School’s Out Forev… Oh Wait, We’re Back

So I’m back in college. This is an unexpected turn of events, but (not counting a brief and semi-disastrous stint in a graduate English program) my somewhat meandering 20180823_172911professional arc has passed through a place where it actually makes concrete sense to go back. And on August 16th I found myself back in a classroom with people who are almost literally half my age. Let’s just say this 21st-century classroom is a lot different even than the 21st-century classroom I was in when I was 18.

In a sort of sequel to what I saw on campus during my brief tenure working at a college, here’s 5 bits of advice (read curmudgeonly opinionating) that I’d offer my classmates this time around.

  1. Close your laptop. This means you, guy who sits in front of me and plays solitaire through half the class. I mean, at least you’re not looking at pornography, at which point I’d have to whack you over the head with my textbook (see point 3 below). Anyway, you or someone you know has paid upwards of $2000 for you to sit in this course, which breaks down to this hour costing around $70. If you want to pay someone $70 for wifi and a place to sit for an hour, I’ll clean out my garage and get a Square swiper. Bring a friend.
  2. Seriously, close your laptop. Do the research. It’s not helping you learn and it’s likely inhibiting you from learning. Take notes on paper. You’ll remember them more clearly.
  3. Spring for the real textbook. This semester has been my first exposure to the abomination that is the eTextbook. At least the version I’m using from McGraw Hill seems to actually function as though reduced comprehension were an intended goal from the outset. For one, it greys out what it considers unnecessary text. Useless stuff like the intro paragraph to each chapter that frames everything you’re about to read and offers an outline. It’s a built-in layer of disengagement.
    McGraw Hill also offers something called Smartbook Learn Smart (Which, give me a break with the redundancy. If you have to insist twice in three words that your gadget is “smart”, well, color me dubious.) It’s basically a series of quiz questions that pop up while you’re reading. To keep you engaged, I guess. Some small quibbles, though. Like the questions run out before the chapter ends so you can “finish” without finishing. And there’s that issue of literally, in the book itself, teaching to the test. It actively trains your brain to glean just enough facts to escape its clutches. All told, it’s shallow comprehension and minimal retention. And it’s a pain in the ass to navigate, hence the longing to escape. You can keep your keyword searches and just let me scan the chapter. Learning happens in the fringes, too.

    1. This brings up a broader point about college as a whole. It’s a great place to learn and it’s filled with smart people from which to do so. But, the university as an institution cannot deliver learning. What it delivers institution wise is a GPA, which is a shorthand for performance that can be strikingly divorced from what you actually leave college knowing. It’s been my experience as a hiring manager out in The Real World that GPA doesn’t mean much on a resume. It really only matters to grad schools. Do what you have to do to keep your scholarships/athletic eligibility/position yourself for more education or whatever, but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll be out there building a life from what you learned long after anybody cares about your transcript.
  4. Don’t bother taking a picture of the white board with your phone at the end of class. If you can even find that photo in the avalanche of selfies and other ad hoc photojournalism of your college life, it’ll just be a meaningless bunch of scribble on a wall. Take your own notes. See point 2 above. And, because I love pointing people to Wendell Berry, give this a read. Especially the last 10 paragraphs or so.
  5. Ask questions. Forget the stuff about “No such thing as a stupid question” and “If you have a question, someone else probably does, too.” Filling in gaps is the lowest purpose a good question can serve. If not more importantly, at least more conscientiously, questions make professors feel like they’re in a room with fellow humans who care about what’s going on. Having done a stint in front of a classroom, engagement is one of the best services you can offer any teacher. But, also, asking questions disrupts the lecture in important ways. It opens the door into a different part of your professor’s brain. Not the part delivering prepared material, but the live creativity. Considering that your professor got their job for a reason, this is probably my only really good advice. Try to access that part of any professor’s mind as often as you can.

Outside the classroom, I can’t really help you. I’m doing by best to keep up with a marriage, two rowdy boys, two even rowdier dogs, the job for which I’m going back to school to do better, a first-floor renovation at my house, and occasionally writing something so I don’t get kicked out of my writing group. I can not even imagine the world of a true college freshman anymore so I won’t pretend to have anything worthwhile to say. But in that classroom, we’re on the same page together. Think about making it a paper one.

Excerpt: Blue Planet II

I recently wrote an essay about the excellent BBC documentary Blue Planet II for Think Christian. Here’s a snippet. You can read the full thing here. Viva la mer!

To understand the consequences of our authority and vulnerability run amok, we must start with a sense of the glory of our only world. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved nature documentaries. When I first encountered Blue Planet, the David Attenborough-narrated BBC masterpiece, I was captivated. Now, 17 years later, we have Blue Planet II, a fascinating sequel balancing delight in the wonder of creation, and lamenting the role humans have played in its destruction.

Each episode of Blue Planet II reveals a window into a world usually hidden from view below the water. Racing pods of dolphins joining schools of tuna and pods of whales to feast in the vast open ocean. Teams of sea lions hunting fish in the rocky lagoons of the Galapagos. The first glimpse ever at the teeming life on the Antarctic sea floor. The entire series resounds with the wonder and intricacy of God’s creation.

Olympic Dreams

Jacques Ellul once said that once a movement becomes an institution, it’s dead. He was talking about the dangers of locking faith up in a bureaucratic, self-preserving power structure, but I think his words have a ring to them when you think about the Olympics and other “amateur” sports organizations (ahem, NCAA anything).

There’s a charm to the idea of the Olympics–competitors from around the world gathering every few years to compete at games and showcase all the crazy and amazing things the human body can do. I mean, I mostly hate figure skating, but it’s still amazing that people can strap knife blades to their feet and zip around the ice jumping and spinning without breaking an ankle or cracking their skull open. (It’s all the arm waving and dancy fingers that lose me). And there’s the second-hand exhilaration watching a skier go airborn as they fly down a mountain right on the edge of disaster (not to mention the ugly thrill when someone crosses that border in a tumbling heap).

That’s the legend of the Olympics. The reality is a little less satisfying. The Olympics™ has become an ultra-competitive business. There’s the IOC, plagued with accusations of graft as less-than-reputable nations grease the wheels of the bidding system to get that legitimizing feather in the cap of Western media descending and fawning over their culture and turning a collective blind eye to whatever doesn’t fit the feel-good narrative packaged for the viewers back home. Then there’s weird decisions like barring the French skiing team from putting a small sticker on their helmets to honor their friend who died in training while over on the snowboard slopes, brand names and logos festoon the bottom of every board.

Then there are the athletes. The number of stories I’ve heard of athletes changing their citizenship to whichever country will give them the Olympic stage has been disenchanting to say the least. And what of the apparently high socioeconomic bar for Olympic athletes? How many athletes will we never see because they don’t have the money to build a ski slope in their back yard and they don’t have access to wind tunnel training to improve their aerodynamics and they don’t have someone to drive the 5 hours into the mountains for private training on the regular and they don’t have access to the array of nutritionists and trainers and balance coaches and personal sports psychologists and myriad other personnel that spread in the wake of elite athletes like the human train of an immense veil?

And this, I think, is Ellul’s point. The Olympics started as a movement, but the whiff of glory and, more alluringly, dollars has attracted a crippling amount of interests. Maybe this is simply the curse of human endeavor–every good thing eventually attracts the appetites that will crush it. And maybe this is the blessing of the human spirit–ever inventive enough to devise new good things that have not been discovered and mined yet. Sitting in front of whatever coverage NBC decides I’d find most attractive, I find the Olympic myth harder to see in the Olympic machine. It feels like time for a fresh movement. I wonder where the new thing will come from.

*     *     *

In honor of the ragged Olympic spirit, here’s Pearl Jam at their most puerile offering their own thoughts on the ’96 Atlanta games.

Excerpt: Embodied Psalms

I recently wrote a short piece for Think Christian about a less recent mountain biking excursion with my oldest son. The ride was as near a perfect afternoon as I’ve had with him and I’m pleased with how my short essay turned out. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Riding in the slipstream of an almost 7-year-old’s exhilaration as we sped through Louisville’s Turkey Run Park, it clicked that mountain biking is like an embodied psalm. I watched my son, the boy whom, for better or worse, I am helping to mold, and I saw him in a way similar to how God my Father might see me when I, his child, take joy in what he provides. At the same time, I could look at the beauty of the land—the hills, the trees, the creek, the occasional panicked squirrel—and be humbled by the expanse of God’s promiscuous outpouring of creativity. And what are the psalms but attempts to see the world like God sees it, while also bowing before his greatness?

You can read the rest here. And while you’re there, check out their other good work.