I’m Pretty Sure I’ve Been Here Before

Life takes some incredible twists and turns.  About a million years ago, I was born in San Antonio, Texas, a city that’s a little bit America and a little bit Mexico, and then, back when I was still pooping in diapers, mom and dad carried me off to Garland, a suburb of Dallas.  Over the decades, I have had one or two opportunities to return to my birthplace, but only as a tourist and only for very brief visits.  Mostly, I’ve been estranged from the locale that could rightfully be called my hometown.

Then, in the latter days of September of 2015, a few months after I’d left my post at The American University in Cairo, a very sudden job offer in San Antonio came my way while Azza—my Egyptian wife of five years and new America émigré—and I were camped out with family, in their guest bedroom, in another part of the Lone Star State.  Of course, I signed on the dotted line, right where my new employer told me to.  We then loaded up, headed to south Texas, down where the beautiful language of Spanish is ubiquitously spoken, and set up house.

All these years later, I am back in San Antonio, the place where I (literally) got my start.  From time to time, when I’m tooling around the city, I get this weird déjà vu feeling.  As a matter of fact, this past weekend, Azza and I went to the San Antonio zoo, and while standing in front of the flamingo cage, I had this odd sensation that I had stood in this exact spot before.  The bird scene before me seemed bizarrely familiar.  I lifted my camera, took a few photos of the pink, hook-nosed birds, while goosebumps rose on my arms.

flamingo

We spent three hours among the animals and enjoyed our time more than I can accurately articulate here.  I’ve always been a nut for creatures—this nuttiness was especially acute when I was a tyke—and I felt that old delight resurface as we moved from cage to cage.  For some reason, on this particular outing, I especially liked the fish in their various watery enclosures.  They swam past us, flashing a zillion neon colors as they went.  In fact, I was so captivated by them it took me a while to actually notice that in one particularly large aquarium there were two hippos, their grotesquely large bodies magnified by the water, floating among those finned and gilled darters.

I’ve included a few photos here and am upset with myself that I didn’t get a good shot of the gibbons as they swung through the treetops, picked insects off on another, and otherwise reminded me of how humanlike they are.  While watching them do their monkey business, I got so enthralled—my mouth was probably agape—that I simply forgot to lift my camera and click the shutter.

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 9)

I have had a pretty unique job during most of my adult life.  I have been a teacher—for what seems like forever now—but I’ve never really been the sort who wanted my students to become more knowledgeable, which I associate with acquiring information.  Instead, I have tried to help them hone skills that promote wisdom or shrewdness.  In other words, I haven’t focused on what they should know but on how they should know.  “How” one knows is often referred to as thinking.

Most people believe that thinking comes naturally to everyone because we’re all born with brains.  It’s true we’re born with this organ, but there is a world of difference between run-of-the-mill thinking and critical thinking (or good thinking), just as there is a world of difference between the sounds made when my untrained fingers hit the keys of a piano and the music produced by a world-class concert pianist when his or her fingers touch the ivory.

There are a million things which interfere with good thinking.  At the moment, I don’t have time to get into all these factors.  The old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” explains one of the most important influences on our intellectual development.  Most grow up thinking in the same way their parents did and thus believing in the same things too.  Our parents are our first models and their influence leaves a deep imprint.  To be able to “fall far from the tree” requires that we have to, at some point, question our parents’ way of seeing the world and this takes great courage.  In fact, there is no activity in life that requires more bravery than to think critically because to do so one must sometimes say “no” when important others (or maybe even the whole community or world) is saying “yes.”  Saying no when others are saying yes can be costly or even dangerous.  It’s certainly easier (and more comfortable) to just go with the flow.

I’m thinking a lot about thinking these days because that’s what I do.  Plus, it is campaign season in America and that means the news is full of stories about powerful and ambitious people putting their thinking on display in an attempt to get others to vote for them.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just go ahead and tell you that politicians with the most progressive points of view generally tend to think a lot better—I’m not talking about their ideas, which I also find attractive, but about the methods they use to formulate their ideas and then state them to the public—than do conservatives.  Political conservatives—I actually like to call them “regressives”—make a lot of very classical thinking mistakes that many others might not catch because they aren’t trained to look for them the way I am.  In fact, regressive politicians often make arguments that simply leave me shaking my head.  The fact that so many Americans find such unskilled thinking attractive often makes me despair about the future of the country.

At this point I should probably tell you that I made myself a promise several years ago.  I promised to do whatever was necessary to become the best thinker I could possibly become even if this meant that I would ultimately have to embrace very unpopular ideas.  In my attempt to constantly improve myself intellectually, I often find myself butting heads with what is called “conventional wisdom,” which is mostly a first-rate oxymoron.

I want to conclude by reiterating something I said in a previous blog.  Critical thinking is a way of being.  It is a method of living life with great integrity.  It is not something I turn on and off at will.  It has become the way I conduct myself in this world.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 8)

I may have become a teacher by sheer accident, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to vigorously stand up for my profession or for my colleagues in the trenches.  By the way, many of these colleagues do incredibly important work under tremendous duress.

In “Teacher Autonomy Declined over Past Decline, New Data Shows,” Tim Walker writes that “classroom autonomy is a major factor in determining level of job satisfaction [among teachers]” because “it speaks to whether educators are treated as professionals.”  In other words, taking away teachers’ freedom of self-determination sends a very powerful message to those who are on the losing end of the stick.  It says we no longer trust you to make important decisions about how you do your work.  We think you are incapable of acting responsibly on your own or thinking for yourself.  We are worried that you’re going to do and say the wrong things.  So, to keep this from happening, we will provide you with a script and ask you to do nothing more than read from it.  Memorize your lines, and for heaven’s sake, don’t improvise.

Is it any wonder that so many teachers are feeling so demoralized?

Listen.  Teachers are not stupid people.  They have been educated in fine universities and deserve the sort of respect given to those with similar credentials who work in other fields.  This whole push to turn educators into functionaries (or automatons or script readers or whatever term you want to use) tells them everything they need to know about how their bosses view them.  If their “superiors” really thought they were entirely capable, then scripts and such wouldn’t be needed.  After all, a script is a kind of crutch that is given only to those who are deemed incapable of walking on their own.  Am I right?

This loss of autonomy isn’t just happening at public schools.  In fact, it happened at my last two university gigs—at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, and at The American University in Cairo, in Cairo, Egypt—places where I was hired to teach credit-bearing writing, research, critical reading and thinking courses to first and second-year students.  Though both cases were bad, the most grievous took place in Egypt.

When I was first hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, instructors were allowed to design they own courses as long as they helped students meet a broad set of learning objectives.  These educational goals included helping pupils become better thinkers as a result of developing their critical reading, writing, and research skills.  Everything was fine during my first two or three years in the department.  About the fourth year I was there, though, something began to change.  Someone (or some group)—decision-making was kept pretty opaque so none of us had any real idea who was pulling the strings—decided there was too much variety in the kinds of classes being offered.  (No evidence was provided to demonstrate that this variety was having any sort of detrimental effect on students or their abilities to function within the university.)  Anyway, eventually this decision led the department to create a very prescriptive course template that was handed out to all.  Teachers could still apply to design classes provided that their proposals met a very set narrow set of parameters, many of which made no sense to most of the faculty, especially to those with many years of teaching and course development experience.

I decided to play along and turned in a proposal only to have it rejected.  This came as a shock to me since I had been a successful course designer for more than twenty-five years.  Over these decades my creations had been looked at my many dozens of sets of eyes and had passed all sorts of scrutiny.  Additionally, many of my classes had been deemed so well put together and successful that they had been offered as models to other instructors, even to those in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at AUC, the very place that was now telling me my newest proposal was a failure.

So, for the first time in my professional life I was not allowed to create a course and ended up teaching from a syllabus that was simply handed to me.  Needless to say, I never really believed in the class—I’m a veteran who has trouble teaching unless I feel that I have “ownership” of the thing being taught.  I’m sure this lack of passion manifested itself in many visible ways, which meant students could feel, from day one, that my heart wasn’t fully involved in the project.

Two semesters later, I handed in a letter of resignation and shortly thereafter said goodbye to the school after seven years.  I was certainly not alone in my decision to leave.  As a matter of fact, the department lost twenty-five percent of its instructors the term I departed.  This, by the way, was an unprecedented loss and should have sent a strong message to those in charge.

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 7)

I think I’m having a midlife crisis. Some men, when they find themselves in a similar situation, go out and buy themselves a toupee or a snazzy sports car, but that’s not my way. My way is to sit down and write about my life as a teacher. I guess you could say that this blog has become therapy.

It’s funny (and a little scary too) how big of a role the workplace plays in turning us into the human beings we eventually become. My work certainly has played a key role in causing this crisis I’m facing.

This morning, when I was getting ready to step into the shower at 5 a.m. to get ready to go to work, I started thinking about my retirement. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the day when I can finally walk away from the classroom. That thought led to a memory of a conversation I recently had with a fellow who teaches at my current place of employment. He is seventy and still coming in, every day, to put in his six hours up in front of students. When I asked him about retirement, he said, “I tried that, for a while, but got bored, so I decided to start working again.”

FYI: Words you will never hear coming out of Troy Headrick’s mouth: “I got bored with retirement so I went back to work again.”

Yes, I’m sure I’m having a midlife crisis. I know this because I have little patience for silliness at work. I also have little tolerance for people who want to preach to me about how I should be doing my job. These “experts” are often about the age my children would be, if I had children. Lately, it’s been students who’ve been offering this “advice.” Would I use “anger” to describe my current mindset? Not really. I’m more like exasperated.

Lots of teachers end up getting beaten down by what our education system has become. Actually, come to think of it, it’s “schooling” that’s the problem, not education. There are important differences between the former and the latter. The former is what drives so many teachers crazy. Education is pure and wonderful. It sets us free. Schooling enslaves us. It turns us into bureaucratic idiots who have crises. The distinctions between these two is further clarified in this very interesting letter, written by Gerald J. Conti, a long-time teacher who finally decided to throw in the towel, primarily because schooling today is “data driven” and emphasizes teacher “conformity, standardization, testing, and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core.” Conti also points out that “creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled.”

One of the things that has bothered me over the years is this: Back when I was a serious learner, when I was in college and grad school, I could honestly say that I was engaged in something noble and enriching. But not long after I became a teacher, especially at the college and university levels, I got caught up in a system that was far too often dispiriting and demeaning. Like Conti, I had to begin focusing on petty things, which turned me into a petty person. Too much of my time was spent on learning how to navigate the territory of the academic department I was working for without getting into trouble. As a result, I got good at acting like a robot and playing workplace politics but almost forgot how to read and think. Meanwhile, I’d been hired to do reading and thinking with my students.

Right here, I’d like to insert an important qualifier. My current place of employment, the institute I’ve been working at for nearly half a year, has hired me to “train,” not “teach,” even though I work in a classroom. This difference in terminology suggests something important. There is not even a hint of pretentiousness at my new gig. What I do is very mechanical and straightforward, and thus the expectations are crystal clear. This allows administrators to be a lot more honest with me, and I, in return, can be honest with myself and my students. And, as the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy.

The university taught me how to think critically and to cherish such thinking. Then I went to work and listened to a zillion school administrators speak emotively about the importance of instilling critical thinking in students. (By the way, those who practice critical thinking are, de facto, required to question everything and to accept practices, ideas, and beliefs only after they have survived a very withering scrutiny.) This double standard—critical thinking is a good thing to ask others to do and to apply to everything except us and our institution—puts teachers in a bind. They are torn between the way they have taught themselves to live and think and how their bosses tell them to live and think. My last sentence raises an important point: Being a critical thinker is about how one lives in the world and interacts with reality. It is a mode of being. Critical thinking is not something I turn on and off like a light switch. I live it all the time.

I can see that I’m doing a little critical thinking right now and wonder if I should be praised or chastised for doing so?

That’s a very good question, one I’ll have to ponder awhile. As I do so, I can feel my crisis deepening…

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 6)

There were ten of us in Professor Randall’s philosophy class. The room could easily have seated fifty, so we were pretty spread out. It’s likely most of us were trying very hard to remain aloof (and perhaps even invisible) by putting as many desks as possible between ourselves and our nearest neighbors.

I, on the other hand, chose a seat right next to a buxom coed named Linda Louise Gartman, a nineteen-year-old from Iraan, Texas (spelled just like the Ayatollahs’ place but with an additional “a”). Her daddy owned a hardware store there—or maybe it was a Dairy Queen?—and she was studying business to prepare herself to partner up with him someday. Most of the other students were male—snuff-dipping types who likely drove pickups that sported Confederate flag decals—and were majoring in agriculture or some such. As for me, I was “undeclared” which is a collegiate way of saying “confused.” I had no idea what sort of work I’d be doing in the future and would have been shocked silly had anyone suggested that I’d end up being a teacher a few years into the future.

I chose my place in class because I liked Linda’s dirty-blond hair and the way her shirts fit. On about the second or third class meeting I put together a masterplan which involved me telling her my name and then saying a few perfectly chosen words that would cause her to fall in love with me. On the day I was to put my scheme into motion, I arrived early to class, slid into the desk next to her, and then froze up. No utterance would leave my mouth no matter how much I tried to push it out. Still, the sheer possibility that I might speak to her made me so hot and bothered that I had heart palpitations throughout the remainder of the class period.

The book the professor had us buy was full of excerpts from the great philosophy texts of yore. Not long into the semester, she assigned a piece that contained the “Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic, a text I highly recommend—I count it as one of the hundred most important books ever written. After reading and then discussing it, I could see that the ancient Greek philosopher had had people like me in mind when he wrote it. I was certainly one of those who’d been exposed, up until that point in time, to mere “shadows” flickering dimly upon a wall. In his allegory, Plato was arguing that philosophy can free our minds and lead us out of darkness and into the “sunshine” of greater enlightenment. The idea that I had spent my entire life living in a cave of ignorance caused my head to explode.

I’ve spent so much time on Dr. Randall’s course because it was pivotal. It was the beginning of the beginning for me. It was the class that inspired me to start thinking about what it might be like to live the life of a thinker. To do so, though, I’d have to continue to read texts that would challenge my existing worldview and so I’d have to register for other courses of a similar type. The class was also the end of the beginning. After my introduction to philosophy, there was no way I could remain an intellectual child. I was no longer willing to accept the conventional wisdom—passed off as genuine wisdom—that authority figures had been feeding me all my life.

The course was also memorable for two weird occurrences. The first happened when Dr. Randall asked me to read aloud in class on day. I started off fine, but once I began to take notice of my voice being projected out into quiet space of our classroom, I became queerly self-conscious and terrified in a way I cannot fully put into words. I began to choke up and could barely complete the reading. Luckily, Linda was absent that day. The second weird experience had to do with the young woman I’d been so attracted to from day one. Right at the end of the term, after nearly four months had passed without me saying much at all to the object of my desire, I made Linda an offer—I sort of blurted it out, really. I told her I’d be happy to drive her back to her dorm room if she was headed that way. She then smiled and said, “Would you really do that? That’s so sweet! Yes, I’ll take you up on the offer.” We then loaded up into whatever jalopy I happened to be driving at the time and took off.

After a short trip, I pulled up into a parking spot right behind what was called “The Women’s High Rise.” Linda gave me this telling look and said, “Thank you, Troy. You’re so sweet! I’m sorry I didn’t say this to you earlier,” shortly before leaning over and giving me a kiss on the cheek. Needless to say, I felt completely flabbergasted. After gathering my wits, I drove absentmindedly away. Because the term was almost over, I saw her once or twice more, but then, after the final exam, never again.

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 5)

I graduated from little Forsan High, in Forsan, Texas, way back when. To say the school was small is like saying that the Sahara Desert is a large area of land covered by sand.

There were twenty-one of us who received diplomas during commencement. It took the superintendent of schools—my mother had married the man not long after our arrival in West Texas so he was actually my step-father at the time—less than five minutes to call all our names and to distribute the fancily printed certificates of accomplishment. We then congregated in the vestibule of the auditorium, with our parents and the other guests still seated inside, and screamed our class chant, a thing we had artfully composed all by ourselves. It was basically an expletive-laced manifesto of how we’d just freed ourselves from tyranny and were about to conquer the world with our brains and good looks.

Of course, it took the world about five minutes to distribute all sorts of humbling experiences, which let us know, in no uncertain terms, that our existences actually meant nothing in the larger scheme of things no matter how clever or pretty we considered ourselves to be.

I left home and enrolled in a little university called Angelo State, located in San Angelo, Texas, which was just down Highway 87 from Forsan. I mostly went there because Dwayne Norton, my best friend in high school, had graduated two years earlier and was beckoning me to join him. That plus the town was loaded with bars and discos I really dug with an added bonus being that many of them featured twenty-five-cent-tequila-shot nights on a regular basis.

Up until that point in my life, I had been a good student, but not the sort who consulted with guidance counselors and such. In fact, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up—I still haven’t come up with any definitive conclusions yet—so I wasn’t one of these kids who goes to college with a plan and then follows it religiously. It was more important that I be near Dwayne and in a location where I could party like it was 1999.

I started off at ASU by taking a weird collection of courses that were all over the map. Then, just before the start of my second term, I needed to register for an elective, so I looked at the choices I was offered and picked a class called “Introduction to Philosophy.”

Our professor—I can’t precisely remember her name—but I can perfectly recall how she looked and spoke, was a woman from Belgium, which likely made her the first European I ever had contact with. Her last name might have been Randall—that doesn’t sound terribly Belgian though—and her first one could have been Janine or Jeanne. Anyway, she also taught French in the Department of Foreign Languages.

OK, so I’ll call her Professor Randall. She was probably about in her mid-40s at that time and had greying, curly hair. She wore plastic framed glasses, with thick lenses that magnified her eyes, which was very appropriate because she was able to see so much in the texts we read for class. She spoke with a slightly pinched and nasally voice and a strong French accent. But the thing about her I found most intriguing was her absolute courage. She said things in class that were brave and intended to shake our tiny bodies and minds to their cores—we were, after all, mostly kids from little towns who had never been exposed to any sort of real thinking or ideas in our entire lives.

I suppose it was her job to sort of pull the rug out from under us and she succeeded in that mission. I guess I’m being presumptuous speaking for my classmates—perhaps they all just sat there like giant, single-celled organisms and closed their minds to her talk and the texts—but I soaked it all up like a sponge that had never sipped a drop of water but had been waiting and waiting for the opportunity to do so.

Professor Randall kept pouring out those liquid ideas and I kept absorbing them so fast that I could feel that my mind was bloating. But it never did reach the point of supersaturation. There was always room to take in more and more.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 3)

I grew up just north of a tiny community called Georgetown, Texas, a sleepy place of approximately five thousand inhabitants. The nature of the village was such that it was easy for its citizens to live dreamy lives.

I have vivid recollections of the town, as it used to be before it became fast-paced and congested, before it became Austin’s premier bedroom community. Today, the town—it’s more of a city really—is on fire with development. The few old-timers who still live there speak wistfully of a slower and simpler past.

But, back in the day, it was a quiet village, filled with grand Victorian houses that were shaded by tall pecan trees. There was a stop sign or two and maybe a traffic light. People got their groceries at the little Piggly Wiggly and their clothes at Gold’s Department Store on the square. There were a handful of churches and every family attended one. The schools weren’t crowded, nor did they resemble the fortresses of security that we so frequently see today when we drive past one. I guess it was pretty much Central Texas’ version of Mayberry R.F.D. I realize I’ve dated myself some with that reference to The Andy Griffith Show spin-off. I remember a slew of other programs that are part of the lore of 1970s television. Such is the memory of a man my age.

When my parents broke up, I moved, with my mom and brother, to Forsan, Texas, with the result being that I left my life in a small town to start anew in an even tinier one.

The point of all this is that I came of age in conventional places where people never dreamed of entertaining thoughts that were the least bit radical. Most citizens of Georgetown or Forsan didn’t even know what they didn’t know. The vast majority of children grow up similarly, I suppose, in places like I’ve described. It is universally true that the family and the local community give us our shape. By “shape,” I also mean our “limits.”

When I went off to university, I was a small-town boy who was intellectually stunted due to no fault of my own. But because of the influence of those individuals I mentioned in my previous blog, I was also the fertile ground into which the seeds of all sorts of new ideas could be planted. So, when I registered for classes like philosophy, political science, sociology, psychology, and literature, strange flora began to sprout and the terrain of my mind was changed forever.