Not All Families Are Dysfunctional, Right?

February 15, 2024

As the world continues to spiral out of control, I find myself leaning on my friends. Some friends, though, I fear, are part of the problem. I’m thinking of the MSNBC crowd, who have become my companions in the wormhole. I can hear Glenn Kirschner’s voice, “Friends, I know it’s been long coming, but accountability in on its way.” He’s a comforting dad, a wise advisor, a trusted friend. He, like many in the MSNBC stable, dissolves the barrier between lofty expert and fellow sufferer. It’s remarkably humanizing; but it’s seductive and addictive too. How could we not be drawn in, and obsessively?

Andrew Weissmann is another who brings a dose of humanity to the cold and troubled world of law and politics and ultimate threats. His podcast, Prosecuting Donald Trump, with Mary McCord, is an unusual synthesis of legal reasoning and … giggling. The two hosts are comfortable talking through the maneuvers and principles and case history and possibilities—so much so that they have no fear letting their guard down in their podcast, showing at times their ignorance or personal quirks—and always their warm friendship and gentle teasing. The silliness is never that silly; it’s homey; it’s what it might feel like to have such experts living with you, sitting at your kitchen table, just being in the moment, along with all the momentous decisions and events they are committed to explain as best they can. I commend Andrew for his ability to turn on and off his professional expertise mode. I shouldn’t say “turn off,” since it’s never off; it’s just that he adds his personality and humanity in the podcast in ways we never really see when he’s on camera, where he’s pretty much all business. The subtext here is a kind of statement on how to manage all the baggage, the fallout, the potential despair of the topics being dissected. There’s logical principle, yes, but there’s also some larger, kinder, softer context. The two sides aren’t at odds. The full human being can be both analytical/world beating and humble/relaxed—and sweet with a friend sitting alongside you, even if she is in another state. 

The tone of so many of the MSNBC hosts promotes this humane integration.

And so, what chance do I stand in not becoming too dependent on them? I think my first plunge into this milieu was motivated out of a desire to check something off—to get finished with this Trump business so that I could get on with my life. I find I have often approached life’s problems with a “just get this thing done,” or checklist, approach, as though progress were possible, if only, if only. What I needed to realize then, and now, is that what is needed is an “acceptance of the process” as the default state. It’s an illusion that we can ever get beyond [fill in the blank]. What is needed is the right processing of things.

Journalists have always gotten this. Part of their business is to keep the “news” new—and continuing. There are no endpoints. All that matters is the production and consumption of the stories. The pressures of these realities lead to conditions of sensationalizing and controversy-mongering that are all too well known by anyone in a literate, modern society. In the context of my current condition, I have come to rely on MSNBC folk to be my family. We’re never done with family; we don’t check them off. We just plan to be with them through the years.

In the throes of these dynamics, I sometimes glimpse a version of things where a good balance is found among (1) finished, checked-off outcomes; (2) humanizing “being with” the experts; (3) other things—all mixed together in the right proportions to round off a fully human engagement.

Finding this proper balance has always been a need or an endeavor to be embraced—whatever the world conditions and whatever one’s politics. However, the current state of communication (in general) and social media (in particular), in a hyper-connected, hyper-technologized, hyper-threatened world has made our present moment unlike any in history. Add the destabilizations of Covid, with all its isolations. Add further—perhaps most of all—the growing pains associated with the unearthing of bigotries that for so many years in a pre-technologized world were allowed to fester unseen, unknown. 

The upshot: Psychological survival seems to demand that we retreat to our respective echo chambers, our “families,” just for the purpose of maintaining basic mental health.

Literature, philosophy, linguistics, and rhetorical theory—the stuff of my classes—should offer touchstones and foundations and routines on which to recover some stability. And while I feel empowered by the massiveness of uncertainty and method and humility (and appreciation) fostered by humanistic studies, I look on with sadness as the time for higher education seems to be receding. The reification of the university—like the reification of the fourth estate, or the reification of “democracy”—is dissolving before my very eyes, at Saint Xavier University, yes, but throughout our society, in its shorthand approaches to “information,” if not knowledge.

Maybe the term “growing pains” provides some hope? We’re always on the way to somewhere else, someplace that, if not an endpoint, might at least be a kind of benchmark or banked competence for “leveling up,” to borrow a concept from gaming culture. Even though we’re ever processing, surely some changes have registered. Maybe nothing so grand as an “arc of history bending towards justice.” But who can deny the improvements that the centuries have brought in regards to education and democracy and the good life? My family today is much larger than it ever could have been—even at earlier points in my own lifetime. Thank you, YouTube and MSNBC app and Xfinity. 

I have always been optimistic that the changes being wrought, especially by technology, portend more benefit than threat. But the pains of growing towards that benefit, not to mention the existential threats of a world on fire, have tempered that optimism. If only we can survive…. Survival-—be it for today, the 2024 election, the tipping point—is more than a “check-off” outcome on my list, right?

Thank You, Appellate Court

February 7, 2024

I am loathe to praise Donald Trump. I am so opposed to him and what he represents—perhaps just as opposed as his fiercest critics. That’s saying a lot, for the critics are so numerous, so talented, so diverse, so incisive, so funny—and on it goes. One boon (and potential curse) of technology and social media is the great availability of the analysis, cogitations, skits, declamations, and so on of like-minded people on just about any topic. Donald Trump has his critics and deriders, and I’ve marveled at just how thorough they can all be and in such creative and comprehensive ways.

Trump has also had his supporters, obviously, and it’s that group that compels so many of us to devote so much attention and energy to thinking/opining/worrying about him and his influence.

The praise concerns the way Trump has perfected a method, or rather the way he has been unflinching in the application of that method.

Some time ago, when Ron DeSantis was still a contender and mattered, John Oliver commented on Donald Trump’s designation of DeSantis as “Meatball Ron.” Oliver made a concession about Trump, commenting, with a smirk, “he’s still got it.” Oliver’s appreciative nod, right there alongside the biting satire before and after, got the balance of things right. As we deal with the insanity of a phenomenon like Trump, it’s best not to yell loudly all the time, but to give the devil his due, when earned. Smiling at Trump is an unpleasant prospect; but naming and acknowledging how Trump’s charisma and methods work provides a partial safeguard against him. Laughing at him needs to be done carefully—not only in the sense that his danger should never be dismissed as laughable, but also because meanness and attacking as gratifications in the wake of Trump provide only so much comfort, and that at the risk of some of our dignity, or at least our efforts to elevate our ways at improving things.

As of February 6, when the DC Appellate Court pronounced that Trump does not have unbounded presidential immunity, the tide, long in the making of turning, seems to have decisively turned against Trump. It’s now a matter of time. For so long the great defenders of democracy and justice, the great lawyers and commentators, like Glenn Kirschner, Meidas Touch folk, Andrew Weissmann, and others of the cable news/internet, have been promising, directly and indirectly, that the time was coming. That accountability, so long denied, was on its way. Until yesterday, no one could be certain.

That’s part of the whole insanity of the debacle of Trump—the calling into question all norms, all protections of civil society and the legal profession. But yesterday, after a delay too many of us felt was worrisome and extreme (despite the characterization of one month as “light speed” by those who have experience in appellate court timelines), the court ruled in a way to place some ground, terra firma, beneath our feet once again. Here was a circumstance where a specific response was called for, was needed—and here was a response where all the criteria were met, with elegance and power. And the world (or the part of it with its proper dose of TDS) sighed. We looked on in marvel as propriety, civility, adulthood, calm, and reasonableness were all on display in just the measure needed.

So why should Trump be praised? Part of me feels that, with the immunity question resolved (or on the fast track to resolution), the inevitability of accountability has been scripted; there are various possible drafts, but they all produce the same result. The word inexorable must be used once again. Trump had succeeded in calling into question the concept of inexorability. That was his genius. But he has met his match in some fine professionals in the court system.

What is Trump’s method? It’s more than shamelessness, though that’s a necessary condition. Trump’s method of assertiveness, of never backing down, of being the “perfect bully,” was—and remains—so flawless. It’s his devotion to his method, perhaps, that is so unprecedented. He has taken an idea and has shown us what it looks like to instantiate that idea without alloy or mitigation. Since 2015, I always thought a pivot was coming. To normal people, a strategy works and works and works—until it shows signs of breaking down and not working in the future. At such moments, lesser people will pivot. Trump has shown us what a powerful method looks like without the pivot. 

Never before has such an experiment been on display to so many, all connected, immersed in conversation and commentary. We looked on and wondered: Why would he so endanger himself when he could easily protect himself? The psychologists (most notably, his niece), and conscientious insiders like Barbara Res, give us the needed insight here—but that insight here is not my main concern. Trump has shown us things, almost as a public service.

In nearly breaking the country, he has shown us just how dangerous it is to take for granted things like democracy, the legal system, and the social contract built on conventions of decency. 

But also, in losing, he has helped us affirm some verities: the system basically worked—even on January 6 and all that followed and went before.

For so many months, I considered Trump a fool and a clown that … how could he be dangerous? He puts himself on display, like, all the time. He can’t be taken seriously, and we’ll all be returned to our normal way of behaving once he’s off the scene. So it would go, I thought. But then, after he lost the election, he kinda was off the scene, and began mildly fading—until the indictments started coming in. Like a switch that had been flicked, the insanity of support exploded and has been settling in ever since. True, many commented that it wasn’t deep or considered support, but it was pervasive and growing. And Trump’s method went in the only direction he knows—more assertiveness, more never backing down, more defiance of facts, more gas lighting, more projection, and on it went.

Since 2020, all Trump needed for succeeding in every major design of his was perhaps one more cog—Mike Pence not standing up—or any of the others—Randy Bowers, Brad Raffensberg, William Barr, and so on—and it might have all been different. Or yesterday, the appellate courts could have phoned it in, and on the wrong side of the argument. It’s not hard to imagine, with the alteration of just one or a few pieces, a completely different outcome rather than the one which now points so clearly to accountability.

And it’s because of the closeness of the outcome, the fragility of it all, that I praise Donald Trump. It’s for his uncanny ability to succeed in ways no other person could. He shows us what’s possible, so he’s, yes, a cautionary tale, but he’s also reminder of the awesomeness of human potential. He really could have won. He shows us the power, the horrible efficacy, of a strong man. Oddly, that power affirms the value of human life. One individual can matter. One leader can completely remake a great nation, a great tradition. As horrible as that possibility is, especially as most of us would use the word “destroy” instead of “remake,” it does bring with it an affirmation of human agency. We matter. 

So, Donald Trump is a great man. He’s also a loser, an ignoramus, and a creep. In the end, he shows us what we are capable of—just how close we can come to the edge of the abyss, and just how resilient our institutions can be in pulling us back from peril. Thank you, Appellate Court—for doing your job, with decency and thoroughness, at a time when those attributes were never in greater need.

Never Underestimate Thimbles!

I’ve read a lot of good words in my day, but those of Julie London on her voice have to be among the best:

It’s only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate. –Julie London

Such confidence, expressed with awareness and humility and precision. Not to mention, a good dose of sensuality, along with the promise of being together through it. The woes of the world would be lessened, I’m convinced, if we all just listened to, and spent time with, Julie London.

Getting Started on Faculty Senate

September 15, 2023

I’m serving on a new Faculty Senate work group on the topic of “faculty development.” Our chair suggested we start by having him consult with current faculty leaders on campus who have responsibilities in this area. Our group was unanimous in agreeing that such conversations were a good starting place. As I responded to the email thread, I found myself revisiting some cherished memories of colleagues, two in particular, who helped transform SXU many years ago. Here’s my email:

I’m on board too […]. I do have one initial recommendation: We might want to add Julie McNellis to the list of people to consult. Maybe even Nancy Lockie (though I haven’t had contact with Nancy for a few years). Back in the nineties (maybe it was the eighties?), Julie and Nancy created the Center for Educational Practice, which was kinda a visionary professional development organization that was something of a forerunner of professional development offices in higher ed at a national level. The SXU of today probably shares more similarities to the SXU of that earlier time in terms of resources and investments in the educational mission. Possibly. But anyway, the office they created was a real startup of a university-wide organization that provided various services and resources to faculty at all levels of the career arc, in various disciplines, in technology, pedagogy, and every dimension of professional life. They roped me in early on and nurtured me in transformational ways. After a few years, we wrote a grant, for instance, to create the MTTA, the Midwest Technology Teaching Academy, which was funded by AT&T to support collaborative faculty development technology projects of teams of several member institutions (SXU, Loras, Alverno, and Holy Cross). 

ANYWAY, I think it would be great to tap Julie for her stories about kickstarting an initiative like this, in an institution like this, in tight times like these. […] Just a thought—Angelo

Thinking about Julie and Nancy summons all that was good about SXU. I need to celebrate the blessings of them rather than grieve the soullessness of SXU, as I have been doing the past few years. Yesterday, while I was getting my MSNBC fix (alas), I heard that the Republican party had become the party of grievance—the place for old, white, privileged people, men primarily, to complain about change and lost status. I am uncomfortable with the extent to which my blog has become a grievance repository for an old, white, male, privileged professor. On the other hand, life at SXU has brought me so low—albeit only because, dialectically speaking, we had been so, so high. . . .

It was that illusion that progress was always forward-moving, that what was gained would remain and be built upon: that’s the source of the current grief that so stubbornly grips me. Of course, we knew there were no guarantees. But still we believed that progress was somehow to be counted on, taken for granted. Now all we have is destabilization—here in our own backyard, but so resoundingly amplified by crises everywhere, the climate problem, foremost of all, but also the threat to democracy, a much smaller, but still very large problem. With the climate issue, this whole experiment in humanity has been called into question, as we seem committed to seeing this sixth extinction through, like right away. How can we bank on anything? Then there’s the lost promise of education, the crushing of unions, and even, sigh, the pulling of the rug in sports.

This last one is big with me, I confess. I’m thinking of the loss of football—and I’m feeling it this fall on campus for some reason (it’s puzzling, since college football in autumn was never really part of my SXU routine). But it’s become impossible to lean into the joy of a football game, as the devastating effects come home, more and more pronounced. The morning news showed the benefit for Steve McMichael, who, immobilized in his struggle with ALS, moves us to tears, even if football per se might not be the definitive cause of his affliction. And earlier this week, there was the Aaron Rodgers injury. Much as I want to indulge in schadenfreude—I find it more painful than satisfying to see even him so afflicted.

Thinking about Julie and Nancy and SXU in 1996 (when I was hired) brings to mind the possibility of the “little engine that could.” Expectations were low, but hopes were high that we could go places. Our faculty had that tendency that academics have—letting ego have its way in judgments, sometimes quite mean ones, leveled as a pastime, elevating one by diminishing others. But the fundamentals of our community were solid. Faculty had a partnership with the administration; we had a union that fought behind the scenes with dignity and collegiality; we were functioning, more or less conventionally as an institution of higher education, in a context of dialogue and scholarship and teaching and community. The halls were filled with open doors (a lot of the time)—with faculty and students, in lively conversations, in and outside classrooms and offices.

The conversations were not tinged with the climate-change/demise-of-football/anti-labor/end-of-democracy doom of today—and they were not perfunctory as I am coming to see them in the SXU of 2023. At yesterday’s Faculty Senate meeting the provost shared his vision of “academic affairs.” He made his slides available, and I think we need, as a community, to perform a close reading of those slides—primarily to supply contexts that uncover just how vacuous the content is. As he spoke of assessment and hiring practices and program development and decision making, there was nothing to dispute. Who could argue with any of the principles, which, basically, could be summed up as “we must make good, informed decisions.” 

But the devil is in the details. Look at the decisions that have been made in the Joyner years. The cutting of programs—and prior to that, the gutting of programs—has been so ill-considered and extreme that any future “good, informed decisions” have become more or less pointless. There’s nothing here to build on. There’s no hope.

So, I’m back to the grievance. But seriously: no philosophy, religious studies, English, Spanish, history, sociology, math? Just what do you need to have a university? At the least, you need a commitment to learning and study in these areas, right? And the justification that there is insufficient student demand for these subjects ignores the fact that the programs have been defunded and under-cut for years, all in the context of a reduction in our commitment to general education—all of which was unnecessary in the context of our programs and all of which has been destructive of any possibility for growth or recovery in a time of institutional upheaval.

Thinking of Julie and Nancy brings to mind those other times—do I call them halcyon days? What do you need for halcyon days? I guess, first of all, you need an assumption that something matters, that hope for betterment exists, that we can pull together. A little sunshine wouldn’t hurt. I’m not saying that those things are gone completely; but we have spiraled so.

We need to rebuild. Working with colleagues on the Senate work group creates a new opportunity. There is goodwill among these individuals, and so, perhaps there can be some kind of laying of groundwork.

But before we pretend to move on too far, the trauma of the Joyner years needs a reckoning. I find myself in a haze of uncertainty about where we are. Do we have a department? Do we have a major? Will there be any effort to address why such drastic program closures were put into effect without proper data analysis, or consideration of causes and effects?

We need to bring ourselves back to a Julie/Nancy moment of building something (perhaps out of nothing). I’d like to ask them how they found the initiative and courage and resources to spearhead a faculty development program at such a small and under-resourced institution.

I’d also like to thank them for their humanity, and all they’ve done for me—and so many—in such genuine ways. Not to mention the fun.

Alumni Appeal to Save SXU’s English Programs

[This letter was written as a plea to former students to solicit support for retaining the English and English Secondary Education majors at SXU.]

Dear Alum:
I hope this letter finds you well. I apologize for reaching out only in a time of need, and I hope you might indulge me by reading my plea to you. I am posting this blog as part of an outreach effort to my past students—so if you know of any friends who attended SXU with you, could you please forward this blog to them?
I am asking for help in saving the English and English Education Programs at SXU. The current leaders in administration have a different vision for the university than those of us who have built our English and humanities programs—specifically, the program you took when you were a student here. 
English, and by extension, English Education, are two of many liberal arts programs that are on the chopping block as the university seeks to restructure itself. Those of us who teach in the programs believe the thinking that has led to this decision is flawed—on many levels. First of all, we feel the quality of our programs makes a strong recommendation for their continuance. On a more pragmatic level, we feel we have had and currently do have enough students across our programs to make them viable. And even more pragmatically, we feel that the urgent societal need for teachers puts us in a position to grow and provide a strong formation for the next generation of English teachers throughout Illinois (and elsewhere). On a less pragmatic level, we believe that some of the traditional values of higher education—an immersion in the humanities, the cultivation of critical thinking, the study and pursuit of “the good life,” are still relevant to society and individuals alike as we face an increasingly uncertain future, one that needs a clearer discernment and appreciation of priorities.

[NOTE: the University is proposing to retain a form of English Education by moving the program over to the Department of Education, but without the English major, the content of the Secondary Education Program will likely be gutted, as the Education department lacks the faculty and resources needed to cover the range of material that our full major has contained.]
We feel that our society needs people who are educated in literature, language, writing, and culture, and that the work we do has value—for our students themselves, for the professions they work in, for their communities—and, for those who have become teachers, for all the students they—you—teach. I’m incredulous that I need to be making this argument. 
But at SXU, administrators are looking at national trends in higher education, and a few powerful people have jumped full force into a view of higher ed that is much more career and skill oriented—not to mention limited in options—than has been true in the past. These trends extend beyond SXU, and the movement away from a traditional liberal arts program is being propelled by many societal factors—including the impact of the Internet/social media; critiques of the expense of higher education; new perspectives on the value of a college degree; changing workplaces as a result of the pandemic; and more.
I hope you had a positive experience as an English or English Education major at SXU. I hope, in the intervening time between your studies here and your current situation, you have had moments of reflection, where a book you read, a paper you wrote, a discussion—in or out of class—prompted some intrigue and growth in your mind. I hope you can summon up the good will to remember the best intentions of your professors in providing formative experiences that stretched you, and helped you think and feel in challenging and supportive and innovative ways.
So here is my plea: Would you be willing to jot down a few words of support—something we can use to help our administrators see that they are being far too extreme in contemplating the elimination of liberal arts majors in English, Spanish, sociology, math, philosophy, and religious studies (for starters)? Please say yes, and, if you feel comfortable doing so, please share your testimonial (it doesn’t have to be long!) by simply posting a comment below in response to this blog entry. If you prefer to send a private message, you can email any of the professors still teaching in the program. I’ve included their names with links to their email addresses below. I also have links to SXU’s administration and Board of Trustees (who will possibly decide on program elimination as soon as its June meeting in a few weeks), and to our founders, the Sisters of Mercy.
I have had a blessed career at SXU as a professor, and my heart is breaking, frankly, when I see the changes we are experiencing—the loss of colleagues, the diminishing support for students, the disinvestment in programs to such an extent whereby the move to close them down completely is just a small sideways step after a long process of being worn down.
Ever the optimist, I hope for a better day, one brought on through action and persuasion—through good use of language and good stories. We have those things, and so, please do what you can, if you feel so motivated, to help us persist and continue our work.
And if you wish to contact me to just chat, please do that too!
Wishing you well–Angelo
Current English Faculty of the Department of Language ad Literature
Angelo Bonadonna
Norman Boyer
John Gutowski
Aisha Karim
Mary Beth Tegan

SXU Administration
SXU Board of Trustees
SXU Provost, Saib Othman

SXU Founders
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
• Conference for Mercy Higher Education (Julia Cavalo, Executive Director)