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.

occupy cal

It’s silly to take these things personally; the victims of police brutality are important, whether or not I know them myself. Still, it has been especially disturbing to me knowing that one of the people treated violently by UC cops was a former colleague of mine from the Berkeley English department, Celeste Langan. I’m not surprised she was in the front lines. While I didn’t work with her during my time in the department, she went out of her way on more than one occasion to help me; she was one of the most generous people I knew at Cal. The Daily Cal wrote of her situation:

Langan … said in an email that she knew that what she was doing by participating in the human chain was a form of nonviolent resistance, knew that she was disobeying the police order to disperse and knew that her participation made her subject to arrest. But, she said, she expected the police would arrest the protesters “in a similarly non-violent manner.”

“Rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed,” Langan said in the email. “They could have taken the time to arrest us for refusal to disperse without violence, but instead seem to have been instructed to get to the tents as quickly as possible. Since the tents posed no immediate threat to public safety, their haste and level of force were unwarranted.”

Here is an excerpt from the open letter (see petition link above) sent to the Chancellor, the administration, and the Regents:

We are appalled by the Chancellor’s account, in his November 10 “Message to the Campus Community,” that the police were “forced to use their batons.” We strenuously object to the charge that protesters—by linking arms and refusing to disperse—engaged in a form of “violence” directed at law enforcement. The protests did not justify the overwhelming use of force and severe bodily assault by heavily armed officers and deputies. Widely-circulated documentation from videos, photographs, and TV news outlets make plainly evident the squad tactics and individual actions of members of the UCPD and Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. This sends a message to the world that UC Berkeley faculty, staff, and student protesters are regarded on their own campus with suspicion and hostility rather than treated as participants in civil society. …

We call for greater attention to the substantive issues raised at the protests on November 9 regarding the privatization of education. With massive cuts in state funding and rising tuition costs across the community college system, the Cal State network, K-12, and the University of California, public education is undergoing a severe divestment. Student debt has reached unprecedented levels as bank profits swell. We decry the growing privatization and tuition increases that are currently heavily promoted by the corporate UC Board of Regents.

We express NO CONFIDENCE in the Regents, who have failed in their responsibility to fight for state funding for public education, and have placed the burden of the budget crisis on the backs of students.

We express NO CONFIDENCE in the willingness of the Chancellor, and other leaders of the UC Berkeley administration, to respond appropriately to student protests, to secure student welfare, and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.


I just submitted the grades for my spring class. Since at the present time, I have no more classes scheduled at ARC, it might be a good time to thank all of the people who have done so much for me over the years.

I am the kind of amiable but befuddled teacher who never remembers to do my paperwork. I have spent time in six departments at three different schools, and in every single case, there was someone who covered my ass. Schools can’t run without qualified staff, yet most professors are too full of themselves to say thanks. So if any of you are reading this, thanks from someone who needed your help far more than I should have.

Being able to give a keynote speech to a gathering of counselors remains one of the things I’m most proud of … it gave me a chance to thank them in person. I had great counselors as an undergrad, I had great counselors as a grad student, and I worked with great counselors as a professor. Their job is vital to the success of students.

I have been lucky to work with some fine fellow teachers, first as a student learning from my professors, later working together with other graduate students, and finally as a professor myself with graduate students working with me. I’m not sure I was very good at the latter, but I hope my respect was obvious. I am proud to say that many of the graduate students who worked with me have gone on to successful careers, not just at universities, but in other fields, some related to academia, some not. If I had any useful influence on even one of them, I’ve done something right with my life.

I’ve also been lucky to work with some terrific students. A few have become friends over the years, and nowadays, thanks to Facebook, I’m able to keep track of more of them than I used to. Again, I’m proud to say that many of those students have gone on to success in various fields, and here, too, I hope I’ve had even the smallest influence on their successes. Without students, there are no schools and no need for teachers.

The above reads like a requiem, and it’s probably premature. But you never know, and it’s better to say these things now than to have time run out before they’ve been said.

pushing the edge

I start teaching a critical thinking class next week, and awhile back, after a long discussion with my wife, I made an adjustment to the syllabus. I like to assign at least one movie in every class I teach. The main difference between this semester and earlier classes is that I’ve chosen one of those big-ass textbooks that covers the basics of critical thinking, instead of my usual method of choosing several shorter books. I mention this because part of that textbook is devoted to “current issues,” and I wanted a movie that would fit into that package.

I chose Juno. Or rather, I replaced my original choice with Juno. I think this will work out well … it addresses teen pregnancy and abortion, and what’s more of a hot-button issue than abortion? So let’s just say I haven’t made my life any easier by choosing this movie, but it will fit well, especially since abortion is covered in the textbook.

I waver in my commitment to assigning texts that will challenge students, believing strongly that college is a place where you are exposed to different ideas, but also accepting that some things are so bothersome to large numbers of students that you never get past the bothersome part. I took an undergraduate course on the Western at Cal, and the professor showed Junior Bonner. I was puzzled by this, and asked him why that and not The Wild Bunch? He said something to the effect that some movies, like The Wild Bunch, had such a strong (and perhaps mostly negative) effect on students that it became very difficult to do any real analysis of the film. I thought he was wrong … and if it was me, I might still show The Wild Bunch … but I found myself understanding his position the first (and only) time I showed Natural Born Killers to a class. (More than one student’s paper included the admission that they hadn’t watched the whole movie because they couldn’t take it. This was at Cal, BTW.)

There are several factors that enter into the selection of texts in my current environment. My community college students are a varied bunch, as is true in all classes at all levels. And, just as at a top university like Cal, there are good students and lesser students … and the good students can be just as good as their Berkeley counterparts (I attended three junior colleges, myself, before transferring to Cal). But in general, the Sacramento area that supplies most of my student body is more conservative than Berkeley (not that hard … it’s Berkeley, after all). This doesn’t mean we can’t push the edge, but the edge is in a slightly different place in Sacramento than it is in Berkeley. Also, I teach online classes, and it is much more difficult to push the edge when you don’t have regular, face-to-face encounters where you can hash things out.

So … I chose Juno, which pushes the edge a bit, but I decided it was a better choice than my first pick … and if you’ve made it this far, I hope you are wondering what I had in mind that I thought would be more troublesome to my students than a movie about, among other things, abortion.

That movie was The Rapture. I love The Rapture more than most people do, and I’ve long wanted to teach it in one of my classes. I was a bit concerned by all of the sex in the early parts of the movie, but decided that wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for my students. But when I told my wife about my choice, she started a serious discussion that led me to chance the movie away from The Rapture. And it had nothing to do with sex.

No, it was religion. She reminded me that I tend to avoid religion as a topic in my classes, far more than I do with any other “controversial” issue. And she reminded me that the setting for my class, where I wouldn’t have daily face-to-face with students, would make it hard to get my points across. I argued that The Rapture doesn’t take sides, but she noted that such a statement is a bit loose … the movie’s version of not taking sides is to piss off all sides equally, or at least everyone in the audience who doesn’t welcome an honest examination of the role of God and religion in our lives. One thing is for certain: no matter what you bring to the table, The Rapture does not make things easy for you.

And that’s when I knew I had to change the syllabus. My wife convinced me that the class would never get past the uncomfortable, pissed-off part, would struggle to get to a place where rational analysis could take place. I think The Rapture is a better movie than Juno, but a syllabus isn’t just about selecting your favorites, or we’d read Camus and watch The Godfather every semester.

What really interests me, what inspired this long post, is the realization that the basis of my decision is that I think religion is the one topic I just can’t face up to in the classroom. Whether it’s because I don’t think my students could get past their own beliefs, or because I don’t think I could get past my own beliefs, religion is still something I avoid in my classes.

(I am fully aware that my students can read this, if they bother to google me … heck, some of my ex-students are Facebook friends who will see this when it gets cross-posted. It would be interesting to see what they think of my teeth-gnashing.)


I was talking to a neighbor today, and he said the whole block was wondering where I was. He said he hadn’t seen me for three days. As far as I know, I haven’t been any more of a hermit lately than is usual, but when I thought about this later, I remembered that it had been a couple of days since I posted here, and perhaps I should show my head so everyone will know I’m around.

The problem is, I have a few things I’m mulling over, but they aren’t connected, and I don’t have enough to say about any of them to warrant a full post. So here comes a variety show of items:

  • I’m preparing for my spring class on critical thinking. The last couple of times I’ve taught this course, I’ve found myself focusing particularly on the idea of cognitive dissonance. I always show a movie in my classes, but the film doesn’t always match the theme of the course … last summer, I used Minority Report, which kinda/almost/didn’t really fit. I think I’ve narrowed my choices this time to a pair of movies. Good Will Hunting has enough of a relationship to cognitive dissonance that you can buy essays on the topic, so that clearly matches. But my left-field preference is for The Rapture, which is an all-time favorite of mine that I have never used in a classroom. I’d argue that the ending of The Rapture involves cognitive dissonance, so I think I could make it work (and the film is obscure enough that I doubt there are any essay factories with a backlog of papers to be purchased).
  • Somewhere in the late spring, Robin and I got behind on a couple of our TV series, and then they sat on the DVR for months. I needed the space on the machine, which explains why I watched almost all of Season Two of Nurse Jackie over the last couple of days. Normally, I’d say a few words, but the season ended so long ago, I doubt anyone cares about it now. I still find some of the characters so annoying they are almost enough to make me quit watching (although, interestingly, they aren’t the same characters who drove me crazy in Season One), and part of me admires the show’s reach more than I love the result. So I like the idea of a title character who is increasingly unlikeable, and Edie Falco is very good. But it’s still in the “B” range as these things go … The United States of Tara, which Showtime matches with Nurse Jackie, is closer to an A grade.
  • Speaking of my lovely wife, Robin is in Japan right now, after spending a week in Singapore. She’ll be in Japan for two more weeks before coming home. There was a time when we would never think of spending three weeks apart, and I was welcome to come with her on this trip. I haven’t spoken of it here because I fear the whole thing shows me in a pathetic light … I could have gone to Singapore and Japan, and I didn’t, because I’m lame. For punishment, I’m here alone with the cats, left with a couple of Skype sessions a day to help maintain my relationship with my wife. I am so unadventurous.