Saturday, April 26, 2014


So, this fairly well-known pundit from a national magazine has just been to Deep South State, and has been blogging about his visit here. I mean right here. You can see the sign to Misnomer U. in one of his photos.

He seems to have liked the place, which is good, I guess. Still, it feels odd, seeing pictures of the place where one lives at National Magazine's website, and reading about how surprised Fairly Well-Known Pundit is that you can actually get decent beer around here. There is a strong undercurrent of This Is Real America, "real America" being defined as "places where people who write for National Magazine don't live." (There is not really any indication in the blog posts that writers and artists and professors do live here, although there is a whole lot about our local steel mill. Also, no particular indication that Fairly Well-Known Pundit expects anyone living here to read his stuff, although of course we have been; my colleagues have been sharing them all over Facebook.)

I feel a little ... exoticized. Maybe more so because I grew up in the world inhabited by National Magazine's target demographic, which is, basically, upper-middle-class urban east-coasters. My dad subscribes. Shoot, I won their cryptic crossword contest once when I was a teenager. And now it seems that I live in a place that is very, very strange to most National Magazine readers, and of course I knew I was leaving the world where I grew up behind when I chose this career (it is fair to say that was part of the attraction), but it's being brought home to me how far behind I've left it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Bianca and Kate: a Misnomer U story

I've been in two minds about whether to post about this, but about a month and a half ago, one of our study abroad students -- I'll call her Bianca -- started making noises about possibly having to withdraw from the trip. This alarmed us considerably, since we were already at minimum numbers. Bianca offered no further explanation, but her friend, Kate, eventually turned up in my co-leader's office to explain that Bianca's family was in grave financial difficulty, and that while she had been able to scrape together (just) enough to make the payments, she wasn't sure she'd be able to buy textbooks, food, or anything else while we were away. To compound matters, some of her family were opposed to her spending money on what they saw as a luxury.

Bianca is a good student, but very quiet. Kate is the opposite, loud and brash and confident. It appeared that Kate had actually lent Bianca some of the money that she had been using to make the payments. Bianca, she explained, never got to do fun things like this, and Kate didn't really need the money right now. I don't know Kate's exact background, but I went out for tapas with her and her uncle once (because that is the sort of thing that happens sometimes at small colleges), and they struck me as probably very comfortably upper-middle-class. Kate, I think, had an upbringing that lent her a much more expansive sense of what is possible, and surmised that the faculty might be able to do something about Bianca's situation if they knew about it. And -- again because this is the sort of thing that happens at small colleges -- she was absolutely correct. We went to the Dean, who is AWESOME and immediately offered to buy the books himself, and to the chair of my department (because Bianca is one of our majors, but also because my chair knows everybody and can pull a lot of strings). They swung into action, and the upshot is that Bianca should have a fair chunk of emergency-scholarship money coming to cover her living expenses. Happy ending. (The sum of money, I should note, is in the three-digit range -- the sort of amount that seems big when you're a college student but laughably small later in life.)

So, a couple of things about this story: First, of course, it wouldn't happen at a state flagship university. You need to be at a place with a short enough chain of command, and a dean who knows individual students, and is willing to go to bat for them. You also need a few people who see travel, and all those other little enriching experiences, as an integral part of educating students. So, not the kind of thing that happens at a totally no-frills institution either, although I think no-frills colleges serve a useful purpose.

But more than all that, this story doesn't have a happy ending without Kate. And that, I think, is the real virtue of an institution like ours -- a public liberal arts college, not super-exclusive but academically solid. We're accessible to the Biancas, but we're also attractive to the Kates, and we're small enough that they'll meet up and befriend each other instead of stratifying into their own little cliques by the end of freshman orientation. And when students from different backgrounds come together, some pretty awesome things can happen. But it seems to me that they happened more often a generation ago, and are likely to happen less in the future -- because there are such big, class-based differences in colleges people aspire to attend in the first place, and as tuition goes up and up, the message from the media is increasingly becoming elites to the fancy R1s, plebes to the community colleges and for-profits, nothing in the middle.

But for now? We have a little space where the Biancas and Kates can and do meet, and where there are several people committed to making sure Bianca gets the chance to travel outside of the country for the first time in her life. And I'm proud to work in that little space. That is something.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fleeing the country (with students)

So, I have not been blogging about this because I didn't want to jinx it, and it has been touch and go whether we could get and keep enough students for the trip to make, but I think it is time to make it official: In less than two months, a colleague and I will be leading our first study abroad trip. We'll be flying out of Nearest Large City to our destination -- let's call it Green Country* -- spending a few days in the capital city hitting the tourist sites pretty heavily, going to Quieter City and staying there for three weeks, and then heading back to the capital for another week before going home. Somewhere in there, we both teach accelerated summer-term classes. Mine, I must confess, is cobbled together from a single graduate course on Greenish literature that I took fifteen years ago and a few texts that I've taught in survey classes, and I am feeling massively underqualified to teach it -- but there has to be a first time for everything, and at least I do know a lot about figuring out the logistics of travel-on-the-cheap, which is certainly a relevant skill if not an academic one. Somehow I ended up in charge of all the budgeting and finances. (Yes, that is the sort of thing one might normally expect the study abroad office to handle. No, they don't. Long story.)

We originally planned this as an Honors trip, which would have come with a built-in audience with travel scholarships, but for various reasons that ended up not happening. So after recruiting like crazy, we're taking five non-Honors students from Misnomer U., and one retiree from the community who's coming along as an auditor, and one student from a neighboring university. That was exactly the number we needed for the trip to make, so we've been keeping our fingers crossed nobody would drop out. There isn't much of a culture of study abroad here outside of the Honors program, and most of the students don't have the money (nor are there scholarships available for non-Honors folk). But we made it. That feels like a triumph. And in the end, I'm glad that we're doing this outside of Honors. Because I love the Honors students, but they have so many opportunities handed to them that really should be available to all of our students, and this group has worked so hard to come up with the money themselves and find ways to make it all happen.

We just held an orientation session, in which we threw way too much information at our students and fielded questions ranging from the predictable ("Will I be old enough to drink in Green Country?"**) to the moderately wacky ("Can I bring an acoustic guitar in a gig bag?"***), and it's finally starting to feel real.

It's going to be interesting. Ever since grad school, I have been used to using travel as a way to get away from my everyday academic life, or even, secretly in my heart of hearts, regarding my academic life as a way to finance travel. And it has become a way to turn into a different person for a while, one who doesn't give a damn about student evaluations or readers reports, one who feels younger and less tied-down, takes bigger risks, strikes up quick friendships with strangers and then says goodbye as quickly. One thing I haven't ever tried to do is combine these two lives. (I'm wondering, now, what sort of teacher I will become in Green Country, where our classes will be taught here-there-and-everywhere -- in our lodgings, maybe outdoors sometimes, maybe in the pub -- and whether I will bring that teaching persona back with me.)

* No, not Greenland. We're nowhere near that exotic.
** Yes, you will. Hopefully you won't do anything stupid.
*** Well, you COULD, but we really aren't sure you want to.