Stereotypes & Assumptions

I’m not a deep thinker or writer, despite my background, education, and training.  This may seem odd from someone with a PhD in an arts/humanities field given the reputations of said fields.  We’re expected to be thinking and writing deep, meaningful, philosophical things.

That’s not me.

Maybe that comes from being the grandkid of working class families.  Maybe it comes from my Polish lineage (though we have Copernicus and John Paul II, so maybe not entirely).

I think this is the big reason I rejected doing literary theory in grad school.  Most of the things we read and discussed were doing pure theory, theory for the sake of theory.  People like Roland Barthes, Toril Moi, and Stanley Fish who were totally divorced from texts, just developing theory to further theory drove me crazy.  Meanwhile, I embraced, halfheartedly because theory was required, New Historicism, in short studying a text’s historical context or the historical context in which it was and is received.  It seemed, and still does, the most practical of the theories out there.

I remember being in a graduate level Shakespeare course, during my MA.  We were reading Othello and a fellow student asked, “Why is Othello so obsessed with his reputation?”  As I recall, a few theories were posited, some “I don’t knows” floated around.  Then I spoke up (and I usually didn’t talk much in class), saying, “Othello’s a mercenary, the commander of a company of mercenaries.  His reputation is literally his life.  It’s how he gets jobs for himself and his men.  That would be important enough, but he’s also a Moor, a Black Muslim, working in Catholic Italy.  That makes his reputation at least twice as important as it is for other mercenary captains.”  To me, this seemed obvious.  From the looks I got, it seemed to be a revelation to many others in the class.  It’s not a deep, philosophical interpretation, but a practical, historically important one, I think.

During a decade as a student in higher ed, I concluded that  students sometimes forget about the practical side of critical thinking and get too caught up in some skewed sense of how they think they should be responding and thinking, trying to “sound college”.  The problem is that “sounding college” is built on a stereotype, maybe an idealization, possibly fueled by pop culture (especially movies), in which the faculty are almost invariably the enemy who need to be appeased and outwitted (often by presenting convoluted responses, answers, and thoughts that really make no sense in the light of day).  Often, we just want a straight response that seems likely (at least I do).

Was Shakespeare using Othello as a commentary on hyper-masculinity?  I don’t know.  Possibly.  It’s perfectly valid for modern audiences to read the character that way.  But, I think, for an audience that was being reminded of the War of the Roses, had survived the Spanish Armada, was dealing with the Succession Question, and had the Vatican & Papists fomenting insurrection . . . I suspect they’d understand Othello’s obsession with reputation as part and parcel of being a mercenary captain and an outsider by faith and appearance.

Maybe that all means I’m not a deep enough or philosophical enough thinker for this field or academia.  I don’t know.  Maybe the stereotype & expectation are just false.

Observations: Enjoy Working on a College Campus

I recently read a post about some hate filled mail a fellow blogger received. Reading the post got me thinking about the last month or so at work. My conclusion: there are a great many things I like about working on a college campus (and wish I could continue doing so, if that whole eating, paying bills, etc. thing wasn’t an issue). So, in the last month, I have:

 1) chatted about meditation with a psychology student of unknown faith, including Buddhist, Sufi, Zen, Christian, and secular methods (for a philosophy paper).

 2) discussed pirates and ISIS with a Somali Muslim student (someone else started the conversation somehow, I came in for the tail end; all parties reached the same conclusion).

 3) discussed the Epic of Gilgamesh with an Ethiopian Muslim student, including the dangers of applying modern monotheistic biases to interpreting ancient polytheist stories and cultures (particularly regarding the essential nature of divinity; for a history paper).

 4) worked with an Israeli Jewish student and Palestinian Muslim student back to back, with them chatting amiably between sessions (turned out they were classmates, knew each other, and worked together often in class; composition classes).

 5) discussed the Iliad and Greek mythology with a Hindu doctor (MD; after looking over his philosophy paper).

 6) discussed early Christian philosophy (Augustine, Aquinas) with a student of unknown faith.

 7) worked with students from: various states in the U.S., China, Korea, Iran, Palestine, Israel, India, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina, Jamaica, and parts of Eastern Europe.

And before that, two of my more memorable class moments and students:

 1) A Sikh student from India who was just plain awesome to talk to before and after class (upper level composition class).

 2) A Christian (?) Marine vet fresh back from Afghanistan. There, he was involved in combat missions for the majority of his tour. He was also the first person in the class to speak up against disinformation regarding Islam and atheism, defending both repeatedly and respectfully (composition 1 class).

Open Letter to Universities, or Hire Me

This is my application for the office of president of any university or college in the U.S.

Why would I be a good choice for president of your university? I have been teaching and tutoring for over a decade now. I have held positions at a state university main campus, a state university branch campus, and a community college. On the other hand, I have never held a university administrative position. I have never been a provost, vice president, dean, or department chair. I have never been particularly comfortable in suits or an office closed off from others. In fact, I am more comfortable in jeans and a dress shirt having a packed lunch in a room full of students. I am more comfortable walking campus, seeing and being seen by students, staff, and faculty alike. I take my undergraduate college president as an example here, he took pains to meet every incoming student, taught a bit every semester, and greeted every student he saw on campus by name (and asked about their projects). I think those are positive qualities in a university presidential candidate.

Let’s face it, really that is the kind of president you need. Three decades of rapidly expanding upper administrations and administrative salaries has not worked. The “business” of the university is higher education, not higher administration.

If hired, I foresee a common sense budget. I have lived on one since I turned eighteen, so recognizing one is not a problem. First, I see reducing the president’s salary. Second, cutting redundant upper administrative positions (vice presidents, provosts, deans, and such). Third, I see taking a long, hard look at coaching salaries, particularly in comparison to the actual income of sports programs and in comparison to teaching faculty salaries. Fourth, I see taking a hard look at construction budgets, particularly those projects that only affect the school’s appearance or only benefit the administration, not the students. Given that these four areas tend to be the largest percentage of school budgets, I foresee a significant reduction in operating costs.

Finally, I lead by example. This is something that I learned in Scouting and that comes naturally. Reducing the operating costs of the president’s office should be relatively easy. For example: is travel necessary? If so, there is no need for a private plane or even a first class seat. The same goes for accommodations, a hotel is a place to sleep or briefly relax, not a place to live, and expensive restaurants are a waste.

In short, I think I would be a good candidate for president of the university because career upper administrators are not working. It is time for someone who lacks aspirations to a corporate CEO’s life to take the reins.