June 2009 Archives

Since I first got into the academic business, I’ve heard a near-constant litany of complaints about the oversized egos of college professors, and I’ve certainly run into my share of pointy-heads who definitely fill the bill. It struck me early on that not only did a great many of these folks fall into what my mama used to refer to as the “Educated Beyond Their Intelligence” category, but they clearly had never read a single set of student evaluations from one of their classes. Lest the Ol’ Bloviator somehow start getting a little too full of himself, several years ago I instituted the practice of posting beside my office door what I deemed the most creative put-downs meted out by my charges each year. Well, folks, the votes are in, and it’s that time again; so here goes. Here is the hands-down winner for 2009 from my “U.S. History Since 1865” class of 300 souls, which met on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m. until 12:15 p.m.
Question: What specifically did you like most about this course?
Answer: “Looking down and seeing 12:14 p.m. on my watch.”
The Runner Up
Question: How does this instructor compare with other instructors you have had at the university?
(My favorite all-time favorite response to this query was “shorter than most,” although, from way back in the 1970s, there was “He wears high-water pants and thinks he’s Johnny Carson.” Come to think of it, “sweats a lot” wasn’t bad either.) This year’s judging resulted in a tie between “ not as boring as everyone claims” and “He is old.”
My advanced age actually earned me a couple of back-handed compliments this time, including the student whose favorite thing about the class was “Professor Cobb relating to his life because he is an old-timer and has lived this part of history.” I realize that isn’t exactly gushy, but it beats the hell out of the 2007 winner whose response to what he “liked most” about the class was “NADA. This class blows.”
Lest some prying administrator goofing off when he/she should be writing memos no one will read or understand should happen onto this site and decide it’s time for the Ol’ Bloviator to get on the waiting list over at the home for broken-down old dog-ass profs, I should add that there were at least a couple of positive observations. “Personally,” one member of my flock insisted, “I don’t know how being taught history can be made any funner [sic.].” (Obviously, an English major.)
Thankfully, there is always one comment that seems to convince me that I should persist in binding up my wounds, strapping on the pads and having yet another go at it, and this year’s was “I really enjoyed Cobb’s enthusiasm to teach—he walks in everyday prepared, in a good mood, in that little ole baseball hat—he makes jokes and really knows his stuff.” I’m not so sure about the “good mood” or “knows his stuff,” but she’s certainly right that I still love what I’m doing (even if everybody in the class doesn’t), and I’m very pleased that comes through to some of them anyway.
This may seem that I’m setting the bar pretty low for myself, but you have to remember that freshmen and sophomores are not exactly pushovers, especially when they’re 300 strong and wedged together for 75 minutes in a jam-packed auditorium that is not exactly conducive to warm and fuzzy feelings of community or connection. In the final analysis, I came out better than a lot of them this year, especially a former colleague elsewhere who was dismissed by a student as someone who would “ bore the sh_ _ out of a tree owl.” Suffice it to say, if you don’t think you can cut it as a taxidermist or mortician and are dead set on joining the professoriate, you’d better develop a thick hide to go with those sensible shoes.

Fathers Day: A Bloviator's Blubberation

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As the thirstiest guilt sponge in human history, I interpret both Mothers and Fathers Day as an opportunity to beat myself up for all the times I said mean things to my parents as a child or neglected to say nice things to them as an adult. In my case, Fathers Day affords the additional opportunity to review my own manifold shortcomings as a dad, especially in my younger years when I was obsessed with my own career objectives and trying to get our family situated some place where I might earn a decent paycheck and the living was good for all three of us. Lo and behold, by the time I managed that, our son, Ben, who had easily been the world’s most lovable kid, was in college, and save for the two summers when I made the supreme sacrifice by coaching his Little League team, I didn’t seem to have nearly enough “quality” time with him to reflect upon. (Even today, at thirty-seven, he has a standing invite to become the oldest child ever taken to Disney World, a proffer that he appears thus far to have found eminently resistible.) To further compound my guilt , instead of a whacked-out, meth-mouthed mess, he has turned out to be the ideal offspring, stable, successful,understanding and affectionate, in short, everything any father could hope for and far, far better than this father can feel he really deserves.
The matter of my own father is a bit more complicated, and unfortunately he died when I was twenty-one, before it had really even occurred to me to try to understand him. Reared in the country, he had left school after the ninth grade to work on the farm, under the tutelage of a strong-willed father left with three boys to raise after his wife (my grandmother) died in the 1918 flu epidemic, when my dad was thirteen. Like a great many country boys, my father was a lot smarter than he let on, but his world had been circumscribed so tightly by my grandfather’s close oversight—he spent his entire life within a quarter mile of where he grew up—that he found it hard to accept my mother’s-- and ultimately my own--aspirations to experience more of the world than he had. When I was a high school senior, he was quite excited that I had received a recruiting brochure from Nashville Auto Diesel School, whose primary allure for me lay in the fact that because its athletic teams were known as the “NADS,” it would be a terrific place to be a cheerleader. (Think about it: “GO-O-O….”) When it became clear that I wasn’t all that keen on becoming a NAD, he allowed that if I could get “a year or two” of college, I might be able to get an “office job” somewhere in town. None of this is to suggest that he saw no value in education, for he clearly did, but, in my case, as it had for his younger brother, he also understood that it offered an almost irresistible “ticket out” and thus threatened to further undermine the close little family-community at the core of the only world he had ever known.
Not until many years after my father’s death in 1968 did I realize that my coming of age had coincided with his world’s coming apart. He was a small farmer who had lived to see small farming expire before his very eyes and take with it the only thing that had given value and meaning to his existence. It was small wonder that he had difficulty relating to the kind of life I envisioned. He was having even more trouble envisioning the rest of his own life. All of this came to me way too late, for me to tell him I understood, of course, but I did have the chance to tell others, in a little book about the transition from agriculture to industry, that I published –Yegads!!—a quarter century ago:

As the impossibility of making any sort of decent liv¬ing as a small farmer became inescapably apparent, most farm men were forced to accept whatever industrial employment they could find. Having reached this point in his mid-fifties, my father put our farm in the Soil Bank Program, which paid us more to simply let it lie fallow than anyone could remember making when we had farmed it. When he finally found a job in a local shock-absorber plant, I thought we were rich. For the first time ever, I had an allowance, and we were able to trade in our woefully embarrassing (to me, at least) 1948 Chevrolet for a very respectable 1956 Ford. In the material and finan¬cial sense, we were clearly much better off than we had ever been. Yet though my father was doing a good job as a provider, he did so at con¬siderable sacrifice of status, and, I'm afraid, self-respect. He had cher¬ished the independence of farming in a way that all who are born and bred to it seem to, and the idea of submitting to the whistle and the regimen of the factory filled his heart with dread. His morning good¬byes to us were protracted and almost pathetic, as if he was journey¬ing to an alien and hostile place from which he might not return. He lived for the weekends, which he devoted in large measure to tending his garden, the only activity that seemed to give him any satisfaction. As I recall him now, I reel back past the slump-shouldered figure, carrying the unfamiliar lunch pail and shuffling reluctantly toward his job at "the plant," to recall the jaunty pose he always adopted as, Tampa Nugget clenched between his teeth, he steered his John Deere tractor and Allis Chalmers combine across the fields he knew and loved so well.

No posthumous attempt to work things out with a parent is likely to prove fully satisfying, but knowing that I have at least tried does make me feel a little better. At the very least, I figure, it clears up a little disk space just in case my failing memory comes up with any more reminders of why I should feel guilty.

What, Me Worry?

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Although I’m not saying that it’s totally peculiar to my kind, an almost instinctive distrust of good fortune has always struck me as a very pronounced trait among southern poor whites. It runs through the fiction of writers like Dorothy Allison and Larry Brown, but it’s nothing short of a formative flesh-and-blood reality in the trilogy of remarkable memoirs crafted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/authors/bragg/ ">Rick Bragg, and based on his poor-white boyhood and family and class heritage in hardscrabble Calhoun County, Alabama, just north of Anniston.
Bragg wrote from personal experience about his poor white childhood, which was marked by long stretches of tragedy and trauma so unrelenting that anything else seemed abnormal. In The Prince of Frogtown Bragg told of his long-suffering mother’s reaction to an apparent turn-around in the family’s utterly dismal fortunes. In 1963, after years of abusing and neglecting his family, Bragg’s drunken, irresponsible father had found a steady job in Dallas, Texas, at a body shop and taken his wife and sons out of Calhoun County and what seemed like a million miles away from the hand-to-mouth existence that was all Rick and his brother had ever known. Suddenly there was plenty of food, money for decent clothes, ice cream, trips to the zoo, and other such “extras” that had been beyond their reach in Alabama. “I thought I had stepped in through some magic window,” Rick recalled. “One day she was dragging me on a cotton sack, pulling all day for a dollar and change, and the next day, we were sitting on a porch step eating ice cream.”
Although Charles Bragg appeared to have his drinking under control and had given his wife no indication that he would slip back into his old self- and family-destructive ways, his previous behavior gave her reason to doubt the longevity of their dramatically elevated circumstances. Then, after a couple of months that had seemed like a dream to Rick and his brother, word came from back home that the monthly $54 welfare check his mother had been receiving for her and her two boys was about to be cut off. At that point, wracked by doubt about the husband’s staying power and conditioned to see all good fortune as fleeting at best, Margaret Bragg told her devastated husband and children that she was taking the boys and going home. Finding his insistent, emotional pleadings to no avail, Charles Bragg remained in Texas for a while before tumbling back into his old ways, and he wandered back to Calhoun County, where he resolutely drank himself to death while making what was an already tenuous existence for his wife and children even more difficult and painful.
Though he had been too young to process what had happened at that time, as he recounted in All Over But the Shoutin’, an adult Rick Bragg would experience the same knee-jerk suspicion of apparent good news when he received word in 1999 that he had won a Pulitzer Prize for his feature writing work at the New York Times. Fearful that there might have been a mistake, Bragg waited an hour before calling his mother because, he explained, “it is a common condition of being poor white trash: you are always afraid that the good things in your life and temporary, that someone can take them away, because you have no power beyond your brute strength to stop them.”
Although my family was more stable if not a whole lot better off economically than Bragg’s, such revelations help to explain why his writing resonates so strongly with me. I’ll never forget telling my Mama excitedly about several good things that had come my way recently. Having come up the really hard way, with seventy years of immersion in Southern Baptist fatalism on top of that, she responded gravely, “That’s nice, Jimmy, but I can’t help but worry when things get to going too well.”
As the Missus and I celebrate forty years of wedded bliss this week, the Ol’ Bloviator can hardly even begin to count his blessings, and it’s not just because an aptitude for math ain’t one of them. Not only do I enjoy the love of a wonderful wife and have a wonderful son, but we live in a wonderful town on a wonderful street inhabited by wonderful people. Not only that, but I make my living doing something that I’d probably do for nothing if you could buy Sam Adams with food stamps. In sum, I have every reason to wake up every morning yellin’ “Wahoo!” and, naturally, that just worries the hell out of me.

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