Saturday, November 14, 2015

Life on campus, 1969 to the present

When I left the dog-eat-dog arena of corporate America in 1988 for the ivy-covered halls of academe, I imagined a long life of teaching and writing and pondering. Plenty of pondering. Never mind that my corporate pals sent me off with a cake and a real bullwhip as a farewell gift. "You’ll need the whip for the little darlings you’re going to teach," they joked. I could have said LOL but it was 1988 and that expression had yet to be invented. I just laughed and replied: “At least I won’t have to deal with you SOBs anymore,” using an expression that was sort-of acceptable in the guy-oriented workplace of the late-20th century.

I learned several lessons during three years in grad school at CSU in FoCo, CO. If I landed a job as an academic, I would get paid peanuts for teaching five sections of freshman composition at a community college in East Jesus, Nowhere. I interviewed for jobs at universities, but my impending MFA didn’t stack up against all the young PhDs running loose all over the place. So I switched gears and got into the lucrative field of arts administration, a career I will be retiring from in 2016.

I have taught on a part-time basis over the last couple decades. Composition, yes, but also creative writing, business writing, memoir writing and so on. I’ve taught in classrooms and online, for community colleges and universities. My students have ranged in age from 18 to 85. I’ve enjoyed most of those experiences.

But deep inside of me resides a dapper gentleman who wears a tan blazer with patches on the elbows. He walks campus like Mr. Chips, saying good morning and hale well met to all the students who greet him as he passes. These young people are all above average and bound for careers where they will praise the lessons they learned under the tutelage of Mr. Chips, I mean, Mr. Shay. Maybe that’s why I can’t resist a walk around any campus I happen across. I wax nostalgic on campus, which is odd because I never really experienced an idyllic campus life. I’ve blogged about some of my college experiences and will blog more about them later. Let’s just say I seem to learn everything the hard way. Add to that the fact that neither of my children have let me live through their idyllic campus experiences because, well, they haven’t had those either. Still, my nostalgia remains about college life.

Here we are in the 20-teens. Life on campus seems more complicated than ever. And strange. I only know what I read in the papers and online and see on the TV news. Students, apparently, want campus to be a “safe place.” Free from racism and violence and sexism and all kinds of –isms. Damn. Campus is where learned about all of those because I ran headlong into them. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be? The college experience is supposed to be about experimentation and freedom of expression and encounters with new and possibly dangerous ideas. You try on new ideas and experiences like a new outfit, and you can shed it willy-nilly and go on to the next thing. If you are too afraid of giving offense, you will probably be less willing to give it the old college try.

As a liberal, I gleefully criticize those on the right. They often bring up political correctness. In their eyes, political correctness prohibits their freedom of expression. They no longer can use the N-word in public or discriminate against LGBTQ people or call immigrants wetbacks or worse. I am politically correct by writing the previous sentence. Problem is, I am 64 years old and grew up in an era where we casually used all of those terms and practiced casual (and formal) racism. I’ve been in a steep learning curve ever since. The Civil Rights struggle caused thinking people to reassess their priorities and behaviors. The battle over the Vietnam War caused us to reassess the blind obedience to country we learned in the church and in Boy Scouts and ROTC. The women’s movement forced us men to look differently at relationships with the other 50 percent of the human race. In the West, we had Latino/a Power and the American Indian Movement. The sixties and seventies were hard on us white males, even those of us who weren’t Ivy League or Wall Street privileged. You could attempt to get out of changing by pleading that your forebears were poor white trash from Ireland and that your great-granddaddy didn’t own any slaves or kill any Indians. That never got me very far. White privilege is a real thing, like it or not.

I was impressed by the recent stand taken by the Mizzou football team. Nothing will cause white folks to stand up and take notice than threatening tailgate Saturdays at the old alma mater. Think about it. When I entered the University of South Carolina in 1969, the Gamecocks had not one black football player. Their first black athlete was future NBA star Alex English, the poetry-writing power forward from Columbia. He joined the basketball team in 1970. B-ball and football squads in the South are now comprised mainly of black athletes. Think of how much power they possess to determine the course of their universities. Is it PC when they flex that power? Isn’t power-flexing more of a conservative value? More reminiscent of corporate takeovers and police actions in third world countries than progressive politics? You’d think that The Donald and Bill O’Reilly would be singing the praises of the Mizzou football team. Flex those collegiate muscles, you middle linebacker! What better prepares you for a corporate job once those knees give out?

My collegiate dreams faded over time. A good thing too. I’m not sure how welcomed I would be if my Baby Boomer patriarchal self showed up in class smoking a pipe, wearing a corduroy blazer, carrying a bullwhip and barking out orders to my young charges. Not PC, Mr. Chips. Not PC at all. 

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