Saturday, September 24, 2011

Week 4 USA: Wild Rides

Full of wild rides, the highlight of this week included the presentation of flowers to Stany and Shanty at an assembly of over 2,000 faculty, administrators, and staff employed at Portland Community College (PCC). Assembled only on the first day of each academic year, during 2-3 hours of speeches by the President of PCC and a few selected others Stany was allocated time to shared words with all present. His comments were very well spoken and received – leaving a fine first impression that should last throughout the coming months. I think he may not have realized how great an honor those at PCC feel it is to have him as a Fulbright Scholar here. Theirs were the only flowers presented to anyone during this event!

During the few days preceding this annual ``In-Service`` event, Stany and Shanty (together with my wife Kristine and I) spent three days and two nights a little over 200 miles away to the east. Shanty described traveling by car on the freeway as like ``floating on a cloud`` (so smooth and soft, with only an occasional wave of movement associated with a slight up or down in the pavement or sideways shift to the occasionally heavy winds in the Columbia River Gorge. As we floated our way for about 5 hours to Walla Walla in Washington State, we followed the course of the great Columbia River and marveled at the cliffs carved by it over many thousands of years. As we passed swiftly by small towns, three huge dams, and observed wind surfing, the landscape changed from the lush forests of the west to the high desert of the east and I shared memories long buried of life as I had known during a few pre-teen summers spent with my mother and step father at Sundale Orchards (as we drove by it): memories of sand dunes before the dams, of hunting for tribal arrowheads on the river banks and agate rocks in the hills.

Arriving in Walla Walla, we located our lodging at the Vineyard Inn, enjoyed lunch, and found our way to the office of Ashley Esary at Whitman College. It was in Dr. Esary`s ``Democracy in Asia`` seminar that Stany had his first U.S. classroom teaching experience – and where his wife Shanty was able to see him for the first time ever conducting a class! The chairperson of Whitman`s Political Science Department, Professor Shampa Biswas (a Bengali from Delhi who, like me, received a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota), also enjoyed Stany`s presentation which provided insights into the constitutional structure of government in India, how civil society movements relate to that structure, and prospects for reform efforts currently underway. Dean of the Faculty, Dr. Tim Kaufman-Osborne, graciously treated us all to dinner that evening at the Thai Ploy Restaurant where good conversations provided dessert to an eventful day.

Friday, September 16th, was spent at the Pendleton Roundup where we had a great time watching the annual ``Westward Ho`` parade prior to our going in to the stadium venue for the famous rodeo. The parade lasted fully two hours and included a total of 652 horses and more people carrying flags than I can remember anywhere! Covered wagons, marching bands, Native Americans in glorious traditional costumes, stage coaches, children scrambling for candy, and so many memories will remain from that event. Viewing it all were three little blonde-haired girls with family members next to us – two of whom took a great liking to Stany and sat with him. One unforgettably highlight involved a massive horse which stopped in the middle of the street to urinated such a large quantity of water as to have it flow down to the curb on both sides! Many of the horses which followed would balk at the mess and hop over it, providing chuckles in an ongoing manner. At the end of the parade, Stany and Shanty were amazed to see a street sweeping machine immediately using water to clean up all along the parade route. Smiling broadly, Stany observed how ``That would not happen in India``!

The Pendleton Roundup Rodeo was literally full of wild rides. With 101 years of tradition, over 50,000 people attend this yearly showcase of Cowboy and Native American athletic events that include bucking bronco horses, bull riding, calf roping, and bareback horse racing for both men and women. Our affordable $25 seats gave us a good view of both the crowd and the action. In the contests, it would seem the animals won over the humans about half the time, with each inflicting about the same pain upon the other. When the noise of the crowd permitted, Stany and I noted similarities between the violence of this entertainment and what is known of the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome – though here the objective is not to take life. In fact, two human contestants and one calf were sufficiently injured to require being carried off the field of battle. The courage of the human athletes is admirable and naturally evokes a level of admiration that even a Gandhi might have felt. That the animals are not voluntary participants, however, may give pause to a thoughtful person. That said, what souvenir did I purchase for Stany and Shanty to take back to India as a reminder of this experience?: a set of spurs that are worn on boots used to provoke the spirited horses to buck! How thoughtful is that gift?!!

Before returning to Portland we rode around to other sightseeing. The Native American Museum associated with the Tamastglikt Cultural Institute near Pendleton included excellent exhibits relating to life current and present. Especially touching to me was walking through a replica of an Indian Boarding School where, for many decades, native cultural was systematically undermined with attempts to make traditional peoples become culturally white. We enjoyed huckleberry pie and cookies, fry bread/elephant ears (with sugar and cinnamon), and walked around the many booths set up for tourists in Pendleton`s city center. Stany and Shanti were especially pleased to take pictures of apple orchards near Milton Freewater where they strode amongst trees weighed down with dark red fruit ready for harvest. As in the Portland Rose Garden last week, Shanty observed how ``This is like heaven``! Additional glimpses of the Columbia River Gorge completed the weekend adventure, with stops at Maryhill Art Museum and a replica of Stonehenge (a 1,500 BCE ruin in England) which was built on a site dedicated to U.S. soldiers who died in World War I.

A relative day of rest on Sunday preceded the wild ride of events and meetings that would commence with the In-Service event at Portland Community College (PCC) on September 19th. Included among the additional meetings Stany and I attended were those held for Subject Area Committee (SAC) Chairs, all employees at the PCC Rock Creek Campus, the PCC Cascade Campus Social Science Division, the PCC Educational Advisory Council (EAC), and the Internationalization Steering Committee at PCC. 6 meetings totaling 16 hours in four days (thankfully Wednesday was not booked)! Stany was recognized as a special guest throughout and had many opportunities to begin relationships with people throughout the PCC system. Though quite tired each night, Stany seemed to thrive throughout it all, enjoying the ride and while absorbing a vast amount of information in such a short period of time. As classes commence next week, I believe that he may be declared well-oriented to understand how this institution operates!

Conversations of interest generated through topics inspired by this wild ride of information could certainly fill a roller coaster! The most stimulating of these related to issues that included homosexuality, student leadership development, faculty teaching styles, educational cost and funding concerns, curriculum development, and competing views regarding the role of education in society. At the EAC Meeting, for example, two hours were devoted to small and large group discussions responding to an article entitled ``Libe and Learn: Why We Have College`` by Louis Menand of Harvard University. Summarized briefly, Dr. Menand sought to objectively outline three theories of education he sees as competing for our allegiance; 1) a Merit Theory which sees the role of the teacher to separate the ``more intelligent from the less intelligent`` students via a grading system, 2) a type of Liberal Arts Theory which sees the primary purpose to socialize students to become citizens reflecting the ``mainstream of reason and taste`` in society, and 3) a Vocational Theory which that seeks to prepare students for employment by focusing on developing specialized skills.

Stany and I were among only a few of the 40 faculty and administrators present who took the discussion to a level which questioned Dr. Menand`s claim of objectivity and rejected the three theories all reflecting a common but crippling flaw: All frame the discussion with an unspoken assumption that sees the student as a commodity which the teacher must will with knowledge and somehow prepare to fit functionally into society as it currently operates. The idea that our personal and institutional responsibilities should extend to caring for the social and emotional needs of each student is largely absent. To not enter that realm of responsibility, which (to use the psychologist Abraham Maslow as a reference) is to virtually overlook the addressing of physiological, security, social, and self esteem needs that may be foundational to any student being academically successful. What is more, the lip service we may give to fulfilling critical and creative thinking objectives remain hollow if we are more concerned about 1) ranking students, 2) socializing students, or 3) getting students jobs – than actually helping to empower students to make their own choices as more self-actualized individuals (and more capable of changing society as it currently operates)!

Should not struggling with considerations of what justice should mean be also central to an ideal educational process? Should not teachers of higher education be more than competent purveyors of information and (radical thought?) become Professors? Should not the best Professors be more than evangelists for their own point of view and become leaders among those who seek improved understandings of what is True? I have no doubt that those I look up to would say yes to all three of these questions. People like Buddha, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammad, Galileo, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. are among those who inspire me to say yes. Yet to say yes certainly risks the enduring the wrath of society as it functions at the time. All of those I look up to have had to sacrifice the abuse of others (often giving up their lives) for the sake of greater justice in present and future generations. Shall the consequences of my commitments be any different? Should yours?

Life itself is quite a wild ride. That it sometimes includes honors and flowers is most pleasant. That it must include pain and sacrifice must be equally accepted.

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