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.

Why I (stupidly?) took Nick Kristof’s clickbait personally – or, where #EngagedAcademics came from

Let me make sure this additional waste of time is given the appropriate level of importance:

This is my navel gazing, then. It is long, and it is ranty. You have been warned.

For those new followers and the like who’ve never heard me tell this before: In my second or third year of grad school at Ohio State, sometime when I was trying to figure out what it meant to be a Christian and do biophysics and actually make some sense out of what I was doing for the rest of the universe, I had a conversation – I think on the old USENET group, of all places – with a guy who became, over time, a dear ‘net friend. He said he was reading Mark Noll’s book Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and I should check it out.

I had never taken a single serious thought about the concept of an “evangelical mind”. At that time in my life, Noll’s argument was an absolute revelation. And although there aren’t many direct ways that Noll addresses this, I found an undercurrent in the argument of the failure – of scholars and of Christians doing scholarship in particular – to directly engage with the public and to communicate why scholarship was an important thing. “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind” – so somebody get to work on building one, then.

As I’ve progressed in this career, what I’ve found is that this isn’t purely a Christian anti-intellectualism that I was encountering. It extends further into all corners of American life. There’s not much of an American mind, period. The work of the academic – particularly the work of the academic that leaves a research-one university like Ohio State and goes to work at places like Middle Georgia and Shorter and Virginia Intermont, or (to choose another example) gets the modern languages doctorate and has all sorts of trouble finding a job, taking adjunct and visiting positions all the while – is incredibly misunderstood and consistently mischaracterized. It’s taken as an article of faith that the PhD has the office, and simply sits in that office, thoughtfully smoking a pipe and then randomly writing fifty-cent words into an article that only four or five people in the world will understand.

The upward trajectory in college attendance, the political importance of the completion agenda, and the wholesale transformation of the college-attending population – away from the mythical meritocratic best and brightest and towards university genuinely for everyone – demands that the vast majority of people who hold doctorates and get jobs in higher education spend the majority of their time teaching the traditional collegiate canon to people who, two generations ago, would never have set foot on a college campus. It demands creativity, lucidity, and a ton of hard work. And for the job to be done well, it demands a capacity to engage – to communicate sophisticated ideas in a way that keeps students on board and opens up a path for them to become content experts as well, if they choose to do so.

And the reality I’ve found: when you do this well for the students, you open up the capacity to communicate with family and friends as well. You don’t merely become someone who is an imagined figure surrounded by deep thoughts in an office; you become “hey Mom, this is pearson, he’s the reason I survived physics” (or “he’s my insane physics prof,” which often means the same thing) or something of the sort. And that can go double when you get off the campus every now and again, and you talk astronomy with a bunch of middle schoolers (even though the thought of a biological physicist talking astronomy should frighten you), or you read a quiz bowl match for the high school kids and take extra time to hang with the team who just got blown out of the room, and as strange as it has become in my life, you become somebody people want to see come around, instead of this isolated person.

I am one guy, and I don’t pretend to be anything different. The marvel of falling into the rabbit hole of Twitter is finding this massive population of people who have their own ways of engaging with the public, of recognizing this hole between what the perception of academic life is and what academic life actually is for most of us in 2014, and who are working their heads off to accomplish that engagement. They might be super-important full professors at Duke, or department chairs at Union, or underrepresented minorities with newly minted PhD’s, or underrepresented minorities who are doing all sorts of important stuff while finishing that PhD. Those are just the examples that I come up with off the top of my head; you ask somebody else who’s fighting it like I’m fighting it, and they’ll have different examples of people who inspire them with the extent to which they’re engaging people outside of the normal audience of academia.

We should be hearing about these people. They should be championed, and they should be inspiring us to do more ourselves.

That is why I read this latest example of a white male privileged New York Times columnist being clueless and found myself launched into a Twitter rage. Here’s Kristof core take:

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

“Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Obviously, this isn’t true across the board at every academic institution; if it was, Wikipedia wouldn’t have nearly as many articles. </rimshot> And for crying out loud, there are a ton of us who do communicate with the masses. Why not get our take, instead of just writing the blanket condemnation of PhD program culture?

I did immediately get feedback from one of my fellow travelers, though, who immediately made clear to me that you can’t downplay the importance of that argument; in her PhD program, she got clear and strong pushback because she wanted to write publicly about her sphere of expertise, and she was told that it would be “wasting her time”. If that’s so tangible now, okay, fine, I understand that take.

It still assumes that all of academia is research-one schools. It still assumes that academics are those pipe-smoking, office-dwelling, masses-disdaining figures from another place. In other words – as the New York Times is so prone to do, when talking about higher education – it assumes that regional universities and state colleges don’t exist. It assumes that teaching-centered liberal arts colleges don’t exist. It assumes that most church-affiliated schools don’t exist. Good heavens, don’t even speak of the community colleges.

And it assumes that everyone who could possibly serve as a public intellectual is a FULLPROF or is on the path to FULLPROF status. Non-tenure-track instructors? Visiting professors? God forbid, adjuncts?

Oh, but if it wasn’t enough to be wrongheaded, Nick Kristof had to go to where I live:

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.


Here is my Facebook page. You will note that I’ve been at this social media business since NOVEMBER 2005.

And – from DAY ONE – using those tools to engage with students. And, when the opportunity presented itself, using those tools to engage broadly with the public, too.

If anybody cares to share evidence of Nick Kristof being on social media before then, I’ll gladly eat that helping of crow. Maybe Nick Kristof really does get public engagement more than I do. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

Yes, I know that there are far worse injustices in the world that exist, even and especially tonight, than a bullcrap New York Times column. I also know that I’m not a small amount of privileged myself. I’m a white dude in academia. We have enough of those. We have MORE than enough of those.

But I recognized that responsibility very early on, too, and I hope you’ll find that the writings here and in the social media space reflect that, and I believe my work in the classroom and in public reflects that. If I’m done and the only people I’ve encouraged on into science and into professional fields are more white guys, I haven’t been successful with my work. I firmly believe science works better with diversity.

And ultimately, with much gratitude to all of you who have read through my navel-gazing, this is the point: I can’t possibly believe I’m alone in this. I’ve been in too many good meetings with people from across the Central Appalachians (with much love to the ACA) to believe that I’m alone in this. I’ve seen too much of the good work that my new Twitter-mates do to believe I’m alone in this. I’ve worked with too many partners in crime to believe I’m alone in this.

Charles Knight asked me this:

And I started to answer with just a few Twitter handles, and something in me snapped, and I replied:

And that’s how this mess started.

One request, if I can make it: I think it’s a fair thing to keep the focus of an #EngagedAcademics hashtag on academics who engage well, not just with each other, but with the world around them, and especially on those who make efforts to make the language they use language that can engage the public, not their discipline. I don’t mean that they dumb their work down; I mean that they make their work understandable and accessible for the masses, while maintaining its rigor. (The primary reason I love reading Tressie McMillan Cottom isn’t the rigor of her sociology or the accessibility of her writing – it’s that they’re both there, together, in an authentic North Carolina African-American voice.) We should be saluting people who go that extra mile in outreach, and who do their part to take the caricature of the college professor and shatter it.

That, at the end of the day, is what I wish Nick Kristof would have done.

And finding examples isn’t so hard. After all, I found most of mine completely by accident.

My Twitter appreciation is my Rebecca Schuman appreciation

Okay, let’s tell a story of how I feel all the way down the Twitter rabbit hole, and make sure credit is given where it is due.

My original handle on Twitter was SDYtm (old soccer writing thing of which there are next to zero examples remaining on the internet, but if you want to dig through the Wayback Machine, be my guest). I can’t find on Twitter where the original post was denying my existence on the thing (original tagline was something like “You don’t see me. I’m not here. I don’t tweet or twitter or do anything that sounds like a bird.”) but it went back to 2011 or so. The first person to send me an @-reply, I think, was Smollar. The first @-reply I can find is, I think, in Japanese.

Sometime early in March of this year I decided that I’d follow the lead of my friend Wallace and start auto-posting using Buffer. I did remember that I had a LinkedIn page and I decided I’d cross-post stuff there too, and yeah, didn’t I make that Twitter handle a while back? Let me see how well that works.

It did OK for the first month, I think I had a few odd people read and reply to the things I posted even though I wasn’t taking the conventions of Twitter very seriously, and I think I paid attention every other day.

The fateful day was April 8th, when my reading came across a screed (I think she’ll approve of use of that word) about the academic job market and the failure of people in the humanities to actually get jobs. This hit home; I was talking through a couple of grad-school interested students at the time who were thinking about college teaching, and I wanted them to be absolutely sure they knew what they were walking into. (One of my old quiz mates from North Georgia posted it on his Facebook feed, too, so I knew that it was going to get some hits and be seen by those friends and I wanted to make sure I drove the point home.)

So this went into the Buffer feed early-morning on April 8th:

The target audience replied on Facebook, it stoked further dialogue, job done. (It also returned the all-time reply from one of my dear friends, Dinty Musk: “This is not hyperbolic. This is a cold, hard slap of reality. And it’s not much better for anyone going into academia. The field is SATURATED. And the Ksp is probably on the order of 10^-11 or so.” Yes, we’re chemistry nerds, deal.)

So when I checked Twitter the next day, I was absolutely NOT expecting to find this:

Again, understand: I had NO CLUE about the conventions of Twitter. I don’t think I was even expecting Rebecca Schuman to HAVE a Twitter handle. I still don’t know how she tracked down my Twitter post and why she felt so moved to reply to it, except I’ve come to find she does that with EVERYTHING that she writes.

My only response at the time was “well, if she cared enough to reply to my near throwaway tweet, well, let’s follow her and strike up conversation every now and again.” When I saw how she actually wrote her blogposts, I’m sorry, I got a tad bit giddy about the fact that she could actually bring “U MAD? O, U MAD” into an academic-labor argument.

I don’t know what exactly in my past that piece, and the tone that accompanied it, struck. I think there are two things (this is a bit of an aside, so bear with me a minute):

(1) I didn’t get into MIT for undergrad. I got in everyplace else I applied, and I was thrilled to go to the school that unapologetically called MIT “the Rose-Hulman of the Northeast”, but part of what drove me in high school was the fact that I wanted elite education, and part of what drove me in college was the fact that I couldn’t get a single word out of MIT no matter how hard I tried to talk to them, and I got it in my head that it was because they didn’t want a redneck from Hilliard, Florida, and I went from wanting elite education to wanting to stick it to elite education. It was part of why all my grad school apps went to Big Ten land-grant history schools, and why I get all worked up about how awesome my Ohio State education was, and nuts to your ideas of prestige.

(2) When I actually started my faculty career, it was without much thought at a two-year school that also served academically talented high school students (shout-out to all the GAMES kids). I thought about getting on the research bandwagon, but I progressively decided that I was far more interested in how the kids who came from places like I came from learned about science, and then I was interested in how those kids could ultimately prove professionally successfull. I threw myself whole-heartedly into what I dubbed “teaching-centered higher education”, and the two times I’ve moved, I’ve sought out those kids of schools, and I’ve found positions at those places to be lacking. I’m DEEPLY fortunate – I found a wonderful place in 2003 in Rome, Georgia that now forms the first half of my Twitter handle in a spirit of appreciation, and when I had done all I could at Shorter and needed to move anew, I found a second (struggling but) wonderful place here in the Central Appalachians, where I found a POOL of students (present and prospective) who were in situations similar to my own growing up, at a disrespected rural high school having big dreams and wanting them fulfilled.

And when I had occasion to talk to many faculty at research-one universities about what I did and I why I valued it, I found (to my shock and amazement) deep disrespect. I will never forget the conversation I had with a pharmacy dean at a school that will remain nameless (to protect the guilty) about what I did, and mentioning that I had a teaching load of physics, physical chem and biochem that particular semester. I don’t know what response I expected, but what I got was “it must be a shame for those students not to learn from a content expert.” TO MY FACE. The conversation ended quickly thereafter.

There are a HOST of people who love their disciplines, and not only are deeply capable of teaching around those disciplines, but remaining ENGAGED with their students and lifting their abilities up. I’ve found deep empathy and respect, more than anybody else, from the adjuncts I’ve worked with, who handle the same types of varied loads with no respect and even less pay. I’m fortunate at Virginia Intermont to work with one of the best adjuncts in the game, Tom McMullen, who can handle just about any non-major science that comes across his plate with skill and empathy. Shorter had one famous adjunct, Joe Bill Campbell [1], who taught a distinctive biology – and if you were a particularly combative advisee, I loved giving you Joe Bill for GenBio I, because he loved the combative ones and he gave as good as he got – and who, one year under duress, handled the full-timer’s botany load when the botany teaching line couldn’t be filled in time, and handled it with his curmudgeonly joy and without a single complaint that I ever heard.

And, as I soon found out, one Rebecca Schuman could explain Kant with humor and incisiveness, both for the scholar and the popular reader.

I’m not kidding: I’m still mad that I didn’t encounter a Rebecca Schuman when I was dissing every foreign language ever as a ignorant and idiotic Florida redneck of an undergrad. If anybody could have persuaded me to love German, I think it would have been her.

So I’m biased when it comes to Rebecca Schuman. Following her twitter feed and her retweets opened me up to the absolute best of academic Twitter. I found out real quick that Lee Skallerup Bessette has the most powerful retweet-fu in our little corner of the Twiter universe. I discovered the wonderful feed of William Pannapacker, and the politically potent feed of Sarah Kendzior. I discovered the writings of Tressie McMillan Cottom, which I believe are as important as anything else getting done concerning the future of higher education. I’ve “met” Joseph Fruscione (and his alter-ego, Adjunct Yoda), Roopika Risam, Stacey Patton, Liana Silva Ford, Charles Knight, Katherine Firth…I could go on, but these (and others who I really don’t have time to link!) are the people who find the things that put me into contact with the world in higher education in 2013. I’m deeply grateful for them all.

Oh, yeah, and I discovered Werner Twertzog, which might be as fascinating as everything else put together. And @Chronicle is ON IT!, which for a higher ed media nerd like me, is even more fun.

I could go on. Hopefully you get the point. Twitter is a rabbit hole, but it’s a rabbit hole that’s made me smarter, and that keeps my eyes on things that aren’t just limited to American shores or within my own science-nerd universe. (Note: the OVERWHELMING majority of people I just listed are in the humanities. I do follow scientists and science teachers too; that’s another post and another dialogue, though.)

(There is also College Football Twitter, which is yet another post that most of you don’t particularly care to read.)

Please also note: remember that I kind of started this on a whim by posting stuff to Twitter in addition to Facebook and LinkedIn? Stuff I post on Twitter gets read and retweeted, and Buffer tells me so. There’s absolutely no evidence that stuff I post on LinkedIn gets read and shared – it did get me a couple of odd people getting back in touch when they saw my stuff, but when my Twitter feed blew up, LinkedIn got real quiet. Folks, this is no joke: Twitter does what LinkedIn advertises it does better than LinkedIn. It builds new professional connections, and in dialogue, allows you to find common ground.

I decided I was “officially” on Twitter on June 14, 2013, and took the more professionally clear (and more personally meaningful) handle. (I can’t find the original tweet as ShorterPearson! If you can find it, feel free to share. Twitter, work on your dang searching and archiving.) Six months later, I don’t regret it a bit.

And one kind reply back in April started all this. (Well, that and superior taste in music.)

In conclusion, even as I was still an idiot about how to use Twitter, I said this back in May, and I still mean it, and I hope it is a sentiment that makes her as satisfied now as it did back then:

[1] the ONLY college teacher I’ve ever come across with a voice louder than mine. NO JOKE.