“Am I the last of my kind?”

I started this cycle of writing a little more than a year ago. I said that we have to be the people who speak against the fear.

I’m feeling the need to bring the writing full-circle. And I’m feeling the need to go back to Isbell to do it.

“Last Of My Kind” is the song from The Nashville Sound that I’m not supposed to like. The story of the disaffected white dude isn’t the story we need to hear right now, after all. You don’t have to look at the newspaper too close to know that the troubles of the white dude are pretty darn minimal. The recent weeks have brought stories of sexual assault from all corners, and powerful people are all to quick and happy to minimize the real pain that women feel. The tensions that exploded forth from Ferguson and remain very real with a fresh evidence every week – the story of Bothem Jean being only the latest painful example – continue to remind us that we do not treat African-Americans with anything resembling equality before the law. A president continues to issue statements that minimize the tragedy a colony of the United States has lived through for a whole year, with seeming intention to paint everyone concerned as beneath being called American citizens; that minimize the tragedy of migrants from nations to our south, with seeming intention to paint everyone concerned as being beneath the right to live free of fear.

The idea of taking a song sung by a Southern gentleman called “Last Of My Kind” seriously is a joke in that context.

Except it’s not a joke. The fears behind that song are very real.

I know, because I feel them.

I couldn’t be happy in the city at night
You can’t see the stars for the neon light
Sidewalk’s dirty and the river’s worse
The underground trains all run in reverse
Nobody here can dance like me
Everybody’s clapping on the one and the three
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

If you’ve been here for a minute, I don’t need to remind you that my places are rural.

I may need to remind you that life in rural places can be hard. You’re away from the creature comforts that make life convenient; the trip to the store for the serious shopping might well be an hour, maybe more. You sure better be able to solve problems without going around the corner to buy a solution.

And it gets harder as more people give up on the lifestyle. It gets lonelier as people give up on the lifestyle. What does make the rural lifestyle work is the community – the people who you share in the problem-solving with, the people who you can shoot bull with when things do get difficult.

That’s a broad human concern, sure, not merely a white man’s concern. But when you live among these mountains, the white men are the only men you find. (And the theology of complementarianism is real; you make friends with too many women and people are gonna look at you weird, and then they’re gonna start talkin’.) As the families can’t make ends meet without moving to a population center, as the jobs shift to the cities and away from the small communities, those men increasingly go away, and those that remain get more and more alone.

And if you’ve never lived it, you don’t understand the distrust the city brings.

Graduate school was a lot of tension for me. I grew to love Columbus over my six years at Ohio State, and I grew to know my way around the city and know what made it special. But it was very much a city. I was very much an alien in that place. I knew where I belonged, and it wasn’t Columbus.

When I took the first faculty job in Cochran, Georgia, when we bought the house on Pansy Street in the center of town, just a short walk away from that US highway that ran through the center of town, just a little walk longer to the Middle Georgia College campus, I felt like I’d done it right. I recognized the patterns in the community. I recognized the singing in the church. I recognized the banter of the patrons in the Huddle House, for crying out loud.

And the other thing I recognized was the distrust. Those people in Atlanta didn’t understand what life was about, you see. They’re always chasing after their status. The right car, the right house, it’s all keeping up with the Joneses. And why would you want to do that to live in a place that doesn’t have the beauty of living among the pines? We may work a little harder to keep this town up and running, but that work is worth it.

But in 2018, those towns are getting smaller. And more and more people are deciding that the work isn’t worth it.

So many people with so much to do
The winter’s so cold my hands turn blue
Old men sleeping on the filthy ground
They spend their whole day just walking around
Nobody else here seems to care
They walk right past them like they ain’t even there
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

The fear lies in becoming them, you see.

Where I’m from, we help one another. One person gets down on their luck, another person has the resources to pick ’em back up. One person’s car gets broken down, another person gives ’em the ride. We sure wouldn’t do what those people in Atlanta do with the people who are homeless outside, we sure wouldn’t just leave them there.

You city folk are so wrapped up in the problems of your life that you don’t see how empty your life is.

Of course, that’s the narrative. Nobody stops to ask about the people who have need in the small town, though. And nobody stops to ask about how easily the help flows to those who have lived there all their lives, and nobody stops to ask about how abandoned the people with brown skin wind up being in those places. May God have mercy on you if you have a funny accent.

It gets very easy to justify your actions; justifying your actions is how entire church council meetings run. One group of kids want to use the basketball court, we’re excited to have them and we hope they’ll join the church. The other group of kids want to use the basketball court, we need to be careful when they’re around and they have to be well supervised; nothing needs to get damaged, you see. The language is carefully selected, always. The skin color of the kids makes not one whit of difference, of course not, why I never.

And besides, we’re talking about letting them use the basketball court. We’re not like those city people who fence and chain-link around the basketball court. We’re better than them, you see.

Anything to make sure you know that we’re not becoming them.

As I reflect on it, the phrase “unconditional love” really was funny to me when I first heard the Jesus people use it at college. Maybe it’s what my parents tried to practice, but I certainly didn’t see a whole lot of unconditional love day-to-day when I was out of the house. The church, the band parents, my friends, my teachers even – they loved the good kids and they didn’t love the bad, and there were clear definitions on who the good kids and bad kids were and you better know then cold.

If the words of Jesus were foreign and spectacular and enchanting when I was a freshman in college, there was a reason for that.

Maybe the protagonist here really got a better education than I did. Maybe he was around a lot of people who would have stopped for the people sleeping over the air grate. Me, I know I’m on the brink of 47 years old and I’m still undoing the education I got.

Daddy said the river would always lead me home
But the river can’t take me back in time and daddy’s dead and gone
The family farm’s a parking lot for Walton’s five and dime
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

The ways that the people of these places have made their living keep going away, too.

You know Walton’s five and dime, right? Many of you shop there every day. If you’re in a small town, you might covet the convenience of the Walton five and dime. The Walton five and dime might even get sold to you as an architectural and engineering marvel.

Of course, the Walton five and dime is a steamroller for your city’s business, and they’ll pick up and leave you with nothing at a moment’s notice. (And if Walton doesn’t get you, Bezos is going to take his cut.)

So here we are. The small town of his youth is gone. The old businesses are gone. The farms are gone. The mines are nearly gone, and they don’t employ near as many people as they once did. Even the schools are increasingly gone.

It is no wonder that, increasingly, the people are gone.

I tried to go to college but I didn’t belong
Everything I said was either funny or wrong
They laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans
Laughed when they gave me amphetamines
Left me alone in a bad part of town
Thirty-six hours to come back down
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

This is the verse that hurts me the most.

When you’re academically talented and from a rural place, your worlds clash in all kinds of ways. It becomes painfully apparent that you don’t need to stay where you are for very long if you want to make anything of yourself. (If the place makes you awkward enough, the principal might tell your parents to pull you out of the school long before it’s time you graduate.)

So you get out of town. And you fall into the circles you’re supposed to fall into as an academically ambitious person. And the people in that circle turn out to not want a single thing to do with you, because you’re a backward redneck who is just going to hold everybody back. (If you’re backward enough, your college roommate might just sneak a request to housing behind your back to get away from you so you can’t pollute his circle of friends at all.)

At the end of the day, I was incredibly fortunate. I didn’t go to MIT, after all, or even Georgia Tech. I went to Rose-Hulman, in bee-yoo-tee-ful downtown Terre Haute, Indiana[1], and there were enough people who were hayseed enough from towns not just like Seymour, but like Rensselaer and Oaktown and Brazil, that I could find my people, and proverbial iron could sharpen iron. A lot of how I found my own centering that has sustained me in the places where I worked came from the time I spent with the men who saw the ways that the things from Hilliard, Florida that made me were like the things from the Indiana communities that made them.

But then you still go to graduate school, and you go on the postdoc, and you go to professional meetings, and you work beyond the boundaries of your region, and you still feel the tensions. You become a professor and you have position and you have reasons for doing the things that you do and you have people twenty-five years or more your junior wondering why those things are, questioning those things, actively looking down on those things.

I’m forty-six dang years old. I should have gotten past the insecurities that come from not having the sophistication that other elites have a long, long time ago.

I should have.

I find that the pain just deepens. And the fear remains.

Mama says God won’t give you too much to bear
That might be true in Arkansas but I’m a long, long way from there
That whole world’s an old and faded picture in my mind
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?
Am I the last of my kind?

And the fear remains. Mike Warnke, for all the baggage that his stories carried, said one thing that has always stuck with me – there are a lot of us who take a whole lot of pride in our lack of class, in our lack of sophistication. We feel like that language we talk with is something you can’t touch. The backlash against political correctness is a product of that very pride, that stubborn attachment to saying the things we’re not allowed to say.

I visited Arkansas – seriously visited Arkansas, beyond a stop on the interstate in Texarkana headed west – for the first time at the first of the month. I was there for an academic conference, so I saw a lot more of the ivory tower and a lot less of the rural places that I know and cherish. But even on the University of Arkansas campus, Fayetteville is right there. It’s a small sports town; pride in calling the hogs trumps pride in making books and education resources open and accessible.

On the way there, I listened to a couple of episodes of the podcast that Elizabeth and Matt Bruenig are putting together.  One of the episodes that really hit me, driving just past Little Rock, was a discussion of social mobility. (The key discussion starts around 34:30 minute of the podcast.) Towards the end of the discussion (around 47:05), this dialogue happens:

Elizabeth: …because the liberal approach to social mobility is, well, the one way you can have a decent life, essentially, is if you escape your family.
Matt: Right, yeah, this is an aspect of social mobility that doesn’t get talked about too much. There’s a lot of focus on “does it exist?” “How can we make it happen?” But one of the downsides of social mobility that is not weighted at all in our discussion is that if someone significantly changes their class position in society, they almost certainly become somewhat alien and foreign and weird and disconnected from their parents, from their community as children, their friends, and that sort of thing. Because class difference being what it is, it’s hard to relate to people across classes.
This is something that’s actually heavily covered in the literature of integration. People who talk about cultural hybridity, y’know, scholarship kid integration. People whose parents are part of one culture, and they themselves become assimilated into American or white culture. There are benefits and harms, and one of the harms is, you become alienated from the culture of your birth, and therefore from your family and your home country. But it also has a very real class component.
Yes.
Which we’ve seen in your case.

[jump ahead through some from random stories to 52:25]

…you notice the suspicions that they have before you even go out and become socially mobile, because you see the anxiety that they have and the suspicion that they have around upper-class people. Some of that is worrying about embarrassing themselves, worried that the person is going to look down on them, and so there’s not a lot of desire to be around or interact or that sort of stuff, because there’s so much difference and will it be uncomfortable and will they think less of me, and all that. And that just gets transmuted onto you, because you’re that person now. You are the people that we really didn’t like all that much, and that we were worried about feeling, y’know, looked down upon.
Well, there used to be intimacy and warmth, and you were just one with everybody else, and now there’s a distance.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You’re not one of everyone else. There’s some aspect of “Aw, that’s great. He made it.” And that sort of thing. But different. And alien. And all that sort of stuff. That’s just an unavoidable thing. If you’re going to have high levels of inequality, and try to move people between the strata, the starts are going to form different communities. Working-class people will not hang out with upper-class people, for the most part. And so, that’s just the nature of the beast. And social mobility just means that people become alienated. And I’m sure it would be the same for the reverse as well. I assume the reverse doesn’t happen all that often…
…well, the reverse, you see, so, my parents have friends, and you hear them talk about, they have children that don’t do well. Who drop out of college, and then have all sorts of struggles, and they become points of shame.
Right.
And they become problems. So they don’t relate to the children anymore, as just people who are part of a different class. The whole mission in life becomes trying to repair the child.
Right, bringing them back into the class.
Bringing them back into the class. It can never be the situation that you’re comfortable with them being a member of a different class. Because it’s a shame. With your peers.

It occurs to me that listening to these two very intelligent people from two very different sides of the track in east Texas talk that unconditional love is something that has been lacking for a very long time. And not just in one direction, either. And fears of all kinds are things that are very real.

This may not be an appropriate or politic time to talk about those fears. But in many ways, that’s what makes them fears. There is never an appropriate or politic time to talk about them, because bringing them into the open makes us face the worst parts of ourselves, and it’s never convenient to do that.

Here’s the inconvenient truth: as a nation, we do not love one another. We do not love people from the rural places. We do not love people from the heart of the city. We do not love people who improve their position in life. We do not love people who lose their position in life. We do not love the white man. We do not love the black woman. More than anything else in the world, we do not love the person who does not fit.

We love our narratives, and if a person doesn’t fit the narrative, we are all to happy to cast them to the curb.

So, am I the last of my kind? Maybe.

But there are a host of other kinds out there. There are all kinds of others who feel the pain and agony of learning that the place they live is not for them, and wants nothing to do with them. Their fears are real.

We have to be the ones who speak against the fear. But maybe the way that we start is by saying that it’s okay to be afraid. Whoever you are.

And yes, that goes for the white man too.

2017-02-25 16.03.09

[1] Yes, “bee-yoo-tee-ful downtown Terre Haute, Indiana” is a joke. The Rose-Hulman campus is pretty beautiful, no doubt. But it’s as far removed from downtown Terre Haute as you can get.

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A statement of academic purpose

We cannot allow our curriculum to be set by Wall Street.


 

I am increasingly viewing my own work as an educator from two different sets of eyes. One pair of eyes is my own, with all of my experience and all my frustration at what is available to students, and with all the motivation to provide better options for my students.

The second pair belongs to my eldest child, now well into their 20’s, as they navigate through the extractive pits and snares that so many publishers have left in the traditional regional university.

We shared a moment of frustration one Friday afternoon wrestling with the homework solution associated with the campus’ recently-adopted inclusive access option. The problem was straightforward enough, but the software wouldn’t accept the obvious answer. There was even a fit of the frustration every physics student knows well – let’s just toss ANY possible answer around that possibility into the software, because I know the calculation is right. Nothing was accepted.

I suggested “try 0.674 instead of 0.67.”

“No, Dad, that’s too many significant figures.”

“Try anyway.”

“DGAKDGAKGEKAGDKS THAT IS TOO MANY SIGNIFICANT FIGURES BUT IT TOOK IT”

I know exactly why that worked, of course, because I used that exact software over a decade ago, before it became a pawn of the academic publishing monolith who is pushing that inclusive access option on a whole campus of unsuspecting students. Despite the code existing within their software to check for significant figures, that particular question predates the code – and never has been revised. It checks within percentage tolerances – in this case, plus or minus 0.5%. It would accept 0.671 meters to 0.677 meters, in this case – but the answer was based on multiplying a sine of 22 degrees by a measurement of 1.8 meters. The correct answer, by significant figure rules, must be 0.67 meters.

That same dumb issue has existed for over a decade. And, at least in one class of problems in the software, it’s never been fixed. And the price of the software keeps climbing – the two-semester access to that software, which is required, is now $127.50. Of course, buying the access in a bundle with new textbook – or even with other coursework, under our fancy inclusive-access scheme – will lower your costs.

Because of course you don’t want to pay too much for software we haven’t overhauled in a decade.

I have been quietly working in my corner over a decade of my own, from Shorter University to Virginia Intermont College to Tennessee Technological University and now to Tusculum University. I’ve been learning the ins and outs of a different piece of software, called Moodle, which is open-source learning management software. And the way I’ve been learning it is finding better ways to deliver homework to my own students, in a fashion that lines up with what the software from the for-profits can provide, but is more immediately customizable to what I’m trying to accomplish and that I can be more accountable for.

I don’t need to work in the corner anymore. As the costs that are placed on our students become more and more oppressive, the work I do increasingly needs to be in the open. And other people like me who are working in their own corners need to be called into the open as well.


 

One of the most vividly informative experiences I’ve been able to have in my career was the chance to work in the Innovation Lab at the Online Learning Consortium’s Innovation conference in Nashville in April 2018, and through the connection with Keegan Long-Wheeler of the University of Oklahoma, to help moderate a conversation on “Online Lab Science” (the website for that conversation may be found at onlinelabsci.keeganslw.com). It became clear from listening to faculty, program coordinators and instructional designers in that conversation that the reason for many to be interested in how laboratory science coursework could work online was rising pressure from their own campuses to have science curriculum online, to complete a fully online program. Many science faculty had reservations; many online program coordinators and instructional designers reported back that their own faculty were resistant or simply rejected the idea out of hand.

My own interest in how laboratory science education could be brought online was a product of Tusculum’s need, for the repurposing and development of a physical science course that would allow students to complete general education requirements exclusively online. I was qualified for this work because of my previous experience; I had previously brought two courses online at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia – astronomy, based on Seeds’ Astronomy: The Solar System and Beyond, and a “survey of natural science” course based Trefil and Hazen’s The Sciences. I have found both books to be tremendous resources, and so my own curriculum development for those courses was relatively minimal. Labs were not terribly sophisticated, either; the astronomy course “lab” was star observations and a video presentation that only two students (in a class of four) completed successfully, while the survey course had no lab at all and only a few hands-on activities. I implemented publishers’ online materials for the purposes of assessment (MasteringAstronomy for Seeds, WileyPlus for Trefil and Hazen), and the course was very ordinary, both in terms of material covered and bimodal student outcomes. The only grades I gave in these classes were A, B, and F, and the students who “earned” the grade of F did so by failing to complete a large fraction of the course requirements, stopping out before the course was done. And the work that the students did in those courses were the very definition of “disposable assignments” – locked in an learning management system, to which access to the course was closed off at the end of the term.

My last online course before this year was in 2011. In the intervening years, it is increasingly apparent that major publishers and other vendors have seen the desire of instructors and institutions to outsource the development of curriculum to save time, and have provided the resources to match that desire – with all the trappings that come with purchasing designed equipment and proprietary software. Publishers in particular have made their course materials increasingly extractive, designed to maximize their profits at the expense of taking permanent course supplies away from students. The “inclusive access” plans that Pearson PLC or Cengage Learning are marketing with increased intensity to professors involve providing access to online textbooks and proprietary software for the period of time the student is enrolled in the course, at prices that are well reduced from the list price of the textbook. The catch, of course, is that the online access is cut off at the end of the term, so that the publisher doesn’t lose any of the value to the cynical student who will sell the text at term’s end. In a subtler way, laboratory kits that suppliers provide for purchase, by their very nature, provide enough unique equipment for a single semester’s study, and are designed to only allow the student to do work in the context of a class. When the kit is out of material, replenishing that material can be prohibitive to the student whose curiosity is heightened.

All of this reinforces the concept that the knowledge the student is obtaining through their coursework is disposable and only exists to allow them to complete course requirements – not something that is permanent and can be carried with them in relevant ways throughout life.

This flies in the face of my hope for education, as something that is genuinely empowering and that can be carried with the student not merely for the duration of the course, but beyond.

One of the least realized promises of the world we have created with the Internet is the capacity for students in different places to communicate knowledge with one another as part of their process of learning – peer teaching over distances and in different geographic contexts. In parts of the world such as central Appalachia, exposure to authentic diversity has to be an intentional effort, and it is not done easily through student recruitment. Connection to students at other institutions from cultures that are apart from central Appalachia – even outside of the microculture of the rural online learner – can help the student go beyond the textbook towards authentic learning. After all, we are preparing our students not for a world of knowledge scarcity, but knowledge abundance (Weller, 2011; Stewart, 2015) – the literacy of the student is not going to be determined by their recall of a wealth of facts that they could look up elsewhere, but for the capacity to use that information in creative ways and communicate the applications of their understanding, both to their neighbors and the wider world, not merely by traditional communication and presentation but by networked means.

I work at Tusculum University intentionally, because of the place of the institution within the central Appalachians, because of the freedom provided by the institution’s independence from the state, and because of the civic arts tradition of the institution that obligates me to be the best possible citizen of the region, state, country and world. If my belief is that education is empowering, and I am an experienced practitioner of education in ideas that are freely available, it follows for me personally that I have a moral obligation to share my expertise and resources as freely as I am able to do so in faithful service to the institution that employs me.

I am incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in meetings like OLC Innovate, and I don’t want to minimize that gratitude. But a majority of the publishers and vendors who support such meetings and who engages in sales at those meetings are working to extract the last possible dollar from the students who use their services, not to provide the first available dollar to support the learning of the student (language borrowed from Shirky, as reported by Young, 2013). It is critical to me to be able to work out means to support student learning separate from publisher resources, using as many resources that the student can keep for themselves permanently.

The open education movement fits alongside these goals (as introduced by Biswas-Diener and Jhangiani, 2017). Open education is best known in the substance of Open Educational Resources (OER), freely accessible textbooks and similar resources that can take the place of the textbooks and proprietary software that students are sold. The free availability of these resources is the most frequently reported appeal of OER, and in an environment where textbook prices are spiraling out of control, that appeal is obvious.

But again, publishers can cynically use the pursuit of “low cost” to sell more extractive resources, resources that limit access and communicate the wrong lessons about the applicability of coursework beyond the classroom. So it is important to take the practice of education beyond simply the communication of free resources and the implementation of OER in coursework, to philosophies of open pedagogy (DeRosa and Robison, 2017). We seek not merely to have students use freely accessible resources, but actually develop their own educational creativity to provide their own material to add to those resources, and in the long term, for infrastructure to exist that’s sufficient for students to produce their own resources that will meet them at their point of need. In this we approach the full realization of education as empowerment; we do not merely teach students facts or ask students to complete cookbook laboratories, we provide students the structure necessary to use the resources available to them to make knowledge most relevant to them, and even to extend that knowledge as scholars in their own right and communicate that knowledge to peers as widely as possible.

We don’t merely want our students to be the best possible scholars we can be; we want them to set their own direction through that scholarship. In an environment that seeks to eliminate our students’ agency, we want to provide our students with a climate that allows them to take the most complete control of the resources at their disposal, and use those resources for their best benefit.


 

The results of a rather remarkable study were released on July 26, 2018.

The study addressed student attitudes towards the increase of textbook costs. The headline data from the study were the kind made for newspaper headlines – 43% of students surveyed reporting that they’d skipped meals to afford textbooks and class materials; 85% reporting that class materials were a source of financial stress, in line with tuition and a greater source of stress than highlighted items such as room, board, and health care; just shy of 70% of students who worked while in college saying books were a major reason they needed a job; disproportionate minority impact.

That’s not the remarkable bit.

The remarkable bit is that the survey was a product of Morning Consult, who was contracted to complete the survey by Cengage Learning.

Cengage dunked on a problem they helped to create, in order for them to promote…their own solution (emphasis my own):

“The survey’s results should be a wake-up call for everybody involved in higher education. This is especially true for the publishing industry, including our own company, as we historically contributed to the problem of college affordability,” said Michael Hansen, CEO, Cengage. “The data is clear: high textbook costs pose barriers to students’ ability to succeed in college.  Too many learners today are making painful tradeoffs between course materials and bare necessities like housing and meals. Our industry must embrace what students are telling us. That’s why our company has developed a new subscription model that lowers costs.

It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so cynical.

I will always be grateful to Nicole Allen of SPARC for putting this cynicism into stark relief:

I will freely own forceful distrust of Wall Street solutions to a problem that Wall Street created, and I will own that distrust even more forcefully given the doctoral degree I hold, and the advanced degrees we’re required to hold as faculty of the institutions where students deal with these problems most. The theory is that we earned those degrees because we’re capable of coming up with explanations for difficult circumstances, and solutions to difficult problems. We should not protest our own helplessness when it comes to the costs our students bear.

And frankly, when it comes to solving those problems, I’m far less likely to trust Wall Street than I am to trust the people of the land around me. The places where I live and work weren’t so much planned as they were carved out. The terrain is some of the most difficult in the country, even the world. The blood and sweat and ingenuity of generations past allow me to make my life here doing the comparatively comfortable work of making scientific knowledge understandable and accessible. If they feel like somebody’s getting rich for no good reason, somebody’s probably getting rich for no good reason.

We cannot allow our curriculum to be set by Wall Street. We cannot allow what is presented to our students in classrooms and in study to serve corporate aims. We must clear space for what our students study to be subservient to our students’ needs, first and foremost – in cost, in accessibility, in permanence, in creativity, in empowerment.


 

I’m publishing this today in parallel with a third and final presentation in a cycle of talks I’m giving surrounding my work in non-majors physical science teaching online, at the Open Education Southern Symposium at the University of Arkansas. Similar material was presented at Transformative Teaching and Technology conference at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI (where slides have been uploaded) and at Appalachian College Association Summit XXI in Kingsport, TN

The past two years have completely redefined who I am as a scholar. I have been on this path for a very long time but the past two years have provided multiple opportunities for me to actually put what I’ve been doing into a meaningful context, and to realize that I have something very important to add to this conversation.

The people cited below – and in particular, Rajiv Jhangiani, Robin DeRosa, Keegan Long-Wheeler, Bonnie Stewart, Bonnie Stewart, and by the way did I mention Bonnie Stewart – have been incredibly generous with their time to make sure I had points in this document right and to lead me to this point. I cannot possibly thank them enough.

My “second postdoc” as instructional staff at Tennessee Tech laid much of the groundwork for this direction; thanks to Steve Robinson for the offer of the job and for being a spectacular (accidental?) mentor in STEM education research, to Paula Engelhardt for also modeling spectacular work, and to Mary Kidd, Mustafa Rajabali, and Adam Holley for being wonderful colleagues and collaborators. 

Laura Gogia has collaborated with me on a publication that indirectly fed into this work, and I’m completely in her debt for her work and her support. Rissa Sorensen-Unruh did spectacular work editing that volume, and has also fed into spectacular conversations going forward.

I also owe a mammoth debt to Karen Cangialosi, Maha Bali, Ken Bauer, and so many others in the open education community (and I’m certain I’m not remembering names of key folks!) for important conversations at points in this process.

Lastly, to Autumm Caines, Jim Luke, and Lee Skallerup Bessette, who in so many ways are People Without Whom.

 

Biswas-Diener, R. and R. Jhangiani. 2017. Introduction to open. In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. London: Ubiquity Press.

DeRosa, R. and S. Robison. 2017. From OER to open pedagogy: harnessing the power of open. In Open: The Philosophy and Practices that are Revolutionizing Education and Science. London: Ubiquity Press.

Stewart, B. 2015. In abundance: networked participatory practices as scholarship. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 16:318-340.

Weller, M. 2011. A pedagogy of abundance. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy 69:223-236.

Long-Wheeler, K, and Pearson, D.C. Online Lab Science. Website archive produced for OLC Innovate 2018; onlinelabsci.keeganslw.com.

Young, J.P. 2013. Clay Shirky says MOOCs will matter, but worries about corporate players. Wired Campus blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education online (audio of quote lost).

2018. New survey: college students consider buying course materials a top source of financial stress. Press release from Cengage Learning with associated infographic.

Why a professor buys his books from the bookstore

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Friday, I made a visit to my campus bookstore, and I bought my books.

The guy who runs Tusculum’s bookstore, Cliff Hoy, is a great guy, and the work that Tusculum’s bookstore does is first-rate. Whenever I’ve had weird requests, he’s been able to honor those requests, and he’s been accommodating when I’ve poked my head into the bookstore to see what the students experience when they come through. (He even put up with my dad when my dad came through to pick up university[1] swag, and my dad will wear a campus bookstore manager OUT.)

This spring, I put in front of him the weirdest request I’ve ever put in front of a bookstore.

I told him that I wanted him to order textbooks that I already knew that the students had free access to. And that I was going to ask the students to buy them anyway.

I still don’t know if he really believes me, but he ordered them, and I then I did the weirdest thing of all: I bought the first copies. And I bought them new, not used.openstax

I wouldn’t do that for just any book. But I did it for books that have that logo over there in the upper-right corner.

Those who have known me for any length of time know that I’m a shill for the OpenStax project. That dates back to 2012, when I stumbled into a reviewer role for one of the first OpenStax textbooks, OpenStax College Physics. There are a ton of other open textbook projects that have come and gone, even publishers that have released materials with Creative Commons licensing that have then pulled that licensing back like so much toothpaste stuffed into a tube. OpenStax has been pretty darn steady for six years now, and is only gaining momentum in terms of the volume of material that is made available in the freshman and sophomore curriculum. The OpenStax bookshelf for mathematics and the OpenStax bookshelf for the sciences have filled out splendidly. (Memo to OpenStax: give me a Differential Equations text and an Organic Chemistry text, and I’m giddy.)

But I get why adopting OpenStax texts makes a guy like Cliff nervous. One of the key features of the OpenStax texts is that the text material itself is published under a Creative Commons license – specifically in this case, CC BY 4.0. That license means the content of the text is freely available to all who want it – and, in fact, a student can access both the text of the physics book and the atoms-first chemistry book online, the whole thing, and they don’t have to pay a dime. I just told him that I was giving away the thing he’s trying to sell, to obtain revenue the university[1] can use.

And I’m trying to persuade him to buy in to that game plan when my namesake textbook publisher is selling him a game plan that will address affordability in a different way.

I sure don’t believe that every professor should buy their own books. The precarity in our own industry is also real, and you shouldn’t take for granted that a professor is making a living wage, let alone enough of a salary to buy textbooks. But I do believe every professor should seriously consider the costs students encounter from within their shoes, and ask seriously if their textbook selection is playing a role in making those costs unreasonable.

hashtag_norelationOne of the things I’ve spent time working on this year is a full game plan for how I do scholarship at this late stage of my career. And increasingly I feel like an important part of doing that scholarship is promoting the sharing of knowledge in ways that the likes of Pearson Higher Ed and Cengage Learning can’t understand if they’re going to fulfill their business models. The basic science knowledge that’s in a major publisher’s textbook is fundamentally the same as the knowledge that’s in an OpenStax textbook (or the freely-shared, Creative Commons-licensed textbooks from another old friend of mine).

We don’t want our students to feel like the knowledge they need to succeed is limited to a publisher who wants to take the student’s hard-earned money in exchange for that knowledge (or their parents’; after all, I’m helping my own child with textbook purchases this week). We want our students to know that they live in an age of knowledge abundance and we want them to use that abundance critically, to their full benefit.

And that benefit needs to be as much of a win/win as it can be, for everybody. I’m not at a public university. (My child is, and frankly, there are some profs who ought to be ashamed of the costs they’re making their students bear.) Some of my students can carry the weight of purchasing textbooks. And we need to make that purchasing process something that they don’t dread.

I’m giving my students that message. Yes, you can download the text; I have it on my iPad, and I’ve got links to the content I’m teaching that you can have on demand as you work on your homework. But you can also have the hard copy. Some of you do better with the real live book than reading your screen. You’ll pay a little less than $50 for the physics book, which I’ll use the whole year. You’ll pay a tad more than $60 for the chemistry book, and that’s the whole year too. That’s a price that Pearson Higher Ed (#norelation) and Cengage Learning can’t compete with. And I know where OpenStax’ profits go – right back into making the resources free for the students who do need free, right back into making that Differential Equations and Organic Chemistry textbook I’d love to see.

So that’s what I’m telling my students. The textbook is free. Please buy it.

And I wanted Cliff to know that I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

[1] This post originally said “college” in these spaces. Cliff, in his generosity, felt compelled to mention that if I left “college” in this piece, someone might find out and fine me the going rate not saying “Tusculum University“, which I hear is $10. Cliff is a wise, wise man.

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.

How I got started in quizbowl, and how I got started in quizbowl for keeps

I grew up in Hilliard, in Nassau County, Florida. Look at your map of Florida, and then look for that little bump on the far northeast side, where the border between Florida and Georgia does that little dance because of the St. Mary’s River. I grew up in the far northwest corner of that Northeast Florida bump, just off US 1, going to high school in Florida and going to church on the other side of the state line in Folkston, Georgia. I was a nerd, and I was a bit out of place, and even though I didn’t really think it was true at the time, I was in a very good place to be a bit out of place.

I played quizbowl in high school. I think it was quizbowl. It was the “Hi-Q” circuit that was contested in smaller Northeast Florida counties around Jacksonville. I don’t know if the questions were similar to the Delco Hi-Q game that runs now, but I remember the tossups — y’know, the questions that have everybody on the buzzer, trying to be first with the right answer — being longer and something close to what we call “pyramidal,” obscure at the start, but getting clearer and more obvious as the question goes on.

My most vivid high school memory involved a tossup where the answer was binary fission (I’m dang sure all the clues were about bacteria or other such prokaryotes) and opposing team tried to buzz early answering “asexual reproduction” and rather than waiting for the question’s end I tried to vulture up “sexual reproduction,” which led to the captain telling me forcefully after the match “look, Pearson, of all the players on this team, you’re the one who should never buzz in about sex!”

This would have been 1987, for the record. So I can confirm: for multiple decades, nerds have tried to make themselves look smarter than they actually are and have been horribly embarrassed for it.

I played that silly buzzer game pretty faithfully for most of my high school education. It wasn’t that big of a thing; we never won first place or got any significant trophies that I can recall. I did get an invitation in my junior and senior years to a Florida state championship representing Nassau County (in a tournament that was a predecessor to the Panasonic Academic Challenge, which was weird and nonpyramidal and had all the players on a team around one buzzer and had nothing to do with quizbowl whatsoever).

And I went to college in the dark days between the end of televised College Bowl and the emergence of the collegiate quizbowl circuit, and so I didn’t even think twice about those buzzer games when I went to college; I just assumed that was it for academic competition.

There are a lot of stories that fall in the interim that showed that I was wrong, and that sparked a fire in me for this quizbowl game. Stories of being a quizmaster for middle school games in Cochran, Georgia and Rome, Georgia. Stories of my first conversation with the man who’d become my “partner in crime”, Erskine Thompson. A conversation with Rachel Wooddall after one biology class, and James Schroeder turning up at my office door to talk trivia later that week. A fateful lunch with Gordon Carper, and my first time meeting Charlie Steinhice.

Stories of discovering college students having the experience I never got to have and wanting students of my own to experience it. Stories of the faithful crew of students over seven years that created a small legacy known as Shorter Academic Bowl at a small Baptist college in Northwest Georgia. Stories of so many friends and compatriots that I gathered close on broad path between Tuscaloosa and Chattanooga, maybe even too many names to mention, all of whom deserve a greater recognition one day for all they’ve fed into my life.

(All this today will be long enough as it is!)

But this particular story needs to start in 2011, when I had taken a flyer on a job at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, and I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself without a college team to advise, and I decided I needed to contact some local high school quiz teams and put out some feelers. 

The very first email I sent was to the person that the state Scholastic Bowl program (which seemed to be linked with the athletic programs, weirdly) listed as the contact at the Virginia High School. See, there are two high schools on the two sides of the state line that went straight through downtown Bristol. The high school to the north was Virginia High School. The high school to the south was…wait for it…Tennessee High School. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.

(I couldn’t find an equivalent contact at Tennessee High, and the email I did send went into a black hole and I never could build a connection. If you’re reading this and you have anything to do with academic competition at Tennessee High, I still want to talk to you.)

(Anyway.)

The name of the contact at Virginia High was Carol Propst. The email I sent was a very boilerplate “oh hi, I’m a new professor at the college across town, I’ve done this quizbowl thing for a bit now, if there’s anything a weirdo like me can help don’t hesitate to ask.” (I may not have said “weirdo”, but I was definitely thinking it.)

I got a first reply back within 24 hours. Thank you, so glad you’re here, we definitely would like to meet you and spend some time with you, we always need extra staffers when we host and there will certainly be a way for you to plug in.

I got a second reply back within 72 hours. Oh, by the way, our district coaches’ meeting is at Chili’s in a couple of days, and I know you might have plans, but if you don’t, would you mind joining us? We’d love to have you.

And so I wound up around a table with Carol Propst and Hunter Meade from Virginia High, Susan King from John Battle, Mary Stanley from Lebanon, Sarah Whisenhunt and Mary Alice McClellan from Gate City, and Angela Thomas and Jillian Skidmore from Lee — the coaches of the Clinch Mountain District of the old Region 1D of the Virginia High School League.

So many good things in my life in this past decade follow threads that can be traced straight back to that first meeting, nearly seven years ago now, and to the openness those eight people had to me and to my presence. The VHSL Scholastic Bowl game was a new format to me, and I needed to observe it and bring myself to a place where I understood it. But this became the first season of my life when I was completely focused on observing students in high school programs, in a reasonably strong structure, and getting to know the students playing quiz games at the high school level, where they were at, and learning how I could be most helpful to them.

And I had no idea in August 2011 how much fun I was going to start having.

Over seven years, through the failure of that flyer of a job and the closure of Virginia Intermont, through two years spent four hours away in the dead-center of Tennessee, and through a fitful return to the central Appalachians south of the Virginia/Tennessee state line, and through the painfully slow connection with a host of new (and renewed) relationships on the Tennessee side, the immediacy of those connections in Southwest Virginia sustained and grew. The relationships that formed in those first years, with coaches and with players and even a few parents and community members, slowly started to become relationships with dear friends. As the VHSL went through its reclassifications and its ups and downs, the connection with five schools morphed into twelve, in what’s now known as the Mountain 7 District (where John Battle and Gate City and Lee landed, along with Abingdon, Ridgeview, Union, and Wise County Central) and the Southwest District (where Virginia High and Lebanon found themselves alongside Richlands, Tazewell and Marion Senior).

And as the schools across classifications started to realize they had common cause and they could play more games than the Virginia-rules Scholastic Bowl format, that there was such a thing as tossup/bonus quizbowl, and as another hero of this story — an alumnus from Honaker High School in the coalfields named Jacob Mitchell — went off to Yale and made a Facebook group to help keep tabs and help others keep tabs on the games back in their schools in other districts I don’t know near as well as I should, a thing started to exist called the Southwest Virginia Academic Team Alliance.

Which quickly took the obvious acronym SWATA. (If you ain’t from around here, don’t ask.)

I’m at once a central part of this story and yet completely peripheral to it. There were coaches and players who literally willed a new competitive circuit into existence as their own districts didn’t get them the games they needed to improve, and as schools that did go far afield to get those games saw that there would be demand for games locally. I found the job at my school in East Tennessee for Fall 2016; the first SWATA tournament schedule for 2016-2017 was decided upon before I had found a house upon my return. All there seemed for me to do was what I had done in the past – turning up at the meetings, exercising my loud voice asking how I could help, offering whatever expertise that I could, and just reading every game and sharing the joy of the game with some new friends.

And every now and again, I took some dumb selfies with some of the players.

But this was fresh and new. The students who played when I first started reading Scholastic Bowl games in Southwest Virginia were now ready to help staff, to take part in the reading themselves, to become leaders. The generations were turning and new students were hearing stories from players who had first gotten excited when I was around. And the excitement was feeding upon itself.

I’ve been blessed to be a part of Scholastic Bowl, of quizbowl, of SWATA in Southwest Virginia for these past seven years, and to see that excitement build, to see it become its own entity, and to see the new generation of leaders start to emerge from the player ranks. And the real blessing is seeing those leaders emerge to see something that I never could see graduating from high school — a broader picture of a game to find a place within, something to call their own, something to help those who come after them aspire to.

So, a new thing. 

I worked my first National Scholastic Championship this year, put on by the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. I was a quizmaster for some of the best high school teams in America, and I read games at a level that I really never saw myself working in.

You see, I still see myself as that kid from Hilliard Middle/Senior High School who has no business answering any question about sex ever. I went to science fairs and to state Beta convention and to summer programs at Stetson University and the University of Florida and I listened to the kids from the big high schools and wondered what it would be like to have those resources. So much of my own connection to the small schools of Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee is that feeling I had talking to those students when I was a high school senior, the knowledge that the students on these teams in Southwest Virginia are way more like I was then than they are like most of the players who compete at the highest levels at a tournament like PACE NSC.

So to sit in a room with Battle Ground Academy and LASA A in a match that Means Things, and I’m the guy reading it, is just all manner of weird and unexpected and What Am I Doing Here.

And in the midst of that elite tournament, an old friend asked me if I’d consider something, and I told him I’d think about it if he was cool with me being my obnoxious small-school self in that role, and he said that’s kind of why he was asking me to consider that something. Which knocked me over a little bit.

And I talked to a couple of people about that some more.

And where this all leads is the announcement today that I am a new member of the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. 

Go click through and look at that list of new members, too. That’s an amazing group; if you know anything at all about quizbowl at the highest levels, and the work that those players and leaders have done, you know how humbled I am to be on it. It has me EVEN MORE What Am I Doing Here, but also incredibly grateful. 

Because, ultimately, what apparently appeals to this club that wants to have me as a member is the fact that I care about outreach in this game, and that I care about outreach in places where that outreach doesn’t traditionally happen — away from the big schools, and in the rural places that never receive the attention or the respect they deserve.

Places in Virginia like Honaker, and Tazewell, and Gate City.

Places in Georgia like Calhoun, and Lindale, and Cochran, and Folkston.

Places in Florida like Hilliard. 

The money may go into our big cities. The attention may turn to what happens near a large media center, at an elite school. But so much of our education happens away from those eyes, at schools that form the center of small towns, or that are found in the center of forests – or the center of a mountain gap. So much of our education happens where the environment isn’t elite, and where life happens day-to-day, and the future is never as certain as we’d like. 

I have found this small avenue to let students in these places know that they’re important, and that the study they do matters, and maybe they can play a silly buzzer game and I can make a big deal of it and they can be a little bit like a rock star for a day while I shill their greatness to all the educators on social media I’m blessed to have paying attention to me. I’ve found this role to play, and I’m super-grateful for it. 

And if that is going to be called outreach and is going to be appreciated and I can get this little thing that feels oh-so-close-to-the-honor-of-a-lifetime for doing it, how can I be anything but grateful?

So hi, you folks of the Partnership for Academic Competition Excellence. I’m obnoxious. I’m still not entirely sure you want me, except apparently you took a vote and you do. 

I will continue to be obnoxious, and I will continue to tell stories of the place I’m from and the place I live until you understand how important these places are. You will get bored of me very quickly. 

But let me say this as well, right from the start: I’m so thankful to all of you, for all you do for this game, and for the privilege of being counted among you. 

And if I do anything of importance at all, I have Carol Propst’s email. Please send her a note and say “thank you”.

Because she welcomed me into this group of giants, and I really do stand on their shoulders. 

VHSL_state_reading_2014

(The most professional staff at the VHSL Scholastic Bowl State Championships at the College of William and Mary on February 24, 2014. The match was Woodgrove vs. Loudoun County. The turtleneck was distinctive then, and remains so. The photo comes from VHSL Activities.)

Because I still don’t know what I want to be on social media

So I engaged in my latest piece of performative progressive rhetoric last month, when I talked about how a whole lot of people could talk a good game about wanting girls engaged in academic competition but a whole lot of people still don’t know how to take the actions that create safe spaces for women to take leadership and assert their voices fully.

I changed the ending to that thing on the advice of a couple of very wise women because they persuaded me that I was saying things that were important, and that I needed to keep saying those things, and it was in saying these things that I would help keep creating those safe spaces.

But if I’m honest, my heart wasn’t in that ending entirely. What I desperately wanted to say, what I am still tempted to say, is “It’s time for me to shut up.

I get tired of my voice. I imagine other people getting tired of my voice. I can’t believe my voice does a single ounce of good.

I know how many of you who read this and who know me disagree with that. When I wrote my own thing, I got to Atlanta and worked that high school quizbowl national championship and I heard a lot of very good feedback from it, a lot of gratitude. I’m glad for that. I want the women who are engaged in academic space to know that there’s a face here that values them, that wants them to be fully empowered.

But there are still voices I hear on the other side. They don’t even have to speak out loud. I know they’re reading, and I know they’re there still casting judgment, and I still have an internal dialogue raging over whether I’m right or whether I’m wrong.

When I can detach myself from the internal dialogue, when I can listen to others and not just my own selfish thoughts, I know how many of those voices are lying to me, and I can leave those voices alone. But it’s so hard to detach, and this season of my life makes it harder than ever.

 


 

I spent a long time after November 8, 2016 in shock and anger. I was in disbelief at the election outcome from East Tennessee, which voted in overwhelming number for the ultimate winner. If I was in such disbelief, I can only imagine the feelings of my friends in “blue” parts of the world far removed from any support, or of friends in suburban neighborhoods who thought they were among rational voters and who woke up to find they were among quite a few rich white nationalists.

I had just returned from a conference full of conversations with prominent women scholars, prominent LGBTQ+ scholars, even the presence of racial and cultural diversity, and genuinely excited for the time of collaboration I was stepping into. I found myself in sudden and despairing doubt about the country I lived in, hearing the anguish and the rejection from these scholars I was coming to know as friends.

And as I started to hear the voices – particularly the voices of black and Latinx ministers of the Gospel – ask very serious questions of the 81% of white evangelicals who had voted for this man who would become president, I began to share them on social media.

And people who I had attended church with not even six months before, who I know had heard sermons on the folly of the statement “Make America Great Again” and the importance of welcome for all people, regardless of race – people began attacking me for being negative, for making something a moral issue that was purely a political issue, for questioning their genuine faith and their prayerfully considered vote.

We may have reached a détente, if not an actual peace. But their voices are still in my mind. And the internal dialogue starts raging again.

 


 

When you look at the simple reality, this moment in history is so absolutely obvious. We have a national narrative we have constructed, that I was indoctrinated into throughout my schooling, of welcome to huddled masses, yearning to be free. We are in this country to be a melting pot, many different people united in this great place in pursuit of freedom, in pursuit of opportunity. The American Dream has worked for so many, and for none more than that nuclear family unit who stayed together, tightly bound and in prayer to God. We have built up wealth, more wealth than any society has ever known. We welcome all people from all places to join in to this narrative, to work hard, to share in that wealth, to continue our ever-upward climb.

And we come out of that narrative to see borders closed to people fleeing strife and the wrong people captured having come across and those families literally separated, with no promise that they will be reunited.

And – lest we forget that this isn’t just about zero-tolerance at the border – we see hard workers seeking out that path suddenly rounded up and captured, leaving families without fathers and mothers. Yes, many were here “illegally”* – whatever that means in our great narrative. But some had followed every rule to the letter, and were still caught up and traumatized – solely because of the color of their skin. If you’re the wrong person, that promise of opportunity isn’t actually for you.

(It’s not theoretical. It’s not just an issue of South Texas. ICE operates in my very backyard, in ways that get talked about from the pulpit of my rather conservative Methodist church. ICE conducts these raids all the time – another one happened on Tuesday. And they don’t take care to look for the undocumented*; they go for profiling blunt force.)

It’s so obvious, right? If what I was taught in school had even an ounce of truth, the thugs who break up families and shut off borders and make it plain that these people don’t count are plainly in the wrong, aren’t they?

And what of that great wealth? Well, the man we elected keeps making deals that benefit him. He says he’s forgoing his salary, but he keeps retreating to his own properties and charging the federal Secret Service for the hotel rooms – when he’s not gently prodding foreign visitors to those properties himself. His family and his closest allies continue to find themselves in positions that oddly enrich them – just Monday news broke about a fellow New York dealmaker who’s now Secretary of Commerce being in a couple of seriously shady relationships with Russia and China, relationships that could make his family quite a bit of dough.

We get a new one of those stories every week. We are so prosperous as a nation that we elected a man who is robbing the treasury and stuffing the money in every friend’s pocket he can find. The economic policies are built to benefit the already-rich businesses. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau is being dismantled. If you don’t know somebody, we’re not going to keep watch over your path to prosperity. Just ours.

I have to wonder if I was lied to in grade school. I have these friends assuring me no, you were told the truth, and besides, with all these rule-breakers out of the way, there’s more prosperity for you, hooray!

It reaches the point that I see the pain and anguish on these loved one’s faces redoubled and compounded, and I can’t go on like everything’s okay, no matter how many of my friends and neighbors are now getting everything they think they wanted.

Every injustice you point out, every conservative voice of reason who calls a new development into question whose voice you raise, just makes you into more and more of a naysayer. A nag. A spoilsport.

And eventually you don’t want to hear yourself speak anymore.

And eventually you believe nobody really cares what you have to say.

 


 

I have to step back and be rational. I do have a unique viewpoint, and I have unique things to communicate. I’m a member of the scholarly elite from a rural background and with a still active Christian faith. My academic career is not a neat, straight path; it’s been halting, awkward, pock-marked by failed jobs and failed institutions and a whole lot of moving around. The institutions I’ve served have been two year colleges, regional universities, and small private colleges with religious heritage – hardly the fashionable places in our world. I’m an experienced educator with a voice that can speak to the small town just as easily as it can speak to the room full of research-one professors. I have a passion for students no matter whether I see them day in and day out in a classroom or I send electronic messages to them online.

And I’ve been worn down and worn out by the past two years. Every outrageous and fraudulent statement from a president taken seriously as policy, every once-unthinkable taboo broken and immediately forgiven, every principle once strongly held and stripped away – all of it leaves me protesting the same thing, calling the same things foul, rejecting the millionth iteration of the same basic atrocity, the same rejection of someone’s humanity.

I am saying nothing new. I am simply repeating myself.

I need to say something new again.


 

*The original post was made on June 22nd. It was gently edited on June 24th in response to a criticism from someone from Latin America, here in the United States on an educational visa, noting that I used the word “illegal” to refer to undocumented immigrants.

This is a completely fair criticism, and one I thought I’d considered. In an original draft of this, the word “illegally” was in quotes where I’ve put it in quotes now. (There was a second instance of “illegals” in the same paragraph without quotes; it was where the word “undocumented” sits now.) But somehow the quotes disappeared and I failed to reconsider it throughout multiple iterations of the essay, including my final word-by-word review.

I’ll save this for later, but I think this is an object lesson in its own right. Those of us who have never had to deal with the trauma of this moment and who just hear the dialogue in the news media – even when we avoid the worst offenders of the news media – still can say and hear the word “illegal” without a second thought, not even thinking that it still puts the dialogue in the hands of those who want to dehumanize.

You always, always, always do well to listen to voices that aren’t your own. I keep saying this, and I’m still learning this.

On #GirlsInQuizbowl and supporting women

We had a moment across the quizbowl community during the Middle School National Championship Tournament in Chicago. I want to talk about it a little bit, and ask the quizbowl community a question, maybe a question that applies to other places too.

The moment was associated with an offhand comment someone made to player on the Norfolk Academic Guild, a homeschool cooperative who fields teams for a lot of tournaments, and was reported by a parent/coach:

The response to this moment, on Twitter at least, was immediate and very focused and very unified:

I may have even participated in this moment myself (and sorry, I’m going to be that guy who blogs his own tweetstorm, but my perspective might be a little left of center):

…and, because only one mic drop is possible for quizbowl people of a certain vintage to this issue:

There’s a lot of dialogue that is associated with moments like these, of course, and there’s a very reflexive response that is prone to happen in moments like these. One may even say it’s a performative moment – we respond because, well dang it, we’re supposed to respond, and what does it look like if we don’t respond?

We even hashtag this response with #GirlsInQuizbowl (which I’m still not sure I like, because we’re concerned with women in this game broadly – very young, much older, all points in between – and if they’re intelligent enough to participate in the game and get value from the game they’re intelligent enough to be treated with respect and not belittled as “girls”) and holy cow, you can search that hashtag and get all the responses that are in one way or another what responses are supposed to be. I’ve quoted several. There are several more, many from the women themselves who do this work – take it away, Jackie Wu:

(and, of course, plenty more where that came from!)

And we know this is a longstanding issue – because the same aforementioned Rebecca Rosenthal wrote for her campus newspaper, the Swarthmore Phoenix, about being smart while female and many of the experience she’s had to deal with being a first- and second-year student in college who cares deeply about quizbowl.

But the thread in this whole storm comes from my friend in Chillicothe, Ohio, who feels the tension behind this issue very keenly:

 

There are reasons women aren’t represented in this game. And, no, none of those reasons are good. And that’s where the conversation has to begin.

It’s one thing to say that women aren’t in this game, and that’s dumb. There are a lot of us alpha dudes who will absolutely perform when the time comes and will say every right thing when the time comes and then when nobody is paying attention (possibly even right now) simply return to simply doing all the exactly same things we’ve done before.

And let me be plain here. I didn’t say you alpha dudes. I said us. I count.

I grew up conservative, and I grew up Southern, on the knife’s edge of Methodist and Baptist cultures. Men belonged at the front, in the pulpit and at the head of the meeting, with the demonstrative voices and running things. Women belonged in the back, in the kitchen and in the nursery, speaking demurely and quietly and eventually finding themselves in the family way. I was a good young man, so I was supposed to find my way to the front of the room. The women alongside me weren’t.

I could find that rather dumb in my own obtuse sort of way. There were a TON of females in my classes who were obviously very smart and dang it why don’t they get as much attention as I seemed to in my human-calculator sort of way? But there really wasn’t a whole lot of room to differ, and it became obvious over time that I wasn’t SUPPOSED to differ. The men had roles they took on, over time, very consistently. The women had roles they took on. Anyone who didn’t take on those roles got whispered about, and not in a kind way.

Once those messages are baked in, they’re very hard to get out.

In many ways, it didn’t even matter that I got educated in a very feminist sort of way by a woman who was very central in my intellectual development. When women were given grief in the academic environment and the roles of men and women obviously separated even as students were coming through classrooms, that was a source of amusement and humor, not a symbol of a systemic problem. When women were treated differently because of the way that they dressed in interview processes, that was an issue for the woman to address in how they dressed, not an issue for the man to contemplate his own judgment on.

When a team of girls was harassed by a team of boys at a quizbowl tournament, that was something for the girls to adapt to, not something for the boys to be reprimanded for.

And we’re not just talking teasing or snide comments. We’re talking responses in anger when games don’t go well. We’re talking gamesmanship and intimidation. We’re talking overt propositioning and sexual harassment.

Frankly, I haven’t done enough in my life, when I have seen it. I haven’t screamed bloody murder in public that it’s wrong and it must end. I’ve given lip service to being interested in women’s roles in this game and I’ve let women down.

Let me be even more forceful: I’m talking about all women. I’m even talking about women who are some variety of queer or trans. If you haven’t figured this out about me yet, I’m an evangelical Christian who is 46 years old with emphasis on old and I’m still working out in my brain and in my faith what I think about LGBTQIA* culture and how I speak credibly to it and I’m deeply entrenched in the Protestant crisis of authority and this is all my problem and nobody else’s. I personally have botched nothing else when it comes to the treatment of people in this game more profoundly and more consistently than my use of pronouns. That is on me. The thing to call somebody is what they want to be called. Anything else is failing to be gracious. Period.

This is my personal, unreserved apology – and repentance, commitment to do consistently and continuously better and better until my treatment of all people is 100% equal, and my treatment of all women in this game is completely beyond reproach.

And part of that repentance is that my voice shouldn’t be the voice at the forefront. It should be a voice that empowers women to lead, not to follow.

Because when I contemplate a little bit, it seems men and women have roles at our tournaments, too. Men organize and lead meetings and train and read matches. Women work the info desk and work media and scorekeep. There are exceptions, and so many of the women who DO the info desk and media and scorekeeping are so incredibly valuable – but even in our own spaces, there is a gendered separation.

We don’t need that separation to be maintained. We need to be more intentional at not merely speaking about the importance of women in the leadership of this game, but actively making space for women to lead in this game.

Is our commitment to hashtag-girls-in-quizbowl genuine? Do we say that we want women to have a role, and perform our progressive dance, and beat our chests and say “hooray, I helped” while leaving things the exact same way they were?

Or are we going to make this game better?

I had a vision of an all-woman team, and seeing them get glory (and maybe soaking in glory of my own) for being winners. That whole alpha vision, again.

But maybe my own vision isn’t the important thing. Maybe our vision, as men, isn’t all that important.

Maybe the most important thing we can do as men is amplify the voices of those who are on the margins. Maybe we can get out of the spotlight and do more of the support work. Maybe we can simply get off the stage and make room for the voice of a woman.

For once.

Public bragging, circa 25 April 2018

Published to my Facebook wall, in a rare return to public posting there, so I can tag people and brag on students publicly through that medium. 

So, let me interrupt this Facebook not-as-much-of-a-hiatus-anymore to do this bit of bragging.

Once upon a time, at an institution far, far away, Craig Allee told me I was going to advise pre-pharms, and of course having a role in advising was a good thing to have for the promotion-and-tenure thing and you want to do right by your dean and so I wasn’t going to tell him “no”. (Telling Doc Allee “no” wasn’t something done lightly in any event, for Reasons.)

And as I dove in to the task, I found out that doing that sort of thing was one whale of an education in its own right. I recognized very quickly that it was one thing to have students check off courses of prerequisite curriculum, and it was another thing entirely to actually recognize where that student might want to attend pharmacy school and actually make sure what the student was preparing matched up with where the student might want to go. And then I found out how much of a thing clinical pharmacy was, and how much different preparing to do that was than preparing to be in a retail environment. And I found myself getting deeper and deeper into conversations with students and seeing the contours of what these students wanted to accomplish.

I found myself saying the phrase “professional vision” a lot. I found myself calling upon my grandfather’s own professional identity – reemphasizing to my students and myself that the prescription for apathy is involvement – and asking my students what they aimed to accomplish as practicing professionals.

We got students into pharmacy school. Hooray. And I’ve continued to have a role in that task as I’ve gone forward in my career, and hopped from one place to the next. But I hope we’re doing more than that. I hope what we’re doing, as students and faculty working together, is helping realize the full potential for the student as emerging professional, and how the professional working in their role can serve the community around them.

So here’s an announcement. It’s recipients of awards in the United States Public Health Service Excellence in Public Health Pharmacy program.

There are 27 of them nationwide.

I’ve advised two of them.

I advised Lindsey Bruner when she was at Shorter University. She is finishing her PharmD at Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy. She is cited for “developing partnerships with community organizations to prevent substance abuse and for raising awareness of substance use by educating children and parents about the proper use and storage of medications.”

I advised Tiffany Vũ when she was at Virginia Intermont College. She is preparing to graduate from Campbell University’s College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Her citation is for “development of a student led community care clinic dedicated to community wellness and public health, and for serving as a team leader during multiple medical mission trips to Honduras.”

I see that list, and I recognize those names, and I’m stunned and stunned again and stunned all over again. It’s incredibly humbling.

There are also MANY other students I’ve advised who do things every bit as great. Their names might not be on citations like this, but I’m every bit as proud of them.

There is also a list of advisees I have here at Tusculum. There are also students who have started pharmacy school from here, and students preparing to start pharmacy school, who I’ve had in classes here.

I recognize talent upon talent upon talent, still identifying that vision that will carry them forward.

I have moments these days when I’m very tired, when the long road that I’ve been down and the failures on the path behind make me feel like I’m reaching the end of the career.

And then I see a list like this, and I still feel like my career is just starting, and there is so much promise ahead.

Lindsey, Tiffany: thank you for your hearts of service, and blessings to you as you move forward on your careers as new professionals.

But thank you also for these little reminders that renew me.

On being a freshman from…somewhere

We’re three weeks into the new semester, and both of my 4-credit-hour lab science classes have probably gotten to know me better than they’d like. We’ve run an exam in both of them, a second exam in #chem101tc is much closer than that crew would like for it to be, both classes have started to get around the equipment in their labs, and people who really don’t need to be worried about their grades are starting to worry about their grades.

However, I still don’t know my class in our freshman orientation structure – the Tusculum Experience – nearly as well as I’d like.

Part of that is simply the schedule. It’s a weird schedule, so for those outside of Tusculum looking over my shoulder, let me fill you in: I see the two lab science classes all day long, twice a week, for eight weeks. There are two lab sessions scheduled per week, as opposed to one a week in a conventional semester schedule. At the end of the eight weeks we end the block and we run a second eight-week block with different two-day-a-week classes for the rest of the fall. The Tusculum Experience class I only see one afternoon a week, in a one-credit-hour setup, but I’ll see them over the full 16 weeks of the fall.

So the Tusculum Experience class and I just haven’t gotten the time together, and I haven’t gotten used to making sure they get the sequence of assignments they need, and making other arrangements, and Wednesday afternoons can just get awkward y’all.

The thing that makes our experience common are the readings, an online book called Voices of Tusculum that the good English professor Michael Bodary arranged and got assembled for us.[1] And I’ve been reading and reflecting on the class assignments out of that book as I’ve gotten my fall started.

Three of these essays, one of which has been assigned in the first three weeks of the class, are by my colleagues, two of whom I’ve gotten to know pretty well (by Jonita Ashley, currently Acting Dean of Students, and Kim Carter, who is the campus EPA Coordinator, Chemical Hygiene Officer and laboratory coordinator) and one of whom I haven’t gotten to know so well yet (David Smith, the Director of Student Support Services). And it occurs to me, reading all of these, that all these people have something in common that I don’t:

They’re all from around here. And they’re working not-at-all-far from where they grew up and where they started college.

I’ve joked – a lot – that my career is Hank Snow’s classic country song “I’ve Been Everywhere”. But it’s true. And it’s been a laundry list all over the land east of the Mississippi. I went to school, and then I did a postdoctoral research appointment at a university, and then I’ve taken teaching jobs at all kinds of places. Hey, this is the list, from high school to now:

Hilliard Middle/Senior High School (Hilliard, Florida)
Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Terre Haute, Indiana)
The Ohio State University (Columbus, Ohio)
University of Alabama-Birmingham (Birmingham, Alabama)
Middle Georgia College (Cochran, Georgia)
Shorter College (Rome, Georgia)
Virginia Intermont College (Bristol, Virginia)
Tennessee Technological University (Cookeville, Tennessee)
Tusculum College (Greeneville, Tennessee)

That’s a list, y’all.

And it was a pretty natural list. I grew up in Hilliard, Florida, but my mother was raised in Coweta County, Georgia and her family settled all over the Atlanta area. My father was raised in Berea, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland, and my grandfather actually graduated with his Doctor of Dental Science from Ohio State, almost exactly sixty years before I got my Ph.D. from Ohio State. My uncle on Dad’s side went to Texas, and there are Pearsons in Ohio, Texas, and Florida – with others scattered about.

I love the Central Appalachians, and I moved to Tusculum very deliberately to return to this area. But I’m not from here. And what’s more, I don’t have a whole lot of experience with being from somewhere. Even that small town in Florida where I grew up was one that had a lot of families that spent their entire lives there. Even spending sixteen years of my life there, I never completely belonged, because I had a father who the Federal Government brought in to work at that air traffic control center in town.

That’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a good thing. It’s a thing. It’s a thing that has made leaving a lot easier, in my life, than it would be for a lot of others. And it’s made my emotions about places are lot more even-keeled than they otherwise would be (even though I can be a super-emotional man). But I see a lot of the lifelong relationships that people have in a small town, and the depth of investment, and I feel like I’ve missed something that is exceptionally special there.

It’s a thing I don’t think I know about a lot of my freshmen yet. I still remember the first Physical Science student who followed me – and I saw he was from Ware County, Georgia and hey I know where you’re from, man, and it ain’t near here! But that’s a reality of being at a place that recruits for the sports.

I wasn’t in for the sports. I just wasn’t connected to that small town, once upon a time, and that school in Indiana that wanted me around was all kinds of appealing (and I was choosing between the school in Indiana and – alternate history alert – the school in New Mexico. I wanted out of North Florida, y’all.) There was difficulty and awkwardness of all of a sudden being in this place where I knew nobody and it felt like they were all from more sophisticated places than Hilliard, Florida (they weren’t, but it felt like they were) and all kinds of adaptation was involved.

I think I’m going to keep telling that story as this fall goes forward, and I get to know a group of freshmen who are going through a version of what I went through, and what Dr. Ashley and Ms. Carter and Dr. Smith went through.

But right now, I want to know where are the freshmen of this place are from. Are they dealing with the challenges of all the family and friends being close enough to want you at home, or the challenges of having all your family and friends so far away?

Do they hope to have a list of places as long as mine is – or maybe even longer, or maybe from places farther afield than just “east of the Mississippi” – or do they hope to just have a short list of places around East Tennessee?

Part of the joy of doing what I do for a living is I get to hear these voices. Not polished voices, and not experienced voices. But voices with experiences of their own, and stories of their own to tell. I will never tire of hearing the stories.

[1] Y’know, I promised Bodary a chapter for this Voices of Tusculum thing. I think he’s still a bit salty at me that I didn’t deliver. Next year, man…