David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Because Lumps Of Coal Are A Bit Obvious

November 28, 2017

I discovered a rather innocuous podcast transcript this week about gifts for administrators.  Maybe the conversation was too focused on secondary education administrators: I wouldn't turn down baked goods (delayed or not delayed), although my doctor inevitably will tell me I should.  However, I barely kept my own child's artwork and might have to question someone's judgment for giving me a subscription to a "cool tech tool."

Here's what I think a higher education administrator would love as a gift: An opportunity to guest lecture/participate in a class. 

Most of us got out of the classroom for reasons that had nothing to do with why we went into the classroom initially (obviously, I am talking about teachers who became administrators and not so much administrators who used teaching to get to administration).  I have been lucky enough to visit multiple classrooms this semester, whether to teach the game of racquetball, to lecture on the place of punk music in popular culture, or as is the case this week, collaborating with a drawing class on the ways we might visualize music. 

Each of those scenarios reminds me why so many of us get into teaching. 

With the racquetball, watching skeptical students become interested students as the overview lecture of the sport turns into hands-on learning is wonderful. To be able to say, every time, "that is why I tell you to never turn around to see where the ball went," as players roll around the floor laughing at a classmate's reaction to a ball coming right at them.   To be able, every time, to take on the one kid who thinks he is good enough to challenge someone who has played for 40 years.  To be able, every time, to see days later, students checking out the racquetball equipment for follow up play.  To open someone's eyes to a new activity that can only help their cardio and their mood is a gift.

With the punk lecture, it is that series of looks of shock that are guaranteed.  First one: how can this executive in a suit (or at least a tie) be a former punk? (O.k., I never really was, but my point with the lecture is that I am the embodiment of how popular culture typically wanes. Once some suburbanite, middle-class white kid gloms onto some movement, that movement is past its prime.)

Second one: were people really forced to listen to Captain & Tennille, Neil Sedaka and John Denver over and over in the early 70's?  Oh, yeah, buddy!  You don't know how hard it was to have only a few television channels and crappy 70's radio.  More importantly, you now know why the punks had to rebel against the music of the time. 

Third shock, describing an Iggy Pop performance, especially the slashing of his bare chest with a broken beer bottle (or if I am particularly wound up, pointing out that Iggy was fond of showing his Johnson during a concert).

Fourth shock, any of the Sex Pistols, Clash, or Damned clips that show guitar smashing, stage diving, fighting, spitting, or any of the other defining characteristics of a punk concert. Somehow for me, that is the most rewarding of the cycle of shock in this presentation. This VP in a suit engaged in this kind of activity?  On a good day, I will 'fess up that for me, punk was buying a hideous stained used tuxedo jacket and pogoing to The Jetsons, Morgantown's ersatz punk and new wave band.  On a bad day, I won't and I will let them carry that image with them for awhile.  (Maybe I am confusing good days and bad days here!)  In short, to appeal to students through common elements of youth frustrations, indifference, anger so that they learn about something from the past -- that is a gift.

And then the art collaboration.  Watching other people's creativity at work is my educational experience.  I got to play the morning DJ at WSMC (o.k., actually afternoon DJ, but Harry Chapin didn't sing that reference) for an introduction to a project about turning music into visuals.  The faculty member reviewed the historical context of Georgia O'Keefe, Wassily Kandinsky, and John Cage (among others) and then students created designs while I played "Crosseyed and Painless" (Talking Heads), "What's The Frequency, Kenneth" (REM), "Pandora" (The Cocteau Twins), and, when I had the time, "Laid" (James).  As I told the students, as I writer I know I am frustrated by the limitations of words and have great envy of the visual artist and musical artist who seem able to expand their creativity more broadly, forgetting, sometimes just temporarily, that the musician, too, probably envies the artist (and maybe the writer), while the artist envies the writer and the musician. 

In the end, the students produced some fascinating pieces: Fascinating because we could see recurring themes; fascinating because they often shared common visions of the songs; fascinating because they could see their own limitations as dictated by their own tastes in music.  I left the classes deeply humbled but reminded, as I told one class putting on my metaphorical higher education administrator hat, that their struggles with this project, perhaps even what they perceived as their failures, were exactly what education was about.  Now when they go to do their own playlists--the specific project for the class--that have learned something about their own limitations.  And that was a gift to me.

So, there's the crazy thing.  The best gift I can get this holiday season is one that reminds me of my own limitations.  One class session is hardly enough to instruct how to play racquetball with any skill; so how do we build on that?  I literally ran out of time for my punk lectures both times, meaning I had to cut short on Sex Pistols' footage.  Let alone, I never had the chance to take the students to Los Angeles and the music of X, or to Cleveland, of all places, and The Dead Boys.  Yet these are limitations I can live with, not the kind of sleep-preventing limitations that occupy every minute of an administrator's day.

I guess all I need are a few more guest teaching gigs and my cup would runneth over.

Maybe by the time I retire, I will have completed the Administrative 12 Days of Christmas:

On the first day of Christmas you can give to me - a racquetball demonstration

On the second day of Christmas you can give to me - 2 hours for punk and a racquetball demonstration

On the third day of Christmas you can give to me --3 songs to DJ, 2 hours for punk and a racquetball demonstration

Not sure what to hope for on a fourth day of Christmas?

  • 4 observations from the hospital bed to nursing students?
  • 4 depictions of tenements to sociology students?
  • 4 painful hours spent at a Scientology recruitment office to religion students?
  • 4 poems about religion from an agnostic to religion (or creative writing) students?
  • 4 blogs about higher education to education students?
  • 4 failed leadership models to business students? (Oh, wait, I better save that one for the 12th day of Christmas.)

No need to wrap these for me.  Dealing with the paper is why I got out of the classroom.