Friday, May 22, 2009

On Moving from Michigan back to Indiana

So, I've officially moved back to Southern Indiana after two years in East Lansing, Michigan, and although this is just a stop over until Kirsten and I move to South Carolina in August, I thought this might be a fun time to talk briefly about living in the Mitten State, some things I liked and didn't like about it, and some differences between living there and living in Indiana.

The College Towns

The only truly apt comparison between living in East Lansing and living in Indiana I can comment on is living in Bloomington. Having grown up in very rural southern Indiana where half an hour trips to Louisville, Kentucky, occurred at most two or three times a month, making the move to Bloomington, Indiana, as an eighteen-year-old college freshman felt a lot like moving to the big city. Of course, once you've been to a few of them, you begin to see that college towns have a particular feel to them that isn't quite small town, isn't quite big city, and isn't quite anything in between. So, the only real basis of comparison I have between Michigan and Indiana can be found in the comparison between East Lansing and Bloomington. In general, to be short, I liked Bloomington better. East Lasing is immediately adjacent to Lansing, which is about as industrial as cities get and the oppressive feel of the factories was ever present in a way not found in the generally quaint and idyllic Bloomington. Age probably had a lot to do with it, and I imagine that if I had moved to East Lansing at eighteen I might be singing a different tune. This is not to say that East Lansing had no endearing charm to it, and as a college that has a particular emphasis on agriculture, plant, and soil sciences, Michigan State's campus was actually rather lovely, and somewhat comparable to Indiana University's: while Indiana's was more aesthetic and focused more on landscaping, Michigan State's was more about variety and utility, and the great diversity of trees and flowering plants was refreshing. However, while East Lansing is certainly as large and diverse as Bloomington, I felt like Kirsten and I exhausted all there was to do there (that we cared to do) in relatively short amount of time. There are, to be sure, some ways in which East Lansing more than met my expectations. While Louisville and Bloomington generally have better cuisine and edible fare to be found, East Lansing blew the two previous towns out of the water in the sushi department, which I certainly developed a taste for while in East Lansing. Though the lack of good Mexican and Irish kind of depressed me. Michigan is also something of a Mecca of microbrews; I think it may be among the largest concentrations of them outside Oregon and New England, which was wonderful, but it turned out to be actually rather difficult to find many of them in bars. Liquor stores (excuse me, "party stores") carried most of them (Bell's, Dark Horse, and Arcadia being the best), but the breweries themselves were spread out and there were no particularly good ones in East Lansing (Harper's was nearly laughable), so it often left me feeling rather like the Twilight Zone man in the library with broken glasses.

Sports was also another interesting topic. I must confess that I can't be particularly objective when it comes to sports, since I am a lifelong Hoosiers fan and was instilled with this type of fandom in a nearly religious childhood indoctrination. Looking at it as objectively as possible, I'll say that the basketball fan comparison between East Lansing and Bloomington is a bit of a draw, both marshaling equally rabid support among the student body (though I must say, in Indiana, you can drive hours away from Bloomington in any direction and still see a multitude of IU paraphernalia, whereas a trip very far into the countryside surrounding East Lansing and the MSU gear much more rapidly disappears). And, I've been impressed (or weirded out) on more than one occasion by large crowds of MSU students randomly erupting into the school fight song in bars. However, football is very different. IU has very little football tradition and the state of Indiana in general has stricter alcohol laws than Michigan, so the tailgating culture at MSU was nothing like I had experienced at IU. My only memory, in fact, of Bloomington's tailgating scene, is that it was confined to a few roped-in parking lots just outside the stadium, generally there were nearly as many fans of the opposing team, and alcohol was strictly regulated and confined to designated areas. Not so, East Lansing. To put it mildly, the entire campus of MSU (which is, by area, even larger than IU) turns into one enormous outdoor party. When Kirsten and I went to our first tailgating, the amount of cars and trucks and blankets overflowing with lounging students, parents or just rabid fans, grills and coolers completely amazed us. And apparently, alcohol on essentially any part of campus was permitted. We saw some students walking down the streets of East Lansing, beers in hand, waiting for the moment they crossed onto university property so they could pop the tab. It certainly made Kirsten and I wonder how IU was ever voted "biggest party school" in 2000 when this was the typical Saturday morning on MSU's campus.

The States

I had a love/hate relationship with the state of Michigan. When I left Indiana in the fall of 2007, the state was among the reddest in the nation. Kerry was defeated three-to-two in 2004, and Indiana had yet to turn blue (albeit by the slimmest of margins). Michigan is a much bluer state than Indiana, though this democratic leaning is much more labor-oriented than anything else. Michigan in fact has one of the highest NRA membership rates of any state in the union and there is a certain libertarian streak to the populace, as there is with many of the other Scandinavian influenced Great Lakes States (I was told multiple times that if I found Michigan liberal, I should visit Wisconsin and Minnesota to see an even stronger version of the Michigan progressive). One of the greatest ironies of our move to Michigan, was the political weight of my vote. We moved to Michigan just as the democratic primaries were getting into full swing, and because of Michigan's moving of the primary to an earlier date, the results of our voting were deemed null and void, not to mentions that the only names on the ballot were Dennis Kucinich and Hilary Clinton. Strike one against democracy. The next blow came when Kirsten and I decided to register in Michigan rather than Indiana, because, at the time, Michigan was looking to be a battleground state in 2008 while Indiana looked to remain solidly red as it had been since 1964. Of course, history proved me wrong, since my adoptive state went for Obama big time while my home state, which I had written off, became one of the biggest battlegrounds. All I can say is that I wish I'd been able to be a part of Indiana's historic move into the blue column.

And now, after nearly six months of having a blog, I think it's finally time that I use it for what it was intended: bitching. For a state that revolutionized the automobile industry, one would really think that Michigan would be a great state to drive in. No, no. Michigan in fact has some of the weirdest traffic, driving, and parking laws I have ever seen. I will never understand the logic of the "Michigan U-Turn" (a u-turn put in place down the road in lieu of a left turn at busy intersections) nor will I understand how incessant, asinine, and absurdly arbitrary parking laws designed to catch illegal parkers and raise revenue for the city can possibly be an efficient system. I lived in Bloomington for four years and never once received a parking ticket. I received two in my first week in East Lansing - once for parking facing the wrong way down the street and once for parking in a very poorly and confusingly marked "no parking" zone. It is as absurd as it sounds. Michigan driver's ed also seems to emphasize things that are relatively downplayed in Indiana. Kirsten and I wondered for months why Michigan drivers seemed to stop so far back at stop signs and lights. It's because they're taught to be able to see the white line before the intersection. This is probably a good thing, but it could be extraordinarily annoying when trying to turn right on red.

The Weather

Finally, it's difficult to talk about Michigan without talking about the weather. Now, understandably, the climatic difference between mid-Michigan and southern Indiana is not the same as, say, the difference between North Dakota and South Carolina (one a former potential graduate school location and one the current choice), but my place of birth is several degrees of latitude south of where I lived in Michigan, not to mention the fact that mid-Michigan lies between two very large bodies of fresh water, whereas southern Indiana lies in a very low-lying river valley. Their temperatures vary depending on so many factors, but I generally found the highs to be, on average about 15 to 20 degrees cooler in mid-Michigan than southern Indiana. Case in point occurred just a few days ago, after our first few days home, when the highs soared into the mid-80s here in the Ohio Valley (with humidity around 60%) and the weather report for East Lansing was 63 degrees, sunny, and negligible humidity. But, they have a saying in Michigan (and several other northern Midwestern states): "If you can't stand the winters, you don't deserve the summers." I would agree. Upon moving to Michigan, I was expecting and preparing for the worst. And after the first winter, I felt like I had experienced a "normal" Michigan winter, but I was told by locals that it was one of the worst winters they'd experienced in years. As someone who, for the most part, dislikes snow and winter, I was pleased by my overreaching assumption of just how bad winter would be (We received nearly 100 inches of snow that winter, and the temperature dipped below zero consistently throughout January and February). There is a certain idiosyncrasy to these winters that also surprises non-natives, me among them at first. Living in southern Indiana, the winter never gets consistently cold enough to freeze a large lake over with ice, yet Kirsten and I observed on multiple occasion people who would walk a half mile across a lake to visit a friend's house on the other side and talked about how they looked forward to the winter every year so they could walk to their friend's houses who seemed so far away during the rest of the year. People also do more than ice skate and ice fish on these lakes. Our first experience at one of these lakes entailed cautiously walking a few yards onto the ice while the accustomed Michiganders drove their four-wheeler ATVs at reckless speeds across the frozen pond. How regional fun can be. And this is all relative of course. We were constantly being reminded by the Yoopers (the U.P.ers, or the people who come from the Upper Peninsula), who, by the way, like to call those from the Lower Peninsula "trolls" since we all live "under the [Mackinac] bridge") how warm our winters are or how little snow we get by comparison. I'll never forget when we received one of the last snowfalls of the year, the ones that occur just as spring is starting, and Kirsten and I saw a man in running shorts and a tank top jogging down the road as we were receiving around 8 inches of snow. He seemed entirely unfazed.

A Return?

Overall, my two years in Michigan surprised me in a lot of ways. I disliked it at first, primarily because it was so difficult to find work and, after a short while, somewhat difficult to find things to do. But like many places, you find yourself liking it in odd ways and missing it when it's gone. It's easy to make friends when you're is in high school or college, and you're surrounded by peers and people going through the exact same things as you, and I count nearly all of my best friends in the world among those I met in high school and college. It was more difficult in East Lansing, where I worked mostly with people much older than me in the school systems and with people much younger than me at the coffee shop I worked at part time. There were very few late-20-somethings who had moved six hours from their homes while their significant others went to school. But, as it turns out, I've missed some of the people I met in Michigan terribly in just the week and half I've been gone. Michigan, much like New York, which I visited earlier this year, is a place I'd say I wouldn't mind living in, but which I wouldn't want to make a life in. And one never knows. While I imagine I'll be primarily looking in the Northeast and West Coast for graduate schools following my two years at Clemson, I wouldn't rule out altogether (after, I'm sure, a lengthy conversation with Kirsten) a return. University of Michigan does have a great history program. . .

Monday, May 11, 2009

On Discontinuing My Tenure as a Substitute Teacher

Michigan is a tough job market. I knew this when I moved up here with Kirsten in August 2007. After spending two years as a research editor in Louisville, a job that wasn't particularly fulfilling but at least made me feel like I was making use of what before seemed to be a useless English degree, I was hoping for something similar in the Lansing/East Lansing job market. I quickly found that this wouldn't be possible, since most of the employers up here were auto workers, insurance companies, the state government, and the university, none of which either particularly appealed to me or had jobs for me. This is not to mention that, although the economic crisis hadn't yet made its full presence known, Michigan had already been reeling from a declining auto market for years. After three months of fruitlessly searching (the closest I came to a "real" job in mid-Michigan was a legislative clerk in the State Capitol, but they went with someone with more experience and better typing skills), Kirsten casually suggested that I look into substitute teaching. I did, and found the local districts up here to be in dire need of them, so I thought I might give it a shot. After all, at that point I was still considering, albeit half-heartedly, the possibility of teaching secondary education, and I thought this might be a decent test run so to speak. I began substitute teaching middle and high school language arts and social sciences in November 2007 and wound up my tenure just last week in May 2009. Here is what I learned:

Teaching is a lot more than having a specific knowledge set and being able to convey that knowledge in a coherent way to twenty-some-odd students at a time. As a student in public schools, of course, one observes only one sliver of the total work teachers do. Teachers spend an endless amount of time planning, gathering materials, grading, contacting parents, dealing with administrative duties, tutoring, coaching, doing IEPs, etc. (OK, teachers are supposed to do all of these thing - not all of them do, as I have found out). And of course, as a sub, I don't have to do much of any of this. In the worst of circumstances, in fact, most substitute teachers are like jailers, making sure the kids are doing all the work the teacher has left for them, keeping them in the classroom, keeping them from killing one another, and assuring that the teacher's room looks reasonably similar to the one they left. As a random sub, i.e. subbing for a teacher I've never met with kids I've never taught before, I usually didn't do any real teaching, I simply followed a prearranged lesson plan: usually popping in a movie, handing out a worksheet assignment, taking kids to the library or computer lab to do work on their own, etc. It's very hands off and apart from answering basic questions and telling kids not to throw things or yell, the interaction is minimal. This is especially true at the high school level, where subs are often not expected to have the knowledge necessary to conduct class (God help me if I ever had to provide instruction for a Calculus class). The middle school level is a bit different, and I often did find myself providing instruction, but even this was few and far between.

The most interesting days were the days when the teacher did in fact leave teaching plans. There was a seventh grade English teacher for whom I became the primary sub, and every time I subbed for her, I was required to read to the students, discuss plot points, reading comprehension, themes, etc., grade their homework and tests, and talk them through all of their assignments. It was daunting at first and was made no easier by the fact that it was among the most rambunctious and ornery group of students I've ever taught. For example, I once had to send a student to the office for not only possessing a Hustler magazine, but opening it and reading it in class. I also sent one to the office for bursting out into an obscene rap song in the middle of a spelling test, and who, when I politely asked him to stop, jumped on his desk and began singing more loudly. In fact, it may have been the same kid. . . If I learned anything from this class, and others like it, its that some students want to get a rise of subs so badly, they're more than willing to go to detention for it. At first, I think I played right into their hands, getting angry and yelling at them, but since this is exactly what they want, it only makes things worse. By the end of my tenure as that teacher's primary sub, I simply did my best Ben Stein impression and quietly told him in a monotone to sit out in the hallway.

I am a short man who is not in particularly good shape, so I usually did not command a great deal of respect from the start. Subbing is one of the most thankless jobs one can have, and most of the students know that you have no real power, short of taking their names down so the teacher can grill them when they return. And, I have had my fair share of at best ridiculous and at worse dangerous encounters with students. I once had a book thrown at my head in the middle of class - and not a paperback, a good thousand page, three or four pound Biology text. Fortunately, I was never punched or otherwise assaulted by a student, but I got the feeling by the look in some of their eyes that they did wish to inflict physical harm on me. I guess that means I was doing my job. Most of my most difficult moments involved losing control of the classroom or having students totally call me out on my bluffs. I once subbed for an eighth grade choir class that had nearly sixty students. It was all but impossible to keep them quiet while we watched the movie the teacher left for them. There was one group of seven or eight prissy little girls (you know the kind) who would not stop talking and disrupting class so I finally told them if they weren't going to be quiet I would send every one of them to time out. Ten minutes or so passed, and I had all but forgotten about what I thought was an empty threat, but one of them was misbehaving so badly that I had little choice but to send her to time out. After that, every other girl came forward and, referencing my earlier threat, said I had to send all of them down. So I did. I wrote out seven passes for time out. Feeling that I had "won", the class proceeded in a relatively calm manner - until I get a call from the time out teacher telling me in a rather annoyed voice that I've sent too many kids down, after which she returned all seven to the class, without further punishment. This was, to be honest, the only time as a sub that I did not get almost full support from the regular teaching staff. I've had a few friends who have subbed, and some have mentioned to me how poorly they were treated by the staff, that they were looked down on and treated as second class citizens. Fortunately, I experienced almost none of this and I have to hand it to the Lansing and East Lansing school districts: their teachers were very kind, professional, and helpful. By far the coolest thing I ever did discipline-wise was completely by accident. I was at the marker board writing down instructions with my back to the class. Without eyes on them, I could tell the class was getting antsy and were probably on the verge of becoming truly disruptive. As I turned around to tell them to be quiet, a paper wad came whizzing towards me. I caught it quite accidentally with one hand without flinching, moving, or changing my expression. It was practically robotic. The class gasped audibly and were then dead silent. I played it cool as if it had been completely purposeful. "Who threw that?" I asked nonchalantly. All eyes in the room slowly pointed at one individual. "Could you please take your things and sit out in the hallway," I said coolly with a slight grin. He complied and the rest of the hour was rather civil. Sometimes the completely random is all you need.

Perhaps the only thing more disheartening than misbehaving students is the lack of intellectual curiosity I've observed by many of them. I'm not necessarily talking about ignorant students; ignorance can be rectified. I'm talking about those who willfully do not wish to learn. This is a very alien concept to me, as I have built essentially my entire life around intellectual curiosity. I subbed for a ninth grade history class on December 7 last year and asked the students if any of them knew what happened on this day in 1941. No one raised their hands. I told them this was the day that the empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor drawing the U.S. into World War II. Many of them looked confused. Not only did they not know what this day was, they seemed not to even know that it existed! I once had a history professor who never had us remember dates, because he said continuity and sequence was more import than fixed time, yet he told us "If there's one date in U.S. history I want you to remember, it's this one." I told the students the same thing. One student raised his hand and told me that he didn't care what happened in the past because they were all dead, what they did didn't matter, and we should all just move on. It was the only time I was rendered completely speechless in front of a classroom.

Some moments of ignorance were more innocent and more hilarious than this. I once overheard a student ask "Who is that old guy with the weird mustache that host American Gladiators?" to which five students simultaneously replied "That's Brooke Hogan's dad." Or the student who, thirty minute into watching Back to the Future, asks "Is that the old guy with Parkinson's disease?" Wait to make me feel about a million years old kids! Sometimes the lack of understanding of the continuity of past events is amazing to me too. It's understandable that people who aren't specialists in history wouldn't necessarily know that the Treaty of Westphalia occurred after the Thirty Years War or some other arcane factoid. But I had high school junior ask me if computers were around in the '30s, so I said something like "Well, not what we think of as computers today. The microprocessor hadn't been invented yet, but they did have vacuum tubes, which were rudimentary elements in some of the earliest computers. . ." The blank stare told me this was not the answer she was looking for. So she said, "So they had different computers in the 1830s?" (sigh. . .)

But I shouldn't discuss the bad only. In general, I have to say that I am a bit fearful for this next generation, with a likely smaller and more competitive job market, and the possibility of a lower standard of living. If "the children are our future" I'm not sure the future is a place I want to spend too much time. However, in two years, there were many bright spots and students who gave me hope. I once subbed at an otherwise troubled high school that had an obvious issue with drugs and violence but witnessed the truly amazing conduction of a Taekwondo class with more discipline than I have ever seen from such a large group of teenagers. I also taught a sixth grade social studies class where I gave a lecture on Christopher Columbus' voyages and I had one precocious little student who not only could have given the lecture himself, but actually taught me a few things. He knew the size and shapes of the vessels, what types of sails they used, even how they compared to contemporary Chinese vessels. I was more than impressed and told him so. There was another student in a high school I subbed for who engaged me in one of the most intelligent conversations I've ever had about libertarian politics and the failure of imagining a political spectrum as linear. And, I had the privilege of becoming the designated sub for a special education English teacher, not something I would normally sub, but her students turned out to be some of the best I ever had. And since I subbed for them regularly for a full year, I was able to observe how much better nearly all of them became at understanding what they were reading, writing legibly and coherently, and generally becoming better students. It was humbling. Frankly, it was these exchanges that helped keep me coming back.

All in all, I had a mixed experience as a substitute. The days when classroom management was at the fore of my duties were not good days They were stressful and contributed a great deal to the multitude of gray hairs I now possess and the lack of hair creeping across the top of my head. However, on days that I did get to do some real teaching turned out to be extraordinarily rewarding. There are few things I've found more exhilarating than holding the undivided attention of a classroom that seems to be genuinely interested in what you have to say. In another sense, it also helped me to decide, conclusively, that teaching in secondary education is not for me. The job market and financial prospects for higher education may be worse, but I feel that the intellectual rewards and academic freedom will be well worth it. It has also given me a new found respect for the teachers themselves. Not that I haven't always respected them, but to see what it is that they have to deal with every single day is quite another thing. It takes a certain type of person to be a teacher and I am fairly certain that I am not that type. So, farewell students, teachers, and schools of the Lansing metro areas. I will miss you in spirit, but not in profession.