Thursday, May 07, 2015

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

I cleaned out my office on main campus last night. After getting the memo Friday that told me that it was needed for the new hires coming on board this fall, I felt it was best to go ahead and get this done now. That way the newbies can move in over the summer if they want to be settled for the fall. And for me, it provides some visible closure to a 13 year chapter of my life on the main campus of UCF.

I will be given a key to the adjunct office down the hall though I don’t plan to use it much. It’s pretty much impossible to meet with students requiring some level of one-on-one attention and confidentiality in a room full of other instructors and students. While I was willing to come to campus the past two years on my own nickel to hold office hours (it’s $5 a pop to park on campus if you haven’t paid the $180/year for a hunting license for a space in student parking) my generosity of time and funds have run dry as I approach the end of my time at the university and begin to think in earnest about retirement.

I do have a fairly nice office on the Osceola regional campus where I am assigned. That office actually has a working telephone from which I can even make long distance calls without asking permission and having to use the phone at the office manager’s desk. I can download the updates for my various programs on my computer without asking permission and presence of the IT department. None of those things were true at my office on main campus where faculty are routinely infantilized by technocrats in self-appointed parental roles.

The folks at regional could not be much more helpful. When I am actually on that campus, which has turned out to be far less than I had hoped given the failure of any face-to-face classes to actually make there, I greatly appreciate my digs and the very helpful staff there.

A Slow But Steady Withdrawal

Truth be told, I've been moving out for a while, both mentally and physically, periodically taking things from my wall and books from the shelves. It’s been a tangible way of dealing with the grief I have felt as I've watched the dreams I held when I came to the university 13 years ago fade and die one by one.

The first thing to come out of my office was a ceramic plaque I’d bought up in Black Mountain, NC a decade ago which reads “To Teach is to Touch a Life Forever.” Three years ago I received word that I had been denied a Teaching Incentive Program raise the second year, the first time on technicalities, the second time because I had not “contextualized” (i.e., explained away) the student consumer ratings on my classes. I took down that plaque from over my doorway my very next day on campus and brought it home. It had become clear to me in that moment that whatever else we might be doing at the university, teaching was at best peripheral to that operation.

As is always the case in any move, the amount of accumulated junk one must sort through (and pitch most of) is always revealing. Fortunately, paper is recyclable. The thousands of bubble sheets and reports for the assessment program I ran for 10 years went into the recycle bin last night. I’m so glad that I was able to help Tallahassee technocrats and their local corporate agents here at the Factory sleep well for so many years. The meaningless data I and hundreds of other faculty produced for them on time we didn't have to spare will hopefully be redeemed as recycled paper products.  

Graphic Illustrations

Faded photographs,
Covered now with lines and creases,
Tickets torn in half,
Memories in bits and pieces,
Traces of love
Long ago
That didn't work out right
Traces of love...
Dennis Yost and the Classics IV, Traces of Love, 1969

It occurred to me as my prints of the work of Frida Kahlo and Remedio Varos and posters from the Holy Land came down from my walls that in many ways this reflects the direction our department – and I sense the disciplines in which I teach generally – have taken over the past decade. The interdisciplinary flavor of our Humanities and Religious Studies programs at one time featured the expressive humanities of art, architecture, film, literature, theatre and music alongside the reflective humanities of religion and philosophy. Slowly but steadily this has tipped in favor of the latter with its focus on theory.

The art going out my office door reflects a retreat from the material world to a world circumscribed and controlled by the mind, which in turn reflects the retreat from the material world to the virtual worlds of technology at work in our larger culture.  It also reflects a changing of the generational guard in which the interests and expertise of folks like me, who came to the academy with largely anthropological, sociological and theological academic and experiential backgrounds, have found ourselves increasingly isolated and what we offer to the academy devalued and unappreciated.

I had to smile as I packed up the student art that I have prized over the years. An 8½ x 11 canvas featured a student’s vision of Jose Vasconcelo’s La Raza Cosmica (The Cosmic Race), the four racial identities of 20th CE Mexico coming together in a glitter-paint superman. A small acrylic canvas containing dark hued geometric shapes nicely replicated the supposedly non-political art of fascist Brazil in the 1960s. A broken bamboo framed collage utilized the poorer materials of a number artists protesting poverty in Latin America. A star shaped collage displayed the paradoxes and contradictions of Castro’s Cuba while a small water color of a beautiful, colorfully dressed Latina depicted her sewing up her own mouth, a graphic protest against machismo/marianismo in Latin America.

The collection was capped by a long rectangular particle board piece featuring a large woman hovering over the coastline of Mexico. This was a tribute to La Malinche, the supposed traitor of indigenous America who served as Cortez’s translator and mistress, a response to Antonio Ruiz’s depiction of a sleeping Malinche with Spanish Mexico literally growing out of her slumbering body. In my student’s vision, La Malinche hovers over the horizon of Mexico, watching the approaching conquistador’s ship, a mysterious smile on her face. She knows what's coming. It is entitled “Malinche Awakens.”

These were all final exam projects. It was important to me that the students had some level of experiential awareness of the art they’d been studying along with the history, philosophy and religion. The students presented their projects at the final exam held at a local Mexican restaurant where I bought them lunch, an exercise I called the Latin American Humanities food unit. What kind of true Latin American course doesn’t include food?

Of all the classes I taught, it was the Latin American Humanities I loved the most. It brought together a subject I dearly loved and some of the best students I've ever taught. But it failed to generate enrollment, partly because it was competing with a similar course taught at local community colleges, partly because I have a reputation of being a demanding instructor and partly because its instructor was not in the inner circle of the Latin American Studies program formed three years ago. That program’s first graduate was required to get a course permission from the department to take the Latin American Humanities course even as it was listed as one of the courses in the program's curriculum.

In the end, it proved to be death by a thousand tiny cuts.

Free to a Good Home

My sweet husband went with me last night to help me load up my stuff in his car. It made the move a lot easier. We were done within an hour and off to a nice glass of Malbec and dinner at the California Pizza Kitchen. I was surprised at how easy this move proved to be. Perhaps it’s because it was just the final step in a process that’s really been in progress for three years now. I was surprised at how little sadness I felt as I closed the door last night. If anything, I felt mostly relief and a sense of hopefulness over what the next phase of life will bring.

I am leaving the tons of textbooks, both editions that I have used and the flood of trial texts that have appeared in my mailbox over the years, in the bookshelf in my office. Perhaps someone can use them in their classes. If not, I understand stacked up books make great protection from fallout in the case of a nuclear war. You never know. 

At this point I’m relegated to teaching a handful of GEP courses (Introduction to Humanities, World Religions) and a couple of upper division courses (Modern and Contemporary Humanities, Christianity and the Moses, Jesus, Muhammad class). All of these will be online. I will never meet these students or hear their voices. Suffice it to say there will not be any finals at the local Latin restaurant to demonstrate art project finals in these classes. Like all online courses, they will be chimeras of real courses. Whatever books I need for this work of facilitating credit hours are now stacked in boxes on the floor of my home office.

I left a ton of empty notebooks and report covers that someone can use as well as a shelf of books I won’t need on a little cart that once held my office aquarium. It’s out in the hall under a sign reading “Free to a good home (including cart).” Help yourself.

I will return Friday to spend an hour or so before the final faculty meeting of the term to take everything off my computer that I might possibly need (grades, course assignments, records) and make it ready for my successor. I’m guessing my successor will not want to keep my screen saver of my last Latin American Humanities class at the now defunct Peruvian restaurant across the street from the university.

I have an oversized bottle of champagne that was given to me upon the completion of repairs to our house after Hurricane Charley. I've never opened it and I figure the end of the term faculty meeting is as good a time as any to do that.

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish….

Before I left last night I removed my name from the door panel and my posting of office hours.  I said my goodbyes to my office with a poster from Doug Adam’s book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which the dolphins are all being taken up into the spaceship and saying goodbye: “So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.” I smiled as I taped it to the door of what used to be my office. A few people will get it.

I turn in the key Friday.  

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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