Sunday, January 10, 2016

Saying Goodbye to a Purgatorial Year – Part I

I write from Andy’s car enroute to Cape Canaveral Beach. As we leave for the beach, the sun is still at a 45° angle in the western sky. It is warm – no, it’s downright hot! - 87° this last day of December, yet another record in a record warm month in the hottest year on record. Perhaps we’d best get to the ocean shore while it’s still over in Brevard County. Soon the incoming tides may come to meet us in Orlando. Sigh…

Tonight we bring friends with us, Dale, who continues to teach at my old stomping grounds at UCF and Valencia, and Kin, his hairdresser husband who is the inspiration for the current experiment with my hair (I look like Draco Malfoy). It will be a Happy New Year’s Eve dinner tonight, indeed.

The deciduous trees along the way reflect the warm fall and early winter we have experienced. Maples still bear most of their golden and scarlet leaves though the cypress, true to their name, are completely bald. Sycamores retain big golden leaves, illuminated by the setting sun like a giant Roman candle. Blue and grey clouds scud across the orange and lavender horizon, some bearing pop-up micro showers. 

The Vehicular Assembly Building dominates the distant shoreline from the bridge across the Banana River as we near the coast. It pokes through fog that will mix with clouds of fireworks smoke before the evening is over. In the distance, the multi-story moorings for the cruise ships of Port Canaveral gleam in the setting sun. As we near our turn off to the ocean, a “stray shower” -  as the entertainers who have replaced meteorologists on local news now describe them - spritzes our car, over as quickly as it appeared.

We arrive at the shores of Mother Ocean. It is time for our annual walk.

January 1, 2016 (all photos taken by the author New Year’s Eve 2015, Cocoa Beach)

Happy New Year! Andy and I have a ritual we have observed for more than 20 years of coming to walk on the beach on New Year’s Eve. It’s a little over a mile from Cherie Down Park, where we always park the car, to Jetty Park, the inlet into the Indian River where the cruise ships and fishing boats pass by enroute to the Atlantic.

On the way up the beach to the Jetty Park fishing pier, it is our custom to talk about the year that has just been completed. On the way back down the beach to our car and dinner, we talk about the year to come, our hopes, our fears, our sense of what is to come.

There is much to talk about this year.

The primary focus of our conversation is how different a place we both find ourselves at the end of this year than where we were a year ago. As I was thinking about my annual letter, the word “purgatorial” kept coming to me. I have always associated the notion of Purgatory with Alighieri Dante’s Divine Comedy which was part of the humanities course I once taught undergraduates. As I thought about this description, I decided to go back to the text and reread Dante. A number of cantos spoke to me and I will punctuate this letter with excerpts from this writer of late medieval Florence.

[Virgil,] my guide took hold of me decisively; by way of words and hands and other signs, he made my knees and brow show reverence. As I have told you, I was sent to him for his deliverance; the only road I could have taken was the road I took. Daybreak was vanquishing the dark’s last hour, which fled before it; in the distance, I could recognize the trembling of the sea. I reached and offered him my tear-stained cheeks; and on my cheeks, he totally revealed the color that Inferno had concealed. - Purgatorio Canto 1

A year ago I was facing an increasingly untenable situation at my job. After 13 years of teaching at the university, a winner of the university wide Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award in 2008 and a Fulbright-Hays scholar, I had come to believe that little of my work there was any longer rewarding or appreciated.

I was teaching completely online. That was not the plan when I chose to move to the branch campus two years ago.  I had been hired to teach one face-to-face class for the university a semester there. But those classes never materialized despite my having tried everything I knew to make that happen. I had hung out in the cafeteria to talk with students, represented our program at the majors fairs, held a colloquium on campus that drew over 100 people. But none of that translated to live bodies in desks.

In retrospect,  it was clear that the university had misjudged the demand for a religious studies program at a branch campus. None of our department’s branch campus programs had ever sustained face-to-face classes and the presumption upon which the branch campus line was created - that Latinos, who make up the majority of the student population at the Osceola branch, are somehow more religious than other populations - proved erroneous (if not a tad racist). And, in all fairness, I had gone along with that wishful thinking - which at some level I probably suspected was unlikely to materialize - primarily as a means of escaping a main campus culture I increasingly found to be toxic. 

Truth be told, I loved the Osceola branch. It was located on the Valencia College campus in Kissimmee from which I had come to UCF 13 years previously. The staff there did everything they could to assist me and were gung-ho on their local campus which, aside from being surrounded by commuter lots, resembled a small liberal arts college complete with a bell tower.  Their helpfulness, respect for their employees and the upbeat team spirit that I experienced at the Osceola campus was a stark contrast to the overcrowded office park main campus whose operating maxim for students and staff alike had essentially become “F**k you, you’re on your own.”

The Osceola student body was a working class United Nations. In addition to my UCF duties, I was able to teach a single face-to-face night class for Valencia’s freshmen and sophomores in Ethics and Critical Thinking. Those classes, maxed at 25 students, were as uplifting as my experience at the university had become depressing.

As a result of my scheduled face-to-face university classes being cancelled for lack of enrollment, I never knew what I’d actually be teaching until the last minute, quite literally. Such is not as problematic when one can actually meet an initial face-to-face class, give an introductory lecture, pass out syllabi and schedules and give the first reading assignment. That buys time for at least a couple of days if not a full week for classes with weekly class meetings.

But with online classes, course materials need to be up and ready to roll at 12:01 AM on the first day of classes. And some students actually do come to the class site at that hour. That’s a major challenge if you were only assigned the class 48 hours previously. The technotopian cheerleaders for online courses call this madness “delivering” a class. But, seriously. How can learning ever be delivered? 

The insult to injury was being told “You aren’t marketing your classes well enough.” Marketing, of course, reflects the incredibly superficial corporate culture into which academia with its obsession for its “brand” has devolved in the past decade. But marketing is not a part of the job duties of any academic in the contracts they sign. Indeed, many academics, myself included, are poorly trained to be marketers. Worse yet, this entire approach reinforces the equally superficial and pernicious self-understanding of students as consumers that has proven so destructive to the process of teaching and learning.

Africans taking fellow Africans into slavery

The turning point in this crisis came as a result of a search process for a new  instructor. I was serving on my fifth such committee in three years, one of which I chaired. The university cynically calls these annually renewable contracts with no tenure potential “soft tenure.” I have often noted that “soft tenure” is about as desirable as a perpetually soft penis.

The candidate who was eventually hired had been mine to vet. He was an excellent candidate with Ph.D. in hand, teaching experience both face-to-face and online, and publications. When we had finished the grueling month long process of selection, he was chosen, only to then be offered a mere $30K annual salary with no moving costs. That will hardly pay student loans, much less provide a decent living. The beginning teacher at the elementary school on the edge of the university campus with BA and no experience is guaranteed $38K annually and a shot at tenure in three years.

This exploitative process guarantees that those who are hired under this system will come to campus for as long as it takes to find a better paying position. It also means that within an average of 2 years, there will be yet another search committee on which contingent faculty like myself will be pressured to serve without much realistic ability to say no and another round of desperate candidates who will be put through a grueling search process only to be told at the very end (salary is never announced in these job ads) that they’ve been screwed, a rather classic case of bait and switch.

There is no small amount of irony in a department which teaches ethics engaging in patently unethical behavior. While I had come to expect that from a university whose ego obsessively drives it to become the largest public university in the country (we’re #2) even as the state steadily cuts its funding, now it had become personal.

I began to have visions of the segment of Stephen Spielburg’s film Amistad I had used in several of my classes in which Africans took their fellow Africans into captivity for Portuguese slavers enroute to the Americas via the Middle Passage. One day it hit me: We were the Africans taking our fellow Africans into slavery. We were agents of our own exploitation. How could I live with that?

By mid-summer I was in a real crisis of conscience.  This wasn’t the first time I had found myself in the role of enabling injustice. I found myself thinking back to my days as a juvenile defense lawyer in the late 1980s when I watched my young clients coming to the court with a multitude of rehabilitative needs. I would come to sentencing with detailed Presentencing Reports in hand, make my most impassioned arguments for giving at least this youthful offender a chance to turn his (and most of them were male) life around, only to be told once again that the State of Florida had no resources for such expensive (read: frivolous) rehabilitative needs.

Soon my young client would be on his way to a secure facility where he’d be warehoused and often physically and sexually abused for the length of his sentence in what would prove to be a criminal finishing school. He wouldn’t learn to read, develop any vocational skills or have his addictive and psychological problems addressed. But he would learn a plethora of new crime skills to employ when he returned to the community for his brief window of freedom before recidivism inevitably caught up with him. The State of Florida, which has historically preferred to fund prisons – especially the profitable privately run versions -  rather than schools, would own that kid for the rest of his life, however brief that might be.

 One day I looked up from my court files and suddenly realized that my best efforts to make life better for the juveniles of Florida I served could not make a dent in the intractable system I faced, regardless of how pressing my clients’ needs were or how well I advocated for them. I was beating my head against a brick wall. And that wall wasn’t moving even as my head was getting bloodier by the day. Soon thereafter I would close my law partnership, leave the practice of law and head off to Berkeley to attend seminary.

By last mid-summer, another such day of  decisions was looming for me.

[continued in Parts II, III]
Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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