The reason for my work; the reality of my work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are roots down now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked. They were complaining about my textbook.

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

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

The textbook cost $95.

Several years on, we consider that “cheap.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took Virginia Intermont’s closure very hard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 thoughts on “The reason for my work; the reality of my work

  1. Pingback: Recommended reads #134 | Small Pond Science

  2. Pingback: Why a professor buys his books from the bookstore – Another fine mess.

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