Wednesday, June 29, 2011


When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was walk. I would walk anywhere my protective parents would allow me to. I loved gardens and parks, places where I was allowed to follow trails and explore. When my family visited the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, I would make sure to cover every bit of terrain, looping back past the same areas again and again so I could follow every detour and alternate path. I felt certain there was some magic hiding where I hadn’t yet walked, that there was some amazing mystery I couldn’t leave unseen.

In high school, I was finally allowed to ride my bike instead of taking a school bus. I did that for about a month, and then I decided that I would rather walk. My parents thought I was being unreasonable the first day I told them I wouldn’t be taking my bike. It was only a mile to school, but adults in the suburbs didn’t walk distances like that. On my walk to school, I discovered all the things I had missed by driving and biking. Careful gardens of drought-resistant plants. Sculptures in windows and yards. Communes where Palo Alto’s persistent enclaves of hippies and artists preserved the Sixties version of our city. Patches of the yellow flowers whose stems tasted like lemon if you sucked on them. Crazy people walking the streets, cats, butterflies, interesting garbage and free things, lost notes and photographs. My walk to and from school was one of the most interesting parts of my day.

Walking became my major hobby outside of school. My friend Therese and I spent the entire summer after freshman year crossing our town from side to side on foot. Every day, we would choose a unexplored territory to walk to. That pedestrian overpass you only usually saw when driving on the freeway. Shoreline Amphitheater. Downtown Menlo Park. That seeming wasteland between downtown Palo Alto and the Stanford Mall.

People often reminisce about their love of their first car, how driving represented freedom. That’s how I felt about walking. You could walk anyplace. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around that kind of limitlessness. Using no resources except your own body, you could get to almost anywhere. You could get to all kinds of places that a car wouldn’t take you: the woods surrounding the Stanford campus, the deep ravine behind the mall, the hill with the giant rope swing on the way out of town. If you added public transportation, you could go to San Francisco, San Jose, or even, in theory, Richmond, Dublin, Pittsburg (wherever those places were).

I spent my twenties in universities. Every morning, from the age of eighteen to twenty-eight, I walked twenty minutes or so to the school where I took classes or taught classes. Sometimes I walked to a bus and took the bus to school. At night, I would walk to the coffee shop, the bookstore, the bar. Everywhere I needed to be could be reached by foot, like living in an old European city.

I haven’t walked like that for a while, now. I got one of those jobs that you can’t get to by foot, bike, or public transportation. For the first time in my life, my morning starts with me getting into a car. I used to counter my new driving lifestyle by walking everywhere I could. But over the last few years, I’ve lost my patience for walking, preferring biking or driving for their more immediate gratification of getting me somewhere in minutes.

For the last week, though, my car has been broken. I’ve been walking every day, to the store for groceries, to Piedmont Avenue to get tea and write. It takes longer, but I’ve already seen a lot of things I would have missed if I had been speeding past at fifteen or thirty miles an hour. I found a tree full of ripe loquats, one of my favorite foods. I found a free stepstool, something I’ve been meaning to buy for years. I have exchanged commiserating glances with people under umbrellas in the unseasonable June storm. I have passed lots of people that I see every day in the coffee shop and who I didn’t realize were my neighbors. I’ve stood on the overpass that I usually drive or bike over and watched cars speeding below me, and marveled to think that this is happening all day and night, only a few hundred feet from my apartment. I have learned a lot about where I live, my habitat, and the places between my home and my destination.

The illustration is based on a photograph demonstrating healthy walking posture from Esther Gokhale's Eight Steps to a Pain-Free Back.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lost Potential

When I told my graduate advisor I was hoping to teach at a community college, he asked me why I wanted to throw my career away.

“I want to teach someplace where everyone can go to school and where people are a little more equal with each other,” I said. “I don’t like all the hierarchy at the university.”

He gave me a pained look, like he had had this conversation before. “Everyone comes to a point in life when we must let go of our youthful ideals,” he said. “We need to make certain sacrifices in order to live a comfortable life.”

I’m embarrassed to say, these might have been somebody's youthful ideals, but not mine. In my youth, I loved the hierarchy of the university. Everyone has their rank and everyone knows their place. Tenured professors are at the top, then untenured ones, lecturers, graduate students, then undergraduates. And under them are all those who serve the academics: the poor janitors and cooks and security guards and secretaries who don't even know just how lowly they are, on the fringes of the real business of generating knowledge.

When I was an undergraduate, professors were nothing less than rock stars, amazing lucky bastards who had defeated insurmountable odds to achieve my dream job. I longed for the day when I would become one, when I would write the great, barely-comprehensible works of esoterica that would revolutionize literary studies for its rarified cadre of devotees and make me a household name in a very small, elite number of households.

As this dream became closer to a reality, it began to lose some of its luster. During graduate school, I worked as a cashier in a grocery store on weekends, and I found myself more comfortable with my coworkers than my graduate student colleagues. Many of my closest friends never finished high school. It didn’t matter. In the store, they were judged by how well they worked, how reliable they were, and how kind, how funny and clever. By the standards of the university, these workers would be off-the-charts low. If they enrolled in college in their mid-twenties, they would be “re-entry” students, the most marginalized sorts of undergraduates. They would never be the kind of people who really mattered at a university, the rock stars, recognized experts in their fields, people who demanded awe and respect.

A lot of my grocery store friends attended school at the local community college. There they paid affordable tuition to take classes with other students who were as varied as the workers at the store: young, old, parents, retirees, people starting over after layoffs or divorces, people from other countries. No one judged them because they hadn’t taken the traditional route straight from high school to college. All of them were untraditional in some way, and they all treated each other with respect. It sounded like a utopia to me: you mean you could take college classes without all that hierarchy? You could just pay your tuition, go to a class, study, all without being above somebody and below somebody else?

But once I started teaching at a community college, I saw that the students do have a sense of hierarchy, a hierarchy of institutions of higher learning, and they are at the bottom. My school is called Las Positas, but the students call it College Behind Costco, Thirteenth Grade, Lost Potential.

Having experienced both prestigious universities and community colleges, and having taught at both, I think the students get as good, or better, educations at the community college, where undergraduates are at the center of the institution instead of at the bottom.

When I taught at the university as a graduate student instructor, I was told repeatedly: don’t focus on your teaching. There were cautionary tales about young associate professors denied tenure because they had succumbed to the temptation of prioritizing their classes. There were the lessons we received in our single pedagogy course: don’t get too involved with your students. Don’t let them talk to you about their problems. They will try to suck your energy; don’t let them.

Talk to anyone trained to be a professor, and this ideology is evident. People in Ph.D. programs considering community college employment often say to me, “So, to get tenure in a community college, you don’t really need to publish that much.”

“You don’t need to publish at all,” I say. “All they care about is your teaching.”

“So, like, publications would look nice but that’s not their priority,” they say.

“No,” I say. “They don’t care at all about publishing. They would think of it as okay as long as it didn’t interfere with your teaching.”

They nod in understanding, but I can see that they are still perplexed, maybe even skeptical. How could they not care about publishing, I imagine them thinking? What else is there?

Community colleges are like bizarro universities. When I tell my colleagues that working at a community college was seen as throwing away my career, they are incredulous. But you’re still in academia, they say, baffled.

“They don’t consider community colleges to be academia,” I say. “They consider them to be teaching.”

For an academic researcher, our students would be the worst kind of distraction, teeming with the needs and demands that my pedagogy teacher warned me about. There are students with learning disabilities who flourish with some extra time and attention from their teachers, and there are students with such severe disabilities that some of their teachers question whether they should be in college. A high percentage of the students have lived through horrible trauma: medical crises, the death of siblings and parents, acute poverty and homelessness. Students come to my office hours with complaints ranging from family quarrels to mental health issues to car troubles to domestic abuse.

I remember similar students in the university. I would deflect their complaints, create distance, give them some canned speech about how everyone has personal troubles and we can’t allow them to interfere with our education. Now I can’t avoid these students and try not to get involved. Getting involved is part of my job description.

The worst part about teaching at a school that accepts everybody is that we have a large proportion of students who don’t care about their studies. Their parents are making them go, or they need to go to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, or they don’t know what else to do with themselves. They treat their studies as a chore and their teachers as bossy parents. They tell you that the reading assignments aren’t interesting, and when you ask them what topics would interest them, they say, “None, I guess.”

I always considered these students to be the major downside to teaching at a community college. But lately, many of my well-educated friends have confessed to having been these students in the past.

“Oh, that was me,” said a friend who is now working on a Ph.D. “When I was eighteen, I didn’t care about my community college classes at all. But later, when I was a little older and ready to go back, I knew where to go.”

That’s why I love community college. It is the opposite of the university, where everything rides on our performance for four years, where there’s no time for confusion and illness and insanity and waffling, where we will waste thousands of dollars if we mess this up. It’s not rock-star college; it’s garage-band college. It’s college for whoever wants it, whenever they want it, and if they need to leave for a while, it will still be here when they get back.

By the time I finished graduate school, I had even convinced my advisor of how great community colleges are, and he supported me in my new career. For me and for my students, it’s exactly the right place to be.

The illustration depicts a cover story from Las Positas College's Naked Magazine.