I’m engaging in writing practice. I’m also engaging in lawn mowing.
I am a weakling and I can’t do even a full side of my lawn (which is not even remotely large) without sitting down and taking an extended break. I probably could if I had a riding mower, but this yard also has slopes a-plenty and the push mower is an essential.
I have a chair in the garage and I have a porch swing, both of which I can sit in shade and rest on when I decide that I’ve had enough for the moment. And I make that decision often.
One of my frustrations with my personal writing of late is that I have a ton of ideas but I rarely sit down and get them out of my head. I’m going to be sitting down a lot today. So this will be a random thoughts post, writing a host of things as they come to mind when I’m at rest from mowing my lawn.
This might get frighteningly long.
First off: let’s start with how pointless lawn mowing is.
What you are doing when you mow a lawn is you are taking perfectly good, oxygen-producing plants, and you are cutting them up. Blades that were once useful oxygen-producers are removed from their roots. Mind you, most of these cuts aren’t fatal; the grass blades can grow back. But you’re cutting them up all the same.
It’s a loss of perfectly good plant cells.
And why do we engage in this activity? In the simplest terms possible: peer pressure.
A well-trimmed lawn is associated with neatness and propriety; an unruly lawn with carelessness and rule-breaking. Most of our neighbors have made the life decision that they want to be associated with neatness and propriety, and their neighborly instincts make them keep the lawns well-trimmed.
Those of us who tend to unruly then are looked upon with disdain until we give in to the peer pressure to cut our well-growing plants.
Why have we normalized not allowing plants to grow naturally?
In addition to the work of stunting plant’s growth, the tools with which we engage in the work are highly problematic.
Lawn mowers are driven by gas engines of varying size, most sizes huge. I have a push mower with an attachment I can pull up to get power to my front tires, what I consider a luxury and what makes me look to my neighbors positively poor.
(This is not a joke: I was interrupted in the middle of mowing my lawn a couple of months back by a deeply concerned neighbor. With all alarm on his face and with passion for my condition in his voice, he told me he has an extra lawn tractor because he’d just stepped up, and surely I’d like to use it? It would be no trouble at all. This is what Christian charity looks like in North Greene County, Tennessee.)
(I told him I was a computer nerd and this was how I got my cardio. He suddenly was less concerned, although possibly more confused.)
These gas engines are meant to operate in the midst of flying grass blades, and as such are quite difficult to keep running. They require additional care during the time of the year when grass grows less readily, lest you arrive at the springtime and the thing won’t start and you have to get a new lawn mower.
When you take too long between mowing lawns, the outlet that releases the newly clipped plant matter has too much plant matter to release, and gets clogged. You have to clear it out to continue with stunting your plants’ growth. To clear it out you have to stop the gas engine, lest you come into contact with the severely dangerous metal blade that spins wildly to sever each grass blade.
You may have to tip the lawn mower to the side in order to clear the outlet out. If you do this, the dangerous organic liquid you have to use the fuel the grass cutter might leak out, with all the threats to the local environment that come with that. Or it may stay contained but flood the engine, preventing you from being able to start the engine again.
The tools of the trade conspire against the trade.
Other living things around the grass conspire against the trade, too.
I took four bug bites on the last pass. One of them I saw was in fact a small yellow jacket.
None of the bites were severe, but they smart when I take them. The focus on the task at hand, for the moment, is shot.
This is, after all, about managing a gasoline engine running a massive metal blade. My yard is not level – there are hills hither and yon. (This is central Appalachia, after all.)
So here I go, pushing this gasoline engine and wildly rotating metal blade uphill. A yellow jacket resting on the grass I’m approaching is disturbed and is going to lash out at the first thing it senses that is causing that disturbance.
In this case, that is my groin.
I need to keep pushing this contraption that has all kinds of danger associated with it up this hill while I suddenly feel a very sharp pain directed entirely too close to my…dignity.
I ask you, is this any way for man to live? I think not.
Well, it’s done. I only took five breaks today, one break enforced by the flooding of the engine that kept the thing for starting back up for 30 minutes or so.
A yard of naturally-growing grasses and weeds, over entirely too much effort and not a small amount of angst, transformed into a somewhat managed and groomed lawn, just like the neighbors.
I’ve been pandemic-blogging since March, however irregularly. I came to the realization in March that I didn’t know what the world was going to look like next week, and I should just take life in a couple of days at a time and not worry too much about long-term planning.
It’s August now, and I still don’t know what the world is going to look like next week. Some weeks I’ve been able to settle into a pattern and deal with next week looking like the one past. Some weeks my life and the world around me has been tossed into upheaval again.
I’m finding it really hard to live this way.
And if it’s hard for me to live this way after having the same job for 20 years of my life now, I can only imagine how hard it’s going to be for a group of students starting college in a time unlike any time that any freshman has ever known, in the history of this country. So much technology, so much opportunity. So much threat, so much fear.
The most wonderful distraction from the work of the past couple of weeks have been the march of general chemistry students, mostly new freshmen, in my inbox and in my text messages. Before the first day of classes, they’re so full of questions, the kinds of thoughtful questions about how the course is going to run that I wish all classes would ask. I’m so glad to be able to answer them, to clear up misconceptions and to offer early guidance, to set their minds at ease.
To set their minds at ease. Because when you think about it, it makes perfect sense why I’m getting more emails from freshmen this year than I have any other year to this point. Sometimes the anxiety is cloaked in organization and clarification. Sometimes the anxiety is transparent and plain, with nothing left to the imagination. But the anxiety about being a student in this very different year is very real.
Even in The Normal Times, one of the thing I heard a lot about was the difficulty of first-generation students in achieving academic literacy – the understanding of the many conventions of being a college student and an independent learner. Our world is just weird to those who aren’t initiated in it. Figuring out who is safe to talk to honestly and who requires formal communication is a challenge. Understanding why one professor is generous with due dates while another is just rigid is a challenge. Even reading and understanding the syllabus is a challenge.
And just because somebody has difficulty being academically literate doesn’t mean they’re any less academically talented. In many cases, it’s the student who has more trouble with the screwball conventions and practices of the academy who also has the creative academic talent to excel and do great things. We’re the ones who are so stubborn and set in our ways (both individually and collectively) that we don’t allow the space for that creative talent to thrive.
If that was true in 2019, how much more true is it in 2020?
Is it an awful thing that my default position when dealing with a student right now is to assume that they’re scared? Why wouldn’t they be scared? On top of all the standard anxiety that comes with starting a new academic year, you’ve got the existential anxiety of a real honest-to-God deadly pandemic all around us. If you’re finding your way through this time without feeling any fresh and unique fear, I’m going to question whether you’re taking the reality of this time seriously enough.
And so I’m having to keep up a discipline of reassurance as I move forward in this term. I’ve got to do things that intentionally remove fear – or, at the very least, give the student practice at minimizing risk.
I’ve got to practice giving clear, unambiguous directions. Oh my word, I’m so bad at those. I wrap my directions around so many thoughts and feelings that I never make the directions clear at all. I’ve got to get the clutter away from my directions.
Students are going to message me and email me in all kinds of ways, formal and informal. Maybe in another time I’d encourage a student to practice more formality and help me out. Right now’s not the time for it. I want that student to message me back or email me back no matter what – maintaining the open communication is going to be essential. I need to be less of a threat, more generous in my replies.
I’ve got to be okay with doing less. It’s going to be so easy to get overwhelmed in this moment – and my instinctive response to my own overwhelm is to work more and to provide more resources. This might not be the semester to outwork my students. Less might truly be more.
And no matter what else I do, I have to work with integrity. If I say I’m going to do a thing, I need to do that thing. I’ve already made a lot of promises this semester, maybe too many. I have to be careful with making too many more. And I need to work so that especially students can trust the words that I say and the commitments that I make.
We’re working under a policy on campus this term that we’re not allowed to have face-to-face office hours – I can meet students outside, face-to-face, in a socially distanced context, but the only person allowed in my office is me. This is the real heartbreaker for me, because I love talking to students and advising students in the office conversation. I’m just going to have to find other ways to have the personal contact with students that comes with that kind of face-to-face conversation. I hate Zoom; I’m just going to have to get over it.
In every context, I have students that need encouragement and positive support. It’s on me to be intentional about giving it, in ways that I’m comfortable and in ways that I’m not.
This semester is going to be unlike any other. The connection I have with my students is going to be challenged. I need to rise to that challenge.
May we all hold on to our students as this semester goes forward. I won’t speak for you. But students are the only reason I ever got into this business to begin with.
This is the second year I’ve had the assignment of this talk at Tusculum, of facing the new freshmen and telling them why this is the time of their lives filled with the most promise, the most transformation and the most fulfillment. The freshman year of college is where I personally see the most change in student’s lives, the entry of one type of person, wide-eyed and excited for the new experiences ahead, the construction of a different type of person, newly aware of the world around them in a much larger way than they could have possibly imagined when they started.
I’ve promised a lot of folks this, in a lot of years gone by, and I’ll promise it to you as well: you will change more this year than you have ever changed in your life, as your immersion into this new world becomes real in ways that you don’t expect.
But this year is unlike any other year I’ve been at any college or university. This year, the reasons that you will change are also the reasons that I’ll change, and the world you’re being immersed into is the world I’m feeling a sudden immersion into as well.
Last year, I was in the big auditorium in Annie Hogan Byrd giving this talk to 400 of my newest best friends, in person, complete with a selfie of them at the end of it. It was a very cool, very 2019 thing to do.
You know and I know that 2020 is not 2019. There’s not been a freshman class that has dealt with anything like what you’re going to deal with, perhaps in a century, perhaps ever. And no faculty has ever entered into their responsibilities to teach, to help make learning happen, with the kind of pressures that those of us on the faculty are facing right now. There’s much less of the face-to-face that I’ve been so privileged to have for most of my life as faculty – and when there will be face-to-face, it will be separated by masks. There will be a lot more of this – screen-to-screen, two dimensions instead of three, frustrating distance between us.
So much of what your experience is going to be is different than any experience a freshman class has ever had before.
And yet so much of that experience hasn’t changed. The college experience is supposed to be a time of broadening horizons. You will still be exposed to ideas that you’ve never even considered, let alone thought deeply about, before. You will find your abilities in reading, writing, mathematics, logic taxed more strongly than they ever have been before.
You’re here to be prepared to make a contribution when you’re done. You’re here to start a path of two or four years that will end with you being equipped to be an expert, to be a professional, to be a leader in your community, your state, your nation, this world.
I want to spend time today talking about why that preparation is important now, as important as it ever has been, in the time of COVID-19. I want you to understand not merely why college is important to you, but why college is important now – in this time.
I’m in this space, equal parts excited and terrified.
One of the reasons that you’re unlike any freshman class before you is because you’re going to have the opportunity to learn using resources that students in the last great pandemic could have only dreamed of.
Over 100 years ago, in 1918, when influenza began to rage across the United States, there was no realistic substitute for face-to-face learning – except for locking yourself in the room with books and pencil and paper, if you were so privileged as to have a room of your own. Imagine starting college like that. Here are your books, and here’s what we expect you to understand when this year is done. Have fun!
But in 2020, you can see my face, even through the screen. Not only can you see my face, but you can see a little electronic whiteboard that I can write notes to you on. Not only can you see that, but I have software that can guide you through some of your early homework assignments, offer you feedback on the work you provide, make you feel less alone.
The more I can do that reaches out to students and provides them with means to feel less isolated as they go through their studies in a socially isolated place, as many of you will be doing this semester, the more exciting being a professor in this time becomes to me. The power of being a student at a small university like Tusculum is the access you have to so many experts in their fields, all of us just an email away, some of us crazy ones a text message or a social media hit away. (Follow @shorterpearson on Twitter and Instagram.)
There is so much unique power in being a student in this time.
And yet there is still the reality of being surrounded by this novel coronavirus – still so new that we don’t understand all the implications of becoming sick with it, that we don’t completely understand all the ways that it spreads or how it has no impact on one person infected with it while bringing another person to the brink of death.
We’re attempting to create normal around us, to make face-to-face learning feel as ordinary as possible while all of us are going to be wearing masks and staying as far apart as possible and while we’ll all go into classrooms checking up on one another’s day-to-day health. But wearing masks and staying as far apart as possible and checking up on our day-to-day health is an absolutely essential discipline for this moment. The risk at hand if we don’t keep these disciplines up could easily become a matter of life and death. Especially while these realities are so new and so unique to our time, the dangers of understating the risks at hand could literally be fatal.
The simple reality is that we’re returning to our studies while our country is the awe of the world – and not in a good way. The spread of this disease in the United States has dwarfed the spread of this disease in almost every other part of the world. In one of the more stressed countries in Europe, in the United Kingdom, the First Minister of Scotland saw fit to order lockdown policies in the city of Aberdeen two weeks ago. Aberdeen was locked down because of 54 new cases of COVID-19 over the course of a week.
There are very real reasons why we don’t respond to this disease in the same way as our European friends. Americans are, and always have been, highly individualistic – it is a matter of personal liberty to trust your neighbor’s wisdom in their response to this threat, and that personal liberty is a matter of faith for many of those who live here. Telling your neighbor what to do is one of the last great American taboos. It’s just not done.
But it’s also very real that modern Americans are trained not to trust experts. We live in an era of information abundance – where we can simply go to Google and search the answers to all our questions. And the search algorithm refuses to tell the difference between the advice of someone who has spent their career trying to answer exactly that question and the advice of someone who simply spent a few moments ranting in a blog post.
Human nature dictates it – we find the answer that best fits our biases, no matter, who gives it, and we move along, and what’s actually true or wise be damned.
The rebellion we need right now is a generation of young thinkers who don’t merely resort to knee-jerk answers to very real problems, but who learn enough to become experts in those problems in their own right, with knowledge that doesn’t just mimic the knowledge of their teachers but that actually surpasses it.
And we don’t just need those thinkers to be experts, but expert communicators as well – people with the equipping to share that knowledge with their peers and their communities, not lording that knowledge over them as if they’re more-educated-than-thou, but providing authentic tools to their communities to lift them up and give them better lives than what they have right now.
Here’s the good news: the principles of that rebellion are laid down in the mission statement of the institution you’re joining today.
This is the mission statement of Tusculum University:
Let’s take this statement apart, one line at a time.
There are multiple statements given over to our faith heritage. In earlier documents describing Tusculum, you’ll find references to Tusculum’s “Judeo-Christian” environment. We have a distinct faith, but an open and welcoming one – we build on the Presbyterian faith of our founders, but it’s a man of Baptist background who holds the presidency of this place now, and it’s a Methodist who is talking to you now. The specific faith experience isn’t privileged – we all return to the same book, we all acknowledge Abraham as the founder of our faith experience, and we see the same story told throughout Scripture to inform the day-to-day practice of that faith experience with one another.
The nickname of this place is hidden in the mission as well, and it’s not accidental. The history of Tusculum is the story of the founding of higher education in the state of Tennessee and in the central Appalachians. We literally carry with us the inheritance of the pioneers who made life in this part of the world possible for us, and we carry with us the charge to be new pioneers – people who take our learning into our communities and envision new ways of living.
We provide an active and experiential education. We don’t just want you in your seats, listening (how ironic that that’s what you’re doing right now. Sorry about that). We want your education to be one of doing – learning by participating, doing activities, having experiences.
We provide that education in a caring Christian environment. It’s hopefully not just a place where people say things about Jesus Christ and expect you to follow. To be in a Christian environment means experiencing sacrificial love – people giving up their power and privilege in the name of supporting others.
The slide here shows three nursing graduates from Tusculum who went to New York City in April, when this pandemic was at its most intense in the Northeast, when so much about care for patients in this pandemic was still a mystery. They gave up a part of their life to help people when they needed it the most. That’s the benefit we hope you experience in this caring, Christian environment – and that’s what we hope you learn to give to others.
We believe in career preparation – we want you to have a job, not just to make money in the short term, but to satisfy you for life. We believe in personal development – we care about who you are as a person, and we want you to be the best person you can be.
And if there’s a thing that drew me to Tusculum at the point in my life when I was considering this stage of my career, it is the statement at the core of the mission and that repeats all around the institution – the belief in civic engagement.
This is where I most intentionally repeat the message I had for last year’s freshmen.
Tusculum uses the word “civic” every place they can. We care about your citizenship. We care about your place as a member of this society, and we care that you contribute to that society in the most productive, positive way possible.
So many of the things you learn as a student here are to help you be the best citizen possible. You need to see other examples of communication and expression, in speech and English classes, so that you can be the best communicator you can be, so what you care about can be expressed to those around you. You need to be informed as completely as possible, both about what’s happened in the past – your history – and about the knowledge that is building your future – our science. You need the best background on your faith you can get, so you can not merely speak the language of faith to those around you, but you can be encouragement to others to live that faith out better. And you need the arts, to appreciate the creativity of others in this place and express your own creativity on your terms. Encouraging creativity in others and in yourself is part of your best citizenship, too.
All of you need to bring your best selves to this process of education, and to take the education itself as seriously as possible, no matter what place you’re from, no matter what place you’re going. The values that Tusculum believes in are important no matter what time you’re living through.
But in this time, with all the pressure on us to bring our safest selves to our study as we live through this uncertainty, with all the structures in place to provide our education in the most distanced means possible, it’s all the more important to keep reminding ourselves why we’re here and what we need to get out of this time.
I wish I could take a selfie with all of you now, to remind you like I reminded last year’s freshmen that you are the most important people in the history of Tusculum right now. In the very way that you’ll be learning, you are pioneers in your own right: discovering unique paths through the canon of knowledge that generations before you have studied, seeking unique ways to remain connected with one another through our era of social distancing, finding unique ways to fulfill this institutional mission in the face of all kinds of obstacles.
Those of us who are faculty feel the burden of this moment right along with you. Even if we can’t talk face-to-face the way we once did, we can still talk, or email, or even text. We will do what we can to support you in this moment.