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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

20 and 15 Years, and More

20 years ago today--May 12, 2001--I was awarded my Doctor of Philosophy in Politics from Catholic University of American in Washington, DC; I became a Ph.D. And yesterday, with the submission of my final grades, I completed 15 years of teaching here at Friends University in Wichita, KS, the school that I have come to identify with so strongly that I hope to work here for another 15 years (or 20 years) more. Which means that, if God and family and my health is willing, my life as a Ph.D. will end up as having been, for all intents and purposes, basically synonymous with teaching our mostly south-central Kansas students here at Friends about political ideologies, American history, constitutional law, and theories of government and sustainability and economy, as well as playing the professor of political science in the local media and on civic boards when it comes to elections and court decisions and whatnot. As Robert Bolt's version of Thomas More once said, "not a bad public that."

Looking back over the past 15 and 20 years, I can see I've written a lot about how I think about it all: figuring out my place within academia as a small liberal arts college professor in Kansas, figuring out what kind of politics I can or should be teaching to these kind of students in this kind of mid-sized place, figuring out what I really took from my graduate education and experience (which was in some ways very cosmopolitan, and in other ways very parochial), and how much what I became as a professor can be traced back to those years in Washington DC, as opposed to something which came along later from hours in the classroom, from interactions with colleagues, and from the ever-changing vicissitudes as well as the constant recurrences of academic life. Looking back on some of those posts, I'm a little embarrassed--but only a little. My vision for developing a "political science" that would fit what I had offer and what Friends University could support from back in 2009 seem kind of immature to me now (but hey--I was only an associate professor back then). Looking back 5 years ago, I think 10 years of teaching and professing, in the classroom and around the city, had given me a little more perspective on what in my understanding of my own vocation had changed, and how much the place in which I was practicing that vocation was responsible for those changes. By now, stuff that was just developing at that time has born some genuine fruit: my major is now "History & Politics" (hopefully the last name change for a good long while!), my teaching and research is strongly focused around matters of urban democracy and sustainability, and my approach is sufficiently divorced from our increasingly statistics-driven Social & Behavioral Science division that I've moved my program (because at a SLAC, the faculty can decide such things) over to Theology & Humanities, where I also hope it'll stay. In short: it's taken a while, but I can see that I've built something over the last 15 years--not what I originally expected to build, to be sure, but something I'm committed to nonetheless. And I definitely want to be able to plan on another 15, or perhaps 20, years of teaching to build it further.

As for my Ph.D. experience, now 20 years gone, I now find it returning to me in a way I never anticipated before. Our oldest daughter (a mostly proud KU graduate!) is following the Ph.D. route, pursing a doctorate in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and in their e-mails and phone calls home I'm occasionally thrown back into that maddening world of "read another book!" whenever confronted with questions structural or theoretical or historical or critical. And yet, as hopeless as I know their prospects likely are--just as I know how hopeless the prospects of every other student I've ever taught who has ever expressed any sort of admiration or envy or desire in regards the possibility of being lucky enough to become a college professor like myself--I cannot get myself to pretend that my graduate education (for all its ups and downs, for all its costs and consequences, for all the ways it both opened up and empowered my mental world as well as failed to prepare my mind for the future or actually prepared me for the wrong things) wasn't pretty great. I loved it, and yes, I love being able to see my daughter--hopefully with their eyes fully open to the costs and consequences which are shaping them!--going through the same experience, and sometimes being able to get tastes of it through them. Their Ph.D. experience isn't mine, but still, the memories--at least of the good times--are strong.

I'm not sure what else to say. 15 years, or even 20, is just a drop in the bucket in the long run, and what seemed obvious to me when I was 40 isn't exactly the same as what seemed vital to say when I turned 50, even if the continuity between them is obvious, and will always remain so, even if I was inclined to attempt to separate myself from it all, which I'm not. Friends might go bankrupt tomorrow, or Kansas could turn overnight into a tyrannical fascist state, or some other personal or family catastrophe might happen, and everything that came before--my Ph.D., my teaching career, the roots I've put down in this place and before these students and these neighbors and fellow citizens--could go up in smoke. I sure hope not, though. I want my 20-year-old and 15-year-old histories to continue into the future, to throw out ever more branches and build ever stronger continuities and connections, through our children and our friends and more. This year, a Friends University teaching award that I cannot deny I'd envied for 15 years was awarded to me; far from feeling like a summation, it feels to me like a landmark, a signpost of a continuing vocational, academic, and personal journey...one that I'm a good long ways into, for certain, but one that I will, hopefully, still have a while to work on and improve and grow larger and deeper yet. I'm a lucky man, and for all the rough passages along the roads I've biked over so far, I have to call myself blessed. For anyone who has read this far: thanks for being part of the ride.


Abe Fox said...

A well-deserved CONGRATULATIONS Dr. R.A. Fox !

Wayne said...

That was really nice Russ. Congratulations on a job well done. I have always enjoyed reading your blog and I hope to be able to continue reading it for another 20 years.