Business Department LLC Presentation | October 14, 2017

“We’re starting at what time?”

The idea of getting up on a Saturday morning to attend a writing workshop doesn’t appeal to most people, but most people are not members of the Elizabethtown College Business Department Living/Learning Community. I’d like to thank the Business LLC for inviting me to share a little bit about language and writing today, and I hope everyone finds something of use in today’s workshop.

When does it matter to you?

I once served as a writing tutor for high school students. One student stopped by the writing center in my school and asked for consultation on a writing project she was working on. We made small talk while I read her work. She planned on becoming a veterinarian. I made several recommendations and offered to help her later if she needed it. To my offer she said, “That’s OK. This is the last English paper I’ll be turning in before heading off to college. Thank God I’ll be done with this nonsense.”

“Won’t you need to continue working as you go through college and start your career?” I asked, knowing that even veterinarians need to know how to write.

“No,” she said. “I’ll have a secretary for this stuff someday.”

With that in mind, it is important to note that I later learned the student failed to gain admission into veterinarian school on her first try… and then again on her second try. On her third attempt she was finally admitted to a school in the Caribbean–not an American institution. While at college, however, she met a professor who was able to communicate the importance of written communication to her and tutor her on academic writing.

In our pre-college education we were all taught to write in the same way. In just about every high school and middle school classroom students are guided through a personal essay writing process and an academic research paper writing process. If you are able to master these two types of writing during high school It is our understanding that when you decide to attend college you are saying, “I have a desire to be a better writer. I want to move beyond the basic writing I’ve always done.”

I don’t know if you will ever have a moment where writing becomes more important to you, but I do know that we often encounter a number of challenges as we try to improve our craft. What seems unknown or mystical about academic writing to you?

In my experience, I often hear the following answers to this question:

  • Grammar/Language Usage
  •  Selecting and Citing other Writers in my Writing
  • I Don’t Have Anything Important/New to Say

The Parts of our Language

The English language derives from a variety of Germanic, Romanic and Latin roots. If you were to study the history of the English language you find that at certain points in the history of England the language spoken by the common people, now the most widely spoken language in the world, nearly collapsed several times. But it survived and is still growing rapidly throughout the world.

The words in our language serve 8 different roles:

  • Nouns
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Adverbs
  • Conjunctions
  • Prepositions
  • Articles
  • Interjections

These different parts of speech can be assembled to build sentences. The 10 patterns in the English language that codify nearly 98% of all sentences in the English language are:


When you understand how these pieces are parts can bring together the simple sentences, you also begin to understand how other parts can be added correctly. With practice you begin to build confidence with the language and your communication across all platforms begins to improve dramatically.

Saying What Other People Say

The best book I have read lately on academic writing is They Say; I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing  by Graff and Birkenstein. Now in its 3rd edition,  They Say, I Say shows how the parts and pieces of a well-written essay can come together for just about any college-level writer… or his or her professors.

Graff and Birkenstein give equal emphasis to the development of each critical section of an essay, the introduction, the body and the conclusion. They also provide a roadmap, of sorts, for writers to follow when making decisions about their writing.

The book illustrates how a writer can reasonably and persuasively respond to other writers without glaring and obvious bias. Take for example this segment from Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous letter he wrote in response to his fellow clergyman critics while he was held in a Birmingham jail.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In this one segment, King accurately summarizes what his critics convey in their letter to him. His response is to appeal to their common sense in saying that while the critics are not pleased by the demonstrations being carried out in their town, they should be equally displeased by the conduct that has initiated the demonstrations.

This is clearly a sensitive and important topic to write about and King’s response is one of his more well known pieces of writing. Writing about important, and sometimes divisive, topics with multiple points of view may be part of your college writing experience. The template below shows some moves one can make when one begins to talk about a controversial or divisive topic.

A good example of this approach being used in the real world can be found just about everyday on websites like the Huffington Post. Consider this example on a timely issue, how collegiate athletes should be better compensated. And take a look at this opinion piece posted to the Cedar Rapids, IA Gazette asserting that college athletes are already paid enough.

This is a big deal. Have you heard about the scandal that surrounds top executives at the Adidas company and major college basketball programs?

What if you worked in a professional capacity (accounting, marketing, finance, etc.) for a company tied to college athletics and your supervisor assigned you the task to write a response to the New York Times article linked above? Could you do it? In this scenario, I ask that you partner with one other person seated next to you to write a response to the article as representatives from a particular discipline (i.e. accounting, marketing, finance, and the like) and a specific company or organization (i.e. Nike, Under Armor, Octagon Talent, Gatorade, or the University of Kansas). Write a response that might appear in an opinion section of a news website discussing a point of view on how college athletes are paid and what should/could be done about it–if anything at all.

Use the template to help you get started, but apply some creative license to make the rhetorical “moves” work in your favor.

Speak up!

On of my lasting impressions that I hope to leave is that your writing does matter. You never, ever know how the things you write will impact your legacy. I have seen throughout my short life the amazing insights left behind by our most prominent and most forgotten historical figures. The handwritten notes of John F. Kennedy, the etchings of a final thesis in the rock walls of the Tower of London.

I was once walking down the aisles of a grocery store back home in Wichita, KS and a woman stopped me. She said, “Are you Lynn Skillen’s son?” I was a bit shocked by the question–my dad hadn’t lived in Kansas for at least 15 years. “Yes, I am.” I said. Then, with her hands shaking, she fumbled through her wallet to find a small note written in my dad’s handwriting. It was simply a word of encouragement in a very rough time in this woman’s life. She wouldn’t let me leave the store without knowing how much that note meant to her.

Take time to write every single day. The cognitive/tactile connections that need to exist in order to make the action of writing possible are quite complex and they can only be strengthened through routine practice. The more practice time, or mental reps, that you give to yourself will only strengthen your efforts to become a masterful communicator among a population of struggling writers.

Keep a journal, sketch ideas for your academic projects on a napkin, type an email to your parents. They will love you for it.

The most important writing I do every day are the handwritten notes I send to my grandmother who recently lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease. Watching the slow, methodic and inexplicable decline of a person’s cognitive abilities has a lasting effect. She writes me everyday in order to strengthen the cognitive connections that remain for her.

You have everything to say. Your experience is unique compared to the person sitting next to you. Your perspective, if honed and properly researched, can be the very explanation that someone needs to solve a problem or see a better solution.

Writing takes time, and it is time well spent.

I Knew John Bonifield

The key figure caught up in a Project Veritas exclusive on CNN’s coverage of President Trump, a series named American Pravda, is a senior producer named John Bonifield. As the story has unfolded online and in pockets of the mainstream media, I find myself laughing a little.

John and I first met in our sophomore year of high school in Maize, KS. My initial impression of John at that time was that he was smart. School came very easy to him, and he was very well spoken. We enrolled in drama classes and performed in a couple of shows together. We were acquaintances, maybe friends, for a short period of time. After high school our paths never crossed again.

John was a proud member of the school newspaper staff. He had a keen sense for journalism even in high school and it certainly doesn’t surprise me that he is a producer for a major cable news organization. I remember John once wrote an editorial for the school newspaper encouraging students at Maize High School to broaden their college searches beyond Kansas. In his mind, if you were going to really make it in life, you needed to get out of Kansas. He was probably right, but his editorial was so cynical condemning, and so well written, that a building principal thought it necessary to write a response to John’s editorial that appeared in the next issue of the paper.

The American Pravda series attempts, and succeeds in many ways, to reveal some truth behind so much news coverage that seems to be going nowhere. In several instances everyone, from John to former Obama Administration official turned CNN panelist Van Jones, has admitted there is nothing behind the Trump/Russia collusion story. Yet, CNN, and other networks struggling for relevance, continue to talk about conspiracies without any substantial proof.

As I watched the first video featuring several minutes of conversation between John and the Project Veritas reporter, I noticed that John mentioned that he, and many of his colleagues, are quite cynical. They believe journalism ethics are “cute” and they have declining opinions of their viewers. The search for higher ratings, it would appear, has replaced the pursuit of news.

Something else I noticed in the short video clip is that John mentions he “loves” the news business. So, for all the cynicism he has shared I am hopeful that my once and former friend will one day find joy in his work again. Maybe this undercover shakedown of CNN will encourage the top brass at the network to let creative, intelligent and hardworking people like Mr. Bonifield to produce news worthy of the once revered reputation of the worlds leading name in cable news.

The Chair Life: Year 1

The first week of June from the  Chair’s Desk looks very different from the first week of August. The waves of unread and unanswered email have subsided dramatically this week. The stacks of forms and papers are slowly shrinking and I can see sections of the surface of my desk. The first year in this post has revealed a lot to me about the nature of higher education, the importance of literacy and the value of people. I’m sure I already knew all of these things that were revealed this year, but this experience has enriched my worldview in ways I could have never anticipated.

Wins and Losses

In my methods classes I sometimes teach Bill McBride’s Entertaining an Elephant. The main character, a mid-career high school English teacher named Mr. Reaf, is in survival mode at the beginning of the story. A great illustration of his survival plays out in the first chapter as Mr. Reaf counts his “wins” on one had and his “losses” on the other. The goal: have just one more win than losses at the end of the day. What constitutes a win? If the class works steadily throughout the hour without disruption. Throughout the story, with the gentle guidance from an unlikely source, Reaf begins to reflect on more meaningful interactions with this students, and he ultimately finds new life in his teaching practice.

At the risk of sounding like Reaf, I find myself at the end of my first year as Chair reflecting on the successes, and some failures. I am going to choose to celebrate the successes and learn from my failures.

We’ve made remarkable progress this year as a team. Our year began with the department coming together to cast a vision of what we would like our department to be. Themes of unity, cohesion and collaboration. This really set a positive tone for the year ahead and everything that happened afterward is a direct result of the vision put forward by the department. Some of these larger accomplishments include:

  • In the fall I asked each division of the department to prepare Staffing and Curriculum Priorities reports. These reports revealed a great deal of positive ideas for the department. Most notably, the literature division devised several areas of international literatures that could be added to our curriculum through future hires.
  • Throughout the year we also examined our learning outcomes to see if there was, perhaps, room for consolidation and reprioritizing. The English Department wrote over sixteen outcomes eight years ago when the college developed a comprehensive program assessment plan. Sixteen is a lot of outcomes. With the help of everyone in the department we were able to propose a new assessment plan that measures five outcomes across all divisions in the department.
  • The development of a new Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) college certificate program. We are excited to begin offering the new courses in this program to advance Elizabethtown College students’ application of the language arts in such a way that will lead to meaningful life work.

On Enrollment

It’s no secret that many, though not all, private colleges will struggle for the forseeable future to determine how many students it can reasonably enroll and serve given the resources available. I have believed for some time that our English Department has the capacity to enroll more students. Throughout the year our department participated in a number of recruiting events and made purposeful attempts to invite and engage prospective students to join our community. Did it work? I don’t know, but I have one year of data to examine.

The enrollment model suggested the English Department would enroll 9 incoming students this year. As of May 1st we have enrolled 16 who have declared English or English: Secondary Education as a primary major and 10 more indicating English as a second major. I’ll take this as good news for sure.

I am under no illusion that a small bump in enrollment is going to solve all of the concerns and problems we face in the humanities in higher education. This one small positive data point is not indicative, yet, of a roaring comeback we have been looking for in the last eight years. It is, however, an indication, a sign of life, and that may be just enough to muster the energy and enthusiasm needed to make it happen again next year.

At the beginning of the year I posted a brief reflection on becoming a chair, a phenomenon that my four-year-old is still trying to comprehend. In that post I said, “I have found that I love this work. It is challenging, it is engaging, and it is important.” Now, at the end of the first year I still love this work. In fact, I think I love it more than I did in October. Are there parts of it that are unpleasant and nasty? Sure. But that is true of just about any other job out there. The positive aspects of the job, however, are truly inspirational in the most meaningful of ways.

Adaptation: A non-linear short story

This is an excerpt from a new short story entitled “Adaptation” a non-linear short story told through email and text messages between Mr. Ross–a high school biology teacher in Maize, Kansas. Though Maize is a real place, the people and events depicted in this story are 100% fictional. Any resemblances to actual people or events are strictly coincidental. 

You can follow the story by clicking on the “Adaptation” category in the side-bar.

 

To: Ross, Timothy

From Orr, Thomas

Subject: RE: AY 2003-04 Contract

Date: Tuesday, May 6, 2003 4:30 PM

Tim,

You make a fine point. I’ll check to see if Jim Hyde can run this place without me for a couple of hours so that I can attend the meeting too. Have a great evening.

Talk soon.

Mr. O.


To: Orr, Thomas

From: Ross, Timothy

Subject: Re: AY 2003-04 Contract

Date: Tuesday, May 6, 2003 2:22 PM

Mr. Orr,

Thank you for the clarification and for passing on the information about the curriculum meeting. Will you be attending this meeting as well? It might be a good idea to have school-level administrators there too in case questions about alignment come up.  Your background in Chemistry would also make you uniquely qualified among building principals to talk about the new standards and their application at MHS.

–Tim


To: Ross, Timothy

From Orr, Thomas

Subject: RE: AY 2003-04 Contract

Date: Tuesday, May 6, 2003 2:00 PM

Tim,

Thanks for your email. I just received word from Carla, the Curriculum Director at C.O. She’s calling a meeting next week for all 6-12 science teachers to discuss the new state standards. After participating in the meeting I am told the Superintendent will have your contracts.

Thanks much,

Mr. O.


To: Orr, Thomas

From: Ross, Timothy

Subject: AY 2003-04 Contract

Date: Tuesday, May 6, 2003 6:45 AM

Dear Mr. Thomas.

Thank you for meeting with me last week to discuss the observations you made during a recent visit to my 9th grade biology class. Your insight on student engagement and curriculum alignment were very insightful and truly helpful.

I am writing today to see if any further information is available pertaining to my contract for the next school year. I have heard from my colleagues in the math department that they have received and signed the new negotiated agreement for the 2003-04 school year. Can I expect to review my contract soon?

Sincerely,

Tim Ross
Department of Biology
Maize High School

My 30 Minutes with Ta-Nehisi Coates

At the 2016 National Council of Teachers of English annual convention in Atlanta, GA I had the supreme pleasure of preparing and conducting a short interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me, for the convention. Before being asked to conduct the interview I knew little of Coates’s work, but I accepted the opporutnity because I felt I could learn a great deal from the experience. In hind’s sight, I certainly didn’t know all that this experience would mean to me when I said, “Sure. This sounds like fun.”

In late September I received a call from Susan Houser, the In-coming President of NCTE. Susan and I are close friends. We have served together at NCTE for about three years, and we talked a lot about her convention in the lead up to the Atlanta meeting.

“I have a question for you,” she began. “How would you like to interview Ta-Nehisi Coates as part of one of the general sessions?”

I accepted. We talked a little about procedure, and then we ended the call.

I found a copy of Between the World and Me and began to read. For those not familiar with the book, it is a memoir written in the form of a letter to Coates’s 16-year-old son. The book covers a wide landscape of the human experience from a very specific point of view–that of a black man living in the Mid-Atlantic United States.

As I read through the book I would jot questions down. Some very specific, and some quite general on politics, race, and education. I thought carefully about how to frame each question for what I hope would turn into longer conversations not only on the stage, but in the larger convention. I hoped people would leave thinking more purposefully about their place in this world, examining their own experience and considering the voices and considerations of others.

It is easy, at first, to see the differences that exist between you and any other person. In the case of Coates and me, we couldn’t be more unalike at first glance. We grew up in different parts of the country under very different circumstances. We attended college in two very different areas of the country and at very different times. These differences are easy to see within the first few chapters of the text.  But as I continued to read the differences began to fade to the background. Rather, the things we have in common emerge and become the primary focus of the book.

This is how the interview ultimately took shape as well. On stage we talked about his book and its success. We talked about process and what the book means to so many people who have read it, including me. One point that I was happy to dwell on for a moment or two was that in his letter to his son he is able to capture the unbelievable sense of fear and absolute optimism a father has for his children as they grow and begin to make a mark in the world. And, almost as quickly as it started, it was over.

We only had 30 minutes, but it felt like 30 seconds. The biggest takeaway that I think I will carry from this entire experience is that an open mind is likely the best characteristic to carry with you in your search for a more enriched life. Before this opporutnity presented istelf, I didn’t know about Coates beyond one or two of his essays he had written for online magazines. And, I don’t believe that I would have picked up Between the World and Me if NCTE hadn’t been asked me to prepare questions for the interview.  But I am certainly better for it as a result. Reading Coates’s book and talking with him in person has challenged me to think about my own experiences and relationships in an effort to better understand the impact I can make in my own community.

Seeing The Forest: The future of English Majors

There’s a saying that goes, “he couldn’t see the forest for the trees.” It means that someone is so focused on the details of a particular project or aspect of an organization that he (or she) is missing the bigger picture. I have been guilty, for sure, at being so focused on the individual trees that I lose track of the larger mission, but I have been lucky, in some cases, to zoom out just in time and adjust my thinking to work toward the bigger goal.

A few weeks ago, while preparing for a guest lecture in a business writing class, I came across an article about a new art installataion at the National Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan called “Forest of Numbers.” The installation was designed by Emanmanuelle Moureax, and his work was to mark the 10-year anniversary of the museum by visualizing ten years into the future. You can read more about Moureaux’s work here: https://vimeo.com/203244686

I love this art installation. Its sheer size and scope are amazing. Thousands of paper numbers in a full spectrum of colors hung by hundreds of volunteers. The magnitude of this piece only amplifies its message: we are living in exponential times. There are, indeed, great waves of data streaming into, throughout and around our routines and rituals. We create data in our buying habits, our viewing habits and our seeping habits (checking my Fitbit now). And all of these data points inform our managers, the retailers we frequent and online advertisers.

I believe Moureaux has created a near perfect setting for us to consider the vastness of the human experience that we can expect to unfold in the next decade. And, as overwhelming as this may seem based on the pictures and video, I look at this installation and I think, “So what does the future hold for English majors?” And, I found an interesting answer from a very unlikely source, billionaire media mogul Mark Cuban.

Earlier in February Mr. Cuban gave an interview to Bloomberg News at the 2017 NBA All-Star Technology Summit in New Orleans. In this interview he had a rather grim prediction for the future of jobs in America. In short Cuban pointed to automation as the ultimate job killer as business owners continue to choose robots and computers over humans. When the interviewer asked Cuban what fields he would encourage young people to pursue, he didn’t recommend finance. He said,

Not finance. That’s the easiest thing — you just take the data have it spit out whatever you need. I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there were for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data. And so having someone who is more of a freer thinker.

Think about that for a moment. Automation has essentially begun to replace even those who gather and crunch complex financial data sets. The processes have become so streamlined that in the near future the greatest demand is going to be for those who can look at the automated results and provide a unique analysis and perspective. In other words, those who can “see the forest” will be in higher demand than those who can only see the invidual tree.

English majors have a particular knack and training to look a large pieces of literature and develop an analysis that brings new meaning to a text.  If Cuban is right, and English majors become more highly sought after in the next 10 years, just as computer scientists were 10 years ago, then we needed to be thinking about how we teach and prepare English majors about five years ago. Because my colleagues in the Phyics Department have yet to develop a time machine, so they tell me, I am inspired to consider how we in the English Department should be changing to meet the growing need for “freer thinkers” and big data analysts.

We will need more faculty to “see the forest” if we are going to succeed.  But the good news is that I believe we are well positioned to get a bigger view of the landscape and adjust where needed.

 

 

Reflections on a Day at the Beach

I went to Lake Worth Beach today in Florida. The weather was nearly perfect and the water was that shade of blue that hypnotizes in-lander tourists. You know what I mean. It’s that bluest blue that invites you to recline a little longer to take in the breeze, the clouds, the salt. That was how it was today. Perfect.

My children are at the right age for this kind of outing. My daughter in a sun dress, my son in shorts. I watched them laugh and play for the first time in the ocean. Well, this was the first time they played in the ocean without being carried out and dipped into the water for a photo opportunity. No, this was their first experience at the beach where they played their own games and explored the mosaic washed up pieces of shells and coral, smoothed by the rolling waters on their own.

We grabbed handfuls of shells, talked to a pelican perched on the pier, and drank Coke-a-Cola. I watched them run and laugh and throw handfuls of wet sand into the approaching waves. My son, who is always moving even when he should be sitting still, is almost cemented to the shore as the waves pass over his feet, burying him in sand a little bit more each time.

My daughter can hardly contain her excitement. She has been dreaming of this day since November. Now several months later she runs nonstop on the sand.  Then, she runs to the water and lets the cold wave wash over her legs.

When the parking meter runs out of time we wash the sand off of our feet near a public pavilion and walk slowly back to our car. We know we will be back sooner than we think, but we find ourselves completely content and fulfilled in this moment.

30 Days with Billy Corgan

In 1994-95 I was a high school freshman at Maize High School, which was, at the time, situated about five miles outside of Wichita, KS. I had just moved to this high school after living in Powell, OH for four years. The school was familiar, in an odd sort of way. Contrary to popular belief, there really isn’t much difference between Central Ohio and Central Kansas. The cafeteria food tasted the same, all the kids dressed the same, and they told the similar stories. On the first day of school I quickly aligned myself with the people I had met in marching band. This was my tribe.  These were the people whom I would rely on in these early days at my new school.

My new crew was a mashup of characters who, first and foremost, took the music of marching band very seriously. They practiced for hours every single day and memorized their charts immediately. Outside of the music and marching, they were normal people who listened to a wide variety of music. I listened to a Smashing Pumpkins album for the first time among my new friends who were so familiar with his music that they almost put it on as background music.

I think I was immediately taken by the sound and soul of Billy Corgan’s music. It resonated with me for some reason. His songwriting matched with full dynamic range guitar sounds punched through my chest and ignited a fire. There was something universal and relational about Corgan’s music that I found refreshing. And I suppose it is this initial connection that urged me to stop and click on a series of videos posted to the Smashing Pumpkins YouTube channel last month. The three videos were the first three installments of a 30-day documentary series that Billy produced while traveling parts of “Flyover Country” (those significant areas outside of the media centers of New York and LA) and writing new music.

Something that you need to know is that while I have always enjoyed Smashing Pumpkins music I have never thought I was “cool” enough to admit it. That is to say, I never thought I completely understood it, like there was some higher level I was never able to tap into in 1994. And while I don’t know that I completely understand the mission Billy Corgan is on, it resonates with me. Though I live in Pennsylvania, I am from flyover country. The people and the story he was seeking in his long road trip across the American South collides every once in a  while with my story, my experiences and my values. The web documentary series was a light-hearted and, at times, tragic reminder that there is a wide, wide world beyond our immediate existence. Great inspiration exists out there; we just need to take time to find it.

Along his journey, Billy and his documentary crew captured some memorable moments that made me laugh and inspired me to think about my own work as an academic and teacher.

Laundry

In an early episode Billy stops to do laundry at a coin-operated laundromat. The facilities look decent, but you can tell the laundromat hasn’t been updated in decades. In fact, even the magazines are nearly 20 years old. While waiting for his clothes to cycle through Billy finds issues of Rolling Stone  and Guitar World in which he and his music are featured. The camera captures a weird sense of nostalgia that crosses Billy’s face as he reads a pull quote from a feature article written about Smashing Pumpkins. Billy reads the quote aloud and laughs, as if to say, “Yeah, that sounds like something I would have said in my 20s.”

Early success, on any scale, has a weird effect on people. I am not saying that I can compare my success as a teacher with that of a multi-platinum recording artist.  Only in my wildest dreams are these two things comparable.  Instead, I think this moment in the laundromat gave Mr. Corgan a neat perspective on who he has become as an artist. I recently read through an application packet that I had to pull together for the Kansas Horizon Award that I won 2004. I had just started my second year of classroom teaching and I was told that I had been nominated for this state level award for outstanding service in the first year of the teaching profession. The nomination packet required me to collect several letters of support and to write a few essays. As I read through my essays today I smirk at the absolute naive tone I see in my explanation of best teaching practices and my plans for further professional development. But isn’t that cool? I think I would be really heartbroken if, when reading those early career essays, I found myself in the same place. I am truly happy I have moved on to new experiences and insight.

Caves

In another episode Billy takes a cave tour, which is always an experience unlike anything one has ever done.  Picture it, you actually pay for the opportunity to walk two or three miles (or more) down into a cavern under the earth–from which you might not return if something remarkably tragic, like an earthquake, flood, mudslide, or some other natural disaster blocks the precious few exits. That said, Billy decides to take a cave tour of which he says, “Fun fact, last time I was in a cave I was with Courtney Love.” If that is indeed true, I’m afraid we need to know more Mr. Corgan.

Billy admits that he doesn’t like tours because when you take a tour you are expected to stay with a group of people and do exactly what you are told. And, throughout the episode, Billy makes these facial expressions to the camera that indicate he is not always having the time of his life on the tour.  There is a moment, however, in the episode when the tour guide does the big reveal, the large cavernous room that every cave tour guid saves for last, and it is in that moment that both the viewer, and Mr. Corgan, realize that the whole affair was worth it.  At the conclusion of the tour Corgan says something like, “I am not the same person that first went into the cave. I’ve emerged someone new.”

Hard Work

No matter what one does, success is the result of hard work, and a lot of luck. At one point throughout his songwriting tour, Billy meets a young musician who asks, “How do you take a band and its music to the next level?” The question was posed by an aspiring rocker who has some significant talent (he and Billy played a little together on camera). Billy’s advice was simple, and direct. His message was to work hard to routinely create good content that entertains and engages an audience. If the content is truly good, you will create a following.

The young musician said, “I feel like that is great advice for someone who already has a national following.”

Yes, while it is true it may be “easier” for someone like Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins to connect with a large audience through YouTube, this influence has come at the expense of a lot of hard work–which is what Billy was trying to convey to the young rocker. This is one of the better interchanges in the entire web series because here in front of this young musician is an icon he has looked up to nearly his entire life. That icon is giving sound advice and the yet-to-be-discovered musician nearly starts an argument because the advice isn’t what he expected.

Nothing in life, not even fame, comes easy.

Place

At one point while watching one of the longer episodes I scratched down this quote:

If you have faith, then you must also believe in place.

I don’t know if I even have the quote down right, but this idea sparked a number of interesting ideas that I think I need to chase further. I have always believed in the power of place. Perhaps it is just the way that I catalog memories, but whenever I visit a place from my past my brain cues up an endless loop of memories that are anchored to that place. I can remember finishing up my last class in my undergraduate degree at Friends University. Class ended early. On my walk back to my on-campus apartment I decided to meander a bit. I walked through every building on campus and let the flood of memories from four years rush over me. It was overwhelming, and yet quite healing too.

I have thought a lot lately about faith and place. In future posts I think I am going to be ready to share tributes that I have drafted about both my paternal grandmother and grandfather. Both have passed away recently, and if I am going to talk about faith, their story will certainly play a part. The where and how these things collide will, hopefully, become apparent as I piece together these new epiphanies that have surfaced since first considering how faith–being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see–plays a part in the absolute significance of place and experience.

Thank you, Mr. Corgan. Your art and philosophy have once again caught me at a moment when I needed a shot in the arm.

The Chair Life or #ChairProbs

I kissed my kids this morning as I left for another full day at the office. I love my job. In fact, I can’t tell you how long it has been since I have loved a job more than I love this one. It is a job that occupies my mind almost every minute of the business day, and sometimes beyond. But I love it. It is remarkable.

“Are you going to be at work all day and night today?” My six-year-old asks.

“No, I’ll be home for dinner. But I have a lot of meetings today, so I need to get going.” I said.

“Why do you have so many meetings?” He asked.

“That’s the life of a Department Chair.” I said.

“You’re a Department Chair? How can a person be a chair?” My three-year-old, and very observant, daughter asked.

What a great question.  How does one become a chair?

I know what she was asking, but the question posed in the voice of my three-year-old made me think, “How did I ever end up here?”

From Reluctance to Opporutity

I began my career as a college professor nearly 8 years ago. I was hired as an Assistant Professor of English at Elizabethtown College and six years later I was promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure.  Seems straightforward enough. I had set out to become a college professor after a brief four-year stint as a middle school English teacher, followed by a 2-year residency Ph.D. program at the Kansas State University College of Education.

In my pursuit to be a college professor I had but a few goals:

  • develop great classes for students,
  • write things people actually want to read, and
  • contribute to my college community in a meaningful way

You will note that I never set out to be a department chair, hold leadership positions, or seek fame. I didn’t have time for these things I thought, so they weren’t even on my radar.

But shortly after I was awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor at Elizabethtown College the topic of when, not if, I were to serve as department chair became a conversation of some concern among me and my colleagues. There was a moment where I felt completely reluctant to even consider the idea. However, I quickly came around to realize this was a remarkable opportunity that I could not pass up.

There is No Training Like On-The-Job Training.

Larger colleges and universities probably send new department chair recruits to conferences and workshops on how to lead an academic department. Moderately-sized colleges might even host a series of meetings on campus to train new department leaders, but that is not part of my experience. And I believe this is the most important aspect of daughter’s question above. How did I become a chair, I just did–without much training or mentorship I assumed the role on July 1, 2016.

I did a fair amount of reading before taking over the department. I read over the most recent external review conducted right before I was hired in 2009. The extensive report written by outside reviewers provided important context. I saw the perceived areas of growth and read the criticisms as potential areas of developement.

I also found Jeff McClurken’s “Open Letter to 2010-2011’s New Department Chairs.” I think what I appreciate the most about Jeff’s letter is that he gives the new department chair a moment to reconnect with her/his/their humanity. At the end of the day, every department chair is only human, and humans make mistakes. Almost nothing that I set out to do will be perfect, though I have committed to do my work in this capacity with pride and keen sense of quality. There is, after all, nothing easy about this job. They take away nearly half of what you love–teaching, and they give you double of what you loathe–meetings. But I have found that I love this work. It is challenging, it is engaging, and it is important.

As the journey continues throughout the year I may look back on this post and think, “Look at that starry-eyed idiot waxing on and on about how his work is engaging and important…” But until I reach that point I’ll simply say this: I have found one becomes a chair when he or she finds (or develops) a passion (or love) for his or her discipline, his or her colleagues, all students involved and the collective work of the entire unit. This has become the fuel that burns every day that I wake up to do my job, and it is the guiding principle behind every decision I make–even the difficult decisions that often keep me up late at night.

Paulo Freire once examined education as “an act of love.”  I believe this is something I need to examine in a future post about becoming a department chair.

Is Trump the Gonzo Candidate?

“…why not run an honest freak and turn him loose, on their turf, to show up all the normal candidates for the worthless losers they are and always have been?” –HST “Freak Power in the Rockies” (1970)

As Donald J. Trump accepted the RNC nomination on Thursday night I couldn’t believe at first what my eyes were seeing, but more importantly I could not believe what I was hearing.

Something I don’t broadcast too often is that I am a registered Republican, but I more closely identify with the Libertarian party. I know, let’s try to keep this between you and me. If you are still reading I’ll also point out that I am something of a political agnostic–I really don’t believe in any of them in DC or Harrisburg anymore.  One more disclosure: I follow politics like a casual fan with season tickets to the game. I am no professional in this field, but I enjoy watching it.

I watch and read a lot of political commentary. My Twitter feed is full of posits by political candidates and pundits of all stripes and parties.  The modern political news cycle moves far too fast for me to catch everything, but political storylines are plentiful this day and age, and they serve as a great distraction sometimes. Something I’ve noticed of late is that we don’t really have a political correspondent like the late, great Hunter S. Thompson. I am not a Thompson scholar, but I have read all of his books and I once taught an advanced seminar on his works at Elizabethtown College in 2014. And I have wondered for two years now, as the 2016 campaign has unfolded, what Thompson would say about the political landscape that America now has to consider.

Thompson published the columns he wrote as an embedded journalist during the 1972 presidential campaign in a single volume he titled Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. In this disjointed text Thompson applies the in-the-moment, full-throttle “Gonzo” style journalism to give Rolling Stone readers a front-row seat to the American political process. I say “disjointed” because it is the best word I can use to describe the book. When the columns are published next to one another in sequential order, there is a lack of continuity one might find in a collection of works by Friedman or Kristol. Thompson’s reporting often put himself in the center of the story. The net effect was that the reader felt he or she was there with him in that moment.

As a political figure, Thompson was an irreverent visionary who some say was way ahead of his time. His own bid for the office of Sheriff in Aspen, CO commenced and ended in defeat in 1970. Thompson ran on a Freak Power platform. His plan was to engage a population of dope users, bikers and other marginalized populations to push his unconventional candidacy over the top. In short, he sought the highest office of law enforcement in Aspen by courting a coalition of voters who were most certainly on the other side of the law.

His own campaign in Aspen, and the success of his first major publication Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs caught the attention of Rolling Stone, a magazine that was looking to play a role in engaging the new youth vote in play for the 1972 election after the Twenty-sixth Ammendment to the US Consitituion was enacted–giving 18-year-olds the opportunity to vote for the first time in a national election. Thompson became a political correspondent for the magazine and the rest became history-in-the-making.

Thompson left such a strong imprint on American politics covering the ’72 election that even late in his life political reporters would often ask him for his insight every four years. This was a topic he cared deeply about.  So much so that it has been said by surviving family members that the re-election of George W. Bush was one reason he finally decided to take his own life. Now gone, his influence floats over every political season as life-long fans and admirers, like yours truly, speculate about what he would say if he were still alive today.

In 2014 Marin Cogen of National Journal published an article called “The Gonzo Option” in which Cogen offers a profile of former Montana Democrat Governor Brian Schweitzer. The article introduces Schweitzer to a larger audience and describes him as the “Gonzo” option for the Democrat presidential ticket. Schweitzer is opinionated. He is liberal on some issues; conservative on others. He doesn’t fit the Democrat mold in 2014 (or 2016) because he, among other things, is pro-Second Amendment and boasts an A+ rating from the NRA. While Schweitzer is a seasoned politician, he looks a lot like an unconventional outsider much like Thompson must have appeared in the Apsen election of 1970. As Bernie declared (and it has been recently confirmed through a huge email dump posted on Wikileaks), the fix was in for Hillary, so maybe we will have to wait some time for a Schwietzer candidacy.

Enter Trump. His nationalist campaign message makes blood nearly shoot out Van Jones’s eyes and stirs the hearts of middle-American conservatives (not all conservatives in fly-over country, but most). However, from his acceptance speech at the RNC many see a complex political viewpoint developing. Trump, like Schweitzer, is clearly conservative on some issues and quite liberal on others. Trump, like Thompson, is tapping into the growing sense of so many people who feel the last 8 years have been a disaster for them. They have been, effectively, on the other side looking in. Like it or not; it’s working.

Trump applied an important aspect of Gonzo in his campaign for the RNC nomination. He made the story about him as much as possible. When he wanted to dominate the news cycle he would change a primary acceptance speech into a press conference ensuring that all media outlets would give him ample airtime to set the narrative. When Ted Cruz was speaking at the convention, and it was clear Cruz was not going to endorse the nominee, Trump made a well-timed entrance into the Quicken Loans Arena–inserting himself into Cruz’s speech which had been the top story of the day on the Convention floor an in the press boxes. He is a lightening rod, a sure-shot ratings producer for TV stations and news outlets. Like him or hate him, he has brand recognition and he just steamrolled an established political party as a complete political outsider. He is bombastic, incidiary and improvisational. While predictable, we still listen to him, just as we listen to Schwietzer and read Thompson, because we know he will say something unexpected.

Thompson, as I said, ended up losing his bid for Sherrif in 1970. The vote was close, but he lost. He did, however, help frame one of the greater upsets in the ’72 DNC primary by supporting Geroge McGovern in his work for Rolling Stone, and he is a long-standing American icon who will continue to prevail so long as we subject ourselves to elections every four years.

Is Trump the Gonzo candidate? Maybe he is. If Schweitzer is, as National Journal suggests, then there is a case Trump is too. He and Schweitzer share some similarities, though their backgrounds are quite different. Politically speaking, they both represent a new type of candidate in presidential politics–the unpolished and brash personalities who are not poll tested or beholden to one contemporary political ideology.

Would Thomposon endorse a Trump candidacy? Probably not. Trump’s acceptance speech revitalized the landscape of Fear and Loathing (and paranoia) Thompson railed against in nearly every piece of writing he published throughout the late 60s and 70s. So, Trump would certainly give Thompson plenty to write about today. Trump painted a pretty grim picture of America in his acceptance speech–a scene we haven’t seen since the 60s. To see Thompson’s comparisons of today and the 1960s would be insightful and illuminating. We could, perhaps, learn a great deal about ourselves and the hand we have all played in creating an environment in which Trump is a candidate for President.

What about Hillary? I don’t know if Thompson would support her either. Hunter was quite critical of the Clintons, particularly during the fallout of the Whitewater scandal. He would have plenty to say about the many scandals that have lingered around Mrs. Clinton. Thompson, a well-known harsh critic of Nixon, absolutely loathed cronyism and corruption.

So, it is difficult to say who Thompson would support today.  Many of us in the voting public may be just as conflicted when it comes time to pull the lever for one of the two major candidates.  Of the two party system, Thompson once said, “There’s a terrible danger in voting for the lesser of two evils because the parities can set it up that way.”

To put it another way, Evil is just one election away from the White House. Buckle up, America. We are in for a wild ride.