the full blackboard

This is a story I think I've told many times, but I can't find any reference to it on this blog, where I've been writing since 2002, so maybe I haven't told the story as often as I thought. It also took place long enough ago that I can't really remember the context, i.e. where and when it took place. But I think it's worth telling, so I've dive in, even with the holes in my memory.

It took place in a classroom. I can't recall if I was a junior college student or if I was a university teacher, which means I can't remember if it was the 1970s or the 1990s or even later. And I can't remember if I had power in the classroom (teacher) or little power (student). And those things matter to the story, but again, not enough for me to shut up. I can say that I do think it happened when I was teaching at Cal, emphasis on "think".

The classroom discussion was about the participation of women in the classroom, or rather, the over-participation of men. This was a hot topic at one time ... sadly, I imagine it's still a topic, but it would be nice to think otherwise. As a teacher in a small, discussion-oriented class, we were taught to be inclusive when calling on students, and to beware of habits we might have that unconsciously tipped the balance of men and women speakers. In this case, at some point I realized that men (me included, of course) were dominating the discussion. So I had an idea (and this is one reason I suspect I was a teacher, because a student doesn't ordinarily get to make the kind of suggestion I'm going to describe). I decided all of the men should leave the classroom ... I forget how long, 10 minutes, 15 ... which would give the women a chance to discuss the topic without the men dominating everything. And so the men went outside for awhile while the women stayed in the room. I recall a couple of the male students were pissed off ... they didn't dominate discussions, the whole notion was ridiculous, and if women didn't want to speak up, you can't force them to do so.

After the allotted time, us guys returned to the classroom. One look at the blackboards (for there were more than one) told us everything we needed to know.

Every blackboard in the room was covered with writing.

buffy and school

Steven Rubio's Online Life



Honorifics are funny things. I like using them, but feel unworthy when someone uses them to refer to me.

We got married by a judge. But not just any judge ... Judge Rose and his family were friends of both Robin and I. I’ve known a couple of the Rose children longer than I’ve known Robin ... they used to live across a big dirt lot from our house in Antioch. They were and are a fine family, and Judge Rose is a fine fellow (I’m sure he was also a fine judge, but since I never went before him, I’ll have to just guess about that). We referred to the parents of most of our friends growing up as Mr. or Mrs., and there were also the various medical doctors who got the “Dr.” title. Oh, and priests or ministers were “Father”. Of all of those, though, the best was Judge Rose. Somehow, it made you feel good to refer to “The Judge” ... it’s not that he was a better person than the other parents, but he had earned his title.

When I got my Ph.D, I found my new title to be a mixed blessing. Some things changed in nice ways ... in a single day, I went from being in a ceremony accepting the title of Doctor to sitting on the stage at another graduation and reading the names of graduating undergraduates. (I also got to sit next to the Rev. Cecil Williams.) Perhaps the strangest thing about the latter was when we were in line to enter Zellerbach Hall ... an old friend, a geography professor I hadn’t seen in some time, turned around, saw me standing behind him, and exclaimed, “What are YOU doing here?” Other things weren’t as nice, because while I was proud to have finally accomplished something, I still felt funny having an honorific bestowed on me ... I wasn’t sure I deserved it.

Soon afterwards, a favorite neighbor who happened to work on campus showed up at our door with a lovely gift, an Elvis Presley quilt that she had made. I remember answering the door to be greeted with, “Is there a doctor in the house?” I was delighted, if also slightly embarrassed. But it was a bit like knowing The Judge, from the other side. My friend made me feel like my accomplishment was something the whole neighborhood could be a part of, and I was grateful.

Another friend who also lived our block worked for many years doing virtually every odd job imaginable for us. He passed away a few years ago, and remains sorely missed. He was delighted that I was a doctor ... he seemed especially impressed that I had written pieces for a lot of books, and I gave him copies of a few, which he was proud to show at his home. I think sometimes he would tell his friends, you know that guy down the block, he writes books, a slight exaggeration, but again, I think he felt a part of it all. Sometimes it got a little silly, though. He would come to me with some difficult question about science or nature or the like, assuming I’d know the answer because I was “a Doctor”. I’d always tell him he should ask Robin, who knew about way more things than I did ... I was a “Doctor of Television”, I’d say, or a “Doctor of Movies”. But he’d insist, and so I’d go in the house, ask Robin the question, she’d tell me the answer, I’d go back to our friend and pass along the information, making sure he knew that it was Robin who had the answers, not me. But no, I was a Doctor. Funny thing is, our friend could do just about anything ... he was the model of a handyman, always coming up with some unknown-to-me skill. Since I have no skills ... I am the anti-handyman ... I was at least as impressed with him as he was with me. But I had the honorific.

When I was a teacher, my students would refer to me using various honorifics. I always referred to myself as Steven, in person and in online communications. But my students would call me Professor Rubio, or Mr. Rubio, or Dr. Rubio. (“Mr. Rubio” bothered me quite a bit ... “Mr. Rubio is my father!” I would shout, until one day I made a student cry and I realized I was being an ass.) One oddity is that the various places I taught had different official job titles. At Cal, where I was first a Graduate Student Instructor, and then, for some years, an Lecturer (or Adjunct), my title was never officially “Professor”. When I taught at San Francisco State, I was a visiting professor, I guess ... to be honest, I taught there twice without ever figuring out exactly what my job title was. And when I taught at a community college, my job title was Professor, even though I was still technically just another adjunct making ends meet.

Just last weekend, at a family gathering, a cousin of mine, on finding out I was “Dr. Rubio”, started telling me about a medical problem she was having. Sorry, I explained, I’m just an English teacher.

The point in all of this is that I like offering honorifics to others, but when they are offered to me, I’m just not sure it’s right. More than once, I’ve been asked out of the blue to contribute to an anthology, and I always say, “How do you know me?” (or, in the case of one academic tome, “Are you sure I’m the person you want? Have you read my writing? Do you know my style?”). Google has been my friend ... I’ve had a couple of cases of “it’s who you know”, but more often, someone finds something I’ve written via a search engine (I guess that’s the advantage of having this decade-plus blog). My insecurities remain ... as I said earlier, I’m never certain I deserve honorifics, or other accolades. (In the case of writing, that’s particularly pathetic, since I know writing is far and away my best skill, yet I’m still surprised that anyone notices.)

You know what I really find attractive? The honorific “Champ” when it’s given to a boxing champion. I love that no one is called “Champ” unless they have actually earned it. Even more, I like that you can never lose the title, as a referent if not literally. Even after you are no longer the literal champion, you remain “Champ”. So Muhammad Ali is “Champ” ... George Foreman is “Champ” ... they will never not be “Champ”.

And I guess I’ll never not be “Doctor”. It’s not the same, though ... no one calls me “Doctor”, and I’d feel funny if they did. Manuel Rose is “The Judge”, Cecil Williams is “Reverend”, the person who takes care of me at Kaiser is “Doctor”. But me? I’m Steven.

throwback thingie

Are people still doing this?

dance group

This is a picture of one of the dance groups at Antioch High School in my senior year, which makes it 1969-1970, which makes me 16 years old. As I recall, there were two official dance groups, and anyone must have been able to join this one, because I had never taken a dance class and my skills were non-existent. I did this because a lot of my friends were involved (just to note the obvious example, my future wife of 40+ years is just over my left shoulder).

I imagine the real reason I was in this group can be ascertained by looking at the positioning of the various participants. The real male dancers are sitting in the front. The ringer (me) is standing amidst all of the female dancers. A few of them were girlfriends of mine, again obviously including my future wife.

Three of the people in the photograph are now dead, to my knowledge … I assume there are more than I know about, everyone in the picture would be in their early sixties by now. A couple of them continued in dance after high school … one founded a dance company at a major university. At least one person in the picture became a doctor … well, two if you count me, but I’m talking about medical doctors. One of them ran for Lt. Governor of California on the Libertarian ticket. One of them was the maid of honor at our wedding.

I’m still in touch with a few of these folks. I see the girl to my right once in a while … my wife sees her more often than that. One of the boys and one of the girls have been to my house, which if you know me is a big deal. I’m friends with a few of them on Facebook.

i planned to go to s.f.

I posted this, which I had scanned, nine years ago. I’m doing a double-nostalgia move, one where I remember nine years ago, and one where I remember 1967:

golden arch bio

This comes from the program for the first play I participated in once I got into high school. It was called My Three Angels, which was made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart. My part (“Alfred”) was played by Darren McGavin in the original Broadway run, by Aldo Ray in the Bogart film version, and by George Grizzard in a later TV version. There was a Robert De Niro version in 1989, but my character wasn’t in that one, I guess.

I was a sophomore, and the way the Antioch school system was structured in those days, 7th-9th grades were “junior high” and 10th-12th grades were “high school”. There was no “intermediate”, or whatever they call 6th-8th grades now. Of the three junior high plays listed, I only remember The Wizard of Oz. I was the Scarecrow, and I was unable to hold my arms straight out when Dorothy discovered me guarding the corn field, so they gave me a pole I could use that enabled me to rest my arms using my shoulders as support. I should probably remember more about that, but hey, I was in 7th grade.

It says I was “majoring” in drama, but I don’t recall having “majors” in high school. While I was doing OK in school, I apparently had no thoughts of college. This was the end of the Summer of Love, all I wanted to be was a hippie, and thus my plans were limited to going to San Francisco and eating (no mention of a job, of course). I actually did spend about a month in S.F. after I graduated from high school, but with no money and no job, I was soon back at home with my parents.

Here’s a lo-fi picture of me in My Three Angels … that’s me in the back:


how i wrote in 1987

Continuing from this post, here is the third paragraph of my honors thesis for my American Studies B.A.:

American culture has always been fixated on the mechanism of scapegoating. That which we fear is that which is closest to ourselves. The best way to separate ourselves from the evil is to create, through a scapegoat mechanism, a sharp contrast between our good selves and the Other that threatens our stability. So America has a long history of demonizing our enemies, developing strict standards for good behavior and thrusting our inner turmoil onto social groups, Others, that can be identified as separate. We fear evil because it is us. And so we categorize, in order to recognize the evil and to confirm the good. If white men are good, then men of color are bad. Women are witches, men their opposites. Americans separate themselves from the Other, hoping desperately to establish a “good” national persona by maximum contrast to that which disturbs by its closeness: the evil we can never escape.

how i wrote in 1987

Continuing from this post, here is the second paragraph of my honors thesis for my American Studies B.A.:

Evil is what we hoped to escape when our forefathers first came to America. (The Puritans’ European persecutors, according to William Bradford, were antichristian, lordly, and tyrannous.) But the great escape of Europeans to America, and the escape into the wilderness that followed, was always that, an escape from old ties, not a genesis, not a brand new world. We have always carried our evil bloodlines with us as we escaped, and we have therefore always been a nation on intimate terms with evil. In a complex way it is evil, rather than good, that governs how mainstream American culture is formed, because of the fear that we are in reality an evil people, and also because it is through the definition of evil that we can recognize what is good.

how i wrote in 1987

A couple of weeks ago, I offered three quotes that led off my honors thesis for my B.A. in American Studies at Cal, which my daughter dug up. Here is the first actual paragraph, written in 1987:

Since the time of the Puritans, Americans have seen themselves as God’s chosen people. In John Winthrop’s words, we are “as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” In this view, America, the “greatest country in the world”, shines like a beacon to all free-thinking people across the globe. But there is a darker side to this Promised Land, a side that deals as seriously in evil as in good. The darker vision of America acknowledges the evil and utilizes it to separate proper behavior from socially destructive behavior. Americans can’t seem to recognize themselves except in opposition to supposed enemies. Therefore America needs evil, for without it, the vision of America’s greatness would have no landmark, nothing to set off its brilliance.

Just to date this work, it was printed with a dot-matrix printer.

rip it up

Our daughter, son-in-law, and grandson are staying over a couple of days a week while Ray works a temporary contract job with the university. They’ve taken on the herculean task of making the basement livable, and they keep coming across interesting tidbits from the past.

Today, Sara and I were going through old books when I found a copy of my honors thesis for my Bachelor’s Degree in American Studies. It’s called “Rip It Up: Adolescence in American Popular Culture of the Post-War Era”, and it’s dated December 4, 1987. I think I’ll dip into it a few times, see if I can get any good posts out of it.

For now, there are the three quotes that kicked off the paper. The first is from John Robinson, speaking to the Mayflower Pilgrims in 1620:

You are many of you strangers, as to the persons so to the infirmities one of another, and so stand in need of more watchfulness this way, lest when such things fall out in men and women as you suspected not, you be inordinately affected with them.

Next, Abraham Lincoln, from his Lyceum address in 1838:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.

And finally, Elvis Presley, 1954:

I heard the news, there’s good rockin’ tonight!

vampire by vampire

(Several years ago, I gave a keynote speech at a conference for advisors in the UC system. I summarized it on this blog, and at least one person asked to see the whole thing. But I didn’t have any copies. Well, a few days ago, the day, in fact, that Bruce Springsteen gave the keynote speech at SXSW, my speech turned up. Here it is at last, anachronistic in places, edited to remove a few personal notes lauding specific advisors who were in attendance. I think it’s worth posting, even after all this time. I started by showing a clip from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Xander: Since when do we go through all this trouble for one lousy vampire? Excuse me, one lousy potential vampire.

Buffy: Vampire by vampire. It’s the only way I know how.

Dawn: You’ll be fine. You’ll be a great counselor.

Buffy: It’s my first week actually talking to the kids. What if their problems are all weird and tricky?

Xander: I think you underestimate your familiarity with the world of weird and tricky. This job’s perfect for you.

Dead woman: I am not peaceful.

Buffy: That, I can help with. (puts stake through the vampire’s heart)

This clip demonstrates three different kinds of reactions we have when dealing with students. There’s the philosophical theory under which we operate. In Buffy’s case, it’s “vampire by vampire.” There’s the feelings of inadequacy: “what if it’s all weird and tricky?” And there’s the times when you just want to put a stake in their hearts.

I said “we” because I’ve done a little advising in the past. I helped direct senior theses in American Studies for several years, and spent one year in Mass Communications where advising was part of my job description. But I confess, as I stand before you here, I’m in that second frame of mind: feelings of inadequacy. I’m not too worried about the weird and tricky. I’m just very aware of great contributions advisors make towards education, and I know that I’m a rookie when it comes to those kinds of contributions.

I am perhaps the poster child for the infamous “Master Plan for Higher Education”. I attended three different community colleges, going back far enough that they were still called “junior colleges”. I entered UC Berkeley as a J.C. transfer student, and graduated two years later. From there, I went on to grad school, also at Berkeley, and even finished that, although it took a lot longer than two years. Since that time, I’ve also taught in the English, American Studies, and Mass Communications programs at Berkeley, in the Humanities department at San Francisco State, and am currently teaching in the English department at American River College. Seeing that on the page, it appears I’m going full circle: JC to UC, UC to State, State to JC!

My first reaction on being contacted to speak at this conference was simple: “why me?” It’s true that I stumbled around the UC system for close to 20 years, but only one of those years was spent actually advising students, and I’ve been away from UC for a couple of years now. I have no special training for this. “What if their problems are weird and tricky” is a question I often ask myself. I feel inadequate on a regular basis. But I find it helps if I treat everyone I come across as a human being. It’s too easy, working in a huge institution like UC, to forget that these aren’t just stereotypical kids, they’re human beings.

When discussing what topics I might address here today, one that came up was that I might “help understand this generation of students.” “Echo Boomers,” they were called, although I always thought of them as “Generation Y”. I thought this was kind of funny. I’m 51 years old, and my kids are long since grown up and out of the house (one of them runs a mentoring program in the Sacramento school district, in fact). What do I know about this generation of students? But the fact is, I do know a few things about them. And so do you.

They’re human beings, for one thing. Most of them are young … not all, I was in my 30s by the time I got to Cal … but they’re human beings, and although they might not believe it, we were all young once, too. That cliché pays off, I think. Not because we know what 50 Cent is saying on his new album, that’s not what I mean, although I suppose it helps if you do know 50 Cent, but because all of us experienced similar situations, and they might have been long enough ago that it’s work to recall them. But recall them we must. Because we’ll remember when we were scared, or cocky, or scared and cocky at the same time, and we’ll appreciate what our students are going through.

Student Affairs Officers … how many of you have that title? I think you are the greatest people in the entire UC system. I’m serious. A few years back, I attended the graduation ceremony for Women’s Studies, and there was this woman doing everything: keeping everyone on schedule, patting the hands of the nervous graduates, calming the family and friends, telling jokes. She was the perfect hostess. And I said to myself, “she’s a Student Affairs Officer”, because she knew everything that needed to be done, and she did it, and she was accessible to all. And it turned out I was right. I don’t know what it is about the job, but as someone who has worked in the UC system as undergrad, grad student, and teacher, I thank you from the bottom of my unorganized heart.

In all of this, one thing keeps coming up: treating students like human beings. I know the subject of this conference is “Radical Advising Directions in California”, and I would like to apologize for not being radical enough. All I’m saying is, treat students like human beings, how radical is that? Sadly, it remains a radical stance at alienating institutions such as those in the UC system. My wife has a standard response when I tell her what a good person she is. “I’m just me”, she says, meaning that she can’t take credit for just doing whatever everyone else would do. She doesn’t realize that not everyone is as good as she is, not everyone does the right thing or does their best, so what she sees as ordinary is in fact radical. A similar thing happens in big institutions. It doesn’t seem very radical to treat people like human beings, but sadly, it’s unusual, if not radical, in the UC system. I don’t think this is because the UC system is filled with assholes; the people working for UC are like everyone else. They don’t come to work each day thinking, “how can I screw somebody over?” But the institution makes even the best of us into assholes without our even realizing it. It takes a great, yes, a radical effort to overcome the institutional alienation that affects everyone who comes into contact with UC. I wish I could say I’d always risen to the occasion. I know I did not. I don’t suppose any of us are perfect. Maybe my wife.

But when I think about the people I worked with in my years in the UC system, professors, payroll clerks, custodians, fellow students, big-shots and small-shots, and yes, advisors … when I think about all those people, I can state with assurance that the best chance I had to be treated like a human being was with an advisor.

It is pretty scary for a student when they first come to the university. No one holds your hand, no one takes your life experiences into account, you’re just dropped by your parents on the front steps and told to get good grades. It is imperative that those students have someone, anyone, who can make them feel less alienated, make them understand that while the institution might be oppressive, the people working there might be OK. It isn’t going to happen with the famous professors; the famous professors aren’t often teaching first-years, anyway. It probably won’t happen from the graduate student instructors. Grad school adds neurotic anxiety to the general malaise, making grad students the last people you’d ask for help. It won’t happen from your fellow undergrads, not at first. They’re in the same boat as you, although once you’ve become acclimated to UC, your fellow students are your best resource. No, the place where students see the humanity that does indeed exist behind the institution is with their advisors.

When I was an undergrad, I worked for a semester as a peer tutor. One of my students was a freshman who thought she needed help with her writing. Once a week we would get together, and I’d read over drafts of her various papers, and I’m here to say, she was as good at writing as I was. She needed no help in that area. We got to talking one afternoon, and she told me her story: top-ranked student at her small-town high school, editor of the school newspaper, been writing all her life. But then she got accepted to Cal, her parents dropped her off and wished her good luck, and she felt so out-of-place she came to distrust everything she’d ever done before coming to UC. I told her she was a fine writer, that she didn’t need to worry about that. Further discussion led to the realization that she didn’t know how to deal with Sproul Hall, which is the most bureaucratic building on the Berkeley campus. The long lines, the blank faces, the endless hallways, even the high ceilings were just plain scary. So I told her some of the tricks I’d learned, how to deal with the bureaucracy. It wasn’t much, but combined with my praising of her writing, it might have been the best advising I ever did, and I was still an undergraduate myself.

If we can remember how scared those students are, we’re that much closer to seeing them as human beings. And that’s radical enough for me.

Can I explain this generation of students? Hell no. But I can tell you a few things about them. They have their own culture, and they appreciate it when you appreciate their culture, but they don’t want you to take it over from them, because then it will no longer be theirs.

And what about these “Echo Boomers” about whom I am supposed to have insights? Like every generation for at least the last 60 years, they have a culture that is distinct from their predecessors, and Baby Boomers ignore this fact at their peril. Baby Boomer culture is no longer the center of the pop universe. It hasn’t been since Hip-Hop. So what I would say about this generation of students is simply that they are not us.

And one warning: while you might think being an “out of touch grown up” is the worst possible persona to take on, it is far worse to pretend to an understanding that doesn’t exist. Students don’t hold it against you if you don’t know much about their culture, but they rightly DO hold it against you if you profess to know, to be cool or whatever, when you don’t know at all. And so I taught a course on Buffy, because I knew and loved Buffy, but I didn’t teach the O.C. because I don’t know or love that.

But neither do I want to suggest that there is no common ground on which we can meet. This generation of students wants information. And what students want from advisors is information the students don’t already possess. My experience over a wide spectrum of environments in the UC system is, those students are going to the right people. Advisors know how the system works, know when it is prudent to circumvent it, know which professors can be trusted and which should be avoided. Advisors know how to help students get through college. Professors know about literature, or physics, or foreign languages, and that’s good, you need someone passing along that knowledge from one generation to the next. But you can’t do it without a road map, and advisors are the tour guides. When students find university life weird and tricky, they look to advisors to work around the tricks.

I know in all of this I seem to be avoiding the need to be radical. But I feel like this is radical: to impart to students the inner workings of the institution, to the purpose of removing as much alienation as possible. That, to me, is a radical move, one that is most often taken in the advisors’ offices.

In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus includes two crucial dialogues between men trying to stop the spread of plague in their town. One, a doctor named Rieux, says during the first of these conversations with his friend Tarrou, “I have no idea what’s awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment, I know this; there are sick people and they need curing. Later on, perhaps, they’ll think things over; and so shall I. But what’s wanted now is to make them well. I defend them as best I can, that’s all.”

In their later conversation, it is Tarrou’s turn to speak. He explains why he works so hard against the plague. “All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” Every time you advise a student, every time you help them maneuver their way through the endless bureaucracy, every time you shine a small light of humanity into the institution, you are refusing to join forces with the pestilences. We can only hope that one day, such a stance will no longer be seen as radical, but will instead be the norm. For now, we go through all this trouble, vampire by vampire.