Tuesday, September 06, 2016

10 Years and Change(s)

So, I've spent a surprising amount of time over the past couple of months planning on getting back to the blog--and then not doing it. Sorry, everybody. While I procrastinated, several anniversaries passed me by--particularly the 10th anniversary of our arrival in Wichita, Kansas, in late July 2006, and my beginning, as a lowly assistant professor (that's right: not even an associate!) here at Friends University a few weeks later. Well, I may have forgotten, but my place of employment didn't, for which I'm grateful. I'm grateful for a lot of things associated with my decade at Friends, and in Wichita, and in Kansas, and with many other people and events that have come along with them, in fact. So, today, late for the anniversaries as I may be, let me mention a few changes I'm grateful for, for the record if for nothing else.

1) Friends was the first small liberal arts college I'd ever taught at--and as I obviously hope to never to be forced to go back on the job market, I sincerely intend (speaking, as always, without any knowledge of what the future may hold) to make it the only one I'll ever teach at as well. Every where I'd been previous to coming here had been a temporary gig, demanding as they sometimes were; it's here that I've been able to put down the kind of roots (part of which has been my advancement to full professor, but it's more than just that) which have encouraged me to think about my teaching, my students, and my field in a way I never could before. That thinking has been driven by exigencies as well as my own curiosity; like nearly all SLACs, Friends is a tuition-driven school perennially facing hard financial choices, and my own position here, while never directly in the cross-hairs, has seen plenty of ups and downs. (Witness the fact that when I arrived the major I taught classes for was "Political Science/History," which I later split off to form its own separate "Political Science" degree, and which is now, coming full circle, back to "History and Political Science" again, with me as the sole full-time faculty responsible to work with adjuncts to get our History courses taught.) I don't want to paper over the frustrations and fears contained in those ups and downs, nor make them out to be a greater trial than they were, but through it all there's been learning and stretching and growth. I understand what it means to be part of a faculty in a way I couldn't have possibly done ten years ago, and I've taken on responsibilities (on a general education reform committee, as the chair of the undergraduate college, and most recently as the director of the Honors Program) that now just seem par for the course. I look back on some of my old Friend-inspired speculations about my profession, and while I'm not sure I would dismiss it all as naive, I do know that I'm grateful for all the changes which time has wrought--because it's forced me to go back to drawing board, again and again, and dig deeper into what I can offer, and not be content with any one interpretation of My Place at Friends. There's an organic quality to this institution, like all institutions, and I want to be able to continue to grow and develop along with it.

2) I can't separate my feelings of appreciation for my position from my affection for the city its a part of. No, Friends isn't a world-famous SLAC with an awesome reputation (I personally thought the tag-line the marketers once came up with for Friends--"a regional university with national programs and an international presence"--was both basically misleading as well as hokey). But it is a school that is entwined enough in the story of this place--see the university's Davis building there in the A of that old post card?--that getting my roots into its personable practices and spiritual traditions (which, 10 years on, I still love) has only deepened my appreciation of the particular urban space it's a part of as well. So my interest in sustainability and ecology, the revival and re-focusing of my old love for farms and gardens and nature and agriculture has ended up occupying my mind in connection with the sort local possibilities a small college might involve itself with; and my old fascination with community and democracy, with working out just what kind of government and political culture can promote both locality and equality, has ultimately revolved again and again around theoretical questions of city life and city politics: specifically, ones that take into account Wichita's own context. And it's been genuinely fun to get so engaged, because through so doing I've been able to meet and learn from so many other urban activists (whether they would describe themselves that way or not) who are doing the same, and moreover (to allow myself some vanity for a moment) meeting and involving myself which such people and groups have led to me being noticed, called upon to speak and pontificate, in all sorts of social gatherings and on local media venues to such a degree that sometimes I even get paid for it. So yes, the city of Wichita has been good to me, and appropriately so, because I think it really is a good city, located in a good place, despite how so many people here can't quite see that. Being in one part of the country for so long, and going through so much while here (anniversaries being celebrated and friendships surviving both meetings and partings, being some of the most important), has enabled me to talk about this place as a home in a way I've never been able to speak of any other location.

3) Of course, "Kansas" doesn't rate very high on most Americans' lists of preferred locations. Ten years here, and the language I hear is pretty constant: we don't have mountains, but we do have Brownback, so Kansas is unimpressive both coming and going, right? Well, my opinions about Brownback are clear, so I'm not going to attempt a defense there (though, as always, just wait to November!). I've lived in conservative states--allowing for the one year in Illinois--ever since I left graduate school, and the simple truth is that I really don't mind being surrounded by and making friends with people whom I disagree with; conservatism is fascinating to me, and figuring out how the conservatives (as opposed to the simple-minded, Know-Nothing, dead-end Republican voters who show up at ever election; they bore and frustrate me--but so would they, and their equally unimaginative Democratic compatriots, in any locale) I know and like really think has been an important journey to me. Perhaps Kansas's political culture added a slight twist to that process, but when I think of what Kansas--especially this part of Kansas, my south-central section of it--has added to my life over the past decade, I mostly don't think politics. Instead, I think this.

Lame and folky, you think? Sorry; don't care. Yes, I already had an affection for a productive, pastoral relationship with the land in my background, so perhaps I was an easy mark for Kansas's lessons. But the simple fact is that I really kind of love it here. I think I love the summers best: I love the blue skies, the broad horizons, the golds and browns and surprising splashes of color throughout the fields. I love getting out on my bike under that hot sun and with the never-ending breezes blowing and letting the wide world turn in all directions around me. And I love being in one place--a city, a campus, a classroom--in the middle of it all. So what has happened to me for the past ten years? I've been centered--or I've centered myself, I guess. And communitarian and family man and believer that I am, being centered is something which I, predictably enough, think everyone needs to be. I suppose I could well have found a center for myself most anywhere...but I did it here, and for that, I'm happy.

Okay, that's it, for now. Here's to another ten years of changes, everyone!


marklbigelow@gmail.com said...

Congratulations on all accounts, Russell.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks, Mark! Great to hear from you.

Ed Baptist said...

Congratulations! I always check in Feedly for something new from, and some of the older writing has also been very profitable to reflect upon.