• Just Visiting

    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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31 Years, 11 Months

I return to an elite university as a "renowned public scholar."

March 2, 2018
 
 

I was last on the Duke University campus 31 years 11 months ago, when I was visiting my older brother during my high school spring break, which happened to coincide with my 16th birthday and my brother’s 20th.

(Yes, my brother and I have the same birthday, four years apart.)

It was my first experience on a college campus not trailing along after my parents at a homecoming weekend. Ostensibly it was a “college visit,” though I don’t think I got within shouting distance of a class, and did not witness any studying or schoolwork, and my most vivid memory is seeing the 3/5 of the starting five on the Duke basketball team (the Jay Bilas/Quinn Snyder years) engaging in a little post-season decompression, if you know what I’m saying.

Duke would become the only college to reject me, primarily because I only applied to two colleges because while I knew I was going to college, I couldn’t muster much interest in the college application process. The college counselor made me rewrite my Duke essay after I answered a prompt about overcoming life’s challenges with a snarky little number about how difficult it was to go to a high school where people were driving a Mercedes Benz or Volkswagen Cabriolet to school while I was consigned to my parents’ Pontiac, provided neither of them needed it, in which case I was on the bus.

I was an entitled little turd making fun of even more entitled little turds, and I’m certain it was a bad look, particularly on a college application essay.

But at the time, it was certainly more honest than what I ended up submitting, something about having to get my tonsils out on Halloween when I was in 4th grade. I think the college counselor was hoping my semi-legacy status and high test scores would overcome my crappy attitude and disappointing grades.

They didn’t, which is at it should be. A place like Duke would’ve eaten me alive.

I’m spending a couple days on the Duke campus talking to some folks about reflective practices and pedagogy, and how to use those reflections as a vehicle to go public with those practices. To see what that looks like, you can read the archives of this blog. When I’m not titling at the windmills of systemic inequities in higher ed, I’m probably reflecting about something that happened in class which brings me back around to the systemic inequities in higher ed.

The electronic flier calls me a “renowned public scholar,” which I recognize as the kind of hype which belongs in a flier trying to stoke interest in such an event, but let’s at least pretend it’s not an unreasonable description.

It is that description which has caused more reflection than being back on the Duke campus after almost 32 years. I have been puzzling how such a thing has happened, and how I feel about it happening.

I am a “renowned public scholar” without a job or institution. I am a teacher without a classroom. There is no place for me to do my work inside higher education.

I named this blog “Just Visiting” because I was held the title of Visiting Instructor, and I liked the wordplay of “just” as both “only,” and “morally right.”

My time at Duke is the kind of visiting we should value in higher education, a chance to cross-pollinate. I’m learning as much from the people here as they’re learning from me.

I’m sure the sixteen-year-old me would be shocked to discover what the almost forty-eight year old me spends his time doing. He would be confused about why he cares about this stuff, why he continues to pursue a mission from the back of his trusted steed, Rocinate.

But in a lot of ways, I’m still that kid who wrote that snarky admissions essay. It didn’t make sense to me; I couldn’t understand what my answer to that question had to do with whether or not I should be admitted to a particular college.

Like sixteen-year-old me, I still look around and primarily see the things that don’t make sense and want them to be different. At 16, my only recourse was to point and mock. The difference over the years is I’ve discovered the things I do believe in, the sense that I’d like to make in the world.

“Renowned public scholar…” why not me? Why not run with it, see where it goes?

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