Sunday, October 3, 2010

September 2010: A New Academic Year

Looking back on the month of September, the blur of activity includes the beginning of a new academic year at Portland Community College (PCC). Pictured here are some of the more than 2,000 employees as we attended meetings to prepare us for classes.

Influenced by the sluggish US economy, enrollments at PCC have increased dramatically to a total expected headcount exceeding 90,000 students on our four campuses, additional centers and affiliated institutions. Classroom space and parking is hard-pressed to accommodate such numbers and construction plans are moving forward to relieve the stress in future years. Due to severe budget restraints being faced by our primary source of income (the State of Oregon), serving students in the short term means relying more heavily on part-time instructors (who are paid less and with fewer benefits). In turn, this puts more pressure upon full-time faculty like me to be on committees and fulfill needs (like office hours) for which part-time instructors receive no compensation. To maintain high academic standards in this context is a challenge that can be met well only with sacrifice. As health care costs have increased this past year, for example, many of us now are working more hours -- for less pay.

My full-time teaching load now involves a total of 125 students enrolled in two sections of ``US Government: Institutions and Processes`` and two sections of ``Peace and Conflict``, with one of each of these courses taught at the PCC Cascade Campus and the others at the PCC Rock Creek Campus (18 miles/29km away). Thankfully, I am often able to ride my bicycle to the Cascade Campus (Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays) as I live only about 7.5 miles/12 km away. Traveling to the Rock Creek Campus from my home requires use of a car (the only other option involving bus travel taking about 4 hours per day on Tuesdays and Thursdays).

The last week of September reflects how busy my school duties may keep me. In addition to my normal 16 hours of classroom teaching (on two campuses), I gave 4 hour-long presentations regarding my Fulbright experiences (on three campuses), and attended a total of six meetings (on three campuses). Preparing for classes and undertaking other responsibilities associated with teaching added to a total work week of at least 50 hours. The meetings involved topics including issues relating to student exchange programs, mediating a dispute between student government leaders and college administrators, setting up weekly public events in a Free Speech Forum, clarifying courses to be taught during Winter and Spring, as well as helping to lay the foundation for a visit by Vandana Shiva in February. BUSY? Maybe too much so.

My wife Kristine is keeping very busy with our household that still has my son Shaman and daughter Mira at home, together with their cousin Stephan and Mira`s good friend Naomi. Kristine is also participating in a course of training to prepare her to help others with Spiritual Direction and is enrolled in a seminar at Ascension Catholic Church which seeks to build organizational skills relevant to addressing issues of injustice. Hopefully her training and skills will help her resolve the conflicts we experience even at home!!

It seems that there are few dull moments on the home front. All three of our daughters have had birthdays celebrated (simply/cheaply) in September: Mira turned 20, Sonrisa 26, and our foster-daughter Margarita celebrated number 27. Our clothes dryer broke down and was replaced by another which required an extension of our gas line to be completed. Then the dishwasher died and I installed another that was (thankfully) on sale. These expenditures have challenged our bank account even as our household income has declined from last year due to increased health care premiums deducted from my paycheck. As a family we exercise care in these tight times (over 10% unemployment in Oregon): and two of our adult children remain unemployed.

For those of us insufficiently practicing voluntary simplicity, these economic times may force an involuntary simplicity which can be a blessing. Too many middle-class people (and we are among them) show less empathy towards the plight of others due to their being too comfortable to share their pain. As Kristine and I volunteered at a homeless shelter this month, I think we are reminded that our family is also but one job loss or a major medical bill away from joining many of the families there. Had we been born Pakistani, we might well be among the nearly 20 million people there who are homeless due to monsoons last summer. If we were living in Israeli-occupied Palestine, we would still be faced with the injustice of water rationing and other indignities.

Let us remind one another of our common humanity. Let us always give as much as we are able of our resources and time – that others may have the basics of life and hope in a better future. Rather than just thank God for our blessings, let us consider how we may freely share with others as much as we can – and then a little more. Is that not what Jesus would want? As well as Buddha, Mohammad, Gandhi, and others who we may recognize as worthy messengers of peace?

With the beginning of a new academic year I will complete this month`s message to those interested in following my blog at: As my thoughts turn to the many people at St. Thomas College in Pala (Kerala, India) who have touched our lives: know you are remembered now and always. When you begin your morning with a song based on Cardinal Newman`s poem, I translate it into English from Malayalam:

Lead kindly light,
Amidst the encircling gloom.
Lead thou me on.
I was not always thus,
Nor prayed that thou should lead me on.
I loved the garish day and, in spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years.
Long thy power has blessed me.
So shall it still, lead me on.
Over moor and fen, over crag and torrent
Until those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.