Sunday, January 22, 2012

Falling into the Lifeboat: How I Won a Bike Race

The Captain of the Italian cruise ship who ran his craft aground in the Mediterranean last week claims he didn’t intentionally abandon ship before everyone had evacuated. He said he tripped and fell overboard into a life boat. I’d be completely incredulous about that statement if I had not had won a collegiate bike race last Sunday the way I won it.

The event was an odd cycling competition: cyclocross. Born decades ago in Belgium in the offseason of the road cycling season; cyclocross uses basic road bicycles with knobby tires and wider cantilever brakes. The courses are on grass, sand and mud and include steep hills and obstacles that require the competitors to jump on and off and carry their bikes. Cyclocross or just “cross” is road cycling’s less serious, unpolished, less well-known brother: Jimmy Carter’s Billy, Bill Clinton’s Roger. Where road cycling is replete with written and unwritten rules and tradition, millimetrically built and adjusted bikes and laser focused competitors, cross has hecklers, unstructured courses and competitors who may pause at an obstacle to pick up dollar bills staged by fans. Cross is done as laps on a closed course. The race goes on for a stated period of time (30, 45, 60 minutes) before the officials at the start/finish line hold up signs that tell you 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 laps to go.

The fact that cyclocross is less stuffy and structured don’t mean it ain’t hard. The fact that you’re on changing and slow surfaces and jumping on and off the bike and jumping over stuff with your bike over a short, intense timeframe makes it incredibly hard. The correct tire inflation is really crucial. On a road bike you’d normally want maximum tire pressure for reduced rolling resistance and easier speed. With cross, though, you want to have less air in your tires so they’ll spread out and grip the ground better. So you’ll see guys at the start line of a cross race reaching over and squeezing the tires of other competitors like dogs sniffing each other. Key to being fast in cross is getting on and off the bike quickly, so you learn to dismount while the bike is moving and to mount the bike by running and jumping up onto the saddle while the bike is rolling. As you can imagine, this “flying squirrel” mount is a little unnerving and requires a great deal of taintal awareness. Microsoft Word does not recognize the adjective version of the polysemic “taint” but you get the picture. The flying squirrel mount, like many other things in life, requires total commitment to work. A guy who attempts a “lazy squirrel” may be singing soprano.

I did my first cross race in Houston back in December with cyclocross wizard Brian Hare and I got beat down pretty bad. A guy collided with me on the first lap and knocked me over and I dropped my chain and had to get it back on. The course was really tough and I got so gassed and my lower back hurt so bad from the steep hills that when the race was over, I laid down in the grass and stuck the back of my helmet in the soft ground and just stretched out there until my chest stopped heaving. I knew what I needed to work on, though, and I prepped as best I could for our A&M Cycling Team-sponsored race on January 15th.

For this, my second cross race, I raced with the Men’s B’s. We set it up as a South Central Collegiate Cycling Conference race (we’ve got 16 other teams in our conference), but the proximity to the start of school, the holiday, and the fringe nature of cyclocross resulted in no competitors from other schools and it wound up being essentially an A&M intramural race. The first couple of laps I was just focused on not being last, but I passed a couple of guys who faded and a couple more who made errors on some of the obstacles. Then the “flat-o-rama” commenced. Through the course of the race, one after another, guys in front of me would have flat tires or mechanical malfunctions. Part of the course went down a trail that had some sharp little rocks among piles of leaves and I suspect that tires with too-low pressure flatted against the edges. As a result, with about 4 laps to go I found myself leading the race with Carlton Mathis, a big studly guy who’s a strong rider, right behind me. With 3 laps to go he passed me and started to pull away and I knew I didn’t have the steam to catch him. Then, with a little over 2 laps to go I could hear that sad whomp, whomp, whomp sound and Carlton pulled over with a flat. I did my best to hold off the guys riding hard behind me and came in with a win. When I got close to the finish somebody yelled, “It’s not a win unless you post up, Mark!” so I sat up and gave 2 thumbs up as I finished. I knew the win had very little to do with my ability and everything to do with the other riders’ misfortune, but a W’s a W. Maybe the first ingredient of winning is just showing up. Good-spirited accusations of my underhanded win immediately started. I heard somebody laugh and say, “Hey, no fair tackling the other riders, Mark.” Willie Allen accused me of having snipers hidden in the treeline armed with tire-flattening dart guns. All in good fun.

So if we do this next year I’ll be racing with the Men’s A’s, a group of more skilled and experienced cyclocrossers. And I really don’t see the other schools not sending some strong riders next year. So that was probably my one and only cross win. Unless . . .

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Academic Freedom to Keep Your Classes Small

I have a friend whose daughter, Bethany, is experiencing her first week of classes at Texas A&M University. She was homeschooled growing up and then went to a community college for a semester. Now that she's transferred to A&M, she’s finally living her dream of being an Aggie like her old dad.

But the dream turned a little nightmarish when she attended her first class and heard a tenured professor tell the entire class the following while “communicating classroom expectations”: “Drop the fucking class if you don’t like black teachers that don’t like white students. Drop the fucking class if you don’t like teachers that curse. Drop the fucking class if you want to preach your bible at me about sexuality” (the course topic has nothing to do with sexuality).

I’ll just let that sink in. And I'd like to remind my mom at this point that I'm just quoting the prof verbatim (albeit third hand).

Having been on campus taking undergrad and graduate classes since spring 2007 and having taken graduate classes in the department where this guy teaches, I can tell you I’m not a bit surprised. Not one little bitty bit. I’ll also tell you that this guy won’t get in one bit of trouble. You can write whoever you want to whomever you want; his department will continue to consider him a superstar.

What Bethany experienced today was the confluence of two trends: the unhitching of academics from the rest of society and the irrelevance of undergraduate education in a large tier – 1 research university (like A&M).

This prof, like the fat, slow kid playing chase at recess who sticks his thumbs in his ears and sings “nanny, nanny boo boo” while he’s on “base”, knows that anything he says in the class is protected because he’s got tenure and because it’s classified as academic speech. Now, the point of tenure and academic speech is to protect profs who make provocative statements that make the establishment uncomfortable. See, we really do need profs to tell us things we don’t like to hear and if we could just fire them all when we don’t like what they say, then the university would just become another media tool of the state’s message. And we need our academics to challenge us, to make us defend our beliefs, and to point out the things in society that are all screwed up. And sometimes we even need them to use bad language to fire us up.

But that’s not what happened to Bethany today. She experienced the time-honored technique of a professor who’s doing what he can to keep his class size small and reduce his workload. If, on the first day of class, he can scare off all the undergraduate students who don’t think like him then he can spend more time working on his research, getting funding and fellowships. This prof is not stupid. He knows there’s no reward in teaching undergraduate students. They're a pain in the behind for academics but as long as they keep paying tuition the university doesn’t care if they’re outraged or offended. So the fewer of those suckers a prof has to teach, the better. Because that prof knows he is not evaluated on how many undergraduates he teaches or how well he teaches them. How do you quantify life lessons? He is evaluated on how many books or articles he publishes and how much research money he or she brings in. You can put those on a spreadsheet.

And that’s how the Texas A&M University that Bethany’s dad attended turned into the TAMU, Inc. that Bethany’s attending now.

Several things about this whole episode are really too doggone bad. One of them is that I read this guy’s CV and I’ve studied and written about what he researches and I’d bet you our conclusions would be about 95% the same. He probably has some perspectives that homeschooled Christian white kids really need to hear. But they won’t hear them because he ran them off on the first day. Another shame is that this story and many like it will reach the ears of powerful people who would like to do away with tenure anyway. “See”, they’ll say, “those professors are just lazy. We need to be able to fire their asses.” But I can tell you that 95% of the tenured profs I know are not lazy. Most of them write and read and study until 3 or 4 in the morning and they conscientiously prep for the bazillion duties they have, including teaching undergraduates who may not care, may not understand, may not agree with them, and may not like it. And they change people’s lives for the better because they challenge them and broaden their perspectives.

And nearly all of the profs I know would never act like this in class because they are conscious of their duty (which the academic system does nothing to reward) to impart their knowledge to people who really need it. And they wouldn't handle themselves in the way Bethany’s prof did today. They'd know their audience. They know you’ve got to appeal in order to influence. And they know, like every man who’s made his marriage work for more than ten years, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.