Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Lecture

A Return Home Through Old Florida

I just returned yesterday from an overnight trip to Tallahassee. I had taken my 87 year old Dad up to see his 92 year old sister, Aunt Delphine. It was a good visit with lots of stories, trips to a seafood restaurant they both like and a late brunch (during which my aunt sneaked most of her food onto my plate) before we left Saturday afternoon. It was good to spend time with one of only two remaining siblings of my parents. And it was good to spend time alone with my Dad.

We had taken the monotonous, heavily traveled interstate route (75 north to 10 west) going up. It is probably the fastest route to Tallahassee even when closed down by accidents as it was Friday afternoon just east of Live Oak. Coming home we took the more leisurely route from pre-interstate days following US 27 to Perry and then US 19 south. We crossed the Suwanee River at Fanning Springs continuing south through Cross City, Chiefland, Gulf Hammock and finally swerved eastward across the back road through tiny Morriston to Ocala and the interstate.

It was a beautiful drive through an as yet unspoiled part of Florida. It still looks much like the state I knew as a boy which no longer exists much of anywhere else. The undeveloped hammock lands along the northern Gulf Coast are vibrantly green and full of wildlife. Outside the towns, there are very few houses or businesses. Occasionally you see an unfortunate coyote and armadillo who met their ends on the highway there. But for long stretches you don’t even see billboards or any other signs that humans had been there other than the highway.

It was good to spend time with my Dad, talking about family history, about his hopes for us children and about what he wants to happen once he has left us. I always come away with a greater sense of who I am and how I got to be the way I am after these long trips with my father.   

Dream Lecturer

Apparently this time together stirred up a lot more than I realized. This morning, I awoke from a dream about a lecture of sorts. It was unclear who the lecturer was but I found myself listening intently. The points are not terribly profound, indeed they are somewhat reductionist as you will see, but I think they are worth considering. Undoubtedly, they reflect my conscious understandings of this subject quite well.

To wit:

The lecturer said, ”There is no human evil which cannot be redeemed. There is no human goodness which cannot be corrupted. Human beings lie at the Big Bend of those two potentials.”

And then I awoke.

It is my habit to record my dreams upon waking. Carl Jung believed that our unconscious mind speaks to us in our dreams and has important things to tell us if we are willing to listen. My dreams have always been vibrant, active (so much so that I sometimes awake exhausted from the activity in my dream) and vivid. I almost always remember at least one of the dreams from the night before when I awake in the morning. I guess my unconscious mind tends to be as communicative as its conscious portion.

Interestingly, in my dream, the junction of these two potentials was referred to as “the Big Bend” of humanity. The Big Bend is a geographical designation of the curving coastline on the northern Gulf Coast where the Floridian peninsula attaches to the North American mainland and the state takes a 90 degree westward turn to form its boomerang shape. This was the very region my father and I had crossed the day before.

A Mixed Bag on a Good Day

As I lay in bed this morning mulling over my dream with its lecture on the mixed nature of human beings, gradually coming to full consciousness, the following considerations occurred to me:

Human nature is a mixed bag on a good day. This is why theologies of depravity always have the potential to reinforce, exacerbate, even insure the very evil they most fear. It is also why theologies of human goodness always have the potential to be disappointed and to cause unintended harm in their naiveté.

Years ago in graduate school at FSU I encountered William James and his work on the varieties of religious experience. I found his descriptions of the sin-sick souls in search of conversion and the sanguine souls seeking to develop their positive visions of the divine helpful in understanding the religions I was studying. In all honesty, I found much more to like in the sanguine soul than the sin-sick alternative which I really have never understood. But increasingly, I find these constructs too reductionist to be terribly helpful, especially when seen as dichotomous choices.

The reality is that most of us experience ourselves as having aspects of both tendencies. While depravity theologies emphasize human sinfulness and their Freudian versions emphasize our destructive tendencies, the reality is that the potential for depravity has never been exhaustive of the subject of human nature. On the other hand, the innate goodness theologies that often developed in response to the brooding Augustinian visions which unfortunately became dominant in the west have often proven incapable of dealing with the evil that does arise regularly in our world.

Murder, war and theft are considered news by most human beings because they are the exception to the human experience, not the rule. But they do happen. And any vision of humanity that fails to take into account those possibilities is bound to be ambushed by its destructive potential. Such possibilities are not simply remediated by education as post-Enlightenment thinkers wished to believe. Rather they reside in the shadow of the human psyche and erupt when we least expect them. Indeed, some of humanity’s worst behaviors have occurred in the name of good intentions carried out with a blind eye to their actual impacts on others.

On the other hand, if you anticipate depravity you won’t have much trouble finding it. Indeed, there is something to be said for the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. In the American Bible Belt, the area of the country most prone to see the world through depravity lenses, the social pathologies from divorce and abuse to murder and addictions tend to be the highest in the country. Conversely, the areas of the country with the lowest religious participation rates generally tend to have among the lowest incidence of social pathologies. Might it be that we humans simply live into others’ expectations of us?

But Are We Willing?

As I lay in bed this morning, trying to convince myself I should get up, make coffee and get ready to go to church, a last stray thought ran through my mind:

Becoming more fully human requires two things: one, the ongoing willingness to work at becoming conscious and two, the ongoing willingness to work at overcoming our tendencies to be selfish, tribal and anthropocentric. We are inevitably works in progress. We are learning how to hold in tension all of our potentialities, all of who we are. All of us can become ever more fully human. The question is never about capacity; rather, it is always about whether we are willing.

Perhaps I ought to go on road trips with my Dad more often.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

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

Friday, August 15, 2014

Finally a Chance to Respond – Part III


You Made Me Grow…

 Ironically, in the end this student seems to have gotten what s/he sought after all. To wit:

…you pushed me more then many teachers... not in the way you wanted me to see how you thought you were right and i was wrong--but to investigate my truth and challenge what you proposed to be different. You made me grow significantly closer to God and in my faith….

 Of course this is hardly the first time I’ve been told that I’ve pushed a student harder than other instructors. While I don’t take any particular pride in such statements, it does suggest to me that I am doing my job properly. Indeed, comments like these also make me wonder what might be happening in other classes and why. While the consumerist values of comfort and convenience largely form the attraction to online classes, from a pedagogical standpoint good teachers should always push students outside of their comfort zones. The discomfort of cognitive dissonance is often the teachable moment.

I also take no small amount of comfort in knowing that the student grew significantly. That is, after all, the mark of a true educational experience as opposed to merely memorizing stuff and demonstrating a bottom line competency on a test. If one comes out of a class with exactly the same understandings of the world with which they entered, they’ve largely wasted everyone’s time and money.

One of the expectable results from critical reflection on one’s belief systems is the possibility that one will come to better understand what s/he believes with all of its strengths and weaknesses. As a result they will then have a much better idea of why they continue to believe those things and the conditions under which such beliefs are themselves credible to anyone outside the circled wagons of the like-minded.

This is particularly true of religious understandings.  Most of us inherit our religions from parents or other authority figures with little critical consideration. Thus, when challenged, we often have no response to offer regarding the credibility of our beliefs. The usual response to challenges in such cases is to anathematize the challenger. It’s not surprising that historical constructions of the Satan, the tempter, tester and trier and Lucifer, the angel who shines light on the darkness of one’s belief systems, are often the anathemas of choice for those who push us to reflect.

While growing closer to any given construction of G-d or belief system was not the goal of this course, at some level it would seem that the instructor whose teaching had prompted critical reflection which led to this result would be seen as having done the student a major favor. Of course, in all fairness, it could also have led to a morally  indignant retreat back into Plato’s Cave, fingers in ears singing “La la la, I can’t hear you…”

Be Open to All

The student’s response ended with the following:

I think that you should teach but everyone needs to evaluate how they are doing every now and then and see how to better themselves. you pride yourself on your familys teaching background and your history with it--you were designed to be a teacher but like this young man you wrote about... be an open mentor and influencer to ALL students not just the ones whose specific beliefs align with yours.

I always find the presumption that educators somehow are unwilling to evaluate their own performance unless somehow forced to do so rather remarkable. Why would that be so? I realize that my own experience is not necessarily normative for anyone other than myself. But there has never been a term that I have not sought to learn from my experience and modify my pedagogy and content in response. I have never needed anyone to bludgeon me into improving my classes. Indeed, I cannot imagine why a teacher would not want to do so.

That’s precisely why the carrot and stick approach of student ratings used by this and most universities is profoundly misguided. Moral reasoning that compels behaviors by threats of reward and punishment is the mark of children, Kohlberg’s pre-conventional level. While such conditional reasoning is inevitably the mark of consumerism (What’s in it for me?) it is unworthy of such an important enterprise as higher education.

Moreover, I readily agree that a good teacher needs ongoing feedback on their work. I’ve had my courses observed many times over the years by colleagues and superiors and I have always taken their feedback seriously even when I have challenged their observations. There is a world of difference between dismissing feedback out of hand and wrestling with it for days in forming a critically reflective response.

Finally, the fact that I have devoted several days to reflecting upon and responding to this student’s comments ought to suggest how seriously I take student feedback as well. While I don’t think faculty can be mentors to every student who comes along if for no other reason than the fact that mentors offer very personal skills and insights to those seeking the same, I do seek to reach every student who comes into my classes even as I know that is unlikely to occur. That includes those who arrive largely disinclined to seriously consider what my classes may offer them.

Of course, turnabout is always fair play when making critiques like this student offers. Might it not be fair to respond to this student that s/he should be open to all teachers, “not just the ones whose specific beliefs align with yours?” Doesn’t everyone need “to evaluate how they are doing every now and then and see how to better themselves?”

Use it Well

You are talented so use it well!

Again, I appreciate the student’s couching his/her comments in the language of compliment if not flattery. But I think this point is also a good example of the maxim that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

The reality is that a student capable of coming to a university and succeeding in a class like Christianity is also talented. While the workload of this class was not particularly burdensome, the level of cognitive consideration and existential wrestling this material demanded was considerable. A student who successfully undertook such a challenge evidences no small amount of talent him/herself.

Moreover, as the student says, such talent must be used well. The Christian scriptures reflect the belief that to hide one’s light under a bushel basket is ultimately a moral failing. That requires both the courage to confront one’s own limitations of thought as well as the willingness to continue engaging a process that may well prove painful in its cognitive dissonance.

I believe it is the vocation of a good teacher to call students to engage this kind of Hero’s Journey. Indeed, I believe the failure to do that is a waste of the teacher’s talent as well as that of the student. When the ability to live into that vocation becomes impossible in a system that no longer values heroes and heroines there will no longer be a place for good teachers or students in that system. Sadly, in a day of consumerist driven pedagogy, I believe that time is drawing closer and closer for this teacher.

Thank you for your response to my blog entry and for providing this opportunity to respond. You will find your comments posted at my blog site today. I do not labor under the misapprehension that my words here will have convinced you nor was it necessarily my goal to do that here, but I am grateful for the chance to actually say them for a change. 

As I say to all of my students in parting, “I wish you well.”

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 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.


Finally a Chance to Respond – Part II


Belittling my thoughts

The student's response continues:

…but the class i took with you you belittled my thoughts and didnt help me prosper … as a teacher i believe it would benefit you greatly to encourage students more in their writing and work online then to belittle their thoughts

This is a critical point that deserves immediate consideration: “belittling” of thoughts. To fully consider this concern requires looking at both the medium in which these thoughts are expressed as well as the ability of the student to critically assess feedback on his/her thoughts offered in that medium.

After 10 years of teaching online courses, it is my observation that one of the real drawbacks of this format is the propensity for misunderstanding other human participants therein. Without facial expression, tone of voice or body language, mere words are easily misunderstood.

That works both ways in this depersonalized medium. It is quite possible for a student to see critical comments about their writing as somehow an attack on their ability to think per se, their belief systems, if not their very person, as this student did. Without any kind of context in which to consider those comments that’s not necessarily an unreasonable conclusion at which to arrive.

Conversely it’s also quite possible for an instructor to see comments offered without any context, references or explanations as cryptic and poorly formed. It’s a short leap from there to presumptions that the student him/herself is perhaps shallow and not terribly thoughtful.

In both cases, the ability to simply ask, “What did you mean by that?” which a face-to-face class would provide, not to mention the possibility of hearing what other students think about the same subject, is missing. As a result the potential for the worst presumptions to inform both student and teacher about the other is unlimited.

Human beings are incapable of understanding texts without contexts. When the latter is missing, we supply our own. And, sadly, given the increasingly driven, hypercompetitive atmosphere of the corporate university today, the context many of our students presume is that their relationship with their instructor is by nature adversarial. Thus they assume the worst about any critique of their comments.

That said, it is always the duty of responsible college instructors to point out to their students when and how their thinking and writing is lacking. Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong is prone to say that “It’s precisely because I take the Bible seriously that I do not take it literally.” Confronting a student on the limitations of their thinking might be experienced as having that thinking “belittled.” But, the reality is, limited, poorly expressed thought is already little. Drawing a student’s attention to that fact is not an act of cruelty, it’s an act of devotion to the vocation of teaching. 

Most of us have some difficulty separating our senses of our self and our thinking such that when the latter is drawn into question, we experience it as an attack on our person. While there is a great deal of difference between saying “Why would that be so?” and saying, “What a stupid thing to say,” increasingly our students have a difficult time distinguishing the two.

Critical thinking has been one of the major casualties of standardized test driven pedagogies in which there is only one right answer, a downward spiral that acontextual student ratings only exacerbates. And nowhere is that more true than when one’s religious beliefs are considered in the harsh light of academia outside the friendly confines inside the circled wagons of the tribe. 

I Shouldn’t Have to Agree With You….

…because my beliefs did not agree with yours on a matter of who God was and the importance of the Bible. I think you are talented but you need to realize that not everyone has the beliefs you do….

It’s a fairly common defense mechanism among students today to claim political correctness as the explanation for their own failures. When a student’s ideas are questioned or their arguments and explanations fall short on exams, a good way to save face is to say that their argument was correct but counted wrong because it was inconsistent with the instructor’s belief system. While comments like these are not terribly unexpectable and are given much more credence in a consumerist student culture today than they deserve, they also reveal a problematic approach to any college course and this course in particular..

The comments offered by this student arise from a class in Christianity. Previously the class was entitled Christian Thought but this was changed during a curriculum overhaul to make it commensurate with courses entitled Islam and Buddhism. The former designation clearly indicated the academic nature of this course. The retitled course proved subject to no small amount of confusion. As a result this course drew a large number of conservative Christians largely indisposed (by their own admission) to considering the subject matter in any kind of critical manner which would draw the understandings they brought with them into question.

What’s problematic in these comments is the student’s obvious presumption that personal belief systems - the instructor’s or the student’s - were somehow the subject matter of the course. In fact, I had gone out of my way to dissuade students of such a presumption from the beginning of the course.

On the course Syllabus, the purposes of the class included

·         to gain a historically informed understanding of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, his life and its impact on his immediate culture (and)
·         to ascertain how the movement within Judaism around the person of Jesus developed into an independent religion of its own.”

Under practical skills I had listed the goals of developing

·         critical analysis, questioning of presumptions, awareness of one's own hermeneutical lens
·         expansive thought, developing data into knowledge through understanding the context, subtext and significance of ideas
·          the ability to construct and defend logical arguments to support positions.”  

I also linked a document to the homepage and assigned students to read it the first week of classes. Entitled “How to hold an intellectually honest discussion of religion,” it featured an entire section on how to “Check your presumptions at the door.” Among the presumptions to be checked were the following:

·  What are you presuming about the existence (or absence) of G-d/the  gods?
·  What are you presuming about the nature of G-d/the gods?
·  What are you presuming about the nature of human beings and their        relationships to G-d/the gods?
·  What are you presuming about the nature of truth and how it is discerned?  

The essay further noted that “the value of any discourse on religion often turns on whether that discourse is marked by intellectual honesty including:

  • an awareness of one’s biases, unconscious and unreflective presumptions and the impact of one’s cultural matrix and individual life experience on one’s understandings
  • a tentativeness in discussing questions of “ultimate truth” based in a humility springing from the recognition of the limitations and partial nature of all human understandings and the human capacity to know

 I’m not sure what more I could have done to alert the student to the expectations of this academic class in which all ideas about religion would be discussed critically, their development examined historically and the dangers of presumptions guarded against zealously. This was not a Bible study or a theology class and I wanted students to know that up front.

Clearly that was not enough for some.

Being Mindful of Our Purpose Here

After grading the first round of discussion posts in the class, I found myself nearly in despair. In post after post, students had taken to the virtual pulpit to speak for G_d, to use the Bible as a weapon in their fight for revealed truth and to dismiss the text, its author and the instructor. This was *exactly* what I had sought to avoid in those opening readings. Clearly, few had read them or taken their contents seriously.

I began my weekly announcement to the class that week with these words:

When I first suggested that Christianity be taught this semester online, I wondered to myself and to others why it was not taught on a regular basis. Previously offered as a Humanities course, Christian Thought, it seemed to me that gaining an understanding of the history of the Christian streams of tradition was essential to understanding western history and culture. So, why wasn’t it offered every term?

After last night’s grade-a-thon of the first round of discussion posts and responses that ended about 11:30 PM, I think I understand why academics are hesitant to teach this course. It has little to do with the course materials themselves which those of us with degrees in religious studies find to be the most fascinating thing we have ever studied. Rather, it has much to do with the way students interact with and respond to the materials being taught.

The announcement went on to discuss the difficulty of separating deeply held beliefs from critical consideration of the concepts we were discussing. I noted that many people experience such consideration as being asked to reexamine understandings about things they thought they already knew. I noted that this had the potential to draw into question what they had been taught by significant others.

For many, having such teachings drawn into question also draws into question the authority of those significant others and thus can be experienced as an invitation to commit treason. There is no small amount of cognitive dissonance potentially generated by such conflicts and it is important to recognize that for what it is.

Even so, I reminded the students that they had entered a class whose syllabus and other course materials had made clear what the class was about from the beginning. But just to make certain, I added the following to the announcement:

In the Ways to Study Religions powerpoint lecture linked to the Schedule that I assigned for viewing, one of the final slides is entitled “What must I believe to pass a Religions course at UCF?” The slide is intentionally left blank. The message? You are not required to believe anything to pass this course. Conversely, outside this class, you can believe anything you want.

Let me be clear about this: Religious studies classes are NOT about believing, they are about coming to know about and critically understand belief systems. Whereas believing is personal, communal, experiential and existential in nature, knowing about and critically understanding are largely cognitive in nature.

Clearly, the problem here was not a failure to make course parameters clear. Nor was it a situation where the instructor pushed a belief system onto students at the expense of academic integrity. Rather, in this student’s case and a handful of others, it was a failure to provide the student what s/he had come to the class seeking – affirmation of the religious beliefs with which the student entered the class.

This post concludes in Part III.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 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.

Finally a Chance to Respond – Part I

A former student has offered a response to my most recent blog post in which I expressed my gratitude for the opportunity to mentor students. I will gladly publish it. My only criteria for publishing responses on my blog site is that such posts are thoughtful. While some aren’t necessarily very thoughtful, this one evidences a certain degree of insight.

At some level I am in the debt of this student. I don’t know who s/he is because s/he offered the response anonymously. But what is important to me is that by placing his/her comments on this forum, I am actually able to offer what I hope will be my own thoughtful response to these comments.  

An Exercise in Consumerism

Such is never the case with either the overtly consumerist Ratemyprofessor sites one finds online or its thinly veiled consumerist progeny, the student ratings conducted by the university each term.  Last school year, a mere 39% of the students I taught actually went to the site to offer their ratings. If students are given an option of engaging the ratings process, by definition only those who feel motivated for whatever reason, whether to offer praise that borders on sycophantism or with axes to grind, will actually do so.   

Sadly, the questions posed at the university’s site are unlikely to produce useful information for an instructor. “What did you like best/least...” are consumerist questions better suited for Baskin-Robbins and its many flavors of ice cream than feedback on an academic process. Whether a student liked or hated any given aspect of a course is a largely unrelated question as to whether it provided an opportunity to learn. Unlike the former question, the latter has the possibility of actually producing useful feedback to an instructor. Sadly, such approaches also signal to students that they should behave like consumers entitled to have it their way. That has all kinds of pathological ramifications for higher education.

Worse yet, student comments produced by these ratings are offered in a contextual vacuum. The litany on my ratings is the same each term:  too much reading, grading too rigorous, feedback too harsh. But without any context, what do such comments mean? Too much reading for whom? Under what circumstances? Too rigorous in comparison to what? Too harsh given what presumed criteria? In short, what were the expectations upon which these comments were based and were they reasonable given the circumstances?

Not surprisingly, such questions are never posed and thus a context for the responses to questions which actually are asked is never established. The result is that much of the commentary generated at these sites by definition has limited utility to instructors as feedback on their teaching. And as in many cases online, the anonymity of cyberspace sometimes seems to bring out the worst in contributors. 

The insult added to the injury of being subject to this simplistic, counterproductive process is that universities actually use these acontextual consumerist responses to reward and punish their faculty. This fact has hardly escaped the attention of their consumer/students who readily recognize their power to dictate work load, grading and the tenor of feedback through this process.

So I thank the student for making these comments at my blogspot which in turn affords me an opportunity to actually respond. Moreover, the comments themselves frame the concerns of the class s/he took with me very well.

I will comment inter-textually below. The text of the student’s comments are boldfaced italicized.

A Passion Flickering Out

I think you are a talented teacher with a passion to teach,….

First, I thank you for recognizing my capacities as a teacher. I work very hard at being a good teacher. I have attended countless continuing education programs at the university and elsewhere to stay atop of changes in technology and pedagogy. I regularly engage in classes abroad and here in the US, mostly on my own nickel, to stay on top of my fields and expand my content knowledge. I take my work seriously and I have won several awards during my nearly 30 years of teaching in higher education.

So, thank you for noticing. Increasingly that is the rare exception and not the rule.

As for my passion to teach, for most of my life it has flowed from the teacher at the core of my being. Historically, teaching has never been just a job for me. Rather it has been an expression of who I am as a human being. If I knew my primary needs in Maslow’s hierarchy (food, clothing, shelter, security) would be met, I would readily teach for free.

But, in all honesty, my passion for teaching has decidedly cooled over the past few years. Truth is, I abhor the direction I see universities taking as they have devolved into a deadly combination of corporate business values, practices and organization executed by an ever growing army of administrators and technocrats.  Lost in the shuffle of marketing Club Med dorms and tail gate parties and a highly reductionist and superficial demand for “accountability” which largely reduces the art of teaching and learning to meaningless data is any real concern for higher education.

Worse yet, I bewail the loss of students interested in (or at least not adverse to) actually learning.  Today I largely encounter strategic grade seekers and entitled consumers. Sadly, I sense that this decline has been accentuated by the rise of online courses like the one this student took. Once you begin down the slippery slope of excusing students from having to invest their time and energy in actually attending class all that’s really left is a process of negotiation of the bottom line.

It’s important to note that I do not blame the army of adolescents who arrive at our gates these days in a largely unconscious state for these attitudes and behaviors. I have watched with increasing levels of horror as the products of a generation of No Child Left Behind “reforms” have come to the university. They have been suckled in the toxic formula of multiple choice tests and the construction of education strictly in instrumental terms, as means to jobs and little else. In years to come, I fear my Boomer generation is going to be seen as not only falling short of our promise to change the world for the better, we will be blamed for ruining our successor generations.

During my recent month away to study in Boston and Israel, I went through a rather dark night of the soul on my vocation as a teacher. As I heard professors talking about the exciting classes they were going to create as a result of our institute and the challenging students they anticipated teaching, I found myself nearly despondent.

The chances are that I would never have the chance to teach classes like these. There is little room in a factory process degree assembly line for classes that would seriously wrestle with the complex, existential questions that the reality of Israel raises.  Even if the class was offered, the chances it would draw sufficient enrollment to avoid being cancelled are pretty limited. In a day of and social media, the ability of student/consumers to avoid classes requiring significant reading, writing and critical thinking is virtually unlimited.

In all honesty, it is difficult to remain passionate about teaching in the face of this reality.

This post continues in Part II.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 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, August 14, 2014

August 13, an Auspicious Day

August, 13, 1987 – John David Coverston is born.

This is the Feast Day of the Nativity of the Eldest Nephew, John David Coverston, who is a ripe old 27 years of age today. 

He was named for his cousin, John David Coverston, who died in 1980, his father, David Ansel Coverston, and his great uncle, David Yost Coverston who died in 1990. John was born in Gainesville, FL, spent most of his school years in Winter Park. He now resides in San Francisco with his husband, Ryan.

His uncles love him very much and hope he had a wonderful day.

Hurricane Charley Destroys Coverleigh - Aug. 13, 2004

In early August, 2004, a small category 1 hurricane lingered off the Florida Keys. A rare early season storm, Charley was initially forecast to come up the west coast of Florida, perhaps grazing Tampa Bay enroute to the Big Bend. On the morning of Friday, August 13 (a Friday the 13th) in the space of less than an hour, Hurricane Charley exploded in strength climbing two categories to 145 mph sustained winds and changed directions heading inland at Punta Gorda. It would cut a swath of destruction across Florida before exiting between Daytona and Jacksonville later that night.

Coverleigh, our home (the name a result of combining Coverston and Moberleigh, the original spelling of Mobley), lay in that path. A 120 year old oak tree covered our entire lot and shaded our home. We had brought in a tree surgeon earlier in the year who pronounced it healthy. But, the oak was not up to the category five microbursts that swirled around the core of Charley as it passed overhead. The first of four trunks came down into my office piercing the roof. The second and third trunks fell through the middle of the house slicing it in two and piercing the roof of the neighbor’s house behind us. The hollowed out rotten heart of the tree was now exposed.

Breathlessly watching all this on CNN from a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in College Park, MD, where I was visiting a friend, I immediately called Andy to get a damage report. It became clear that I needed to get home as quickly as possible. This was easier said than done given that Tampa and Jacksonville airports had closed and Orlando International had sustained fairly major damage from the storm. I got the last seat available on the last flight into West Palm Beach the following day, rented a car and headed home.

By the time I got to the OUC power plant about 25 miles outside the city, the street lights were out. Had I not known my house lay about midway around Lake Underhill, the large lake at the foot of our street, I could not have found it that night. About half of the large oaks in our neighborhood had been toppled. The debris was almost impassible. I finally found our home when the lights of a FOX news camera  illuminated Andy as he walked out of the debris of what remained of our home.

Charley would prove to be only the first of three hurricanes to strike Orlando that year in a record season which produced 27 named storms. The last of them, Iota, utilizing Greek letters because the designated names had been exhausted, lingered in the Atlantic that December as the year 2004 ended and 2005 began.

Thus began an extended rebuilding project that lasted nearly four years. We hired two contractors along the way and had both leave before the project was completed. The first left with the roof off the house. The second left us to deal with all the inspections to get the house approved for occupancy. We ended up having to take out the license for completing the reconstruction ourselves. I will never forget the night our first contractor, a devout Mormon, came to tell us he was deserting us mid-project. As he pulled out of our driveway that night, I spotted a bumper sticker on the oversized pickup truck: “Scouting Teaches Values.”

My saintly Mother, St. Marge, was a source of inspiration to me in this process. My Mom had survived several horrific killer storms in her native Miami in the 1920s and 30s including one which took five of her friends when the train was washed from its tracks on the Overseas Highway. She would often say to her very distressed son, “It’s going to be OK, son. Trust me. I know.” And she did.

We lived in two different rental locations during reconstruction including one across the street from our home. Because our water supply was still connected I was able to replant our lush jungle yard which had also been trashed by debris removal.  I nourished my recovering yard as the workers slowly completed their reconstruction. It was the way I worked out my grief. 

Our first day back in our home was Thanksgiving of 2007, the power having been turned back on that very day for the first time in over three years. The last day of classes that term was also the day we were required to move out of our rented house across the street from our rebuilt home. It was frantic but we were finally home.

New Coverleigh had been born.

Getting Hitched on the Steps of SCOTUS - Aug. 13, 2010

When the District of Columbia removed the discriminatory restrictions on marriage against same sex couples, I immediately said to my life partner of then 36 years, “Why don’t we go to DC and get married?”

I was surprised when he said yes. Both of us had thought long and hard about the whole notion of marriage and the baggage it carried from its historical practices. There was a time when both of us would have said that this outdated institution was so compromised by any number of historical pathologies that it was beyond redemption. Maybe domestic partners would be a preferable status.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Supreme Court. A lesbian couple in Miami had boarded a cruise ship with their two children. One of the domestically partnered women had a stroke and was rushed to Miami Jackson Hospital. As the partner and their children sat in the waiting room asking for updates and permission to visit the dying partner and parent, the families of straight married couples swarmed in and out, no restrictions. The nurse at the emergency room desk rejected the legal documents produced by the distraught partner to procure their visitation saying “Florida doesn’t believe in gay marriage. We will not honor those documents.”

By the time the sister of the stricken woman arrived and gave permission to the partner and children, the woman had lapsed into a coma and never emerged. She died that night alone.

That single event had changed my mind about this subject. And I think it must have changed Andy’s mind as well since he said yes, let’s go get married. And so we asked Willard Schultz, the independent Catholic bishop who had blessed our union in the chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge some eight years earlier if he would come complete the marriage rite. He eagerly agreed.

The first duty was to file the necessary papers in the District to register Bishop Schultz as a representative of an established religious body. Then came the planning. We needed to apply for the license, wait 24 hours, return to pick it up, complete the marriage, execute the license and then file it at the Clerk of the Court’s office. That meant the better part of a week in DC.

We chose the date August 13 very intentionally. It had been a very dark date in our lives with the loss of our home to Charley. I had spent that dark evening in unparalleled agony watching on television  from DC as the storm destroyed my home. But even that kind of suffering and despair can be redeemed. 

And so we rented hotel rooms for ourselves and our friends and the Bishop in a nice hotel in Foggy Bottom by the GW Campus. We sent out a handful of invitations. And we were ready.

Or so we thought. DC was having an ungodly heat wave the day we arrived. It was 103 degrees at the National Airport when we arrived. The lowest high for the week would be in the low 90s. So much for the taffeta. 

The second day in DC we went to the clerk’s office to get our license. We provided the necessary identification and paid our fee. We were set.

But where would we go? The National Park Service required permits for weddings on any of its properties. That included the steps of the Supreme Court building. But I had my heart set on that location. Not only am I lawyer but the SCOTUS represents the potential for the occasional victory of justice over the power-driven realities of law in this country. The inscription in the pediment over this Greek revival structure reads “EQUAL JUSTICE UNDER LAW.”

We were there to claim our share.

And so the vows were spoken before our bishop in our hotel room. The entire rite was completed there up to the pronouncement of the marriage. At that point, we walked up the street to the Metro, got off at the Capitol Hill stop, walked past the Library of Congress on the east side of the US Capitol and stopped in front of the Court. Under the wary eyes of capital guards and National Park Service rangers, our officiant simply said, “By the power vested in me by the District of Columbia I pronounce you legally married.” And it was done.

No doubt, the traditional marriage kiss took some of the nearby tourists by surprise. But there was no time to worry about that. We hurried off to the clerk’s office to file the executed license.

The clerk asked where the address actually was. “That would be the steps of the US Supreme Court,” I replied. She got a big grin on her face. “I like that! Nice job, guys!” From behind us, the happy sounds of a same sex wedding party emerged from the make-shift chapel in the clerk’s office, all the members of the party dressed in matching Hawaiian shirts and leis. The straight couple waiting their turn with the justice of the peace congratulated the two women as they exited. It was a very happy day.

After a wonderful lunch in a restaurant atop the lobby of Union Station, we spent the afternoon at a couple of the Smithsonian museums Andy had not seen. When people ask where we spent our honeymoon, I tell them “The Museum of Natural History.”

This year, Andy and I celebrated our 40th year as partners and our fourth year as a legally married couple. Already three state courts in Florida have ruled that our marriage is legal in the Sunshine State even as the state constitutional amendment passed several years ago still prohibits its legal recognition by the state government while those decisions face appeal.

But that day is coming, probably sooner than anyone thinks.  This is a change whose time has come. Maybe the decision will be handed down on August 13, 2015. That would be appropriate, I think. It is, after all, a very auspicious day.

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

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, August 02, 2014

Epiphany – Gratitude for the Chance to Touch a Life

I spent a couple of hours catching up with a former student yesterday at the funky Dandelion Communitea CafĂ© downtown. He’s just survived his first year of law school and is interning this summer here in town. He’s doing very well and is headed toward becoming a very fine attorney. As I often say to students like him, I’m quite proud of him but hardly surprised.

During the course of our conversation I mentioned how I increasingly feel like my work is largely meaningless, that I serve an impersonal factory process mass producing degrees. I told him that I increasingly wonder if I should do something else, something that would actually “make a difference in the world.” Meaningful Life is the Boomer National Anthem, after all.

His face clouded over. And very softly he replied, “You made a difference in my life. You were my mentor. I have greatly benefited from knowing you.”

My heart fell into my stomach at that moment. First of all, this was an enormous compliment coming from a very fine student, one of the best I’d ever taught. And, truth be told, I’ve taught a number of fine students.

But second, what I suddenly realized is how very ungrateful my comment must have sounded to this young man. Mentoring only occurs when students become willing to allow their mentors into their lives. They have to become vulnerable in that process, open to what their mentors offer them. That is hardly a small consideration for anyone, myself included. It is a major vote of confidence in the abilities and the character of the mentor.

For teachers like myself, mentoring is also a major gift. It allows us to offer our talents, skills and hopefully the wisdom of life experience to those we would assist in becoming all they can be. It also affirms those of us whose meaning in life is largely found by being willing to help others, affirmation that is hard to come by in virtually any form of public service today, especially higher education.

That is no small gift. And it is not something that should ever, EVER be taken for granted. And so I thank my young lawyer-in-training for turning the tables, becoming the teacher and teaching me a lesson I badly needed at this point in my life of intense introspection and questioning of my calling.

Thank you, my young friend (whom I have not identified here because I fear it may embarrass him). And I thank all of the students along the way who have allowed me entry into their lives and the opportunity to offer them whatever it is they might have found helpful on their own life journeys. 

Please do not think I have ever taken you for granted or discounted the time we have spent together. Truth be told, I am in your debt. And I will always be grateful for your own roles in my life.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Regional Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++