Struggling for words to explain work

I have words for everything.

I run my mouth for a living, after all – explaining things as simple as pushes on boxes and as complex as the quantum mechanics of electrons around an atom to all kinds of students. If that kind of running of my mouth isn’t enough, I made great sport for much of my recent life of throwing myself into a car and driving all over the central Appalachians to read quiz games of all sorts to mostly high school students who find that type of challenge to be a good time.

From time to time, I’ve put words on the internet about the words I say to people, whether in a game or in a classroom or in the hallways of a high school or college campus in the interest of being encouraging or supportive.

I’m fighting for those words now, words to do my job, words to explain what that work looks like, and I’m struggling for them now harder than I ever have before.

This is a hard part of the world to care about school. A lot of people dismiss book-smarts in favor of work-smarts. This isn’t 100% unfair. The graft that made communities out of these mountains is something to be appreciated and honored. A lot of manual labor went into making the opportunities that the students I encounter have. We shouldn’t forget that.

But it makes the opportunities that come with exercising the brain diminish in importance. The work of the mind doesn’t look like work to the person who mines for the coal or labors in the factory. It’s too leisurely, it’s too sedentary. There’s so much of the work that I do in bringing about words to share that I can do from my couch. If I’m sitting stretched out while I’m working, is it really work at all?

Is it work if I’m stuck in my house for five solid weeks, discouraged-to-forbidden from being in my workplace to do the job I’ve done for nearly twenty years, trying to do the job from a laptop computer instead of in the kind of lab space where science education has been centered for my entire life?

So many of us know the answer. But as many of us don’t see it. “Stretched out on my couch” – or even “sitting at a desk” – trumps everything else I could explain about the challenges of what I do, day in and day out. The people who sit at the desk, after all, are the bean counters, making decisions and dictating pronouncements without any appreciation of what those decisions and pronouncements mean to the people who do the real work, in the real world.

Especially when the labor you’ve performed for your entire life is around other people, real people in the real world, you’re not going to respond positively when somebody who sits behind a desk comes out with the pronouncement that the disease that is spreading around the country isn’t like other diseases. You’ll respond even more nastily when that bean-counter says it doesn’t just go away with a pill or a shot or even necessarily with time, and how you conduct yourself around other people has to change. And frankly, it might not be a good idea to be around other people at all.

I don’t think enough of us have taken seriously enough how traumatic that is to a group of people who thought modern life was going to be salvation from a thing like a plague. We’ve never dealt with something like this before, not in any generation who didn’t know life in the Spanish Flu era of the late 1910’s. And it’s all the smart people who are saying that this coronavirus is as bad, if not worse, than that old epidemic.

You can call the resistance to that expertise anti-intellectualism if you must. But I heard those values throughout my own rural youth. I heard things about my book-smarts that, if they were complimentary at all, were complimentary in a back-handed sort of way. That’s all well and good, what you’re studying, but you just remember where you came from. You remember the work that gave you the opportunities you have.

Do you hear the message? I had opportunities. Those opportunities came from other people’s work. There’s a moral pecking order that’s constructed, and my opportunities aren’t at the top of that order.

I was incredibly fortunate. I had parents who helped me translate that message, who genuinely valued the opportunities I received, and who knew that the education I would experience would be something that required more labor of a different sort than anything any of us had experienced before. But just because the message didn’t come from the family home didn’t mean I wasn’t hurt from how it came from the community that was my home. I had a thing I could contribute to the world. It would never look like work to that community. And so it was diminished.

So I’m in the midst of this pandemic sitting in a strange seat. The people who come from where I came from are like my friends and neighbors in this place now. They want nothing more and nothing less than to return to the work that they know – real work, work around people, work that made this country what it was. The stifling of the economy isn’t something they understand in any greater or lesser way than friends and neighbors out of work, and perhaps themselves out of work too.

The overwhelming majority of those people aren’t going out to demonstrate and shout angry slogans about it, either out of fear of the disease or fear of association or even fear of impropriety. (I think back to the sportswriter who talked about the offense over a coaching failure for the local team being nothing more and nothing less than being unable to abide a tantrum, a scene being made. I think most of my friends and neighbors have no interest in making a scene for others to gawk at.) But they are increasingly understanding of why there are those who do demonstrate, why there are those who do shout angry slogans. And the first opportunity to get to do anything that resembles a normal life, they’re going to take it. Because they want their normal work back, and they want the rewards that go with normal work.

Never mind that work like that has been increasingly going away, and going away for quite some time, and what we’re living through right now may take a lot of that work and kill it off for good.

I wanted to start this off by talking about my struggle for words in this moment of life. I’m finding a lot of words, though. I have words to talk about not only what I do for a living, but how genuinely strange much of what I do for a living is in the place where I live and in the place where I was raised. Fields like science, like medicine, like public health are very foreign to those who work with their hands. There aren’t enough people in those fields who make a serious enough effort to bridge that gap of understanding.

And it’s in building that bridge of understanding where I run out of words. It’s making the people who I come from understand the severity of the adversary that faces them in this moment that I genuinely don’t know how to do.

What I long for right now in this moment is imagination for developing a new picture of work. Not merely for gaining acceptance for the very real intellectual, mental and emotional labor that I’ve been expending from this couch for the past five weeks, but the persuasion that there are creative ways of making a living in this way, promoting the willingness of people to pay money for labor of this sort.

The fear of change is very real – but change in this season of life is going to be necessary. We’ve been able to maintain a very comfortable status quo because of the security we’ve constructed over time against a variety of foes – to the point where we came to feel like that security was guaranteed, that we could live free of disease and in a universe of full employment with creature comforts that would make kings of old die with envy.

The fact that security has so suddenly been taken from us, and at the time it was taken from us it was taken with so little immediate evidence in our day-to-day lives that its revocation was necessary – and for many of us, without that evidence ever showing up tangibly on our doorstep – is going to unsettle those who have always believed that they could work their way out of any threat.

How do we settle those people that the world that takes its place can actually be better, more productive, more capable of serving the needs of all?


 

Halfway through the writing of this I came to realize that part of what I was writing about was other writers who have suddenly fallen to this insecurity, whose work isn’t fully appreciated.

As a long-time college football nerd, I’m a pretty faithful reader of Banner Society (especially their newsletter, the Read Option) and an even more faithful listener of Banner Society podcasts. Vox Media, who owns Banner Society, SB Nation, and a host of other web-media brands, furloughed 9% of their workforce as of May 1 yesterday – and among those that will be laid off are the creative, connective, and reporting heart of Banner Society.

Somebody with a lot more imagination than most of us ought to hire those people post-haste, because there’s no words for their talent, and even sometimes that talent impacts college football!

But much of what those people have done for a living is write. They’re in a very similar place to the one I find myself in, where what they have to contribute to the rest of the world doesn’t look like work in the universe I’ve come to know and have lived in and through.

More than anything else right now, I’m mourning. I could be genuinely angry at the ignorance of a host of people who have envisioned this country one way and can’t imagine any other existence, and the public and private actions they’re taking to advance that ignorance instead of advancing solutions. But anger won’t solve anything, and anger isn’t anything I feel anyway.

I’m powerfully sad that there are people who can only accept a way of living that puts themselves and others at risk, and even more sad that there are a fleet of rich people who can only imagine getting richer on the backs of those who lack the imagination to break away.

We need something better for a host of people. We need a society that isn’t dependent on putting people in a place where they risk themselves to keep it running; we need a society that rewards work that is reimagined and fulfilling without being physically exhausting.

I don’t know how you bring that about and bring society the unity of purpose in reinventing that work for everyone. At a certain point, I really am out of words.

Cover photo by Andrew Leu on Unsplash.

Thoughts from within the pandemic

But preparation has to happen on all levels, doesn’t it? Two weeks ago somebody might have deemed a practical guide to life in a pandemic hysterical, if not unthinkable. You still might feel that way. But we’re here, right on the brink, and we need to look at that guide anew and start thinking about the steps we take to make the prospect of a radical shift to our day-to-day lives as even-keeled and as kind-hearted as possible.

Now, here’s hoping I’m wrong about everything and we can keep living life as normal!

I wasn’t wrong.

I wish I was.

I made sure I had all of my stuff off campus yesterday so I don’t have to go there after the college starts conserving power to the academic buildings and shutting down computers. It’s an obvious move; none of us faculty are going to be working there at this point, we’re all at home doing education literally around the world. I have students in New Zealand and Spain, in Florida and Wisconsin and Colorado and Greeneville, Tennessee. This isn’t the type of student population I ever bargained on when I got interested in online education.

I’m social distancing in a part of the world where stubbornly continuing life as usual (or at least the illusion of life as usual) is the order of the day. I’m taking a pandemic seriously where my friends and neighbors are alternately cavalier and convinced the whole thing is overblown and furious and fuming that students who returned to our campus after Spring Break brought the virus with them.

I’m watching the collapse of my religious heritage accelerate between the continued evangelical support of this president as he self-evidently is increasingly clueless about how to lead, the willful and foolish reopening of the supposed evangelical flagship over the objections of its city leaders, and the editor of a leading evangelical journal actually write “The Eucharist itself is now subordinated to the false god of ‘saving lives'”, which is one way to put a stake through the heart of the entire pro-life movement.

The preparations to do this “remote learning” we’re going through right now is the one thing I feel like I can still control, and where I still feel a measure of comfort working. The shelter-in-place necessity is in all honesty the easy part; the work of making online learning happen is pretty straightforward. It’s all the other garbage that is wearying.

I’ve never been shy about loving rural America, or about embracing the challenge that comes with being a scholar within rural America. But it’s work that comes with a measure of isolation and solitude; there are precious few other people who comprehend the tension that comes with the work. Right now I feel as isolated as I’ve ever felt in my life, and while I miss being in the midst of the classroom and the lab with my students, the social distancing has comparatively little to do with that. I’m personally closer to the scholars who don’t understand why I’ve stayed here. The people who live around me reject the expertise that I represent.

I hear all kinds of people in my sphere of influence being wistful about a time in the future where things return to normal. But by living here, I know things haven’t been that kind of “normal” for a very long time. The fact that we have this president, and that so many of my neighbors embrace him and support him even now, in the midst of such spectacular failure, is evidence of that.

I’m supposed to be hopeful. I got complimented yesterday on how calm I’ve been and how affirming I’ve been in the midst of all of this. There are a lot of people who I’m around whose lives have been thrown into an upheaval that they didn’t deserve, and that is doing damage far beyond the inconveniences of a closed school or a workplace remanded to the home. I owe it to them to be kind and to be positive.

But none of that changes how utterly alone I feel, and how persuaded I am that the current crisis is going to get far, far worse for everyone before it gets better – how very real the prospect is that decades of neglect and selfishness have created not merely a world I will be fortunate to survive unscathed, but a world I will be fortunate to survive at all.

And meanwhile I continue to work from this couch like I’m a normal college instructor whose course load was simply coincidentally shifted suddenly from all in-person to all online.

At least my own personal normal was destroyed a long time ago. Everything else is just gravy.

 

Thoughts from the edge of a pandemic

I’m taking a moment between the latest round of news about another college transitioning to online instruction and preparing my own courses for the event of online instruction to breathe.

Breathing is going to be very important in the coming weeks, I’m afraid. I don’t have official word of my institution’s plans in my inbox but there is a loudly implied “yet” somewhere in there. As I’m watching announcements of the transitions march in from the north and the west, I’ve reached a moment of acceptance that it’s just a matter of time before the announcement shows up on my doorstep.

In the meantime, I’m really taking benefit from having done a lot of authoring in Moodle for courses that I teach. Most notably, our general chemistry labs are authored in Moodle as “quizzes” for students to complete during the lab time. Answering questions and getting feedback during the lab period is – in theory, at least – a half-decent way to keep the lab experience from becoming an overwhelming cookbook.

I’m adjusting that exact work to online simulators and spreadsheet programming as I start to plan an online adjustment. We’re especially fortunate in the physical sciences to have a set of tools that mimic physical reality spectacularly well in the PhET simulators, and through sheer serendipity many of the topics that PhET does best – electric circuits, oscillations and waves, concentration and spectroscopy – just so happen to be the topics that I’m facing in my freshman- and sophomore-level courses right now.

A lot of my coping in the event of an online transition, in other words, is going to be shifting work online in ways that I’m comfortable with and that I know. That seems like it should be a guideline for all of us. This is going to be awkward especially for students and for coursework that isn’t traditionally presented in an online format, and there shouldn’t be too many steps you take that take you too far outside of your comfort zone if you do have to teach online.

I’m speaking from a place of preparation, though. I’ve been thinking about what science education looks like digitally for a very long time. That may not be your place. All I can say in response to that is: most of us who do college instruction are scholars of one sort or another. We all have advanced degrees that are evidences of our capacity to think and act creatively. This is the time for that.

If anything is true about this moment, it’s that we’re preparing to step into one of the biggest educational laboratories we’ve ever known. Not all experiments are successful. This won’t be perfect. Embrace that and forgive yourself for that ahead of time. And then try things to see if they work, and see what your students can do. Be prepared for your students to surprise you.

The only other piece of advice I have as we step into this measure of the unknown is to remember the humanity of the person on the other side of the instructor/student divide. An online learning experience may trigger all kinds of fresh stressors and anxieties that you’ve never had to deal with before. The overwhelming majority of my students are traditional biology and chemistry majors; an online learning experience isn’t something that they signed on for when they started their college education. If I don’t practice kindness in this moment as much as any other, I’ve missed the point of why I got into this industry in the first place.

Beyond that I just have a brain that’s corrupted by thoughts of all kinds. Even as I’m supposed to be on spring break, I’ve been amazed at how much the events of the past week have brought fresh anxieties and frustrations to the front of my mind. As I’m writing this, the first confirmed case in the region has been announced – in Sullivan County, Tennessee, right in the neighborhood of my beloved Bristol. I know there isn’t a thing I can do to help events along by checking Twitter endlessly. I check Twitter endlessly anyway. It’s not helping me rest the way a spring-breaking faculty member should rest.

But I know I’m not alone in those anxieties right now. Life at the edge of a pandemic is uncharted for most of us. This is a fascinating bug – if you haven’t read some of the explanations of how the symptoms of the virus express themselves, it’s worth your time. Some people never express symptoms at all; others express symptoms that make pneumonia sound like a picnic. I know how many of you are tired hearing about this thing, but it’s possible it’s actually underhyped in terms of the amount of havoc it can cause – and the amount of uncertainty that could underlie its spread. Healthy fear, in this case, may involve the type of shutdown that even a week ago might have seemed absolutely unthinkable.

I don’t have a neat bow for this post, either. As it should be, I suppose – it was an effort to get words out of my head so I could go back to the preparatory work that is necessary in this moment.

But preparation has to happen on all levels, doesn’t it? Two weeks ago somebody might have deemed a practical guide to life in a pandemic hysterical, if not unthinkable. You still might feel that way. But we’re here, right on the brink, and we need to look at that guide anew and start thinking about the steps we take to make the prospect of a radical shift to our day-to-day lives as even-keeled and as kind-hearted as possible. 

Now, here’s hoping I’m wrong about everything and we can keep living life as normal!

Cover photo for post by Sergey Zolkin on Unsplash.

Running from depression: a postscript

I had an essay published in the online magazine Disability Acts last week, on my history with depression and how unlikely it is that the depression is going to go away.

Most of the composition of the original essay happened in August, when I gave the essay over for editing and publication. It’s obviously not August anymore.

In the midst of the fits and starts of our lives, that essay went through heavier editing than anything I’ve ever written in my life. I’m not a professional writer, and I’m bad to compose what I publish on the fly and just give it out to the world – sort of what I’m making myself do now with this blogpost, so I can get this done and get to working on other things that need to be written and graded. But I had a very strong sense from the onset that this story of my depression – both the past and the present of the story – needed to be told much more deliberately. I constructed a deliberate pitch for the essay before I wrote the draft, and I allowed myself to take time with the initial round of edits rather than just brushing the lot of them off and saying “this is my voice, take it or leave it.”

Part of the real benefit of this process was the editing of my words by Kelly Baker, who – along with Katie Rose Guest Pryal – has created this space online for a host of us to talk about our experience with all kinds of disability, and contribute narratives that don’t fit the expectation that popular media seems to want about disease and recovery and ongoing success in the face of adversity. I don’t have that kind of story to share, and it’s more than a bit of relief to find that there are a lot of folk who don’t have that kind of story to share either. Mental illness is a day-in, day-out lived experience, one that is very difficult for those who live “normal” to understand.

Kelly edited this thing with the greatest respect for my words but with questions that were pointed challenges. I leaned into the metaphor of running hard – after all, when I was younger, I literally ran from the problem. Kelly didn’t just let me toss the metaphor out there and leave it unanswered, though. What was I running from? Where did the compulsion to run come from, and what concrete fears was I dealing with as I grew to the point where I am now? They were questions I needed, not just in the moment, but to sit with and to answer as definitively as I could – not just for an essay, but for myself.

Going through the process of producing my essay with someone who understands the territory well and recognized the impulses I was feeling, even as she was provoking me to define them more carefully and more specifically, was a blessing that it’s hard to put into words. I’m grateful for all she gave into my work, and for the space that Kelly and Katie have created to receive it.

But time has passed between August and February, and I’ve had more time to sit with the proposed diagnosis of persistent depressive disorder and the medication I’m on to counter it.


 

The simple fact that I’m typing out these words on the same day I’ve worked on letters of recommendation and when I still have to plan for an upcoming conference is evidence that the medication is doing one of the most important things I need for it to, and that’s provide the focus to produce concrete results. One of the most frustrating symptoms of my depression was the inability to take initiative to perform a task and have the persistence to see that task through; I’d start a lot of different things, but my focus would badly fade. The antipsychotic medication I’m taking has provided a lot of defense against that.

It is a mild antipsychotic, however, and one of the side effects that comes with the antipsychotic is restlessness. I’ve learned a new word in this new time of medication – akathisia, the innate inability to sit still. Akathisia is a core side-effect of antipsychotic medication, and in its extreme expressions, it’s the effect that leads to the aggression or suicidal ideation that has been associated with antipsychotics.

I figured out very quickly that I couldn’t take even the smallest dose of the antipsychotic every day; the restlessness that resulted was simply overwhelming. I had to take it only on days when I needed the effect and I was going to be doing persistently anyway. When you’re teaching a lab, the restlessness and the instinct to move around quickly isn’t a side effect, it’s a positive feature. I settled into my own pattern of taking the medication, and the PA I was seeing supported it.

Even with both a traditional antidepressant and the augmenting antipsychotic, there are still days when the depression breaks through the gaps. My mood is extremely well-regulated, and emotional highs and lows are genuinely something in my past and not in my present – the antidepressant I take manages that spectacularly, also on the lowest possible dose. But just because the mood is managed doesn’t mean that the physical crashes associated with depression don’t appear – the fatigue, the loss of focus. That, I’m starting to believe, are features of the “double depression” that is a characteristic of persistent depressive disorder – and my suspicion, albeit one that I’m not going to be able to prove, is that the treatment arrests some features of a major depressive episode but not others.

When that happens, I have to forgive myself. It’s okay to take an extra couple of hours of sleep. It’s okay to take an evening off from work or commitments and recover. I do a lot, and I don’t acknowledge that I do a lot enough – or that other people find that lot of what what I do worthwhile.

Early in my professional life I only cared about what I did in the academic environment, and lived in that constant fear that I wasn’t doing enough. That’s the fear that tenure-track faculty are supposed to have, after all, and if you have to ask if you’re doing enough you’re obviously not. I’m much more satisfied now that having that sort of outlook on your professional life is toxic, and it leads you to miss the human element of life – family, friendship, kindness to strangers. I’m hopeful that I’m better at all of that now.

There’s one other element that’s been surprising in this process. I’ve been assuming the need for therapy with new medication or new life circumstance ever since I first allowed myself to admit depression was a reality. Through a comedy of errors and circumstance, I haven’t been able to see a single therapist since my arrival in Greeneville, and all the providers I have seen have told me that I don’t need therapy right now. It’s been very different going through the process of the strongest and most persistent bout I’ve had with depression without a mental health professional to dialogue with, but the trust I have in the medication is pretty strong and I’ve drawn on past dialogues and past experience to make the present moment work for me – and, as I mentioned in the essay, having a physician’s assistant who was willing to listen and respond patiently has been everything I genuinely needed.

That PA is leaving the region, however, and I’m going to need a new primary care provider within the next year. There will be a decision-making process ahead, and the story that the essay left unfinished has turns ahead.

But that’s the importance of the essay – that this story doesn’t get tied up in a neat bow. There are new realizations and new obstacles as life moves forward.


 

Two other things. One, I had believing friends express their appreciation for my honesty in the aftermath of the essay’s publication, which I appreciate a great deal – there’s a lot in spiritual experience that teaches incorrectly that dependence on God is more important than dependence on medicine, that assumes that mental illness isn’t actual mental illness at all. I didn’t really give that reality time in the essay, because I intended it for a much wider audience than us Jesus-freaks. But if you live in a spiritual existence while experiencing any mental dysfunction at all, Brant Hansen’s essay “Is Jesus Enough?” is an essential read – it’s over twelve years old at this point, but it still gets at the basic conflict I experience over being someone who believes that the Divine is all-powerful and entirely sufficient and yet here I am, on these mind-altering drugs.

The second thing applies to everyone, and it’s the standard exhortation – the reminder that, if you’re struggling with any kind of mental dysfunction, you are truly not alone, and there is somebody out there who shares your experience. I got told I was brave a whole lot for sharing all of this in that essay. I have a very hard time seeing this as bravery anymore; what’s become my therapy is the freedom to talk about my mental health in the reality of how I experience it. I’m happy to have this conversation anymore, as difficult as the conversation can be.

If you’re struggling, let the willingness to have the conversation about what you’re struggling with be your freedom too. There’s an old Margaret Becker song with the central lyric “God’s not afraid of your honesty/He can heal your heart if you speak honestly.” Again, I’m not interested in overspiritualizing this process; the outcome isn’t neat. But even in the messy imperfection of my own progress through mental illness, I hope the healing of my heart is evident in how freely I talk about the process of my treatment and in the welcome I extend to others.

aaron-burden-2bg1jPty490-unsplash
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

So here’s a bench. Stop running. Rest a while.

And here’s to building other things.

“I hear that this is an election year…”

V.O.L. by Vigilantes of Love

I hear that this is an election year
And I suppose it’s true
Big world gonna get what little it has comin’ to her…”
Bill Mallonee

I’ve largely abandoned political comment, much to my regret. I still feel like I have a lot of important things to say, and there’s a lot in our current moment in the United States that demands a person to stand up and make plain what they do believe and what they don’t, what it’s sufficient to rant and rave about and what needs to be lived out in the day to day.

Politics, contrary to popular belief, actually matters. What Bismarck once called “the art of the possible” is largely lost in the sturm und drang of what passes for our conversation – which passes for a lot of screaming at one another. And amidst all of the noise, we still have a host of problems that need to be solved this central-Appalachian part of the world – a workforce infrastructure that has to be rebuilt post-coal, a population that is underemployed, a lack of access to wealth that goes far beyond any stereotype or social group.

The temptation is to say that we just need to shut up, put our heads down, and get to work. The problems are too great, after all, and all hands ought to be on deck.

The problem is that the reason for all the noise isn’t just narrow disagreement over small things that don’t matter. The disagreement is fundamental; there’s no space to move forward without addressing it, and the willingness to address the disagreement on its own terms isn’t there. And that willingness ebbs the lowest among the people most impacted by the problems of my part of the world.

The disagreement, after all, is over the person so many of my friends and neighbors want to lead them.

 

At this point, we hardly need to re-litigate all the things that make President Trump unworthy of Christian praise. He has shown himself to be proudly against almost everything Christians claim to be for.

He is a vain and cruel man, obsessed with power and wealth. He sows fear and distrust, stoking the very worst impulses of our society. He is quick to speak and slow to listen. He notoriously has no respect for sexual morals or women’s bodies—be they Rosie O’Donnell’s or his own daughter’s. And as to the truth, well, you treat your washcloths with more respect.

He is, in other words, exactly the sort of person you would expect the Religious Right to lambast with their famous smear machine. That, as you may be aware, did not happen.

Dying Before We Reach The Promised Land“, Tyler Huckabee

Not only have I run out of ways to protest this president, I ran out during the first week of his presidency.

I’ve lived much of the last three years in various stages of shock. I get no credit for being able to see this outcome coming – that scoreboard falls to other observers. I believed from day one that the man was a clown with no coherent beliefs, and I still believe the man is a clown who can’t even speak coherently – only “clown” is thoroughly inappropriate for a man who frequently stands in front of his supporters for no greater or lesser purpose than preying on their fears and making deranged pretense of his empathy.

The only thing I found more exasperating than enumerating the ways that I couldn’t accept any leadership coming from him was the extent to which people I’d invested in and considered important to me took my statements against him personally, like I was attacking them. Huckabee’s words were so comforting at the end of the awful first year of this presidency because at least I could recognize somebody else saw the self-evidence of his unfitness, not merely for the office, but for any place as any sort of representative of the Christian faith that I claim.

No, of course the man isn’t perfect. But he’s still being accepted as a defender of the security of Christianity in America – a security that we were never promised was in the hands of a human being anyway. We are human ourselves – we want a king, we don’t want to trust God for our safety. But knowing how many people want this king is so, so hard to take; knowing how many people I love and care about throw their lot in with this king is painful.

I don’t use that word lightly, either, and I don’t think this is understood as well as it should be. There is a population of evangelical Christians who have had to deal with the reality that 81% of white evangelicals voted for this president – whether they’re Black, Hispanic or other minority evangelicals who legitimately feel under threat because of the president’s rhetoric, or evangelicals like me, who simply feel like all of their leaders they grew up under lied to them about being a “moral majority”. Those of us who resist the majority in our community take damage, daily. And we’re told that damage doesn’t matter – or worse, that we simply need to get over the damage and accept that no president is perfect and we need to accept this president because he’s defending the status quo of Christian America like nobody else has before or since.

All that does is persuade me that the status quo isn’t worth defending, and maybe my faith is better off with Christians out of the majority. Because with this president as its representative, my faith looks to all the world like a fraud.

 

President Trump apparently had an affair with a porn star while his model wife was home with their newborn son. No surprise there. Keeping the affair out of the newspapers before the 2016 election reportedly cost him $130,000, around a measly 0.004 percent of his claimed net worth of $3.1 billion — nothing to him. The fact that you might be unsettled by this news also means nothing to him. Trump is impervious to scandal and immune to social censure. He is insulated from consequence by power, money and fame in a way not imaginable to the ordinary person. He is the freest man alive.

Americans like to think we invented freedom, but we really only extended it to an absurd conclusion in the person of Trump. The ancients had their version of freedom, and they were as fiercely protective of it as we are of ours. For Plato, people are free when they are fully in control of themselves, with their self-mastery uninhibited by passions or appetites. Much the same for Aristotle, who saw freedom in rational, intelligent self-direction. On that foundational principle, they and the other worthies of the ancient world formed the idea of democracy as a system balancing equality and responsibility, for, as Aristotle wrote, “where absolute freedom is allowed, there is nothing to restrain the evil which is inherent in every man.” How right he was.

President Trump is the freest man alive“, Elizabeth Bruenig

The most disturbing thing about the fraud that’s being perpetuated is how easily it could be stopped.

Famously, ahead of his election, the longtime host of Focus on the Family, James Dobson, claimed that Donald Trump was a converted man, “a baby Christian.” No, of course he didn’t talk like a Christian or behave, like a Christian, but “I think that he’s open…He doesn’t know our language, he really doesn’t, and he refers a lot to religion and not much to faith and belief…[Y]ou’ve got to cut him some slack. He didn’t grow up like we did. I think there’s hope for him, and I think there’s hope for us.”

Set aside for a moment whether Donald Trump has ever made such a claim on his terms. Let’s just say that Dobson is right. If you grew up like I did, and somebody made a turn to Christ to receive saving faith, the next word you heard was discipleship. There is a process to becoming deeply invested in the church and with the body of believers. There is intentional reading of the Bible, and there is intentional prayer. There are older Christians who will call you out and pull you back in line if you step out – not in the name of becoming brainwashed, but rather becoming your best possible self.

This is one of the hardest things for me to explain about my own process of coming to faith and taking possession of a Christian walk of my own. It ultimately is my own relationship with God, and everything about it is my own responsibility. There is a real path of discipleship to walk where that works, and it involves people being around me who care about me and want to see me realize that relationship in the fullest. Being called out in that context doesn’t happen in public. It does happen behind closed doors.

But there is an expectation that I grow up in the process, and that I reach a point of health that allows me to carry on that relationship on my own – and not only to do so on my own, but to have the kind of public accountability and reproachlessness that allows me to lead others through the path of discipleship as well. Ultimately, the people who call you out aren’t doing so on a power trip of any sort. They really want you to be better.

I was so fortunate to have men around me at Rose-Hulman, where I received that saving faith in Jesus Christ in its fullness, that cared about me deeply enough to be brutally honest with me. I’m not going to tell you that they were perfect. I’m not going to tell you I didn’t challenge them right back sometimes, and I’m not going to tell you that I did everything they told me to flawlessly. But they cared about me, and I reflected on the ways they challenged me, and I grew up into a faith that’s been a fundamental part me for nearly thirty years now.

It’s been three years since James Dobson made his claim. The man he made that claim of has been on the most public stage possible, living out his transformation. What’s the most recent evidence of that transformation?

President Trump on Wednesday night cruelly mocked the late John Dingell, the longest-ever serving member of Congress in American history, suggesting he might be in hell during a fiery attack on his wife, Democratic Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell.

The alarming diss came during a roller coaster rally in Battle Creek, Mich. — which coincided with the House vote to impeach Trump — as the commander-in-chief whined that Debbie Dingell was over-the-top appreciative when Trump celebrated her husband after his death in February.

“I didn’t give him the B treatment, I didn’t give him the C, or the D — I could have,” Trump said of the widely respected lawmaker. “She calls me up: ‘it’s the nicest thing that’s ever happened, thank you so much. John would be so thrilled. He’s looking down.’”

Moments later, Trump added, to a response of cheers and gasps: “Maybe he’s looking up, I don’t know. I don’t know. Maybe.”

Carelessness with words that leads to cruelty is a hallmark of this president’s behavior. That behavior takes place most often in rallies such as this, never-ending campaign speeches that ramble and land at frequent pot-shots at political adversaries.

But surely this crosses a line, right? Speculating on the eternal fate of a dead political opponent? Surely this is something that would merit some response, nearly four years beyond what was characterized as a conversion event?

I don’t know how pastors treat the president behind closed doors, and to a certain extent, it’s none of my business. But the behavior of the president is something I can see, day in and day out. I hear it on the news even when I try to avoid it. It’s a topic of conversation in the places where I live. It’s just as likely to be behavior that’s praised – even among those who claim faith – as it is to be behavior that’s condemned.

At a certain point, there are only two conclusions possible. Either those who have been discipling the president to grow in his faith aren’t seeing the results they were after, and are saying precious little about that (to the detriment of the president’s own faith at that), or there were never any attempts to disciple this “baby Christian” in the first place, and every statement that’s made about his defense of Christians is part of an awful bargain made to cynically gain and retain a seat that’s close to power.

Whichever is true, it’s very fair to ask whether those who have spoken in support of this president’s faith life really care about his faith at all – whether they desire to actually see the most powerful man in the United States spiritually grow, or whether they just desire to use him as an icon without concern to his ultimate fate.

In enabling his freedom to say or do whatever he wants, in helping to sustain an environment where this president is supported without question, you have to ask how much these men are saying that good discipleship doesn’t matter, to the harm of a nation of believers – and no harm greater than the harm to the President of the United States himself.

 

“Do you think because Jesus is coming soon that the environment doesn’t matter?” I eventually ask.

“Alex, the Earth is going to be all burned up anyway,” my aunt says quietly. “It’s in the Bible.”

“But according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true.”

“All we can do is love them.”

“No, we can cut back on carbon emissions. There are a lot of things we can do.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to be here.”

I try to think of how to reframe the conversation. “Imagine that you are someone who thinks that God doesn’t exist. You can’t say to that person, ‘Don’t worry about the fact that we’re ruining the world that your children and grandchildren live in, because this thing that you don’t believe in is going to happen.’ That’s not an argument a government can make.”

“Who’s in charge of climate?” my mom interjects. “Who brings the sun out in the morning?”

“You cannot base national policy about what is happening to the environment on one group of people’s religion,” I answer.

Finally, my aunt puts her hand on my knee. Her eyes are tender and her voice soft and trembling with emotion. “I just want them to know the truth.”

And it’s moments like this that shut the conversation down because I believe her. I believe — with faith and certainty — that this is what motivates her, politically and otherwise. “All we can do is love them,” she’d told me. In her mind, this was not about the history of evangelicalism or the Republican Party or American exceptionalism or Christian nationalism or how we got here. This was about her view of love — a tough love that would offer America salvation.

By the time my family hug each other tightly and say good night, it is well past midnight. The cicadas hum outside like blood rushing to the ears. The darkness is heavy. We go to sleep saying prayers for each other, which is the only thing left we can do.

Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump“, Alex Morris

It’s because I know the arguments so well that I have the hardest time knowing where to start.

The reframing of arguments as I careen into a dead end is a process that I know well. But I also know the counters to those arguments. I know the mentality that America is exceptional – not in its conception, not in its government, but in the provision that’s been given by God – and I know the desperation that tells a believer that they’re living in the time of the last best chance to see the kingdom of God break through.

In that view, the ends justify the means. The very idea that is so inconceivable to me – that Donald Trump was sent for a time such as this, that the unrepentant man is here to clear the way for the Gospel to be heard for all – is easily understood by my friends and neighbors. It makes no sense to one, it makes all the sense in the world to the other.

What can you do when the two views are so deeply dug in – one side dug in because of self-evident morality, the other dug in because of existential threat? Am I even being fair to the two sides of the argument by casting one as self-evident morality and the other as existential threat?

The desperation of the true believer in this moment keeps us from finding the common ground that politics is supposed to be about in the first place. We have problems to solve. We can’t solve them while we’re desperately trying to persuade one another about the fitness or the danger of the man who is set out to leave us.

Impeachment proceedings stir no emotion in me at all – the necessity of impeachment was clear to me from the first week, and the fumbling to find the exact right grounds for impeachment and removal feels cynical and unpersuasive. Editorials speaking out against the man are worse than too little, too late – they’re another avenue to shift the argument to left-wing vs. right-wing and away from a man whose very presence destroys the capacity to do the political work that is so necessary.

And I’m still left with no words to persuade people who are absolutely unpersuadable. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do.

I live in East Tennessee. I live around friends and neighbors whose sole motivation is to make America great again.

I can’t persuade them that they very man they’ve put their faith in equates to their failure.

Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard: A list of unheralded ten

Over the course of the last five years, I’ve composed a series of posts entitled Famous Songs You’ve Never Heard, which were meant to highlight music that hadn’t been heard by nearly enough ears in my world.

Over the last five years, I’ve managed to compose five entries.

I haven’t quite hit the caliber of diversity I want from this project, extended as though it might be, and I might never actually hit it. But what I can do is give you a hint of what I want it to be, long term, when I decide to actually write long-form again.

So here’s another project interlude meant to shake me out of a proverbial creative stupor. Here’s ten songs, and snippets about what each of those ten songs mean to me, over the course of an adulthood of listening to music. I’m giving myself exactly as much time to write about the songs as it takes me to listen to them. The thoughts will get out, and then the piece will be done.

The perpetual warning: my background is Christian music, in all the extensive variety of definitions that “Christian music” might mean. The songs that land here aren’t exclusively Christian – there’s a strong indie influence as well, songs that a grown-up college radio DJ might find and cherish – but if you seek out common threads, you’ll find them, and you’ll find them in Jesus-music, from the word go.

As is often the case, Radio U has been Where Music Is Going for much of my adulthood, and they get credit for a lot here as well, starting with the first track.

I spent much of my early CCM days as a White Heart burnout, and there are plenty of stories to tell about how many events of my college days centered around one White Heart concert in Fort Wayne or another White Heart concert at Taylor U. I never got to see White Heart play with Gordon Kennedy or Tommy Sims, though; the definitive White Heart lineup, the one at the center of Emergency Broadcast and Freedom, escaped me.

So listening to a very prog-rock influenced track on Radio U one fine summer afternoon was a breath of fresh air, and when I found out the band behind it was longtime session and studio hand Jimmie Lee Solas and old White Heart guitarist Gordon Kennedy, I was all-in.

Dogs Of Peace have recorded two albums, and those albums are twenty years apart. That’s my kind of recording schedule.

 

I have spoken of my deep affection for LAUNCHcast and the music I discovered through that service before. When I talk about those fine days of discovering music, the time I heard Elizabeth Elmore’s main band for the first time is the moment of discovery I most look back on with fondness. The snare and the guitar just sucked me right into this song, and the moment Elizabeth Elmore opened her mouth, I was a fan forever – not merely of Sarge, but everything that came after as well. The Reputation is an even more underrated group.

I would probably still be a fan even if I was the man she was singing about. Her songwriting pen was always wicked and smart.

 

This song. If any song was worth a whole article on its own, it’s this one. I honestly don’t know if I could recall all the details, though.

I heard this song for the first time at the old venerable Decatur, Georgia music venue Eddie’s Attic. Kevin was opening for Vigilantes of Love, but he sang like he wanted the bill all to himself. The songs tore me apart, completely.

For this song he brought a local legend up – for the life of me, I can’t remember his name – but someone who it would be found later was dealing with cancer and didn’t have long. “No Place” is a prayer, a song that’s earnestly searching for peace and confident that peace had been found. The harmonies on that song will always be a place I long to return to.

And that pleading in the middle. The apostle wrote about groans that words cannot express once.

 

Another LAUNCHcast discovery, from the genre that would come to be known as Americana, this time with the haunting electric guitar. I have a thing for haunting electric guitar, even more so when the lyrics haunt as much as the guitar.

Sometimes I run out of things to say just because I’m so taken by a twenty-year-old song all over again.

 

This was a discovery I made at that finest of Christian music festivals, Cornerstone, back in 2001 or so. I walked past the stage where four fine merchants of this new sound called emo were playing – I think I was with Eaton – and my attention was seized immediately.

I immediately sought out everything that Brandston had ever done, and when a new Brandtson album came out the following year, and it sounded a thousand times better than anything that I had heard on that stage, it was all over. Deep Elm records, and I am deeply fond of them.

“I’m writing my anthem to this sixty-cycle hum” is, if I interpret it correctly, the finest lyric about alternating current that has ever been written.

 

Some songs are songs that I just listen to when I have teenaged angst entirely too late in life, and there isn’t really much more to say about it. I cherish this opening track from Faulter’s only album so much.

There’s so much to be said about the driving guitar and drums in the first verse breaking down to the syncopation and groove in the chorus.

 

Far and away the most obscure find on this list – and I’m super grateful for an Iowa music festival clip from 2007. I have both albums this track appears on, if you want to hear a clandestine studio version from an album that’s long since out of print.

One of the best things about the old Cornerstone Festival were the side stages where literally anyone could set up and play and sell their wares. Of all the bands I’ve heard this way (and with all love to Luminate and the song that I cherished that they never released, “And So It Goes”), General Sherman (of all the band names for a Southern boy!) is the band that stuck with me for the long haul. Dana, on guitar, was the one who wound up having the larger measure of success with a later band, Parlours, But it’s Becca’s voice, singing lead here, that I always wanted to hear more of.

Somewhere in a dark corner of the internet there’s stuff I wrote about hearing General Sherman for the first time in 2006 or so. I don’t know if I’ll find that dark corner of the internet again.

 

The least obscure on this list follows the most. Still, I have had exactly one conversation about the Jimmy Eat World EP that fell in between Futures and Chase This Light in my life, and it was about that person’s unawareness that this EP even existed. Maybe this is stretching “you’ve never heard”.

But this is an essential inclusion for a single reason: an extended guitar solo, in the mid-2000’s. Such unicorns were thought to be dead with grunge, I gathered. I cherish this. I cherish this so much. I cherish it so much more because the solo absolutely SOARS, and without the kind of virtuosity you expect of the classic rock guitar hero; the textures and the crescendo are simply everything. I can’t recommend this song highly enough, even if you’ve heard it.

 

The track I most looked forward to hearing from the album that was being worked on when I wrote the first entry in this series. I cried the first time I heard the recorded version, and I will never be ashamed of that.

 

I’ll finish this top ten with the guy responsible for my rediscovery of hip-hop. There were many directions I could have gone here, but this project from last year that detailed a relationship, warts and all – not merely from a Christian perspective, but from a distinctly African-American Christian perspective – enraptures me in so many ways.

Sho Baraka is a creative force, and his songwriting partner (but not his life partner!) Vanessa Hill compliments his vision perfectly and contributes vocal perfection. The product is something with a depth of maturity I haven’t heard from the art form before, a tale of genuine appreciation of husband and wife for one another.

 

I deliberately left others off this list that I could have included, and that should have more said about them, because I have incomplete thoughts gathered here and there, and I want to turn those thoughts into full stories and reflections one of these days. For now, though, I hope you hear something new that draws you in, and gives you a new musical vein to explore.

Why is college important HERE?

Presented to the freshmen of Tusculum University Class of 2023, on 17 August 2019.

The promise of the meeting this morning is about being successful as first-year college students. I don’t want to take away from this theme. You need to understand why you’re here, what binds you together as students, and how your purpose in being here is the first step in your success.

The charge I originally took for this talk was the topic “Why College Is Important,” and frankly, I don’t want to take away from this theme either. I need you to know that the time you spend in this space isn’t just important for you; it’s important for your family, it’s important for your community; it’s important for our nation and our world.

But I want to focus in on these themes a little bit.  I want to talk about why higher education is important, why your success is important, and why it’s important in this place.

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Many of you are not from around here originally. I wasn’t from around here originally; I grew up in Hilliard, Florida, so far north in Florida it is more useful for me to tell people I’m from South Georgia, and before I moved to this region I worked in what we call “Southern Appalachia”, doing research at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and later serving on the faculty of Shorter University in Rome, Georgia. Those places are of the Appalachian Mountains. But they’re not where you live now.

I moved to Central Appalachia in 2011, to take a job at a place that doesn’t exist anymore in a region I had heard of but didn’t understand nearly as well as I should. I made a very deliberate decision when I took the job that I work on building connections with the people of the region, especially people involved in education. I expected I would fall in love with the countryside, the mountains, the roads.

Tusculum freshmen - 17 August 2019 - 06I did not expect to fall in love with the people as forcefully as I did.

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(There are at least two freshmen in this room in those pictures. I’m incredibly glad they’re here. My own goal for myself, over the next few years, is to get to know these places well enough that there are a lot more than two freshmen that I’m aware of and have pictures of from before they showed up here.)

The people of this region, ultimately, are why I stayed, first in Bristol to our north, then in Cookeville, Tennessee to our west, and then here.

If I can share one piece of wisdom, both for those of you who have stayed in one small community for most of your life and for those of you who have come here from outside of our place in the world, and have you remember nothing else, it’s this: get to know these people you are in school with. They have a host of stories to tell you, and they are so wonderful in so many ways. Get to know the stories and the lives of this place.


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There is a host of data from the Appalachian Regional Commission, which is the federal/local partnership that advocates for the region, that will tell you how much distress there is in this part of the world, and how much need there is for economic development. That’s not entirely wrong. One of the core reasons for being a college student in this time and in this place is to help provide for the development of the region. Your desire to learn basic sciences and health sciences, your desire to teach, your desire for entrepreneurship – all of your education to this end is not just something you’re doing for yourself, and I hope you know that up-front. You are going to be contributors to the communities where you land, and much of that contribution is going to be economic. You’re going to draw people to invest money in the region, you’re going to make money and spend money, you’re going to help other businesses be successful and you’re going to help other people make money and spend money.

We preach the parent’s lament a lot: we want you to be better off than we are. And education exists, in the public’s eyes, for economic growth. We can’t dismiss that reality.

But economic growth is not the only thing that’s important. And, bluntly, to put that much hope into economic growth downplays the character of the people of the region. It’s a short path from talk about the strengthening economies to talking about the mythology of the desperate conditions of Appalachia, to the construction of the narrative of people that need saving.

Nobody ‘round here needs saving. Have you traveled some of the roads in Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina? Have you seen some of the architecture, the artwork?

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Have you heard the music and the culture? These people were creating greatness long before I really understood this place existed, and they’ll keep creating greatness long after I’m gone.

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And the economics of this place isn’t the economics of South Florida or of the Philadelphia/New York corridor. It would be NICE to have a lot of the money running around, don’t get me wrong. But you’ll find that a lot of money isn’t necessary to live well here. And money is not something that’s valued by several communities here; other things come to the fore, like family, community, country, faith.

In the context of THOSE values, and in the context of things that money can’t buy, why do we need education?

Well, you chose to come to Tusculum, for all kinds of reasons – whether that was scholarship support or athletics or just because the place was convenient for one reason or another. And it’s important for you to know what this place values.

One of the things that I do is advise pre-professional students, mostly students pursuing disciplines like pharmacy, physician’s assistant, and allied health disciplines like dentistry and, yes, optometry. And one of the things that I ask those students to do before applying to a school to study that health profession there is have a look at the school’s mission statement and other things that communicate what that school values. It’s an important way to know that when you’re interviewing to join that school’s programs, what you care about lines up with what they care about.

And you came to Tusculum. How many of you know Tusculum’s mission statement?

Well, let’s have a look.

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Listen to the words used.  A JUDEO-CHRISTIAN environment – we have a very distinct faith, but we do not privilege the Christian experience over the experience of other people who recognize Abraham as one of the founders of religious faith. CIVIC arts – we care about how you engage with the public as an informed citizen. LIBERAL arts – that’s not a political viewpoint, but it means the same as COMPREHENSIVE in this case. We don’t just care about you learning the stuff in your particular program, the stuff that’s your major – we care that you partake in all the ways of knowing that have made up the human experience. MEDICAL arts – we care about people learning the best science, technology, and human engagement that can help people heal in the best way possible.

CAREER preparation – we want you to have a job, but not just to make money in the short term, but to satisfy you for life. PERSONAL development – we care about who you are as a person, and we want you to be the best person you can be.

Oh, the one other way you tell what a place values? Listen for the words they repeat.

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Tusculum uses the word CIVIC every place they can. We care about your CITIZENSHIP. We care about your place as a member of this society, and we care that you contribute to that society in the most productive, positive way possible.

So many of the things you learn as a student here are to help you be the best citizen possible. You need to see other examples of communication and expression, in speech and English classes, so that you can be the best communicator you can be, so what you care about can be expressed to those around you. You need to be informed as completely as possible, both about what’s happened in the past – your history – and about the knowledge that is building your future – our science. You need the best background on your faith you can get, so you can not merely speak the language of faith to those around you, but you can be encouragement to others to live that faith out better. And you need the arts, to appreciate the creativity of others in this place and express your own creativity on your terms. Encouraging creativity in others and in yourself is part of your best citizenship, too.

All of you need to bring your best selves to this process of education, and to take the education itself as seriously as possible, no matter what place you’re from, no matter what place you’re going. The values that Tusculum believes in are important no matter where you live.

But I hope you see that there’s something distinctly Appalachian about them – the idea that there are things that are more important than economic output, than workforce development, then even personal fulfillment. What we bring as citizens to our whole community matters. How we engage with one another, how we make everybody’s quality of life better, and how we make one another as positively informed as possible.

When Tusculum is at its best, we are both bringing in the most promising students from this region and the most promising we can find from far afield. And we’re making sure those students are leaving as the best citizens they can possibly be, for now and for decades to come.

And we are persuading you that there is a place for you here, among these mountains – in much the same way that I was persuaded, not even a decade ago, that there is a place here for me.


There are two other things I can promise you. Obviously the choice wisdom at this stage of this kind of a talk is to pay attention to your professors and to heed their wisdom. And look, you should. For one thing, we do have egos, and they need to be fed. My ego is raging. Running my mouth in front of y’all is a thrill. I’m not gonna lie about that.

But we also know a lot of the territory you’re dealing with in these next months and years, and we’re not gonna lie about that either. And it’s not just the academic stuff – it’s the life stuff too. Some of us were undergrads a lot longer ago than others, but we all remember it. We all remember the prof who gave us our first F on an exam. (Roger Lautzenheiser, Calculus I.) We all remember the prof who opened his office to us and gave us an hour when we expected five minutes. (Roger Lautzenheiser, Calculus I.)

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We all remember the moments of crushing heartbreak and the moments we came to grips for the first time with depression. If we have never come out as LGBTQ, we remember being in the room with the person who came out and the affirmation they needed.

So know that we as profs have been through a lot of this. Talk to us.

But also know that it really doesn’t matter how good we are at what we do, in terms of defining Tusculum’s quality and Tusculum’s greatness. The dirty little secret is that people with PhD’s in physics who can teach physics and chemistry are a bit of a dime a dozen. If I left Tusculum tomorrow, Tusculum could find somebody to take this job. And they could find someone pretty quick. I will obviously do my best for you, but it’s not because I feel like my position is all that sacred.

The thing that makes Tusculum famous, and the thing that Tusculum will be known for in the years, the decades to come?

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It’s sitting in front of me right now. Not one thing. 400 of you.

How you learn from us is meaningful. But how you learn from one another is what stays with you. You’re not at your best here because you need to show respect to that PhD. You’re at your best here for the people sitting next to you, because of your responsibility to make THEIR time here as important and as meaningful as it can be. You’re at your best here because when you leave here, you need to have the education and the relationships and the capacity to live together that the world around you needs to see lived out.

The mission you just heard there is for you to take up and hold up. You need to prepare for a life after this place. You need to take this space to develop yourself mentally, emotionally, spiritually. You need to prepare yourself to be a citizen of these mountains, this nation, and this world.

This is your task. You take it from here.

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The full slide deck was prepared with Google Slides and is available for your review, with credits for all images.

The story of one new graduate student

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My mind keeps returning to a road trip to Western Massachusetts in January of 2012.

Don’t pay much attention to the hiding child on the left. We’ll talk about her another time. (And yes, young one, your time is coming.)

We took that exceptionally talented child on the right to a college there to start an academic career. There was promise all over the thing. Certainly, there are memories of the fear that comes with taking someone who has been so much at the center of your life for the better part of two decades on one part of the trip and driving back home without them. But it was an incredibly joyous trip as well, in no small measure because we saw the promise in the place, we saw how tight-knit the community was, and I knew what it was like to join a small, tightly-knit community across the country from my home myself, and how completely that place informed who I became.

There are so many of us, especially those of us who have benefited from higher education over the course of our lives, who make trips like that and who want what we experienced so desperately for our own children.

This is what you need to know: That promise we saw in January 2012 was never fulfilled.

I will still look back on the decisions we made in that part of life and insist we didn’t make a mistake – the child didn’t, and the parents didn’t. In another era of our history, I do believe that the promises made would have been taken seriously, and all parties would have understood the commitments they were making – especially parties involved with a college that was part of an institution with a nine-figure endowment, resources that placed the institution among the genuinely elite.

But the way that my child’s education progressed through 2012 and 2013 laid bare for me, in a way that had never been clear to me before, how completely cynical our higher education apparatus had become, and the extent to which my child was far more of a revenue stream for that institution than a student to be supported through their education. Even through a career that I had spent at independent colleges in the midst of real economic stress, I worked alongside people who took the needs of the students with the utmost seriousness and who would put other priorities aside when the human needs of a student were being threatened. We did that even as we became increasingly convinced that our own needs weren’t going to be cared for by the institution, and our own futures were increasingly uncertain.

But over the course of a year, I saw the decisions made by this elite institution we had put faith in repeatedly put revenue to the institution over educational experience.

I watched my eldest child discover activism, in a real and tangible way, as the realization that the experience they had been promised would be diluted at the hands of students who provided immediate revenue to the college, and that if those students put underrepresented populations of the college under threat, the sanction they’d receive would be inversely proportional to the revenue they could provide.

We had hard conversations over how we needed to receive the financial support in keeping with our real need, not the need that the College Board’s proprietary paperwork was communicating, and we wouldn’t be able to keep that child enrolled in that place without real consideration. Again: I’ve worked at these places for over a decade now. I know how the game is played. But the institution simply did not care, and frankly ignored everything I ever said.

The experience we had at that school – the experience that talented child had at that school – ultimately failed. We all made mistakes along the way. But at one point in our history, you could have confidence that the institution would have interest in making sure that the student would be cared for throughout it all.

At that one place, that concern never materialized.

For a while, that was our major experience of our own children’s higher education. And that experience was being further colored by the economic failure of the institution where I worked, a place where I was confident on balance that we were doing right by our students. If you ever wonder why I have the deepest of suspicion of where we stand in higher education in the early 21st century, there are a host of reasons for that. When that child decided to stay away from school for a season of life, I had a very difficult time arguing.

I don’t think we understand nearly as well as we should how precarious our nation’s leadership in higher education is – and how much of that leadership we have already lost. When you make all of your decisions about the bottom line and you alienate the people who are predisposed to be your ambassadors, not just for one season of time but for a lifetime, you lose the trust that the whole enterprise runs off of. And then you wonder why so few people respect the academic knowledge of the professor, or the place of the institution as an employer and an economic center worth investing in.

Trust is not something that you’re guaranteed. It is not birthright. It is earned through evidence that accumulates over years, decades, generations. That evidence is slipping away, and our institutions’ place in our nation’s conversation along with it.


 

The institution’s promise may not have been realized.

The child’s promise was.

After that season away, there was a decision to restart, half on a whim, at a regional university, if not in our backyard, at least a few yards over. The failure of the institution placed me at a sister regional university, and we discovered that there’d be tuition benefits at one place by virtue of me working at the other. It was a no brainer.

One of the classes, potentially in support of a poorly-articulated health science path to be named later, was general biology. It was taken under an instructor, Cerrone Foster, who I still haven’t met, much to my own consternation.

I have told the story many times in many circles of the phone call that I received halfway through the term; the professor, working on online postings, minding his own business, when the phone call from the child comes unexpectedly, fraught with all the uncertainty that comes with your relentlessly-independent child calling unexpectedly…

“DAD! WHY DID YOU NEVER TELL ME GENETICS WAS SO COOL!

(The salt of the father who cut his pedagogical teeth on General Biology I being told by his eldest child that he hadn’t sufficiently shilled for Genetics will be set aside. Grudgingly. There is still salt.)

The absolute enchantment that was awakened by an instructor who cared deeply about the discipline she taught, and who cared about the individual students in the room and nurturing their talent instead of making sure revenue stream obligations to the school were met, is something that even now, four to five years on, we haven’t contained. The student with a wrecked grade point average and every reason to be cynical about higher education for the rest of their life became deeply passionate about every biology course ahead, making the major change that would become permanent, learning not merely to understand the discipline but to explain it to the students who would come after them.

Cerrone Foster, I do not know you, but you lit a fire, and it continues to rage.

19577166_281841225621091_5757645560103432018_o
A group of students flanked by two biology researchers, with the students in the middle roughly the same age as the researcher at the right was when they started college. Shamelessly stolen from that researcher’s social media feed.

Over that time, I wound up returning to the region myself, and we wound up living and working within an hour of one another. I’m not going to pretend that the prospect of landing where my eldest child was going to college wasn’t part of the appeal of a move to East Tennessee. But I wasn’t remotely prepared for the vigor and energy with which that child embraced East Tennessee, and made the place genuinely her own. It remains the most stunning part of the entire story.

Two summers, we’ve even shared the same employer; while I’ve taught summer classes online to varying degrees of success, that child has been front and center in reaching students who would be first-generation college admittees and ensuring they know that the things that make those students who are the very fabric of this part of the world know they are valued and important. At this place, in the summer of 2018 and the summer of 2019, I firmly believe the child has done more important work than the father.

The obvious conclusion to this story is that the child finally and triumphantly finishes that degree, and is grateful for the role that regional university has played in their life, and then chooses to move on to the elite university that will finally allow them to achieve their full potential.

The plot twist is that when the graduate school application process happened, and multiple options were considered, only one was taken with urgency and seriousness.

And that is how my eldest child, Catherine Pearson, early-college recruit and early-college dropout, completed their degree seven and a half years after starting, with honors, and chose to pursue their graduate education at that sterling doctoral institution…

…East Tennessee State University. PhD pre-candidate, Biomedical Sciences.

And how their father, who has lived through higher education in his entire career and knows the risks of the undergraduate and graduate institution being the same regional university, could not be prouder.

The job, you see, isn’t merely quantity of enrollment or retention or even assessment of standards. The job is making sure the student knows what their identity is, gains a fuller understanding of the world around them, and knows their path to realizing all the promise that is captured within them.

I saw clearly how I’d find that path among these mountains.

I never expected, and I don’t even know that I wanted, my own child to find their own path through these mountains.

And that is why East Tennessee State University is one of the most successful universities I have ever known. They did something far, far more important than providing my child with an education.

They provided my child with a home.

2019-05-04 14.13.56

What I did over my spring break

The Newest CCM Bracket Ever - Final

I worked on an all-time Christian music bracket.

I am dubbing it “The Newest CCM Bracket Ever” and I’m going to run voting on the “matchups” in the bracket on my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

I’m not going to go bonkers explaining myself on here; this blog exists for reasons that are very, very different than this type of deep-woods critical/analytical nerddom.

But I have explained myself. And I’ll let you read and explore on my new site.

#NewestCCMBracketEver will now be a thing.

“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.