Sunday, May 02, 2021

Common Denominator

In the fall of 2003, I returned to school for the first time in many, many years. My previous attempts at higher education were mixed, but in total, unsuccessful. I had less than two years of college credits accumulated, and they were scattered across several areas - too many were redundant or otherwise did not count toward anything. It was rebuilding my life and nearing my 41st birthday. I was also, for the first time "clean and sober," a story for another time, but a key part of that rebuilding process.


My goal was not to complete a bachelor's degree, I was only shooting for an AA degree so that I could start a new career in substance abuse counseling. But really, it was a much shorter-term goal that drove me initially - I was in it for the money. The student loans and grants that I would receive would put the kind of money in my pocket that I had not had since my life came crashing down about three years earlier. However, some time during that first semester, my motivation changed. It changed because I was getting the kind of grades I was never able to earn consistently before. I was good at something good.

The coincidence was not lost on me. My ability to apply myself and do the work necessary, consistently, without the distraction of not only substance abuse, but also the lifestyle that goes with, enabled me to realize the potential I always knew I had. But I never could do it. I knew I could, but I couldn't, no matter how good my intentions, no matter how much I willed it, it didn't matter - the bottom always fell out. Of everything, eventually. That fall in 2003 I had four As and a B - the best GPA in a semester I ever had up until that point. I relapsed during the winter break and went to school that next spring with all those distractions and, while I managed to power through, my grades suffered considerably. I was also arrested again and by the time the fall 2004 semester came, I was in jail for a few weeks. That relapse also ended any hope of becoming a substance abuse counselor.


But I was, by necessity of circumstance, clean and sober once again. And the fire of that first successful semester was still smoldering. When I got out some time in September of 2004, I could not go to school right away, and even when I could go back, I did not know what future I had there. However, after talking to a counselor at American River College, we discovered that I was only one semester away from transferring to my local university. One semester of general education courses would earn me a spot as a junior at California State University, Sacramento. My choice of major was hugely influenced by my new appreciation for my old ability to weave words and punctuation, so journalism seemed a natural choice. The dual major of “government-journalism” manifested itself after I got there. My final semester at ARC was even more successful. Still clean and sober (since going to jail on August 6th, 2004 – to this day, no drinks, no drugs), I achieved straight As, and it would not be my last perfect semester.


I finished my BA at CSUS in the fall of 2007 and took a semester off writing for a local newspaper before entering the MA program in communication studies there in the fall of 2008. I was awarded my MA in 2012, but in the fall of 2011, I moved to Baton Rouge where I would begin my study in the PhD program at Louisiana State University, also in communication studies. Every semester with the exception on fall 2003 (I was in jail) and spring 2008 (in between my BA and beginning my MA program), I have been a full-time student and taking a full load of classes to fulfill the various requirements to achieve whatever degree I was pursuing at the time. From the fall of 2008 until I left Baton Rouge and LSU at the conclusion of the spring 2015 semester, I was also teaching two undergraduate classes per semester. That is a lot of school for a 40-something turned 50-something “non-traditional” student.


It is the longest run of sustained success I have ever built – the bottom still has not fallen out. And that common denominator – clean and sober – is still common. However, that fire did eventually burn out. For a lot of reasons, all of them important in their own right, I only advanced to PhD candidacy – I never wrote a dissertation and never won the big prize, I never earned the right to place “Dr.” in front of my name. I did earn another MA at LSU, however, and those two master’s degrees, along with the PhD coursework I did complete has secured me a place as a lecturer (adjunct professor, part-time faculty, non-tenured faculty… we have many names) at my first alma mater, CSUS, where I continue to work today.


But it was this day, seven years ago, that I sat in my last classroom as a student. I would still be another year at LSU as a student, but my coursework was complete. I had my comprehensive exams to take and that little dissertation thing to write – and, of course, I was still teaching. But today, seven years ago, was the last time I sat in a classroom on the front side of the podium. I don’t remember what class it was or who the professor was, and although I know it made enough of an impact on me at the time to make note of it, I don’t know that I could have really appreciated the magnitude at the time. Not just that – all of it. All that has happened in all those years – and there is so much more than just this.


And that common denominator… seems to be something there.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Re-reflection: Serendipity

I wrote this 12 years ago, when I was a middle-aged, first-year grad student. I was still in the early stages of what could be described as my “new life,” fresh off a very successful completion of a BA and more than four years free from the a life controlled by drug addiction. My life, in significant ways, resembled nothing of what it did just a few short years prior, but it also retained certain elements of who I was, some of which were stifled by the life I once lived. Once I was free, they blossomed.

I was not open about my recent past at the time; I was concerned that it would prevent me from moving forward into my future. I don’t know if that was prudent or not, but today I have nothing to fear and much to offer by being completely transparent about who I was and how I was able to escape. I blame no one and nothing — drug addiction can happen to anyone. However, like any affliction (some people don’t like the term “disease,” so be it, but it is certainly an affliction), those afflicted, no matter the source, are ultimately tasked with resolving the affliction. Once I accepted that, I was able to find the help I needed. The rest, as they say, is history — more than 16 years of it.

I write; in some way, shape or form, I always have. I don’t know where it came from, but in 2009, I did write about it. It probably wasn’t the first time and I know it wasn’t the last. It is one of the most coherent explanations of not only why I do what I do, but also why others do what they do, as well.

April 15, 2009:

One of my colleagues recently asked me how long I’ve been writing. As grad students in communication studies, we are all required to write often and at length and we have necessarily become quite good at it. But for some, writing is a more intimate encounter — more composition than arrangement. I guess it has always been that for me, but it wasn’t until a relatively short time ago that I realized what the written word held for me.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to answer the question. It was a simple question, really, but it stumped me. There is no discrete line of demarcation… it is a question that just begs for context. If I go back far enough, technically I guess I could say that I’ve been writing since the first grade — about 40 years. But that’s not what she was looking for and I knew it. She meant writing, like seriously. I thought for a moment and suggested a re-phrased question: How long have I enjoyed writing?

I hated English all the way through school. My forté in grade school and high school was math. I thought I liked math, but I now know that what I liked about it was that I was good at it — nothing more. Numbers held no magic for me; the mystique of their manipulation, coordination and cooperation was lost on me. I get that the magic is there and I understand how numbers and their relationships can enchant some, but math just didn’t do that for me. I could understand it, but I could not feel it. I could apply the rules and get the results, but when it came to abstract concepts — the application — I was lost.

It was just the opposite for me in the language arts. I didn’t get the rules, or at least I could not articulate them. It seemed impossible for me to absorb the mechanical processes and regurgitate them on demand. I tried, but try as I might it seemed as though I just couldn’t understand. About half-way through high school, the nature of the English class changed such that, because the study of the rules that govern the process had largely been dealt with, we were left with the more abstract principles of word arrangement. In other words, we read and we wrote.

For whatever reason, aside from spelling errors (there were no word processors and no spell checker to look over my shoulder), my writing never failed me. My grades when it came to essays, reports and the like were consistently good. Even before high school when longish written works were not common, my grades on those assignments were better than the routine grammar, spelling and vocabulary scores I earned. By the time that sort of work became the primary source of grading and my grades improved, my beliefs were already firmly set. I didn’t “like” English any better and, more so, school in general was becoming a pain. But retrospectively, the signs were there.

Over the many years since, I have found numerous occasions to write both personally and professionally. I always viewed it as a necessary evil however pleased I was with the finished product. I never liked to write — I still had it fixed in my mind that English was not my thing. I was a math guy, a science guy… none of this “soft” stuff for me. Ironically enough, as my use of math gradually evaporated, my skills faded as well — so much so that today all I have left is what would probably amount to high school algebra at best. But the writing never did — it was always there. Even when dormant for long periods, it came right back.

After a series of both eventful and non-eventful events (and the non-eventful variety can be just as tumultuous), I found myself at yet another crossroads. Although I had some major life decisions to make, I cannot discount the role of serendipity. Opportunities materialized that, combined with a great deal of help and personal effort, propelled me to this very point — and more directly, to answer this question. (My colleague received the Reader’s Digest version. She merely inspired this expansion — she was not subjected to it.) I had to sort some things out and I had ample time to do it.

It all started with the simple journaling of my day’s events. Most days were uneventful, but my mind had the time to begin to make some sense of it all. It wasn’t much — maybe 400 or 500 words, hand written in a spiral notebook. This was just about six years ago and predated my return to school by several months. In fact, I had no idea where to turn next, but at just 40 years old I was at the end of the road… I had to figure something out. That journal continued until my return to school where my writing began to take a more formal role in my life.

And it happened. I made perhaps one of the most profound discoveries in my life. I found my love, my passion, my purpose… my gift. On that discovery I have built what has become a direction that will last a lifetime. I am no longer lost and although I don’t know what serendipity holds in store for my future, I am sure I am capable of pursuing the opportunities it presents. And affirmation comes from the strangest of places. It came in a quote from a grade school teacher for a story I wrote while working for a small newspaper in Rocklin, Calif., “We all have our gifts, we just unwrap them at different times.”

And so it was for me.


Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Do We Even Care


There was once a time when writing proficiency and reading comprehension were considered pretty important. In grade school all the way through high school, some sort of curriculum, some class, whether it was English, a specific reading or writing course, etc., had something to do, directly, with the subjects of reading and writing. Even math and science did not enjoy the same prominence that the written arts did.


I was born towards the end of my generation - the Baby Boomers - but it's safe to say that the importance placed on literacy remained high probably into the 70s, maybe the early 80s. But somewhere, sometime, something changed. The evidence is clear in a number of ways. Among the newer generations - those since Gen-X at least - it can be seen in college entrance exams, in remedial college writing programs, in college "writing proficiency" exams and "writing intensive" courses as  graduation requirements. These all indicate a problem in the writing (and reading) skill of incoming college students.


But that evidence extends beyond those who are college bound. Because we live in a communication environment that is heavily text-based - much more so than when I was young - written communication is abundant... and public. We are, literally, able to self-publish ourselves to the world, without filter and without an editor and what is lacking in terms of proper
writing is glaring. I'm not just talking about the rules of grammar or proper spelling - English, especially, is fucking complicated and even those who know it well will make mistakes and sometimes argue over what is correct grammar. I'm talking about the ability to put words together that actually mean something that can be deciphered as what was intended.


For Boomers and older, for Gen-Xers, and others who did learn it in grade school but never used it much since and have forgotten many of the regulatory conventions and spelling, their mistakes, too, are on full display in this modern world of public text-based communication. They were, actually, prepared for this, but it has been a long time. They will typically struggle with the "rules," but not so much with the content. In other words, the details that we tend to forget when not using something every day might have faded, but the core structure remains - they are making sense because when they graduated high school they had years of education in the subject. I have forgotten most of the advanced math I learned, but when faced with a math problem, I still think about solutions "algebraically" or “geometrically” - the rules have faded, but the core structure remains.


I am not the Facebook grammar police. I do not find joy nor do I fill my days correcting others' grammar and spelling on Facebook or other text-based mediums. If I did, that would be all I'd have time to do. I get that others see me in my job as a communication studies professor and make the assumption that I "judge" everyone else's grammar; I don't. I do enough of that in my job grading my students' work. Yet, because, I guess, of these assumptions, some have taken great pleasure in finding and pointing out my own occasional mistakes. I never claimed to be perfect or that I do not make them - and I do appreciate when they are pointed out. I will always edit out errors once I am aware of them. I don't get the glee others find in their discoveries, but this list of things I don't understand about humanity dwarfs the list of things I do understand.


The age of information and the Internet has had the largest impact written communication since Gutenberg invented moveable type, bringing mass-produced printed works to the masses. Literacy then, was very low, but the new printing press began a movement that changed the world. Literacy, today, is not that low, but it is, arguably, much lower than it was 25 years ago. The age of information has not shown signs that is changing. While "good writing" seems to be recognized as such (when it's not demonized as "intellectualism"), the inability to practice it - or even care – is a very real, demonstrable problem. I see it in my college classrooms (or their pandemic virtual equivalents) every day and I see it on text-based mediums like this one even more. It won't change unless we care. Right now, I don't think enough of us do.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Rounding the Bend

The past few weeks have been a veritable whirlwind. Where did it go? So much has happened so fast. Hopefully, finally, we are starting to settle down. The turbulence, while likely still somewhat bumpy (keep your seat-belts fastened), looks as though it will become less so. We can hope.


At California State University, Sacramento, like other colleges and universities around the country, the spring term is about to begin. Instruction at Sac State begins one week from today, although we do not officially go back “on the clock” until the 20th. I learned long ago that what the university designates as “work” time and the actual time I have to allocate for doing my job are often vastly different. In fact, as “non-tenured faculty,” I don’t even have my semester contract yet. That’s normal, too. Weird, but normal.


Image for postHowever, what is not normal is also, unfortunately, beginning to become normal. Since midway through Spring 2020, all of Fall 2020 and this coming Spring 2021, most classes at Sac State and throughout the entire 23-campus California State University system have been and will be online, distance, virtual, instruction. Prior to last spring, that was not normal for the vast majority of courses throughout the system, and certainly not at Sac State. If the reduced anxiety and increased comfort I feel going into the semester at just a week out is any indication, normalcy has gotten at least its foot in the door. And, no, I do not like it.


I do not like the distance between my students and me. I am a “present” teacher, I establish a rapport, a relationship with my students that constitutes a kind of a deal. It’s not spoken, but, rather, an understanding based on each of us doing our part. Being there to uphold our end of this “bargain” is part and parcel of how I present myself and my material. I didn’t plan it that way, I didn’t learn that in “professorin’ school,” that teaching style is an evolution of my style poured into my teaching — of my personality — and is based on who I am; it is a version of myself that is part of every relationship I have with everyone. As a result, I present an authenticity that is best conveyed in real life. It can be done virtually, but it is challenging and takes a great deal of attention to varied, scattered and often difficult to read inputs from students. Presence, virtually, is different — and, so far, not normal.


Today, the batch emails go out. For most of my 100-plus students, this will be my first contact with them. That old cliché about first impressions has proven itself many times over; I am a believer. While I have learned quite a lot about how to better navigate and utilize this online environment over the last two semesters, I am hopeful this will be the last one. That said, I expect it also to be the best. I will be focusing my energies in the areas where students seemed to respond well and eliminate areas they did not. Ultimately, I want them to engage — with me and with each other. The best way to foster that is in a classroom, but there are other ways and I have some experience now that will help guide me. This is, despite the “distance learning” model we are forced to work with, an exciting prospect. I can say, without (much) reservation, that I am looking forward to the new semester.


Every new semester, especially the first week, brings with it a version of all the fears and insecurities — the trepidation — of that very first semester. It is the kind of adrenaline producing fear that is almost intoxicating — it is exciting. Last semester it felt more like dread. Dread can be described in many ways, but one thing is sure, there is nothing exciting about dread. That sense is gone, the excitement has returned. The online model leaves too much to be desired, but it very likely will be over by the fall semester. When it is all said and done, for me, for my students, and for everyone else, we will have learned to get through yet another of the trials and tribulations of living a human life. We will look back and remember those we lost, marvel at how we managed to get through it all, realize and remember that we are strong.