Friday, July 23, 2021
Wednesday, July 21, 2021
I’m not exactly sure how many lifetime motorcycle miles I’ve ridden. I can make a pretty good guess how many I have rolled up in the past 10+ or so years, however. The miles logged from the time I bought my first bike when I was 18 years-old (a Honda CB 550 – the venerable 550 Four) in 1981, through the 80s and the 90s until I went through my non-motorcycle years up until my first Harley in 2005, I really have no idea. But, I didn’t go on the multi-day, super long distance rides I do now, every year. However, I rode a lot and, depending on the era, every day – I racked up a lot of miles.
At this time 11 years ago, my friend, Steve, and I embarked on our first extended motorcycle road trip. It was to span almost two weeks and covered, ultimately, almost 5,000 miles. At the time, I owned a 2007 Harley-Davidson Road King – a “bagger,” and an excellent
choice for such a ride. Steve had an older Harley, but it, too, was well suited for the ride – both bikes are big, burly and formidable machines. The ride began to take shape months earlier – a “bucket list” thing that not just the two of us, but a few of our friends who ride were all going to do. It was originally going to be a guys thing, but after some pressure the guys relented and allowed gals to come, too. The decision turned out to be moot – one by one, everyone dropped out except me and Steve.
And we almost did, too. There is strength in numbers and the confidence and security we once felt with a group of five, eight or more was gone when we were faced with the reality that it would be just us two. None of us – any of us – had any experience with that kind of riding. We would be going hundreds of miles every day, several days in a row without a whole lot of planning regarding route or, except for our ultimate destination (Butte, Montana), any of our overnight stops along the way. What if something went wrong? What if we couldn’t handle
it? Those and a hundred other forms of fear almost stopped us dead in our tracks.
But we decided to go anyway and we did so because we both had sons deployed in Afghanistan at the time. If we could not muster the courage needed to take a fucking motorcycle ride, how could we even face them? Seriously. And that really was the tipping point – so we rode. And it was magic. There were times we had to adapt and overcome; there were times when luck smiled upon us and it was not always glamorous, easy or like we imagined. Indeed, it was way more than all that. And it was worth every inch of every mile.
Since then, I have ridden either that motorcycle or one of its successors a total of more (much more) than 150,000 miles through most of the western and gulf states and two Canadian provinces. I have ridden in temperatures as high as 120 degrees and as low as the 30s, in rain, hail, sleet and even a little snow. I have ridden at altitudes above 10,000 feet and lower than 200 feet below sea level. I have ridden solo (a lot), with one or two others and, more recently, a few others. Soon, it will be eight others on a five state ride from Sacramento, CA to Sturgis, SD – maybe that ride, like it didn’t happen all those years ago. All of it started 11 years ago – in fact, at this very moment 11 years ago, Steve and I were riding along the base of the Sawtooth Mountains on our way to Jackson Hole, WY.
Eleven years ago, I went out and did some shit. I haven’t looked back since.
Tuesday, July 20, 2021
This is the beginning. Actually, this is the documented beginning, the real beginning began, probably, when this whole social media morass did. The end began when it started. But, for all intents and purposes, as a practical matter, this is the start of a process in which I extract myself from social media, specifically from Fakebook (yes, I know that is a denigration of our social media lord, but it is a much more accurate name). I am not deleting or deactivating my account (I have deactivated a handful of times in the past, for as long as a few weeks) because I have, unfortunately, a couple of commitments that are inextricably tied to the platform. However, those commitments do not require any involvement from me personally on my personal timeline (page, profile, whatever the fuck they are calling it at the moment). It is not as easy as it appears or (and this bothers me), as easy as it should be.
|bulentgultek / Getty / The Atlantic|
It’s been a couple of days, a few cups of coffee and at least a couple of cigars. In those days I have not added to my Facebook profile, have not added to my “timeline,” and where I have interacted, it has been mostly in respect to specific groups I am either a member of or the administrator of. I have also “allowed” my Facebook page, “ShirtPocket Productions,” to be cross-posted by posts made from my “ShirtPocket Productions” Instagram account. I realize that that sounds like a fairly intricate level of involvement, but in reality – and especially compared to maintaining a personal presence via my own timeline, it is not – not even close.
Unfortunately, one of the things I actually do like about Facebook – something I’ve written about before – will eventually be bookended. In fact, if I stay committed, it already has. The history feature, “Memories,” will no longer be replenished with new memories for future recall. True, there are 10 or 11 years of solid entries to view, but if I stay the course, that ease of recall via Facebook timeline entries will be lost because there will be no new Facebook timeline entries. Save this. This will be published to my personal blog (michaelalthouse.com) and to The Medium, and I will link one or both to my Facebook timeline. That, however, is simply promotional. I post those to Twitter and LinkedIn as well.
Why? Nothing much new, just new iterations of the same old shit. I have hundreds of examples of how the reality is not what Facebook portrays it and of how reality is absolutely affected by what Facebook portrays. Not reality in how water is made up of two hydrogen and one oxygen atom, but the reality of how people relate to one another – a reality that is no less “real,” but unlike molecular reality, one that Facebook has an inappropriate and disproportionate ability to alter. Even knowing that is often - too often - not enough to combat what Fakebook has constructed.
The age of information has also turned essentially every little nuance of daily life into some kind of data, each minute division of everyone’s daily life is another thing which can then be known as yet another bit of information, as though all of that information is somehow valuable. Its existence, its mere passing though time, does not demand documentation and the fact that some informational bit is documented does not mean that it must be examined, reviewed, studied, saved or even known. Too much of what goes on in people's individual lives that, prior to the “age of information” simply existed and evaporated as it passed through liminal space, now finds its way into permanent storage, often altered – intentionally or not - from what actually transpired. But forgetting about errors in record-keeping and context, there are things that find their way into the public domain that were not necessarily “meant to be private,” but were private by default, prior to the age of “now we know everything.”
I don’t want to know what all my friends think about every little thing that comes to their minds. Sometimes I agree, and we can have a wonderful online slam-fest with a group of like-minded souls, attacking anyone who might enter that arena with an opposing view, like a bunch of sharks at a feeding frenzy. Of course, if I came upon a bunch of friends in said frenzy about a view I opposed – I then become the food. That shit never happens in real life. I also do not need to know if my friends are associating with my not-friends (yes, I have “not-friends”) – it’s none of my business, however, Fakebook not only doesn’t care, it feels it is duty-bound to inform us. And then Facebook serves up, as a main course, the feelings of betrayal that real life would not normally produce.
It’s easy to say that Facebook is morally neutral, that it is a tool, like a hammer, neither “bad" nor “good,” that it is up to whoever wields it. While that is technically true, Facebook is more akin to a wrecking ball than a hammer. It is true that a wrecking ball is also a tool, but it is a tool that is used primarily to destroy whereas a hammer can be, but it is equally useful in building. I don’t know where this ends, but it has to end here and now for me. I don’t want to know the things I know, I don’t need to know the things I know, and, despite the fact that the vast majority of it is “public information,” it is none of my business knowing these things. Information is power, and power is intoxication and intoxication of any kind, in my experience, is bad. I see the Fakebook zombies, they don’t even know they've crossed over. If I walk on the edge long enough, I’ll fall in, too.
Friday, July 09, 2021
I maybe should be more appreciative toward Facebook — or whoever developed the idea that Facebook commandeered its “memories” function from (I want to say, “Timehop,” but I’m not sure and don’t care enough to do the research). I’m not being facetious, and this is not a new revelation. I have made this assertion many times before; the “memories” function is among Facebook’s most redeeming qualities. In fact, it might be Facebook’s only redeeming quality. So, I give the platform itself a lot of shit, I criticize the money-people behind it (not the regular day-to-day employees, they are just doing a job) and, generally, think when weighing the pros and cons, the cons break the scale, but that does not mean that this one pro should not be given it’s due — again.
There was a time — before e-everything or Apple’s betterized i-everything, before this informational epoch — the “age of information” — was upon us, that our personal histories were recorded differently. Just before the computer revolution took hold, an age that I, like other Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers are very familiar with, we appeared to rely more on the oral, tribal tradition. I can’t say with certainly for most other families, but the general feeling I get is that we did not write a whole lot of our familial histories down — we passed it down verbally. While there are a few analog photographs that date back (if we are lucky) 150 years, at most, for most of us, the only printed records of us are kept by record-keeping agencies. There is no story told, at least not in a story-telling way.
|A 1936 Time Magazine drawing of Santayana|
However, there were some who did more than just remember and talk. There were some who did keep written records in the form of diaries and journals. And some are/were meticulous. Mine were not, and while they, I believe, are “around somewhere,” I have no idea where and even if I could find them, the records I wrote were a very brief window in time. Some people, however, wrote with much more detail — with names, dates and places. They are rich and robust. And, we, as a society, have greatly benefited from those personal histories — to fill in gaps, to add humanity, to lend insight and in thousands of other ways the original authors could never have known.
Much has been lost and even that which survives is not so easily accessible. It cannot be searched, indexed, organized, sorted, etc. like the digital versions Facebook’s archives (and IG, and Twitter, and all else) can be. Furthermore, there are not just a few dedicated souls documenting their lives — many on a daily basis — for posterity. Y’all are journaling, y’all are writing in your diaries and you’re doing it with the kind of precision that will make it extremely valuable 100, 200, 500 years from now. It doesn’t have to be a 700-word or more essay like this — most aren’t and most won’t read even this far (and someone will comment about how this is too long). But because of Facebook and, in a similar fashion, all other social media platforms, we are all now writing not only our own familial, personal histories for the benefit of our offspring, but society will benefit from it, too.
I was inspired to write this today by my own Facebook history, what they used to call “on this day,” what is now simply, “memories.” I opened my Facebook account in May 2006, but I didn’t get active on it until about two years later. Today, July 9th, my Facebook “memories” date back to 2009. Apparently, this general time of year has been something of a personal roller-coaster — as recently as two years ago. However, even that particular undulation was not as pronounced as some in the past have been. The peaks and valleys are, according to the historical record, smoothing out. I have some memories of tumult that precede Facebook — plenty — and some took place during this time of the year, too, but the precision that e-everything gives me is lacking. I cannot see any patterns or trending like I can in the past decade or so. That additional information, that context, is valuable, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Facebook’s role in it.
Is it worth it? Is Facebook’s one redeeming quality worth all the bullshit that comes with it? Short answer: No. Longer answer: Still no, but with a caveat. In time, the cons, the vastness of the deceit and the lies and the divisiveness that is also part if this historical record will also be preserved. Maybe, just maybe, we will survive all this division, rise above it and that history will be the history we learn from. Because if we don’t, we are surely doomed to repeat it.
Thursday, June 17, 2021
There is a consensus that the level of overall skill in terms of grammar, spelling and written composition, generally, is not what it once was. That might not be entirely true. It might be that, with the advent of easy publication of written texts, the level of skill (or lack thereof) is simply more visible now. I’d say it is part both; there is a decrease in skill and that there is more visibility — and technology is to blame for both. I am on the record that “I don’t like it,” but that’s hardly unique. Even those who are guilty of egregious liberties with written English will lament about how lax attention to proper grammar has become — in the same paragraph “then” is used where “than” should have been.
I accepted long ago that there is a different and lower standard for social media. The argument, “you know what I meant,” is valid, as is the one that claims this is part of the evolutionary nature of language. There are, however, caveats to both arguments. In the first case, we are basically speaking about function and form. For some things, function and form are inextricably linked. Language is not purely one of them, however, for it, function and form cannot be mutually exclusive, either. And, for all things, form — beauty — is important. And it is important in terms of communication, even if the form itself doesn’t actually discursively speak. Don’t believe it? Ask Edsel Ford how form and function are related.
Ironically enough, there are some exceedingly talented, artistic, creative people in the world who know exactly how important form is, but will demonize it when it comes to the art in writing. Who better to understand the importance of form, of beauty, and what that means to a thing’s underlying function? Further, these same people should be the most understanding when it comes to the exactitude of publishing (or otherwise publicizing) their work — their art — if it does not reflect their standards. But when it comes to certain art, apparently, only function is important — “you knew what I meant.” Okay, but not when applied to me and my writing. Form, to me, is at least as important, maybe more important.
From time to time I am accused of being the Facebook “grammar police.” When that happens, my challenge is pretty standard — “show me when I have done that.” They can’t, but I have done it, on rare occasion. I will slam someone for grammar only when it’s some troll slamming me or someone else for being stupid, uneducated, otherwise “dumb,” or (my personal favorite) using bad grammar when incorrectly correcting me or someone else. That’s it. However, because I am careful about the words I put out into the public forum, because I care about form and (I hope) because I am successful in producing some beauty in that form, some assumption follows that I am “judging” everyone else.
No, with the exceptions I already enumerated, I am not. But I do assume others are judging me based on everything I present — my words, my image, my everything. I am careful that I present authenticity, and that authenticity includes attention to detail in my craft — just like a musician, or a painter, or a custom car builder, or any other crafts-person or artist would. Do I cringe when I see certain uses of the language in certain places (i.e., social media)? Yes. Do I say anything? No. Do I feel compelled to? That’s a better question and the answer is that I used to want to “help” everyone be better writers. I still didn’t, wholesale, do anything — that was and is much too overwhelming a task, but that was my desire — to help. I figured everyone would want that, too. That was a long time ago. I no longer think that and I am no longer compelled to help (unsolicited, of course I’ll help under some circumstances).
Because… I do not want or need anyone’s help becoming a better musician, painter, etc., either. I’m cool. If I did need those skills, I would certainly: a) know it, and: b) find the help I need. I expect if someone needed to be a better writer, he or she would know it and get the help needed to become one. The other two reasons are much simpler. First, language evolves and this is part of the process — not all or even most of the current “new conventions” will stick, but some will and the generations behind me have as much right to fuck around with our language as we did. Second… 99 percent of the time, I know what you meant.
Sunday, May 02, 2021
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
However, 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.