A New Semester

The Fall 2017 semester has begun at College of Marin. After a summer of relative leisure, I’m finding myself falling into some recognizable mental patterns of reflection now that I’m back in the classroom.

This semester, in addition to three sections of Introduction to Philosophy, I’m teaching Ethics, Logic, and World Religions; 18 units altogether. This is a normal load for a community college instructor, though for university instructors it seems excessively heavy. I recall, many years ago, when I was hired at my first teaching job at a community college back east, my graduate school mentor was incredulous when I told her how many units I would be carrying. She was convinced that teaching so many classes was an impossibility. Of course the difference between her position and mine is that she’s required to produce a consistent body of research while there are no such pressures on me. At the community college, the emphasis is on teaching, not research, and so most of my time is spent in the classroom or in my office preparing lectures and assignments, grading, or (more often than I like) sitting in committee meetings that go on for way too long and that accomplish way too little.

I think I would be doomed if I had to go back to working a regular 9-5 job at this point in life. I’ve become so used to the rhythm of the academic semester system that I just could not imagine working without the anticipation of midterms and finals, or the end of the semester and graduation ceremonies. These markers help to put a frame around the march of time, giving me something to look forward to and making it feel as if there is a predictable and finite span until significant goals are achieved. I like the beginning/middle/end structure of the semester. It suits my Aristotelian tastes.  Each term begins as I meet a new group of interesting (and interested) students while reconnecting with familiar ones. There is a sense of excitement about the material that we will study and the conversations that we will have. I enjoy the challenge of trying to maintain this excitement as the weeks draw on into months and the initial novelty of taking a philosophy class starts to wane for some students. It is usually around midterms that parking becomes easier to find on campus; an indication of diminished motivations and recalculated priorities. But nevertheless, as the semester races toward final exams, there is a crescendo of anticipation that seems inevitably to reinvigorate even the most lax students. They all want to finish strong, and so do I.

The fact that I’m the only full-time philosophy instructor on the College of Marin campus means that I get to schedule the times of my own classes. This is yet another aspect of my work situation that I can’t imagine giving up. While there are certain time slots that are in high demand with students, happily those are usually the very periods that I myself prefer in any case. Online classes are particularly popular, and the late morning and early afternoon on-campus classes allow a leisurely and refreshed start to the day, with time to study books that, even if I wasn’t a teacher, I would read during my free-time in any case. What other job pays you to read Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger or Stirner? Most jobs probably discourage it!

But my greatest source of enjoyment teaching at College of Marin comes from having regular conversations about philosophy. Socrates, in his Apology, said that daily discourse about virtue is a necessary component of a life worth living, and while I have my own struggles with despair and meaninglessness, it would be much more difficult to endure these struggles without my daily conversations with students. There are mornings when I wake up gripped with fears about death and the pointlessness of doing anything at all, but then when I walk into the classroom and conversation takes off, I feel swept away by a flow of ideas and thoughts that make me forget about anything else. Often, I’m surprised (and disappointed) when the period comes to an end and I have to retreat back to my office to work in solitude on other projects. I often tell students that we are uniquely lucky to have the opportunity to discuss and entertain the most important questions of all time in our philosophy classes. Outside, in the everyday world, we are discouraged from asking these very same questions, as they are considered by many people to be troubling or useless. To me this always seemed odd and ironic. Why are the most important questions – Who am I? Why am I here? Does life have any meaning? – disparaged and dismissed by those we spend most of our waking lives talking to? Why, instead, do we spend most of our time engaged in activities that, in the grand scheme of things, really are meaningless; activities like watching stupid TV shows, shopping, surfing the internet, working at boring jobs, or making small talk? Is it because we are scared to confront the big issues? Or is it because we have allowed ourselves to be manipulated by others who want us to remain placid and complacent with the way things are?

In annoyance, I once told an advertising specialist who was designing an ad campaign for the College of Marin, “I do not teach students anything. I learn along with them.” To my surprise, I later found these words emblazoned along with my own photograph on ads that appeared in local newspapers, on the sides of local buses and on a larger-than-life-sized banner that now hangs in the College of Marin Student Center. It’s rather funny how an off-the-cuff, irritated remark could be construed as a slogan that might attract students to the school. Now that I have some distance from that remark, however, I’ve come to realize that it does honestly sum up my own attitude toward teaching philosophy. While the Truth forever slips through our grasp, it is the process of  jointly (and vainly) searching for that Truth that is important. Nothing else.

 

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The Pukes

The Pukes were one of the great Marin punk bands from the early 1980’s. There is very little online information about them, but someone on Youtube has just posted their demo tape:

Headed by lead singer Ricky Paul – who would vomit on demand while performing – The Pukes regularly played at the original Sleeping Lady Cafe in Fairfax, CA, as well as at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco, and at many underground warehouse shows and parties in and around Marin County.

Ricky committed suicide in 1984 while attending the San Francisco Art Institute. His death affected all of us young Marin punks very deeply. It was, in fact, the first time that I myself had ever experienced the loss of a friend, and it was to have a permanent effect on me. I still often think about – and miss – Ricky to this very day. He was a sensitive, friendly and very smart guy.

I have a lot of warm, hilarious memories about Ricky. There was one time when I gave him a ride home from the College of Marin and, upon dropping him off, he attacked my car with a dead tree branch that he had found lying somewhere nearby. As I tried to speed away, he jumped in front of my car, bounced off the hood and rolled off into the street, coming to rest immobile on his back. I thought I had killed him, but when I ran to his aid, Ricky jumped up, laughing. He threw his arms around me and thanked me for the ride.

My wife remembers the first time she met Ricky. She was waiting at the bus stop when he came walking by. Upon seeing a fellow punk, Ricky greeted her, shouting “Hey! Punk rock!” He then sat down and offered to share his lunch with her: a tuna fish sandwich that he had carried to school.

A friend who knew Ricky, but had never seen him perform, attended a show at the Sleeping Lady Cafe one night. This friend was unprepared for the vomit launch that occurred about halfway through the set. He turned white and fled the club, later telling me that he would never be able to look at Ricky the same way again.

The Pukes continued on after the loss of Ricky, with Walter taking over as lead singer. Walter was a unique character, hilarious in a way different from Ricky. He fronted the “New” Pukes for quite some time, playing lots of shows with Sacripolitical in Marin and in San Francisco.

A memorial gathering took place in honor of Ricky at the Sleeping Lady Cafe after his death. Sacripolitical played, and just about every punk in Marin attended. People shared memories, tears and grief. For some of us who had personal grudges against one another, this was an opportunity to come together, forget old feuds, and affirm our solidarity in Ricky’s memory. We all loved him.

The Pukes @ College of Marin. 1983? Ricky Paul on the microphone.

Paul Christensen, 1941 – 2016.

Paul @ TablePaul Christensen died on June 18th, 2016.

Paul was a professor of sociology at the College of Marin for over 40 years, serving as the chairman of the sociology department and as chief negotiator for The United Professors of Marin. A controversial figure on the COM campus, Paul was a tenacious fighter for worker’s rights, brokering one of the strongest teacher contracts in place at any US college. His efforts in this regard earned him a hated reputation among many COM administrators, while also earning him the gratitude and admiration of many of his peers.

Students, likewise, had widely polarized opinions of Paul. Some loved him while others hated him. Comments posted on Rate My Professors range from the laudatory to the insulting, with his outspoken, sometimes “vulgar,” manner being appreciated by some as “awesome” and condemned by others as “repulsive.” Either way, student opinions of Paul were never luke-warm. He was a teacher who left a lasting impression on anyone who sat in his classes.

I am one of those students who loved Paul. In 1982 I had just graduated from high school and was more concerned with riding motorcycles and listening to punk rock music than I was with studying. I began attending the College of Marin mostly to appease my parents, and it was during my first semester there that I enrolled in Paul’s social deviance and problems course. The class, unsurprisingly, was filled with a large number of nonconformist youth, including a gorgeous girl with a purple crew cut who eventually became my wife.

Paul had what it took to grab my attention as a 17-year-old. He was big, – well over 200 pounds – bald and aggressive. He lectured in an informal style, hands in pockets, freely using profanities. During one discussion on the dynamics of state power, I vividly recall him warning the class how in the real world, challenging police authority gives cops the permission to “kill your ass!” Such gruff vulgarities turned some students off, but at that point in my life, Paul was exactly what I needed. He spoke frankly about violence, power, sex; all in a down-to-earth manner that was startling but also attention grabbing and entertaining. Here was a teacher who appealed to my teenage sensibilities, showing me that academic study did not require the adoption of inauthentic affectation or pretension.

I recall being overwhelmingly excited that a block of the social deviance and problems class was devoted to the study of punk rock. In connection with this, Paul introduced students to Dick Hebidge’s classic Subculture: The Meaning of Style, a book that remains a landmark in subcultural studies, and to the works of Erving Goffman and Edwin Pfuhl. At that pivotal point in my life, he showed me that it was possible to apply serious academic theory to things of intimate importance to me; things that were a part of my own experience. He taught me that I could bend my educational experience to fit my own passions and interests rather than passively allowing myself to be bent by the school establishment.

After leaving the College of Marin – and because of Paul’s inspiration – I went on to study sociology at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I eventually decided to switch my focus to philosophy; a switch that Paul at one point told me amounted to “the same thing.” All through the years I pursued studies in philosophy, Paul’s influence remained present in my mind, and indeed, I count him as one of three professors throughout my life who have (knowingly or unknowingly) been my most important guides and role models. With his death, only one of these role models now remains.

My relationship with role models has always been fraught with ambivalence. On the one hand, I need them. Their presence in my life offers concrete proof of what it is possible to achieve, giving me confidence that my own dreams and hopes are not completely implausible. On the other hand, I’ve found that if I get too close to my role models and start to see their flaws, they begin to fall in my eyes. For this reason I have found it necessary to keep them at a bit of a distance if I hope to retain my sense of idealistic admiration.

This certainly applies to my relationship with Paul Christensen.

After earning my Ph.D. in philosophy, I eventually returned to College of Marin as a professor, and thus became Paul’s colleague. It was impossible for me to shake off the feelings that I had developed toward him as a student, and though I periodically socialized with him and other COM professors, I retained the need to keep him at arm’s length so that he would not become too familiar or commonplace to me. This eventually became harder and harder for me to do.

As Paul’s physical condition began to decline, and as I became increasingly unnerved by what looked to me like a disregard for his own health, I one day made a comment about his overindulgence in alcohol; a comment that he did not receive very well. He became angry at my impertinence, telling me that his drinking habits were none of my business. He was right of course, and I apologized. Nonetheless, I told him, he really did not understand exactly how important he was to me. It was a confession I felt I needed to make, and it stopped Paul in his tracks. It was as if a switch had been flipped, and I could see the previously welled up anger dissipate in an instant. Although he didn’t say anything in response, I’m certain that he knew what I was getting at; or I at least hope he understood what I was getting at, since it was one of the last times that I talked with him before his death.

Without Paul Christensen my life would have been very different than it has turned out to be. I already miss him very much.