What you do in college

My first year of college was pretty wonderful.

I stepped off the airplane at SeaTac, having flown a non-stop from Nashville, Tennessee. I was lugging an electronic typewriter and about 200 snapshots of my distant high school chums. It was sunset, and as the taxi pulled onto I-5 and headed into Nisqually, Rainier stood there pink and orange against a darkening sky and it was perhaps the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my short life. I had landed in another world.

Nothing about me is normal. You may know this already. But normal kids with (like me) a million World Book encyclopedias (it was 1987, folks) would pull “W” off the shelf, flip to “Washington”, and start reading about the place they’ll spend the next several years becoming themselves. Those normal kids would know about the Cascade Range. Not me. I stared out the window at that mountain with my mouth hanging open, unable to even think, so astounded was I. Many more surprises awaited.

Memories crowd out the reason for writing this post. But I’ll get there. At the first-year welcome lunch, the college president asked me from the podium when I would graduate. I said, “huh?” I met a girl on my first day in the mods. First. Day. Oh, she was so sweet. Over winter break I went backpacking in the snowbound Olympic National Park with my new best buddy. Midnight walks down to the sluggish waters of Puget Sound through the campus forest.

I saw Andrea Dworkin in a standing-room only discussion in the library, explaining how pornography was not merely immoral (like my Sunday school teacher said), it was exploitative and misogynistic. Later that quarter, Jello Biafra stood in the same place, raging at us to wake up to the oppression all around us. Professor McCann – Charlie, please – made me find parallels between Gilgamesh and the Bible, squashed Sappho and Milton and Marx into some kind of intellectual plum pudding, spoon feeding me radical criticism (and grammar, though he did like my use of semicolons).

Change was happening at an individual scale at my school, but the point was context and the outcome was an empathetic impulse that reached beyond the individual.

Thus college was … well, not exactly an awakening. After all, I was the 17 year-old writing to The Tennessean between D&D sessions, outraged at evangelicals protesting film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. “Did you bother to read the book? Don’t you have any sense of… ah, to hell with this place (neighborhood, town, county, state, region, state-of-mind), I’m out.” And I did get out.

I just didn’t fit in, in Nashville. People I cared about said nigger all the time. Hate spilled into everyday conversation even though most of the white people in my suburb of Antioch might have had no regular contact with black people, so thoroughly, deeply segregated the town was. Maybe it still is? I’ll not be finding out. Plus, my grandmother was Mexican American, “So, are you white or are you a wetback, Blake?” Nobody knows, or anyway knew, but believe it or not I did hear that term. Also I didn’t like sports, not playing, and certainly not watching; I liked to read, and walk under trees. And I didn’t believe in god; I believed neither The Devil nor God’s Plan were to blame… people had themselves to blame, or praise. I didn’t belong, and I knew it.

So, no, college was not an awakening. It was more like finding a home I didn’t know existed. If by home you mean a place full of open doors. Like thinking, “OK, it’s cool, these Appalachians are mountains” when really “No, wait, fucking Mount Rainier is a fucking mountain, actually.” We tried on ideas and thoughts like they were Jordache Jeans at JC Penny. “Is my mental inseam 32 or 34? Let’s ask Foucault! He’ll know.”

Anyway, I carried this fantasy of college forward into my own practice as professor. I see kids come in with one set of notions and I try to make sure they leave with a selection of notions. The university where I work is not the KAOS of ideas my alma mater was, but some of my current colleagues are pretty radical, both spirituo-intellectually and pedagogically. It’s still a ripe place for student transformation.

But I’ve been wondering about how they should be transformed. Or rather, what kind of options I should make sure they know about, and how I should present them. Whatever happens, I’m going to keep trying to reroute students headed to Pharmacy School into chemistry or mol bio PhD programs.

OK, then, yes, I’m trying to transform them into myself. Maybe my modus is “misery loves company!” and not “find the real you!” But I do believe in that route. I have had students enter and leave my class thinking all the same thoughts their parents did, whom I couldn’t seem to make an impact on, but by god they did go to graduate school and now six years later they’re radical feminists. So, yeah. Baby steps.

And this is how it’s been for 15 years, here.

Enter a couple of (humanities) colleagues, here and elsewhere, who sent me some articles during grading week last term. They got me thinking and re-examining how I should participate in student transformation. The following ~500 words are a biographical lacuna, with a lot of education-speak. Tune back in at the paragraph that begins “That first night in Olympia…”

The first notion, pushed under my nose like radical smelling salts, is that the university is not a well-spring of self-discovery of empathetic impulse that it was for me. Upending my vision of the experience, negating my experience. If it ever was, that idyll has been hijacked and repurposed into a wage-earner-generating, consumer model. Of course, we all really know that already. The evidence is all around us: the state stops investing ergo tuition goes up, and students incur the hidden cost is the interest paid to banks on their loans. And funds that aren’t shunted into lenders pockets get shunted into engineering and fields that “prepare students for the workforce”.

And as a students-as-consumers-relevant aside: a student emailed me last week. He said he was mad because his “need” for a seat in my class next term hadn’t been “accommodated” in a timely fashion. As if I was an order-fulfillment specialist at Amazon and it was all my fault that his x-box wasn’t going to make it by Christmas.

So this “neoliberal transformation” of the university (commercial model) was the fuse to my thinking, but the second idea my friends threw at me was the bomb: students and faculty are complicit in the commodification of education. Obviously, students see college as an entry to better jobs, better pay, stability, prosperity… so you can understand and even empathize with their complicity. But does that sentiment arise organically somehow, or have market forces shaped students’ thinking? And then the first-to-go-to-college and historically-underrepresented reality of my students often determines their approach, support, and success in college. This reality also helps determine their goals: do students see education as an end unto itself, or is it a means to a financial security end? If that is a fundamentally bourgeoise vision, then how can I make sure their experience is at least more than just training? I know everyone deserves more than that.

Again: the more loans they take out, the more interest they pay to banks. Or they work two jobs to pay their own way and miss the experience. Either way, the system worked as advertised: the product they bought gave them the skills they needed for their job. Well and good. But the consumer model does not build in that essential spark that college gave to me.

Of course, faculty are also cogs in this machine, meshing with their students’ need to find jobs. And I could write here about how even the craziest faculty are constrained by the governance structures of their universities, or university systems, by racism, by professional/financial/social assimilation pressures. But I’ve deviated enough from storytelling already. Yawn!

Here’s the deal: the radical in me is asking what I can do to buck the System that college has become? How, in a way that grafts into my own college-as-inflorescence rootstock, the various cuttings of “what our students need”? Because, while I fundamentally reject the consumer skills-building model of college, my scholastic tropism does bend back toward what the students want. Maybe I have to use “want” in the archaic sense to resolve this (their wokeness is wanting). But then, how do I do this in a science context? And how do I address myself to both the microscale sense of the kids themselves and the macroscale sense of change via “university governance structures”?

In the end, I guess this is just another iteration of my teaching philosophy statement. I’ll end with another story.

That first night in Olympia, there was a hitch. My dad kind of left me to my own devices, in terms of college registration follow-through, and I missed out on a getting a dorm assignment. Oops. So, as night fell in a strange town, I wound up finding a bedroom in a quad apartment off campus. I didn’t know such things existed, and have never seen one since. Basically, 4 separate rooms open into a shared kitchen and bathroom. It was scary and my housemates were a bunch of grim characters… at least it seemed so to the skinny 17 year-old nerd who’d never been away from home on his own before.

I retreated into my room and locked myself in. I knelt on my sleeping bag (yes, I’d neglected to pack a bed in my luggage) feeling lonely for the first time in my life. So I started pinning all those black and white snapshots to the wall. There were too many to remember clearly at this remove, but a few stand out. Me and my best buds on a last-summer-together backpacking trip. A boy who’d been a good friend since 5th grade. A girl everybody loved in high school but nobody ever approached, or anyway I didn’t. A few girlfriends. It was my college collage, and it was looking entirely backward. But in that moment, lost in this new place, I thought it was what I needed.

The next morning, I made my way to campus and voilà! they had a dorm room for me, after all! I rushed back to the apartment, pulled down my photos, and wrote off my $200 deposit. On campus it was a duplex… these were called the “mods” at Evergreen, for “modular housing”. The sun was shining. I walked out of my new home and saw Douglas firs towering over me. I stepped off my porch, briefly savored the feel of rich Washington State humus underfoot, and promptly felt the wet pop of a banana slug dying between my toes. My roommates laughed, and I laughed too, as I sat in the PNW late summer glory with a pretty girl on a grassy hill by the soccer fields, my high school photos completely forgotten.

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One response to “What you do in college

  1. Thanks! I remember directing you to find the most important person at the intro get-together and tell them about your plight! How scary! How well you negotiated it!

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