Tag Archives: college

‘I’d like to become an intellectual’: From the Writings of Younger Me

Below is a journal entry written when I was 18 years old and in my first year of college at Michigan Technological University. I’d been keeping a journal for a few months before this, but on this day I typed my journal on the laptop computer I’d just received (which, for the record and to make this seem an eon ago, was an IBM-brand with 2 megabytes of memory and a 120-megabyte hard drive, a computer that cost nearly $2,000). I was a computer science major then, and I was living away from home–eight hours north of home–for the first time. 

When I think now of how I felt then, I remember being lonely and overwhelmed, but I remind myself that there were good times, too. I’ve at times thought that I could write a memoir or a bildungsroman about those experiences, but whatever I’d write would be more artificial than the for-myself texts I wrote at that time. Reading this today, I’m struck by how much this does sound like my writing voice, albeit a less-experienced version of me. (I edited the journal entry below only minimally, to make reading smoother and to explain contexts.) However, I’m distant enough from these events that I feel like I’m reading someone else’s journal.

But this is what I wrote about my life at age 18 when I was age 18. I didn’t have the wisdom of looking back from an advanced age, but then, none of us have that wisdom as we are living our lives. These journal writings, then, are nonfiction that may have the flavor of a character monologue about them, the character being a me who is now distant from me. I have always (I think!) attempted to be honest in my journals, and as I publish these writings from my current perspective, I present them for readers to take at face value. I do not mean to endorse or criticize what these texts contain; I see these texts as valuable in their honesty of revealing a particular mindset from a particular time.

October 23, 1992

I got this awesome computer today and flunked my calc [quiz?] I was so excited. Pretty good day, but flawed. The bell of my tuba [the sousaphone I played in my university’s pep band] was bent when it fell off the bleachers [where we stood and played]. Some people got extensions on their program due dates–which bothered me a little, since I worked all last week on my program, but I guess it’s no big deal–I’ll have a chance to work on my program some more, too. This weekend is to be spent on homework. I’ll be glad when I go home – not so much because I get to visit the metropolis of Rochelle, but because I won’t have to do homework. Like I told mom the other day, I always have homework, or am feeling the constant threat of homework. Maybe I worry too much–I should probably relax more. Ran into Cute Trombone Girl tonight when a few of us [pep band members] went on a trip [stopping and playing] around the stadium. I thought about apologizing again, just to talk to her, but that seemed kinda lame, and it was (or would be). I’m not real worried though–I just try to put women out of my mind. It’s easier that way. First hockey game of the year tonight. I got tired of standing w/ tuba, but i’d better get used to it. I called home and talked to [my two-years-younger brother] Nace–still a slacker. I’m getting to be more of a slacker in calc. I almost want to get a ‘D’ so I can repeat it. A ‘C’ would be alright, too, but I’m going to drop down to regular calc 151 [from the honors calculus class I was in] anyway. Mom called back, but there was not a lot of time, and the hockey game was imminent. Not a lot of news, either. Homework is all I do, it seems. I do slack off sometimes, like today, when I played with my new computer and read [a magazine] instead of studying. I was just fried, however, from my whole week of constant homework. Next week won’t be much better. I think I’d like to become an intellectual. College sure has made me think more, about humans and life in general. I know I’d like to write fiction. Right now, authors seem demi-gods to me. I’d like to try writing anyway. I’d like my contribution to society to be something of art or literature, as opposed to the contributions of technology which surround us today. Well, I’d better go to sleep so I can get up tomorrow and do more homework.

Links: MOOCs aren’t education’s answer, teaching is hard

1. “The best educational technology we have is always our attention”: A theory why education is not going to “disrupt” education. In short: teaching’s a lot harder than any program can manage. Also by Paul Franz, this quote:

Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing. That’s especially dangerous in education because solving educational problems involves leveraging knowledge and expertise from pretty much every other social science (anthropology, economics, psychology, political science, etc), not to mention knowledge from content areas. Software might be good at categorizing and organizing knowledge, but it’s not so good at synthesizing and applying knowledge in the creative, and often highly contextualized and personalized, ways that educators and educational leaders have to employ every day.

2. An article I found via The Dish, is this one, which discusses why teachers have a tougher job than doctors, an interview with Elizabeth Green. She says:

With doctors, you just have one person that you’re working with, and they want to be there. With teachers, they have as many as 30 or more people they’re working with at one time, and some of them do not choose to be there.

Teachers have to be mind readers at the same time as they have to be incredibly interpersonally sophisticated. They have to be masters of emotional intelligence. And at the same they’re supposed to be teaching academic content. Even the most sophisticated practitioners that we can imagine — it’s still more complicated to be a teacher, I ended up thinking.

She also says that one reason classroom practice gets little attention comes from educational theorists:

The fathers of educational psychology, the first education school professors, were bored by classroom practice. Edward Thorndike, who set the tone for all future education researchers, said when somebody asked him what he would do in a particular real-life situation at a school, “Do? I’d resign!” I think that’s typical of a university system that focuses on disciplinary research — it’s the history of education, the psychology of education. It’s not education itself as a thing to study. That has meant that we train future teachers in everything but how to teach, pretty much.

She recommends that teachers be required to spend less time in their classrooms so they can learn and improve:

We don’t give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it’s 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that’s happening outside their own classroom.

They have no time to see each other teach. Other countries show that time is some of the most valuable time. When you get to have a common classroom experience to look at, then you get things like figuring out that “13 minus 9” is the very best problem to teach subtraction with borrowing. That kind of learning doesn’t happen in the US.

3. From the New Yorker, an article titled “What College Can’t Do” begins by discussing reverence for work or even overwork:

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.






Colleges aren’t monasteries. They can’t give their students spiritual sustenance; they can’t provide an escape from modernity. And they shouldn’t be faulted, or punished, for that.

I may not be loyal to you, Illinois

Lake Mendota, Madison, 6 Aug. 2013

Lake Mendota, Madison, 6 Aug. 2013

Enjoying the sunset and the locally made ice cream at the UW-Madison Union Terrace last night, my wife and I (as UIUC grads)  found it hard to sell our alma mater to a student who was considering attending a Big Ten (or “Big Variable” Conference, where “Ten” has an evolving, non-ten value) school. His priority seemed to be a school that has a reputation for winning athletic programs, and that’s not what Illinois is known for. (It’s better known as the birthplace both of HAL and of the Web browser, not to mention being the alma mater of Roger Ebert, Hugh Hefner, and Ron Swanson).

But I’m glad I went there for the latter five-eights of my undergrad semesters. I was taught by some good professors and some great T.A.s, learned a lot about writing and editing at The Daily Illini, and met terrific friends (including my wife — I got my “M.R.” degree, as well as my B.A., at Champaign-Urbana).

But, alas, those twin cities lack some of Madison’s features: Both are on water, but the Boneyard Creek (a stream so ugly it got paved over in Campustown) is no Lake Mendota. Madison’s rolling hills offer vistas; Champaign County is damned flat. Madison has a skyline and urban planning that connected the university to the state capitol via State Street; Champaign city exists only because the Illinois Central railroad passed two miles west of Urbana.

Maybe I’m just a little bitter that my wife keeps getting alumni mail from the university we both went to, but I get no such acknowledgement of my graduation. It’s no big deal, of course, but it’s just the kind of little indignancies I like to nurse and be petty about.

Also, I realized yesterday that I don’t own any Illinois-marked garments because, really, navy blue and orange aren’t my favorite colors.

I still recommend the University of Illinois to those of my students who can afford to go to a four-year college and who want a public school, but I’m not sure, with all the cutbacks in state aid over the last several years, that it’s still as good a school as the one I went to. On the other hand, I’m not sure anymore what it means to say a school is “good.”

The longer I’m a teacher myself (though at a high school), the more I see individual students having particular educational experiences that are not necessarily attributable to the school itself. Students having different teachers for the same course will have diverse experiences, and of course, students bring their own interests, abilities, cultures, values, and backgrounds to their own educations.

So I guess I’m not sure if it matters where one goes to college — or, let’s say, it probably matters in such profound and unknowable ways that it almost doesn’t matter where one goes, any more than it matters which shoes I wear today or which book I pick up at the bookstore. Whatever one does, one learns from it. I learned from attending two other colleges before transferring to UIUC that it’s OK to try things out and if they don’t feel right, to find something else.

And that’s one of those profound life lessons that nobody really teaches in a classroom in any college.

*Titular note explained here.

I dreamed this morning of transparent lobsters

This is nonfiction prose about a real dream whose content was, as usual, fictional.

A student came into 1st hour this morning and told me he had dreamed about me. I told him that I had dreamed this morning of transparent lobsters. He thought my honest answer was pretty amusing.

I was on a fishing boat with a wooden deck and only a railing between the deck edge and the water, and I was helping a woman in a rain coat (I’m not sure who she was), but there was a pile of sea creatures dumped on deck, as if from a net, and there were beige  ribbons of kelp and transparent crayfish-sized lobsters — see-through but substantial, like a jelly bean after its color candy coating has been cracked off and dissolved. Really, they could have been transparent crayfish instead of transparent lobsters, but I had the feeling/knowledge that I was in a saltwater setting rather than freshwater, and we were somehow near a dock, not more than a few feet off a dock, and we were hurrying to pick these transparent lobsters up before they crawled to the edge of the deck and dropped back to the water.

I’m not unaware that it’s boring to hear people’s dreams. There’s nothing at stake, of course. But this one above feels, for whatever reason, a bit poetic, or maybe that’s just me.

Writing about this dream reminds me that I wanted to post here the only poem I’ve published that was chosen by an editor who was not also me:

You know how in a dream you know it’s somebody

but it doesn’t look like him at all?

i met kerouac

a ride operator in a 2nd-rate theme


he was plump and balding

but young, looked about 30.

turns out it was some other jerk.

(By the way, I’m assuming I have the copyright here, not only because I signed no contract conferring those rights, but also because this was published in the student-run literary magazine of student work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, LittleAmerica, volume 27, in, I think, spring 1994. By the way, this magazine also contains three poems by a writer named Steve Elliott, whom I don’t remember meeting but who may be this Steve Elliott.)

The striking thing about this poem is that, by now, I don’t really remember having this dream and I don’t remember writing it, and what I do remember is finding these words (excepting the title) written in my handwriting from a few months before I submitted the poem. It was far better than the poems that I was trying to write consciously as poems, at the time. But then, and now, it seems to be something that passed through me, a poem that happened, and I’m not sure how I was involved.

And so, in this way, I am probably as close as I’ll ever get to being able to encounter my own work as another (not-me) reader would encounter it. I don’t mean this to sound egotistical, but I’ve been thinking lately that I wish I could read my own writings without the context that I can’t helping bringing to that reading act. Of course, it helps to let time pass before looking back, but even if the words feel new again to me, I know that they are my words, and for that reason alone I won’t be able to think about them the same as others’ words. This isn’t really a problem, per se, not a big deal, but an aspect of creating that maybe is inherent. On the other hand, nobody but me has the insider sense of my writing process and the changes in my pile of work, etc.

Links: Real art, fake science, philosophy nerds, etc.

There’s a bunch of links I want to post and comment on but they’re already getting days old and I gotta get this out:

1. An tale of an artist losing his artist’s voice in a move toward commercial success. I don’t think these two interests are always opposed, but I think it’s all too easy to subvert art to commerce.

2. On whether people are drawn to philosophy because they aren’t natural at enjoying life as they find it. Reminded me of this post of a couple years ago about some of the most remarkable thinkers becoming thinkers because they weren’t so good at understanding other people intuitively. Perhaps people turn to philosophy because they are less inclined to be social, but I’m also reminded of this recent theory — that “computational demands of living in large, complex societies that selected for large brains” — which would seem to suggest that philosophical thinking could be a social capacity turned in a new direction.  I’m not a scientist, but I do consider myself an introvert, and a little socializing fulfills me for quite a while. It sounds so selfish to talk about how interesting I find myself, how well I can occupy my own time, and yet …

3. Real science vs. fake science, a primer. Also, the TED institution considers fake science.

4. Poetry’s significance during U.S. Civil War era.

5. Mary Karr on meditation and ego.

6. The Dish picks out a couple interesting paragraphs from a piece about whether colleges can admit and educate artists. As someone who seen plenty of education (having earned my master’s degree, though a silly education one in the “arts of teaching,” and having taught high school for nearly 12 years), I’m tempted to say that the best thing schools can do is not impede true artists. Of course, teachers can introduce students to a wide range of things, some of which may “turn on” the student, many of which will not. But I was a student who mostly was glad that I could get by in my academic classes and still have free time to pursue my own interests in reading and writing. I suppose a school can teach a student to write like some other person, or to write to some standard of acceptable work, but I don’t know how a writer can become an artist — someone who really sees things in new ways, someone who challenges the status quo, the received wisdom, etc. — without doing so on one’s own. In fact, learning to rely on myself as my arbiter of what’s worth doing, of what’s valuable, seems like the most important step I had to go through as a writer. There’s probably more to say about this in a future post. And I don’t mean to deny that there could be more done by colleges to support creativity. I’ll have to think on this more.