Open Letter

An Open Letter to the Students and Instructors of LTMO 64D

From Earl Jackson, Jr.


As playfully „pseudo-autobiographical“ as I am in many of
my course materials, I am, as Kate and others who have worked with me as
closely have observed, actually quite a private or reticent person. I note
this for several reasons – first as one of the reasons I had not written
a letter like this earlier; secondly, to let you know how difficult writing
such a letter is for me, as a way of acknowledging the hesitations and
falterings I am sure will be evident; and thirdly to emphasize how important
I feel that you get as full an explanation as pertinent and appropriate,
and explanation and apology for my absences this quarter. I think most
of what is important is getting the most out of the class as possible,
and I think that can only be accomplished if I can reassure you of my commitment
to teaching in general and this class in particular.

I am sure my behavior has seemed bizarre, callous, thoughtless
and arrogant. I don’t know if one letter will be enough to change those
impressions (it will take a variety of positive actions, but I hope this
is the first step) toward regaining trust or at least the benefit of the
doubt which I have doubtlessly forfeited for many of you already. I deeply
regret that, and it is not only personal regret but my respect for you
as students, and my respect and gratitude and collegiality with my fellow
instructors in this course that I write this letter.

ナ@I won’t go into any more detail than what seems a full
explanation – even this I understand from the beginning does not excuse
the gaps in the class and the mysteries you were confronted with daily
above and beyond the textual ones. Here it goes.

The general absences before and after October 9.
I have some complex health problems that fluctuate in their seriousness.
To save people unnecessary worry – let me say explicitly that these problems
are not HIV-related (although making this statement strikes me as
cowardly somehow), but they have been life-threatening and have to be monitored.
I should have, in retrospect, applied for a medical leave, which I know
I would have been granted. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do that.
Unfortunately, my sense of duty that forbade me from considering the leave,
is a cause of a pattern of teaching that did not serve that commitment
nor fulfill the promises my presence on campus implies. For this I apologize
deeply.


October 9, 1996. as a cost-cutting measure, there
has been a policy in place in Kresge to turn out the hall lights after
5pm. On October 9, I was working in my office until about 8pm, when I was
to meet a friend in the parking lot for a ride home. It got to be 8, and
with my suitcases in tow I ran down the hall without looking up. I ran
headlong at high speed into a solid steel door. The darkness had been total
because the Exit sign light above the door had burnt out about three days
earlier and had not as yet been replaced.


The shortness the distanceナ@ between my door and the exit
door worked against me, because I had really begun to run, and thus hit
the door at a rather high speed. I had no idea what happened when my head
hit the steel door in the pitch blackness. I only remember being lifted
from a pool of blood on the carpet.


ナ@ナ@ナ@ I will spare you the rest of the story, except that
as the days unfolded, I became a smorgasbord of neurologial damage. But
the catch-22 of this kind of impairment is that one of its initial effects
is the subject’s inability to recognize the impairment as such or to understand
its scope and duration. For several weeks I experienced varying forms of
(and to varying degrees) aphasia, memory lapses, disorientation, narcolepsy,
and attention deficiency disorders. Some of these phenomena are behind
the missed email messages, postings of things on the web that weren’t there,
and a degree of disorganization that was excessive even for me. At times
I had no idea what city I was in. Sometimes missed appointments or classes
or trains were due to the fact that I would fall sound asleep in the middle
of a sentence, upright in a chair, etc. I even fell sound asleep in my
advanced Japanese class, held directly after our class. It was a day we
held class outside by picnic tables. The students who are taking Japanese
had internalized Japanese graciousness so well, that they took their cues
from my two miraculous teaching assistants, and for the entire hour and
forty five minutes, they proceeded to read aloud and translate as if I
were conducting the class. No one ever mentioned the fact that I was sitting
in the middle of them sound asleep.


ナ@ナ@ナ@ I do not tell you this story or list the above conditions
to excuse the chaos which I have inadvertently fomented, nor do I seek
sympathy by describing these conditions. I think you have been put through
a lot – especially those of you who have just entered college – and you
deserve an explanation and reparation (to whatever extent possible).


ナ@ナ@ナ@ Finally, I wanted to nip in the bud a rumor I’ve heard
that on the surface sounds quite believable. Some of you know I was finishing
a book about college life and the Internet. Apparently some people quite
understandably associated that activity with the apparent noninvolvement
in class. But most alarming are the speculations that I may have been swayed
from my commitment to teaching by the substantial monatary benefits of
mainstream, trade publication. Well, the last couple weeks before the book
shipped to the publishers were hell (try writing a book with a 5 minute
attention span, or periods everyday in which you could no longer understand
associative logic, nor „read“ such associations when represented in spatial
metaphors such as [hyper]links or computer data files and folders), but
the panic was not because of the money I might lose for lateness. The stakes
were higher – the publishers threatened to give the book to a team of writers
who could churn something out in a week or two. Any writers. Or, they would
take the CD away, or my control over the content of the CD, or my author
review privileges. Since I include chapters on racism, reentry students,
and other sensitive issues, I did not want to release it blindly out into
the world. And losing the CD would mean losing the first major attempt
to archive and represent the kinds of experiments in learning that have
made my years at Santa Cruz so important to me. And because the CD is linked
to a column on the Lycos web server, (and to one of my own websites, a
trick I implanted in the CD just in case), losing the CD would foreclose
this „live“ connection to the larger world Not „my“ live connection – ours.
So those times when it seemed like all I was aiming at was to get the manuscript
off within a deadline, I wasn’t chasing wealth, I was trying to preserve
a chance – a one-shot chance, similar to the chance we saw with Jerome’s
work. The relations with the publisher worsened as I got slower and slower
(first of all from wanting to „get it right“ and secondly because of the
head injury effects), and they were set to pull it from me. I made a last
minute devil’s bargain with them. They gave me extra time beyond the contract
and let me keep our material on the CD. In return, I agreed to forfeit
the advance I was to be paid; and I accepted a seventy-percent reduction
in royalty payments for the first 15,000 copies of the book; I agreed to
forego payment for the production of the CD and waived the royalties I
was to be paid on the CD; and finally, I agreed to write the monthly or
bimonthly column (companion to the book) on the Lycos server, for free,
for the duration of the column. I also had to pay out of pocket some of
the fees charged by freelance copy editors the publisher brought in at
the last minute. Now I tell you this not to make me out as either a hero
or a martyr (I got what I wanted), but it is very important that no one
believe I sacrificed the quality of our class experience for financial
rewards in commercial publishing. Such beliefs or suspicions would severely
inhibit any trust that might be rebuilt.

I will confirm the rumor, however, that one of my absences
was for the sake of acting as a surrogate tranquilizer for my cat Gus while
he was on an iv. (see the letter
on the websit
e for details if interested). Some
people may find this frivolous or an arrogant act of valuing a pet more
than the students or the school. That is an unintelligible comparison.
I did do this for Gus, and for this I do not apologize, and I assure
you I would do it again if necessary. If there had been anyone else around
capable of and willing to do this I would have entrusted them with it.
But there wasn’t. This is not, however, a declaration of valuing a cat
more than 150 students. On the contrary, if I could have ignored Gus’s
plight or left it to the fates to make sure that I didn’t get into more
„hot water,“ then I would indeed not be qualified to teach.

But enough about me. What do you think about me? (I couldn’t
resist this, and anyway this is I’m afraid a very key question here). Some
of you who have been in other classes of mine have been mystified, bitterly
disappointed, and hard pressed to defend me now and probably even hard
pressed to defend any earlier memories of happier classroom experiences.
Those of you taking one of my courses for the first time here probably
feel cheated and neglected. Well, you were. Not intentionally, but effectively
that is true. I want to see what we can do now to make the best of an unfortunate
situation, and this is not merely for my „reputation,‘ but it is because
I do care about teaching, and I care about what you take out of ten weeks
in a class i’m ultimately responsible for. I cannot recall a class where
I feel I have personally accomplished less. But it was not out of disinterest,
cynicism, greed, or distractions. You don’t have to like me any better
for that, or reconcile yourself to having been cheated, but I hope that
my acknowledgement of the situation will do something and will clear the
ground for real, collaborative engagement now. Think of it as an earthquake
or something. Now I am asking a lot in this. You have no reason to believe
I am a good or committed teacher; many of you haven’t seen any real evidence
of that and have seen plenty of contrary indications.

Well, let’s remove „me“ from the practical equation of
what to do. Consider this: suppose you do give me the benefit of the doubt
now and try to engage as fully as you can with me. And suppose I flake
out – suppose it turns out I am a bad teacher, or burnt out, or lying now.
So then you would put the effort in and have been duped. And your effort
wasted. Really? Even if I were a fraud, no effort is wasted. Education
is essentially self-education when it comes down to that. So your initiative
and efforts will pay off regardless of what I do (I’m not trying to snake
out of my responsibilities here). On the other hand, if you’re burnt out,
and you don’t feel like making an effort with someone who apparently hadn’t
made the effort all along, you can dig your heels in and not make the effort.
That is your right, and your anger or frustration is justified. But think
about it. What would such a refusal gain you? If the effort rewards itself
whether or not I come through, the refusal to make the effort is a certain
defeat no matter how proactive I become now. So it only seems logical to
roll up our sleeves and see what is possible.

ナ@Before I close, I also want to apologize publically and
with great feeling to the co-teachers in the class, Robin Baldridge, Christine
Cao, Stuart Christie, Scott Davis, and the honorary and honorable Chris
Breu. They deserve every form of praise imaginable. Not only do they give
everything in preparing their own sections and assignments, etc, – a daunting
project even in ideal classroom situations, they had the extra burden of
maintaining calm support even as the situation made the class lose credibility
no matter what they did. And their forbearance, discretion, understanding,
adaptability, and sheer generosity have been remarkable. I am more grateful
to them than I can express, and sincerely hope they can forgive me and
accept my apology for putting them in a completely untenable situation.
One thing the class should have learned from their example is grace under
pressure. My other major tactical error in handling the absences was to
say nothing, breeze in, and seem perfectly cheerful. This was partially
a Japanese-enculturated way of handling stressful or unpleasant circumstances
in public (the most devastating news of deaths and disasters are often
told by a person keeping a broad grin on her or his face during the telling.)
I realize now that both the Japanese way, and the more traditional Western
Protestant stiff upper lip mode, only made matters worse, as I seemed oblivious
to the concern and distress that was growing in the class. This is the
hardest class-related text I have ever written. I am wrung out and as dessicated
as a VIVA paper towel left sunbaked into coral sea fans on the beach, dredged
up by waves of crown-of-thorns starfish. I have three cats on my lap and
communion with Gus is painful since he’s trying to open my shirt to curl
up inside it and i’m not wearing a shirt. I guess that’s a way of saying
thank you for reading this/listening to this and I have to stop here for
now. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Earl Jackson, Jr.

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