My Mini-Autobiography

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This document expands upon the summary provided in my résumé. Most of the links in this text lead to other materials that I have written and, in a few cases, to videos that I have posted on YouTube. Please feel free to add comments (below) or contact me, anonymously or otherwise, with suggestions, questions, and related thoughts.

First Career: Corporate

I was born in 1955 in rural Indiana. I attended a one-room school. The teacher, Mr. Gemmer, imparted to me his lifelong love of learning. In 1973, I graduated from DeKalb High School and began pre-ministerial studies at Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, MI. These studies included history, theology, Greek, and German. By taking overloads and testing through a few courses, I completed most of the requirements for Concordia’s A.A. degree in that first year, so I transferred to Indiana University. A crisis of faith led to the end of my pre-ministerial studies, to the study of philosophy and literature at Cal State Long Beach and, eventually, to Columbia University in New York.

After completing JD and MBA degrees, I spent the balance of the 1980s working primarily in corporate law firms. The principal exception was a period of unemployment extending intermittently from the start of 1986 to June 1987. During that 15-month interregnum, I renovated a condo that I would sell at a good profit a few years later, wrote a book about law, and held short appointments in several different businesses.

I decided against continuing in corporate law for several reasons. There was too great a disconnect between the solid principles discussed in school and the boring, trivial, and sometimes dishonest work I found myself doing in law practice. There was not much camaraderie among my colleagues. Our work could be socially and environmentally destructive, and our clients and their ambitions could be stunningly distasteful. I had already experienced a variety of things; I felt there was much more to life than the roles and lifestyles that mattered so much to the lawyers in these firms. Therefore, I moved to Colorado in 1989. In 1991, I published a critically recommended book, Take the Bar and Beat Me, discussing the process and experience of becoming a corporate lawyer.

Paths Not Taken. My first career presented numerous possibilities. Probably the most important fork in the road appeared when I chose to leave Long Beach and go to New York. Once there, Columbia taught me to assume that I would enjoy and fit within a corporate environment. Between that enthusiastic corporate quest and my ensuing equal and opposite reaction against it, I managed to neglect many intriguing alternatives. These included the noncorporate forms of legal practice with which I might have developed some acquaintance, the spreadsheet modeling possibilities that I could have pursued after leaving Bachelder’s in 1989, the business management work that I had enjoyed while running a printing shop in Long Beach, the interest in computers that began with my introduction to BASIC programming in 1979, and the appeal of operations research (not an area of focus at Columbia’s business school). The careerist mindset that pervaded my Columbia experience took me far from the intellectual orientation I had started with, and from sociable, thoughtful, and outdoor-oriented tendencies.

Transition. In the 1990s, focusing particularly on the academic side, I began to take myself more seriously as a writer and thinker. I followed Take the Bar with a variety of writings, notably including a plain-English restatement of Plato’s Republic and a 50,000-word peer-reviewed law journal article, as well as Bureaucrat: Service with a Smile, an amusing explication of inefficiency at a federal government agency, and Inside the Mind of a Judge, a parody of a book on legal philosophy written by a prominent federal jurist. My way of surviving the 1990s also gave me considerable opportunity to develop thoughts and experiences regarding the important things in life. I would study some of those issues in my second career.

Second Career: Academic

By 2003, I had several reasons to work toward a future as a college professor. That sort of work would reward me for writing and publishing things, and what I wrote would have a pedigree: coming from a college professor, it would be more likely to attract attention from influential people. A faculty position would allow me to do problem-solving work on a deeper level than most jobs permit. It would coexist with my lifelong insomnia and need for daytime naps. I would be working with, and would be supervised by, smart and creative people and, as such, would feel more like a welcomed colleague and less like a misfit. There would be rewarding social and counseling elements in my interactions with students.

Over the years, these hopes ran up against some realities in the changing world of academia. First, good jobs were hard to get. There were lots of new PhDs; there were Baby Boom professors whose financial reverses after 2007 made them less inclined to retire early; there were online classes and MOOCs. Tenured openings were rarer and more vulnerable; poverty-level adjunct positions were growing. The pursuit of learning seemed to have largely disappeared, among professors and students alike: everyone seemed focused on the question of what would bring in dollars. Higher ed itself had become more of a business, with increased emphasis upon fundraising rather than scholarship. When I did publish things, I would hear from the occasional professor, somewhere in the U.S., who would assign my articles to his/her students, but it did not appear that scholars were spending much time thinking about or discussing what other scholars had written. As one senior professor told me, he was too busy with classes and committees to “think the big thoughts.” There was little sense of creativity, energy, or enthusiasm. We, professors and students alike, were seemingly there to pass a few years pushing paper around.

It didn’t help that, by some magic, I managed to choose a double PhD major in two fields — social work and parks & recreation — whose graduate students rank at the very bottom in terms of GRE scores. That is, these were not very academically oriented fields. Moreover, I did this at Indiana University, which was the only PhD program to which I applied: my parents were still alive in that state, and IU did not require me to refresh my outdated GRE scores. Indiana was not strong in the departments I chose. By the time I had finished a few years of coursework, it seemed I was long overdue to be teaching these classes and, in some instances, these professors.

Frankly, some of my professors just didn’t want someone like me in their classrooms. I was a middle-aged former New York lawyer with a lot of life experience; I was a heterosexual white male; I was doing a fair amount of reading, in the scholarly literature, across multiple fields that they were not necessarily familiar with. Perhaps worst of all, my experience with legal education had taught me that I should have asked the hard questions in real time, rather than wait until my arrival in a career that might not be as I had dreamed. I never badgered my professors, but it was clear that I was not just taking things at face value.

In short, these were not matches made in heaven. As sometimes happens with overqualified people, eventually I attracted hostility from powerful people in both programs. One, the director of my assistantship in parks & rec in Bloomington, resented the fact that I had requested a transfer to a different assistantship, after wasting a year in his office. Multiple administrators, professors, and students spoke of that individual’s abusive and vindictive propensities. I do not know whether he actively solicited hostility toward me from people in the school of social work, when I moved on to that program in Indianapolis, after two years of coursework at Bloomington. It appears that the dean of social work may have found it convenient to dispose of me, so as to claim credit for certain innovative ideas I brought with me. For whatever reason, at a point when I had published a book and four peer-reviewed articles, graders in both parks & rec and social work implausibly flunked my qualifying papers. The papers were not actually of poor quality: one chapter was published and several others were amenable to publication.

Paths Not Taken. During these years, I deferred the clinical mental health and recreational therapy options that I had begun to learn about and practice, in such places as the ropes course at the University of Missouri and the Center for Independent Living in Ann Arbor. In other places, sadly, I continued to encounter numerous firsthand and secondhand experiences of useless and sometimes harmful interventions in the name of therapy, in both outdoor education and clinical social work. Rather than become part of the problem, among predominantly research-averse mentalities in either of those fields, it seemed advisable to continue to defer clinical practice and to become more acquainted with relevant research. Fields I would have liked to pursue, in that regard, included landscape architecture and civil engineering, on the parks & rec side; psychiatric nursing and occupational therapy, in the area of clinical mental health; and geography and public health, in the area of social policy. In addition, my year in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan reminded me of the potential advantages of study at a more competitive institution.

Transition. I emerged from Indiana University with a sharpened appreciation of genuine expertise, and with an interest in reforming areas of higher education that did not develop such expertise. Unfortunately, as I searched for a suitable PhD program to provide the degree that I had largely earned but been denied at Indiana, I did not find any schools of education or social work focusing on higher education reform. As a second-best, I entered a PhD program in educational statistics and research methods, within the school of education at the University of Arkansas. My assistantship there required me to teach undergraduate statistics. In November 2012, I caught several of my students blatantly cheating on an exam. As advised by the university’s ethics officer, I filed paperwork seeking appropriate sanctions against those students. It appears that a politically connected parent of one such student complained to the university’s provost. At that point, it seems, the dean panicked, possibly in connection with his belated discovery that I had blogged about adverse experiences at Indiana. He hastily removed me as instructor, marched into my classroom, and notified the accused students that there would be no ethical proceeding. Later, he professed regret at the possibility that he had mishandled the situation, but possibly that was not sincere: he proceeded to facilitate my ejection from the PhD program at the end of that academic year.

That account brings us up to mid-2013. In fall 2013, I commenced a long camping trip. I have continued since then to write about various topics. Another page offers a sample of my works.

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