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.

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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.

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Why a professor buys his books from the bookstore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graduation day, circa May 6, 2017

Originally a post on the Facebook wall from May 6, 2017. Edited now a year after the fact to say: these words still resonate, and I feel all the same things, and more.

Graduation day feels as weird today as it ever has, for me.

I’ll be there at Tusculum today, and please say hi. But understand if I’m a bit far away.


One of the neatest groups of students that I had was the honors seminar I taught in Fall of 2013 at Virginia Intermont College. It was super-timely – our topic started out as standardized testing (our books were Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test and Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System) but it quickly shifted into talking about what we expect out of education and what the future of education should be. At one point I envisioned it as a start to those students’ careers and an encouragement for them to be critical as they went through education, but it turned into a set of very real lessons on the days that were to come.

If some people had cared a bit more about the fate and future of our institutions than the money that was or wasn’t somewhere, the freshmen in that seminar would have been graduating from Virginia Intermont College today.

Many of them are graduating – but from institutions far and wide, in circumstances that have been fraught. At least one already completed her degree; a couple of others have a way to go, and a couple I’ve just completely lost track of, and it kills me.

On the one hand, that group was where my work at Virginia Intermont was just getting started. On the other, it was the group I had to shepherd out the door. There are so many things about VI’s end that break my heart, but the thought what that group would have become and of the continuity they could have provided for the college’s next chapter is the one thing I can’t get over, the one thing that is the cruelest.


As if that wasn’t enough to be tearing at my heart, the end of VI tossed me into a completely different situation at Tennessee Tech, one that was by its very definition “temporary” but with relationships with students that were every bit as meaningful.

I’ve seen news of med school and dental school and pharmacy school and every kind of professional school admissions clogging my social media feeds these past few days, and it’s wonderful, but it’s also very melancholy. So much of the circumstances at Tech kept me from building the kinds of relationships with students that I had built other places. I was able to catch glimpses of students here and there, but not see the full person develop. It was a deeply frustrating environment to work in, simply because of its size; some people adapt well and work well in that environment, and that’s a wonderful thing. I never did.

That doesn’t make the heartache for the people who make up that wonderful community in Cookeville any less real, though. For all my difficulty fitting in to that community (and for all the burden from the circumstances that put me in that community in the first place), Tennessee Technological University is one of our best. There’s far more good that happens there than bad. The people who make that place go are among our best educators and scholars, and I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.

And the students who are graduating from Tech today are nothing short of remarkable. So many who are so incredibly talented, and who are so well equipped for the next stage of their lives. I’m incredibly proud of them.


I knew as 2016 was winding down that if the opportunity presented itself, I needed to be back in a small college setting and I needed to be investing the time getting to know the small place and the individuals that make up the community. That’s why I’m here. I’m very grateful for that. I’m even more grateful that place is East Tennessee, in this part of the country I love dearly. I know there are going to be far happier graduation days ahead.

In another circumstance, I’d list the names of graduates who I knew who I was grateful for; I’ve done that on a day like to day in the past. But I’d be typing forever, and I’d be forgetting a LOT of people who don’t need to have their accomplishments minimized.

This will have to do.

Graduates: I love you, and I’m so proud of you. I love you, and we need your talents so desperately. I love you, and I believe you will make a better future for us.

LYMI.

The very first tweet I woke up to in the four-word stories posted for #Antigonish2 today knocked me just a tiny bit sideways:

…and they mean it.

It resonated for any number of reasons.

This Antigonish 2.0 project that Bonnie Stewart has started up has rapidly become very near and dear to my heart, for no greater and no lesser reason (for the moment) than the hope that we can begin to build deeper, more accountable community among all of us, locally and globally, and use that community to build a more functional and positive world. This is the moment in my life when my own confidence in the institutions around me snaps, and while I’m not going to quit and become a hermit in the mountains, I’m going to realize that what is in existence around me is broken and there is a need to build something new, and there are plenty of people who are brilliant helpers who don’t look like what I’ve always been around and don’t believe the same things I was taught to believe and you know what it just doesn’t matter let’s get to work.

Laura, who tweeted that lovely thing, along with Kate and Tanya, who got tagged alongside me, have been people I’ve been sharing conversation with on a different social media platform who have given me opportunity to practice listening to other voices and to practice speaking more positively and more productively and giving up all kinds of assumptions. Laura, in particular, has been so wonderful and affirming to me personally, and I’ll assume I’ve been at least reasonably kind back to her given that I received such a wonderful little tag in tribute. Much of the sweetness of this spring hasn’t been found in the usual spaces, but within this new community that has sprung up, in fits and starts.

Of course, no matter how sweet a new community is, the sentiment is nothing new. We all want to be known, we all want to know people care about how we’re doing, we all want to know that the sentiments are real and not faked. We all hear people ask things like “how’ve you been, friend?” all the time. That’s not the part that hits your heart.

“…and they mean it.” That’s the hope. That’s the prayer.

And that’s what takes me back to SURF.

It’s a little bit stunning that I’ve not told the story in this space of showing up at a thing called SURFchurch in Bristol, Tennessee and finding myself welcomed welcomed. Here, have a short version: When I interviewed for the job at Virginia Intermont, in an odd circumstance that had to fit around the schedule of a Monday-Friday summer course, only one student sat in on the teaching demonstration, a kind young woman named Kayla. I made a joke or three about recruiting her to the sciences, but she had a very clear vision for her academic path, and a very deep passion for photography that kind of sounded more like a calling than a vision. Woo, I get the job, woo, I move to Bristol, woo, I start looking for churches and I start collecting a set of options and I happen to drive down a side road and see a small yard sign for SURFchurch and I wonder what in the world a SURFchurch is doing in Central Appalachia and show up one Sunday morning anyway and walk in the door and literally the first person I see is this Kayla.

These are the points that, in evangelical universe, we call “God moments”.

There were quite a few more college students (including students I would have in my own classes, soon enough) at this place, and the pastor, Matt Cross, turned out to be a Virginia Intermont alum, and there was a measure more authenticity in the relationships there immediately than there was at anyplace else I visited in Bristol, and well that’s going to be the church hunt sorted then.

Everybody at SURF was very good to me for the three years I was in Bristol, and while I was riding the roller-coaster that went from watching the colleagues from the old job broken up and scattered to the winds from afar to watching the situation at the new job steadily and completely deteriorate to nothing, I knew I had a refuge. And that pastor gave me a space to rest alongside the students I loved, and repeated to all of us four words that sustained the community and made the fellowship as genuine and authentic as anyplace I’ve ever been.

And we, in turn, learned to repeat those words to one another. Of course the students repeated those words; they could be easily abbreviated, shared on social media as a badge, turned into a slogan or a hashtag. #LYMI. But they could also be spoken. The “I”‘s in those declarative statements were implied, after all, so they could just roll off the tongue as cadence. The first two words were the sentiment, so often spoken thoughtlessly; but the second two words were the commitment, the reality that I couldn’t just say the words and let them rest halfway. I had to follow through.

I found myself saying these words to those same students, from the professor’s side of the fence. And of course I’d shown love to the students I’d had before, I’d given of myself. But this statement was the next step. It was taking that love and turning it into discipline, into a willingness to step outside of my authority and stand alongside them, to share in their hurts and fears, to encourage and to speak hope and promise, to simply listen and hear.

Of course it’s easiest to make that statement as something of an in-joke, because it’s associated with a church and it is shared with believers and it is our badge and all. But over time you don’t just want to share it with them. And in my role, I’m providing this support not just to my fellow believers anymore; I left that conservative-evangelical school in 2011, after all. I have students who don’t believe and who are very open about it, despite Virginia Intermont’s historic Baptist affiliation. That same love needs to be available to them at all. And it doesn’t just need to be spoken. It needs to be followed with action.

When the path takes you, between July of 2011 and August of 2017, from Rome, Georgia to Bristol, Virginia to Cookeville, Tennessee to Greeneville, Tennessee, from Shorter University to Virginia Intermont College to Tennessee Technological University to Tusculum College, there is nothing about that action that is easy and straightforward. You find the action that speaks to the people around you only to have to start and learn new people and start all over again. Community isn’t an automatic; you don’t just show up and find yourself belonging. Trust has to be earned, and there is work to be done just to allow your voice a hearing.

But that doesn’t change the commitment, and that doesn’t change the discipline.

Even as I was discovering that the clock was ticking on the job I hoped would be for a career, I was still facing the necessity of loving my campus throughout every up and down. Even as I was struggling mightily to adapt to a place that was ten times as large as anywhere I’d worked before and found myself drowning in the crush of people (and yes, you can drown in the crush of people in Cookeville, Tennessee), I knew I was surrounded by people who needed love and I needed to be patient and show it. The work of love is necessary, and never more necessary than in a time like this.

So I’ll ask forgiveness for the belief that a lifetime of learning and discipleship and good old-fashioned hard knocks are leading me to this place, and to these people, and to this work of community-building. And no matter how hard the times get, to the repetition of gratitude for the ears that I’ve had in this time, ears in Greeneville and in Cookeville and in Bristol and in Rome, ears in Fredericksburg and in Richmond and in Wollongong and in Guadalajara and in Charlottetown and in Chichester, and maybe even an ear or two back home on the edge of that old swamp in Hilliard, Florida. So many people have offered me such genuine friendship, and even a dose of genuine ministry. They sustain me, and allow me to do the day-to-day work with these wonderful students, and prepare me to serve beyond the city limits and beyond the state line into the world beyond.

And I’ll ask forgiveness of Matt and Sherry and the people of SURFchurch, but something tells me that they won’t be bothered if I share a little bit of that fellowship with the people of Antigonish 2.0.

Community in four words.

Love you; mean it.

What it means to go home

(1) I have written entirely too many of these things, because I have moved my family around entirely too many times.

Real Professional Development Goal, August 2016-forever: make this the last of these things I ever write.

(2) In July of 2011, I wrote this:

I have been offered a position at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA, to teach chemistry and physics and play a key role in building that school’s natural science department. The position and the surrounding professional development is nothing short of the perfect job for this point in my career.

 

For those of you who came into my orbit sometime after that, and don’t know how that story ended, it ended with financial problems overrunning the college, and getting laid off not even three years later. It was not a fun time.

Now for you to be convinced that I’m crazy: I still believe what I said five years ago to be true.

With all respect and love to my friends in Georgia who were so good to me, but who I left to chase what was to me a dream of a job: Virginia Intermont was where I found and made a home. I thought I loved the mountains when I lived in Rome (Georgia, y’all) and worked at Shorter. In Bristol, I knew. I saw this forgotten and less fashionable part of the country and, being a less fashionable person myself, I found a real sense of place.

I went all-in on Virginia Intermont because I saw what was possible for that kind of school in that season of time when I was at Shorter, how the unlikely student could grow into the leader and the visionary. I built an entirely-too-vivid picture of what that looked like at VI. I wanted to see that vision become a reality, so badly that I bought a house and made Virginia Hill my home.

What I found in exchange was the truest sense of learning community, unlike any experience I have ever had. It was the greatest of privileges to be a part of it. The students I taught at VI are people I cherish and love – every last student, through the good times and the bad that we shared (and God knows, if you’re that close, you’re going through everything together). We went through as difficult a transaction as anybody in education should ever deal with. They have been faithful to me, and I hope that I have been as faithful to them. Those students, far above and beyond anything else, were worth that move for me.

But they weren’t the only benefit. The other thing I realized in my time at Virginia Intermont was how much of an island I had been on in the work that I did. The very first time I went to an Appalachian College Association Summit, and had time to talk to colleagues from places like Ferrum and Montreat and Ohio Valley and Pikeville and Brevard and West Virginia Wesleyan – and realized that these people had been talking to one another for quite some time about the same troubles I had as a faculty at a resource-limited small private college in the South – I realized what professional development what would look like for me over the long term.

Losing Virginia Intermont didn’t just mean losing the school and the students – it meant losing colleagues over several states in this precious region who had wisdom to share and who knew what the difficulty in this time of history for small private colleges looked like. It was such a benefit over those three years. It ended abruptly – I was scheduled to attend an ACA Teaching and Learning Institute in June 2014, before VI closed in May 2014. The abruptness was as hard to take as anything.

The time I spent at Virginia Intermont confirmed some things that I valued and revealed new things. I always knew how much I valued the time spent with students and how much I appreciated institutions that encouraged the development of genuine learning community. I really understood – for the first time in my young-punk career – how much I had to learn from those who had done the same kind of work I had, at the same kinds of institutions I had.

And – there is no other way to say this – I fell in love with Central Appalachia. And I longed to make that place home.

(3) I have been ridiculously fortunate to have been at Tennessee Technological University for the past two years. I had wanted to chase after better, more active learning in my classroom for a long time; I knew the benefits, and it’s not like I didn’t try to draw communication out of my students in the classroom, but I was exceptionally comfortable in a traditional chalk-and-talk mode, and in a position where I was teaching three different courses at once, as much as I loved that diversity of work, I didn’t really find myself in a position where I could push the active classroom as much as I wanted to – or, really, as much as I needed to.

Observing Steve Robinson and Paula Engelhardt in the process of implementing an active learning curriculum for the algebra/trig-based physics sequence has been, in nearly every sense, a better educational experience than anything I got out of a postdoc. This is the stuff that will make me better as a professor: finding ways to make students productively uncomfortable in a classroom setting, and creating an environment where they aren’t just hearing information but internalizing it and making knowledge their own. I don’t have all the answers, and maybe I have a ton of experience with some of this stuff, but it’s so much more valuable when the student makes an observation, draws a conclusion, carries a new experience with them to inform how they see the world.

And I have been privileged to work alongside this whole department – but especially with Mary Kidd, Mustafa Rajabali, and Adam Holley in making this curriculum work for the wider student population. The one time before in my career I worked alongside another physics educator, I was a problem child and overopinionated and I am sure I torched more than that one bridge in the process. I probably was the same here, but rather than putting me off, these sweet people listened and challenged me right back, We have been, I hope, iron sharpening iron day in and day out. I could not possibly have had better colleagues these past two years.

I have very few regrets, but not finding a way to teach like this and engage like this sooner in my career is one of them; as much good as I’ve done in a classroom in my career, I am more confident than ever that there is a better way than simply telling a class what I’m going to tell them, then telling them, then telling them what I told them.

There was a thought that simply doing this work, and refining this work to make it more and more effective, would have been the most valuable thing I could do going forward. I did have the opportunity to remain at Tennessee Tech, within this department, and I’m grateful for all the people here who supported me and invested so much in me. At several points in April, I was seriously thinking of what settling in Cookeville would look like.

That would have been bittersweet. As good as it was to be wanted, it would have involved narrowing my vision – the career spent bouncing between disciplines would be over, the advising of students at various points on academic and pre-professional paths would be over, the focus on the wider institution and on higher education would have been over. So many things that I have valued so deeply would no longer come with that place. Quality teaching is so important, and being in a role focused on quality teaching would be worthy. But there were so many things I felt were undone.

And there was that tiny little issue of a place, a place where my eldest child was finding home as well, still carrying an attachment. And wondering if there was a way back.

And I reached a point where I didn’t think there was a way.

And then things started to happen.

(4) I honestly didn’t know what to think when I received that first email, except an old colleague was there and she had been pretty high on the thought of me getting the job and joining the faculty. I honestly thought the email came too late; we were ready to decide to stay put; I had other interviews at similar schools and found in one way or another that they were after somebody to fill a very narrow faculty line and could do as well to hire a young punk straight out of grad school (like I once was) than somebody who had been around the block a time or two.

And then a phone call. And a serious conversation. And a recognition that I came from a different place and a different experience, and a recognition that they were looking for a different professor and a different impact. We agreed to keep talking. And soon.
The interview, honestly, wasn’t like any interview I’d ever had in my career. It was comfortable, from the very first moment. Many of the formalities started to be dispensed with early. I was recognized, not as somebody who was a warm body seeking a job, but somebody who had a unique skill set, a unique background, and who could do unique things.

I started to understand that they didn’t just want a physicist, or a chemist, or even a molecular biophysicist. They wanted me – who I had been, who I am now, who I could become. And I could get a picture of becoming a far better scholar in this community than I am now.

Future colleagues – for that’s what they turned out to be, and what I was able to see them as from even the first conversation – spoke directly, and honestly, and with hope. Students spoke to what was good about their experience, what needed to improve, and why they loved the place.

I’ve left interviews before being completely confused about what the job was, and what my responsibilities might be. Here, I saw a role, and I saw it completely.

I have never been so excited leaving an interview (even as I left it to scramble back to Cookeville to give an exam). The place was not perfect, but the imperfections were very clear and not hidden at all. The job ahead was clear. And I hoped I’d be given the chance.

(5) When the dust settled, on April 21, I had an offer from Tusculum College, just outside Greeneville, Tennessee, a little more than an hour away from Bristol, on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest on the North Carolina state line.

It was an offer to join their faculty as Associate Professor of Natural Sciences, with teaching responsibility across physics, chemistry, and – my word, is this really happening? – molecular and cellular biology.

There are a host of other benefits and responsibilities that come with that. But, more than anything else, it’s a return to a faculty position serving a small, teaching-centered liberal arts (and, Tusculum would remind you, civic arts) college in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains.

It’s work I’m prepared for in every way, shape and form.

I am as grateful as you could possibly imagine for the opportunity.

My prayer now is very simple: for me, forever, this will be what it means to go home.

A certain arch on a certain college campus. Thanks to Ronda Gentry for the picture.

Clearing Ferguson out of my brain

There have been so many words spilled about the past two weeks’ disaster in Ferguson, Missouri that the only reason for me to write this is simply to get my thoughts out of my head before I start focusing on algebra-based physics on Monday. Thanks for reading my efforts to have a clear head and do right by my students.

I’m teaching physics at a new place, and so I had to go through human resources this month. Human resources is always concerned with documentation, always concerned with process, always concerned with the rules. The rules exist for good reasons. The rules ensure that the institution has made its best efforts to create a good work environment – or, at the very least, they ensure that the institution can document that they have made their best efforts.

Our state and federal governments, in their infinite wisdom (insert sarcasm where appropriate), have laws about equitable treatment of all students, and part of an HR process is going through the training on those laws. Title IX of the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 deals with discrimination on the basis of sex in educational opportunities. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act deals with availability of programs funded by the federal government to people of every race, color, and national origin. There are good reasons for these laws to exist. As far as it concerns me, the goal is ensuring that every person who comes through the doors of an educational institution, both students and employees, is treated fairly, so that the mission of the institution can be accomplished.

Now, as anybody who has been through a human resources office can attest, the training that you have to go through so that the HR office can check off that you have been trained (and therefore be legally free and clear should anybody file a lawsuit) is dull and only intermittently enlightening in the best of times, and random and intelligence-insulting in the worst. You survive it by reminding yourself, repeatedly, that the most important thing that comes out of this process is legal cover for the institution. The HR staff probably wants you to understand the Higher Education Amendments of 1972 and the Civil Rights Act, and probably puts the process in place with the absolute best of intentions – but their good intentions aren’t going to be what keeps them employed. What their bosses want is nothing more and nothing less than the documentation that says all of their faculty have been trained and therefore understand all of their obligations under the law. The game must be played, and if the game is played successfully, the institution keeps lawyers at bay.

It’s all well and good until actual violations of the Civil Rights Act play out on your Twitter stream, and it becomes abundantly clear just how many people don’t understand that the Civil Rights Act is actually standing law.

For me, it’s not about the law, and it never has been. I figured out at a very early age that white people lived in one place, and black people lived in another, and there was a dance that people engaged in to keep the white people and black people apart, and that dance looked stupid. I don’t say that to pat myself on the back, or to claim enlightenment. I just have never wanted to live apart from the people who don’t look like me. They’re different. They have interesting things to say. I enjoy listening to them. They make life fun. To be brutally honest, I’m kind of selfish for diversity in that way.

What has become maddening as the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death has played out is the number of people who want to shut their ears to the voices of people who don’t look like them. They make statements and quote sources and cocoon themselves in the voices of people who look like them, act like them, and think like them.

Those attitudes are devastating to me. Maybe there was a time in my life when I could be casual about such things. But I’m a white dude teaching physics. I recognize the issues of representation across the STEM disciplines, but especially in the physical sciences, where African-Americans even applying for faculty jobs is something to be celebrated. At the point in time when an African-American student comes into my classroom, the color of my skin does create a barrier between us, and I want that barrier torn down so I can not merely satisfy the letter of the laws assuring equal educational opportunities for all, but the spirit of those laws as well.

The climate that I find in August of 2014 isn’t conducive to equality. It’s conducive to more people making more judgmental statements; sowing more fear, uncertainty, and doubt; erecting more barriers. It’s reaching a point where the reflexive venom can’t be ignored among people of faith, on both sides of the issue. (If you haven’t read this comment from no greater an arch-conservative than Erick Erickson, you should. It made me rethink a couple of things.) As if there weren’t enough things for me to be stressed out over (70 students in a single lecture section of PHYS 2010, hello), I’m fearful as being seen as just another white dude who doesn’t know how good he has it and doesn’t care about those who don’t.

The only thing I want right now is help. And by “help”, I mean fewer words that make statements of good guys and bad guys, fewer words that dehumanize, fewer words that hurt. I want more people to simply listen to people who don’t look like them and consider that they might not have all the answers to a problem that predates Michael Brown, that predates Barack Obama, that predates Rodney King, that predates Martin Luther King, that predates the founding of this nation – a problem that the word “problem” doesn’t even do justice.

That’s enough. Come Monday, it will be time to get to work.

Next stop: Tennessee Tech

ttufooter

At long last.

I’ve been offered a position teaching physics at Tennessee Technological University for 2014/2015. The primary responsibility is the trig-based physics sequence, also known as “that thing I’ve taught for the last 14 years of my life and I hope I’m pretty good at by now.”

I’m incredibly grateful for Steve Robinson and his department, which is pretty dang teaching-centered for a regional university. In terms of being my flavor of “engaged academic”, I might be going to the best place I could possibly land. It’s very evident that I have a lot to learn from these folks, and I’m going to be busting it next year to learn as best I can. In many ways, next year will be a hard reset on my career, and how things play out from there is still anybody’s guess.

I’ll save other observations and implications for later. But, for certain people who frequent this space, here’s the most important news:

2014-05-15 08.08.43

AWWW YEAH IT’S THE PEARSON AND PIRKLE EXPERIENCE COOKEVILLE TENNESSEE HAS NO IDEA WHAT’S ABOUT TO HAPPEN TO IT LOOK OUT YOU GUYS AND I MEAN IT JUST LOOK OUT

(Everybody pray for Richard Pirkle and his family.  They have to deal with me now.)