Archive for August 2014
(I started writing this in June. Lawd, what a summer. This may yet turn into a series; in case you missed it, here is part 1.)
I would like to start this second installment by apologizing to the continent of Australia. For many, many of you, the title of this post does not apply to you.
But it does apply to the overwhelming majority of people in the United States, and it certainly applied to me as I began my college radio career.
I honestly don’t know what I expected when I heard that Rose-Hulman had a college radio station. I know that I had discovered “alternative music” (you know, R.E.M., the B-52’s, 10,000 Maniacs, Midnight Oil, and all those other important bands that MTV played…I was even really hip and had the Smithereens’ cassette tape) and there was a radio station at Baldwin-Wallace College, across the street from my grandparents’ house, that played some REALLY exotic sounds, like the Sugarcubes (from Iceland! how exotic! who had this lead singer named Björk! how exotic!) and Siouxsie and the Banshees (see? not Susie, but Siouxsie! see, I’m hip!). I was absolutely certain, I guess, that I would find even more exotic stuff, and the music I would listen to would be SO elite and would blow SO many minds and I would just be the coolest person on the planet.
I was kind of bummed when, on my arrival, that old WMHD program director tried to impress on me the importance of the blues and of this other old guy named Elvis Costello. Old folks. I wasn’t up for the old folks. I was up for the new and the cool.
But as I went through my DJ training, one thing that the station manager  impressed upon all of us new DJ’s, and the thing that was so much of the ethos of college radio in the 80’s and 90’s, was always listening and playing something new. People wouldn’t tune in to WMHD to listen to “Pinball Wizard” or “Love In An Elevator” (or even “Blister In The Sun” or “What I Am”) for the hundred thousandth time. They would listen expecting something they didn’t hear every day, and what you should do is look for the best of the stuff that other radio wouldn’t play.
It was in that season of my life that I flipped through the old College Music Journal and read a writeup on a new album by a band I’d never heard of with a name I thought was cool – Hunters and Collectors. And I had just noted the album Ghost Nation in the new music stacks.
Let’s give this a spin, shall we?
Here is track 1.
It wasn’t terribly exotic. There was a bit there that satisfied the nascent Midnight Oil fan in me, which made sense because Australia. But it was, at its core, a unique take on straight-ahead rock and roll.
I liked it. I liked it a lot.
It wasn’t something ABSOFREAKINLUTELY INCREDIBLE THAT EVERYBODY MUST BUY NOW, or anything like that, mind. This isn’t a story of a song that radically changed my life. It is a story of a song that gently, but consistently, nudged how I approached music.
I quit seeking the newest, freshest, most exotic sounds. I wouldn’t run away from them if they turned up, mind. But what I wanted was the best songs. Even in 1989, there were so many different artists doing things that didn’t get major radio play or any serious notoriety. We were there, in part, to be the champions for the best of those.
Of course, I soon found out that Hunters and Collectors had a great deal of notoriety halfway around the world. I discovered their back catalog (and much of the best of it is on Soundcloud – if I wanted to talk to you about songs that will change your life, I would totally be talking to you about “Holy Grail” right now), and discovered just how big of a deal they were.
And that’s a whole NEW layer on how the young mind develops – that your experience of the world is not everybody’s experience of the world, and music that is completely new to you is famous somewhere else, and what is old, dry and boring to you is revelatory to someone else.
This is obvious stuff, but these are the lessons that 18-year-old minds need to learn.
There was only one shirt I could have worn today.
Let me repeat, and make it clear: I am very grateful to be at Tennessee Tech. I am pleased to have a place on this campus, and to continue to teach that algebra-based sequence that has been the focus of so much of my professional life. In a very difficult economy, I’m blessed beyond compare.
But I know where I was supposed to be today.
And, what’s more, there were a couple of hundred students who had their first day of classes today away from the place THEY were supposed to be, faculty and staff who are in places away from the place THEY were supposed to be, and a couple of people left behind in that place missing the people who were supposed to be there. I heard from you with texts, with Facebook messages, with tweets. I prayed for you, and my heart broke for you.
#VIfamily is real, and even if I was only a fleeting part of it, those of you who had that impact on me are in my heart forever.
Nil Sine Numine. Nothing without guidance.
And for Virginia Intermont, until we meet again.
There have been so many words spilled about the past two weeks’ disaster in Ferguson, Missouri that the only reason for me to write this is simply to get my thoughts out of my head before I start focusing on algebra-based physics on Monday. Thanks for reading my efforts to have a clear head and do right by my students.
I’m teaching physics at a new place, and so I had to go through human resources this month. Human resources is always concerned with documentation, always concerned with process, always concerned with the rules. The rules exist for good reasons. The rules ensure that the institution has made its best efforts to create a good work environment – or, at the very least, they ensure that the institution can document that they have made their best efforts.
Our state and federal governments, in their infinite wisdom (insert sarcasm where appropriate), have laws about equitable treatment of all students, and part of an HR process is going through the training on those laws. Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 deals with discrimination on the basis of sex in educational opportunities. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act deals with availability of programs funded by the federal government to people of every race, color, and national origin. There are good reasons for these laws to exist. As far as it concerns me, the goal is ensuring that every person who comes through the doors of an educational institution, both students and employees, is treated fairly, so that the mission of the institution can be accomplished.
Now, as anybody who has been through a human resources office can attest, the training that you have to go through so that the HR office can check off that you have been trained (and therefore be legally free and clear should anybody file a lawsuit) is dull and only intermittently enlightening in the best of times, and random and intelligence-insulting in the worst. You survive it by reminding yourself, repeatedly, that the most important thing that comes out of this process is legal cover for the institution. The HR staff probably wants you to understand the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 and the Civil Rights Act, and probably puts the process in place with the absolute best of intentions – but their good intentions aren’t going to be what keeps them employed. What their bosses want is nothing more and nothing less than the documentation that says all of their faculty have been trained and therefore understand all of their obligations under the law. The game must be played, and if the game is played successfully, the institution keeps lawyers at bay.
It’s all well and good until actual violations of the Civil Rights Act play out on your Twitter stream, and it becomes abundantly clear just how many people don’t understand that the Civil Rights Act is actually standing law.
For me, it’s not about the law, and it never has been. I figured out at a very early age that white people lived in one place, and black people lived in another, and there was a dance that people engaged in to keep the white people and black people apart, and that dance looked stupid. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back, or to claim enlightenment. I just have never wanted to live apart from the people who don’t look like me. They’re different. They have interesting things to say. I enjoy listening to them. They make life fun. To be brutally honest, I’m kind of selfish for diversity in that way.
What has become maddening as the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death has played out is the number of people who want to shut their ears to the voices of people who don’t look like them. They make statements and quote sources and cocoon themselves in the voices of people who look like them, act like them, and think like them.
Those attitudes are devastating to me. Maybe there was a time in my life when I could be casual about such things. But I’m a white dude teaching physics. I recognize the issues of representation across the STEM disciplines, but especially in the physical sciences, where African-Americans even applying for faculty jobs is something to be celebrated. At the point in time when an African-American student comes into my classroom, the color of my skin does create a barrier between us, and I want that barrier torn down so I can not merely satisfy the letter of the laws assuring equal educational opportunities for all, but the spirit of those laws as well.
The climate that I find in August of 2014 isn’t conducive to equality. It’s conducive to more people making more judgmental statements; sowing more fear, uncertainty, and doubt; erecting more barriers. It’s reaching a point where the reflexive venom can’t be ignored among people of faith, on both sides of the issue. (If you haven’t read this comment from no greater an arch-conservative than Erick Erickson, you should. It made me rethink a couple of things.) As if there weren’t enough things for me to be stressed out over (70 students in a single lecture section of PHYS 2010, hello), I’m fearful as being seen as just another white dude who doesn’t know how good he has it and doesn’t care about those who don’t.
The only thing I want right now is help. And by “help”, I mean fewer words that make statements of good guys and bad guys, fewer words that dehumanize, fewer words that hurt. I want more people to simply listen to people who don’t look like them and consider that they might not have all the answers to a problem that predates Michael Brown, that predates Barack Obama, that predates Rodney King, that predates Martin Luther King, that predates the founding of this nation – a problem that the word “problem” doesn’t even do justice.
That’s enough. Come Monday, it will be time to get to work.