It seems like only yesterday I taught my first history class at Pratt Community College in southcentral Kansas. It has been four decades since that first class session and I still remember specific students and class activities. Three years ago, I began phased retirement from the University of Minnesota. I have been working on this reflection since then. While certainly not the best story, it is my story. I hope you enjoy it and think about your own journey. Click “Read More” for the entire reflection along with the music clips from Rush, 38 Special, and the Lego Movie, video clip from the Twilight Zone, and video clip from Forrest Gump. Don’t miss out.
The Ph.D. Movie: Part One
This two-part movie is based on Piled Higher and Deeper (also known as PhD Comics), is a newspaper and webcomic strip written and drawn by Jorge Cham that follows the lives of several grad students. First published in the fall of 1997 when Cham was a grad student himself at Stanford University, the strip deals with issues of life in graduate school, including the difficulties of scientific research, the perils of procrastination, the complex student–supervisor relationship and the perpetual search for free food. Cham continued the strip as an Instructor in mechanical engineering at Caltech, and now draws and gives talks about the strip full-time. In recent years, he has presented at the University of Minnesota and some of my students had the chance to have supper with him and share stories that might appear in future Ph.D. comics.
When I heard about the comic strip, I asked my graduate research assistants about it. They were all avid readers. I asked them if it was okay for me as a professor to read the comic and laugh at the events. the story lines are that are humorous, painful, and much too real. The students told me that they wanted me and other instructors to read the comic strips to provide some real insights into their lives and maybe consider how I interact with the graduate students. Ouch. While the comic strips are no longer regularly distributed, Jorge Cham has focused his energy on the Ph.D. films and tours the world speaking at colleges to packed audiences of students. Many of the story lines in the comics come directly from experiences shared with him by the graduate students as well as his own experiences.
The actors in the films are real-life graduate students and professors and filmed on college campuses. Cecelia, one of the characters, is my favorite. The actress who portrays her in the movies is now has earned her Ph.D. in astrophysics. Look for her name in the film credits at the end of the second movie. A highlight in her life was interviewing Dr. Steven Hawking for one of the video specials in the Ph.D. series. The look of joy in her eyes during their short interaction was priceless.
The Ph.D. Movie: Part Two
The exciting and satisfying conclusion of the two-part Ph.D. movie series. I will not spoil the story line. As I shared with notes of the first part of this series, the actors are all real graduate students and professors. The story line is both humerus and painful. And much too real. This is required viewing for anyone in graduate school as a student or a professor. I found it enormously helpful as I think about the complicated lives of the graduate students. Be sure to subscribe to the Ph.D. comic strip. It is based on real life events of graduate students.
My love of learning and reading comes from my parents, John and Leota Arendale. I was the first of anyone in the family tree to attend college. I had a simple dream of teaching history at a community college. I remember during my first semester at Emporia State University talking with my academic advisor. I expressed my dream and then the advisor told me to give it up since no history positions had been advertised for a community college history teacher in Kansas for more than a decade. Most often, part-time college instructors who were full-time high school history teachers were promoted for full-time college employment. I rejected the advice from that adviser and pursued my undergraduate and graduate degrees in history.
My first position was teaching history at Pratt Community College (KS) which was half the size of the large psychology course taught at the University of Minnesota (UMN). After seven years, I accepted a similar position at another tiny community college in Highland, KS. Next on my journey was the University of Missouri at Kansas City where I helped lead the National Center for Supplemental Instruction. While at UMKC, I helped conduct training workshops for other colleges how to implement SI at their campus to help students do better in difficult courses, I wondered what it would be like applying principles from the SI student study group program to teaching a history class.
One should be careful what they wish for. I was recruited for a history position with General College at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities (UMN). I continued that role with the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning and again with the Department of Curriculum and Instruction from where I will retire at the end of May 2019. My best memories of four decades in higher education include learning from my students, mentorship by my colleagues, and the friendships that were formed. I was fortunate to live out my dream of teaching history. And working at an institution that I might not have been admitted to after high school graduation. Life is a curious journey.
The reason for including the photo of Tom Hanks from "Forrest Gump" is that I think my journey is somewhat like the film character. Maybe you remember the final scene in the movie as Forrest watches his son enter the bus for the first day of school. A feather that Forrest was using as a book mark fell out and floated into the sky as Forrest, Jr. drove off to school. The narration by Tom Hanks reflected on his life and how he experienced a variety of unpredictable events along his journey. I think the same thing about me. I think of the guiding hand of God in an amazing series of events that led me to the University of Minnesota. So, whether you see it as chance or divine providence that guides a person's path, it certainly is a curious journey. I am a fortunate soul to have experienced it. I hope you are having the same satisfaction with your journey as well. Thanks for reading — David Arendale