TFA

An essay on teaching History in our times, germinating handwritten in the pages of a Moleskine journal

Early in May we flew to Oklahoma via DFW for the wedding of Grandson No. 1, and I occupied myself on the flight down pencil-scribbling some ideas I had been carrying around for a while. Awakening early the next morning in Purcell, Oklahoma, I poured come coffee and picked up where I had left off, until I had filled eight pages. Then we were off to be occupied with family events.

I realized before quitting, though, that an essay was germinating in my old-man hand on paper, which I gave a title, “Teaching for America in the Twenty-First Century.” At age 72 I am in the middle of a rehab of my teaching program aimed at staying current and, more important, responding to changing times and changing students. This is because, well, things are changing, and I plan to be around for quite some time.

What I have written so far is a lament, possibly even a jeremiad, about how we got into the cultural, political, and intellectual mess we are in. So it’s all gloom and doom so far, but it will not be so as I pick up the thread and carry it on this summer. I will get around to what I’m going to do, I think, which others may wish to emulate, or not. I do hope others may be moved to think, as I have been.

I post here those eight handwritten pages, direct from my journal.

Activity

There is this annual ritual in the academy known as faculty activity reports. An FAR is a personal activity report covering the traditional spheres of teaching, research, and service along with anything else you are assigned to do. Sometimes known as “the brag sheet.” Mostly pretty dull stuff, things to be listed and counted. So, being a storyteller, I have an inclination to incorporate bits of contextual narrative, things I don’t expect anyone ever to read, but I set down as historical record. Hey, you asked for a report! Here are a couple extracts from mine.

Notes on current directions in teaching. The process of flipping courses (converting in-class-lecture courses to online lecture, with classroom transactions devoted to readings, review, exercises, and discussion) is largely completed. This now has led to a further restructuring involving the physical orientation of classroom proceedings as the basis of workshop-style proceedings suited to the common learning and work styles of a GenZ clientele. Parcel to this restructuring is the incorporation of pencil-and-paper writing and testing, in-class, to combat the erosion of integrity by generative artificial intelligence; or, to put it more positively, to tap the research-proven enhancements to learning and retention stimulated by handwriting. Finally, post-COVID, I am reinstituting service learning requirements that engage the talents and energy of students in public-service work off-campus.

Note as to research activity: with the restoration of full physical health for the first time in five years, I am experiencing a significant improvement in productivity–and not only in quantity. Realizing this potential, I have commenced feeding it through a more self-conscious allocation of prime time to writing and through a reorganization of the research-and-writing nexus. Key to this is the handwritten journal as the locus for note-taking, reflection, and pre-writing. All this gives me optimism about sustaining my scholarly output (footnotes and all) as well as my (equally serious) venture into literary nonfiction.

And then I put in the lists, too.

Oh, and prompts from WordPress notwithstanding, nothing in this blog ever has been or will be generated by artificial intelligence. It’s the real thing or nothing.

Something Wrong with This Picture

My daily thanksgiving: the opportunity to live a life of letters and learning. To read and write, teach and learn. The latter part, teaching and learning, obviously requires an institutional setting. Reading and writing, these may be more solitary activities, but in the broader consideration, they also require an institutional setting, one that values scholarship and letters.

The phrase, “institutional setting,” is inadequate. These things require, in fact, a learning community. When the learning community degenerates, then the whole package comes apart. And coming apart is what is happening with university learning communities today.

There are recent developments that have brought the situation to a head. Most obviously, COVID has ravaged learning communities. Some degree of shut-down was necessary. We like to think we patched the gap with online learning and other expedients, and to an extent we did. We maintained transactional functionality. Classes continued, degrees were conferred, life of a sort went on. Transactional life. COVID accomplished in months what the neoliberal establishment had been attempting to do for a half-century: reduce our learning communities to transactional entities.

In the larger context and the longer view, however, COVID was an accelerator and a crystallizer; it was not the fundamental problem. Good learning communities in a good country would have come through much better. We entered the COVID crisis, however, with our learning communities in a weakened state brought about by a larger malaise affecting the country at large. That malaise was corrosive neoliberalism–the intellectual and popular rejection of the ideal or even the possibility of the public good, the embrace of individualistic, atavistic, self-absorbed libertarianism.

People with institutional and personal memory will tell you that sometime in th 1980s or so, public authorities adopted a new model for management of higher education. Various shuffles of the deck obscured what was happening, but the key change was in the nature of expectations of university presidents and other high officers. Public authorities installed CEOs in presidential offices. This was not in the interest of managerial expertise or institutional efficiency or anything like that. It was for the sake of malleability. You see, if you had a scholar for a president, and a board told him to do something he thought was bad for the university, he was likely to say, No, I can’t do that, it’s bad for the university. If the board were adamant, and the matter was serious enough, then he might just say, OK then, fire me. And because that president was standing up for learning and students and the university, he had legions; he had a power base. What public authorities wanted, and what they installed, was a president who would do bad things, or maybe just stupid things, without question. Because he was not a scholar, he was an education CEO, and thus dependent on the pleasure of the board to sustain his creature comforts. Thus was accomplished a neoliberal capture of educational management. It took place, by the way, during the heyday of corporate raiding, and thus it also brought the adolescent delusion of creative destruction to the academy. This continues. (Yes, I’m thinking of Huron Consulting, but not only it.)

All this was enough to establish a declensionist imperative in the academy, as it did in the country at large. It’s why we can’t have nice things. There is another, even more sinister aspect to the story. It’s kind of like Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning about tyranny. Yes, it would be a bad thing if authorities deployed democratic authority to suppress liberty of action and thought. The dystopia more to be feared was if it were to become unnecessary for authorities to suppress liberty, because a conformist people had forgotten how to be free.

Now back to the academy: destructive neoliberal management might do great mischief, but the academic dystopia more to be feared was one where the rank and file, the faculty, absorbed and exhibited the individualistic, atavistic, and self-absorbed values (or lack thereof) of neoliberalism. As it turned out, this situation was fairly easy to accomplish. Simply establish systems of recognition and recompense that downgrade scholarship, teaching, and learning and reward managerial malleability. (What are associate deanships designed for, anyway?)

Faculty will follow the money, right? Many of them, anyway, enough to degrade the learning community.

Now throw COVID into the mix, when we tell people to go home and just maintain the transactional skeleton. It turns out this can be pretty comfortable. It turns out the learning community already was degraded sufficiently that given the opportunity to come back and bring the university back to life, quite a few people will say, No, thanks, I’m fine where I am.

Earlier this week I wrote this post to social media: “While we may need to bolster our portfolio in distance education (taking care to avoid corruption and maintain the brand), we need to double down on solid residential instruction. Students are coming back to college (propaganda to the contrary), and they deserve the best. Attend to the curriculum, take teaching seriously, engage. Faculty still holed up at home–get your butts back on campus. Sure, I keep a good home office, because I work crazy hours and do serious writing, but I tell you, the students are back, and we need to be fully back, too. Repopulate the university, restore the vitality. Take in a concert, a lecture, a Bison game. Hang out in the library and the union. Present and accounted for.”

The next day I got up about 5am as usual and did the morning routine at home, which includes correspondence and writing. Mid-morning I ran by my research office (external to main campus), then proceeded to my campus office. Got squared away for afternoon class, met Dr. Kelley for lunch at the Sons of Norway. She dropped me off after that to meet my methods class, which is a full-contact scrimmage. The middle of the afternoon I spent in my teaching office, keeping what we call “office hours” for consultations. I met with a few students to sort out course matters and project work. I encountered a total of two other faculty in the department during the afternoon.

Come 3:30 I met up with Dr. Kelley again to attend a two-hour lecture, “The Crisis in the Greater Levant: Israel versus Hamas in Context,” presented by Dr. Roby Barrett. The event was sponsored by our Northern Plains Ethics Institute. The subject was way outside my area of expertise. I wanted to attend, however, because Roby is a PhD in History with prodigious experience in foreign service and intelligence. I just wanted to be informed. I agreed with 85% of what was said. We don’t have to agree on everything, because this is a university, but it is good to come together and learn. Evidently, hardly any of our faculty or students felt the same about the opportunity.

I ran home to feed my dog and then back to the SHAC for the Bison women’s basketball game with the Jackrabbits. We fell short at the end of a close contest, but the level of competition was high, the crowd was good (not many students, though), and I got some Dippin’ Dots. It was real college basketball. I was sitting with congenial strangers, because my usual companion was otherwise occupied. I offered my extra ticket to anyone in the department who wanted it, but no one was interested in seeing a game matching the top two women’s teams in the conference. Meanwhile, Dr. Kelley was attending a play being directed by one of her publishing students, which evidently was splendid (although the audience numbered only about thirty); she can tell you about it. We enjoyed recounting to one another our satisfaction with our respective events.

Except we thought, there’s something wrong with this picture.

Traveling with the Ladies

We’ve been on the road since just before Christmas, traveling with the Ladies, Angie and Willa, and seeing our family strung across Texas, Oklahoma, and now Kansas, where we have been the past few days. Here in Barton County, besides spending welcome time with the resident fam, we have been joined by grandson Drew and his fiance, Jess. Such a pleasure getting to know her. Drew and I have been doing some hunting. The quail and pheasant were surprisingly scarce, but we have topped up the winter store of venison for sure. Throughout the expedition I have been using odd time, such as early morning, to keep somewhat current with teaching and writing. Dr. K, as usual, has been more diligent. This is my transition to several observations from the road.

First, Dr. K is so dedicated and hard-working, she puts me to shame. Holed up at the Angus Inn, attended by our admiring canines, she sees to the admin work of NDSU Press and spreads out manuscripts for editing. If you haven’t seen it, here’s a note about her leadership of the Midwest Indepent Publishers Association. She also finds time for reading, both for professional application and for personal pleasure. 2023 has not been an easy year for her. I doubt she’ll ever have one. But I do hope all will join me in saluting her work with NDSU Press and her leadership of regional letters. May 2024 be a year of success and satisfaction.

Second, Angie the History Dog and Willa the Book Beagle are amazing travelers. They give us no grief on the road, they make themselves at home where we are, and they enjoy themselves–particularly Angie, who loves to explore and socialize. Willa has struggled with a respiratory affection that had us out at 2am one morning for emergency vet care in Fort Worth. She’s stable again, not quite well, but well enough to enjoy hanging out with Mom. Both of the Ladies regard my F150 as their mobile headquarters and doze the miles away.

Third, there’s no place like home. I think it’s a good sign that we love to travel, and we love to go home. Today is taken up with packing, travel preparations (such as processing and stowing quite a bit of venison), some bits of work, and leave-taking. Tomorrow we strike north for home. Once there, it will be a full-court press to be ready for the spring term.

So now I better get some coffee and pitch in. To all our family who have made our travels joyful: may the new year repay you with every blessing. Too all our friends and associates in life and work: we wish you joy and success and peace. Thank you.

Stirring

Thoughts before daylight on Christmas Day

I cannot say not a creature is stirring. A hard-working Hispanic woman is seeing to breakfast, and an aged custodian is taking care of the grounds here at our lodgings in Fort Worth; but neither Dr. Kelley nor the Ladies have roused as yet. After some sodden days, Christmas Day is dawning clear. And I have coffee. I’m feeling a little loggy from the pimiento cheeseburgers at Kincaid’s yesterday, followed by a family graze with some New Zealand sav, so maybe I’ll push some weights this morning to get moving.

There is good news this morning, as long as I stay away from cable news. First, Dr. Kelley is enjoying a swift recovery from her cataract surgery of the past week and reporting a wonderful improvement in her vision. Which was needed, as I played out on the driving from North Dakota to Texas, and she took over.

Second–and when I sensed this, I made thankful note–I’m feeling a recharge taking hold. The latter half of 2023 has been hard, with medical matters in the family, sickness at home (for man and beast alike), loss of some old friends, a demanding work schedule, and rigorous travel all taking toll. Relaxing in the timbered lobby of Lied Lodge the first night of this expedition, however, I opened my Chromebook (because we never really go off duty) and, instead of checking communications, commenced thinking about the way ahead. I’m not talking about New Year’s resolutions. I’m talking about assessment and re-assessment, resolve, and forging on in the eighth decade of life, with a loyal and true companion alongside me (and sometimes behind me, pushing).

So there at the lodge I closed down the Willow Creek Folk School for 2023 and immediately re-opened it for 2024, with a calendar full of sessions on Friday nights. I’ve gotten some wisdom and encouragement from my wife and from our old friend Ben Kubichta about this and will attend more thoughtfully to the storytelling aspect of the enterprise. At the same time, the canonization implicit in the venture, the establishment of a field of inquiry, is leaping ahead. During snow days last spring, using research done for the folk school, I touched up three article manuscripts detailing the origins of some classic ballads of the Great Plains and sent them out to scholarly journals for review. The response was swift and positive. Two already are in print, and I read proofs on the third before we left home. In the coming year I intend to submit as many or more manuscripts into what I am now referring to as the Genesis Series. The term has a double meaning–dealing with the specific genesis of regional ballads and balladry, and also with the establishment of a twenty-first-century field of inquiry. Stay tuned, friends.

Then, during slack time here in Fort Worth I opened up the course management system, activated my spring term courses, and, believe it or not, commenced work on syllabi! Now, we all know the old jokes about historians and their yellowed lecture notes and their hidebound ways. I take it as a good sign that, in my seventy-second year of life, and entering my fiftieth year in college teaching, I am implementing structural and substantial reforms in the courses. Some of this is reactive–if you have a pulse, you have to respond to the challenges of generative AI–but more of it is a matter of teaching and learning about teaching and learning. Yes, the neoliberal disturbances in education are destructive, and yes, we have to do a lot more with less resources and less respect, and yes, the chickens in the roost are doing too much clucking and not enough laying, but at this point in my life and career, I know what good teaching is, and I’m going to do it. So there. I actually feel good working on course design. Go figure.

These things are gifts. May this Christmas bring you, if not every thing you want, every thing you need, and situate you for a blessed year in 2024.

From Lied Lodge

Night 1 of the annual Christmas expedition. Our family is strung out from Texas across Oklahoma and into Kansas, my native state. Nobody wants to visit us at Fargo in winter–go figure. So this time of year we drive south to spend Christmas in Texas, then work our way north for New Year’s in Kansas. This involves a deer hunt in Barton County just before heading home. Angie the History Dog and Willa the Book Beagle are with us–they are great travelers, especially Angie. Tonight we’re at Lied Lodge, Nebraska City, our favorite port of call on the Missouri River. We got here later than we hoped, but in time to have a splendid supper in the lounge and to spend some time writing and editing in the lobby before the massive stone fireplace. The Ladies are sleeping in the truck.

We never really leave work behind, but on this expedition, it defers to family and restorative time. Tomorrow we drive on to Fort Worth. I’m doing most of the driving so far, as Dr. K is on the rebound from cataract surgery this week (which seems to have been successful, thanks).

Blessed holidays to all.

Leg 1

Completed leg 1 of travel to New Zealand: Fargo > Denver > San Francisco > Auckland > Christchurch. Writing now from DIA. We never get away clean; I have a backpack of work along, including a dozen proposals I agreed to review for a major granting agency. My expectation is to be able to discard the printed proposals in Auckland, having completed and uploaded the reviews, and thus lighten my pack.

It is reasonable to ask why I accept this sort of professional obligation and carry it with me instead of just enjoying our travels. The usual answers come readily: you participate in peer review, often burdensome, as dues for membership in the academy. You want to be a player, get support for your own research, achieve stature in the profession, then you have to do your part. Peer review, for all its blemishes, keeps the enterprise reputable.

While executing this duty faithfully, I feel a necessity to do it well, with integrity, and to speak for the process. Neoliberal politics and ideological imperatives invade ever more spheres of the academy. Decisions, appointments, and rewards often rest not on teaching or learning or scholarship or discovery but on other bases. The proponents of disturbance do not like cultures and structures grounded in values they do not recognize.

Yet here I am, reading and assessing, sworn to uphold the values of teaching and learning and scholarship and discovery. And I declare, these values are real and good, and there are spheres where they survive and govern. Let us respect and defend them.

Returning

Come Tuesday Dr. Kelley & I catch a flight to New Zealand, returning for the first time since the onset of COVID. Despite the difficulties of getting away, we are thrilled to be going. We realize how important our near-annual expeditions to Aotearoa had become to us, personally and professionally.

At the heart of this is a long-term research enterprise, “Learning from the Lindis.” This is an exercise in regionalism that focuses on a district of Central Otago, where the Lindis River enters the Clutha. When I first visited the Lindis in 1991, it was a pastoral place dominated by sheep culture. Today it is known more for its fine wines. Suzzanne and I have gone deep into the district in a manner by which we hope to define the practice of this genre of history. A big ambition in a rather small, beautiful place.

Dr. K in Lindis Pass

On arrival in Christchurch we will pick up a hire car and drive immediately to the Lindis by way of the Mackenzie and Lindis Pass, then settle into Cromwell a few days, lodging at a modest and comfortable motel that suits us well. I’ll meet my course in the history of the Great Plains from there via Zoom, and from Cromwell we will venture into the countryside. We need to update, because the pace of change in this part of the world is fast. We hope to attend some community events, identify new local sources, and gather intelligence from knowledgable residents. Come next April we will write from this expedition and present to the World Social Science Association.

From Cromwell we return to Christchurch for the conference of the New Zealand Historical Association, where we are to prersent a paper (which we are only now writing). Its title is “On the Ground: Doing Regional History in Far-Flung Places.” Here is the abstract.

“The senior author of this proposal, having pursued research in the grasslands of North America for a half-century and in the New Zealand high country for three decades, learned early in the process that the practice of regional history in the two locales differed profoundly. A memorable dialog with Canterbury‚Äôs W. J. Gardner clarified the distinction for him, and he has been sorting it out ever since, with a commitment to doing history on the ground, at the grassroots, engaging the details of agricultural practice and environmental relationships. Throughout the current century the junior author, joining a line of research specific to the Lindis district of Central Otago, has transformed its practice by shifting focus to narrative culture, especially that propagated by the women of the district, as the basis of region. At the same time both authors have assumed leadership roles in the definition of region at home, on the Great Plains, the senior author through extensive research and writing and the direction of graduate work, the junior author through the founding of a university press dedicated to the proposition of giving voice to the prairies. They propose a paper reflecting on the practice and posture incumbent on scholars who wish to make a difference, to provide a constructive, grounded history to people of a particular place, whether in America or in Aotearoa.”

Not really an abstract, it’s the proposal we made, which was accepted. Yesterday morning over coffee we hashed it over, the conversation got pretty freewheeling, and now who knows where this paper will go. Well, we have a pretty good idea, and we will do what is in the proposal, but we may do it in peculiar fashion. Stay tuned.

Another sort of return: this blog, like so many other things during COVID, went dark for quite a while. This expedition to New Zealand seems like the inspiration and opportunity to bring it back to life, to make it the journal of our travel and work. What say you, Dr. K?