when the university becomes a vo-tech

My undergraduate experience was broken up into two eras: the first was spent at a private ‘university’ that was essentially a glorified vocational school churning out ministers with a half-hearted regard for the liberal arts or professional degrees in favor of continued indoctrination in the sponsoring Christian denomination.

The second was escaping from that place, sacrificing a plurality of my academic credits and essentially starting over at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a philosophy and religious studies student. It was there where I was able to trade my angst for serious academics, and where I thrived as a student and grew as a person. Without my experience at UWSP, without a clear path studying philosophy, without tremendous faculty who were as challenging as they were fair, I would not have the opportunities I have today, the job I have, the graduate degree I earned afterward.

The ability to earn that degree and chart a new course for my life, to have encountered great faculty and fellow students, to have helped peers with their reading and writing in the disciplines, to be a vibrant part of student life; I am a better, more well-rounded person for the time I spent at UWSP.

(The fact that I completed my undergraduate degree for the cost of less than one semester at the institution I originally attended is also not lost on me.)

So, when a good friend (and fellow UWSP alum) shared this disheartening press release from Monday on social media, I was deeply grieved. Citing “declining financial resources, demographic changes with fewer students in K-12 schools and rising competition among public and private universities,” the university has proposed gutting 13 undergrad programs (while retaining courses from them, more on that later) while expanding eight other programs and enhancing eight others. Those 13 programs are all underneath the umbrella of the humanities or liberal arts. The 16 they seem to bolster are all professional or STEM programs.

People like myself, or my friend Andy, would not have avenues for growth that we enjoyed. Andy is an outstanding writer, academe and professor. I, despite my longing to move forward in studying philosophy and religion, ended up in a STEM career while writing about baseball for next to nothing. Neither one of us would be the people we are without the time we spent in study in Stevens Point (or the many, many cups of coffee over conversations of how badly we wanted to get out of there.) In fact, the academic rigor I underwent as a Pointer suited me well for the many challenges–academic, professional and personal alike–I faced since earning my BA and entering a job where I was a stranger in a strange land and had to learn web development on the fly nearly three years ago.

To be sure, a certain portion of the populace is outraged for partisan reasons and this would seem to fit their narrative for how the state doesn’t value education, so on and so forth. I, for one, do not buy into those presuppositions for any number of reasons, but I do share in their outrage that the UW System would be open to essentially gutting what makes the university a university. This is not a conservative or liberal issue; this is a trans-partisan matter that should rightly earn the consternation of all people who value a quality, well-rounded educational experience.

It should anger every UWSP alumnus, particularly those of us who lived in the Collins Classroom Center for most of our academic careers.

One of my professors, a well-respected academic, educator and administrator who would undoubtedly be affected by the proposal to gut her department, put it thusly: Philosophy goes well with everything. This is more than a mere quip, it is the absolute bedrock upon which any other enterprise is based. My philosophy degree–and corresponding religious studies work–taught me vital methods of critical thinking and diplomatic and empathetic interpersonal communication because, beyond the trappings and nomenclature, everything is language.

Incidentally, the religious studies program was left unmentioned and presumably unscathed, though it was not its own major.

Everything is language. When I started my day job, I knew WordPress and a very crude sense of HTML I picked up in junior high. Once I moved past basic tasks in our CMS and into code, I was lost…until I recognized that code is not math, code is language. As it turns out, there’s a reason they call them programming languages. And, like any language, it takes time to observe, learn and begin interacting with them. Philosophy allowed and empowered me to make the leap and not be paralyzed by the fear of something completely foreign to my understanding.

My boss is, too, a UWSP alumnus from the WDMD/CIS/whatever they’re calling it this week program. Our shared alma mater was not an insignificant factor in his deciding to bring me on board; neither were the cognitive assessments I was required to take. Both being a part of and built by the UWSP community were essential to my ability to even get in the door at my place of employ.

Now that the school is looking to cut the head off their humanities program–make no mistake, there is reason neither to retaining faculty in these fields nor any incentive for high-potential would-be faculty to go to work for a university where there is no real department or academic program for their subject matter expertise.

UWSP is diminishing its own importance and prestige by taking these steps, reducing their offerings in non-core fields to the equivalent of any number of two-year UW System colleges or a vocational school. There is nothing wrong with a vocational or technical college, but the point of university education to expand horizons whereas the tech school is more geared toward job readiness. The American university climate has already marginalized the broadening aspects by reducing general courses down to credits that must be earned through endurance rather than placing value on those experiences as a way to expand horizons or even make a change in intended studies and life course. Doing this kills what little motivation was there to take these courses seriously for student or faculty.

In the same way that most of us have changed our minds on what we wanted to do or who we wanted to be since you or I were 17 or 18 years old, does not stripping liberal arts programs too strip young people of new, different opportunities? Are we doing a disservice to the students now in the [likely futile] hopes of bigger benefactors later?

The answer to both, given the intended course of action, is a resounding yes. This is not forward thinking. Implementing this solution is nothing if not a Pyrrhic victory.

As an alumnus and someone who owes the totality of my life, such as it is, to the experiences I had at UWSP, I join the growing chorus of those who vehemently oppose these measures. To move forward this way is to rob students of the rich experiences the Wisconsin Idea affords. We may disagree on the politics of the matter, but we see quite clearly the same acute problems this proposal engenders. As such, we urge reconsideration by administration, student government and the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.

Frankly, it points in the wrong direction.


running with scissors: how target and walmart are further ruining retail

Several years ago, I posted here about the self-defeating nature of couponing, Running with Scissors. It, by far, was the most successful post I’ve written here or anywhere, earned Freshly Pressed status from WordPress and reached thousands of people worldwide.

Within the last two weeks, I’ve seen how two of the largest retailers in North America have taken advantage of the environment to further nickel and dime their customers.

First, risking life and limb to venture into my local Walmart, I found a few items we needed in the house and noticed the prices weren’t merely non-competitive, but anti-competitive with other vendors in town. (With the best price in town across town, and the weather here having taken a 36-hour dump all over the roads, it wasn’t practical to do any more driving than absolutely necessary.) So I popped open Walmart’s website and found their price match policy, which has changed from one of the more lenient and consumer-friendly policies in retail (and, when coupled with Walmart’s savings tracker, became a great tool for thrifty types) to virtually no price match policy at all:

“We do not match [list redacted] Competitor advertised price” followed by “The manager on duty as [sic] the final decision on any Price match.” and “Walmart reserves the right to modify the terms of this policy at any time.”

Long story short, Walmart can move the goalposts whenever they want, up to and including refusing to price match items found on their own website or their recently-acquired jet.com.

I asked the young gentleman at the checkout about it, and he confirmed, along with a sympathetic ‘I know’ when I lamented the change.

Remember when Walmarts all had “WE SELL FOR LESS” plastered on every store? Yeah, there’s a reason they don’t have that on their stores anymore. They’ll sell for whatever they want, and you’ll like it or love it.

Secondly, Hipster Walmart aka Target has aggressively deployed digital assets for a while: after jacking their storewide markup 5% when they introduced the debit RedCard (something confirmed to me by a Target rep at the time) they introduced Cartwheel, the digital companion that helped find extra discounts on items in the store. Cartwheel has always been a handy tool, particularly when they added manufacturer coupons into the app and then rolled the app wholly into Target’s base one while adding a wallet feature. All cool stuff.

Several trips to Target ago–because the RedCard discount takes care of state tax where I live–I scanned a few items from my shopping list to find hits on discounts and coupons. Who doesn’t like that?

I went to the checkout, rang up, checked my receipt and saw that none of those items showed the customary, itemized Cartwheel discount. I checked the app again, and one item that connected for a discount was only for a particular size of the product, while the other was linked to a coupon that was for the product in general, but a specific variety. Why should the app give me offers on products I scanned for different items?

To Target’s credit, I brought up my concerns with a manager, who gave me credit for the coupon (which he didn’t have to) and offered to share my concerns with local and regional management, agreeing with me that the app shouldn’t connect the customer with offers on products that weren’t scanned. That is misleading at best, deceptive at worst.

Nevertheless, this is where we’re at: the largest retailer in the country has stopped competing with other outlets, while another of the largest stores in America has given their shoppers an app that gives them a false sense of savings. In fairness, it is incumbent upon the consumer to know what they’re buying and the offers they’re trying to use, but it is bad faith–and approaches the need for antitrust intervention–to flatly avoid competition in refusing to price match and it can be construed as deceptive to give a customer offers that don’t apply to the things they need.

All of this is a counterbalance to the ways in which couponing has turned a simple trip to the store into a byzantine and quixiotic attempt to beat the house, when the American marketplace is not and should not be a casino. A Target run shouldn’t resemble Supermarket Sweep; going to Walmart shouldn’t require a liberal dose of lube. Yet, we are so attuned to thinking that coupons and discounts are somehow exploiting the system that we uncritically accept any coupon or discount as somehow taking advantage when that is seldom the case and misses the actual point: sales, coupons and gimmicks exist to get people to spend more, not less.

The best deal is always good value on a good product. Everything else is designed to get further into your wallet.

on hate

I will freely present you with a handgun with one bullet in it. You will take the gun and point it directly at my head.

What happens next?

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blue parrot thinking: the shared plight of churches and car dealers

Reflections on websites, damned websites and how analog and digital approaches are now one and the same.

Over the years here, I’ve shared at length (and perhaps lengths too far) of the brief life I once spent working in ministry. I haven’t spoken much about the life I spend now.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in digital media: writing, editing and overseeing content for sports websites and support for and development of websites for the auto industry. I began the former with a background in journalism and WordPress; this very web presence, along with the work I did with a collegiate fishwrap, got me in the door there.

I began the latter with what could only be charitably described as rudimentary coding ability. I never studied anything more than QBasic in junior high and had a crude understanding of HTML. I would never consider myself a savant or expert developer, but I did find that I had a knack for this stuff, so I learned HTML, Bootstrap and CSS, can read and mostly interpret JavaScript but can’t seem to make the jump to writing it. I intuitively understood that if I didn’t swim, I’d sink and my family would starve. My understanding of ‘innovate or die’ is in many ways quite literal.

Over the last two-plus seasons in web support, development and a stint in account management for good measure, I’ve worked on a lot of projects and websites, which has allowed me to interact with a lot of people in the auto industry, from dealership proprietors from the used lot down the street to executives overseeing some of the largest auto groups regionally and nationally. By and large, my opinion of auto dealers remains healthily skeptical; I’ve been privileged to talk with really smart, savvy and collegial folks from every time zone.

I’ve talked to others, as well. (Haven’t we all?)

The interesting thing is how similarly those professionally part of American Evangelicalism and in your garden variety North American car dealership think.

Whilst perusing LinkedIn, I happened upon this meme:

As a rule, I don’t do much on LinkedIn. This, and the presuppositions behind it, moved me to violate my own principles. I couldn’t not act, and that was the moment that I realized that I was and am, indeed, a fully-fledged digital evangelist. Much like encountering someone upholding the principles of five-point Calvinism, the fire was trapped in my bones and I could not contain it.

Let’s talk about blue parrot thinking.

The world now exists as a singular duality: the material world (the booth I’m sitting in, the coffee I drink, the keyboard upon which I am relentlessly hammering right now) and the digital version (the website you’re reading [hi!], the memes you share, the snaps that were and are no longer save for the gutter of one’s mind.) There is no longer a difference between the two: your website, digital brand, social media footprint, all of them are viewed as equivalent to your actual self. A car dealership’s website is not a billboard or TV spot, it is the car dealership itself. People are window shopping (and, in a growing number of instances, getting financing and even desking deals in the virtual space.) A church’s website is not a tract, bulletin or radio spot, it is the vestibule (and in a growing number of instances, the sanctuary.)

My response to the meme: “Your dealership website IS your showroom. A poorly-functioning, design-blind website is the same as a dirty, dingy converted gas station used car lot. Not an extension of your brand, but your brand itself.”

You might own a converted gas station used car lot. There’s nothing wrong with a converted gas station used car lot, provided quality vehicles are marketed by quality people there and provided at mutually-beneficial value between buyer and seller. The point is that a poorly-developed website will undermine sales efforts and hamstring efforts to grow your business. A bad website is a loud fart during the exchange of wedding vows: the deed might get done, but the process in getting there is seriously disrupted.

The idea that businesses or organizations of any variety can and should be unapologetic in their digital crumminess isn’t just bad marketing, it’s bad business. There’s a reason this website exists and now in a semblance of ironic glory.

Be glad there isn’t an easily-accessible similar site for car dealers.

Examples of both of these are examples of selling blue parrots. They’re dead on arrival. Worse yet, no one’s even buying.

One can try to talk one’s way out of it; a bad website isn’t bad as long as people are coming in the door and we sell a car is philosophically identical thinking to the Machiavellian ‘even if one person comes to know Jesus, it will have all been worth it!’ gambit tossed out without a shred of self-awareness by Christian zealots who are content with alienating thousands so that they can hoist one on their shoulders in their deluded, bizarre tendencies toward self-congratulation.

In missiology, it is referred to as the ‘mission station’: an outpost people are expected to be drawn toward, as though it were a force of nature bringing them into the center (never mind that centrifugal force doesn’t actually exist.) The mission station, despite its obvious limitations and demonstrable, historic flaws as a strategy for proselytization, remains the preeminent method of ecclesiastical brand building in the world today.

The car dealership without a digital footprint and identity suffers from an identical problem and, without a way to interact with and get in front of others, others will remain staid or, worse, resort to their stereotypes. No one denies that the church and car dealership both suffer from historically poor optics. The fact that every church is stumbling over themselves to declare themselves real and authentic and relevant and that many car dealers talk up their hassle-free, stress-free, not-your-typical-dealership experience only underscores the point.

Churches and car dealerships have been offering the public blue parrots for so long that they only show up when they have to: when the car breaks down, or Christmas and Easter.

What it comes down to is integrity. If an entity wants to put its best foot forward, it’s going to do the best possible job in every possible way. That includes digital marketing, because digital presence is now actual presence, thus the same efforts put into a difference-making organization–be it of the religious or RPM variety–must be put into how that organization exists in the digital space. The same is also true in reverse: a great website or digital presence shouldn’t be papering over blatant flaws in the brick-and-mortar space. To wit, Wendy’s has a killer social media presence, but I’m not buying a Baconator.

We have to come to grips with the fact that it may be more expedient or more affordable to cut corners, but it isn’t right. We may not be turning back the odometer or putting floor mats over cigarette burns, or masking insecurities of conscience by using scare tactics to manipulate someone into a conversion.

It’s all selling dead blue parrots, and when confronted with the fact that the parrot has ceased to be, readying any number of excuses as to why the parrot is alive (or, more to the point, why we aren’t willing to provide a refund.) If either church or car dealer is interested in changing perception, they’re going to make sure their various forms of presence are aligned and consistent with one another, if for no other reason than there are no various forms of presence: either there is presence or there isn’t.

This is how the world is. In reality, this is how the world has always been. We’re just recognizing it anew via emerging technology…and a nearly 50-year-old comedy sketch.

briefly, returning to milwaukee, a place that does not exist

Last month, I took my birthday off and made the short trek down to Milwaukee by myself, where I visited the hospital where I was born (hey, I hadn’t been back since!), went down to the lakefront and explored the Saarinen-designed War Memorial and, of course, went to Miller Park for the last Brewers home game of the season.

Milwaukee is where I was born, where my extended family was for many years and where I find myself existentially renewed. I love that area deeply, but it is not my own. I wasn’t raised there; my experience of Milwaukee is almost entirely as that of a tourist. It is no different than having affection for Disneyland by virtue of having been there many times, but having never worked there or even lived in Orange County. (And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love Disneyland.)

Though Milwaukee is imprinted on me, it is not mine. More to the point, my Milwaukee does not exist. It was never mine.

A return to Milwaukee is, for me, a return to innocence, to go back to a point in my life where I could hope and dream for anything. It is ultimately a negation of my self, or perhaps an exercise in self-pity. The siren song of escapism.

I was raised in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a mid-sized city almost directly in the middle of the state. My feelings toward it are mixed at best. Had I grown up in Milwaukee, my guess is that I would feel similarly toward it as I do my actual hometown. It’s easy to long for things as they exist in our minds as opposed to things as they are. We prefer the delusion of fantasy to the soul-crushing inevitabilities of the real. We prefer ideology to mutual understanding, selfish lust to selfless love. We prefer to escape the present for a romanticized nothing.

No one is innocent. Everyone has a Milwaukee, a Shell Beach, a Zion. And everyone has never actually been to those places, because the jurisdiction of those places end where the mind ends.

And within our own minds, lost and detached from real relationship with real people–fraught with love and loss and risk of both–is no place to be.

I love you, Milwaukee, but you are not mine.

briefly, the 25th hour of parenthood

The 25th Hour is a novel by David Benioff–later adapted by Spike Lee into a film starring Edward Norton–a vignette of a man’s final moments of freedom before reporting to prison for a seven-year sentence. In those ultimate hours, he spends the evening with two friends, contemplates the choices that brought him to this point.

Tomorrow, wife and I send the girls off for their first day of 4K. Granted, it’s only three-ish hours a day, but it’s their first first day of school and, after this, they won’t have a last first day of school for at least 14 years. I will be approaching 50 years old then.

We spent years trying and failing to have children, then we ended up with the beans, and things were good. They weren’t going to school for years. Then Don August showed up, which was cool. Not easy, not by a long shot, but cool. Well, time being what it is, slipped away and here we are, toddlers who don’t toddle, armed with backpacks and heading off to school tomorrow.

We knew it was coming. We tried to prepare for it. And then, I realized that their last first day of school will be at least 14 years from now, and I will be approaching 50 years old.

And that’s when I realized my life is over.

I’ve been having a hard time reconciling myself to that fact. From here, it’s parent-teacher conferences, something resembling organized sports, extracurricular activities: for the first time in my life, I told the girls, sans irony, to get ready for bed because it’s a school night.


How did I get here?

Our adventures seem like they were eons ago. Weren’t we just in Kansas City? Wasn’t I just in grad school? Didn’t I write that incendiary column at the Northern Light last semester?

The only semesters that matter anymore are at a grade school attended by my children. If it wasn’t about me before, it’s definitely not about me now.

This is where I’m at. I’m done, and I have to make my peace with it. Maybe I’ll do a Coffee With Dead People on myself! Or perhaps it’s epilogomena!

Maybe I’m just being melodramatic–particularly to those who aren’t here (or aren’t here yet)–or some wiseacre who has been here before just reads this smiling and nodding, but there is an eerie sense of finality here that I was not anticipating, and I didn’t even necessarily feel when I was first introduced to my offspring or even when I got married. This is weird!

So, I will go to bed (I’m really, really tired, can’t you tell?) and wake up tomorrow (I took the day off for the occasion) and we’ll take pictures of the girls with their sign and we’ll take them to their classroom.

After that, we’ll probably go grab some breakfast: two dead people–with a cute, mulleted mini-me in tow–wondering how it all came to this.

And life will keep marching on.

briefly, on being replaceable

As society further commodifies people, moving us from who toward what, it can readily be noticed that, while we lament how people have turned to cattle in so many ways in terms of the workforce, we have no apparent issue with turning people into hamburger in our personal lives.


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