Wednesday, December 6, 2017

'Tis the Season

Well, it’s that time of year again—the festive lights shine bright, the holiday music pumps out over every available sound system, and a familiar early-December refrain greets my ears on at least a twice-daily basis.

“I really need to pass this class.”

With final exams and the end of the semester bearing down on them, many of my students are now in full-on panic mode. The Reckoning is here, and all the missed classes, botched quizzes, and didn’t-bother-to-do-the-readings are knocking at their doors.

In all honesty, I never gave much thought to my students’ “I really need to pass” before; I would typically dismiss it with a shrug or an offer to go over their grade with them. But I’ve been thinking about it more and more lately, and I have a new response that I can’t wait to try out.

“Why tell me?”

There’s a big assumption underlying their statement that I can’t ignore. When they tell me that they need to pass my class, what they’re really doing is transferring the responsibility of their grade—of their education—over to me. They’re saying, You alone can pass me…please do so. But I’m not Santa Claus with a bagful of passing grades, and what they need to realize is that I’m not the one they should be talking to. Instead, early in the semester and then over and over again throughout it, they need to repeat “I need to pass” to themselves.

And then act accordingly.

What does “act accordingly” mean? Here are a few observations that may offer a clue: it’s never the students who show up every day who say “I need to pass.” It’s never the ones who bother to read the material, or who engage in class discussion, or who come to my office hours to go over assignments, or who manage to stay awake and off their phones during class. It’s the ones who mistakenly believe that the “opportunity” to earn a degree is the same as the “right” to have one, the ones who think that simply having a seat in the classroom is enough.

The fact of the matter is that the stakes (not to mention the costs) of education are at an all-time high, and the margin for error is slimmer than ever. Assuming a student can even complete a degree—much more the exception than the rule for the underprepared multitudes emerging from high school today—there’s still a job to find after graduation, and if you’re saddled with debt, then that job had better be a pretty good one. But those jobs are in short supply, and if you’re competing with huge numbers of applicants, you’d better set yourself apart from the crowd with some important basics, like having a strong work ethic and being the person who cares most about your education.

So to any students reading this who have ever told (or continue to tell) your professors that you “need to pass,” here’s a suggestion for a New Year’s resolution: make sure you tell it to the right person.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

In Memoriam

How do we handle loss? We’ve all felt it ourselves, or stood next to it, or watched it unravel the lives of strangers. But what do we do with it? Where do we put it?

In several of my classes this year (2018) and last (2017), we read Amy Waldman’s 2011 novel, The Submission, a book that examines the depths of loss and the tensions that arise in attempting to acknowledge and contain it. The setup for the book is pretty simple: it’s two years after 9/11, and a committee has been formed to select a winner for a nationwide contest to design a memorial to those killed in the attacks. It’s a blind competition, so no one knows anything about the designers until one is selected. The committee chooses the winning design, and the designer is revealed. His name is Mohammad Khan, and he’s a Muslim. Naturally, controversies unfold and lives are damaged--some irrevocably.

Amidst these controversies, several issues emerge, and our discussions have tried to address all of them. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on two: the complexities of public memory and the purpose of memorials. Khan’s design—a garden laid out according to rigid geometry—is meant as a public monument that will contain and reflect the personal memories and emotions of those affected. But given the plurality (and sometimes cross-purposes) of these memories and the racial tensions in our society, the difficulties of this task become too much to overcome.

And yet, these characters need to remember the dead, to offer some memorial to them, to gain closure and begin to heal. In one scene, near the end, a character honors his dead father by placing a small stone cairn in the corner of a garden. Waldman writes, “With a pile of stones, he had written a name.” The gesture is minor but meaningful. It is, in fact, the only real act of memorializing in a 300-plus page book about a memorial.

To connect more closely with the spirit of this character’s act, I decided that my students and I should create a memorial of our own—one that would be both individual and collective. So I bought a couple of bags of river rock at Lowe’s, hauled them to class in a bucket (nearly dislocating my shoulder in the process), and asked each student to take a few and place them somewhere on campus in memory of a family member, friend, or pet. After they found their spot and “wrote a name with a pile of rocks,” they took a picture and sent it to me with the name of the person memorialized. The rocks were meant to transform our campus into a group memorial comprised of individual acts of remembrance. And because people or weather or time will undoubtedly unstack these rocks, the pictures were meant to make permanent our memorial (as only the Internet can).

So here I present the memorial created by my Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 “Introduction to Literature” and “Critical Thinking through Literature” classes, a collection of pictures, stones, names, and stories (these appear down in the “Comments” section of this post):

Barbara Ann Neely

Andrea Nunez


Milo Fantone

Grandma Kiki

Rodolfo De La Torre

Chase Butterbean Robertson

Grandma Susanne

Martin Lopez

Thomasa Butler

All the Victims of School Shootings

Oscar Sotelo

Corporal Adam Wolff

Grandma Eunice

Art Vogel

Teresita Lozaro

Danita Raminha

Dwayne Drakeford

Michael Kahl

Nancy Carrol Nolan

Grandpa Bill

Grandpa Daniel


Nicacio Carapia

Jesus Gutierrez

Eileen Bender

Caliope Diacantaonis

Barbara Maple

Denise Delossantos


Joseph Tamborelli

Haley Knoll

Elton Gregory Joseph

Virgilio Lopez

Barbra Racheck

Uncle Mike

Jesus Hernandez

Byeonghyeon Min

Cliff Wenzlick

Daniela Pereyda, Francisco Malfavon, and Muffy

All the people I can't forget

Anna Marie and Porter Meisland


Burl Dean Ellis




Darrell Von Driska


Kitty Hart



John Gillmore



Doug Durrant (1st)
Doug Durrant (2nd)

Homero Perez

Carlos Preciado

Martin and Kai

Lexi Dale

Mina Sabeghi


Rajih Maida and Menum Barakat

Aunt Chansey

Adrian Avila

Ralph Richter


Rosa Garcia

Mike Kinsella

Gerald M. Bloomfield II


Olivia McClellan

Thomas Zielinski

Thomas Versaci



Ernesto Edraisa


Garland Ayers

Richard Peterson (Grandpa Pete)

Joy Smith


Brendon Arce


Victims of the Las Vegas shooting (1st)

Victims of the Las Vegas shooting (2nd)