Friday, August 13, 2004

In Praise of My Position (and the People I've Met Here)

Alison is sleeping a lot better than she used to, but she still has rough nights here and there, which means that there are still the occasional mornings when she's awake and fussy, but Melissa needs at little more sleep. This was one of those mornings, and so at 6am, rather than try to keep Alison quiet, I put her in her stroller and took her for an early morning walk around the campus of my place of employment, Arkansas State University. I've taken a stroll around ASU quite a few mornings this summer, usually very early (I taught a 7:30am summer class this July, and so was often taking my walk around sunrise). It's a walk I've come to enjoy, and didn't mind Alison's company one bit.

One of the reasons I've liked it is that, as my third year teaching here approached, I found myself able to see the size and growth and potential and role of this university through more and more appropriate eyes. Part of this is simply that there is more to see: a lot of long-delayed construction projects around campus have, over the last few months, rapidly come into shape, and the results are very nice. Perhaps it's a small thing, but I like seeing the new lawns, new sidewalks, new buildings; it gives a feeling of substantiality to the place, and reminds me that despite all the financial wrangling and bureaucratic infighting and budget robbing, ASU is a pretty solid place. It's not going to dry up and blow away. But that connects to the larger part of why I've liked these quiet morning walks around the campus--the fact that I think I know this place better, and feel better about it, than I ever have before.

I've struggled in the past with figuring out--personally, politically, and philosophically (like the blog title says)--what I'm doing here, and why I'm doing it. Arkansas State is relatively small, second-tier state school (at best); it serves a mostly lower and lower-middle class rural population, the sons and daughters of farmers and factory and service workers mostly, in this little corner of the midsouth (northeastern Arkansas, western Tennessee, and the bootheel of Missouri). It doesn't attract the best students, or even a lot of very good ones; there are plenty of other options, for ambitious young people and the children of better-off professionals, in Memphis or Little Rock or St. Louis. A lot of the assumptions which lay behind the education of academics, assumptions about employment and teaching and research and the life of the mind which I embraced whole-heartedly as a graduate student, simply aren't relevant to what needs to be done, or what can be done, at an aspiring but limited, fairly provincial place like ASU.

So what is relevant? I'll tell you what's relevant: Julie Sorrell, that's who. Julie is...well, you can check out her blog here. Julie has taken three classes from me over the last year, will soon take another, and I've never had a student impress me more. Not because she's brilliant (though she sometimes is), or because she's going to go out and change the world (she's much too much a realist about the obstacles in her way to indulge in those sorts of fantasies), but because she's a woman who one morning woke up and knew, in her heart, that she had to go back to school, had to learn more about the world around her, had to reach out and reach in, figure out what she believed and find out how to share what she believed with others. Her passion for politics, like the passion of many, was first ignited by 9/11, but she's extended far beyond that now; she's reading up on Islamic philosophy and international events, she's thinking about how people should be governed and whether wars are justified and a hundred other things. I have no illusions about my indispensability to her; she has so much determination that I'm sure she would have found a way to overcome the huge obstacles of family, time, money and distance, and get herself a more advanced education regardless of whether I was here or not. But I was here, and Arkansas State University was here, and that's what she needed. Not the best education in the world, and certainly not the most connected or best funded! But a start, a place to find her feet and grab onto one small tail end of the world of scholarship and ideas, to find out what kind of intellectual tigers are out there and maybe even get a little bit of practice in riding them. For your average upper or upper-middle class white American university student today, figuring out all this--finding a major, discovering a passion, developing some skills, aiming for a job--is something that comes easy; they've been prepped for it (as Melissa and I, in a thousand conscious and unconscious ways, are preparing our own children for it) since they were little. For someone with economic or social or cultural or demographic strikes against them, however, it's by no means easy or obvious. For someone like that, for someone like Julie, Arkansas State University (with all its limitations) is a necessary first step; for some of them, coming off the farms or out of poverty and onto this (in their experience) big campus, with its (relatively) big buildings and (comparatively) big's a monumental step. And what teacher worth her or his salt wouldn't feel pleased and humbled to be made part of someone else's monument, however simple its beginnings?

So I walk around ASU with Alison, where I'm still (for the third time!) on a one-year contract, wondering if the department will finally be able to swing a real job search for this slot this year, sending out applications in the meantime, hoping for the best. I've plenty I could complain about (like how my teaching load has just been raised because of budget cuts, and the travel money is threatening to disappear too), and no doubt I'll do so every once in a while. But for the moment, I find myself feeling my roots in this small, second-tier, state university--in its buildings, its faculty, and especially in the often rough and usually unprepared and overwhelmed students it serves. Yes, too often the disconnect between the world they know and will probably return to, and the world I'm paid to introduce them to (the world of political arguments and ideologies and history and thought), is so great as to be ludicrous. But not always; there are diamonds out there in that rough. Diamonds not of my making, to be sure. But it's great to know I was there when they started to shine.


julieann said...

I might have quit along the way had it not been for you Professor! So you ARE indespensible to me. But what this about me being brilliant - sometimes? :)


julieann said...

I might have quit along the way had it not been for you Professor! So you ARE indespensible to me. But what is this about me being brilliant - sometimes? :)

julieann said...

So okay, my brilliance is on and off. I now know I can't edit my own comments! (as evidenced by the above)hehe