Sunday, September 07, 2014

Reflections at 61 Years of Age – Part II: The Wheel Turns

The Wheel of Life Turns

            I look at the world and I notice it’s turning….while my guitar gently weeps.
            (The Beatles, The White Album, 1968)

I am genetically predisposed to be a teacher, the great grandchild of people named Reed and Wright. I am the fourth generation of educators in my family, second generation of college instructors. Much of my life has been shaped by my vocation as a teacher. Education has never been a mere job for me, it has always been my primary life calling along with callings to be an advocate in the pursuit of justice for all beings and to live a life rooted in spirituality.

LBJ Congressional Intern, Summer 1977

Today I find myself in a very different academy than the one I entered in 1997 as an A.B.D. still working on my dissertation. Indeed, I am rarely even in a classroom. My courses are now “delivered” online, taught from the other end of a computer screen. Far too much of my time these days is spent wrestling with flakey computer programs (when I can actually get into the overcrowded systems) whose ongoing technical problems I am ill-prepared to diagnose and manage. 

There are many aspects of this that aren’t so bad. I enjoy being able to look out my windows at my beautiful jungle yard and work in my gym shorts and tee shirts with my dogs and cats around my feet. I do not miss the drive to campus to hunt for a $200/year parking space that may or may not exist. And I do not miss the constant tension of campus politics and the stress of working on the floor of a veritable factory mass producing work credentials. (It’s worth noting that none of these pluses actually have anything to do with teaching – they are extrinsic benefits).  
Practicing attorney, Orlando, 1985-90

But I do miss the interaction with live human beings. Indeed, unless my students come to the office hours I voluntarily hold on my own nickel ($5/day parking each time I come to main campus), I will never know what they even look like, much less who they are as human beings. I also miss the occasional talks with my colleagues on those increasingly rare occasions when they can let their hair down long enough to actually be fully present.

I Mourn Alone

Where I sense that the wheel of life has turned and left me behind is when I realize that my vision of what higher education should be about and the values it should embody is increasingly not the vision shared by most of the people around me. That is particularly true of those who have the power to make decisions that impact my professional life and those of my colleagues and students.

Farewell fiesta, Las Guabitas, Panama (hour north of Panama City), Summer 1994
I resist the commodification processes that seek to measure teaching and learning in contrived, burdensome and usually meaningless ways but which produce mountains of empirical data that allow an ever burgeoning army of administrators and their technocrats to sleep well at night. I have never adjusted to the practice of jamming 50-75 students into classes in which I will never be able to learn all their names, much less offer thoughtful feedback on all their papers. And I increasingly resist the never ending demands for service on revolving door search committees seeking the next round of visiting line instructors to be underpaid, used up and discarded. 

Latin American Humanities, Osceola Campus, Valencia 2000

 But the university staff is not the only party which has changed. Most of the students I encounter today are almost exclusively focused on the attainment of working credentials in the most expeditious and least demanding ways possible. Ultimately I do not blame them for this. They have been well trained to see themselves largely as consumers with a sense of entitlement to dictate everything from workload to grading to feedback, an entitlement that is readily rewarded through their adept use of student ratings and grievance processes.
Latin American Humanities Final (the Food Unit), December 20111

 While I will always cherish the many fine students whose lives I have been privileged to engage over the years, some of whom continue to seek me out online and during office hours, I find the bottom-liner, entitled consumers I mostly encounter today anathema.

What is even more troubling is that from my regular reading of journals and sites regarding higher education, I realize that my experiences are not the exception, they are largely the rule in academia today. I mourn the death of the academy I once knew or at least had the luxury of dreaming actually existed.

But increasingly, I largely find myself mourning alone.  

Not Enough Serenity to Accept “What it is.”

A couple of years ago I witnessed one of the most troubling events of my entire academic career. A candidate for a position in our department was giving a teaching demonstration to one of our classes held in a large teaching auditorium. The instructor had forgotten the date and had scheduled an exam for that day. Students came to class expecting a test only to find there was a visitor giving a lecture.

Over half of them stormed out of the auditorium, slamming the doors behind them, many beginning loud cell phone conversations before they even reached the doors. Those that remained made no effort to hide the fact they were reading Facebook and playing games with their laptops and tablets. That included some of my colleagues. Virtually no one was paying attention.

I was absolutely mortified. To begin with I felt incredible sympathy for the candidate we had just abused. No one deserves treatment like that. But even more pointedly I was incredibly embarrassed for our department and our university. We had just pulled an incredibly juvenile stunt at the expense of a guest we had invited. In addition to the complete inconsideration this performance demonstrated, it revealed what a mediocre-at-best institution we operate.

A longtime colleague sitting near me saw my distress and simply responded, “It is what it is.” And, sadly, in the two years that I have had to think about this, I have come to recognize that that this event probably does largely reflect the state of affairs at the institution where I work and very possibly most incarnations of at least public higher education in America today.
Mother's Birthday, VA Cemetery, 2014

After meditating all summer on Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer, beloved by 12 step groups around the world, I am realizing that, unlike my colleague, I do not think I will be able to find the serenity to accept this vision of “what it is” nor will my courage alone be enough to change that reality. The wisdom that I am left with is the realization that I am not OK with this new reality and despite my best efforts, I am not sure I can ever become OK with it.

The wheel of life has turned and I am left behind.

Where Do I Go From Here?

These days I find myself pondering where my life is headed. Though my knee slows me down and I have a lot less energy than I had at even 50, I am hardly ready for the rocking chair on the porch much less the wheel chair with the drip bag at the Happy Valley Home. More importantly, like the true blue Boomer that I am – who, unlike my yuppie cohorts, did not sell out to self-focused neo-conservatism -  I still want to do my part in making the world a better place than the one I inherited some 61 years ago. And I remain hopeful enough to still believe that might be possible.

Uncle Harry baptizing nephew,
Cary Savage, 1999

I want to believe there is a place where I can bring my wide educational background and my wealth of life experience to bear in undertakings among people who will both benefit from what I offer them and actually appreciate the work I am willing to do on their behalf. I want to bring all of who I am – intellectual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, physical, personal, experiential – to bear in this effort.  And I am vain enough to believe that I may have actually developed a modicum of wisdom to offer those willing to consider it.

I want my remaining time and energy to matter. The questions remaining are simply where, when and how.

As I pondered the wisdom of being so self-revealing this rainy Saturday afternoon, I found myself drawn to a song I love from Evita. While it refers to the pending death of a cancer-stricken Eva Peron in Buenos Aires, I find myself asking the same questions about my own life that Evita poses here in You Must Love Me:

Where do [I] go from here?
This isn't where [I] intended to be
I had it all, you believed in me
I believed in you

Certainties disappear
What do [I] do for [my] dreams to survive?
How do [I] keep all [my] passions alive,
As I used to do?

Clearly, I am not the only human being to stand at the brink, watching the turning of the wheel and wonder what life holds for me. Indeed, one of the videos that came up along with this one from Evita comes from the track of Disney’s movie Pocahantas. Its lyrics  seemed even more on point:

My world has changed and so have I
I've learned to choose
And even learned to say goodbye
The path ahead's so hard to see
It winds and bends but where it ends
Depends on only me

In my heart I don't feel part of so much I've known
Now it seems it's time to start,
A new life on my own

But where do I go from here?
So many voices ringing in my ear
Which is the voice that I was meant to hear?
How will I know?
Where do I go from here?

Where, indeed?

And so on this first week of my 62d year of life, I give thanks for 61 very eventful years, for an unpredictable life of wonderful people and numerous opportunities to grow and become the person I am today. I look forward to what life will bring me this next year, albeit with no small amount of disquietude, as the wheel of life turns once again.

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)
Lecturer: Religion and Cultural Studies
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Anonymous said...

Dr. C.,

A belated Happy Birthday to you. I enjoyed both of your articles. The current state of higher education I observed concur with your observations.

I was disappointed by the number of professors that I believe, succumbed to student review pressure and sought more to be more concerned with being like by the students than they were with educating the students. Several seemed to have little interest and were frequently absent.

In one class, the professor said he was placing the study guide for the upcoming test on the board. He then posted the answer for a few minutes. I debated reporting but in the end I did like all the other lemmings. I feel the majority of students don't value knowledge, they only want an easy grade. I think student evaluations should be eliminated from higher education.

I just turned 58. I still believe in supernatural miracles and divine intervention. You made me reevaluate some of the basic tenets of my Christian Faith and I am grateful. I am a seeker of truth and you sharpened my tools. I feel very fortunate to have met and learned from you.

Warm regards,


Don said...

So many things to say, but I fear they would fall on deaf ears.

I will simply say that reading your words saddens me, not for the world, but for you. You have so much to be thankful for, and you have given the world so much; yet - not unlike the Penitentes of the American Southwest (et alii loci) you seem to feel the burden of responsibility for all the ills of the world.

It is wonderful that you care so much and that you want to keep on keeping on; but don't lose sight of all that you have done, and cut back a bit on the self-flagellation.

Sit back and let someone else wash your feet for a while.