I’ll briefly return from my blog hiatus to tell you a story. For me, stories always prioritize people because people should matter most in our narratives. This goes without saying when discussing a human and social good as vital and magical as education. Pictured above are two of my colleagues from UW Green Bay. Having worked in an institution that has directly benefited from their training, knowledge, passion, and humanity, I can say that they are everything you would want in educators and public servants. They are the teachers and role models I would want my children to have, that I would gleefully pay taxes to support. They flourish when most free to use their talents and intellect to educate people, to advise and mentor them. They make people’s lives better by, among many other things, helping to position them to succeed. This is not freedom that comes with micromanagement, paternalism, condescension, vilification, or bullying. This freedom is born from trust and respect, from a recognition that we want you to work for the citizens of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Idea. These ideas that you have, we support them and we trust you. Let’s turn you loose to make them a reality. That way, the future is bright.
On the right is Angela Bauer. She’s a biologist. A neuroscientist. Let me tell you a story about Angela, someone who cares deeply for student achievement. When she discovered a statistically verifiable achievement gap in her introductory science courses, especially among underrepresented students, she said “No, this is unacceptable.” She drew a line. She and a colleague set out to close that achievement gap while increasing the number of underrepresented students deciding to major in the sciences. After 10 years of verifiable achievement stagnation, Angela, with her mind and will and heart, turned that into 8 consecutive semesters of increased achievement and enrollment. She won the UW System Diversity Award for her efforts.
On the left is Bryan Vescio, my long-standing chair in the UW-Green Bay English department. I have gone on about Bryan in other posts, but let me provide the condensed version: English is one of the strongest programs on our campus because of his vision and leadership, and more importantly, students have gone on to success as a direct result of his mentorship. We have over 150 majors in a department that, at its peak, runs on six faculty members. Bryan protected no turf, encouraged ideas and growth, and reveled in our successes, all while writing books and being a leading scholar in more than one field. He was, in short, superlative, and, at his salary, one of the best bargains Wisconsin ever had.
Here’s another detail about the photo above: that is from today’s Convocation ceremony at High Point University in North Carolina. Angela and Bryan are gone now. Angela departed a few years ago, while Bryan is starting his new job this year. High Point is merely one small school recognizing that Wisconsin talent is ripe for the taking because the state that employs them despises them. Our state leadership brags about standing up to people like teachers, not standing up for them. Even the most minimal standards of respect and support withered on our vine many seasons ago. This is not an exaggeration. I know many will read the descriptions of these educators and their achievements and not care, or maybe offer a more profane version of “good riddance!” We’ve sacrificed the human story for the dry mythology of a purely vocational economy, the simplistic mythology of one-to-one correspondence, the statistical mythology of all results being immediate.
We did nothing to keep Angela and Bryan in Wisconsin. For legislators, such departures are a feature, not a bug. In terms of our own administration, Ray Cross said “thank you.” And thus the great Wisconsin fictions being written today arrive with titles such as “Why aren’t there enough teachers?”
But back to the human element. These people are gone. We miss them. Students miss them. Wisconsin natives and students who no longer have such great public servants at their disposal will miss them, even if they never knew who they were. Their communities miss them. Our local economies miss them. Their neighbors miss them. Austerity is the death of the imagination, and to imagine is the most human of characteristics, yet there is such contentment with letting our state’s leadership smother it, to chase all the dreamers away.
Should I write about, or directly to, Ray Cross? Our system president who is about to embark on another “listening session” tour? All of the willingness to listen coming after, rather than before, the time when such listening was vital? What can I possibly say? He could care less about me. I am beneath him. I expect to be reorganized and realigned away soon. Instead of another tirade, I’ll keep it short. President Cross, please change. Please let some of our idealism breathe again.
I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York, and lived in New York state until I was 22 years-old. I lived and died with Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills, OJ Simpson once gave me a bloody nose, and I could fall in love on the downtown waterfront, at dusk, even when the rats emerged from the stones of the breakwall.
When I was 17, I showed up at SUNY Buffalo and was a bad, under-prepared student from a public high school with a reputation (Bennett Tigers!). I had no idea what I wanted to do or what an English department was. SUNY accepted me because they accepted Buffalo kids and believed in educating the people of their state. I received a Pell grant and other need-based financial aid, or else I couldn’t have gone (I was going to ask my uncle for work in his transmission shop). Tuition was less than a thousand dollars.
Eventually I wandered into an English department, asked some guy named Robert Creeley for directions, who sent me to some guy named Leslie Fiedler, who said I needed to go downstairs to Carl Dennis, Susan Howe, Raymond Federman, Barbara Bono, and Max Wickert. All tenured, well-paid, supported state employees. Looking back now, this all seems like a complete accident, serendipity at its most immaculate. How do you walk into Robert Creeley’s office and not know who he is, as a professed reader of poetry? After admitting this to you, I barely deserve to live.
It was no accident. It was public education, exactly as designed by the generations before, waiting for me. It completely saved and changed my life and all I had to do was be alive and show up. I didn’t have “skin in the game” beyond my mom paying taxes. Nobody talked to me about “the needs of business” and “time to degree.” No one pushed me to work sixty hours a week and then take my education “at my own pace!” while chained to a screen. I floundered for two years, righted my ship, and started kicking ass. Barbara Bono, mistress of Shakespeare, single-handedly made me believe in myself and that I could go on with my studies past a B.A. Again, I was allowed this just because I was there, as a person, with interests. I hadn’t earned anything yet.
I’m not that old, but I can say I have done some good things in my life (I hope to do more). I’ve taught in high school and higher ed for over 15 years. I can see results. Because teaching is an incredibly difficult profession, even just when considering pedagogy alone, there were many growing pains along the way. But I have helped people. I know it. I have given back. Most of the effects of my public education are beyond your assessment. All of this was at minimal expense to the state.
Public education, and public higher education, is not only a great achievement, it is one of the most amazing human achievements in all of our history. If there’s anyone out there in Wisconsin who cares, and happens to read this, know that supporting this system, this public good, is easy. Let’s try to remember the infinite rewards within our reach for what seems like such minimal effort. If that’s not practical, then I don’t know what is. It’s more than practical. It really is miraculous.