12 February 2007

My College & Late Onset Realism

A midwinter fable:

I blame it all on Martha Montgomery, my beautiful, charismatic, and brilliant philosophy professor. In a sophomore-level ethics course, she turned me on to Immanuel Kant's Metaphysics of Morals. From there I turned to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason--first with the old English translation by Mueller, then on to N.K Smith's translation and commentary, and finally (as a PhD candidate) auf Deutsch. It was a dirty, rotten, Enlightenment trick: the idea that we might shape a new world of reality based on the transcendental application of pure concepts.

So here I am, a broken post-Kantian in a decidely un-Kantian world. Hell, most allegedly college educated people don't even know who the fuck Kant was; let alone do they care what Kant said, or what the hopes of the Enlightenment were. At least I've finally admitted my Don Quixotean tilting at windmills, and resolved to stop it. My wife calls it "late onset realism."

The roots of this conversion lie in my 17 years as a professor with the little college known as My College. When I hired on, I fell in with a like-minded (i.e. delusional) bunch of faculty that actually thought we could change our college for the better. By "change for the better," I don't mean realistic notions such as increasing enrollment or making it easier for students to take a degree.

Though we were a dedicated bunch, we had very limited and narrow experience. Dave had been a liuetenant in the jungles of Vietnam, taken a couple of psychology degrees from diverse Californian universities, and worked as a statistician for the Forest Service. Bill had ruined himself with unrealistic expectations through his time at various high-powered colleges in California, Hawaii, and Colorado. In my case, there had been engineering & humanities (that should have tipped everyone off!) at Drexel, a MS in Science, Technology & Values (huh?) with the Human Dimensions Center (oh, pulleeeze!) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, five years running a lab with a million dollar budget at an oil refinery (well, at least that was promising), and then a PhD in the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology (yikes! who hired this guy?) at Cornell.

In retrospect, I should have been much happier (and successful, which after all equals happiness, right?) had I started teaching with the MS and then, if necessary, picked up a Dr.Ed. Ah, but we can't go back, can we?

Well, anyway, back to the story: there we were at My College--a bunch of individuals who thought they were just too smart, a bunch of individuals with a very narrow view of the world, a bunch of individuals with unrealistic expectations.

I should have listened when my Dean and Department Head, dear dear Tommy, told me: "No, you really don't need to be doing any research and publishing. In fact, I think it will harm your teaching. You can't serve two masters." Tommy was a homeboy. He grew up on the mean streets of Butte at a time when Butte really was a tough town. Tommy had played sports, taught K-12, and went on to become a college professor, dean, and department head. He never published anything, either. Smart guy. Happy guy.

As the expression goes, "No man is a prophet in his own land." That is true. But lots of non-prophets do just fine. If Thomas Wolfe hadn't got all caught up in all that fancy-schmancy literature and tried to be a prophet, he could have went home again and done just fine. Disney had it right, folks: Hakuna Matata,--don't worry, be happy... Remember, George Bush (The First) using the song in his 1988 campaign? Happy guy. Kindler, gentler. It's a vision thing. Puppies. A scintillating kind of fellow. A man who steps out of the shower to take a pee. Best president we ever had.

Well, anyway, back to the story: there we were, and just because we wanted to change things and make things better and all that crap we started a new program--an MS in Technical Communication. The idea had been kicked around for years, but the old guard in the old Humanities & Social Sciences Department would have none of it. The college president didn't like the idea either--it would be just another program that might accelerate the mission drift of the insitution away from its identify as The School of Mines. Foolishly, we sought allies at the mother ship--the University of Their College down the river at Missoula. Oh yeah, we won a lot of friends with that move. Nothing like going over your colleagues and your boss's head to get what you want. Won the battle. Lost the war.

And then came the creation of a new undergraduate program in Technical Communication, along with the formation of a new department as an act of seccession. Oh boy. More friends won. As a department born of a long agonistic process, we not only made enemies: we also inscribed our identity. Yes, we were the progressives, embodying metamorphosis, leading My College to a new, bright future. Maybe not. Maybe we were mere changelings, caught up in some self delusion of "progress" and "enlightenment."

Agonistic identity. It has not worked, and it has made us unhappy. It is not fun to be perceived as "negative" by your colleagues and by management. Never mind that in this Age of DisEnlightenment no one distinguishes between "critical" (oh, my dear Kant) and "negative." Yes, perception is reality. It's time to shed that identity, and to embrace something happier, something more realistic. Pretty simple: shut up and be a team-player; otherwise, you're negative.

When I first hired on at My College, I thought it remarkable that so many department heads and other management-types were homeboys. And when I think of the three most recently selected department heads (that I know of), they too are homies. There is good reason for this, primarily because it works. People who are locally embedded, share cultural markers, and "speak the same language" can network together effectively. In the local culture, Montana Tech is IT. There need be no silly comparisons with how things are done at other colleges. That which is foreign makes no sense, is not possible, has no intelligenge--like the bar-bar sounds of Persian language to the classic Greek ear. WE are the world. Whatever happens "away" is irrelevant. Autopoiesis.

Because I did not take any of my degrees at My College, I cannot really be native. But I have been here long enough as a sort of cultural anthropologist to figure things out. Here's a simple example: I cross country ski. But cross country skiing is not a Butte thing. As I traverse the trails of The Moulton, I meet Paul from Vermont, the Stierles from California, the guy from Austria, the Stickneys from Missoula, the Smiths from Texas, Rossi from California/Oregon, sundry young folks from Bozeman or Helena... You get the picture. I can recall meeting only one Butte native on the ski trails--and he has largely given up the sport. Cross country skiing, though it lends itself marvelously to the geography of the place, marks you as someone from "away." To the Butte ear, it is like the bar-bar nonsense to the Greek ear. Best you don't talk about it too much.

Well, when in Rome... Or Athens... Or Butte... Those who are from "away" can work at My College, but generally it is very difficult to become truly part of the institution in a way that allows you to change it. Unlike many other colleges where one rarely meets a homie, at My College it is a general rule. That is the reality. A small group of agonistic faculty is not going to change that.

With a new Vice Chancellor and, soon (according to the rumor mill--which at My College is an authoritative source), a new Chancellor, agonistic faculty who base their identify on how things are done elsewhere and who expect My College to conform to their model should wise up. There is a new slate, and a new opportunity. Embrace the force. Go with the flow. Don't worry, be happy...


Anonymous said...

yur gonna lose this one. best you give it up now. butte people move back here for different reasons than you. our family and friends are here. it's our home.we don't move here to hunt, fish and play in the woods. we don't need outsiders telling us how to live or how to run Montana Tech. you should be fired. go awauy if you don' like it.

Ed said...

What a great description of Butte and Montana Tech. It is the "homeboy" attitude of "our college" that convinced this Butte boy to leave Tech AND Butte. Heaven forbid either place should look to the outside world for new ideas. Instead, it is always "This is the way we have always done it so it must be right." So, I moved to Idaho to a town with blue collar roots built on a single industry (kind of sounds like Butte, huh?). However, this town has looked around to see what others have done to be successful. Now, this city has a growing population, a major university, many different industries, and an unemployment rate of just 3%. I wish some of the Butte and Tech "homies" could come down here and see how a simple town can improve itself. Maybe they could see how to make Butte into the type of city it could, and should, be.

Thanks for writing this piece. The first respondent (obviously an open-minded Butte native) may not agree with me, but I think you did a great job of saying what needed said.

Pat Munday said...

First of all, thank you Ed for your sympathy in this situation. I do think it is true that "No man can be a prophet in his own land." He can, however, be a prophet somewhere else! I wish you all good luck in Idaho.

As for the Anonymous post, please forgive me if I offended you. That was not my intention.

My intention was to express my own self-delusion in not fitting in with my adopted institution. After 17 years, I am not likely to leave My College. And since I'm staying, I'm determined to adapt to the way things are rather than continue in my Cervanesian efforts to change the situation.

Anonymous said...

I graduated in Mechanical a few years ago and took a job away from home. You could see the differences in the faculty. Some had never grew up and got away from home. I'm near Seattle and home to get back home but hopefully I'll bring these new perspectives home with me. I never got into the crosscountry ski thing but spent a lot of time at Discovery. Sure miss it. Ifound your blog searching Butte on the web and like it. Never took your class but like what you write. - BD

Pat Munday said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, BD. If you graduated in recent years, you might have met me--I facilitated some "Small Group Individual Diagnostic" sessions for a mech eng prof at his big lab near the COT. All good wishes, and may you find a job closer to home someday.

Eric E said...

Here I go again. Whenever you write about Tech, I can't help making the comparison to the other School of Mines. You're right, the homies hate comparisons, especially to CSM. But they'll never avoid it. CSM owes a lot of its success to a former president and fellow alum of yours from Rensaeler (I can never spell that). A lot of people hated him, becuase he was changing "their" school. Really, Tech should at least consider what its peer institutions like CSM did to thrive as the world changed around them. Even more instructive might be to consider what peer institutions did that destroyed core Mining- and Metallurgy-derived curricula like South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Michigan Tech, UNR.

I can't comment on your rebellion, since it happened after my time. Tommy was good guy, and it wasn't despite his Butte roots. But the Butte roots needed to be combined with outside influence, and that old HSS department was good at teaching humanities to engineering students. Thanks to Tommy, I know what the difference is between Jung, Skinner and Freud. And more importantly, I know "never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever hit a kid." That's a complex psychological concept, put in terms understandable on the corner of Platinum and Main.

Finally, thanks for reminiding me of the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. I still have that, complete with the yellow "USED" sticker! Haven't opened it in over 10 years, but it sits on my shelf, and if someone ever mentions Kant in casual conversation (I'm still waiting for that!), I'll know what to do.

Enough rambling in you comment pages. Sorry.

Pat Munday said...

Thank you, Eric E, for thoughtful comments from a broader world perspective and a few years distant from your home.

The old HSS dept did do a lot of good things 10 or 20 years ago, and I like to think the two new depts (Tech Comm & Liberal Studies) continue that good work today. It is, after all, what we as faculty live for.

The world (social and natural) does change. Species, individuals, and institutions change with it. As humans we strive to have some control over our destiny, but perhaps like long-suffering Odysseus our fate is in the hands of forces seen (at best) as through a glass darkly.