Friday, September 25, 2009

Gallant Promise Dead at 49

I don't post much here about my job except for the occasional piece about the Planetarium. I'm not exactly sure why that is, since I love my job dearly, think it's important, and can't imagine doing anything else for a living. Possibly it's just that it is my job, and this blog is for recreation, I don't know.

But something happened at my job in this past week that I would be derelict in not mentioning. It is not pleasant. It is saddening, and perhaps ultimately demoralizing, but it is significant.

It is the end of a grand, 49-year-old promise to the people of the state of California by their government: that every California resident, regardless of financial status, who could benefit from higher education would be able to enroll in a California college or university that would suit his or her abilities and needs.

In 1960, the state legislature enacted the California Master Plan for Higher Education, a truly revolutionary, integrated strategy for accommodating the anticipated crush of "Baby Boomers" once they reached college age. From my perspective, it was not only a Master Plan, but a masterful one, generally credited in large part to the vision of two people, Edmund G. ("Pat") Brown, then Governor, and Clark Kerr, then President of the University of California system.

The Master Plan was implemented quickly, and has served California superbly for nearly half a century. Its details are succinctly laid out in the Wiki article linked above. And, possibly with isolated exceptions, its promise has been kept: every California resident who could benefit from higher education has been able to enroll in a California University, State College, or Community College.

Until last week.

Above: San Francisco ABC television story from the first day of classes. If you click on this, you'll have to put up with a 15-second advertizement.

DeAnza College is one of the largest of California's hundred-plus community colleges, enrolling 20 to 25 thousand students each term. Our schedule is also unusual: our Fall term starts later than almost every other college and university in the state. That means that any student within commute distance of Cupertino who was not able to enroll in a State college or university, or couldn't get needed classes in any of the other dozen community colleges in the area, can use DeAnza (and its much smaller, less easily reached sister institution, Foothill College) as something of a safety net.

The "perfect storm" of denied opportunities elsewhere happened this Fall. California's budget meltdown caused draconian cuts in the UC and CSU systems, slashing enrollments in those two legs of the Master Plan's tripod, which shifted a tidal wave of students to the Community Colleges. That system, however, also had its financial resources gutted, causing massive cutbacks in course offerings, so students by the thousands in the San Francisco Bay Area alone couldn't get all of the courses they needed or wanted at other community colleges.

That left DeAnza, the late-start, huge campus of last resort.

This week was the first week of classes. It was probably one of the worst weeks of our professional careers for those of us who work there; worse than that for the thousands of students who were told "no" one last time, with nowhere else to go.

The promise of the Master Plan was dead. Not officially, of course. Nobody in Sacramento will say that, because nobody in the capitol building had to look hundreds of students in the eye and tell them there was no opportunity for them here or anywhere else. It's not part of official policy that the Master Plan's promise is no longer valid, but, in reality, it's as dead as Caesar.

Numbers from DeAnza's first week of the 2009-10 school year:

Total number of students enrolled in at least one course: More than 25,000
Number of those who could not enroll in as many courses as they wanted/needed: 8,400
(These will not qualify as "full-time" students as a result, and financial aid they receive may be in jeopardy because of their part-time status. Moreover, those who are carried on their parents' health insurance under a "full-time college student" clause will lose that also.)
Number of students who could not enroll in any courses at all: 2,300

Two thousand three hundred students went to the trouble and expense of registering in my college this quarter who were denied any service whatsoever. All they got was a hunting license for a griffin or a chimera. And, if they bought a $70 parking permit, they also got a hunting license for a parking space, only slightly less abundant than griffins.

For those 2,300 students -- who will now not be students at all -- the Master Plan's promise is not only dead, it's a cruel joke. Since I was almost certainly the last one to say "no" to more than a few of them, I was their ultimate agent of the promise's violation. I'm not going to have a wonderful weekend, but it will probably be a better one than theirs will be.

We could see this coming, at least a little bit. During the week before the beginning of classes, during pre-term meetings and planning sessions, my division Dean told us that, even at that time, there was not a single seat available in any science class section, and that only a handful of openings were still available in our very large number of mathematics sections. By the beginning of the week, the total number of student names on waiting lists, campus-wide, was over 14,000 -- and that's just the students who went to the trouble of signing up on a waiting list instead of simply giving up.

And so, since we are the last ones a student sees when he or she still has hope of getting into a class, we teachers became the ones who had to bring the final "no" down: No, you cannot enroll in this class. No, there are no other classes I can suggest. Please try again next quarter.

A more complete piece from Inside Higher Ed online. Click on the logo to read it.

I'm not anxious right now to try to analyze how we got here, or to cast blame, or to assess whether or not the promise was a good idea to begin with. I'll do all of that -- all of us at DeAnza will do all of that -- once a short period of stunned numbness is over. But right now I'm just overwhelmed by the reality of the violation of an ideal that has guided my entire 36-year career.

We let them down.

Links and statistics courtesy of DeAnza President Brian Murphy.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Bridge Idyll

(No, not "idle bridge" -- that would be this one .)

In Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: part of the railbed of the Santa Cruz, Big Trees & Pacific Railway Company.

There was a very nice, short article about our San Lorenzo River valley in the San Jose Mercury early this summer. It was about a feature that our valley still has that is disappearing from other rivers across America: the swimmin' hole, unfenced, unregulated, un-chlorinated, and probably a little unsanitary, too.

The San Lorenzo River is very short; it runs from the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains southward to the city of Santa Cruz on Monterey Bay, a distance of less than twenty miles. The whole valley, in fact, can be seen in this photo from a recent SherWords post, from its origin near the bottom of that frame to its outlet in the mid-distance haze. (The smoke plume was from the "Lockheed" wildfire of last month.) Its course runs through a magnificent forest of sequoia sempervirens (coast redwoods) and wends its way through several small towns. A few of those towns dam the stream during the summer to make swimming places for kids (and others) and, especially in its last few miles, there are a number of natural pooling places that require no dammed assistance.

One of those natural pools is in Henry Cowell State Park just south of Felton. (That park was itself a recent topic here in a different context. ) It is in an idyllic place in the park -- if you don't think a railroad excludes the entire concept of "idyll" -- where the river begins its winding path through its final steep canyon to the sea. It is under a hundred-year-old railroad bridge, a bridge that now carries only tourist trains operated twice a day for round trips to the Santa Cruz beach and boardwalk by the Roaring Camp folks.

Shortly after I was finished with summer school in August, I took an early-morning walk with my old Nikon and tripod down the railroad tracks to the bridge. Fog from Monterey Bay still hung at about treetop level in the canyon, lending a muted, diffused light to the redwoods and the forest floor.

The bridge itself posed gracefully for its portraits...

... and I clambered down for a view into the morning's foggy glare downstream:

I resolved to come back at a time when the excursion train was scheduled to cross the bridge, and, after checking the schedule, returned two days later at about 10:30am (after having taken a quick trip to the mountains' crest to snap the above-referenced photo of smoke from the wildfire on Ben Lomond Mountain.)

When I reached the bridge and set up my tripod a little downstream from it, a trio of young girls was already there, enjoying the swimmin' hole under the bridge, taking turns swinging on the long, leisurely rope dangling from the bridge to the water. The photos below, if seen only here, show neither rope nor young girls. If you click on any of the next three photos, though, you should be able to see the long rope near the right-hand bridge pier.

When the train arrived, the girls scuttled, giggling, up the river bank into the woods, but...

... even before the train had completely passed over the bridge, they were back.

This confluence of things from a different time -- an old railroad bridge, a languid river's swimming spot, a swinging rope's enthrallment -- led me to indulge myself in a bit of Photoshop cuteness that I don't want to let myself do very much. I altered one of my grade-level photos of the bridge to include a different destination on its far side:

A bridge too far.

(You really have to click on the above image to see it larger to get all that I want you to see. Please?)

I think of the strolling figure on the other side, walking with measured strides farther on down the track, as my Dad, who was deeply intrigued by trains and especially their railbeds' courses throughout his life. I am not on the bridge yet, nor (I hope) will be any time soon -- but I can sure see it from here. One of my sons has the good grace to be behind me, out of sight in this picture. The other has broken the rules, has impetuously rushed across the bridge ahead of me, and is already out of sight around the tracks' curve, as was always his way.

As I said, I don't want to let myself do this very much. But there was something about the old bridge, and the morning's fog, and the redwood forest that let me do it this once.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"The Shutesbury School of Philosophy"

This is a followup to the previous post, "Love and the Observatory."

This old photo from the summer of 1882 played a big part in the latter portion of that article:

I now know a lot more about the photo than I did two days ago, thanks to A Summer of Hummingbirds by Christopher Benfey (2008, Penguin). For starters, "The Shutesbury School..." is the title of the photograph, not the group, though the group named the photo. It's an homage to Raphael's "The School of Athens":

Raphael's "School of Athens." Click on the image for a much larger image, which is a delight to peruse.

The photo was taken immediately after the group of friends had enjoyed a picnic outing to the small town of Shutesbury in the hills near Amherst. It was taken in the Main Street studio of John Lovell, who was a prominent photographer of that time and place. I was evidently wrong about identifying the young lady with the revolver as Susan Dickinson; Mrs. Dickinson, instead, is the woman near the center holding a child on her lap. Benfey identifies most of the eleven this way:

"Five women pose behind five seated men. Mabel [Todd], dressed in white with a large feathered hat, presides. Seated next to her is Susan Dickinson, entirely maternal, with her younger son, Gib, in her lap. The studio backdrop features a light-filled French window opening to the left and a contrasting dark fireplace to the right. A young woman stands in the window, with a Colt revolver in her hand, pointed playfully at Mabel. David Todd sits hunched in front of the fireplace, as though he has just crawled out of it. In front of him Ned Dickinson lies propped on the floor, mimicking Raphael's Diogenes, his tennis racket in front of him. Another Amherst student, William Clark, sits guarding the large picnic basket, slightly open like Pandora's box."

If that quote sounds like something an art critic would write, there's good reason for that. In addition to being a Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and a book reviewer for several prestigious publications, Benfey "serves as a regular art critic for the online magazine Slate," according to his book's dust jacket. Being a book reviewer for the New York Times didn't prevent his book from being pretty well savaged there, though -- unless a book's substance being compared to cotton candy and its import to that of a carnival ride is now considered to be positive.

So who is the woman with the gun? The Yale archives list five women, so the three others must be "Miss Mattie Dickinson," "Miss Allie Mather," and "Miss Bessie Marvin." Since Mabel and Susan are listed as "Mrs," about all I can say about revolver-gal is that she's a Miss.

Benfey also implies that Mabel Todd's "affair" with Austin and Susan Dickinson's son -- Ned, the one with the tennis racket in the photo -- was not one of active sexuality, as other sources imply it was (and I did in the previous post.) Instead, young Ned became very infatuated with Mabel, and this infatuation wasn't discouraged at all by either family. "It was felt," writes Benfey, "by both Ned's parents and the Todds that such a sentimental attachment to a mature woman was good for the young man and harmless for Mabel herself. It was an apprenticeship of sorts. 'He likes Ned,' Mabel wrote of her husband, 'and he thinks it a good thing for him to be under my influence.'" That "apprenticeship of sorts," to me, would be like putting training wheels on a Harley-Davidson and calling it a "practice bicycle."

And Mabel's soon-to-start affair with Austin was of course entirely different.

I posted a copy of "The Shutesbury School..." picture on my Flickr account. One of my favorite photographers on Flickr, a woman whose handle there is "chocolatepoint," immediately recognized the strong similarity it bears to a mural on a wall in Amherst facing the graveyard which contains the Dickinson plot, which you can see in the comments here.

Chocolatepoint did some quick research on the mural and found its brochure available online. While the brochure didn't provide much more information about the photograph than we already had, chocolatepoint also found a great treasure available at the Amherst Historical Commission website: a downloadable file containing full text and pictures from the 1894 Handbook of Amherst, Massachusetts, published by Frederick Hitchcock.

Amherst College's Morgan Hall, 1890's, probably by John Lovell, as it appears in the 1894 edition of The Handbook of Amherst, Massachusetts. A library at the time the photo was taken, Morgan Hall is now the home of the College's Bassett Planetarium, the first room in which I ever took a college astronomy course.

After having read a good deal of it -- and loving every word and picture, as an old geezer who has a very, very soft spot for Amherst would love -- it's clear why the Handbook was "published by" Hitchcock instead of simply "by" him: there's a chapter in it that he didn't write.

The chapter is called "The Connecticut Valley," about the natural history and human history of the larger part of Massachusetts of which Amherst, Northampton, and the surrounding towns are part.

It was written by Mabel Loomis Todd, and it surprised me.

I don't know what I was expecting, but the writing is tight without being terse, romantic without being flowery, informative without the scent of pedantry, and not strange. It holds up very well twelve decades later, better than Hitchcock's does, at any rate. I would really like to see a modern assessment of the "natural history" of the Valley that she presents so confidently, though.

Finally, just for Demitria McDuff because I promised it to her, a photo of Mabel Loomis Todd later in life. She was always a knockout:

Mabel Loomis Todd in 1930, age 73 or 74, about two years before her death. (Copyright holder unknown; from the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.)