Monday, March 16, 2015

Big Island State Park, Albert Lea, MN

I got a grant, compliments of the Legacy Amendment for 2015, to travel and stay and write about a number of Minnesota's state parks. This is the first photo dump of that endeavor, from Big Island, March 14-15. 

Albert Lea Lake. 

some kind of terrestrial snail.
some kind of overwintered mushroom, looks a bit chantrelle-ish.
Downy Woodpecker.

deer vertebre and skull. 

esker walk.

Friday, January 30, 2015

This Blog is Going Back to Regularly Scheduled Self-Promotion and Family Photos...

new cover. little, brown and company.
new author photo. erik koskinen.


History, science, adventure and fantasy combine in this tale that carries readers from the plains of Kansas to Antarctica.
In mid-19th-century Tolerone, Kansas, the sparklingly named Hallelujah Wonder is moping: pining for her murdered scientist-explorer father, lonely for her Massachusetts roots and awakening to the moral dilemma of slavery. This last has been brought about by the growing abolitionist movement and her friendship with Eustace, an enslaved boy. Hallelujah narrates in the present tense, interspersing her accounts with asides to readers, making for a tone that is both cozy and bluntly practical (Hallelujah is determined to be scientific): “Looks like you croaked,” she remarks at one point to a dead rattlesnake. The core propulsion of the plot is a mysterious, shrunken Medicine Head that Hallelujah’s father brought back from an expedition and that the evil sea captain Cornelius Greeney now seeks. Charged with its protection, Hallelujah and Eustace set out on an adventure that simultaneously challenges and defends Hallelujah’s scientific worldview. Pulse-quickening exploits and taut descriptions will keep readers riveted. Some moments are too obviously teaching moments, such as when Hallelujah admonishes readers to think about not being wasteful, but they are not particularly distracting. 
Set against the growing-pains backdrop of pre–Civil War America, both reflecting and supporting Hallelujah’s coming-of-age story, Helget’s tale celebrates the curiosity and mystery of life. (Adventure. 8-13)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SCC Update: Why am I bothering you?

As a young woman, I made a number of choices that could have set me up for lifelong failure. I didn’t do as well as I could have in high school. One of my favorite stories I like to share with students is how I got an F in high school English. Somehow, I got into SDSU to study nutrition, but I was more interested in beer and boys and got an F in college physical education (once I ran 2 miles in that class completely intoxicated), among other withdrawals and incompletes. I didn’t have the slightest idea under heaven how to manage money. I moved home and tried classes at MSU, Mankato, for business, a “practical” decision, one that seemed to respond to the current industry needs. Again, a number of withdrawals and Cs and warnings that I had put on academic probation and that my financial aid was at risk commenced. I started waitressing and bartending, and I worked as a laborer at a road construction company back home.
I became pregnant. I dropped out.
That is the very quick, condensed summary of events.
After I had my daughter and then my son 11 months later, I used to sit around in the house and read. Although I didn’t always score so well in my high school English classes (Completely my fault. I was lazy.), I had a number of teachers tell me that my reading comprehension was “very good,” and I had a religion teacher who used to push books upon me. Tolstoy. Hugo. Cervates. You can handle it, she suggested.
I decided to go back to those books. Suddenly, while the babies climbed upon the chairs and tables and left jelly handprints on the walls and carpet and howled at every moment in between, everything interested me. At the time, there was a used bookstore in New Ulm, the town I was living in, and I would tote those two babies down there as I perused the shelves and filled up a plastic bag with classics, westerns, histories, and young adult books for $5. I brought them home and read and thought all the time. The books got me through some severely depressive times (post-partum blues probably). Then, I decided to go back to school. My mom agreed to watch my kids while I took classes, so off I went to MSU, Mankato, again, this time for literature. Yes, I got some questions such as, what are you going to do with that? and are there job prospects in those fields? But even the people who said those things were still helpful and supportive. Onward I pressed.
My mind opened like a moon flower.
I still struggled with attendance (babies!) and assignments (babies!) sometimes, but I was learning. I was learning so much, and I was so happy with that learning that my next big problem was settling upon a major. While I had originally intended to do literature, suddenly I was also interested in preschool teaching, elementary teaching, high school science teaching, history, technical editing, women’s studies, and law.
What a wonderful problem to have.  
Oh, I settled upon English literature because I had the largest number of credits in that area.  
It’s worked out pretty well for my kids and me. And, I am so grateful that I’ve been able to apply all of those interests to the two careers I stumbled into: teaching and writing.
The moral of the story is that there’s redemption for everyone. I was lucky, in that I had a support system that didn’t allow those series of bad decisions to debilitate me for life. Most of students I worked with, did not. Just ONE of those bad decisions would have set them on a preordained course of lifelong struggle.
As a teacher, I told students, I and my colleagues were that support system. If they hadn’t had it before, we were going to provide it. Your mind, I told them, protect it. Cultivate it. Your mind is your way up. I honestly, fully believed that education was the last equalizer left in this country.
Well, as you already know, I believe a movement exists to take even that away from these students. You can read all about that HERE if you want to.

My campaign against the current administration at SCC and the implementation of Charting the Future is dreary, weary, and possibly boring. But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important or that you shouldn’t care or help. And, I definitely wouldn’t do it if I didn’t feel it was right. I'm alienating people. I'm offending people. Still, I think what I am forwarding is correct and important.
Annette Parker might be good at delivering the prepared message. She might be politically savvy. She might have snowballed people you respect or vote for. But there isn’t a move she’s made so far that helps students or helps this community for the long term. What she’s doing is softening the climate for current and future industries to come in here and take advantage of everything we care about. What she’s doing is spending lots and lots of money on interests that build her own resume and put her in the perfect position to move on to something bigger (which is exactly what is happening with the City of Chicago schools where the exact same implementation began in 2011, with the help of McKinsey).

I want students to have the opportunity to mess up a little, but grow and recover and succeed. Community colleges are wonderful places to that. I want to save SCC and of every other MnSCU 2-year from becoming what Annette Parker and Charting the Future have in mind, uncaring, online job mills with CEOs as the customer rather than the students.

I mean, just on a human level, doesn’t it make you sad? Feel cold? So, that’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I keep bothering you. I personally know the faculty. I personally know the staff. I definitely personally know the students. I know the building and the previous administration. We didn’t always agree upon things, but there was never a question that the students’ and community’s best interest weren’t at heart. They were. Those who know the history of the school and the community can project the kinds of hopes that might be possible for SCC, North Mankato, and southern Minnesota. McKinsey consultants can't do that. They don't even want to. What they do is find people, greedy in some cases, ignorant in others, a combination of both in some cases (bing! bing! bing!), to force action on unprepared places. North Mankato was unprepared. Minnesota, despite all the warnings from nearby states, was very disappointingly unprepared and folded to the "game changing" rhetoric, pitched by McKinsey as early as 2009 to government, community, and education leaders, and now everywhere I hear fools parroting it. Game changers! 
I am a writer. I know a lot of words. Right now, though, I don’t even have them to express my profound and sincere despair.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Charting the Future: How to Bust the Union

Feigning personal attacks where none are happening is a type of logical fallacy, straw man, where you pretend your opposing party is saying something that they are not and argue against what your opposing party hasn’t said. It’s a type of manipulation that exploits people’s emotions regarding particularly hot issues.

So if a person were to ask, Hey, why did this class get cut, and the other person, rather than straightforwardly answer the question, were to respond with, Do I have to show you my birth certificate? that would be a straw man fallacy.

My judgment, our judgments, of Annette Parker conclude that her professionalism is poor, that her motives regarding hiring and contracts that cost the students, college, and taxpayers money are suspect, that she intimidates her faculty, staff, and students, and that she is in over her head with the budget of South Central College. I conclude that she is ill-equipped to be the president of South Central College. That conclusion is based on her actions and words in relationship to her job as the PRESIDENT of South Central College. A certain level of scholarship and management and professionalism should be expected of a community college president. She fails in all three areas. She might be offended by those conclusions, but none of us walks around in this world with the right to remain unoffended. She is a public employee in a very public position with an enormous amount of compensation (which, by the way, should be up for public scrutiny), paid for by us. Her skills, or lack thereof, are up for public examination. Her personal life is not and has not been. To pretend as though she is the victim of bullying, which I and others have been accused of, is only another manipulation or again indicative that she does not have what it takes to be our community college’s president. 

So, no. Neither I nor any one else need to see your birth certificate. The budgets that clearly define what you’ve done with so much money would be nice, though. The documents that explain what, exactly, you and Chancellor Rosenstone and your CEO braintrust have in mind for South Central College would also be appreciated.

Yes, we have tried to approach the union representative with these concerns. Over the past year, faculty concerns about the administration of SCC have been repeatedly raised with the union. Union leadership has repeatedly defended administration tactics and has failed to provide any information to faculty about questionable academic decisions and wasteful secretive spending to old friends and religious leaders.

Specifically, faculty have asked why no marketing dollars have been spent to support the Liberal Arts and Sciences offerings of the college. Several questions were raised about failing to hire adequate student support staff, such as academic advisors when persons have left those positions and yet, a new position, a “personal assistant” to the President has been created. Faculty have raised concerns about the removal of valued colleagues for ‘budgetary reasons’ when no budget outlining the financial condition of the college has ever been provided for review. Significant concerns about the hostile work environment created by continued harassment and intimidation and threats by administration have been raised with the president of the union on numerous occasions. No answer was given other than to identify persons who raised concerns as ‘a small faction of disgruntled employees’. 

Even though “a small faction” does not accurately represent the number of fearful and overwhelmed employees who seek answers (I know this because I get desperate emails on a regular basis from folks at SCC [and now from RCTC] who want help), I will propose this to the union president: even if it’s ONE faculty member who has expressed these concerns, it is your job to represent that faculty member.

At one point last semester, faculty members who were not union leadership took it upon themselves to seek audience with President Parker to ask questions that were being unanswered by the union. President Parker specifically indicated that ‘they need to go through the appropriate channel of the union’ to receive a response, and that these faculty members do not speak for the faculty as a whole. Only the union speaks for the faculty as a whole.


Why has the union been unresponsive to faculty concerns?  Several theories abound. It is interesting to note that the very first lay-off list issued by President Parker when she took the realm of SCC included the North Mankato Union President. She later removed him from that list by metaphorically wrapping a cloak around him and including him in multiple inner-circle discussions. Since that point, he has been a stalwart supporter of the President—as an individual—not as a representative of the faculty, in the opinion of some of the faculty.

So what are they, faculty in the union but not represented by the union president, supposed to do?

My advice to them was to call and write every legislator they could think of, and I indicated that I would too, on their behalf and for the students and for the rest of us Minnesotans. I did.  

And, that’s what they did, too. Unable to obtain answers to any questions within the ‘appropriate channels’ of the Union, faculty have approached, as individuals, elected officials to raise concerns about the extremely difficult conditions of SCC. 

One of the elected officials specifically said ‘we have been informed by the union that the union supports President Parker and the changes that are occurring at SCC. The concerns are being raised by a small faction of disgruntled faculty who are just engaging in bullying of the administration. We are not going to get involved in a union dispute amongst faculty factions. This isn’t an issue we’re going to get involved in, but the bullying needs to stop.’

It is one thing to not raise the concerns of the faculty to the administration. It is another thing, entirely, to actively discredit the legitimate concerns of the faculty to elected officials. The union membership deserves leaders who will seek truth. The current union leadership has actively undermined the faculty.

And, from me, personally, a Wellstone Democrat, to the two DFL legislators who have dismissed their concerns: YOU, more than anyone are supposed to protect healthy unions and be sensitive to the shredding of them. Falling for these fallacies and ducking away is beneath your positions. Step back and look at the whole picture. A CEO-advised education plan implemented into the state’s college system. A Chancellor who hand-selects presidents from an arm of McKinsey and Company, a notorious right-wing consulting and research (*cough*) group. Immediate friction among faculty union members.

What do YOU think is going on?  

The real shame here is that these ridiculous sparks keep distracting from the real issue, which is that the path for Charting the Future has been hidden from the people who are directly affected by it everyday. Why are MnSCU policies, once followed to a T, now dismissed whenever administration finds it necessary to dismiss them? Why is there an explosion in administrative positions and spending, but class cuts, faculty cuts, program cuts, staff cuts abound? Tell us and the students and the community where this leading. Provide the plan. We know, with your new focus on business and business practices, that you have one. Show it to us.

Disgruntled indeed. Who wouldn’t be?

Here I have to note that I am not the only author of this piece but cannot disclose the other authors. They fear for their jobs.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Value of Liberal Arts. By Nathan Dril, SCC graduate and transfer student to MSU, Mankato.

Every day when we wake up, the world is a slightly more dynamic place.  The global economy is growing more complex, and economic interactions are requiring interdisciplinary education to properly assess issues facing the world today.  For instance, agriculture is no longer as simple as planting, tending, and harvesting plants for food.  Agriculture jobs today require a deep understanding of horticulture, plant biology, molecular and microbiology, energy, chemistry, and genetics.  Tack onto that the global economy surrounding agriculture and you can add sociology, government policy, and trade law.  Now we have to understand the agriculture business, and the ethics surrounding it.  Without a background in these subjects, it is impossible to truly understand, discuss, and innovate in agriculture.
What has changed with the world that led these general education subjects to become necessary?  Nothing.  It’s always been incredibly valuable.  Leonardo DaVinci, arguably the greatest innovator in human history, is often referred to as a polymath, a person with wide-range knowledge.  Today, we have people like Vaclav Smil breaking down extremely complex subjects like global energy use and the history of human consumption.  Without this important wide-range knowledge, such feats would be impossible.
We cannot simply rely on these historically significant geniuses to arise.  We need to create them with proper education and a network conducive to understanding the modern world.  As we traverse the age of the internet, our culture is growing interconnected on a level never before seen.  Any person with internet access can provide their input on a range of topics from sports and popular culture, to more complex issues like race relations, evolution, or climate change.  This is how popular opinion and democratic policy is being shaped.

The problem arises when we look at the credibility of the loudest voices.  It becomes clear very quickly when discussing the subject of evolution, that the denier lacks basic information about biology.  It becomes clear very quickly when discussing the subject of climate change, that the denier lacks basic information about chemistry.  This is why you see such a discrepancy between scientists and politicians on these subjects.  This is why we have the second highest population of evolution deniers among the developed world.  Our education system is failing.

“And I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”  - David Foster Wallace “This is water”.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Charting a Bridge to Nowhere, and Other Corporatized Abstractions: A View from MCTC.

This is a submitted piece from DP Weiland.

This fall semester, Minneapolis Community and Technical College closed six technical programs and took steps to reduce our course offerings in the liberal arts as well, impacting scores of students. We were told that our low composite financial index (driven primarily by depreciation costs of our new buildings) and the general, state-wide higher education budget woes would harm our institution and possibly lead to accreditation issues with the Higher Learning Commission unless quick measures were taken to lower costs. We would have to close programs that were not sustainable. It is tragic and unfortunate, administration said, but it had to be done. 

Administrations such as ours and those at other two-year institutions, guided by principles set forth through McKinsey and other interest groups, are set in their thinking that technical program closures, layoffs, and “streamlining” (reducing/cutting course offerings) the liberal arts curriculum is the best avenue through which to address budget shortfalls, which sets up a dangerous path for higher education in Minnesota, one which is seemingly based upon the needs of interests outside of those of our students.

While our administration was transparent in their decision-making process, it appears as though these cuts were as much driven by the philosophical underpinnings of Charting the Future as much or more than the actual financial reality. One such example is barbering. Barbering was not only unique in the MnSCU system, but also drew many male African-American students to from the surrounding community to them. The rationale for its closure was the high loan default rate and relatively low starting wage. While I can understand the first concern, given recent edicts from the federal government regarding institutional responsibility for loan defaults under Title IV (an odious federal mandate that will disproportionately affect low income and students of color), I fail to see why we equate average wage as the sole measure of program sustainability. Anyone who has ever visited north Minneapolis or other predominantly African American community will realize the enormous cultural value barber shops have. For many years, they have served as social hubs of African American communities across the country and have been one of the few avenues in urban settings through which African American men became entrepreneurs. If Minneapolis Community & Technical College is the most diverse college in the two year system, with so many of our students being African American men who have been marginalized by institutional racism present in our justice and K-12 education systems, why on earth would we close a program that has historic and cultural relevance to the black community and also succeeds in giving opportunity and a chance at economic privilege to one of the most vulnerable student populations we have?  While it is true that there are other technical program options for those students, why target one that has such an important place in the community from which we draw a large percentage of our students?  At best, it seems short-sighted. At worst, it affirms and reinforces institutional racism.

I find it hard to believe that the timing of the Charting the Future roll-out and the closure of six programs is purely coincidental. When almost the exact same language of financial panic is used at other two-year colleges to justify layoffs of faculty and attacks on individual programs, it becomes hard not to believe that a coordinated assault against faculty is underway. Frontline staff and professionals in AFSCME and MAPE had suffered the year previous, now it was our turn. We needed to “have some skin in the game”, I was told.  At the same time, we brought in an interim VP of Student Affairs and gave one interim dean a permanent position. Both without a national search.

At MCTC, many course sections and adjuncts had already been cut, so the notion that faculty have not bared their share of the financial burden is ridiculous. At one of our shared governance meetings this past semester, we pushed administration to see that their own hiring practices are problematic, in that if there was money available to offer administrative positions (comfortably in the six-figures) it would suggest that there could be other avenues of cuts and reconfigurations so that we could sustain programs. In response, we were told that administration would not comment on personnel issues.

Perhaps I was na├»ve coming into this academic year. I thought that a statewide push to cut the bureaucratic red tape that hinders student success would reinvigorate the two-year system and serve our students’ best interests. That’s how Charting the Future was marketed, and I was eager to believe it. Unfortunately, what I have seen since then is an agenda being pushed by consultants and policy wonks at the MnSCU system office (some of whom who have never so much as taught a single session of single course at any level) that seemingly dismisses experiential classroom evidence, labeling discussions of classroom culture “vague” or “sticky”. The rubric rules the day. If there isn’t a clear metric that demonstrates at program’s value in terms of wages, then the program isn’t worth having. It has become more and more clear that Charting the Future mandates are not based on the best pedagogical practices. We know that much of the innovative work we do in the classroom isn’t readily quantifiable or able to be charted- that’s just the nature of teaching. We also know that the most important word in our school’s name is “community”. The proposed architecture of narrowly-defined degree pathways like those proposed is anathema to that concept.

Our institution functions on the student-faculty dynamic. Everything else functions in support of that. To infantilize students by saying that they would do better with fewer choices strikes me as profoundly short-sighted as well as insulting. It further reinforces that our students are customers purchasing a job ticket rather than active community members seeking to be educated. The person who wishes to take a class or two for personal enrichment is not institutionally valued. Get in, get your degree, get out and contribute to the production cycle.

I believe in the value of a liberal arts education, and I also believe in offering wide range of technical programs that speak to the needs of the community being served. Doing so offers a diverse set of educational opportunities and vocational choices for our students. Charting the Future will undermine both.