Sunday night, the last of my grades went in, ending my autumn semester.
Back in September, I confessed to having a sense of slow-motion failure in these courses. That sense never disappeared. The semester had so many missed opportunities.
It had far worse evils, too. A young undergraduate on the same sports team as several of my students died the day before final exams began. At my other campus, a series of three student deaths by suicide made national news; one student died on the day after Thanksgiving. (As far as I know, my classes were not directly affected, but the news cast a shadow over the last weeks of the term.) One of my friends lost a grad-school friend to suicide.
And on December 12, another friend of mine, a professor only ten years older than I am, who had lived near me in Scranton, died of cancer. The end came just a few months after an apparent remission. It was not, if there is any such thing, an easy death. The news still hasn’t set in properly; I don’t quite understand what happened, and I’m not sure I ever will.
Continue reading “Bleak Midwinter”
I can’t speak for my students, but this is a rough point in the semester for me. We’re deep enough into the autumn that the start-of-term excitement is over in all my courses. But we’re not far enough into the semester that any of the provocative large-scale arguments I’m making have come together yet. I haven’t seen many epiphanies in class.
Moreover, with two new preps outside my areas of specialty (for a total of four different courses), I don’t have much time for the routine preparation work that makes the most familiar courses run smoothly. Covering topics I should know very well, I’ve caught myself making sloppy errors, losing my train of thought in class, framing content in ineffective ways, and running out of time to cover everything I’ve promised. I’ve even called students by the wrong names and forgotten which homework readings I’ve assigned them.
The students whom I suspect this hurts the most are those undergraduates in my introductory survey courses who are the least knowledgeable or emotionally invested in history. This semester is not going to be one of my best, I think, where they are concerned. That makes me deeply ashamed.
I have been through such moments before, however, and I know this one will pass. Many students will do well. (Actually, I think very highly of my students this semester, though I usually say that.) And the confusion and angst I’m feeling are a sign of growth. They reflect time spent on new subjects and skills, and in some cases, they also reflect the risks I’ve taken in trying new approaches with uncertain results.
I’m recording this not to complain (or to parade my shortcomings before an audience), but to remember. I want to write down that this is part of teaching, too.
Image: Detail of John Tenniel, “The White Rabbit,” illustration in Lewis Carroll, The Nursery Alice (London: Macmillan & Co., 1890), courtesy of the British Library. Public domain.
Almost half a century ago, an apparent graduating senior at La Salle College in Philadelphia, who had been there for seven years, wrote an unsigned editorial for La Salle’s 1971 yearbook, the Explorer. The text is now in the public domain. I wish I could figure out who wrote it. (It’s not clear whether the photograph is his portrait.)
Here’s the whole thing:
Maybe the ivy has grown a bit more dense and the bricks slightly more weatherbeaten. There might be a little more grass in McCarthy Stadium, and there’s a lot less room to park in the morning. The hamburgers still taste raunchy, and the steaks are still more gristle than meat. But have the students changed from 1964 when I started here?
The graduates of the class of 1964 put on their Ivy suits, went for job interviews and were hired, and happily led meaningful existences ever after selling insurance, cars, and real estate. Some went to war and were killed; some went to graduate and professional schools. Most got married and had children. Some joined the alumni association, and some go to the meetings.
What will the graduates of the class of 1971 do? Many will shave their beards, cut their hair, put on brand new 1971 suits and be interviewed for 1971 jobs to put 1971 dollars into their 1971 pockets, and will happily lead 1971 existences ever after selling 1971 insurance, 1971 cars, or 1971 real estate. Some will go into the service to protect the 1971 country from the 1971 menace, and some will go to professional schools. Some will join the alumni association, and some will go to the meetings to spice them with 1971 things.
Where is the difference? People spoke against the president way back in 1964, but not as frequently (but then, Richard Nixon wasn’t president in 1964). There was organized protest in 1964, but organized protest wasn’t “in” back in ’64 as it is today. In 1964 drivers snarled at you when they cut you out on the road; today, they give you the Peace Sign while they still cut you out.
Which of the 1971 graduates will protest against sins against the ecology when these same people now work for the very companies polluting the air and streams, and dollars spent for ecology will mean less profit-sharing or perhaps the loss of a job?
Will the graduates of the class of 1971 grumble against intellectuals causing unrest when today’s graduates are running the country? Are the graduates of the class of 1971 a bunch of phonies who wear long hair and beards because this signifies a cause which they believe in, or because it’s “hip”? Will the graduates of the class of 1971 follow the example of their predecessors and lead meaningless existences in a dehumanizing society, or will they remember some of the causes they led protests for, remember that they are members of the Love Generation and the Woodstock Nation, and be genuine, feeling people, or will their humanity and sincerity sink into the corporate image?
Until now, no class graduating from La Salle has been different. The class of 1971 has yet been untested, but from all indication it will follow the way of the others, but damn, I hope not.
I almost don’t want to spoil that with my own commentary. But let me add some context.
Continue reading ““What Will the Class of 1971 Do?””
Commencement is today. As a part-time faculty member, I’m vague on the details. The event is being held in a hockey arena twenty miles from the university, but I see families wandering around near campus. The effect is pleasing.
It’s a bright blue day. The air smells like gasoline and dirt. People are mowing their lawns. All the lawns in town, or so you would think.
I’m using the day to finish grading essays for the other university. That’s what I promised myself last night. Much of my day has really been given over to preparing for the upcoming move.
When I came to Scranton, I imagined I would stay here. I’m not very good at growing roots, but I believe in them. I hoped to find permanent work here. Yet it’s time to leave. I have been wondering how to measure the success of my years here, and I have been wondering what will come next, and when I will finally move someplace and stay.
There will be a lot more driving after this summer, perhaps ninety minutes per weekday. More if I find additional courses to teach, which I need to do. The oil industry will consume a lot of my earnings, and my carbon footprint, as they call it, will grow. That’s something else I had not envisioned as a life. Or rather, it’s something I had carefully excluded from my vision of a good life.
I have been lucky.
But it’s time to move on.
But not today. Today I’m in between.
Image: John Margolies, Four Gas Pumps, Yoder, Kansas, 1979. John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain.
Here’s a small life update. This summer, I will move away from the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, after almost five years. Although I will miss this quirky city terribly (The Office references and all), I established a college teaching record here of which I’m proud:
- Distinct courses: 7
- Total classes: 26
- Median class size: 29.5
- Total students: 762
I’ll be starting over in the region of Philadelphia and southern New Jersey with some employment plans I can’t announce yet. Meanwhile, if you’re in that area and need an experienced history instructor (United States and world), let’s talk.