On endings, and being a horrible professor

I have been continually waiting for the final-exam adrenaline to kick in, the way it almost invariably does.

It’s not arriving.  I’m seriously starting to believe it will never arrive.  Not at the end of this spring semester.

Over the fourteen years that lead up to this, I have often been incredibly guilt-wracked for what I’ve left undone, what I’ve done imperfectly, at every loose end that could have been explained better or could have been assessed better or could have been written better or could have been could have been could have been.

That’s not happening this year either.

This may still be leftover shell-shock from exactly how this has ended, and how deeply my students have been impacted, and how many questions are still lingering about the future of just about everything, and and and.  And this seems to be my mentality right now; this is desperately undone, this time of our lives, and yet at the exact same time it is very much done and one way or another there are a lot of people preparing to go a lot of separate ways.

It has occurred to me, early and often, that right now if I only care about doing my job – that designated, professorial job that I got hired to do here – and I relentlessly focus on my job, there will be a lot that I miss.

That doesn’t mean that I blow off every last thing I have intended to do.  (Yes, I’m still giving my finals.)  But it also doesn’t mean I chase people off and just stick with my standard finals-week agenda of hiding out and staying invisible until the moment the final is given, either – and certainly not if somebody just wants to come talk, or if I want to just seek somebody out to talk.

There is a lack of discipline in what I’m doing right now that, by every one of my standard metrics, is failure.  Things are happening that I would have once beat myself up over and declared myself a horrible professor over that I’m simply letting go now because of the sheer number of people that I can see now and I don’t know when I’m going to see again.

(It also occurs to me that this is potentially a longer-term problem when it comes to seriously doing my job best and most efficiently.  I’ve been trained over a very long time that you do your grading in a solitary place, where nobody can see how you’re doing the assessment, and there’s a ton of other academic work that is quiet contemplation, done alone.  Through the miracle of the last two decades of my life, a person who was once hard-wired to be an antisocial nerd has now gotten re-wired to be around people, and to ache when he has to be alone, and to cherish the social and interactive tasks involved in teaching.  It occurs to me that there is a serious work that I can do to make how I assess learning more interactive and more meaningful to me, and that will be important for the next phase of what I do.)

Simply put: finals started today, and finals will be given tomorrow, Monday, and Tuesday, and then that’s it.  That’s all the time that’s left.  The heartache is real.

My usual coda on my semesters is a spiritual discipline: “pray for me, pray for my students.”  It is a serious work, to pray that the stresses my students are under will stay minimized and the understanding will come clear, to pray that I take the work of final grades seriously and soberly and make the right decisions.  I don’t understand the theology of that work; I once pretended to.  I don’t get what God does in a brain to answer that prayer, and it’s mystery to me, but I still believe in that work and I still ask for that from those of you who believe in such things.

I have never wanted you to do that for me more deeply than I do now.  Please pray for me – and not just for me, but all my colleagues.  Please pray for my students – and not just my students, but all the students of this place called Virginia Intermont College, that they do their last work with peace over what their future holds.

And if you are a student, please know that I am not so busy – with anything – that I can’t be interrupted to hug you and say goodbye, when that time comes.  Please know that.

I have always said this as a joke: The best things about semesters is that they end.

I can’t say that this year.  This is not a good ending.  This is heartbreaking.

Final exams.  Here we go.


A few words on the USA World Cup run

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, June 26, 2010.

I want to be a contrarian here for a bit, and – from the perspective of a guy that remembers 1998 vividly, and remembers a team that shut it down during their third game of an 0-3, one goal scored, five goals allowed campaign – make some key comments about these past for USA games, and where this deal goes from here.

I think the genesis of how we need to take this World Cup – and why, regardless of the massive PR success the whole deal was, we have to hope the USSF takes it as a massive missed opportunity – can be found in two games in five days almost exactly one year ago. Over two games, the United States demonstrated – comprehensively – that they could play with, and at times overrun, a genuinely elite international team. So much of the expectation – perhaps even the legitimate expectation – for this tournament came from the fact that we watched what may become a classic USA core of Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Altidore and Howard play Spain off the field and come out flying against Brazil. Slovenia and Algeria don’t seem like a threat when compared against that evidence.

But when Brazil came roaring back to lift the Confederations Cup, it was a singular and final turning point in the history of US Soccer: the moral victory to end all moral victories, literally. Once you’ve had Brazil two goals down, and you let that slip, there’s only one thing left to do on the world stage: win the big game. Consistently. That is the only result that will satisfy, that is the only result that will leave the nation coming back for more.

So we come back to South Africa 2010. We played a thoroughly underwhelming draw against England, the only team of pedigree we played in the entire tournament, and we were saved by a very typically English goalkeeping howler. We made the storyline all about the goal at the death that was disallowed, forgetting the fact that we played absolutely shocking defense – against Slovenia! – and found ourselves 2-0 down and in need of a desperate fightback. We made the storyline all about the dramatic winner that galvanized a nation, forgetting the fact that it took 91 minutes for us to score – against Algeria! – and were dangerously close to equalling the three-draw World Cup experience of that vaunted world power New Zealand. And we’re sent packing against the very same Ghana team that sent us packing in 2006. We just were fortunate to not be drawn into a group with the Czech Republic and Italy this time.

And please don’t get me started on Bob Bradley’s selection against Ghana. For the man who supposedly carried the Midas touch all tournament long, the two starters from the horrible England opener that Bradley insisted on recalling – Clark and Findley – were gone by the second half kickoff, replaced with Edu and Feilhaber, players who had been so influential in the tournament to date. Clark in particular was badly abused in his 30 minutes, was directly at fault for the giveaway that led to Ghana’s first goal, and absolutely had to be yanked from the match early. Bob Bradley may have outsmarted himself out of a job today – if Juergen Klinsmann (the USSF’s first choice for this cycle all along) wants to make himself available, the Fed absolutely has to chase him, and I can’t help but think that Sigi Schmid is overdue a chance to see what he can do in this job.

At this point, I hope the Americans are bitterly disappointed. There was so much more to be had in this tournament, there was so much potential in this team. For a North American team, there is no European Championships, there is no Copa America, and the Gold Cup just doesn’t get it. There is the World Cup. When this is over, we go into a two-year wilderness of meaningless and half-meaningless matches. This is our one opportunity to assert our worth on the world stage – and our worth is maybe top-16 in the world, but certainly not top-eight, certainly not a team to genuinely challenge the world powers, developing but still not ready for the ultimate stage.

And yet.

Say this one thing about the Yanks, say it frequently, say it loudly: they never gave up. They played every match to its end. So much of the story of this tournament has been the grossly underwhelming performance of richly talented African nations like Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon; the constant turmoil in the England camp that reached its nadir in England 0-0 Algeria; the listless play of Italy that saw them finish bottom of their group, and of course, of COURSE, the complete capitulation of France.

There is a small measure of sympathy I have there, because I still remember the tournament that was supposed to be the high point of the USA’s first classic core of players, the likes of John Harkes (the “captain-for-life”!) and Eric Wynalda and Marcelo Balboa and Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller. Our group might have been difficult, but we would get the biggest challenge out of the way early against Germany, and then surely we’d get a result against Iran, and Yugoslavia would surely be a winnable match at that point and our chance to make the final 16.

If you haven’t studied your Yanks history and you don’t know how that turned out, start with searching “John Harkes” “embrace the position” on Google. (Actually, if you search “John Harkes” on Google, the first hit comes up “Amy Wynalda”, which might be more recent news but might also explain just a bit more.) Suffice it to say that I’ve seen Yank teams throw in the towel before, and the only thing positive that I’ll remember about the 1998 World Cup is seeing Brian McBride score late to save face against Iran, when most of his teammates were sleepwalking, and praying that would mean something in the future, not quite knowing just how much it would mean.

Knowing that we were able to build on even 1998, when the program was a shambles, is one thing. This program is not a shambles. Bob Bradley is not the epic pile of fail that Steve Sampson was, and never will be. The character in this team is strong. Even with the hideous defensive lapses that will be this tournament’s negative, the will to attack and to push for a result never – NEVER – left this team. Witness the late equalizer against Slovenia, to say nothing of Edu’s “goal” that may have been the biggest what-if moment if it hadn’t been for – also witness – the even later winner against Algeria. And even today, even after 120 minutes of soccer, even after falling behind twice, still the Yanks attacked in waves, desperately seeking the equalizer that, in the end, they were just too spent to deliver.

The youth is there. Donovan, Dempsey, and Onyewu, for all their experience, still have at least one more World Cup cycle in them. Bradley, Altidore, and Howard (remember how long Keller’s career went!) have at least two. One of Buddle, Gomez and Findley will be heard from again at this level. So too with Feilhaber, Holden and Edu. We may have even cussed Bornstein in the runup, but he grew up in this tournament and will be a far better defender going forward.

And what of the players left behind? Charlie Davies was such an important part of this Confederations Cup team; if you want a moment where we lost the quarterfinals, look back to that car crash as qualifying was reaching its climax. What about Jonathan Spector and Sacha Kjlestan, who also had a part in that tournament run but who have lost their way since? What about José Torres, who showed so much promise but never got off the bench after the disastrous Slovenia first half? What about the young players like Chad Marshall, Heath Pearce and Robbie Rogers, who showed promise before getting run out by Mexico in the Gold Cup last year? And who is lurking in MLS who will start to get their national team time come 2011?

Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo may be nearing the end of their international careers (although neither should be ruled out for 2014), but the core of this team are not only good candidates to return, but improve going forward. Sakes, Eddie Johnson (who – lest we forget – holds 12 goals for the USA and was a key part of the qualifying for 2006) isn’t even that old yet.

You type all that up, and this is what it all says: DEPTH. Something that we didn’t have in 1998. And, for all my criticism of Bradley’s management on the day, for the long haul, he has had a lot to do with the growth of the pool.

So, at the end of the day, there is disappointment, but there is also pride. There are no moral victories in this tournament – we simply weren’t good enough. But, as cliche as it sounds, we do emerge from this tournament with our heads held high.

And we also emerge with the biggest PR win we could have possibly had. It wasn’t BigSoccer anger I heard over the phantom foul that robbed Maurice Edu of a World Cup goal – it was PTI anger. That wasn’t soccer-geek euphoria over Landon Donovan’s desperate winner – that was sports-fan euphoria. That wasn’t just Sam’s Army overconfidence going into the Ghana match – it was Joe Sixpack overconfidence. I know I had at least one friend who never took soccer seriously in his life text me a simple “OMG!!!” when Landon scored THAT goal. I know I had one friend who told me today he’s been meaning to go to Crew Stadium to take in a match and now he absolutely has to. You, the guy who’s been with us since ’94 or ’96 or ’98, you probably have a friend like that too. The game grew these past two weeks.

And this is how I have to end this:

We really weren’t that great. Imagine what happens in four years if we rediscover that form we had in June 2009. Imagine what happens if we demolish Spain when it matters most.

Imagine what happens to the American sports fan THEN.

Something resembling a testimony

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, June 10, 2009.

Originally written for a new friend of mine, Josh Roberts, who pastors a little thing called Connect Rome that I’ve been enchanted by for the past couple of months. It’s a church that meets in a bar. And I’ve been attending it. I’ll sit back and allow the shock to subside before I continue.

A couple of weeks ago he threw some questions at me that were part of a project called “You Asked For It” – Josh is getting six messages for six Sundays out of questions he was asked by people who’ve been attending. He e-mailed me the rejects…ahem, the “leftovers”…and asked if I could handle any of them.

Apropos of nothing, I’d been bothered more and more by how horribly people around me had been acting and how this had nothing to do with how people at a Christian college should act – and how easily I could throw myself into that mix. I got mad and frustrated enough that I sat down at computer keyboard and just typed furiously. I then looked at the list of questions again, and realized I’d mostly answered one of them.

Later, I reconnected with an old friend on Facebook (surprise, surprise) and started catching up, and as part of the catching up she gave me the very standard here’s-where-Jesus-changed-my-life schpiel. I think I moaned back that I didn’t have anything resembling a testimony that wouldn’t put people to sleep or bore them out of their skull, since it wasn’t a dramatic event or a single life-changing moment I could point to.

But the more I go back over this, the more that this really feels like that very type of testimony. I don’t know if it qualifies as dramatic or not. Regardless, it’s mine.

Why is it easier for some people to accept the story of Christ than others?

I have really found myself, over the past several weeks, taking a lot of stock in what has led me to this point. I’m careening now towards 20 years of my life knowing Jesus Christ as a personal Lord and Savior, and while I’ve resisted using that particular language for a large swath of my life because I know the baggage it carries, this relationship with Jesus is very real and very tangible, and it has informed an awful lot of decisions I’ve made in my life that have brought me here.

Why do I believe in Jesus? Why did I give my life over to Him in the first place, and what has kept me believing that this crazy story about a man who also just happened to be totally God, and who got executed for crimes he didn’t do and then turned around and came back to life? I mean, what makes that real?

Thinking about this has led me to a really stunning revelation for me. I’m frequently frustrated talking to students of mine here, and people in this community broadly, about Jesus. Rome is a church-laden town. I work with Christians of many fairly conservative stripes, as do many of you. Christianity is all around us. And it really seems, day in and day out, that if you don’t buy in to Jesus and you want evidence that Jesus isn’t terribly real, all you have to do is look at the the pastors and church leaders in Rome, the Christians you work with, the very state of Christianity in northwest Georgia, and you’ve got all the evidence you need. Gossip spread everywhere, people at one another’s throats, churches that are cold and unwelcoming, lives that show no evidence at all of a sovereign and powerful God, just stories and legends that may have had weight 2000 years ago – or even 100 years ago – but are worthless and useless in our modern time.

My job has me working for a Christian institution, under a mission that’s all about the Lordship of Jesus Christ even over education, engaged day in and day out with Southern Baptists who have the same basic insight into the Gospel that I do. (Honestly? Best job I’ve ever had, and it’s not even close. There aren’t too many places in the United States where I could do the things I do, teach the way I teach, and still have the opportunities to advance that I’ve had. It fits me to a tee. But…) Day in and day out, I see people, in the name of Jesus Christ, treat other people like absolute garbage. Student vs. student, student vs. faculty, faculty vs. faculty, and administration vs. … well, everybody. I see the command to love one another trashed. I see the bitterness and the resentment and the raw, unadulterated inability to just get over it.

And if I’m not careful, I see it in myself, in how I treat others, and if I start pointing that finger at others, fingers would come pointing right back at me.

And – again, if I’m honest – I see friends at other institutions, and stories from other outposts of Christian higher education, that are a thousand times worse and uglier than any story I could tell about my experience. This problem isn’t a problem with any one workplace, or any one city. It’s a problem with all of us.

What makes this so stunning is that, nearly 20 years ago, I went to college in Terre Haute, Indiana, absolutely desperate to break any ties with Christianity and make myself a brilliant and logical scientist and engineer, free of any superstitions or any fake god to limit the possibilities in my world. College was going to be my ultimate freedom – not to party hearty and pick up women and live the college life (although if I could get over my geek nature and live that life, that would be a nice side benefit) but to free my thinking. I could follow new heroes of mine like Kurt Vonnegut and e.e. cummings into a mindset where all the stupid traditional lessons from mom and dad and sunday school teacher were broken and I could truly be open-minded – where I could truly figure out what open-minded actually MEANT.

And what completely blindsided me was actually living out that first year trying to figure out what way of living life would actually work, and finding the brainiacs and free-thinkers at Rose-Hulman, and figuring out very quickly that I hated all of them. Just hated them. They were jerks, and not only did they want nothing to do with me, they didn’t want anything to do with anyone who didn’t fit in their own, neat circle. And there were the guys who pledged fraternities (and I have to clarify “social fraternities” for reasons that will become clear shortly), who were perfectly willing to be your friend over beers and parties. But I tried one dorm party and had a perfectly miserable experience with alcohol, and the moment I started saying “no, thanks” to the booze I found pretty uniform rejection from that crew.

The people who reached out to me and who showed me compassion were the people that ultimately informed my way of thinking. The people who actually treated me with kindness were the people I listened to.

I found myself lining up pretty effectively with a service fraternity called Alpha Phi Omega, figured out that a lot of the old Scouting ideals in that group lined up with my own idealistic nature, and it was very straightforward to pledge what turned out to be a very different sort of fraternity, and find a great deal of fulfillment learning to “be a leader, be a friend, be of service”. That was the type of thing I went to college to do.

One of the guys in APhiO decided that I was worth a great deal of time and investment, for whatever reason. I mean, REALLY decided. (I wonder after the fact if he wasn’t in need of a friend himself, and if I had listened to him at one point and he decided that I was going to be faithful. The friendship has lasted, that’s for sure.) There was a Bible study that met in this guy’s room, and halfway through my freshman year he decided that I needed to be in that Bible study. Through forcible dragging out of my dorm room, if necessary.

What stunned me then – and, 20 years on, what stuns me even more – is how RIGHT the relationships were between the people in that Bible study. How much they cared for me, and not just because “hey he doesn’t believe this Jesus stuff”, but because I was a person and I was worth something because of my humanity. Honestly, at that point I’d called everything into question all over again, because there was so much I had counted on that hadn’t gone right. I wasn’t tearing up my classes like I thought I would, I had already changed my major once and I was needing a serious GPA win in Winter ’91 if I was going to avoid changing majors again, and we’ve already established that all the free-thinkers I was going to hook up with free-think with were complete jerks who wanted nothing to do with anybody who wasn’t already them.

And these Christians were nothing like the Christians I had encountered growing up…which, now that I think about it, remind me a bit of the Christians that I get complaints about around here, the Christians who don’t act the slightest bit the way that Jesus did and who don’t show any evidence in their lives that God is real and can change their lives. These Christians lived it, day-in and day-out, and they shared Jesus with me without mentioning any four spiritual laws or any need for a relationship or any sort of hard sell. They believed what Jesus said, and even if they didn’t do everything perfect all the time (and several didn’t even come close), they were honest about it and still welcomed me in with all my flaws.

This is long before I actually began to seriously consider all of the deep theological issues in the Bible, or before I began to work towards reconciling the science I had loved all my life (and that I began to realize was beyond mere love, it was a real and holy calling) with the faith that so many said it wouldn’t reconcile with, or before I really made it an intellectual faith. This was me figuring out what unconditional love looked like, and being completely blindsided by it.

So: “Why is it easier for some people to accept the story of Christ than others?” Because those people have actually seen what the love of Christ looks like, and have had to respond to it. If the church around those people is dead, if it’s full of gossip, if the people tear one another down instead of sacrificing themselves for one another, then somebody watching that group will say “there’s nothing real to that Jesus they claim.” When we act like the words of Jesus mean something, and being perfect as our Father is perfect is something that can actually be done, and we show that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength by loving our neighbor as ourselves, we should never be surprised when God breaks through and people are changed.

Postscript in 2013:  Connect Rome is now Connect City Church, and has their campus on U.S. 27 between Rome and Summerville, GA.  If you are ever in Northwest Georgia, go see them some Sunday morning.  They’re great people, and I miss them.

“The importance of stupidity in scientific research”

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, February 24, 2009; edited to fix linkrot.

With a hat tip to Miz Richardson (who I’d link if she had web space to link to, apart from a Facebook page), an essay by Martin Schwarz in the Journal of Cell Science with one of the most impressive titles ever in academia.

And the article’s just as good, too. In fact, Nicole forwarded it along to me because we’d had so many conversations that plowed exactly the same ground. To wit:

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can’t be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn’t know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn’t have the answer, nobody did.

That’s when it hit me: nobody did. That’s why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn’t really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I may be projecting, but I think one of the things that occurred to Nicole as she read that was an exchange I frequently have with students even now:

Student: Oh, my word, I completely should have known that. I feel so stupid.
Me: I had that feeling all time as a student. It was better when I figured out what that feeling really was.
Student: What was it?
Me: Learning.

I don’t know if it came from this, but there were also several times as I was yammering with Nicole that she was asking questions that I didn’t have good answers to. At a certain point when you do science, you recognize that there’s just ALL THOSE PAPERS IN THE UNIVERSE and there’s no way on God’s green earth that you are going to be able to read them all. So you get pretty comfortable shrugging your shoulders and saying “I don’t know, why don’t you read some stuff and get back to me?” I don’t do that to be a jerk; I do that because I’d really like to know myownself, and I don’t have time to read the relevant papers on my own.

(I’d like to, but professors get a bit more on their plate than just reading all day – even the guys who do research full time have to write the big-money grant proposals to earn their keep.)

Ultimately, when you do science, you hit that realization that, to paraphrase what David Suzuki once said, you are contributing little bits of knowledge to a vast well of science information. You are an expert on those little bits; nobody knows as much about those little bits as you. But others are going to use those little bits (interpreting what you supply in their own way, which may or may not have had anything to do with what you were thinking) to generate their own bits of knowledge, which they’ll contribute to that well. Everybody is building their explanations of how this world really works in their own way, and self-doubt can overwhelm you when you see how vast and intricate the world is; but you can get through that self-doubt by realizing that, in that small realm of knowledge, you really are an expert if you’ve read it and studied it deeply enough.

Partly, reading this was a affirmation that I’m telling my charges the right things about science.

Partly, this was a reminder of the excitement I have for a large fleet of my students, preparing to go off and start developing their own knowledge and taking part of this wonderful journey.

And then there’s the realization that I’m still at the front side of one of these back-and-forths with a new colleague in science…who just so happened to be one of my first students at Shorter. We’ve got a couple of decades of these back and forths ahead of us.

And then there are all the new colleagues to come.

I’m still starting what’s going to be an amazing career.

Saying goodbye to an old friend

This was originally published on February 12, 2009 on Blogcritics.org; Eric Olsen (who founded the site) let me back into the “sinister cabal” so I could make sure the piece found the wider readership that LAUNCHcast merited.

Of course, the official version was edited likewhoa, and didn’t have all the normal tics of my writing – so I posted this “de-edited” version on the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog on that February 15.

I’m sitting at my computer. It’s about 11:00 in the morning.

I’m listening to my streaming LAUNCHcast when I hear a familiar tune. It’s the tune to “Dig” by the stalwart of early ’90s alternative Christian music, Adam Again. However, it’s not the dark acoustic and reverb and nasal voice of Gene Eugene – it’s lighter acoustics and Dan Haseltine’s gentler voice leading the harmonies of Jars of Clay.

I suddenly stare at my computer with a start – I didn’t know they covered that!

And I have something to look up later.

Just as I did when I heard a Jimmy Eat World song I hadn’t heard before last week – “Dizzy”, from the Chase ThisLight album – and was so affected by the song that I just went out that night and – shock, horror – paid money at the record store for the album.

Just as I did nearly ten years ago when the song was a set of snare drums ahead of some thin electric guitars that heralded the start of Sarge’s “Charms and Feigns”, and I simply had to know who that woman singing that song WAS.

LAUNCHcast has been a wonderful old friend. And it’s going away. By the time you read this, it may already be gone.

The guys who started up LAUNCH Media in Santa Monica in 1999 had quite a few good ideas. Iremember hitting up their website several times in the formative days, watching music videos and reading music news. God knows how many people they sucked in – or nearly repelled away – with ads featuring a new video by a new starlet, Britney Spears (those were the days), but there were plenty of music-based content to keep your eyes trained.

And then there was LAUNCHcast.

Customizable radio.

Start rating your favorite artists, your favorite songs, your favorite genres. The scale goes from 0 to 100. Your station is then compared to other stations, especially those who rated similar songs high, and there would be an electronic hunt for songs that you might like. “Music that listens to you” is the promise.

Even if it had been a false promise, I might have still been hooked at the mere concept. It wasn’t a false promise. The station began to figure out my favorite styles of music immediately, and select new stuff that I had never heard of and immediately loved. The programming of the widget was simply AMAZING. (I think we frequently overlook the kind of talent it requires to code an app like LAUNCHcast, and to make it work broadly for so many people. So many people whose names we’ll never know deserve a rich, deep round of applause for this one. For my part: Todd Beaupre, Jeff Boulter, and every coder around you two who hacked the thing together, SAAA-LUTE.)

It’s hard to continue the story too far beyond this point without mentioning the raging battle between LAUNCH and the recording industry. Lawsuits began to crop up, using phrases like “unlicensed use of music” and “unapproved level of interactivity.” I simply can’t understand the threat behind allowing listeners of music to choose the music they listen to when they listen to a radio station, and the volumes written about the RIAA’s control-freak nature are simply too overwhelming for me to add anything of value to them. This isn’t for them, anyway; too many people see the commodity and miss the riff, the groove, the killer lyric, the joy of listening to music.

The small community that grew up around LAUNCH – and I especially remember Todd Beaupre’s simple username, “hitsman”, and the wonderful adult alternative station he assembled that was a pretty essential “influencer” station – had no part of this. There were just a ton of really cool people who had wonderful and interesting tastes in music. As a late 20-something who was in a music-listening rut, so many of those stations were absolute revelations. I discovered Sunny Day Real Estate on LAUNCHcast. The Frames and Glen Hansard. The Promise Ring. Lincoln. American Football. Coheed & Cambria. I rediscovered many of my loves from college radio – Animal Logic, Poole, Kirsty MacColl, Hüsker Dü, and Roseanne Cash’s amazing Interiors album.

Of course, when LAUNCH Media got bought out by Yahoo! in 2001, the small community was no longer small, and the attention paid wasn’t small either. The paid subscriptions to listen to the station without ads and with an unlimited ability to skip songs you didn’t want to hear was necessary – and, honestly, a small price to pay. And if I have one regret about my time on LAUNCH, it was holding out on the subscriptions as long as I did. It probably wouldn’t have made a difference in the long haul, but cheapskates like me need to be less cheap-skatey in this economy – nothing proves a concept like the money it can make, and LAUNCHcast never really made enough.

I think a large part of the problem here can be summarized in who I am, who the majority of the American music-consuming public is, and why LAUNCHcast was so suited for me and not for them.

I’m a music geek.

The example at the front of this piece (unless you are one of my brothers who cut his fandom teeth on early ’90s alternative Christian music – and if you are, I want to talk to you, desperately) very likely means nothing to you. You listen to music because it can form the background of your workday or your drive home. There may be a few specific artists who you really enjoy deeply, who you’re a fan of, but you don’t listen to individual songs that intently. That’s not a value judgement. That don’t make me a better fan than you. Most people are content, if they like one Promise Ring song, with listening to any Promise Ring song, and vice-versa. They don’t concern themselves with the subtle differences that make me adore Kelly Clarkson’s “Low”, not really care about “Irvine”, melt over “Sober”, get tired of “Since U Been Gone”, swoon over “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, and just say “eh” over “My Life Would Suck Without You”. A monolithic Kelly fan, I am not.

So when Yahoo! Music gets swallowed up by CBS Radio, and it’s advertised as an exciting time for music fans because a host of pre-programmed stations are going to become available and the streaming quality will improve and you’ll be able to listen to everything on Firefox, I can see where a garden variety music fan would buy in.

But I’m going to hate all those stations. They’ll play a song that I love, and then they’ll play a song that I hate, and this won’t change. There was one thing, and only one thing on LAUNCHcast that was worth the price of admission for me, and that’s precisely the thing that’s going away – a programmable player on which I could rate stuff on a sliding scale and control not only which songs turned up, but HOW OFTEN they turned up.

A radio station, that you could program to play the songs you like.

I know, I keep coming back to it. It’s still revolutionary in 2009. In 1999, it completely fractured my brain.

Pandora is nice, as far as it goes, but it won’t fill the need for me. The algorithm isn’t as good. I DON’T just either like a song or hate it – thumbs up or thumbs down is no good. I have shades of gray. I will listen to “Cowboys” by Counting Crows (another song I heard for the first time on LAUNCHcast, and completely fell for) any time it comes up. I’ll listen to Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ “Broken-Hearted Savior”, but I don’t want to hear it every day. I can take a Wilco song once every other month at most. And so on.

And I have an mp3 player, but I know all those songs already. I’d like to discover new music, too.

Of course, there’s the great irony. Because of LAUNCHcast, I now have CD’s by Sunny Day Real Estate and The Promise Ring and Coheed & Cambria and The Reputation (because I finally found out who that woman fronting Sarge was, and because LAUNCH helped me find Elizabeth Elmore’s other band, too) and so many of the rest – to say nothing of that Jimmy Eat World album. See, because of LAUNCHcast, I did something unheard of in the year 2009.

I actually bought CD’s. More CD’s. Real, physical CD’s.

You can tell me I don’t get the new media revolution all you want. I don’t care. I found my own way through it. I’m not a revolutionary by any stretch. I’m just a guy who likes music and wants to support the good stuff.

And I’m losing one of my best tools, a tool so familiar that I call it a wonderful old friend. It’s just really, really sad.

I just heard one more new song that impressed me – a band called World Wide Spies, a song called “Philosophy.” I rated it 90. There’s no chance I’ll see it come back around on this station before it dies, so the rating was in vain, but it was completely automatic, just like it has been for so much of the past ten years.

I suppose I can always visit their MySpace page.

A quick blast from the past

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, January 20, 2009.

Newt Gingrich, as cited by Washington Post op-ed type David Ignatius, circa September 2005:

Gingrich argues that the values debate that has divided America so sharply during the past decade is over. There’s a broad consensus about most issues, and anyway people realize that the country’s big problems aren’t about morality but performance. “We’re not in a values fight now but over whether the system is working,” Gingrich told me. “The issue is delivery.” And that’s true at every level — city, state and federal. Gingrich’s critique of the federal response is as devastating as that of any Democrat. “For the last week the federal government and its state and local counterparts have consistently been behind the curve,” he wrote fellow Republicans this week. “The American people overwhelmingly know that the current situation is totally unacceptable,” and for that reason, “it is a mistake to get trapped into defending the systems and processes which clearly failed.” He observes in another memo, “While the destruction was unprecedented, it was entirely predictable…”

This is the moment for the Party of Performance to take center stage. The breakdown in public life was obvious before Katrina. We have a government that can’t control its borders, can’t find a viable strategy for its war in Iraq, can’t organize the key agencies to address the terrorism problems it has been trumpeting. The yearning in the country for something different has been palpable this year.

America faces an “extreme disaster,” says Gingrich, one that will have more lasting and complex effects than any domestic event since World War II. The politicians who rise to that challenge will surge in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The ones who remain stuck in their ruts will suffer. Who’s ready to sign up for the Party of Performance?

Barack Obama’s inaugural address, 20 January 2009:

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s knowledge will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched. But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more. Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use.

…and now we know who signed on for the Party of Performance.

Congratulations, President Obama.

Whose canon is it, anyway?

From the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, December 19, 2008.

I just had a brain-breaking moment.

I found a book on the shelf at the library today. The book was Quantum Generations, and it was written by Helge Kragh. I got terribly excited when I saw the book, because I had considered adopting it a couple of years back as one of the history texts for my Modern Physics class. I don’t teach a classic, calculus-based modern physics that’s a prep course for physics majors; the reason for this course to exist at Shorter is to give the students in secondary science education two extra credit hours to supplement the eight they get from the general physics sequence, so they have 10 credit hours in physics to get a secondary certification in a physics (to complement their primary certification in either biology or chemistry, and their inevitable secondary certification in the one they didn’t get the primary in. It’s a long story. See the Shorter catalog, page 82). And the class follows a trig-based physics, so I can’t fairly use calculus in there either; so I have to do some simple trig-based quantum and relativity and do a whole lot more conceptual stuff. Good history helps build that conceptual understanding, in my experience.

The introduction of Quantum Generations speaks very clearly of its intent:

The intended audience of the book is not primarily physicists or specialists in the history of science. It is my hope that it will appeal to a much broader readership and that it may serve as a textbook in courses of an interdisciplinary nature or in introductory courses in physics and history. With a few exceptions I have avoided equations, and although the book presupposes some knowledge of physics, it is written mainly on an elementary level.

It’s the phrase “the book presupposes some knowledge of physics” that was supposed to put me at ease selecting the book for PHY 2100, after all. We’ll get back to that later.

Start reading the text itself, and engaging in the history, and here’s what opens:

THE PHILOSOPHER and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead once referred to the last quarter of the nineteenth century as “an age of successful scientific orthodoxy, undisturbed by much thought beyond the conventions. . . .one of the dullest stages of thought since the time of the First Crusade” (Whitehead 1925, 148). It is still commonly believed that physics at the end of the century was a somewhat dull affair, building firmly and complacently on the deterministic and mechanical world view of Newton and his followers. Physicists, so we are told, were totally unprepared for the upheavals that took place in two stages: first, the unexpected discoveries of x-rays, the electron, and radioactivity; and then the real revolution, consisting of Planck’s discovery of the quantum of action in 1900 and Einstein’s relativity theory of 1905. According to this received view, not only did Newtonian mechanics reign supreme until it was shattered by the new theories, but the Victorian generation of physicists also naively believed that all things worth knowing were already known or soon would become known by following the route of existing physics. . .

Let me be clear up front: I’m not criticizing Kragh in the slightest, nor the history he’s constructing. His intent is to set the real stage for twentieth-century physics by expressing clearly that this is a measure of myth, and not every physicist believed as Albert Michelson did, that “most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles” – so that physics was a lot more ready for the early 1900’s revolutions than is commonly believed.

Commonly believed.

Okay, here’s question one: commonly believed by who?*

Go to your friendly neighborhood engineer, or your friendly neighborhood pharmacist, or your friendly neighborhood high school science teacher – I don’t care which of the above, but one of the people around you who is supposed to be reasonably science-literate. Ask them what they know about how the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity came to be.

Relativity they might be able to connect with Einstein; they might mention some of the thought experiments surrounding special relativity (the twin paradox is especially popular), maybe they know about time dilation and relativistic mass, maybe they know of the demonstration of general relativity’s accuracy that made Einstein the closest thing physics has ever had to a rock star. But why Einstein had to be demonstrated so comprehensively and strangely correct to turn him into that rock star, the central postulate surrounding the speed of light being the same in all inertial reference frames? Yeah, good luck with that.

And if they can tell you anything at all about quantum mechanics, it usually involves a roll of the eyes and a complaint about its difficulty.

Maybe I’m selling the people around you a little bit short, but I had to teach several of the same types, and I know how they generally approached the theory and the history behind the theory. It’s a curiosity. Nothing more, and nothing less.

So again I ask: commonly believed by who?

By people who care about physics. By people who have already heard the simple version of the history. By people who think knowing and understanding physics is important.

And it was that realization that led me to the brain-breaking.

When I first went through this textbook, I knew it wasn’t right for the modern physics course I taught, but I couldn’t put my finger on why – all I knew was, another book started with the story of Ernest Rutherford and Hans Geiger assigning Ernest Marsden the problem that immediately led to the discovery of the nucleus, and that was far, far more interesting. Now, on second pass, I get it – the book wasn’t right for the audience who would be enrolling in PHY 2100. I had to assume those students had never studied the development of modern physics ideas before, and that it would be sufficient to engage them in the history for the first time.

And again – back to the introduction. Quantum Generations was written for a general knowledge, not a class of physicists. It presupposed some knowledge of physics, but should be generally accessible. I should be able to assign that book to a group of students who has had an introductory physics sequence, then, right? Why did I have to resort to a lower level text?

Among most of the academic ranks, there has always been an assumption of a certain level of canon, a certain knowledge set we expect students to have when they walk through our doors for the first time. I honestly am not going to pretend like I know what that set is in other academic disciplines; I would certainly leave myself exposed as the poseur I am when I made my assessment of what a graduating high school senior “should” know in terms of American, British and world literature. I wouldn’t know that Steppenwolf was anything but a bad 70’s rock band were it not for quiz bowl.

But in the physical sciences, what goes into that canon? For example, you should know how to construct a molecular formula of a compound. You should know the basic thermodynamics – the difference between heat and work, the difference between enthalpy, entropy, and free energy. You should know the difference between velocity and acceleration. You should know the basic principles that lead to those quantum numbers that electrons carry in the atom. And you should know enough about relativity and cosmology to know that spacetime is curved, and the universe is expanding.

Anybody want to take a wild guess as to how many freshmen we see who actually do know all that?

I’ve been pretty good most of my career at packaging physics in an accessible way, mainly (I think) because I remember how much some of the topics in physics killed me as an undergrad and how bitterly I had to fight to get the explanations of those ideas right as a grad student and a novice professor. But the longer I’ve taught physical chemistry, and the more I’ve seriously considered the textbooks in the field from the perspectives of the students who actually have to take the class, the more I’m becoming convinced that too many of us – and from time to time, I fall into this trap – teach what we teach to the students we think we should have, not to the students we actually have. I can talk to as many teachers about as much curriculum as I want, and I can emphasize time and time again what I think should be down cold when the student walks out the door, but the student still learns in a world that thinks that physics is one of life’s least important things. I have a sales job to do to convince the student that it’s one of life’s most important things – or that it even takes a place in the top 100. Trying to find a way to package the ideas in a way that I can get core topics across, in a way that the whole room can understand, and do that sales job at the same time is a task (a whole set of tasks?) that I’ve had so much difficulty throughout my whole career finding help on, and a lot of the problem has been that I’ve had difficulty seeing that whatever I might have known walking through the door, I can’t fairly assume my students have seen any of it – or, even if they have seen it, I can’t assume that they remember it.

And again, we can blame the students for not taking the prerequisites seriously enough or not taking the necessary energy to get the additional information on their own, but that goes right back to teaching the students we think we should have. Knowing that new learning should build on old knowledge is not something that comes naturally to the modern undergraduate. They have to be convinced. Again, it’s the sales job.

We can’t expect that the whole student population is going to come to us and ask us what they have to do to be academically successful. We have to go to them. We have to go to them deliberately, and with understanding, and with the conviction that we’re about to show them the coolest stuff ever.

And once upon a time, to us, it was. And I don’t know about you, but in my case, it was because Dr. Moloney and Dr. Ditteon and Dr. McInerney and Dr. Bunch and Dr. Western opened it up to me. I received so much from them as their student; the least I could do for them is provide that same excitement to my own students.

*I’m half intentionally not saying whom there. I know this might rub some kind grammarians the wrong way, but this is what I normally say, and if you think closely enough, you might get my point.