Oct 22, 2014
I’ve been wanting to write about this past weekend’s riots in Keene, NH: I taught, after all, at Keene State College for a decade and lived near campus for most of that time. But everything I’ve imagined myself saying quickly devolved into a cranky rant, and the world doesn’t need more of those. Raising a fist at rioters doesn’t do anything productive; it only adds to the clamor and discord.
Drunken idiocy happens at all the colleges where I’ve taught: it’s not unique to Keene State. It’s true that Keene State has acquired (and, among some students, apparently relishes) a reputation for being a party school, and over the years the Pumpkin Festival has become an increasingly popular occasion for drunken partying and the reckless mayhem that ensues. But apart from timing, this year’s riot had nothing to do with the Keene Pumpkin Festival. Despite news headlines to the contrary, this weekend’s parties gone bad didn’t happen at the Pumpkin Festival; they simply happened during it.
There’s nothing that made this weekend’s events unique to Keene apart from an escalation in recent years in the number of revelers attracted to Keene State on a particular Saturday in October. The Pumpkin Festival wasn’t the reason for the riot, but it did serve as an excuse. There is, unfortunately, particular kind of college student—typically white suburban males, children of modest privilege with no real reason to take to the street in justified protest—who will take any excuse to over-imbibe in the name of “partying” and who quickly turn violent out of sheer boredom.
I say this not to defend Keene, its college, or the students at said college; I say this because what happened in Keene this weekend is indicative of a larger problem. It’s easy to peruse media reports of the Keene riots while politely shaking one’s head, quietly condemning those ill-behaved college kids who are nothing like me or my children. Make no mistake: what happened at Keene State could have happened at any college in any town. It’s not someone else’s problem; it’s our own.
Let’s be frank, America: our college campuses have a drinking problem. Not all college students are violent, drunken vandals…but yes, all professors (and yes, all residents living near college campuses) can tell you horror stories of drunken, immature kids who frankly have no business being in college but were attracted to campus primarily because it’s a perfect venue for a four-year party.
We as a culture have come to see college as a right, not a privilege, and our campuses reflect that fact. For every student who goes to college out of a genuine desire to learn and grow, there are too many students who would be the first to tell you they don’t want to be there. These kids find themselves in college because they’ve been terrified into submission by teachers, parents, and guidance counselors who tell them they’ll never get a job without the piece of paper called a college degree: a piece of paper as essential today as a high school diploma was to my generation.
Is it any surprise that students who have no real interest in becoming scholars—students who have no qualms telling their professors point-blank that they don’t care about their classes—would entertain themselves with drunken mayhem? Why not? If college is merely an extension of high school—a place where you have no real choice but to show up for four years in order to get the necessary, job-granting certificate known as a college degree—why wouldn’t you kick back and party your time away?
I’m not sure that scaring students into college by telling them it’s the only way they’ll ever get a job is a wise tactic. A college degree isn’t a guarantee of employment; if a student doesn’t get anything out of the classes they don’t want to take, that piece of paper isn’t going to hold much power. But our culture sees college not just as a right but as a rite of passage. We somehow believe that spending four years on a college campus will turn an unfocused, under-motivated eighteen-year-old into a capable and qualified adult without fully considering how that happens. If drudging your way through a high school curriculum isn’t enough to make you employable, how will drudging your way through four years of college help matters much?
I don’t know how to solve the drinking problem on American college campuses: I suspect it reflects larger problems in a culture that worships alcohol as both an escape from worry and an excuse for nearly any sort of bad behavior. But I do have a modest proposal for the problem of boredom-inspired bad behavior on college campuses: parents, don’t send your eighteen-year-olds to college. Save for your children’s education, and then insist they take a year or two off—a gap year—to figure out what they want from that education.
As a college instructor I see a huge difference between the first-year students who come to college straight out of high school and the ones who have spent a year or two working, serving in the military, or otherwise engaging with the “real world” outside of college. Too many fresh-from-high-school students come to college with no real sense of what they want to attain from their studies. Instead, they’re in college because that’s what’s expected, that’s what their friends are doing, or that’s what mom and dad want.
This weekend’s riots in Keene suggest that college (like youth) is often wasted on the young. Older, more mature students are almost always more driven to learn. They’ve spent time working or traveling, they’ve lived on their own, and they’ve gotten some of their youthful hijinks out of their system. Older, more mature students have a better sense of what they want to do with their education and with their lives, and they realize that engaging in drunken mayhem doesn’t get them anywhere closer to their goals.
This post turned into exactly the kind of cranky rant I was trying to avoid. At least the photos, which come from the 2010 Pumpkin Festival, are a bit less crabby.
Oct 18, 2014
Yesterday I had a spare half hour between my last class at Curry College and a Friday afternoon meeting in Boston: a spare half hour I should have spent grading papers. But it was a glorious fall day–sunny and unseasonably warm, shirtsleeves-and-sandals weather–and I knew I’d hate myself if I spent the whole day inside. There will be plenty of time to catch up with grading, I told myself, when the weather’s cold and dismal.
It had been years since I’d gone walking at the Blue Hills, which are just down the street from Curry College. Years ago when my then-husband and I rented a house in nearby Randolph, MA, I frequently walked Reggie at the Blue Hills: those were the days when Reggie was young and full of energy, and seemingly no amount of walking could tire him. That was, in other words, a literal lifetime ago, when I was still married to my first husband and Reggie was still alive.
Autumn is a naturally retrospective time: seeing so many living things wending their way to their eventual demise naturally gets you thinking about past autumns and the things you’ve lost in the interim. Autumn is a naturally retrospective time that sometimes leads you to wonder how many more seasons you have in you and what, exactly, it is you’re doing with your life in the meantime.
But yesterday, as I said, was perfect walking weather: no ghosts of autumns past could distract me from that. I pass the parking lot for the Blue Hills’ Trailside Museum every time I drive to or from Curry, and usually I don’t have time to stop, much less go walking: usually I’m hurrying to campus to teach or hurrying home to tackle an endless to-do list: so many papers, and so little time. An adjunct’s work is never done, so I always feel a bit wistful when I pass by the Blue Hills, remembering past walks there and wondering when I might find a spare half hour to return.
Yesterday was my chance, and I took it. I didn’t have a map and couldn’t remember exactly where the Green Dot trail from the Trailside Museum’s parking lot goes; I just set an alarm on my phone to tell me when I’d need to turn back to my car, and I let my feet lead me where they would. Where I found myself, I figured out later, was the Carberry Path, a side trail that dead-ends at the edge of the Blue Hills’ property…but before I found myself facing a No Trespassing sign that turned me back toward my car just before my alarm did, I spent a short but wonderful while in a fall field reigned over by a regal old hickory glowing gold in the afternoon sun.
Oct 12, 2014
Last weekend, J and I took a long, woodsy walk around our neighborhood, walking first to Hemlock Gorge to leaf-peep around Echo Bridge and then wending through the woodsy fringe along Quinobequin Road, which skirts the Charles River. The air was brisk and the sun was bright—a quintessential New England fall day—so walking just about anywhere was glorious. On sunny October days in New England, you look for any excuse to be outside in the golden gleam of autumn.
Folks who have seen New England autumns only in photographs focus on fall foliage, but those of us who live here know that tree leaves are just a small part of the beauty. What’s magical about autumn in New England is the light. Autumn light angles low, refracting through the prisms of countless turning trees. In February, I’ll bemoan the white, oversaturated glare of our monochromatic winters, but in October, the light in New England is itself golden, like sunbeams filtered through stained glass.
Because I’ve weathered enough New England winters to know how starved for light and color I’ll be come January, I find myself wanting to soak up every second of October’s golden light. Even sitting on a bench in October is a sensuous experience as your body relishes the contradictory sensations of brisk air and warm sunlight.
Emily Dickinson once said a true poem makes you feel like the top of your head has been removed, and I’d say something similar about autumns in New England. October is the one time of year when I want to steep myself directly in sunlight, even if that means ripping off the roof and removing the top of my skull: anything to better bask my brain in this fleeting gold gleam.
This week, our Jewish neighbors have erected sukkahs like Rachel’s in their yards, and I find myself quietly envying them: I have to admire a religion that requires its adherents to spend as much time as possible outside in October, simply sitting. And yet, living in New England, I’d make a terrible Jew, as any sukkah I’d erect would be topless, or at best convertible, the better to let God’s own golden gaze in.
Forget Emily Dickinson’s definition of poetry: the title of today’s post comes from a line from Pharrell Williams’ irresistibly peppy ode to joy, “Happy,” which invites listeners to “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.”
Oct 9, 2014
Finally, at long last, I’ve taken the final step toward being a middle-aged female academic: I’ve bought a wheeled laptop case.
For years, I’ve carried my office in a bag: specifically, a cavernous shoulder tote I used to schlep my laptop, power cord, file folders, textbook, umbrella, spare pens, index cards, chalk, dry-erase markers, tissues, cough drops, chocolate, and a water bottle. I lugged this bag in addition to my regular purse and a Sachi lunch tote: walking to and from my car, I looked like a pack mule slung on all sides with bags. I’ve done this for years as I’ve commuted between two campuses, teaching out of my bag instead of an on-campus office. If something was worth having, you could find it in my bulging bag.
In the past, I’ve seen some of my colleagues gliding around campus with wheeled laptop cases as if they’d just arrived from the airport, but I’ve previously bridled against such practicality. Wheeled bags seemed so middle-aged. When I was a grad student, I carried everything in a shoulder bag, and even though it’s been a decade since I finished my PhD, I’ve fervently clung to this last sartorial vestige of my grad school days. Undergrads carry backpacks, grad students carry shoulder bags that could theoretically pass for enormous purses, and middle-aged academics trail wheeled luggage behind them. Although I was willing to leave behind my backpack days, I still clung to my enormous, purse-like tote.
But this year, my attitude shifted. At Curry College, I don’t have an office where I can stash (and lock up) my things, so if I want to take a stroll around campus between my classes and office hour, I have to lug everything with me. Yes, I could lock my bag in my car…but since the lot where I park isn’t exactly near the building where I teach, that still involves a lot of lugging, and who wants to limit their midday walks to schlepping your stuff to your car and back?
The solution? A McKlein rolling leather briefcase. My Sachi lunch tote piggybacks on top, and I can glide around campus with only my purse slung over my shoulder. Now that I’ve swallowed my pride and crossed the Rubicon toward middle-age, I’m wondering why I didn’t do so earlier. Inventing the wheel was a momentous moment in the evolution of human civilization, and embracing the wheeled laptop case is a similar improvement. Now that I’ve mapped the curb-cuts and accessible entrances on both of the campuses where I teach, carrying my things to and from my car, classes, and office is easy. Where once I was heavily burdened, now I roll.
Oct 4, 2014
Today has been a drizzly day: the kind of day when you don’t mind staying inside grading papers. After lunch, I went outside to photograph drizzle-drops on spider silk: dewy jewels that draped our backyard shrubs with webs of wonder.
This is a test entry posted from the Flickr app on my tablet, just to see how and whether it works.
Oct 1, 2014
I was tempted to skip my journal pages this morning, as I’d been hoping to comment on some more papers–always more papers–before leaving to teach today’s classes. But instead, I came across a line in Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Created By Us that stopped me short:
On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unatttainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as steep in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive.
This line comes in a chapter titled “Nature, Pixelated,” where Ackerman discusses the phenomenon of nature webcams and other forms of virtual reality. Simulcast betting is so last century: nowadays you don’t have to leave your desk to go birdwatching via webcam at any of a number of distant and exotic locales.
Too much of our life is spent indoors staring at screens, Ackerman laments, and she doesn’t know the half of it. She’s talking about young people who stare at phones and tablets and computers for fun: the nature-deprived children whom Richard Louv describes as preferring to play indoors because that’s where the electrical outlets are. But what about those of us who are tethered to screens because our jobs demand it?
It’s easier for me to comment on essay drafts my students submit electronically: instead of carrying stacks of folders with papers my students can subsequently lose, all the papers I need to read are online in the cloud, backed up and safe for the semester and accessible from anywhere via my laptop. My students submit their papers online, I comment online, and none of my comments get crammed at the bottom of a students’ backpack, as happened in the Old Days when I commented on student papers by hand. Now, when the end of the term approaches and my students get serious about revision, all their work is waiting for them online, along with my feedback.
Collecting and commenting on papers electronically is a huge improvement over the old method, but a it also means I spend a huge amount of time every semester glued to a screen, answering emails, posting homework assignments, and commenting on draft after draft after draft while the whole wide world transpires outside, where I’m not. I miss those days at Keene State where the topic of my first-year writing seminar gave me an excuse to step outside and journal with my students. In retrospect, I wonder whether keeping a nature journal was the most helpful lesson I taught those students: a simple technique for Being Here, Now.
So much of college isn’t about Being Here, Now: it’s about biding your time until you get he piece of paper everyone has promised will lead to the Good Job everyone says you need to Be Happy someday, eventually. College, in the interim, is too often a series of hoops you jump through on your way from A to B, during which time you’ll write too many papers assigned by part-time faculty who have to teach too many classes to keep themselves fed.
Where do moments of presence happen in today’s college classrooms? I’m not sure I know. Sometimes I’ve started class with five minutes of writing–the old fashioned kind, done with pen on paper–and that has felt grounding, the pen serving as an anchor to the here and now. But I’m not doing this in my classes this year, and maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’ve missed a prime opportunity to show my first-year students how the practice of the present moment can be as enthralling as any technological gadget.
Today’s photos come from a trip to the Franklin Park Zoo J and I took the weekend before last, and the title of today’s post is an allusion to Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.