Thursday, March 22, 2012

Swamp Things (or, Common Curriculum Matters)

One of my students who works for the campus newspaper recently asked me if I "had any opinions about anything"—and if so, if I'd write a short column for the paper. My university has these things that are called "common curriculum" courses, required across (most) programs for graduation—basically, the common curriculum makes up the core of our idea of a liberal arts education. These courses are sometimes viewed as hindrances to getting through college, but I wanted to suggest some ways to think differently about them. So I wrote the following piece, which is at the Loyola Maroon website, but without all the Nietzschean italics I sometimes resort to; here's the original:


As registration for the Fall semester nears, I find myself having spirited conversations with my advisees about what classes to take, how their majors are shaping up, and so on.

A common anxiety that many students voice has to do with what they should be studying: what they should be majoring in, minoring in, and otherwise focusing on. And then, there are all those irksome common curriculum credits to get out of the way!

Such anxieties seem to stem from ambient concerns (often uttered by parents who are either writing tuition checks or co-signing loan papers) about the “investment” or “value” that is a college education, and whether or not it will “pay off” in the long run.

These financial ways of understanding college have always baffled me. Certainly, college costs money. Most things do. But your college education is not something that will ever pay off: you can’t sell it in one grand “buy out” deal, and it doesn’t gain interest over time. Or rather, the interest that you gain from your college education is precisely your life. Its rate of return is entirely up to you.

And this is why the common curriculum matters: it’s your life we’re talking about. College is about helping you become interesting—hopefully for the rest of your life. One idea that motivates the common curriculum is that it is helping you expand your mind and become a versatile thinker. It’s not just about checking off boxes on the way to a single, focused degree that will jettison you into a fabulously lucrative life.

If the common curriculum sometimes feels like it is slowing you down, that’s exactly what it’s meant to do. College is, to a certain extent, about getting bogged down in the mud and muck that is intellectual development. And it needs time to take place.

The common curriculum is perhaps the soupiest part of this boggy terrain, an uncertain expanse you have to plod though. But it’s also where you can learn to make surprising and imaginative connections between subjects. It’s where you might stumble upon things that you never knew could make your brain pop in such a way. (This is why, in many stories, wetlands are where the imagination takes flight; it’s also one reason why we should care about them.)

Rather than think about the common curriculum as an annoying obstacle or a morass, try to embrace it as precisely one of the reasons why you are fortunate to be at a liberal arts university.

And if you don’t have a major yet, or feel like you’re flailing around trying to get a grip—it’s okay! You have four years to perambulate around this spongy landscape, and to home in on a particular field of study. Your advisors are here to help. And as you go along, don’t stress out about how your courses are going to “add up” or “pay off” after you graduate. Instead, try to appreciate how your coursework is simply congealing.

When you have a difficult time explaining to your parents or friends at home how all your classes fit neatly together, take some comfort in knowing that your college education is doing just what it’s designed to do: be messy along the way.

I’m not saying that majors, degrees, or disciplinary knowledges are a farce; they provide wonderful structures and focusing mechanisms for analytic thought. As you get close to graduating, you’ll appreciate the composition, complexity, and integrity of whatever you end up majoring in.

Here, though, I have just wanted to take a few hundred words to speak up for the more abstract aspects of the common curriculum, and to turn some complaints, irritations, and gripes on their heads. Celebrate the common curriculum—and all the other ambiguous parts of your college education—as exactly why you are here.

You’re here to take courses that will bend your brain in new and strange ways. You’re here to be sometimes disoriented, and to get confused. You’re here to slow down.

These things are of inestimable value; or really, they go beyond value altogether. College isn’t about investing, accruing, or cashing out. It’s about sinking in.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The BAE 146: A Life

Northwest Avro RJ (a BAE 146 variant) at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, 2004

In her new novel Contents May Have Shifted, Pam Houston starts off one of the in-flight inter-chapters (a descent into the Kingdom of Bhutan) by describing the British Aerospace "146-100 STOL Regionals, jets famous for their tight turns and short landing and takeoff specs" (78).

This isn't the only thing the BAE 146 is known for. It's also known (to many "rampers," anyway) for having a really tricky exterior lavatory dumping mechanism: the embedded valve on the outside of the plane where you have to hook up a big black hose in order to evacuate the urine and feces collected over thousands of airborne miles.

I remember when I was trained to operate this type of valve: it was under the runway lights on the tarmac one summer night when our SkyWest aircraft were suddenly replaced by Air Wisconsin's jets—Air Wisconsin is another regional carrier for United Airlines. Air Wisconsin flew the BAE 146 planes at that time, and learning to park, clean, and prepare these unfamiliar jets for flight was like learning a new language. And the lavatory dump valve was like the subjunctive: full of its own nuances and hidden possibilities.

The lavatory cart is basically an enclosed reservoir of human waste on wheels; look out your window seat and you'll recognize it as a low-profile, squarish trailer with a big black tube like a snake coiled or curled kinkily around the top. At my airport, once a week a septic pump truck (like the kind typically seen at campgrounds and servicing Port-a-Jons) would drive onto the tarmac and empty the cart. We would use the cart every evening (and sometimes between flights during the day) to empty out the toilets on the planes—when the crew would call in from fifteen minutes out, they might say they needed "lav service," which meant that it was time to haul out the lav cart and do our duty.

Needless to say, it was not the preferred job among airline ramp workers. Despite the powerful aroma-cancelling power of so-called "blue juice" (the admixture of chemicals inserted into the toilet to counteract the smell of waste), one might still encounter random spurts and sprays, or errant turds, while servicing the lav.

The lav cart has a six-inch diameter hose that hooks up to the side of the plane, and then there is a release lever on the plane that lets all the blue fecal matter and blue urine to travel down a loop-d-loop path into the reservoir. On the newer Canadair Regional Jets, this is a fairly neat and tidy task: the release lever is just to the side of valve. When you're done, the valve simply flaps back and seals in place, and the separation of plane, poop, and person seems clear and distinct.

On the BAE 146, however, the release for the toilet chamber is actually located inside the valve itself, and basically you have to hook up the hose and then manipulate a spring-loaded interior rod to disengage the valve and get things flowing. At the end of the dump, you have to twist and push the rod just so to reinsert and seal the valve (which you cannot see, but must feel via the rod).

One of the first times I did this, after I finished shaking the loose ends of blue toilet paper wads and dangling fecal matter into the reservoir on the lav cart, I looked up at the side of the plane and realized that the valve was missing: I was staring up into the underside abyss of the airplane toilet. I had not correctly reinserted the valve. I glanced in the hose—nothing. I looked around on the tarmac frantically, but to no avail. It was in the lav cart, somewhere in a foot-deep pool of shit, piss, and blue juice that had been stewing for a week—the septic truck was due to the airport the next day.

Luckily, the accouterments for this part of the job included gauntlet-style thick rubber gloves, and so I simply reached in, probed around with my fingers, swishing this way and that, around unknown clumps and viscera, until I found the metal valve. I fished it out, shook it off, and reinserted it in the side of the plane.

It was, for all intents and purposes, a close call. That plane could have been grounded for days—who knows where a replacement valve would have been located, and how long it would have taken for the airline to ship it up to Bozeman, Montana using the inter-airline mail system? I remember that my co-worker (who was busy dealing with lost baggage claims while I had started to clean the aircraft) nearly gagged when I described what had happened. For myself, I was more than a little thrilled by the whole experience. I had put my hand in that taboo nether region, that most abject place, where shit is collected and dealt with as if covertly, beyond the view of thriving, bustling progress. I feel like I really know the BAE 146, in a special way.

The BAE 146 is also the plane that happens to appear in the background on the cover of my book:

The BAE 146 is no longer in commercial service in the U.S., and yet my own encounters with this aircraft continue to occur: in literature, in images, and in lingering memories like this one.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Brad Pitt at the Airport

So Brad Pitt didn't win an Oscar. It's really not that surprising, after all. As my friend Robert Bennett has speculated, Pitt is considered at turns too popular or too artsy to be viable Oscar material. Which is really a shame, because he should have won easily for Best Actor; in his big roles this year, in The Tree of Life and in Moneyball, he gave brilliant and nuanced performances.

And, for my own particular interests, both of these films involved key scenes of Brad Pitt at the airport. In the shot above, for instance, the reason Pitt is holding his hand to his ear while talking on the phone is because he's in an airfield office, and there's a deafening airplane idling on the tarmac right outside. If airports often stand for human progress, Pitt's defeated character struggling to communicate at the airfield is one of the most pointed and powerfully suggested critiques of human hubris in the film.

For more on Brad Pitt at the airport, you can read my guest author post on the Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog, which was posted today.

This spring I'm starting to research Brad Pitt's interests in architecture and sustainable design, particularly as these interests have been integrated into the Make It Right foundation homes in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. And so here's what I propose: if we can't award Brad Pitt an Oscar, perhaps we can dedicate part of a new terminal at Louis Armstrong airport after him. Something with a nice ring to it, like the Brad Pitt Pavilion.*

*And then, if we want to follow a dark flight of fancy: at some point in the future, after humans have successfully served their time on Earth (or 'served the Earth', à la Rick Santorum), when wild alligators are crawling around the ruins of our airport as it slowly sinks into the gulf, and as the words Brad Pitt Pavilion etched in stone are obscured by competing cat's claw and morning glory vines, history will then uncannily recall those scenes in Twelve Monkeys after Pitt's ingenious madman Jeffrey Goines frees all the animals from zoos, and they re-inhabit the urban wilderness...