One of my favorite things about my job is getting to spend so much time working with young people. My students are adults exploring the world on their own for the first time, and I get to help them grow in the process. Nor do I feel like a significantly different person than I was in college. More mature in important ways and with more aches and pains, but mostly a deeper, better realized version of the person I was at that time.
Experience of age is a funny thing. Like many professors, I have experience the shock of realizing that the cultural reference I’m making or a piece of media I’m showing dates to before my students were born, and thus now exists in their awareness of the world as a meme, if it does at all. Nor do I understand many of their pop-culture references, but, then, that was true when I was their age, too. If anything, I do slightly better these days.
Except with TikTok. I don’t understand what happens on TikTok. But I digress.
Teaching in higher education follows predictable patterns. The fall semester begins a process of renewal. The incoming first years arrive first, filled with youthful fear and excitement for this big adventure. Then they are joined by the returning students (hopefully) refreshed and bringing with them a bevy of new experiences after a summer away. Then the semester begins.
This time of year is the reverse. Most students have been racing to finish exams so that they can head home, leave for a study abroad program, or get started on a summer job. But the minority of students who have been around the longest are now the ones filled with fear and excitement as they prepare to leave this space they have made their home for the last few years, on to new and uncertain worlds. Some rush to finish, while others linger, not ready for this time to end. A celebration of their accomplishments and a period tinged with sadness.
What you don’t expect working around so many young people is for the experience to be colored by death, but that is just what happened this week.
On Thursday morning I received a message that the roommate of two of my students had died.
Truman is a small community, and these two students had been brought to the Jewish Student Union’s Passover Seder this year, so I immediately feared the worst. A few hours later those fears were confirmed Jehoshua Casey, the president of JSU had been killed in a car accident the night before while driving through a small town in Southern Iowa.
Josh was 20 years old, and preparing to study abroad in Indonesia.
Grief rippled through the Truman community. The Jewish Student Union organized a candlelight vigil that took place in a steady drizzle on Thursday night. By my estimate 150 people showed up, mostly students and some faculty, and more would have been there had they not already left campus for the term. People with no experience reading Hebrew stumbled through transliterated Hebrew prayers, followed by a more confident recitation of the English translation. Then people took turns offering remembrances of an impulsive and gregarious young man who was always looking to get people involved. An outgoing person who wanted nothing more than to be involved in whatever was happening. Someone who was president of Jewish Student Union, ran multiple events in track, played on the ultimate team, and was a member of Truman’s ROTC program—on top of being a full-time student. Who invited near-strangers to go on Spring Break trips and who spent the weekend before Finals going on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. I have no idea what he was doing in Iowa, but since there were no finals on Wednesday, I can imagine that he had been on some adventure and was on his way back to campus to finish off the semester.
As I sat there in the rain on Thursday night listening to friends and acquaintances talk about knowing Josh from parties or Jewish Student Union, or ultimate, or just seeing him around campus, I kept thinking about how young he was. How young they are. How fragile life can be. Someone commented that he lived a full life, and I couldn’t help but disagree. Josh filled his time with activity, but his life was cut short before it could blossom into fullness.
May his memory be a blessing for all who knew him.
This week’s varia:
- In response to the NAEP Civics and US History report card, Matt Tyler reflects on how learning names and dates in history classes can help contextualize the bigger picture. These are not the “fun” parts of a history class, but I agree with the author that these things are necessary to creating meaning and therefore need to be a foundational part of the curriculum, which means that they have to be assessed somehow (I do open-book quizzes that allow retakes juxtaposed with more analytic assignments). However, it is easy to place too much emphasis on these basic facts and rote memorization, especially when trying to redefine what counts as civics.
- David Perry and Matthew Gabriele at Modern Medieval comment favorably on the AHA’s Guidelines for Broadening the Definition of Historical Scholarship. They bring out a few highlights about how the document states the problem and establishes guidelines.
- Pamela Paul, a New York Times opinion columnist and former editor of the Book Review, wrote a column decrying how the “liberal” academic apparatus is anti-merit because a prestigious journal refused to publish an “article” titled “In Defense of Merit,” even though that journal has a microscopic acceptance rate and the article did not fit either its remit or format. Tim Burke has a good discussion of the original article, which he refers to as “Baby’s First Attack on Postmodernism” by scientists who have not given the time or intellectual energy to engage with the material they are claiming to critique. But an article with thesis doesn’t have to be good to be picked up as a weapon in the culture war by people whose prior assumptions it confirms.
- Katherine Sasser, a member of the Columbia (Missouri) School Board and mother of a trans child, announced that she is resigning her position. A bill banning transgender health care for minors (and limiting it for others) has made its way to the governor’s desk for his signature. She says that the state’s LGBTQ+ legislation makes it unsafe for her family to remain in the state. I am of the belief that it is important to stay and fight for a more equitable future since most people are not fortunate enough to be able to move, but it is also hard to blame people who can move from doing so.
- The academic board of the Elsevier-owned journal Neuroimage has walked out over the “greedy” policies of the publishing company. I’m not getting my hopes up that this heralds a big change since one of these mass resignations happens every few years, but it is a good reminder that companies barricade research behind steep paywalls while the writing, reviews, and editorial work goes largely uncompensated. Like many scholars, I’m always happy to send people offprints for anyone interested in my articles.
- Jonathan Eig found a complete transcript of Alex Haley’s 1965 interview with Martin Luther King Jr. for Playboy. This is the famous interview in which King laments X’s “fiery demagogic oratory,” but the full transcript reveals that Haley (or his editors) took the lines out of context to make King seem more critical of his Civil Right’s colleague. Eig argues that their goals were much more aligned than often portrayed.
- Your content moderation, and attempts to “detoxify” ChatGPT is outsourced to poorly-paid workers in Africa. Those workers are currently trying to unionize for pay and working conditions.
- Kate Wagner (of McMansion Hell) writes in The Baffler about the current state of the McMansion, connecting it to the ethos of endless prosperity and consumption that, among other things, contributes to the environmental crisis.
- Another day, another mass shooting in the United States, this time in Allen, Texas, where a gunman wearing a patch RWDS (“Right Wing Death Squad”) opened up at an outlet mall. He killed at least eight people. In Texas, the endemic school shootings have the legislature proposing that children as young as third graders receive training in how to use tourniquets and other tools used for battlefield trauma care.
- Meanwhile, Tommy Tuberville gave comments in which he criticized a move to drive White Nationalists out of the military and said of White Nationalists “I call them Americans.” His clarification was to explain that when he talks about White Nationalists he’s thinking of MAGA-types and the people who stormed the Capitol. Tuberville is also complaining about low recruitment being a threat to military readiness, at the same time as he is holding up promotions over the military continuing to offer abortions and other medical treatments to service members.
- Living in the United States makes it easy to get caught up in the horror of gun violence, but this car crash in Texas is a sobering reminder that guns are not the only weapon available to people in this country.
- George Santos has been arraigned, pleading not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges. He has also confessed and agreed to pay restitution for charges in Brazil.
- NPR has a piece on how Recep Tayyip Erdogan consolidated power in Turkey over the last twenty years, and how some of the same factors that brought him to power now put him at risk of losing this weekend’s election.
Album of the Week: Barefoot Truth, “Threads” (2010)
Currently Reading: Mohsin Hamid, The Last White Man; Martin Hallmannsecker, Roman Ionia: Constructions of Cultural Identity in Western Asia Minor