17 October 2014

Funding Their Calling



Recently, I attended the wedding of a male friend and his longtime partner.  It was a joyous occasion for everyone; the two of them had spent decades and endured chases, beatings and even an arrest for loving each other.


The priest—a lesbian—was assisted by, among others, a seminarian.  During the reception that followed the ceremony, I got to talking with them.  The priest, I guessed, is around my age, while the seminarian seemed to be one of those people who, for the last decade, looked like a 40-year-old who looked like he was 27, and would look that way for another few years.  Somehow I was even more surprised that he’s a seminarian than I was by the lesbian priest.  


I said as much to him.  He looked like he’d spent a fair amount of time in a gym and had been in a spa or two—and on more than two or three vacations on remote island beaches.  


Turns out, all of my hunches about him were correct.  He sensed my consternation.  “Those aren’t the sorts of things I associate with priests—or any clergy people”, I explained.


He then told me that, until two years ago, he’d had a lucrative position in a financial-services company.  Sensing the query that was forming in my mind, he said, “No, I wasn’t laid off, downsized or anything like that.”



“You felt a calling?” I asked.


He did, but long before he immersed himself in Mammon.  One reason he didn’t follow it then, or when he finished college, he said, was that he had to come to terms with other things—including his own sexuality—before undertaking preparation for the priesthood.  (It also meant leaving the church in which he had been raised.)  And, he says, he feels he will be a better priest than he would have been when he was younger because of his life experiences and maturity.  That makes sense to me; I simply never understood how a twenty-year-old “elder” could convince anyone to become a Mormon or member of any other denomination.



But, even after all of the time and energy I’ve spent reading and writing about (and my own experience with) the student debt situation, I wasn’t prepared for what he told me next:  Going into seminary after spending more than a decade in the financial-services industry means that “I don’t have to worry about how I’m going to pay for it”.  Even with the pay reduction he can expect once he trades his Brooks Brothers suits for a clerical collar, he won’t have to concern himself with paying off a student loan.  


A couple of years ago, I heard about a woman who had to wait a full decade after finishing college before entering a convent as a novitiate, as she had imagined herself doing from the time she was a little girl.  She had to work after college to pay off her student loans, she said, because the order she entered, which is part of the Roman Catholic Church, says that entering novitiates must be debt-free.



I don’t know whether there is such a requirement for candidates to the priesthood in the denomination in which the seminarian I met plans to become a priest.  But, after my conversation with him, I know that increasing numbers of seminarians—at least in his denomination—are entering in their thirties or forties, or even later, because tuition for them has risen so much.  And, apparently, there aren’t very many opportunities for seminarians to be fellows or teaching assistants, or for any other kind of remunerative work,  as there are for, say, graduate students in English who can teach Composition or those in the sciences who can be lab instructors or technicians—or, in some cases, teach the freshman-level courses in their fields.



Moreover, seminarians often have to do all sorts of unpaid work in hospitals, schools, homeless shelters or other facilities or agencies—in addition to their own churches—as part of the process of their ordinations.  While almost none complain about such servitude, it undoubtedly is a financial (as well as other kinds of) burden.   That adds to the debt they would accumulate if they didn’t have some way to pay for their education as they experienced it.



Everything I’ve described is intensified by the fact that individual churches or parishes are less able or willing to sponsor seminarians than they were in the recent past.  The seminarian I’ve mentioned says that such is the case in the parish in which he’s been working, and that none of his classmates have any kind of financial sponsorship.  



Speaking of finances:  The seminarian I met says he’s still doing “individual financial consulting” with people who were referred to him, as well as others with whom he worked at his old firm.  And, he says, “at least two other” people he knows in the financial services industries plan to follow the same path he’s pursuing.

13 October 2014

A Reflection On The Futility Of My Work

You haven't heard much from me for the past few months.  (Some of you are thankful for that, I'm sure! ;-) ) That does not mean I've forgotten you or this blog.  Rather, I've been involved in some projects--including writing, tutoring and community activism--that have taken up most of my energies.  And I've had a couple of passing health problems, which haven't enhanced whatever energies I had left.

All right.  I'll stop complaining.  One thing I must say, though, is that lately I've been reflecting on some of my experiences as an adjunct and (for two years) full-time faculty member, academic administrator and, in a long-ago time and faraway galaxy, high- and elementary-school teacher.

It occurs to me now that most of my college teaching was futile.  You might think that in saying such a thing, I have revealed myself to have been a not-very-good teacher. Perhaps such is the case in spite of the almost-uniformly excellent evaluations I received. 

What leads me to make such a pronouncement about the work I did for so long is also not the students' abilities or preparation--or, in too many cases, the lack thereof.  I will say that the skills students brought to my classes declined every year of my teaching life, often in readily-measurable ways.  Still, I believe that I was able to accommodate the way students were shortchanged by the schools they attended before they entered my classes.

I say that most of the work I did in classrooms was useless--that is to say, it did nothing to improve students' writing or thinking skills, let alone prepare them for subsequent classes or jobs--mainly because the system in which I worked was designed to render my--and other dedicated educators'--work as irrelevant, if not entirely meaningless.

You see, the way curricula are structured--as a collection of atomized courses that begin and end on fixed dates, which in turn are composed of classes that begin and end at fixed times--all but guarantees that all but the most dedicated students--or simply the ones who have gotten through life by pleasing their parents, teachers and employers--will take classes only to "fill in the box".  In other words, they are not only not there to learn, they have no concept of what it is to learn, let alone that they should do such a thing. The courses they took before mine were meant to be self-contained or to serve, however superficially, as preparation for other courses.  Most students cannot see how what they learn in one course relates to any other, let alone to any career they may pursue or any other aspect of their lives.  That is because, I believe, schools are designed, in part, to keep them from seeing any such relations.

So they take composition or other writing classes--which are, in the main, what I taught--because those classes are required.  Lots of students know they are not "good" writers or simply that they've always "had trouble with it".  Sometimes it's a result of teachers who beat them down or simply enforced rules for their own sake; other times, their confidence was shaken in other ways.  Their experiences lead to a kind of unconscious cynicism that says no class, no book, no teacher and no anything else can actually help them to become better writers.  Some simply don't see how writing well will help them in their lives; they think that English and other courses are required simply to pad students' schedules, keep them in school longer and shake them down for more tuition money.  How can we expect anyone to learn when he or she has such an attitude?

Perhaps I wasn't the teacher some of those evaluators--or the students who've remained in contact with me--thought I was.  But now I recall that I've heard the same sort of despair I've expressed from others who taught, in subjects as diverse as Physics and Economics as well as English.

Perhaps most telling of all is the ways in which alumni/ae describe their experience of college.  Even the most accomplished professionals rarely mention their course work as an aspect of college that prepared them for life.  I recall an engineer who said that the only useful courses he took in college were English--which, he says, helped him write better memos--and Psychology which helped him in his dealings with people.  I also think now of the business students in a college in which I taught, among other things, business writing. They complained not only that the theoretical information was useless, but that they were taught systems that have not been used in the business world in decades.

Some instructors teach useless, irrelevant and obsolete things because they don't know any better.  But others are forced to do so by those who shape curricula.  And even those who try to teach germane skills and to stimulate students' thinking realize, sooner or later, that they are trying to swim upstream, and that no amount of extra time or effort is going to help their students.  And, certainly, no amount of technology or razzle-dazzle--which, increasingly, is what is rated in "evaluations"--is going to help a student learn what he or she hasn't learned, and what the system isn't designed for them to learn. I've seen enough students who've experienced such things--as well as my own classes--to know better.