Off the track

I should know about life on and off the track, the fast track, the Mommy Track. I quite consciously avoided back in 1998 when my Ph.D. was newly minted the tenure track. There was something so unacceptable to me about organizing my life--especially my marriage and motherhood--around a seven-year grind to get a book out, to publish in the right places, after of course having taken the right job at the right kind of institution. But lest I be viewed as a hater, I would have to admit that on some levels, in some ways, for some people, the university tenure-track system works. So do lots of other systems, and the longer I teach the more I am convinced that the latest teaching methods on elementary through secondary levels would appear to work for a growing cadre of minority kids, who find their ways into college and, at least at the HBCU (Historically Black College or University), into biology as a major. These young people can be a delight to teach in that they grasp concepts fairly quickly, and they almost always do what I expect of them. That is, they get my goals for every assignment and carry them out in orderly fashion. They perform well in this way, and so I suspect that if they do not get derailed by any number of temptations that can beset twenty-somethings, or by well-meaning Bohemians like myself, most will find themselves in a few years working either in research labs or on hospital wards. Good for them.

The fun sometimes stops there, however. I am sometimes more worried than are my students of this stripe with dotting every I and crossing every T, because I know that they have come to expect a certain perfection or at least reliability. It's scientific, not artistic, teaching that they want, or at least their performance has led me to believe so. Problem is, my teaching has become less and less organized over the years as I have become more and more set in my oppositional ways. So, I was inspired this morning when I read in an interview with Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, his own growing skepticism between the ages of 18 and 28 with what he refers to as "the tracked things I'd been doing all my life." Thiel, a billionaire after selling PayPal, offers a fellowship to college students who take the risk of leaving elite schools such as Stanford to move toward their own start-ups, the catchphrase of the times. Thiel may be seen as dubious in his thinking. Interviewer Quentin Hardy asks him, where's the risk between Stanford and a fellowship with Thiel's organization. But of course there is always social danger involved in stepping off the road or path set by society in general and by one's parents and community in particular. Luckily, in my own case, being one of the first of my generation in my family to graduate college and the first to get a Ph.D., none of my family members really understood what it meant to scoff at the tenure track. Thiel's thoughts actually go deeper. He questions what success really is. In his cosmology, a majority of college graduates are successful only at living the life expected of them. Yet, he admits to understanding conservatism in this time.

The first paper I assigned my Honors students, they were to describe new economy and describe their place in it. After reading nearly half of them, there are no absolute surprises but lots of clues that these are reading, thinking people who don't intend to be caught sleeping while the world transforms, returning it would seem to a golden age of invention. One student writes of putting eggs into different baskets--multiple income streams as a physician, small business owner, and investor; another writes of communities--especially urban ones--taking back their own agricultural economies, while yet others seem already to know the wisdom of seeing, as Thiel suggests, what one can give to the world rather than simply trying to fit in.

Because I teach by inspiration, I have taken my cue especially from this last group. Rather than give them a canned assignment from last year's Honors class (a move that would have saved me a great deal of time, allowing me to slack off), I instead set up the "assignment" for our second paper, at Google Drive. After engaging a few resources including a Times article on child labor in the tobacco industry students have been encouraged to ask if and/or how they are themselves implicated by the trade. This generation need think no further than Swisher Sweets; however, oral responses have ranged from dispassion or sympathy in some cases to a desire for action against violation of child labor laws, as implied by the Times' piece, in other cases. At the most critical moments, these students have debated whether a potential boycott of tobacco and other products produced in violation of humane working conditions, for children or adults, would not do harm to a global economy upon which workers throughout the world have come to rely. These students have asked if we are not stuck in the consumer economy. They wonder if we have not shot ourselves in our own feet. And of course they are spot on.

Yet, I am not ready to accept that there is no way out, and so I have invited them to visit another moment in history when the nation, indeed the world, seemed stuck in its own invention--the global cotton industry. This semester, these exceptional students are being introduced to the Hicksites--a sect of American Quakers who, first and foremost, emphasized existence of divine light in all humans. Theirs was a belief that set them at odds with Orthodox Quakers as the two groups considered the sacredness of the Gospel and the rightness of slavery, among other key questions. Hicksites, followers of Elias Hicks, should be remembered--and resurrected by our Honors students--both for their stance against owning humans and for their commitment to buying only, what they called, free produce. Hicksites refused to buy goods produced from slave labor. Hicks himself very much felt that Quakers who bought goods produced under this inhumane system had blood on their hands.

In Philadelphia, the Hicksite movement grew. By 1827, the schism between Orthodox and Hicksite was fully articulated, and the latter group had more than doubled the size of the former. Members such as Lucretia Mott, later to be known both for abolitionism and for women's rights, took over the Twelfth Street and Green Street meetings. The Hicksite sect would, needless to say, go on to play a major role in abolitionism, and who can argue that the activism of its adherents did not have its origin in the idea that humans can discover truth through a search of their own inner light?

Nearly forty years after the schism, Quakers such as Michigan's Laura Haviland, before the war an operative on the Underground Railroad, in acquaintance with the Coffin family, would come into contact with evangelical Protestants doing missionary work in the South. While it would be interesting to consider the extent to which the zealousness of Hicksites (and others so committed to free produce) provided a moral compass for the end of slavery or to consider whether sheer pragmatism, both of proponents of the slave state and mainline Christians whose commitments did not upset the order of things, evolved to its demise, both groups would send adherents into the South during the Civil War to help the nation transition from one economy to another.

In some ways, all of us--certainly the Millennials with which I am privileged to interact daily--are met with the same dilemma facing nineteenth -century believers and thinkers who had to decide whether to stand for or against an economy on which so many had come to depend. Taking a moral and political stand may for some of us require getting off "the track."

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