Sunday, May 31, 2015

Gratitude for a Love Unbroken

Andy Mobley, December 31, 2014
annual New Year’s Eve walk down Cape Canaveral beach together
Gantries of Kennedy Space Center in background 

Today my husband and I celebrate our 41st anniversary of loving relationship. In August, we will celebrate our fifth year of legal marriage.

In many, many ways the fact this relationship has lasted so very long is a miracle. It has survived multiple separations for school and work. It has survived the interminable period of coming out that I had to work through for about 20 years, discerning who I was and what I was about. It has survived competing partners, disapproving parents, family members and coworkers and discriminating employers. It has survived the selling of one home as a part of uprooting to move across the country and back and it has survived the loss of another home to a hurricane and the seemingly endless process of rebuilding it.

It has survived much that most relationships never have to face and still remains intact with all the scars to show for it. But it has survived.

There Were No Manuals….

I met my now husband at our fraternity in Gainesville in 1973. In all honesty, neither of us much liked the other to begin with. His upper middle class roots in Georgia’s country club society were everything this hippie reviled. And he had never met anyone as dangerously curious – and as willing to simply reject the conventions of society out of hand – as me.

The brothers assigned me to Andy as his little brother during my pledge period because no one else thought they could deal with me. Little did either of us know where that would take us.

There were no manuals on how to be a gay couple in 1974 when Andy first told me he loved me. And there was an awful lot working against being a couple, not the least of which was the law that criminalized it.

At the time I was in a relationship with a woman I planned to marry and everything in my world of 1974 pointed in that direction. On my recent visit to Tallahassee to visit my 93 year old aunt, I passed the wealthy neighborhood where the woman I once loved now lives with her attorney husband, her children now grown and one grandchild already on the scene. I thought to myself how different my life would have been had I lived into those same dreams I once thought I held in undergraduate at the University of Florida in the mid-1970s.

As I pondered that driving down the oak-shaded canopy roads of Tallahassee it quickly dawned on me that I was very fortunate that my life had turned out as it had. At a basic level, those dreams of practicing law and living a conventional professional middle class life in a plush neighborhood in Tallahassee were probably never my dreams to begin with. Perhaps I knew that at a basic level and, as I usually do, followed my intuition. Perhaps my guardian angels had been nudging me to be true to myself at the right moments while prompting my then girlfriend to find herself another frat boy who wanted to be a lawyer. Or maybe I was just lucky.

Regardless of the reason, life would have been very different had Andy not come into my life so unexpectedly in 1973. And for that I will be eternally grateful.

In all truthfulness, I could not imagine my life without Andy. As all couples approaching old age do, I find myself worrying about things I never worried about before – What was that cough about? Why do you always have headaches? When are you going to the doctor about that cyst? When are you going to be home? I’m concerned about your diet….

No One Gets Through This Alone….

Sometimes all I need
Is the air that I breathe
And to love you

The Air That I Breathe, The Hollies (1974)

If I had to pick any given moment of our 41 years together as a highlight of our life, it would be my ordination to the diaconate in December 1994. Andy always talks about this moment. The service had been elaborate – the Gospel in several languages, Crazy Horse’s grandson singing an honor song, the Buddhist nun who taught the sangha I attended and my Jewish friend who occasionally attended classes with me at seminary in the audience. The loving multicultural community of St. Philips had gone all out for this event.

At the conclusion of the ordination portion of the service, Bishop Richard Shempfky turned to the congregation and said, “No one gets through this process alone. So I want Andy, Harry’s partner, to come up and stand by him so we can show him our appreciation for all he has done to make this night possible.” Andy came to stand by me and the entire parish rose in standing ovation. It was a rare moment of affirmation in a stormy sea of rejection. My eyes tear up as I type these words remembering that unforgettable moment.

You see, the truth is, it was precisely Andy’s steadfast, grounded presence that has loved me through virtually all of the crises of my life over these past 41 years. It was an unbroken love which at times was unmerited by my own behaviors and held together by the glue of Andy’s determination to make it work.

He has been the unheralded, trustworthy one securely holding the tethers for the hot air balloon floating above the concrete canyons of the parade route that has been my life. As a colleague has often said of our relationship, “If you want to really see family values, you need to look at Andy and Harry.”

The 1974 hit by the Hollies, “All I Need is the Air that You Breathe” was the song that expressed our love when we first met, trying to get past our own internalized homophobia to bond with each other. When it would play on the radio, I would often find myself breathless and teary eyed. It was a frightening yet thrilling reality we were encountering in those days. Even today when I hear that song played, I lose my breath, transported almost immediately back to 1974, scared, bewildered, and deeply in love.

Happy Anniversary, Beebee. You are the love of my life. If I ever wonder whether G_d loves me, I only have to look at your gentle face where the image of G-d is so deeply and beautifully imprinted. And I will be eternally grateful to that gracious G-d for the wonderful gift that is you.

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)
Professed Member, Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)

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, May 29, 2015

Putting An End to Childish Ways

              When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a  
              child; when I became an adult I put an end to childish ways. - I Corinthians 13:11

Time for a Reality Check 

This past week Ireland became the first nation-state to end discrimination against same-sex couples seeking to be legally married by means of a ballot initiative. The vote in this strongly Roman Catholic nation with a long history of conservative moralism was not really that close – 61% of the voters approved the measure and pollsters estimate that up to a quarter of Irish priests voted in favor of marriage equality. 

The reactions to this vote within Roman Catholicism have been fascinating to watch. Of course, polls have revealed that same sex marriage has been favored by majorities of Catholic faithful worldwide for the past decade even as its leadership has stridently opposed the same. Some priests and bishops have gone so far as to bar gay parishioners and the elected officials who support them from receiving the eucharist, a shameful use of the sacraments as a weapon in the culture wars. (Let those with ears hear, Cathedral Church of St. Luke, Orlando!)

The local archbishop onsite in Dublin was pretty clear about the implications of the vote for the Irish church calling it “a wake-up call for the Catholic church. This is a social revolution…The church has a huge task in front of it get its message across to young people ... The church needs to do a reality check.”

The Irish church is coming to grips with the reality that it has lost its dominant grip as moral arbiter of Irish society, much of it due to its own mishandling of the explosive revelations regarding physical and sexual abuse of children by Irish priests and nuns in its schools and orphanages. Such a debacle signals not only the need for remorse and repentance, it also suggests that perhaps the moralistic system that gave rise to such behaviors itself demands critical reflection and reconsideration.

One would never have known that such reflection, much less repentance, was even a possibility from the statement by the number two spokesperson from the Vatican. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said at a conference in Rome on Tuesday night. “The church must take account of this reality, but in the sense that it must strengthen its commitment to evangelisation. I think that you cannot just talk of a defeat for Christian principles, but of a defeat for humanity.”

There is no small amount of arrogance in presuming that a given construction of sexuality which has been protected from any kind of critical reexamination even in the face of much evidence that its premises were faulty somehow defines what it means to be human.  There is also no small amount of arrogance in refusing to even consider the possibility that a given understanding of the mystery of what it means to be human could be wrong, that there is no place for critical reflection on one’s understanding. There is a difference between resolutely holding one’s position and simply stonewalling.

The cardinal also suggests that the only possible solution is to double down on selling this dubious theology to a public increasingly disinterested in even hearing about it. It’s an interesting example of how evangelizing is more often used to relieve the cognitive dissonance of the evangelizer purveying patently unbelievable understandings than anything remotely related to the interests of those evangelized. It’s much easier to hold onto unbelievable ideas if you have a lot of company in that confabulation. 

It’s also particularly interesting to note the language the cardinal used here: “a defeat for humanity.” If that sounds familiar, it should. Pope Francis I uses that phrase upon occasion. But the cardinal seems to have taken enormous license with its usage. When Francis talks about “a defeat for humanity,” he is talking about war, not the sour grapes of the loser in a culture war skirmish. Indeed, Francis’ response to questions about the presence of gay people within the church’s hierarchy was decidedly latitudinarian: “Who am I to judge?” 

Maybe it’s time for Frankie to call his Cardinal in for tea. 

A Real and Present Danger?”

Of course, the cardinal is hardly the only figure willing to make sweeping statements about the lifting of anti-gay barriers in the name of religion. This week Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), speaking to the Christian Broadcasting Network, said that America stood on “the water’s edge of the argument that mainstream Christian teaching is hate speech… if you do not support same-sex marriage, you are labeled a homophobe and a hater…” 

Rubio  went on to paint a slippery slope in which “the next step is to argue that the teachings of mainstream Christianity, the catechism of the Catholic Church, is hate speech. And that's a real and present danger."

It’s no accident that Rubio, an attorney admitted to practice in Florida, would allude to a principle from Supreme Court caselaw here. Over the years the Court has tried to define what constitutes a “clear and present danger” when deciding whether to curtail someone’s First Amendment rights. While the prohibition on yelling fire in a crowded theater was Justice Oliver Wendell Holme’s quick and dirty version, the Court has historically wrestled with whether the public advocacy of communism and socialism somehow pose a “clear and present danger” to American national interests sufficient to prevent speakers and publishers from presenting those ideas to the public.  

There’s no small amount of irony in a conservative Republican who has one foot in the evangelical Protestant world with the other in his native Roman Catholic tradition employing a metaphor designed to test the free expression rights of communists, the ideologues who drove his own family from their native Cuba four decades ago. But Rubio does draw a bead on two important issues in this conflict. The first is the aversion that holders of this common social prejudice have to being called on their prejudice. The second is the willful conflation of that prejudice with foundational understandings of the Christian religion.

While Rubio’s use of “haters” is the quip du jour of the chattering classes on the right, it is ultimately undescriptive of the matter at hand and childish.  It’s perfectly possible to call someone on their prejudices and not hate them. As Sister Helen Prejean, the chaplain to death row inmates and author of Dead Man Walking is prone to say, “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives.” How many of us have racist and sexist relatives we love despite their misanthropic views?

However, Rubio’s assertion that those who oppose same-sex marriage are frequently seen as homophobic is no doubt true. That deserves more critical scrutiny. 

The Difficulty of Diagnosing the Problem 

Part of the problem with the use of homophobia is that it is cast in a psychological language that suggests fear - phobia. People who are acrophobic fear heights, those who are claustrophobic fear closed in places and those who suffer from ophidiophobia can’t be near a snake. 

While fear is not a particularly helpful way of understanding unbidden social prejudices except perhaps in their more pathological expressions, there is another aspect of this description that does speak to the reality observable in both the comments by the Cardinal as well as those by the junior senator from Florida. Phobias are irrational by nature. Most folks suffering from acrophobia have very little real danger of ever falling from a high place as merely being present there can reduce them to sweats and trembling. When asked they cannot explain it. At a very basic level that makes their reaction even more powerful in that they are unable to rationally get at its causes.

In a similar vein, homophobia is an irrational response to homosexual behaviors. Homosexual behaviors appear throughout the animal kingdom and have been documented throughout human history, recognizing that it is quite possible to engage in such behaviors in a given context and not experience oneself as constitutionally inclined to do so on a consistent basis (e.g., prison sex). While it is almost always the minority report on human sexuality, it is a constant in human behavior. 

Another problematic aspect in talking about homophobia is that it tends to be reductionist. No one sums up an acrophobic individual by their aversion to heights. We don’t talk about the acrophobic “community” nor of “acrophobes” who avoid being exposed to heights spoken of as advancing a particular “agenda.” 

Ironically, the reductionism in talking about homophobia (Just a homophobe…) is part and parcel of a larger reductionism employed by an aspect of a heterosexism which has historically seen the experience  of the heterosexual majority to be “normal” and those which deviated from that pattern as “deviant.” How many persons who experience themselves as LBGTQ have felt their blood curdle when described in the clinical terms of being “a homosexual?” 

Of course, from a statistical perspective, heterosexual inclinations and behaviors are “normal” in the empirically dominant sense of that word. As Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence once put it on National Coming Out Day on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley, “Instead of calling heterosexuality normal, call it what it really is: common.” 

It is the moralizing of that statistical prevalence that lies at the root of the cultural phenomenon called homophobia. The more benign version is called heterosexism, the presumption that everyone either is heterosexual in orientation or ought to be and must either be made into the majority’s likeness or constrained if they prove unwilling. The malignant version is that those who don’t fit the majority’s experience are somehow less than fully human and not entitled to respect of their human dignity. This is homophobia.

Confusing a Common Social Prejudice with Religion

At the bottom line, what we are talking about here is a common social prejudice. How common? Like heterosexual and homosexual behaviors, heterosexism and homophobia can both be found in most ancient cultures. The same dynamics that prompt the majority in a culture to see their experience as normative for everyone and to demonize the minority experience are observable in all historical cultures and until only very recently dominated our own culture. That phenomenon is called a prejudice. Not surprisingly such prejudices are inevitably reflected in cultural artifacts such as the Hebrew Scriptures.

That ancient peoples held the same common social prejudices as modern people is not difficult to understand. We are in many ways products of our forebears. But the notion that modern peoples must uncritically default to the prejudicial understandings of our forebears is an exercise in intellectual laziness. And when the critical appropriation of ancient religious thought is done on a selective basis (slavery is not OK, but heterosexism is divinely mandated) we both reveal our prejudices and lapse into disingenuity and deceit. 

More importantly, because no socially constructed belief system ever stands on its own two feet, its purveyors will always feel the need to legitimate their tenets in one of three manners, according to sociologist Max Weber. One will either resort to tradition (it’s always been that way) or to the authority of natural arguments (this is the nature of things) or to supernatural arguments (the gods will it). The problem arises, as Weber noted, when critical (as opposed to instrumental) reason, the modern method for legitimation of social constructions, is brought to bear. 

The fact that a common social prejudice has been held for a very long time does not make it any less a prejudice. The argument that heterosexual behavior complete with its potential for procreation is the dominant expression in all sexed life forms does not exhaust the argument from nature; a minority expression of homosexual behaviors appear in all living beings. 

As for whether the gods hold our prejudices, that largely depends upon how they are constructed. Ann Lamott’s now famous saying that  “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do” reflects that construction process and the very subtle way that our own prejudices become legitimated when they are disowned and placed in the mind of G-d. 

But true religions are designed to allow its adherents to both transcend the world in which we live as well as to transform it. This can never be accomplished by simply defaulting to the common prejudices of any given culture. It is precisely such understandings that religions like Christianity call its members to transcend. 

As the Good Samaritan parable observes, it was impossible to live into the duty to love one’s neighbor and pass him by as he lay dying from an assault by robbers because one’s religious strictures prohibited the same. Similarly, it is impossible to love one’s LBGTQ neighbor as oneself and hold to self-serving constructions that denigrate and discriminate against them because their sexual inclinations differ from the majority. 

So what can one take away from this long, rambling post?

  • The Cardinal is wrong. Neither heterosexism nor homophobia define humanity. Ending social practices which enforce common social prejudices does not “defeat humanity,” it helps us transcend our lowest common denominators.

  • The Senator is wrong. Neither heterosexism nor homophobia are fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. They are cultural accidents in which the experience of a self-serving majority has been moralized and placed into the mind of G-d. Ending discrimination based in social prejudices does not present a “real and present danger” to Christianity, it provides it an opportunity for it to live into its highest ideals.

  • Finally, the willful conflation of a common social prejudice with either the well-being of humanity or the fundamental tenets of the world’s largest religion does not serve either of these interests. It simply harms the credibility of those who make such untenable claims. 

The Christian faith and the common social prejudice that expresses itself as heterosexism on a good day and homophobia on most days should never be confused with one another. They are not the same thing. And it does harm to that faith to deliberately use them interchangeably. 

If the Christian tradition is to survive, it will need to transcend this shameful page of its own history to do so. It is time to put an end to childish ways. That process begins with the willingness to engage in a patently Christian practice: Repentance.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Member, Third Order Society of St. Francis (TSSF)
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No Bad Guys, Just a Poisoned Well

The last faculty meeting of the term had gone along swimmingly. We were reminded to turn in copies of our grades (just in case there is any dispute about them) and to provide whatever data we’ve contrived for the course assessments that will help the local technocrats sleep well at night. We had even gotten through the fairly complicated changes to curriculum in two different programs and approved the hard work of the heads of those programs and their faculty.

Amazingly, the elephant in the room snoozed quietly in the corner, all this time. The means by which it came to life is a story in itself. 

Three for the Price of One

Near the end of the meeting, a group of instructors who had participated in a Writing Across the Curriculum program over the past year gave their report. The program proposed a number of ideas to help insure that students emerging from our classes could write at an improved level from when they entered. For an increasing number of students who arrive at college with writing deficits, this could simply mean that their writing would begin to approach college level in quality.

Then came The $64,000 Question: Did your program even consider the problem of trying to teach writing skills to classes that are too large to provide any kind of meaningful feedback to the students?


Suddenly the elephant roared to life, running rampant through the assembled faculty too exhausted from a long and trying term to avoid it.

The room buzzed with heated observations that overcrowded classes by definition eliminate the possibility of grading and providing meaningful feedback on any significant amount of work an instructor might assign each term. In real terms that means less writing assigned by the faculty and thus less opportunity for students to improve research and writing skills, critical reasoning, and various means of presenting their ideas.

I came to UCF in 2002. The intensive writing Gordon Rule courses I had just been teaching at Valencia Community College were then capped at 20 students per section to permit faculty to focus on student writing. UCF’s version of the exact same classes at that time packed 37 students into their classrooms. Within six years, that number had ballooned to 75 students in a single section.

That’s nearly four times the size of exactly the same class at the community college. And when you multiply that by the four classes full-time non-tenured instructors are required to teach, that meant an instructor was teaching up to 300 total students in a given semester.

From an economic perspective, that’s patently exploitative of faculty, particularly adjuncts getting paid $2000/course, well below average (US average for adjuncts is only $2700) with no benefits. It effectively means that instructors are providing three plus classes for the price of one. But, more importantly, from the student’s perspective, the instructor’s inability to demand that they write regularly, receive critical feedback on those writing efforts and thus be provided an opportunity to improve their writing is a serious pedagogical failing and the denial of an educational opportunity.

Of course, this is hardly a problem relegated to this university. Arum and Roska’s study of the academic experience of undergraduates in America published in Academically Adrift  (2011) found that most students in America’s colleges and universities are being required to read or write very little in their classes. Their study found that “as much as 32 percent of students each semester do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week, and that half don't take a single course in which they must write more than 20 pages over the course of a semester.” (Scott Jasich, “Academically Adrift,” Inside Higher Education. )

An Obsession with Size

And yet the problem of overcrowded classes is more a symptom than a cause of these failings. A part of the problem at our university came into focus early this month in the wake of the latest audit of the university by outsider consultants. The John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education of Brevard, NC, released its review of undergraduate education at UCF, a study actually commissioned by the university. Among the findings:

·         The review found great uncertainty and lack of clarity about the mission, purposes and organizational structure for undergraduate studies 

·         These findings are in contradiction to the high level of importance given to undergraduate education in the university’s stated mission

·         The review also found disproportionate attention on graduate education, given the gross number of undergraduate students versus graduate students (about 51,000 vs. 9,000)

The auditors noted that even as the university had neglected its undergraduate programs, it celebrated the swollen ranks of its undergraduate population as a source of pride:

The University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando is the second largest non-profit higher education institution in the United States. That fact is constantly emphasized and pointed to with pride by all types of administrators, staff, faculty, and students. In fact, it appears to be a truly dominant determinant of internal status. We have never visited another research university where such emphasis is placed on size.

So, while the university does not want to fund or adequately support the cast of thousands it has admitted into its undergraduate student body or those of us who endeavor to help them become educated, it still sees their mere presence as a source of bragging rights.  A number of our undergraduate males wear tee-shirts around campus smugly proclaiming “Size Matters.” (One wonders why one would need to advertise in such cases) But, apparently the university’s management agrees. It’s a rather mindless obsession with quantity and a major blindness to quality.

Herding the Cash Cows

Undeterred by its own audit’s findings, the university continues to focus on graduate programs. As the heated conversation at the departmental meeting about class sizes subsided, the chair then revealed that the deans of the university’s 13 colleges had pronounced at their last meeting that their colleges would actually be increasing their focus on graduate programs. There are a number of reasons for that.

First of all graduate programs offer the promise of research grants, an important source of income to a state university slowing being drained of its lifeblood by a vampiric state legislature increasingly beholden to the same wealthy interests which dominate most governments in our nation today. Our own university long ago sold its soul to the defense industry whose research dominates campus research and whose corporate and governmental outlets populate the office park which girdles the campus to its south.

Graduate courses also provide cheap instructional personnel in the form of teaching assistants who make factory process mega-classes (some well over 1000 in the business school) possible. Many more take the reins of teaching of undergraduates entirely, competing with adjuncts for these instructional slots.

Of course, the Philosophy Department has never had any graduate students to fall back on since it has consistently been denied any kind of graduate program by the university. It is the only department in the College of Arts and Humanities without a graduate division.

Not surprisingly, the focus of our meeting suddenly shifted to the possibilities that perhaps this might be the opportune moment to once again apply for a graduate program. “Who better to direct an interdisciplinary graduate program?” a faculty member quipped.

At this point, two former chairs reminded the department of the devil’s bargain required for any new graduate program: Graduate programs will be added only if no new faculty lines or resources are requested.

So let’s see.

·         We already have more undergrads than we can handle and thus cannot assign the kind of intensive writing students need to develop their writing skills.

·         According to its own audit, the university does not sufficiently support its undergraduate programs.

·         But more graduate programs are the priorities of the deans of the colleges.

·         And the only way such programs can be created is if the department agrees to take on those additional tasks with existing staff and resources.

More job duties but no more staff to help carry them out. And no more money even as the services provided must expand.

That’s a good deal for somebody. But it sure ain’t us.

No Bad Guys Here

So let's leave it alone 'cause we can't see eye to eye.
There ain't no good guy, there ain't no bad guy,
There's only you and me and we just disagree.
- Dave Mason, We Just Disagree (1977)

As the smoke from these explosions began to clear, I looked around the room, suddenly seeing my colleagues in a whole new light. It was the end of a long hard term. We were all tired. We had just sat through two hours of an end-of-term departmental meeting that had predictably dissolved into the latest round of the ongoing vicious Catch-22 that is life in a public university today. The frustration was palpable.

There was an air of futility among these bright, well-educated people, most of whom had worked like hell just to get through a very trying academic year. Now at the end of that year, here we sat with the drunken elephant of the corporate university once again thrashing about the room.

The reality is that those of us who labor at these corporate universities will never be able to do enough to meet the demands of a bloated corporate management oblivious to both the students and faculty they allegedly serve. With their self-appointed privilege to engage in unlimited job description creep, we will never be able to do enough work for the same salary or less (our instructor’s beginning salaries have actually dropped over the past three years) to satisfy this insatiable, exploitative machine.

It is also unlikely that the human dignity owed the dedicated men and women who operate this process will ever be recognized. And it appears highly unlikely that the quality of the education we seek to provide the undergraduates we teach will become a serious concern for those who make the real decisions about how the university operates. It’s a lot easier to maintain a flow of underpaid visiting instructors through the cattle chutes and treat students as consumers, trying to insure their passage through this Unlimited Credentials Factory in as painless a manner as possible.

As I looked across the room at those faces, I realized how much I value and respect these people with whom I have worked these past 13 years and how much I will miss them when I finally give up the ghost and get the hell out of there. And it dawned on me that, while it is easy to single out any player to blame in this danse macabre that plays out on a regular basis here at the Factory, there really are no bad guys in this drama. There are simply a lot of decent human beings trying to survive in a dysfunctional system that many readily recognize as toxic.  

One of the marks of any pathological organization is that it tends to pit its victims against one another. But the reality is that none of these folks alone are to blame for the problems we face. As a colleague observed after the meeting, “The system is too big and most of us can’t even see the problems clearly, much less try to solve them.”

I believe my colleague is right. And that then leaves those of us who actually still care with this dilemma:

Knowing that current conditions are unfavorable for quality education to be provided, that this is unacceptable for those of us who consider providing quality education to those who seek it to be our calling and that this is highly unlikely to change anytime soon, at what point do the costs of staying outweigh any diminishing returns?  

Sadly, I know that the point at which I must personally answer that question is drawing very near.

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

Thursday, May 07, 2015

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish

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

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

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

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

A Slow But Steady Withdrawal

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

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

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

Graphic Illustrations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Free to a Good Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish….

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

I turn in the key Friday.  

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

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

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