Friday, December 23, 2011

The Grinch of Atonement steals Christmas

As Advent wanes and Christmas approaches, I always feel a growing sense of relief. I have long observed that the behaviors of my fellow Americans become noticeably more aggressive in the frenzied media-driven run-up to what is probably best described as Consumermas. Negotiating the local roads or the parking lot of any big box store or even a strip mall in these days leading up to Christmas can mean taking your life in your hands.

With a mere two days to go, the hype will near the point of hysteria tomorrow, take a day off for our corporate media to remind us how happy our material goods are supposed to make us on Christmas Day, and then resume fever pitch for the day after Christmas clearances. For those of us who have long ago opted out of the guilt-driven buying without which desperate merchants believe they cannot end the year in the black, this misery simply cannot end soon enough.

The Gospel According to Cici

This year, however, I find my discomfort with Christmas centered on things more theological. For some reason I had a hankering for pizza last week in the midst of grading finals and so I engaged in willful amnesia about why I never visit Cici’s all-you-can-eat pizza bar and drove down to the strip mall where the last remaining Cici’s in town is located. As usual, there was lots of mediocre-at-best food and lots of obese working class folks chowing down on it. It would have been a decidedly forgettable dining experience (except to remember why I initially had made the rule of never eating at Cici’s) had it not been for the radio station being used for background noise.

Upon opening the door of the restaurant the blaring sound of yet another night club version of a Christmas carol assaulted my ears. With all the incredibly beautiful music that has been composed for Christmas over the centuries, it is a mystery to me why public spaces must be filled with the purgatorial sounds of Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys. But it was only when I had already begun my own chowing down on pizza that I realized it was not a satellite muzak system but rather the local fundamentalist radio station to which the customers were being subjected.

What gave it away was this assertion: “Today we have good news. A baby will be born. He will be called Jesus. And he will die for our sins so that all who believe in him can go to heaven.” I nearly spewed half chewed pizza across the restaurant.

But this kind of misguided theology is hardly relegated to a fundamentalist radio station whose motto “Safe for the little ears” is probably best completed with the words “and the little, teeny, tiny brains below them.” Even theologically well educated priests of my own Episcopal tradition can lapse into this absolutely dreadful theology.

About a decade ago I embarrassed myself and the family of the parish rector with whom I was sitting at a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass when I exploded in exasperation in reaction to his Christmas homily. In the homily he declared “Jesus had to be born so he could die for our sins.” I’m guessing that the stage-whispered utterance of “What a crock of shit!” was probably not the response he was expecting that night, particularly from a fellow priest in clerical collar. Of course, it didn’t help that we had all indulged in more than a little Christmas cheer prior to midnight mass. Ho, ho, ho, indeed.

An Instrumentalist Vision of Jesus

But he’s hardly alone in this thinking. The priest of the local parish where I attend services - when I can convince myself to actually go to church - is a graduate of my seminary in Berkeley. She is a terrific person. I love her and often go simply because she has implored me to be there. She is a good pastor and officiant and I often smile as I recognize the influence of our common seminary training in her liturgical celebration. 

I also admire her theology of transformation: At St. Richard’s we are on a mission to change our lives and to change the world, an assertion made at the announcements each Sunday eucharist. I have long since recognized that any religion that fails to transcend the socially constructed world and transform the lives of its people individually and collectively is not a religion worth engaging.

But I found myself disturbed today as I read the Christmas email missive from the pastor. In part it states:

The meditation on the collects appointed for Christmas Day reflects on the beauty of the prayers and their message that God is with us and God is for us. We believe as Christians that Jesus died for our sins because we do not have power within ourselves to help ourselves. We need Jesus to save us, to take away our sins for us. That is a huge gift! We call this the atonement of Jesus, the crucifixion makes us at-one with God.

Frankly, I am always disturbed by the presumptuousness of any assertion about what “we believe as Christians.” The reality is that the followers of Jesus have held a wide variety of understandings about him, his life and teachings from the very beginning. Frankly, I do not recognize myself in this description of what “we believe as Christians” and I know many beside myself who would be similarly puzzled at being included in such a confession.

The first part of my concern with all of these no doubt well-intentioned people is that they buy into what I see as ultimately an egocentric religious construct. This vision of religion generally and the person of Jesus specifically is cast in instrumentalist terms – Jesus’ primary function is to save us (stage 3, tribal moral reasoning) from sin – but only so long as we buy into the right (defined by the tribe) belief system - so that each of us (stage 2, egocentric moral reasoning) can go to heaven. In other words, Jesus is a means to our ends. Ultimately, it’s all about me/us when it comes to Jesus.

The second part of my concern has to do with the atonement itself. I’ve never found that concept particularly compelling from the first time I heard it in the local Southern Baptist Church in my hometown. At the ripe old age of 8 years old, I came home from that service deeply disturbed and flew to my saintly mother to ask her if it was really true that G-d had to kill his only son so that all of us could go to heaven - but only if we agree with the Baptist understandings of religion. “Honey, that’s just what the Baptists think,” she said.

That’s pretty much where it’s remained for me most of my life. I have always found the obsession with sinfulness and salvation in the Christian tradition to be incredibly egocentric. My Jesus. My faith. My salvation. That may be compelling for those whose moral reasoning hovers in Kohlberg’s pre-conventional range (Stage 1: What must I do to avoid punishment ? or Stage 2: What’s in it for me?) but while childlike reasoning may be charming in children, it’s not so charming when it persists in adults.

When it comes to spiritual lives, it’s simply not all or even predominately about me. Spirituality speaks to transcending self and recognizing our connections to all of Creation and the Creator G-d whom encounter at every turn. This spiritual understanding is simply not reflected in atonement theology. A god who is so weak or so stubborn that he cannot forgive sinners without human sacrifice is a tribal tyrant and ultimately not a god worthy of worship.

Forget Waldo – Where’s Jesus?

But the gravamen of my case against the misplacement of atonement theology at the Christmas season is that it seems to completely miss the point of the nativity. The good news is Immanuel, G-d is with us. While the image of G-d surrounds us every waking moment on the faces of every sentient being and in the beauty of the very good creation, we are often oblivious to that divine presence. Instead we allow ourselves to become obsessed with Black Friday sales and the latest scandals in Hollywood or Washington, the marks of lives defined by the shallowness of consumerism.

But the Good News of Jesus is that G-d actually comes to dwell among us. My Franciscan professor of Christology expressed it very well: “Jesus was so open to G-d’s calling to him that he became transparent. Thus, in Jesus we saw G-d.”  It's a beautiful statement of Franciscan theology I have long cherished. Indeed, at Christmas we see G-d as a fragile, newborn child, a new life entrusted to human parents, amidst a living nativity scene originally envisioned by St. Francis.

Sadly, Christmas is often symbolically misrepresented by crosses and those who adorn them with Christmas lights to place in their outdoor decorations evidence both a profound confusion of liturgical seasons as well as a lack of a theology of incarnation. The symbols of Christmas are not instruments of torture and death emblazoned with electric lights. Rather, Christmas is manifest in a humble stable full of barnyard animals, amidst them a manger holding a fragile, newborn baby, a brilliant star shining overhead.

Christmas is also not the celebration of theologies featuring contrived resolutions of our existential anxieties surrounding death and hoped-for lives to come. Those belong more to the syncretic feast of Easter in the spring - if at all. Rather, Christmas is about the joy and blessings of this life. It is the celebration of yet another turning point in the natural cycle of our world. The baby, coming into our world at the end of the darkness of Advent, embodies our hopes for new lives and new directions. Life begins once more.

It is no accident that the Church chose Saturnalia, the feast of the Winter Solstice, for its celebration of Jesus’ birth. After a four week period of Advent’s somber waiting and watching, the light begins to return to the world – for Christians in the form of a newborn child. There is a reason most world religions dating back to prehistory have celebrated the winter solstice. Jesus is but one of many reasons for the season, albeit an important reason for those of us who endeavor to follow his Way.

What is most troubling in the instrumentalism of casting the Christmas joy of Jesus’ birth in terms of self-serving atonement theologies is that it commits the great sin common to so many Christian faith understandings. Jesus Seminar founder Bob Funk was wont to point to its evidence in our creeds: the entirety of Jesus’ life is reduced to a punctuation mark: He was born of a virgin [comma] suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. So what’s missing here?

No muss, no fuss, no Jesus.

In my view, what’s missing is anything actually worth knowing about Jesus. There is no Kingdom of G-d when the Grinch of Atonement steals Christmas. There is no Sermon on the Mount. The poor remain without blessings, the multitudes remain unfed, the sick remain unhealed. Worse yet, the people of G-d remain unmoved by Jesus’ call to them to live into their duties to their fellow children of G-d, to not only love them as ourselves but to incarnate that love in the way we live our daily lives. Perhaps more importantly, we also avoid his calling to construct a world where that love becomes incarnate in societies based in shalom – a peace rooted in justice for all and marked by right relation.

It’s precisely the life of Jesus which flows from his birth on Christmas that makes his Way worthy of being followed. A theology that leaps from the manger to the cross misses that Way entirely enroute to contrived reassurances about life after death.

Indeed, in my darker moments in Cici’s Pizza last week, I had a troubling image of a band of church officials in liturgical vestments storming the stable, yanking the baby Jesus from Mary’s arms. They haul the child off to the Amalgamated Salvation Factory with its over-sized grinder where he is immediately ground into sausage. His very life essence is then filtered from that pureed sausage, distilled to an essence of salvation and then mass produced into countless vaccinations  poised to immunize otherwise depraved human beings against original sin. These could then be sold off to willing consumers but only at the price of buying into one of many dreadful theologies of atonement.

No muss, no fuss, no Jesus.

Tonight I will light all four candles of my Advent wreath surrounded by the nascimientos, nativity scenes, I have collected from around the world. I am waiting for Jesus, a newborn baby, who will bring light to a darkened world. I am hopeful for yet another year and what it will bring. I am not focused on death or what – if anything – happens thereafter. Rather, I quietly await another year in which I will strive to live into the Way of Jesus as best I can know it and live accordingly. And I am thankful to an ever generous G-d for giving to us this gift of a new year, a new start, a new child, allowing Christmas to come once more.

Oh come, oh come, Immanuel.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

G-d’s Quarterback?
Of humility, mindfulness and evangelism on - and off - the football field

I have a long love/hate relationship with Tim Tebow. As the former quarterback for one of my alma maters, the University of Florida Gators, Tebow was the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy and led his team to the national championship. In former years, that would have been cause for great celebration though in my graying years college football commands a fairly low level of my attention these days.

My sense of Tebow is that he is basically a nice young man. He is known for his ability to lead teams by whipping them into frenzies of esprit du corps. He has a rather charming “Aw, shucks” manner about him that is no doubt authentic arising from his upbringing in a part of Florida which marks the beginning of the Bible Belt, a region I tend to avoid at all costs. Generally, Tebow comes across as humble and respectable, a real credit to his momma and diddy, no doubt.

As he left the University of Florida, Tebow was roundly dismissed as incapable of surviving in professional football. His wide open approach to quarterbacking developed in high school football (his home schooling did not prevent him from playing for the local high school team under FHSAA rules) and honed at UF was seen as inconsistent with the rigor and pressures of professional play. And yet, under Tebow’s leadership which only began midway through the season, the Denver Broncos are now 7-1, many of those victories being carved out in the final seconds of the game after miserable Tebow performances for the first three quarters.

It’s this pattern that has led publications like the Wall Street Journal to run stories on what they are calling “God’s Quarterback.” Somehow, G_d takes time from the divine daily schedule to micromanage essentially meaningless athletic contests between two corporate entertainment units. While nothing short of ludicrous, that perception is fed by the behavior of people like Tim Tebow who routinely engages in the increasing tendency for players to point to the sky, supposedly to thank G-d for touchdowns, or to kneel in the end zone after the same. Tebow takes it a step further by thanking G-d and “Jesus Christ, my personal lord and savior” for his successes on the gridiron in his post-game interviews.

Murdoch Mindlessness

In the shameless religious right cheerleading which wound up in Rupert Murdoch’s formerly venerable rag, Tebow was described as having a “candid piety.” That evoked my response in the comments which follow the story:

Of course there is nothing candid about this piety. It's shameless, highly public and egotistical. If Tim had done a little better job reading his scripture he'd recognize himself in the Gospel of Luke: 18:11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people..." Or maybe he missed the verse in Matthew 6:6 "But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." I am a UF grad and admire Tim Tebow. But it's despite this inappropriate piety and self-focused proselytizing, not because of it.

Dueling Bible Verses

Not surprisingly, that drew a response from a no-doubt religious right reader who sought to engage in dueling bible verses:

Perhaps he was reading Matthew 10:32-33 - “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven" or Romans 10:8-10 - "[I]f you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved."…People love a humble spirit more than they love a Tiger Woods.

What a well trained evangelical. Never waste an opportunity to witness, regardless of how inane the testimony might be and how inappropriate the circumstances. I had to really pull back the throttle to respond:

"Perhaps he was reading Matthew 10:32-33 - “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men..."

Perhaps. But the context of this verse is much more appropriate in an actual religious setting. The context of Jesus' critique of the Pharisee is precisely that which has drawn the comments here - a public setting unrelated to religion in which the behavior was designed more to draw attention to the Pharisee than his faith.

That's the egocentrism I'm talking about. It's the presumptuousness that marks most adolescent college boys who feel the need to make their testimonies regardless of the context. It's the same egocentrism that quickly plays the role of the martyr when they are called on that inappropriateness and egocentrism. There is a time and a place for evangelism, if it absolutely must happen. The football field is neither. Frankly, a religion which manages to convert adherents by scoring winning touchdowns is observably rather shallow. But don't let that stop the true believer. After all, while the rhetoric may suggest it's all about G-d the behavior reveals it's all about me.

Again, I admire Tebow as an athlete, as a young man and as a fellow UF grad. But I find the perceived need of any athlete to improperly use the sporting arena to promote their limited vision of religion to be lamentable. If anything, the egocentrism and inappropriate behavior takes away from the performance worth holding up as an example. Moreover, the absurdity of suggesting that G-d has assisted one corporate sports team win a meaningless contest with another corporate sports team is astonishing.

I agree that people love a humble spirit. The problem is that this behavior displays just the opposite.

The Right to Limited Visions

No doubt my acontextual biblical sparring partner will not hear this. He has clearly bought into a vision of religion which is egocentric – the only real value of religion is to offer the believer a sense of existential security and a hope of a positive afterlife no matter how contrived. It’s also a vision which is highly tribal – we have an obligation to insure that everyone shares our perceptions of religion otherwise cognitive dissonance may set in and reveal that our socially constructed beliefs are not terribly believable. Therefore, any context will do to shore up our fragile faith system through gaining more people to affirm those beliefs. The bottom line is feeling secure.

Of course, the Tim Tebows of the world have the right under our First Amendment to articulate their limited visions of faith as they see fit, even to abuse the context of sporting events to do so. And the Murdochs of the world have the right under the same amendment to pimp the fears and play to the mindlessness of their readers so long as it brings them yet another buck. Finally, the religious right readers of the world have the right to engage in dueling bible verses, even as they are offered completely out of context.

But, Mr. Tebow’s conduct causes any admiration a thoughtful person might have for him to be qualified at best if not begrudging. Even more ironic, it is precisely this kind of conduct with its obliviousness to context that makes even a neutral stance toward his religious beliefs by outsiders difficult at best. My guess is that he is unaware of the irony in that and I fear he would no doubt be quick to cast himself in the egocentric martyr’s role if ever called on his adolescent behavior. Aw shucks only runs so deep and it only goes so far.

Clearly, humble, mindful athletes – and their supporters - are a rare breed. Perhaps that's why Jesus never played football?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

End of the Term Madness

How many times have you received an email beginning “Dear Sir/Madam…” that then proceeds to lay out some poorly connived story about your need to help them by giving them access to your checking account? In years past I used to respond with a note to the business school boys who sent the note that they should spend more time studying for finals and less on such poorly written attempts at fraud. Inevitably I noted “even business courses have finals, boys.”

This year, I received the following note while I was grading finals.

Dear Sir/Madam,

We are Interested to import your product in bulk quantity. Payment will be through Bank to Bank wire transfer. Interested sources can contact along with all further details. Also want to know about shipment charges.



Clearly the boys at the b-school need to attend to their composition courses a bit more. Operating out of the rubric that humor is often the best way to deal with aggression, the following erupted from my keyboard:

Great, Said. And it is sir, not madam. At least this week.

I am a credit hour facilitator (formerly called professor) of undergraduates at an educational credentials factory (formerly known as a university). Our undergrads produce tons of bullshit every semester. I just got through wading through a major ocean of the same during finals week. And a bumper crop of it will come shortly when we receive the Student Perceptions of Instruction. Catchy name, no?

As for the quality, some of it - like the excuses for submitting exams and papers on time - is pretty creative. Lord knows, we have an absolute genocide of grandparents who die during finals week. And there are rare diseases yet unknown to western medicine which will be diagnosed during this week. Some of the bullshit even sounds like authentic scholarship (often because it actually is someone else's scholarship. We call that plagiarism - a fancy word for cheating - on this side of the pond. Of course, if you're a football coach or player, it won't matter). But most of it's the same, pure, authentic bullshit we come to expect from our undergrads who want all of the grade and all of the credit hours all of the time with none of the work - thus all of the bullshit.

So, how much would you like? Our governor has insured that there will be an ample supply of bullshit from our undergrads and the local football team with a university attached to it has authorized me to sell it to you for very reasonable prices. When can we arrange for you to pack it all up and take delivery?

Professor Over L. DaBullshit

For some reason, Said never got back to me.

I had no sooner posted that email when the following arrived from our departmental secretary:

Good morning,
Is someone taking this Orientation on Saturday? Read message below.

Good Afternoon Everyone,

I wanted to send out a reminder that there is a Transfer Orientation session scheduled for this Saturday, December 10th. In an effort to make this, my first Saturday orientation, run smoothly I am trying to put together a list of who from each department will be present this Saturday to conduct the Department Advising sessions for the students in attendance. I would like you to provide me with the following information for each department:

- Who will be present on campus on Saturday to advise students for your department. Please give me the first and last names of the specific people who will be advising students in your departments on Saturday.

What’s striking about this message from the self-described “Coordinator, Academic Advising Services I, College of Arts and Humanities Student Advising (CAHSA)” is the presumptuousness out of which it arises. Not only is this a Saturday (and surely even advising services coordinators are familiar with the terms of the university contract with its wage slaves regarding the five day workweek) but it’s a Saturday in the middle of final exams at the end of a long term. Usually one must go to the state legislature to encounter such cluelessness.

This time my yetzer tov rose to the occasion. I did not respond to the note on the departmental list where it appeared out of regard for our secretary’s feelings. But I did pen this rather snarky response which I shared with a few colleagues:

Attention UCF Bureaucrats: The work week for which you pay your wage slaves – as poorly as that might be - extends from Monday to Friday. Saturday is a weekend day. Your failure to schedule orientations on work days does not create any obligations for your wage slaves. Please govern yourselves accordingly.

Sometimes, even snarky humor is the better option than the more obvious use of the bazooka.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

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.


The Evolution of a Small Town

Sunday’s Orlando Sentinel carried this story on its front page:

Vote shows Orlando is growing more gay-friendly

By Mark Schlueb, Orlando Sentinel 10:37 p.m. EST, December 11, 2011

The relatively easy passage of a new domestic-partnership registry in Orlando is the latest sign the city has grown more accepting, members of the gay community say.The registry, which grants limited rights to unmarried couples, won unanimous approval from Mayor Buddy Dyer and the six-member City Council at an initial vote Dec. 5. It is expected to easily pass a final vote Monday. Council members even wore red to show their support.

While I no longer read the Sentinel daily for the same reason I avoid the local TV news – they rarely actually inform me and they inevitably irritate me – this story popped up on my Google News homepage and I thought it merited a look see.

The story actually did a nice job of detailing Orlando’s darker days when fundagelical excesses resulted in homophobic spasms of restrictive laws and mean-spirited public assertions. Those were the days when crusades to close gay bars marked the nadir of the Reagan years, an era marked by its mindlessness long before the president’s Alzheimers was disclosed. A decade later it took the form of Pat Robertson’s thus far unrealized predictions of devastating meteor showers in the wake of the city’s agreement to post banners celebrating Gay Pride. This was followed by vandals ripping down the banners and tossing them into Lake Lucerne exposing the ugly underbelly of a city which has long called itself “The City Beautiful.”

The turning point in Orlando’s climb out of the misanthropic sewer occurred six years ago when the city approved an anti-discrimination ordinance which set the tone for a subsequent county-wide ordinance, partner benefits for city employees and now the domestic partner registry. I was one of the speakers at that public hearing. Wearing my clerical collar, I spoke about my then partner (now husband) of 31 years and the discrimination we had faced over those three decades. I will never forget the looks of shock on the faces of the assembled righteous wearing their yellow buttons opposing the ordinance when this ordained minister took the stand to speak – gasp – in favor of ending discrimination.

Against my better judgment, I read the comments following the Sentinel story. Not surprisingly, the early warning web system that conservatives operate brought out the crazies from across the country to respond. Even more against my better judgment, I broke my own rule and decided I’d respond to three of them.

Texas adds its Two Cents

A writer from Dallas (Can anything good come out of Texas, Mr. Perry?) said: “A vote by a left leaning council, introduced by an openly gay council member, does not "show" anything except where that council stands.” Given that this man lives in the hermetically sealed state of Texas, I can forgive him his ignorance. Intellectual incest abounds within circled wagons. But if this fellow ever visits Orlando, he might ask the homeless on our streets or the Food Not Bombs folks who would have the audacity to actually feed them in a public park about our “left leaning council.” His comment got this response from me:

What it shows is that Orlando is finally growing up and becoming a modern city albeit in fits and starts. Being the center of a 2 million plus metropolitan area alone does not make for a real city. It's more of a self-understanding which values diversity of human experience and the opportunity to learn from each other. Healthy cities have a place for all their residents and treat them all as first class citizens.

Homophobia is a rather primitive prejudice unworthy of adults capable of critical thought. The actions of the city council reflect a general ethos in Orlando that no longer has time or tolerance for such base misanthropic attitudes. Frankly, I never thought I'd see this day. For so long Orlando allowed small minded, small town fearfulness to define itself.

Much of the credit for that change is due to the enormous sea change in demographic diversity. Such diversity recognizes the value of different cultures and variant worldviews. When there is no "common sense" as a default to critical thinking, prejudices cannot go unchallenged. Some of the change can be credited to the entertainment industry which has long recognized the value of its LBGQT cast members. And part of the change is simply the changing of the guard. The Gen Y now rising simply doesn't get homophobia or why anyone would take it seriously.

All things evolve, even moderate sized cities like Orlando.

Appeal to their basest instincts

Another writer who identified himself as reddogg88 said : "Put this to a vote of the people and it will fail just like nearly all of the votes seeking to grant gays special rights and status have nationwide." His comment drew this response

Of course, this is only part of the picture. Add to that tons of money from people like the Koch brothers from outside the state. Add tons of money from Mormons guilt-tripped into donating. Add intensive brow-beating by Catholic clerics voicing the party line even as many are themselves gay. And then run the most misleading, unfactual, misanthropic and mean-spirted advertising campaign possible. Manipulate the base prejudices in the electorate. Scare them with lies. Pimp their masculinity. Be presumptuous enough to suggest that somehow G-d favors the homophobic position. In short, appeal to the basest, most fearful instincts of their humanity while avoiding anything remotely resembling a fact-based, reason driven decision making process.

No doubt, you'll secure narrow margins of "victory" in such endeavors. But demagogues have always found ways to win by appealing to fear and prejudices. This is one of the reasons that rights are protected by constitutions, to place them outside the grasp of electoral lynch mobs whipped into a frenzy by power-seeking demagogues. And ultimately, even fear subsides and justice has her day.

Not even for one day

Finally, a writer who actually used his own name (which I will omit to protect the thoughtless from their own thoughtlessness) said: “Why don't you just change the city's name to GAYLANDO? Queers and Dikes add nothing positive to life on this planet. They are the scourge of humanity and should be eliminated.”

Responding to such childishness is like shooting fish in a barrel. The challenge is always to temper the immediate desire for the easy slam dunk with a bit of moderation if not reason. But as I thought about my response, it occurred to me that living inside the skin of a person so clearly driven by such fearfulness for even one day would probably be pretty awful. And so my yetzer tov rose to the occasion and I responded with the following:

I would guess it would be painful going through life holding such misanthropic attitudes. Hatred is based in fear and fear eats us alive from the inside out. All of us know what it feels like to suffer. And these comments decidedly evidence suffering not only in the maker of these comments but also potentially in the targets of the comments. The appropriate response to suffering is compassion, according to the Buddha.

I doubt seriously that the man who made these comments will be able to hear that, at least not today. But, if nothing else, I will be able to live with myself this day.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

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.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Of Birds, Cherubim and the Good Creation

On one of the lists on which I write from time to time, this message arrived this morning:

Psalm 80:1

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.

Cherubim are winged angels that carry prayers to God.

An osprey called my attention to this verse this morning. She cried as I passed under her perch on the power lines when I was leaving the neighborhood for a walk. She flew in front of me to perch on a house when I returned.

Like the writer, I love the psalms. Though laced with violence and hierarchical imagery, they are also the repository of some of ancient Israel’s most pastoral imagery, here quite literally. In this verse the people of Israel are compared to a sheep (don’t want to think too long on that one – sheep are often quite literally stinky and stupid) led by a shepherd. And the verse refers to cherubim who, as the writer notes, are the winged angels carrying prayers before the presence of G-d. It’s beautiful imagery emerging from lyrical wordsmithing. It’s not hard to like the psalms.

The writer’s reference to the osprey nesting atop the power lines prompted this response:

I have always seen the presence of birds as the presence of the spirit. I am always happy to encounter birds in my daily life as I see them as a good omen. I have created a small sanctuary of trees amidst a city of 2 million people so the birds have a place to rest.

On Sept. 11, 2001, air traffic was halted in the face of the emergencies in NYC, Washington and PA. I was so troubled that day that I went for a walk with my husband to try to calm myself. As we walked along the lake near my house, I was struck by how quiet it was without the noise of airplanes which fly over my neighborhood enroute to landing at either of the two airports here in Orlando.

The birds were singing like crazy that day, perhaps a eulogy to the thousands of their fellow creatures, human animals, who had died that day under horrible circumstances. Suddenly, it struck me that they had probably been singing all along. But I hadn’t heard them for the noise and the hustle of daily life. And what a loss to my life that had been.

I try to pay attention to the birds these days. Unlike my Protestant fellow writer, the birds do not prompt me to think of scripture. But they do remind me of the overwhelming generosity of G-d and the goodness of G-d’s creation of which we human animals are a part but only a part.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Saturday, November 26, 2011

In Gratitude for Random Acts of Kindness

One of the things I teach my world religions students is that the basis of most indigenous religions is gratitude. These traditions evidence an underlying awareness of the many aspects of the natural world which are required to create and preserve life. Humanity exists because of the generosity of nature. Indigenous people never forget that and their spiritual lives are based in gratitude for those many blessings. Among them are the people the Puritans and their European cousins largely made extinct, replacing them with a world in which human beings have come to find their identity in being consumers. 

In a consumerist world we human animals see ourselves as the center of existence. We tend to focus on what we want (or at least what we’ve been hoodwinked into believing we need by consumer advertising and their media cheerleaders) but we often fail to be grateful for what we have. As a white male of the first world who has had ongoing opportunities to see what living on $2/day or less looks like up close on multiple occasions, I am aware of the privilege I enjoy as a matter of course in my daily life. I take none of it for granted (not the least of which is the opportunities to make those journeys). Nor do I not see my privilege as an entitlement. Rather, I recognize it as little more than the luck of the draw in what Warren Buffett calls “the ovarian lottery.” And with that privilege comes responsibilities.

On Thanksgiving Day each year, my list of those aspects of my life for which I am grateful becomes a little longer even as I recognize it is inevitably incomplete. But, this year, an unexpected gift of a random act of kindness dominates my list. To appreciate this gift, I must put it into context.

Context: 297 days until retirement and counting

For those who have read many of my blog postings, it’s hardly any secret that I increasingly find teaching college undergraduates in the impersonal factory setting where I work to be trying on a good day. I work like a slave, bringing to bear the educational attainment of three graduate degrees and a lifetime of highly varied life experience around the world in an effort to help students become educated human beings. I make little money to show for it. Indeed, my goal these days is to make enough money to pay off my student loans by retirement so it will not decimate my meager pension, assuming our governor and legislature have not reneged on that promise and taken our retirements away by then.

Of course, I knew when I became a university instructor that I would not get rich nor did that particularly bother me. If I’d simply wanted to rake in the cash without much concern for how it was made, I would have remained in the law business. But it’s not the lack of compensation for my work that troubles me. What does bother me is the steady stream of ingratitude - if not outright abuse - for the poorly compensated hard work I regularly offer the people of Florida. It seems no good deed goes unpunished.

Among many (though not all) of the students at the factory, it appears as a deadly combination of an inordinate sense of entitlement to good grades along with an inordinate aversion to any semblance of hard work which would make such grades meaningful. That sense of entitlement sometimes translates to public postings on online sites on which disgruntled student consumers make scandalous, highly personal statements about their instructors. There is absolutely no requirement that the statements be true nor do faculty members have an opportunity to respond.

Among the corporate bureaucracy of the university, it often appears as a mindless obsession with credit hours (think sales) and ratings on consumerist surveys confused with faculty evaluations (think customer satisfaction). There is far too often little concern for quality as an obsession with quantity predominates. Though these technocrats ostensibly run an educational institution, pedagogy is low on the totem pole among their imperatives.

Among the supposed leaders of our state, it comes as an ongoing polemic against public servants who are regularly constructed as somehow overcompensated and seemingly inevitably incompetent. It comes in attempts to kill our largely impotent public worker unions which are the only thing standing between public servants and absolute corporate tyranny. More recently it has appeared as attempts to reduce the pensions of workers nearing or already in retirement, a rather frightening specter for those of us with more work days behind us than ahead of us. Nothing like sticking it to folks unable to defend themselves. Little wonder these boys want to get rid of the courses that raise questions about values and behaviors.

Finally, it has manifest in the mindless ranting of a governor who would destroy any semblance of liberal arts education in higher education in the pursuit of business imperatives - assuring a steady supply of obedient and largely mindless worker drones. Such inevitably occurs under the cynical and intellectually dishonest guise of concern for jobs. Ironically, the governor himself provides an unparalleled teaching moment regarding jobs –a testament to the power of wealth to avoid responsibility for white collar crime (medicare fraud) and to use the profits to buy elections.

I can take the lack of compensation that often marks the ingratitude of a public which always relies upon the service of public workers but consistently takes their service for granted. When it comes to public service, everyone expects a free lunch. That is particularly true regarding public education. Indeed, in a culture with as low a value for education and as high an animosity toward intellectuals historically as our own, that probably should be expected.

But when the failure to be paid the wages that one’s credentials and hard work merit is added to personal public defamation by students, never knowing if one’s job or retirement is safe and enduring demonization and the tinkering with one’s pedagogy by demagogues, the situation becomes increasingly untenable. Little wonder that this veteran of nearly 30 years in higher education can tell you exactly how many days in the classroom he must complete until – hopefully – he retires. As of Thanksgiving Day, that number was 297.

"I would like to thank you for that."

This is the context that makes the unexpected gift from a former student days before Thanksgiving so touching. In my university email last week, I received the following:

tried to send this to you on linkedin but couldn't because we are not yet friends...

I took two semesters of humanistic traditions with you at UCF. One semester you had a particularly large class, about 75 students, and it was clear you devoted a large amount of time preparing for each class. I recall you mentioning to me that initially you were worried because of the class size, but you ended up enjoying teaching that class more than any other that semester. It was very apparent that you were passionate about the discussions and it was clear to me that you held yourself at a higher standard than any other professor I've had. Five years later, I still continue to benefit from your lesions in psychological projection, cognitive dissonance, and comparison between eastern and western theologies. I’m an engineer by trade but ironically no professor facilitated my growth more than your classes.  I would like to thank you for that.

I am hoping that the reference to “lesions” is simply an ironic typo or a pun. No doubt, the cognitive dissonance my pedagogy is designed to induce can be painful. Critical thinking about ideas you thought to be settled which - drawn into the harsh light of reason, empathy and responsibilities to others - are not so obvious and self-evident anymore can indeed inflict lesions on the mind if not the soul. But, this student found a way to realize the benefit of the willingness to delay gratification, wrestle with hard questions and endure the pain of cognitive dissonance that M. Scott Peck (The Road Less Travelled) recognizes as necessary for growth. And four years after attending the last class with me, this student found a way to say thank you.

In turn, I found my own way to say thank you in return, sending the following response on Thanksgiving Day:

On this day of giving thanks, I am thankful for students like you, who are willing to wrestle with ideas and work up to your potential. It's students like you that keep me going in the face of an awful lot of whining and resistance.

Thank you for taking time to send me this. Hope you are having a wonderful day. And I hope the lesions have healed (that's either a rather ironic typo or a pun).     :)

It is hard to estimate how much simple acts of random kindness can impact the world. If the Ripple Effect is true, an ongoing pattern of random kindness would certainly make this world a much better place to live. In my own case, coming amidst a week of grading a mountain of lackluster essays and meeting classes half empty from students leaving early for Thanksgiving holidays, this totally unexpected note from a former student lifted my spirits immensely. And on Thanksgiving Day, I found myself giving thanks for this very trying career which, despite an ongoing tsunami of vexation, allows me the privilege of touching the lives of people like this.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 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.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Stepping Back to Take a Second Look – Part II

(continued from Part I)

The Mother of the Bride

I left the Franciscans after lunch to attend a wedding of one of my former students. She is one of the brightest young people I have ever taught and her performances in my classes were inevitably stellar. I had the pleasure of supervising an independent study with this young woman on the subject of torture and human rights just as the atrocities at Bagram and Abu Ghraib were breaking. This student brilliantly synthesized the increasingly depressing news accounts with the cultural perceptions of the same as they were being portrayed in the Fox television program 24 and as well as the Battlestar Galactica program on the then Science Fiction channel. Her Honors in the Major presentation on rape, cultural presumptions and legal standards by which the accused is too often placed on trial was provocative, well-written and well-defended.

She had invited me to her wedding yesterday and I had put it on the back burner of a psychic stovetop brimming with pressing obligations to Fulbright reporting and Florida Humanities Council presentations. When I saw this woman at the Occupy Orlando march a few weeks ago, I asked her when the wedding was to occur and promised her I’d come. While I don’t generally like weddings, I figured I owed this one to my former student.

The wedding was truly beautiful. In perhaps typical Unitarian unconventional style, it began with a procession of the couple’s dog on leash down the aisle to an incredibly beautiful rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Swahili, Baba Yetu. It opened with a lyrical reading from the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court’s decisions Goodridge v. Department of Public Health in which the Court there struck down the restrictions of marriage to different sex couples and continued with readings from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a very moving excerpt from an interview with the widow of Carl Sagan upon his death.

All members of the family participated and the couple essentially married themselves, proclaiming as much in their exchange of rings. The recognition of the marriage was pronounced by the community assembled: “We who are gathered here today join you…in the name of love.” It was just beautiful. And it was unique, much what I would have expected from my former charge.

What I had not anticipated was what her mother told me. She thanked me profusely for attending the wedding, saying that I had no idea how much her daughter appreciated it. She then went on to say how much my teaching had meant to her, that I had been her life-line at the university and that her finishing her degree there was due in no small part to my role in that process.

Again, an embarrassing and humbling place to be. It came at the end of a day in which I had been taken back to a prior time in my life when my interactions with a legally blind impoverished man had been used as the example in a sermon of “feeding my sheep.” It also came at the end of a long week in which my enrollments for classes in the fall hovered in the single digits prompting me to fear those classes may yet not make for the spring. In a consumerist university, diligence and hard work are not necessarily values, they are frequently liabilities.

To be faithful, not successful

What has occurred to me over these past few hours of trying to make sense of yesterday’s events is that the calling to feed the sheep – the people of G-d I feel I am called to serve – is different from dealing with the flock. The former speaks to relationships with individuals, the latter to popular affirmation. And what I have struggled with all of my life is the balancing of the need for authenticity and devotion to the calling I perceived with the need for a sense of effectiveness, for reaching every single student that crosses the threshold of my classroom, indeed, for changing the world – the goal that drove me into public school teaching, the practice of law and the ordained ministry, all with some fairly disastrous consequences. Most of all, I have struggled with trying to be authentic in the pursuit of that calling even as the affirmation I so badly wanted has often eluded me.

These things are not comfortable for me to confront, much less to state publicly. But confession is good for the soul. And ENFP types often reason out loud to find their way.

For the record, I am grateful for the many sheep whose lives have touched my own and whom I have had the privilege of touching in return. I need to quickly point out that I do not see them as sheep in any blind following sense of that archetype – my sheep have been quick to ignore my advice and to call me on my crap historically - nor do I ever take them for granted. Even as I sting from the ridicule and abuse my own enthusiasm and zeal seem to draw from the flock to which I am assigned each semester, I am grateful for the privilege to know, teach and hopefully inspire the handful I will actually reach. And I live in hope that this will prove sufficient consolation for the wounds left by so many of their classmates.

Often in my adult life I have found myself returning to a statement by Mother Theresa, one of the great saints in my own life, a statement I understand intellectually even as I grapple with living into it existentially. In her usual simple but powerful manner, the saint of Calcutta said, “G-d does not call me to be successful. G-d calls me to be faithful.” That message came back to me Saturday with the force of a tsunami. As usual, I find myself standing on the edge of the chasm, hoping to find a way to make that leap of faith, to bridge the gap between what my intellect recognizes as sound advice even as my wounded heart stands timidly, self-pityingly at the lip of the abyss.

May Charles Simeon pray for us who follow in your way.
May Mother Theresa pray for us who like her seek to be faithful
And may the Holy Mother pray for us
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Stepping Back to Take a Second Look – Part I

There are times in my life where I have been required to back up and take a second look at something I thought I’d already figured out. In years past when I was a little closer in orbit to the Episcopal Church, I would have described that as G-d using an existential 2 X 4 to get my attention and perhaps that’s not such a bad description to use. This past weekend provided my life one of those events.

The Franciscan Third Order held its every other month meeting Saturday. Given that it was my turn to host the meeting, I had originally suggested that we meet in our home as we had previously done but one of our members is highly allergic to cats and so we had to go to Plan B.

The closest I have to any real connection to the Episcopal Church in this diocese is St. Richard’s Church in Winter Park. The new rector is a graduate of my seminary in Berkeley and so the chances of encountering the fundamentalist and homophobic mindlessness that has gripped this diocese for two decades now are pretty slim there. The parish was having a work day but the folks on site provided us their hospitality in the form of a gracious welcome as we entered, meeting space and coffee and tea for our gathering.

Feed My Sheep 

I chose to use the feast day on the Lesser Feasts and Fasts calendar for the readings for our eucharist. Frankly, I only vaguely remembered reading about Charles Simeon in seminary whose feast day was celebrated Nov. 12. But his biography and appointed lessons made for a provocative morning.

The Gospel lesson was the rather puzzling passage in John 21 where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him and each time responds, “If you do, then feed my sheep.” Years ago before I left to go to seminary, the then-dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral downtown where I was a parishioner used this passage for a mini-homily at a noon service. Pointing into the congregation, he used me as an example of how I fed the parish’s sheep, watching out for the interests of a fellow parishioner who was legally blind and destitute. He spoke of how I often transported Charles to where he needed to go which often included events at the cathedral. The dean concluded his little homily with the exhortation to others to take this example of Jesus’ call to feed his sheep seriously.

It was both embarrassing and humbling. On the one hand, being held up as an example of a sermon always puts a parishioner on the spot even when it is merited. On the other hand, while I felt I was doing nothing special, simply living into what I saw as my obligations to others in the manner that was available to me, it was humbling and affirming to hear the positive way others saw this.

The biography of Charles Simeon that served as the basis for our discussion following the lessons mentioned that he attended Cambridge. He quickly realized that the required chapel attendance rule there had caused a good bit of hypocrisy and what he saw as “the irreverent reception of the sacrament.” What Simeon’s conscience told him was that if he was to go to chapel, he would have to take it seriously, reconsider his life (the actual meaning of the word repent) and “turn to God.”

Simeon: His zeal brought him much abuse

This turning point in his life led to a career as chaplain at one of the colleges at Cambridge. The LF&F biography  notes that “Simeon’s enthusiasm and zeal brought him much ridicule and abuse which he bore uncomplainingly.” But the point of the bio was not to make a martyr out of Simeon as too many enthusiasts for their faith tend to seek out of ego-centrism. Rather, it was to note that while Simeon bore an awful lot of crap from the undergraduates under his charge, he also managed to inspire a handful of his students.

One, Henry Martyn, was convinced by Simeon to turn from a proposed career in law (Hurrah!) and become a missionary, ultimately translating the New Testament and the Book of Common Prayer into several different languages. A second, William Wilberforce, would become inspired to lead the fight to abolish slavery.

As we discussed the life of Charles Simeon, I began to think of how a handful of my own students have told me over the years how I had impacted their lives. Clearly they stand in stark contrast to the vast majority who readily decry that impact by both word of mouth to fellow students, in the online consumerist surveys which are erroneously and dishonestly described as instructor evaluations and at the various online sites designed to warn fellow slackers against taking demanding instructors like me. If, as the psalmist says, my sins were not already "ever before me," there is certainly no shortage of folks who are more than happy to tell me of their dissatisfaction with the diligence and the seriousness I bring to my calling as an educator.

Like Simeon, my enthusiasm and zeal for my vocation readily bring me much ridicule and abuse, though clearly I am not as willing to bear it uncomplainingly as Simeon. No doubt that is why he is on the saints’ calendar and I am unlikely to ever make it there.

On the other hand, I have had a handful of students over the years say to me that my teaching had meant a great deal to them. Some say it has inspired them to go and serve the world, something that truly warms the heart of this Enneagram 2 Helper type/ENFP Champion teacher. And others have told me that while they hated the class while they were in it, they later realized how it had helped them learn to think critically and to view the world in a more expansive manner. That is no small amount of consolation in the face of a raft of grief.

This is where the 2 X 4 comes in.

(continued in Part II)

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Saying “Something About Our Institutions and Even Our Values…..”

At the Inside Higher Ed site this week, Joshua Kim posted a column entitled “The LMS: 10 Things I Don't Know.” It was an interesting post but, as often is the case with proponents of technology in higher education, it begins with a number of presumptions. Joshua has been pretty good about posting my responses. But I feel this merits a little wider audience (assuming, of course, that people actually read my blog – a shaky assumption to say the least). Here’s the post:

Joshua Kim said: “The learning management system (LMS) has become our academic Rorschach test. We all see different things when looking at the same LMS platforms. We all seem to be convinced that the choice of an LMS "says something" about our institutions, and even our values.”

That’s a pretty broad claim to say the least. I’d say there are a lot of academic “Rorschach test[s]” that we could administer in today’s academy. Given all the woes besetting higher education today, I’m not sure that concerns about LMS are necessarily the primary consideration, perhaps not even a major consideration. At best, LMS are a means to an end, that end being human users, and never an end in themselves, to paraphrase Kant.

However, I do agree that decisions about the LMS do more than just “ say something” about our institutions and our values. I would say they reveal much more than institutions realize. To wit:

• What does it say about the use of LMS to respond to over-enrollment and a resulting shortage of classroom seating at mega-universities? What does it say about the requirement that students take classes online because it is a) the only way they can get such classes since they’re not offered in F2F settings, and b) thus, it’s the only way they can graduate? What does it say about the growing tendency to charge students extra for such classes to cover the “technology fee?” What values are observable here?

• What does it say about an institution which relies heavily on LMS courses in which the problem of cheating on exams is epidemic and taken for granted by both the university and its students? What values does it teach a student when cheating is not only possible but essentially encouraged by this reality?

• What does it say about an institution whose over-enrollment which has made actual classroom teaching impossible carries over in online usage slowing responsiveness of LMS to a near-stop, this for students attempting to take timed examinations? Correspondingly, what does it say about institutions who make it virtually imperative that instructors use LMS systems but who now must spend increasing amounts of their own, non-compensated time to deal with the fragilities of those systems and their slowdowns?

• What does it say about an academy opting for a means of teaching which renders substantive examinations increasingly impossible in deference to multiple choice exams which more often than not hover at the bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy?

• What are the meta-lessons being taught by such conduct by universities? And what does a society look like 10 to 20 years down the road when the products of such systems are in control?

These are questions about values, Joshua. Such questions do not begin with the presumptions of Technopoly that all technological innovation is by definition progress and that if we can build it we must use it. Nor do they begin with presumptions that technology is by definition essential to the educational process. Moreover, such questions critically assess where technology might actually serve to hinder learning due to distractions with non-pedagogical concerns from the technology itself. And the answers to these questions say tons about our institutions.

It’d be easy to simply stone the prophets who raise such concerns. Those of us who raise them are accustomed to being called “Luddites,” the modern epithet for “heretic” hurled by those who serve at the corporate altars of technology. But is such a response intellectually honest? Is it responsible? Indeed, what might that say about the values such a response evidences?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The Dilemma

Increasingly I find the process of teaching to be overtly - and uncomfortably - political. The question that increasingly confronts me as an instructor is not what is the right thing to do, indeed, not even what is most likely to lead to education, but rather how must I respond to the context in which I am spending my last working years before retirement. It is a context in which students see themselves as consumers in an academy which more and more confuses itself for a provider of consumer goods and services. Walt Disney World, one of my former employers, had a very Disney way of putting it: “The guest may not always be right but the guest is always the guest.”

What that means in real terms in today’s academy – at least at the mega-factory version on whose degree assembly line I labor – is that every aspect of your work is now subject to consumerist review, a review which increasingly has real-life consequences in universities which have come to understand themselves as once academic versions of the Disney corporation. Assign too much work –“too much” always defined by the demands of student-consumers – your student “evaluations” fall, online surveys which begin with the questions “What did you like best about this class?” Or you might get comments on the online sites designed to help slacker students avoid anything but easy As about the outrageousness of your work load even when it falls well short of the Carnegie Unit two hours prep for each class hour. Grade with any rigor – translation: everyone doesn’t get an A – and you get urgent exhortations on those sites from honors students to avoid the class at all costs because it’s impossible to make an A, even as those who write such messages almost to the student actually received one in the class in question.

Draw attention to inappropriate student behaviors and failures to live into responsibilities to their classmates and the class itself and you may find yourself reported to administrators in an increasingly bloated bureaucracy desperate to coddle cash cows and insure their own survival. The guest may not always be right but they are always the guest and thus, at the academic theme park, entitled to set the conditions upon which any encounter between employees and guests occur.

Such are the conditions in which real life dilemmas arise, such as the one I encountered two weeks ago in one of my classes.

One of the skills I have historically tried to develop in my students is the ability to make presentations to classmates. These presentations are designed to encourage actual development of ideas only cursorily touched upon in their introductory texts. They require students to think a little more deeply about the subjects and then relate those understandings to their classmates. Presentations allow for the development of technical skills in the use of power point and the selection of art and video clips. My assignments also require the development of handouts to accompany the presentation, an aspect designed to help students determine the critical points of the information presented and to allow students in their audience to follow the presentation and make notes without having to write down everything on the screen as a handful of them always feel compelled to do. Because the classes are generally small, the public presentation of the power point provides a generally friendly, non-threatening audience with which to gain some experience and confidence in public speaking and answering questions. Finally, presentations require students to learn to work with others, for honors students in particular to break out of the hypercompetitive and often highly narcissistic bubbles in which they live to learn skills of cooperative productivity.

When the presentations are completed, students are required to evaluate their own performance and that of their group members, complete with a grade from 0-10 and a reason for that grade, as well as to serve as an audience for other groups, again grading them and providing reasons for that grade which are then used for feedback to the group presenting. The final components of the grade are the instructor’s evaluation of the presentation and the instructor’s assessment of the student evaluations to insure students don’t just blow them off (e.g., We were great! 10/10).

Two weeks ago, a student group came to the front to set up their final presentation (in this honors section, each group has two PPT presentations plus one brochure presentation per semester). It was immediately apparent that the whole group was not present. When I asked the students who were present if they had heard anything from the two missing students, they said no. Knowing one of the missing students to be habitually late for class, I stalled, using the time to pass out papers I had planned to return at the end of the class and to make comments on where I saw areas for improvement in their papers. Now 15 minutes into the class, I finally decided that with only 35 minutes remaining, we would have to start the group presentation without the AWOL members. I began by asking the present group members what it felt like to be abandoned by their classmates upon whom they had relied. “It sucks” was the articulate response from the first. The other, a demure Asian woman, merely blushed and nodded in agreement. And so the presentations began with the students presenting their own assigned parts and noting the parts they were covering for other students.

About 25 minutes into the class (the classes are only 50 minutes total), one of the remaining group members burst through the door. With a wave of commotion of books and papers in the back of the class, the student stalked to the front of the classroom, passing in front of the student’s group member who was actively presenting at that moment. No apologies. No explanation. No consideration for the interruption caused. Later, when the student was asked during the presentation about a particular part to be covered, the student responded by saying “I sent that to you last night.” No sense of group responsibilities, no consideration for the audience. Remember, it’s all about me.

For the record, the other student never showed.

To date, neither student has even explained their behaviors – much less apologized – to the class or their instructor. When I asked the group members if they had received an apology, they said the no-show student had apologized for “spacing out and missing the class” (this from a student who previously had a virtually perfect attendance record) but the other had neither apologized nor explained their late arrival.

This point was hardly lost on their classmates. One of them noted in their reasons for giving the group a less than stellar grade that “There overall powerpoint was good but because the whole group didn't show up it was sort of a mess. The two speakers that came on time and presented knew their parts and individually I would give them 10s but part of being a group is working as a team and having everyone participate.” The grammar and usage may not be stellar but the observation is pretty solid: these students failed to be responsible to their group and the class as a whole and their presentation - and thus their grade - suffered as a consequence.

While that's easy for a consumer/student to say, remembering that the guest is always right, it poses a dilemma for the instructor. What does an instructor in an self-described academic institution do with such performances? How does the instructor respond to such inconsiderate and immature behaviors? How does the instructor grade such non-performance?

In years past, I would have had no question about my responses. The students in question would have failed the exercise. I would have pulled them aside individually and spoken to them about their inconsideration and suggested that they should first apologize to their group members for the untenable position in which their lack of performance had placed them. And I would have ended by suggesting that they probably owed their classmates an apology as well. Such a procedure could prove a valuable learning experience for all the parties involved, albeit painful. Indeed, without any kind of negative response in the face of such behavior, does it not encourage more of the same in the future?

But in a world where universities have become corporate theme parks and where students have become entertainment seeking guests who are always right, at what cost to the employee does such a direct confrontation come? And in the cost/benefit analysis that non-tenured personnel such as myself – a status I share with more and more colleagues these days - are inevitably required to make for every one of our actions these days, do the benefits of doing the right thing exceed the potential costs? Does the ethical instructor do anyone any good in the unemployment line?

What would Socrates do?

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)

Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

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.