchanged despite the fact that two thousand, three thousand, four thousand people are dying in this country every day from this disease.

Leonhardt says in his road trip reflection that he feels like the country is losing a winnable fight. I would only agree if I saw any evidence that anyone was fighting.

And yet here we are.

My place went sent students home on November 20. We return on January 25. There was one week in there where we managed final exams and final assignments. It’s still a break that approaches two months, and surely it was enough time to rest and recover.

I still feel like I could sleep for a year, and I still wake up at 2:00 in the morning filled with anxiety.

So much is made of the transition in leadership this country providing a sense of relief, a sense of empathy for the days ahead. But in the day in and day out living, I don’t sense much of a change at all – just the same unrelenting pressure.

The challenge is to stand in the gap and provide as much respite from that pressure as I can.