Diggers Are the Most Beautiful People in the World

13 December 2011
Dearest Colleagues,

With all the changes in the past two academic years, especially the retirement of my mentor XXXXXXXXXXX, I have decided to end my teaching career at XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. This whole journey began with me co-instructing in my mid-20s at Dartmouth College (a first for Liberal Studies, Theatre, and English). I was able to continue as part of my August Wilson Fellowship at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. I then entered the XXXXXXXXXXX system in 2003 as well as with CCV, Franklin Pierce, Southern New Hampshire University, and some extension work with Johnson State and my doctoral alma mater, the European Graduate School.

It’s been a great run!

If I was able to accomplish anything in the past eight academic years at XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX it was to remain focused on our mission, an enduring commitment to an idea, an imperative statement even: work from a place that stresses how our students are infinitely smarter, resilient, beautiful, and accomplished than the vast majority of people in their lives believe.

We as a faculty oftentimes stand between failure, generational poverty, and, if you will, shame and sadness and a student transforming—ah, that word again—their lives from brokenness to a community of learning and professional achievement that grows individuals, families, communities, and entire regions of our state. How fast we can lose sight of this ethical demand as we go about our daily lives or pursue individual agendas that benefit no one, not even the person(s) playing puppet master. If we are not able to keep our own house clean, how can we be expected to help our students clean their own?

I will not quell rumors that I have been “encouraged” to “re-evaluate” what I hope to achieve in the present and future at the college and/or whether I should continue teaching here. I’m simply dumbfounded that my disagreements and growing concerns came as a surprise to campus leaders. I had already expressed my frustrations and conclusions (not re-evaluations) in countless letters, years of meetings, endless lobbying, and a very public statement (e.g., working to successfully create an Adjunct Union). I leave knowing we have only just begun to explore how equity, clarity, transparency, entrepreneurship, collegiality, curriculum development, and financial/human resources support of essential Liberal Arts programming can move potential excellence into materialized, enacted, sustained, and transformed—once again—accomplishment. The revenue potential is still astronomical. But, repeatedly, I was asked either to wait or to stand down.

The words “wait” and “stand down” do not compute; “how” and “when” is how I operate.

In theatre, we call what needs to happen next a “post-mortem,” a series of ending statements and reflections that are offered in the spirit of requiem, renewal, and future action. Therefore, it is necessary now, together, for me to wash myself of any and all negative experiences by focusing on memories that remind me why we do what we do.

Flowing beneath all of us, there exists a growing wellspring of knowledge, faith, peace, genius, and resolution. Digging beneath that sometimes hard New England granite—the kind Eugene O’Neill talked about in Desire Under the Elms—requires courage, resolve, and oftentimes brute force. Unfortunately, to sustain this kind of digging I became distracted, maybe even obsessed, with the digging. But, what began as sadness this September during a very contentious hiring committee process developed into joy, the kind of clarity that only an encounter with “nothingness” (the end of everything-ness) can produce. So, I am thankful for everything; or, as the poet Aime Cesaire put it: “I accept, I accept it all.”

For years, I’ve been the digger of the department. As a digger, I have needed to find that wellspring in the most unlikely places. A student ready to give up in College Composition a week before Final Projects were due, only to pull it off in the eleventh hour and then talk about that experience with her family, me, and her colleagues during graduation. I remember so many students in Humanities in Western Culture projecting their fears in the face of two and a half Millennia of content only to later discover that knowing it all is hardly the point of the course: learning to know more and do more in their world (their immediate lives) is what we hope to provoke through the encounter with ancient thinking, medieval theatre, Shakespeare, Marx and Engels, Toni Morrison, and so many other breathtaking thinkers.

I remember students in American Literature throwing staplers at me for daring to challenge their world-views; complaint letters about my “I wish you were a piñata” t-shirt; a growing concern that my theatrics were distracting students, especially the time I pretended to drink cleaning fluid as an illustration of how I work as a writer—then pretending to vomit my ideas onto the white board (e.g., this is Suzan-Lori Parks’ method at CalState-Los Angeles). The time my Humanities in Western Culture class stared at the red lettered word RAGE markered across two white boards in Room 123 before starting our difficult journey into Euripides’ Medea. The time when a student identified one of the greatest truths of our time: “awesome trumps truth” (not always in a good way). Or, the time when XXXXXXXXXXXX needed to talk me into the classroom after I received terrible news moment before starting class. I just wanted to go home. (see Migrant Intellectual post “Freedom” https://migrantintellectual.wordpress.com/2012/03/02/freedom/)

As a digger, I have needed to create alliances with the Executive Team, students, colleagues down in [the state capitol], community members, and families (new and old) who form our distinguished Alumni. These people carry in their blood the very wellspring that flows beneath all we do. And in this, we are all deeply connected. To make XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX-specific online courses, to grow XXXXXXXXXXXXXX-specific course work in the traditional sense, and to make sure people outside our region, through professional development, know that we are leading, not following, the rest of the nation in assessment-driven, deep, intentional learning—this was made possible not just through the generous funding opportunities I received but by tapping into the life that flows all around us: past, present, and future. I fear the creeping corporate and “best practices” curriculum design agenda—which always already blurs the line between design and content, administrative will and instructor rights—has breached the defenses. I fear we’re all going modular soon, another local industry (education) suffering like other industries (housing, tech, medicine). One size fits all is a terrible way to run an educational, let alone capital-based, economy.

Diggers know something about the college that many at the college don’t know. Diggers know that we are here for a very short time: this work, this region, this planet, this tiniest of sections of a vast, unthinkable universe. Diggers get that. Diggers also get that wisdom is earned and expressed only in community; never through the selfish disregard for community. What do I mean by community? The “we” that exists in all of us. If you don’t have a “we” called River Valley residing in you, then you need to start digging. The water, blood, and overflowing beauty, genius, and sense of calm resolve that I found during the darkest of times at our college is not mine to own; it is merely mine to point out; guide as many people toward this subterranean shelter I called home for the past two academic years especially.

Some diggers don’t return to the surface; but I will. Diggers get comfortable serving as guides and friend to anyone who is willing to go on a journey into the unknown or quite-known, the memory and power and love that awaits those who walk away. I have been taught by other diggers, guides really, who waited for me patiently as I found myself tossed and turned by the unnecessarily obtuse budgeting, prolonged personal vendettas, frightening territoriality, small-minded and selfish decisions that met personal agenda more than student needs. They told me clearly, these guides, that all things come to an end, an untimely end—the central lesson I learned as a child and then adolescent, walking through this world as a bit of an orphan. Losing two fathers can also transform a digger. Untimely and oftentimes painful conclusions fill my own Humanities and Literature lessons.

We are all diggers at XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX college. Only some of us don’t quite know it yet. Which is a shame. And when that time comes, I hope the newest diggers among us will seek out the old diggers. We’re waiting for you; we welcome you; and we will help you heal just as we have been healed by the simple recognition that diggers are the most beautiful people in the world.

Blessings to you,
Dr. Robert Craig Baum [aka Migrant Intellectual]

Quechee, VT, USA




“The Great Work begins” (Tony Kushner, Angels in America)