The Broad is Back!

November 14, 2016

Some Timely Advice for College Students, Mostly Freshmen

I just realized that it’s been 4 months since I’ve blogged. It’s been that kind of year. But today as I was preparing a weekly “letter” for my online students, I started to pass out advice not only for writing the final draft, but for surviving the last weeks of term.

Although this has nothing to do with culture, culture clash or other things I usually write about, I decided to post it because frankly, it’s good advice.

So, here you go. I teach English, but this works for all students, especially those facing writing projects:

You’ve done the outline you’ve done the research. Now it’s time to write the first draft.

My best advice to you? “Get it down, then get it right.” That was something I learned from a master teacher when I was in grad school learning how to be a composition teacher (yes, I did take a number of classes on how to teach and how to teach on line.)

What does that mean? It means try very hard to write your first draft without stopping to correct. Get those ideas down on paper because you can always polish them up later. Often when we write we agonize over a sentence and in doing so forget where we were going with the thought. You have the information in your head. Just write it!

Then give it a day to “settle” and step away from it to clear I from your head. Then go back and work on the revision. Clarifying the logic, making the words pretty, making sure you have enough evidence. THEN go back and edit it, preferably on a different day. Again, you want to give your brain time to “forget” what you’ve written. See, our brains are smarter than we give them credit for. They know what we want to say, so when we read something we’ve written, our brains see what we think we wrote. By giving ourselves some time off, it becomes a little harder for our brains to trick us into seeing what we want to see.

And for people with learning disabilities like me, the end of term means stressing and rushing. I find myself struggling more and more with my dyslexia under these circumstances. I force myself to slow down and calm down. Breathing helps. I know you’re breathing, but when we’re stressed, we breathe much more shallowly, which deprives the brain of the oxygen it needs to function at its best. Take some good deep breaths, in slowly, out slowly, to oxygenate your brain.

I’m a big believer in the science of high performance. Our bodies are the greatest machines run by the most brilliant computers on earth. We can’t run them on substandard care and expect their peak performance. If your life is anything like mine, sleep gets cut first, but I am also trying to avoid junk food, eating lean proteins, mostly vegetarian, unrefined carbs and fruits and veg.

Eat breakfast. It really helps! During the week I don’t have much time, so I make a peanut butter on a whole wheat sandwich thin and bring my travel mug of tea. Filling and easy. And a multivitamin won’t hurt. I actually take a lot of different vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements to support my crazy life, especially D as I don’t drink milk. I had low D this summer and was exhausted. After a blood test and a prescription I was much, much better.

Sorry about the life advice, but I teach humans, not just names on a screen. I have a lot of experience, so I want to share. I would be saying the same in a f2f class!

So, that’s what I said to my students and I share it with all students. Good luck with the end of term.

I will be back soon. I have SO much to say but no time to say it. Hold on to your hats, folks, the Broad is coming back!

July 13, 2016

Eternal Rest Grant to Her, Oh Lord

In September of 1983, I started graduate school at the College of St. Rose in Albany, NY. I was clueless as to what that meant; clueless as to what I wanted to be, other than “a writer;” and I was basically playing it by ear.

My second semester there, I had a class with Dr. April Selley. To my 22-year-old self, she was an elder, very strict, kinda scary, and frankly, sometimes odd. She was the best professor I have ever had and have ever known. She went on to be one of my dearest friends. Today she died. Demon cancer.

april

My beautiful friend. I barely have any pictures of her.

While April and I became close friends–she once said I was probably one of the few people on earth she could live with–to me, she was also always “my professor”. To me, teaching is a sacred bond between two people. When we’re very lucky, that bond extends beyond the classroom, but the pupil always owes the excellent teacher respect for the knowledge given. I respect and love many of my former professors, and I try hard to be the professor who honors the sacred bond with my students. I learned that from April. She complimented me on my passion and love for my students once. She cried when I said, “but that’s what you taught me. I am only trying to be like you.”

I can’t even explain to you her brilliance. She earned a PhD in literature from Brown, so that should tell you something. Her scholarly focus was on Cooper, Poe and the Transcendentalists, but her passion was Star Trek. She’s a contributor to the Star Trek Encyclopedia and has done much work on the topic. She’s lectured on it, written on it, and frankly, fangirled about it, though I doubt she ever used that term.

She was an award winning poet. Her poetry was often deeply imbued with her Catholic faith as well as her feminism. “The Three Middle Aged Women in Speed” is about the three women who die because middle aged women are expendable. She wrote about Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe talking in Heaven about the pressure of being icons,  and the murder of a great-aunt by a rival in Portugal. A poem I’ve been thinking about today is her “Cleaning Out the Refrigerators of the Dead.” That is the last service we do for our friends, and it always tells a story.

I am not there to do that for my friend. This is the down side of living in America–it’s so big. She died in Rotterdam, NY, where she lived. She taught at Union College. But she’s going home to Bristol, RI to be waked and buried. There’s no way I can be there and back next week. I have responsibilities here. April will be the first to totally understand.

After I earned my MA, I went on to a PhD program. April would write to me and give me advice.  This was before email. She’d actually handwrite a letter in her beautiful handwriting. She helped me more than any other professor I’d had. My other professors were thrilled that I was going on, but she took the time to write and encourage. That meant so much to me–the first college graduate in my family–the first to go to graduate school–the first to earn a PhD. I was a working class kid. What did I know?

A year after I moved to Taiwan, she got a Fulbright grant to teach in Japan. One of her poems about that time can be found here. Since I was so close, she came to visit me and Taiwan. We did a few things together, but I was busy with my son–it was the Chinese New Year holiday and my mom had gone to the US. But we sat up late one night singing along to the Dogstar CD I’d bought. We both loved the band–me for the music, her more because it featured Keanu Reeve, and I think she was his biggest fan.

She actually wrote an analysis of every film he ever did, rating his performance. She loved his acting and thought the man erudite and charming. She once drove hours over a mountain into Vermont during a snowstorm to hear him do a talkback after a film during a festival. She found him modest, polite and nothing like his public image. She also thought he is the most beautiful man on earth, but honestly, it wasn’t a crush. She admired him. She got me to, as well.

After the Dogstar we started rocking out to The Monkees and The Jackson 5, dancing around the room until my 5 year old came in to check on the crazy adults.

That’s when I realized April wasn’t old. I was 35, she was 41. Not a big spread.

And she was so funny. We could laugh together for hours.

So brilliant and funny and kind, but she was good. A good, good person.

When the secretary of her department had to retire due to dementia, April was the one who took over her care. Thora had no family, so April got home health care, did her shopping, made sure things were maintained. Thora has now outlived April, and I hope someone steps in in April’s name. April got nothing from Thora’s estate nor did she expect anything. That’s April.

When I had to move back to the US in 2007, April found me at least a summer job for the AOP program at her college, Union. She let me stay in her house rent free. She took me out to dinner. She let me stay the next two summers as well, so I would have summer income as I couldn’t find a full time job. That’s April.

She lit a candle for me in church every Sunday for ten years, before I even returned, so I could get a job. She said I was the hardest case she ever had, but that was April. She refused to give up. And she had total faith in God. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t nag him.

She fought leukemia a while back, but lived to tell the tale. But this time, a rarer, more virulent form of cancer attacked. She fought so hard. The last time I heard from her she told me she couldn’t die. She’d paid too much for the damn computer she’d just bought. She had to live long enough to make it worth it.

I’m not sad today. Sad isn’t my style.

I’m angry.

I’m angry that I’ll never get to read more than the first two chapters of the novel she was writing. She’d asked me to be a reader, and I loved it. Funny, poignant. Now I will never find out what happens.

I’m angry that she didn’t earn more fame for her writing. She was honestly brilliant at it.Her voice should have been heard by millions, not thousands.

I’m angry that I’ll never see that beautiful handwriting on a birthday card or the annual Christmas letter in July because she never actually had time to write them in December thanks to teaching.

I’m angry that she never got to read my paper on Louisa May Alcott that was so rudely rejected by a literary journal last winter. I was supposed to mail it to her in March, but I didn’t have time. Hers was the opinion I valued most on the topic. And she seemed interested, too.

I’m angry that she’s been so ill lately that she couldn’t talk to her friends on the phone.

I’m angry that she’ll never get to see my kid on film. She was such a booster.

I’m angriest that the last letter I sent telling her I knew I’d never see her again on this plane, but that I will love her forever, my sister of the heart, would have arrived in today’s mail. She died in the morning.

No, what I’m angriest about is that we won’t get to be crazy old women together. She was determined, stubborn, goal-oriented, brilliant. She’d have been a hoot of an old gal. She was 61. That’s not old enough, not by a long shot.

Everybody says good things about the dead, but April Rose Selley was one of the best people I’ve ever known in my life. The world has lost more than it realizes.

I know that you will be resting in peace, my darling April. If anyone deserves Heaven, it’s you. Well, for all I know, you’ll be nagging God face to face because you really are that stubborn.

 

July 6, 2016

Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night

Today I am broken-hearted. I was upset about the state of humanity this morning, but this afternoon is when the blow came. I lost a former student.

I hate that euphemism. He died. Ethan Taranto-Kent, a young man I taught in 2007-08. Thanks to the internet, we stayed connected and got to know each other as people. He was a fine one.

ethan pawla truck

He was also a young story teller, author, director and lead of the web series Mad Nation, which you can watch on his YouTube channel, Pernicious Paradise.  A post-apocalyptic action/adventure/rumination on humanity, he had hopes of growing the show. Now that will never happen.

Ethan and I would talk a lot, chat online more, about all sorts of things: humans, responsibility, politics, art, the Constitution, guns, knives, dogs, LA, acting, people. I really enjoyed out chats because Ethan was a thinker. He was serious and he cared. He never let me give the blithe answer–the joke. He pressed me to be serious, not something people commonly do these days. At his heart, he was serious and talented and deep.

He was also sweet and loving. I’ve digitally met his fiance Nikki. My heart grieves for her, too. Just a few months ago, Ethan was griping about something and said it was what he lived for. I said, no, Nikki and Pawla are who you live for, and if he and Nikki broke up, I would cry. Today I cried for her. Pawla is their rescue dog. If you want the essence of Ethan and Nikki, watch their beautiful video about Pawla’s adoption.

ethan and nikki

Ethan’s not the first student I’ve lost, but that doesn’t make it any easier. There have been cancers, accidents, suicides, the usual suspects that take young lives. I don’t even know how Ethan died, only that it was sudden and totally unexpected.

But if we love people, we’re probably going to lose some of them, and that’s the price we pay for loving. As with most people, it was totally worth the price of loving this young man.

Ethan, I will miss you. Thank you for being my friend, for pushing me when I didn’t want to be pushed, for living your dream, for loving Nikki and Pawla, for letting me into your world and sharing your loves with us, for being a Light in the world. That Light is gone, but the art you leave behind you and the memories you leave those of us still here will keep you evergreen.

ethan peeingethan and pawlaethan in costume

August 8, 2014

The End is Near

I am writing this with something of a heavy heart: this is one of my last The Broad is Back columns. Faithful readers won’t be shocked to learn that the Broad is going to be abroad again. After seven years back in the US, I’m leaving again for a job.

My heart is heavy because I don’t really want to leave. Once again, I’m being pushed to leave my family, my friends, the familiar, but I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. I don’t have much of a choice, because since I’ve been back in the US, I have not been able to find full time work. I’ve been working two, three, sometimes four jobs at a time trying to make ends meet. There have been a few “flush” times, but for the most part every year I’m back in the US I fall deeper and deeper into debt.

Luckily, much of that debt is to the National Bank of Mom, so the terms are easy and it doesn’t impact my credit rating. The only other debt I have is my student loans, another debacle facing Americans. Every time I have to get a low income payment adjustment or that double edged sword, the deferment, the interest added to my debt goes up and up and up. In fact, my debt is now twice what it was when I graduated, purely on fees and interest. I paid for years, but then hit a stretch, going on 10 years now, of financial difficulties. I could pay off the principle, but the interest and fees are killing me.

Full disclosure: I have to admit that I did get two job offers, both in the NYC area, where I am from and where I’d theoretically like to stay. Both offered salaries that would have meant my rent would have been over 50% of my gross income. A doctorate and experience were required for both, but neither was going to pay a living wage. I had to turn them both down for economic reasons.

The dean at one school, a publicly funded one, mind, actually admitted in the interview that their salaries were geared for people who were in a dual-income situation—someone’s spouse or partner. I had a teenager and a husband working on getting a visa with no promise of a work permit for at least nine months. That’s just bad policy. I should be paid what I’m worth and what my job is worth. I have a doctorate; fewer than 3% of Americans have that degree. Tells you what Americans value, doesn’t it? We say we value education, but we don’t. I didn’t go into teaching to be rich, but don’t insult me. If I can’t afford to house, feed and care for my family in a reasonable commuting distance, I can’t possibly take the position. This past year, I commuted 20 hours a week, so my idea of reasonable is rather generous.

Again to be frank, if I were offered a position at that salary now, I’d take it and moonlight. But why should I have to? My doctor keeps telling me that I am destroying my health working 60-80 hours a week. And I am, so this must change. But if I worked less, I’d be homeless.

So I applied to a position in Dubai, and three days later was given an interview. A few interviews later, I was offered the position with a salary and package that blows away anything I’ve been offered in the US. I won’t be anything like “rich,” because I’m still a humanities professor, but I’ll be able to pay bills and support my son.

To be brutally frank, I feel like I’m being exiled from my country. I’ve applied for US teaching positions all over America, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I’ve sent out over 300 applications in the past seven years, and actually had a number of interviews. I’ve been a sub a few times and a visiting professor, but nothing permanent. I’m an award winning professor with 25 years of experience and a PhD from a very highly regarded school. I’ve done scholarly work, as much as I can, while teaching seven to eight courses a term, usually 11 months a year. Believe me, every term, I turn down adjuncting work because I’m that good at what I do. That’s not hubris. It’s the truth.

Am I angry that I can’t get a full time position in this country? Of course I am. On some levels, I’d even say resentful of a system that is destroying higher education and taking advantage of people who have a vocation for teaching. I am not a nun! I’m not a missionary! This is a profession, but I’m certainly not being treated like a professional. I’m not alone in this. It’s a national disaster that I’ve written about many, many times.

But there’s no use crying for water from the moon.

I’m off to start another adventure. I’ve never lived in the Middle East before, and now that I’m reconciled to leaving behind my family and friends, I’m looking forward to new exploits. Nothing beats living somewhere for learning about the culture. And Dubai is a very international place, I hear, so I’m sure it will be exciting and vibrant.

The Broad is Back is a reference to my original blog, A Broad Abroad. I will be starting A Broad Abroad Again in order to record my adventures overseas, and I look forward to seeing you there. I will post the link when it’s up and running!

I came back to a very different America, and sadly, more and more I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Sometimes it’s easier to feel like that when I truly am the stranger.

Thanks for your time and your faithful reading!

August 21, 2013

Free Might Not be Better

I saw a tweet today, and it prompted me to write. The tweet said, “It’s this simple #education should be #free #strikedebt” But as an educator, and as someone who has lived in places where education is free, I know it’s really not that simple.

First, education is not free. You may want to screw capitalism, young tweeter, and yes, your professors are usually rather idealistic, but I have to eat, too. I need to pay my rent, get healthcare, and buy clothes. Researching isn’t cheap. I must get paid. And I’ve invested years and hundreds of thousands of dollars into my education. I have loans, too.  So first you must pay us. And then there’s the equipment, the buildings, all the things that make up a university. It all must be bought and maintained. Running a university is an expensive endeavor.

So free education is actually paid for through taxes. That’s the whole idea of state schools.  In fact, I work for a public college.  And here’s part two of the “not simple” part.

Once upon a time, CUNY was free. If admitted, one earned a top class education for the price of books and supplies. An excellent deal.

The kicker was not everyone got in. And not everyone got into his or her first choice.  My mom was a top NYC high school student, graduated Long Island City High School, class of ’50. She had her heart set on going to Hunter College. But Hunter only accepted X number of women (it used to be a women’s college) from each of NYC’s high schools based on the woman’s class standing. Mom was X-1. She missed getting in by a less than a full point on her average. She went to her next choice, Queens College, but she still talks about missing Hunter with regret.

This still happens in countries with free education. Not everyone gets in. There aren’t free options for everyone. Students get in based on academic merit. In some countries, especially Asian, there’s a national exam and students get placed into a university and a major based on numerical test results.  In other places, students’ high school transcripts are the main bulk of the determination of if and where they get in.

Students who don’t get into a free education can still go to school, but they choose private options and pay.

CUNY did have open admissions for free for almost a decade, but the financial realities ended that in 1976. Open admissions also meant remedial classes were instituted. These are intensive classes with more hours than regular classes, and they are very expensive. I teach remedial or developmental or pre-credit (pick your label–they mean the same), and I believe in the rightness of having them. If high schools aren’t doing their job, my colleagues and I will do it. I’ve had students in my remedial classes go on to graduate from the community college I teach in and transfer to NYU, Columbia, Yale and all of the CUNY senior colleges, which are some of the best schools in the world.  Proud doesn’t even begin to cover it.

But. And there’s always a but. But the drop out/failure rate in those remedial classes hovers around 50-60%. I start each term with 28 and end with 12-15, or in a good term, 16. And not all of the 16  pass the class. They just finish it, often passing the second time they take it, if they haven’t lost the desire.

That’s a lot of money. Yes, these students are paying tuition, but one subsidized by the state and city. I have also taught at a private school, and earning an associates there costs about $20,000. Currently an associates at a CUNY school is $8400. And most of the students have financial aid, so they are paying substantially less than that. That’s a heavy subsidy, and that’s the tax burden.  Someone is paying that money, just not the students or their parents.

So, free education is great, but it closes the path of education for many people. That’s a negative.

But I also believe that the requirement for a college education in this country is out of control. Some companies now will not hire someone as a word processor, mail clerk or office assistant without a college degree. This is madness.  A college degree now holds the weight of a high school diploma when I graduated. Something is wrong with this picture.

In the countries I have lived in with free or incredibly inexpensive public education, college is not required for career and life success. In America we have devalued college educations by making them required for everything.  But that’s a blog for another day.

So, it’s not so simple. Free education is a wonderful and worthy idea, but nothing is free. What are we willing to trade for it? Higher taxes? Less access to higher education?

I do realize the counter argument: we could afford to provide education to all students if we stopped the war and ended the military build up. Totally agree, but I live in the real world. Don’t always like it, but so it goes. I do think the war will end. Eventually. But obviously the war is still rewarding, somehow, somewhere. I don’t see it, but then I don’t play in that schoolyard, so to speak.

I admire the young debt strikers, honestly I do. The student debt crisis in this country is the next financial disaster. It’s bigger than the housing debacle, and it’s not going away.

But as a thinker, I do not like reductionist arguments. Granted, Twitter isn’t the place for nuanced argument, but things saying things are simple when they are not is never a good start to a conversation.

August 1, 2013

And Sometimes the News is Good

I work for the largest urban university in the United States, the City University of New York.  I know that it’s world-renown because I’ve lived all over the world, and people every where I go know it.  We are leaders in research and scholarship, but most times all the glory goes to the senior colleges and the Graduate Center.

But today I was just reminded of how great our community colleges are.

Today’s blog is  inspired by some former students. I’m so proud of them that I need to share.  I’m no longer at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, but I’m still part of the family.  And a small group of students in the Hostos Repertory Company are bringing the play  Rough Magic to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, a major coup for any college group. But for Hostos, it’s even more. The college doesn’t have a theater department, the group doesn’t have a manager, it rehearses in a classroom, and shoestring is probably overstating the budget.

What they do have, though, is the support of their professors, members of the administration, and each other. And most important, each one of them has realized the magic of believing in self.

I know I believe in my students. I really do think they are worthy of success. I admire them enormously for the drive that gets them to college in spite of so many obstacles. I currently teach at an urban community college where the demographic is rather different from the demographic at many four year public schools. The average age of our students is higher and many of them have been knocked around a bit before they find our doors.

I truly love working for a public university because in so many ways, public colleges, and especially the community colleges, embody the American Dream for me.  For me, the American Dream is the freedom to be all you can be, without family position, tradition, class, creed, race or gender holding you back.  Community colleges, and then later the four year public colleges truly do even the playing field for hundreds of thousands of students each year.

Today I’m full of pride: for my former students, for my former college and for my university.

Many politicians treat community colleges poorly. Believe me, our budgets are constantly being slashed. Half the time at work, I’m reminded of the saying from St. Francis of Assisi: “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”  I see my fellow professors doing the impossible every day.  I see my students doing it, too.

So sometimes the news is good.  And I’m more than happy to share it.

 

May 9, 2013

Anger, Injustice and Guns: a deadly mix

It’s strange how my “crunchy granola” blog often kick starts ideas for this blog. Today I just wanted to discuss anger, but then I realized, this is something worth discussing at length.  The Buddha quote got me started, and a few paragraphs are the same, but this take a different, darker direction.

“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” ~Buddha

I’ve always loved this quote because anger was, is, one of my personal demons.  So many times when I listen to my students, I hear so much barely suppressed anger that it’s no surprise that many of them are involved in incidents of violence.

Just this week, the topic of fighting came up in our class discussion. They actually asked me if I had ever been in a fight, and since I don’t lie to my students, I said, yes. Shocked (seems professors have never been children), they wanted to know when. I said something like not since before high school. Again, they were shocked. That long ago?

These are students who routinely see violence. Many come in with black eyes, broken noses, broken hands, split lips. My students have seen violence on the street, and a sad minority have seen friends killed in front of them. Mostly the young men, but sometimes the women. This is not hyperbole, but then I teach in New York City. As their writing teacher, I get to see some of their saddest and scariest memories. It’s an honor to read them, but some days, emotionally shattering.

The discussion evolved into learning to keep our cool and choosing not to engage.  They weren’t ready to embrace this stance at all. In life, I told them, we almost always have the choice not to engage. We can ignore or even diffuse the situation with calm or humor. Some thought that choosing not to engage showed weakness.  Perhaps in certain neighborhoods it does, but I’m not preparing my students for life in those neighborhoods. For most of them, I’m preparing them for a life in corporate America.

I know that learning to control anger is a lifelong process, and I know that for student who grow up in a world of violence and inarticulate rage in so many people, it’s even harder.  As a society we deplore violence; we preach against it and vilify guns.  While I have no problem with stricter laws about who can get their hands on weapons, I also see that this isn’t the answer to America’s violence problem. There are countries that have lots of guns. The much-bandied statistic that Canada has almost as many guns as America is well known to people who pay attention to the gun control debate.

When I lived overseas I realized it wasn’t so much that Americans have too many guns. It’s that Americans are more willing to use them than people from other countries.  Americans are relatively quick to kill.  I’ve often tried to trace why this is so, but that is a project for when I have more time on my hands. A lot more time.  And I’m sure it’s not just one thing, but a mélange of factors.

But today I realized that anger must be a significant part of that deadly mix.  Anger in my students can be understood—they come from under-employed, under-educated, un-respected neighborhoods. They are surrounded by angry people, and it builds and builds.

And in this country, right now, anger is growing and growing in more segments of society. People who were safely middle class no longer are. More families are holding on by fingertips, facing unbelievable stress thanks to money. Housing, education, medical care and pensions are threatened, while corporations earn more and more money.  This anger translates into hotter tempers and the word “desperation” is used much more often than it used to be.

It’s senseless, mass shootings that outrage America and galvanize the gun debate, but these account for only a small percentage of gun deaths in this country. In the US in 2010, there were 11.078 gun murders. I was a bit suspicious of that number till I saw that in New York City alone, in 2011, there were 515 deaths classified as homicide. Of those, 61% were killed by guns. That’s 314 people in one city in one state.

This growing anger and dissatisfaction is growing yearly since I returned to America five years ago. I’ve written in this blog about whether or not we were like Rome, but more and more, I’m reminded of Versailles.

As a nation, this anger needs to be addressed. Where there is justice for all, there will be freedom from much of the violence.  Anger management and social justice are overwhelming topics, so they are often shelved. It’s time to bring these topics to the table.

March 29, 2013

That Jefferson Man

I ran across a quote today and it struck me as relevant:

“I hope we shall take warning from the example [of Great Britain] and crush in it’s [sic] birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws our country.” (Letter to George Logan, Nov. 12th, 1816)

That’s Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, principle crafter of the Declaration of Independence, US ambassador to France, inventor, polymath, slave holder, complicated human being.

Today far too many people negate the good about him because he held slaves. He was sexist, racist and probably a bunch of other “-ists”. He was an 18th century man. He was well ahead of his time, but for these politically correct days, that’s often not enough. If one doesn’t possess 21st century sensibilities, one is diminished in people’s eyes.

That’s a shame, because Jefferson had one of the finest minds ever to sit in the White House. As John F. Kennedy famously quipped at a White House dinner for Nobel laureates,

“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” (You can find the full text here)

Obviously Jefferson was aware of the dangers of a monied corporation. If he could come back and see the US right now, he’d be aghast. His word “aristocracy” was prescient. It was not crushed at birth, and now it crushes so many.

Every day I work with people whose lives have been crippled by the aristocracy of the corporations. They dictate what is taught in schools, creating a class of workers and consumers for their products so when I see them in college, I’m often faced with young people incapable of independent thought.  If you think this is hyperbole on my part, read Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum and Joseph Roksa. Published in 2010, here’s a blurb from Amazon’s page:

“According to their analysis of more than 2,300 undergraduates at twenty-four institutions, forty-five percent of these students demonstrate no significant improvement in a range of skills – including critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing – during their first two years of college. As troubling as their findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators they will come as no surprise – instead, they are the expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that puts undergraduate learning close to the bottom of the priority list.”

There’s no corporate influence there, so why do I blame them? Corporations aren’t making people socialize.  Of course not. It’s not that simple. Watch television. Watch movies. Read popular novels.  What images are being churned out about education, its role in people’s lives, and so on.  That’s the diet our children are on.

Yet corporations don’t hire secretaries without a four year degree. The corporate model prevails in even public universities. I’ve read that corporations are dictating college curriculum.

I really just wanted to share Jefferson’s quote here today. And now I’ve written over 500 words, and I’m just getting started. Just warming to the subject. I still have 90 papers and midterms to read between now and Monday, so I don’t have time for this.

But I hope I gave you something to think about.  I’ve raised a bit of the curtain. I hope you take a peek underneath.

September 30, 2012

Still a Girl Scout at heart

I was explaining my theory of teaching for a class I was taking, and I stopped and laughed at myself. I sounded like a Girl Scout.

I was a Girl Scout, from Brownies to Seniors, 1968-1977. For the most part, I loved it. My leaders, Mrs. Bechtler, Mrs. Wind, Mrs Tormey, Carol Kumpost (a young woman who led my Cadette/Senior troop–we daringly got to call her Carol) all contributed to the woman I am today.  The skills I learned, the values that were upheld, are things I still use.

I spent summers at Camp Ludington, a Girl Scout camp, learning to macrame, tie dye, canoe, swim, save lives, cook on an open fire, recognize stars in the sky, get along with strangers.  These are some of the best memories of my young life.

So much of the person I am today comes from the Girl Scouts.

Out of curiosity, I looked at the pledge, and it was different.  So thanks to the internet, I found the one of the 60s.

On my honor, I will try to do my duty to God and my country, to help other people at all times, and to obey the Girl Scout laws.

Here are the laws:

I will do my best:
– to be honest
– to be fair
– to help where I am needed
– to be cheerful
– to be friendly and considerate
– to be a sister to every Girl Scout
– to respect authority
– to use resources wisely
– to protect and improve the world around me
– to show respect for myself and others through my words and actions.

OK, so I’m not overly good at the respecting authority thing, but I pay attention to authority. I question it. And it if’s righteous, I respect it.  And I admit, I show respect to authority in most situations.  I’m a Girl Scout.

And other Girl Scouts being my sister has been replaced with other women are my sisters. Men are my brothers. Or nieces and nephews when it comes to students. We’re in it together.

I think it’s a good list. I do believe in God, so doing my duty to God and my country works for me.  I do my duty every day by teaching.  And for me duty is a good word, a fine word, not a harsh word at all.   It’s difficult, but good. See? It’s the Girl Scout in me.

A lot of people attack the Girl Scouts lately for being too liberal.  I don’t have a daughter, so my only contact with Girl Scouts has been buying cookies from friends’ daughters.  So I checked out their page,

Here’s the new pledge and laws:

The Girl Scout Promise

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

The Girl Scout Law

I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and to
respect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.

No more duty. Not a “PC” word.  The badges are different, but then the world these girls are preparing for is different. Still wish they said duty, but that’s me.  But girls who learn to live by these laws will be stronger girls for it.

Doesn’t seem overly godless as God’s still in the pledge. But what do I know? I think I’m pretty conservative because I still believe in duty, but when I take those online tests, I come out so far liberal I’m falling off the left of the page.

But duty, responsibility, these are words that are at the heart of liberalism. Of course, I’m an 18th century scholar, so for me liberalism is the belief in liberty and equality. And at the heart of both of those ideals is responsibility. We must be responsible for ourselves and we do have a responsibility to help others. Not to cripple them, marginalize them, or disempower them, but to give them the tools they need to be free.

These are thoughts that have been coming up for me in my teaching lately. I feel it is my duty, responsibility, choose your word, to make sure my students have the tools they need to succeed in a hard world. No one out there is going to think they are special or give credit for trying. No one is going to cut them slack.  I sometimes think I’m too hard nosed. Other days I think I’m too lax.

But now I can remember that I’m a Girl Scout. I will do my best, and as long as I’m striving, I’m on the right track.

November 10, 2011

For Veteran’s Day

I haven’t been around in a long time for a myriad of reasons, but I wanted to share an old blog post from the original The Broad Abroad in honor of our veterans and our current service men and women.

Since I’ve been back teaching in NYC, I’ve taught more veterans than I want to think about, young men and women who have served in battle and are now back getting a degree. I read their essays about living in a war zone; I hear their stories of lost friends, broken bodies, alcoholism, and it breaks my heart every time.  I am also teaching some active soldiers, one of whom recently got wounded so badly that he ended up in Germany for surgery. he still managed to be only four days late with his paper.  And he apologized for inconveniencing me.  I don’t mention names, but I tell his story to every student I have now.  He’s my personal hero.

So the thoughts I had in Sweden 10 years ago have only grown deeper.  Thank you all from the bottom of my heart, and not just the recent veterans, but those of you who served in all of America’s wars.  You truly aren’t forgotten. Or unappreciated.

A Shout Out to the Boys

Originally published August 12, 2004

A lot of times in this column, I talk about encountering anti-Americanism. OK, talk is a euphemism. I complain.
And I’ve mentioned how I don’t wear things obviously labeling me as an American because I worry about attracting unwanted attention. It’s the same theory as not wearing my jewelry in the New York City subway–why tempt Fate?

I’m not alone in this approach, of course. Just the other day I was reading that one of the American TV networks has
warned its staff going over to cover the Olympic Games not to wear American flags or even the network insignia when they are out in public in order to avoid being the target of a terrorist attack.

But then I got to thinking about some people who can’t avoid being seen as American: the members of the US Armed
Forces fighting or guarding in different areas. And I really wanted to say something about them, but I was trying to think of a way to avoid all the political implications. It’s not easy. No, I take that back. It’s impossible. Oh, I can write without mentioning politics at all, but I can hear people out there shouting at me because I’m choosing to ignore the political.

But that’s just what those soldiers have to do. They have to ignore the shouting and the politics and just do their
job, and frankly, it’s a pretty crummy job. And for all my sitting in nice, safe Sweden and writing about the image of America abroad, I *am* safe. So I wanted to take a week and give a shout out to the “boys and girls” in the service and say thank you. Thank you for being braver than I could ever be, and thank you for putting your life on the line. Although there has been much made in the press of the bad apples, the good apples get basically ignored, so this is for them.

Just the other day I heard about two Iraqi brothers who have been living in Sweden for 25 years. They just sold
their shops and they are going home for the first time since they left their country. They couldn’t go back because of Saddam Hussein. I might not agree with how it was done, but what’s done is done, and good riddance to him. Saddam, that is. Those two brothers were quite pleased that the US finally got rid of him so that they can go spend their final years at home. And let me tell you, they say thanks to the boys, too.

A kid I used to baby sit is with the Marines in Afghanistan [note from 11/11–he recently got home from another tour over in the Middle East, so some things don’t change much] , and more than one friend has a son in Iraq. Through them, I’ve heard things that give me pause. I complain because I can’t get my favorite cleaning products in the places I’ve lived. These guys can’t get the sand out of their underwear. You know how horrible it is when you’ve got sand in your bathing suit? Well, from what I hear, this is a permanent problem over there. They feel like their underwear and socks are made of sandpaper. Sand gets into everything. One day my friend got frustrated and washed his clothes in a bucket of water. When he hung them out to dry, a sandstorm blew up and sanded themworse than before. I’m told one of the best things they can get in a care
package is a pair of tightey-whiteys (the regulation underwear) as it means no sitting on sandpaper for a day or two.

Sand is a hardship, of course, but then there’s the getting shot at. Of course, that’s an occupational hazard in their
chosen career, but still, I can’t think it can be much fun. How’s that for understatement?

I sometimes get e-mails from the mothers, written late at night when the fears can set in. Those moms are heroes to me. (Dads, too, I guess, but as a mom, I empathize with them more.) I have a hard time sending my son to school where I know there are bullies marking him out. I literally cannot imagine waving my son off, knowing he’s going into battle. Mothers have been doing it for millennia, of course, but hearing my friends voice their fears makes me wonder how they can possibly do it. I know I am no Volumnia, mother to the great Roman soldier Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus. Thanks to Shakespeare’s version of the story, she’s famous for training her son to be a fierce soldier. In fact, in the play, based on Plutarch’s Lives, Volumnia says that she was happier when her son was first wounded in battle than she was the day
he was born and she was told he was a “man-child”.

Some ancient cultures recognized how difficult it was for women to send their children into battle. So according to
their beliefs, men could attain paradise by dying in battle, but women could attain paradise by giving birth to warriors. I can understand where that belief came from, believe me. Faith got those mothers through. Today, all of my
friends get by on Faith, as well. I’ve heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, there don’t seem to be any among soldiers’ moms, either.

And they get by on the kindness of strangers. Time after time I hear stories of regular people doing things for
the soldiers overseas through their churches, work place or social groups. As I mentioned to one of my soldier-mom friends, one good thing about this awful war is that it has shown us that Americans really do unite and help one another
when they need to.

As I was preparing to write this essay, I found an interesting piece in the New York Times. It was David Brooks’s “Snapping to Attention,” and in it he says that civilians in America have a strange reaction to our military: “Our
attitudes seem bipolar: we’re either at the military’s throat or we’re at its feet.”

“Sometimes,” he says, “the military is regarded as a bizarre, primeval institution dangerously at odds with enlightened
American culture.” But then, “at the flick of a cultural switch, the same people who were watching “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H” and “Platoon” are lining up to see “Top Gun,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “We Were Soldiers.” Suddenly the
military is a bastion of the higher virtues – selflessness, duty and honor.”

Burke has a few reasons for this“bipolar disorder”: “I get the feeling these bipolar attitudes arise from a cocktail of ignorance, guilt and envy. First, there are large demographic chunks of the nation in which almost nobody serves….At the same time, they know there’s something unjust in the fact that they get to enjoy America while others sacrifice for it, and sense deep down that there’s something ennobling in military service.”

I think he’s on to something there, but I also think that in its ideal form the military is a “bastion of the higher virtues,” but these virtues he mentions, selflessness, duty and honor, are losing their grip in our society. And not just American society, all of Western society. (I can’t speak for other societies here, because I’m a product of Western liberal humanism, so I’m limiting myself to that.) Honor seems to be a forgotten word in our life, and duty? Well, that just seems laughable to most
people. Think of all the people you know in your own life who shirk duties–work responsibilities, parental responsibilities, marriage responsibilities–because they are too much, too hard.

When we see young people, some just barely 18, fulfilling their very dangerous duties in a highly unpopular war,
how can we not be made aware of our own failings? And it’s easy to take our frustrations about the war out on the young people who are fighting it. Many of them joined the military for a shot at a better life. And they’ll have one if a) they can stay alive, and b) they can resist the temptation to hate. It’s difficult, but hate is what turns them sour inside and makes them into the people who get the negative headlines.

So when I pray for them all over there, and I do, every day, I pray for physical, emotional and spiritual safety. And this is my shout out to you all–thank you from the bottom of my heart.

 

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