I just read Rob Jenkins piece, “Retention in the Trenches,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education,

I remember the first time I left (was forced out of?) school; the first time school failed to retain me.

I was disinterested in school. Like many newly-graduated-from-high-school teenagers, I was burnt out from barely passing my classes at my private, Jesuit, prep school. I purposely did poorly in my entrance exams so that I would get put in “easy” classes. I know… I was young.

I was left bored in my composition classes, and I was told, in so many words, that my writing was poor by my disinterested instructors. (Of course, now I realize what they must have been going through). My instructor, however, gave me no direction in how to improve my writing. I ended up barely passing my enc 1101. In 1102, I hated all the assignments, hated the group work, and hated every thing we were assigned to read. Again, I was bored and doing enough to get by. I did, however, attempt to put more effort in to my writing to pass the class with a higher grade. For my efforts, I was accused of cheating (nothing came of the accusation, except my resentment), and I received a point penalty for missing too many classes.

I did much more poorly in my other classes.

After failing a couple of classes and taking a semester off, I was ready to come back to school, but school did not care for my return. I remember talking to counselors, who led me to deans, who told me my poor record indicated to them that I was not ready for school. I pleaded my case: I was bored in class, didn’t see the point, hated the “pointless” classes, I had learned from my mistakes, and I wanted to return.

I ended up at the local community college. Again, counselors were quick to dismiss my interest and were unhelpful. Finally, when I declared myself as an English major and was sent to the head of the English department, did I finally connect to someone who listened to me and helped me pick classes. And more than just pick classes, he would register me for the class right in his office. That extra step helped immensely. I can’t say how many times–and how much time wasted–I would attempt to register for a class that was full and then have to find an alternative. With Dr. Blanco, if I couldn’t get into a class, he would recommend another one. He would tell me what the classes would cover so that I could decide if it interested me. I owe that man so much.

The teachers at that school–once I finally started taking classes in my major–were amazing, and they and my experience, bring me to Jenkins piece. He states:

Obviously, we haven’t yet discovered the magic formula, or else we wouldn’t still be talking about this problem, much less potentially losing money because of it. 

He does give excellent advice.

Be a teacher, not a gatekeeper.”

As professors, sometimes, and I have this problem, we think our job is to let students lacking in ability know that they might not make it in college. I was told repeatedly by a girlfriend’s mother, by managers, and by my own high school counselor, that maybe college was not for me. As I’ve mentioned, I was told I could not get past the gate by writing instructors, and here I am, ABD, about to get my Ph.D.. I think Jenkins is correct in saying that students, especially at risk or academically under-prepared students, are “much more likely to stick it out if they see their professors as partners in the learning process.” I see my job as helping students realize that with hard work and effort they can learn the material and pass their classes. 

Next, Jenkins states that we should “be flexible” and reminds us “But don’t be a pushover”

Life happens, so we should help students through those moments, but we can’t let students walk all over us.

The next step is the hardest one for me, (and I don’t know why): Be accessible — and approachable.”

Students need to know that they can come talk to us. If they have a problem, they need to tell us so that we can be flexible without being a pushover. As Jenkins reminds us “For many students, professors represent imposing and sometimes intimidating figures.” I have had vastly wonderful literature classes, where my students come talk to me during office hours, chat with me before and after class about the movie, t.v. show, or other book they read that reminds them about something we covered in class. One class started a book club and asked me to be the faculty advisor. 

In my composition classes, however, I am arrogant and mean. I try to be open. I send out constant announcements reminding my students of office hours, of e-mailing me, of my openness to read pre-drafts before they turn anything in for a grade. I try to be tough so that students don’t think I’m a push over, but I am flexible when things come up. Sometimes I wonder if my accessibility isn’t influenced by my appearance as a 6’2 tall man. I know my sarcasm gets me in trouble.

I am working on this accessibility part, and have seen improvements from when I first started–improvements that have come at realizing precisely that I am an ally not a gatekeeper.

“Make Material Relevant”

I have armed myself with the following articles that show that liberal arts majors (specifically in humanities and social sciences) earn more than professional and pre-professional majors by mid-career:

Here

Here

Here

Here

Here

Here

Of course, the importance of clear communication, proper writing (in e-mails, cover letters, job inquiries, resumes, etc.) cannot be stressed enough. In a competitive market, the resume without typos wins.

Finally, Take some personal responsibility”

I think I should, as Jenkins suggest, step outside the comfort zone. As he puts it:

You can’t force students to do something they absolutely don’t want to do. And yet, over the last few years, I’ve begun to step outside my comfort zone and reach out to students who have multiple absences, who haven’t turned in an assignment, or who clearly seem distracted in class (and not just by their cell phones)” 

This article makes me realize the student focused approach I would like to take at a community college or liberal arts college. A place where students come first.

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While talking to a colleague/friend the other day, we were discussing how this, this analyzing and constant reading of literature, does not seem to be a “normal” job. That since this is what we do, we are attracted to people who understand why it is so hard to lose/sell/give away books. People who understand why it is we write quotes down, constantly read, constantly go back and reread favorites, constantly seek out new books and writing. And I think that this need blurs into life.

There is this understanding that we can never grasp or obtain (own) words, stories, theories, the things we read, but we feel this need to memorize the thing. I have talked about this before, I think… But the concept comes from Derrida when he talks about a need to repeat over and over a phrase, to memorize a phrase, because this makes us feel like we can own it, like it is something graspable to hold on to. I think this notion is what compels people to be sport’s fans, “patriots”, attached to one theory over another. This is why there is so much bickering and fighting, why we have jealousy, anger– this is what Buddhist talk about. Our attachments to concepts whether it be concepts we have about patriotism, identity, literature, politics, or life in general, we can’t accept having those concepts questioned.

And I think I have talked about all this before when I discussed Demillo, and I counter charges that this is passionless as a misunderstanding of the concept of detachment. You can feel passionately about something without having that something determine your mood. But none of this really matters because you already have a concept of passion, life, and how to deal with all of it, and if this goes against that concept, you are going to think that everything I have said is bullshit anyway.

The point of this was to discuss how when I am sick or depressed or heartbroken or happy or any other emotion, I can easily go to my job as a server for a chain restaurant and fake it and do my job. If I have my classes planned out and I know what it is I need to cover, I can–more or less– go into a classroom and teach something that I have gone over a million times, but if I have any one overwhelming feeling that is occupying my brain, I can’t “think” or “work.” I can’t analyze something and write about it. I can’t apply concepts and look at problems, text, philosophy in any kind of new or interesting way. All I can do when I am like this, is this. Ramble on about things.

For example, this post started off in my head as a post about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and how the book is reminding me a little of Jung and how Jung discusses the journey into the unconscious and in that journey the subject needs to confront his shadow and his anima, though this book, thus far, doesn’t seem to have those factors. I wonder if it is (I am halfway done) that these thigns are not there because of the rotten state of affiars the unconscious is in, with its ash and destruction. The Road represents an unconscious without the proper myths to order it, without the proper language and signification to identify these objects of the unconscious that need to be confronted.

But my mind now feels like McCarthy’s Road– an apocalyptic vision of things under ash, dead forest, lost highways that crazy, starving cannibals roam eating up any signs of life and imprisoning people. The question becomes: can we learn anything about ourselves if we are by ourself without an other to refelct me and show me to myself? Can one (in Jungian terms) become self-actualized if the unconscious is broken of its symbols and shadow and anima that are supposed to be there and need to be confronted?

Maybe, my brain will be working by the time i finish the second half of the book, and maybe I can get to more reading and writing once this crazy holiday season is over… And maybe, this is my most fragmented ramblings yet…

Here is a poem by Byron that always reminds me of any apocalyptic visions

The Road, especially, with its images of a world where there is no food and people turn to eating each other reminds me of this poem:

The meagre by the meagre were devour’d,
Even dogs assail’d their masters, all save one,
And he was faithful to a corse, and kept
The birds and beasts and famish’d men at bay,
Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead
Lur’d their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,
But with a piteous and perpetual moan,
And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand
Which answer’d not with a caress—he died.

awareness-anthony-de-mello-paperback-cover-art

I just finished reading Anthony De Mello’s “Awareness.” It has been about ten years now that I have been interested in Eastern philosophy and thought: Buddhism, Taoism, Hindu thought, etc.. Within that, I have also been interested in psychology, and if it weren’t for the math and stats, I might have studied psychology instead of English.

De Mello’s book does a great job of mixing Eastern thought, Christian thought, psychology, and philosophy into this book (which took me so long to read because I was worried it was a little too “self-help”).

The book says nothing new, but for me, it is always good to be reminded of simple things I always forget. I tend to mix the “I” and the “me” as De Mello would put it. De Mello tells us that we need to be awakened– and this idea is a common one: most Eastern religions discuss samsara, delusion, being asleep, and that enlightenment, nirvana, God, is awakening to reality. This idea is repeated here.

The thing that we need to be awakened to is that we are attached to our delusions about life. How many of us always say, “I’ll be happy when….” But the condition (the when) comes, and then we are happy for a short period of time only to fall into unhappiness again. The first step, therefore, is to realize that we are our own obstacle to our happiness. That the idea of happiness is all in our head (“nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”).

What is continually repeated throughout the book is:
1) We must make the distinction between the “I” and the “me”– things do not happen to “me,” they happen to the ego, the I. The “I” is not depressed, the “I” is not happy, the “I’ is not anything, but we use this language that confuses us: “I am sad,” “I am happy,” but YOU are NOT “DEPRESSED”- you just are and that feeling will pass. Your emotions do not make up who you are.

De Mello says, “Problems exist only in the human mind” (80). Because we identify with our feelings. Because we try to change other people and depend on others for our happiness, and because we don’t even realize that we do these things.

2) Language is there for communication but is imperfect and leads to delusions. When we use language we categorize things, create concepts about things, talk about life imperfectly. This is an interesting point that goes along with the postmodern philosophy I have been reading. This idea also greatly reminds me of Emmanuel Levinas, who talks about totalizing language. It is also a point that Derrida makes: once we speak, there is distance, the trace permeates all our definitions; furthermore, once we put things into language, we bring in all our preconceived notions about the thing we are speaking and putting into words.

De Mello gives a great example here:

Words cannot give you reality. They only point, they only indicate. You use them as pointers to get to reality. But once you get there, your concepts are useless

Then he repeats the example a Hindu priest gave:

The ass that you mount and tha tyou use to travel to a house is not the means by which you enter the house. you use the concept to get there; then you dismount, you go beyond it” (123).

I would say that many of the other things that De Mello talks about in this book stem from this concept about language. Since language is a social, culturally shared thing, then all the other things we are attached to stem from using language in society. It is society that tell me that I have to succeed, get a pretty wife, have kids, have a good career, when in reality all you have to do is live, which brings me to number three:

3) Much like Taosim (and Buddhism to the extent that Buddhism uses Taoist beliefs), De Mello reminds us that life just is. WIth in that, the goal of life is just to live and go with the flow as he says, “Eternal life is now. We’re surrounded by it, like fish in the ocean, but we have no notion about it at all” (137).

His prescription of detachment (which isn’t really a prescription to do anything), so to detach from everything. This means from other people, from social constructions and concepts, from even religion and God. You do not need God, religion, or other people to be happy; in fact, these things just foster attachment, which leads to disappointment and unawareness.

The only thing to do is as the Buddhist say: unlearn something everyday. Lose your notions of what you think is going to make you happy and save you. De Mello, though, doesn’t give you any kind of real “method” to do this because a method would be just another part of the trap of society (I can’t help but to think of Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Invisible Monsters while reading this stuff. De Mello, like Tryler, suggest that once you get sick of being disappointed by people (because you depend on them for your happiness) then you will be able to be free without attachments. De Mello, like Brandy Alexander, lets us know that any way you can think of to escape the “trap” is part of the trap because we are so conditioned by society).

De Mello’s approach takes on a rather non-totalizing, psychological approach. There is no hope for change unless it comes from within and from an awakening/awareness. Rather than say ‘this is what you must do,’ De Mello suggest a couple of things that will help you wake up, such as, being aware of where your feelings are coming from, try to see the world from other’s perspective, realize that you are attached to wanting praise, acceptance, etc.

I feel my problem is that I am attached to wanting un-attachment. I am too concerned with wanting to “get it” with wanting to “wake up” that it gets in the way of being able to reach any kind of enlightenment. I am also selfish in my love– I want the other to want me and need me, which makes me want and need the other. But I am too attached to wanting to not want the other… It is a big mess really. But De Mello also lets us know that there is nothing you can “do.” You can only live and try to be aware of life– it reminds me of Tich Nhat Hahn’s idea of mindfulness. So… I guess I’ll stop doing…