Looking back at the first year. . .

Perhaps I’ll recount some of the highlights of my experiences at UCR, especially since I took a 4-year hiatus from this blog! The first year was, without question, one of the most grueling experiences of my life. The courses at UCR were extremely challenging and enlightening. If that was all that I had on my plate, I probably would have enjoyed it immensely. However, the personal matters I had to deal with (esp. those related to the extreme family emergency I’ve mentioned previously) were part of the darkest moments of my life. Again, I will not go into the details other than to say that I honestly don’t  know how I survived that first year.

Essentially no one at UCR is, even now, aware of the issues I faced. I was forced to drop one class (which I’ve mentioned before) in order to deal with matters. In hindsight, I still wonder if it would have been best for me to just have taken a quarter off to deal with things. Regardless, I survived! That alone, is an accomplishment that I’m proud of. Under no circumstances would I ever want to relive that year.

Many times over the years, I have regretted not pursuing a doctorate immediately following the attainment of a master’s degree, back in 1988. My advisor at Cal State San Bernardino strongly encouraged me to continue with my studies. Instead, I wanted to focus on “settling down” and having a family.  It would have been far easier for me to continue with my education then. However, I most certainly would have not been interested in a Ph.D. in special education. Little did I know that many of my experiences over the next twenty years would lead me down this path. That is not to say that I didn’t have a lot of meaningful experiences. I had many wonderful times as both a classroom teacher and later a music specialist. I became involved in higher education very early on in my career too – I’ve taught innumerable graduate level courses as well as a six-year stint as an adjunct instructor at a community college (which I found to be very rewarding). In addition, I was very active with a number of professional organizations.

Prior to the time I became a music specialist, I observed school districts doing heinous things to children with special needs. That was the beginning of my current career path although I certainly was not aware that my experiences would ultimately lead to enrolling in a Ph.D. program in special education. Early on, I spent one summer as a teacher for special needs kids. At the time, I believe those kids were labeled “educable mentally retarded.” Although I was not prepared to be a special education teacher, I did enjoy the experience despite the fact that it was a very difficult position.

I would later do a considerable amount of work as an advocate for kids who were being denied services by the very school districts that were required, under Federal law, to help them. Briefly, I observed, first hand, school districts denying services to children with very severe special needs (not to mention higher functioning children who also needed assistance). I was appalled that such things could happen in our schools. Just as appalling were the  schizophrenic responses of the very governmental agencies that are obligated to enforce education laws that are supposed to protect the educational rights of children. Although I have prevailed in large number of state and Federal cases, I’m also disgusted with the fact that helping these children is entirely dependent upon the whims of obviously incompetent government “investigators.” Over the years, the incompetence has only grown and I’ve become increasingly cynical.

My first year at UCR was clearly an outgrowth of the previous twenty. It was a cathartic experience that seemed to launch me down a new path were I could put my skills to use in a new, meaningful way. Although I find educational law to be fascinating, my disgust for most of those in the “legal professions” is absolute. I do not believe that our courts and law enforcement agencies are capable (or willing) to protect our children. I do, however, believe that a more positive path can make a difference – specifically research into educational practices. Laws can be altered and changed by lawyers and courts who twist both their meaning and intent. Research, on the other hand, cannot be altered in the same way. Sure, there can be very heated debates about research but scientific inquiry has one advantage over the games played by lawyers and governmental agencies. Specifically, research must be objectively based and must be replicable. Genuine scientific facts cannot be altered – only denied by those who are either ignorant or malevolent (and yes, plenty of lawyers and governmental agencies do ignore research findings). Just the same, research provides an venue to explore positive things in order to promote change. That made pursuit of a Ph.D. particularly attractive.

In summary, my first year at UCR was painful (although much of it was not related to my scholarly pursuits). Arguably, the most difficult academic challenge for me was dealing with the development of research-based writing skills. I’ve lovingly referred to this style as “academic BS”  because, in many ways, it’s so pretentious. Having now read a few million (or more) research articles, I’m amazed at how some can say so little while pretending they have a lot to contribute. On the other hand, good research-based writing is also an art. True experts (to borrow a phrase attributed to one of my professors), “can make the data sing.”

Interacting with my professors has  been a wonderful (and humbling) experience. One of my professors has had more then 350 articles published in peer-reviewed journals – he’s absolutely amazing! My advisor is a brilliant scholar. Her research skills are impeccable and are only exceeded by her ability as an editor.

Mentioning editing . . . I still laugh about an experience I had many years ago when I first started teaching for the child development department at a community college. It was reported to me that several students in my class were overheard stating, at the beginning the semester, that “Mr. La Marca thinks he’s a damn English teacher.” Of course, I thought that was hilarious and was actually delighted to be accused of such a thing (not that I have ever had a desire to be a real English teacher). I’m pleased to say that I persisted and soon the rest of the instructors in the department were demanding that their students write in complete sentences (with correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and syntax – gasp)!!! Over time, we observed a distinct improvement in student writing. I suspect that learning to write as a true academic has been equally painful for me – I especially have a penchant for using superlatives and inserting loaded terms. Not that such things are bad except that in academic writing, all subjectivity must be removed. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks but my professors were finally able to break me from my old habits. Oh well . . . obviously they didn’t break me entirely as this post is already far too long. Good thing this isn’t my dissertation! I’ll write more later . . .

Yes, it really has been four years!

I was going over some old sites and tidying things up a bit and realized it’s been ages since I last posted here. In fact, it has been slightly more than four years since my last entry! While I am now approaching the end of the Ph.D. program (more on that in a moment), so much else has happened that I don’t know where to begin.

In my last post, I mentioned I had to deal with a sudden family emergency. While I will not go into the details surrounding that, there is no question that that event was one of many extremely serious matters I’ve dealt with since I enrolled at UCR. The life challenges I’ve faced during that time have been extraordinary and under no circumstances would I ever want to go through those challenges again. Even now, many of those issues have yet to be resolved. Personally, I believe that degrees that are given for “life experience” are bogus. Just the same, I would be eligible for multiple such “degrees” if such thing were really given!

However, despite those challenges, I am now dissertating! My experience at UCR have been very positive – the level of scholarship is nothing less than phenomenal. It’s been an honor to study with so many brilliant individuals – the professors are highly respected and recognized experts within their fields. The quality of the doctoral students in my program is also what one would expect at a tier one research institution – “bad apples” simply aren’t admitted, and nearly all make it through the program.

Unlike degrees-for-dollars schools (and diploma mills) that crank out Ph.D.s faster than McDonald’s flips burgers, UCR only permits a very small number of students to enter the program each year (generally no more than two students). Yes, it’s a very select group and students are expected to perform at very high levels from the beginning. I’m loathe to use the term “rigorous” to describe the program (although that is an accurate descriptor) simply because I’ve seen the term bantered about by so many degrees-for-dollars school and their customers (note, I didn’t use the term “students”) who serve as “ambassadors” to suck more souls into their systems. At the University of California, there is an unquestionable emphasis on quality, not quantity.  That, of course has many advantages in that we work very closely with our professors and class sizes are very small – often containing no more than four to eight students.

Well, this is enough for now. Perhaps I’ll write more in the near future to discuss some of the things I’ve experienced as a Ph.D. student. Hopefully, that won’t take another four years!

Read, read, read, read

But I’m not complaining – my classes are simply fascinating! The only problem  is that there simply are not enough hours in the day to get everything done. At the moment, we’re now entering the fourth week of the quarter and I’m frantically trying to get my reading done (only nine books and a million or so research articles). Just the same, not only are my courses and their respective professors fascinating but so are the materials. My biggest problem is trying to digest everything.

Unlike everything else in my life (which remains a veritable whirlwind of utter chaos and ceaseless personal crises), my studies are about the only thing that I’m enjoying. I’m very grateful that I’m in this program and continue to pray that it will lead to good things. Time to get back to my reading 🙂

A new quarter

Last quarter nearly killed me (due to a lot of personal things unrelated to UCR) and this one looked like it might be even worse – far worse. One of those personal matters disappeared yesterday and has now given me quite a bit more breathing room (there are still several very stressful things going on). Hopefully, I’ll be able to rid my plate of several of those in the future.

Tonight began our second week of courses and, once again, I’ve got a simply brilliant set of professors (they’re all absolutely wonderful). While I’m already behind (especially due to the personal crises that have been going on), I’m sure I’ll now be able to catch up before it’s too late. Fortunately, I ordered my books for this quarter very early and already have a head start with a couple of them. With luck, I’ll get caught up on my reading this weekend (only nine books, so far and a few million journal articles).

All of my classes appear to be very interesting and I’m looking forward to cramming my feeble brain with a lot of new material. Unlike last quarter, where most of my courses helped to bring me up to speed on some of the latest research and current pedagogical practices, my courses this quarter seem as if I’ll be covering a lot of material that will be completely new to me – something I’m sure I’ll enjoy (as long as I can keep up).  Topics include a course on autism (an area that I have only a limited understanding), qualitative research, and multicultural education. In two of my courses, I already know that I’ll get to focus on policy – a matter which I hold very near and dear to my own heart (well, that’s a bit of an understatement).

It’s already late and I haven’t slept in weeks so I’ll try to write a bit more within the next few days. Off to bed. . . 🙂

Whew! I’ve finished my first quarter!

It’s been awhile since I was last able to post here (I had originally hoped I’d be able to do that once a week) but I’ve just been too busy. In fact, I’m absolutely EXHAUSTED but I survived (I hope) my first quarter. The amount of reading, writing, calculation, writing, reading, calculating, reading, calculating, writing,  (did I mention calculating, reading, writing?), that I’ve done over the past couple of months has been absolutely incredible. Oh, did I mention I’m EXHAUSTED?

In case I’m not coherent (in other words, no synapses are currently firing) it’s because my brain (what’s left of it) is currently dripping out of my ears. My last class/final was two days ago – on Monday, and I was so tired by the time I arrived home that I slept for twenty (20) hours yesterday!

Am I complaining? Absolutely not (well, maybe just a little bit). All of my classes were fascinating, my professors were extremely intelligent, the work challenging (now that’s an understatement), and I learned a lot. Was it easy? Again, absolutely not! If finger tips could get callouses from typing, mine would be eight inches thick and bleeding. One of my classes was especially grueling (statistics) – at least for me. I intend to keep working on the material I’ve learned so that I can, hopefully, retain it.

Things would have been a bit easier if other matters in my personal life weren’t so chaotic – the amount of endless stress has been unbearable. There were many times when taking my classes at UCR was a pleasurable relief from the other messes. I’m just hoping that things will settle down, a LOT, next quarter but there are some matters (not related to UCR) that have to potential to cause more havoc. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a good New Year.

Taking a break from my reading

. . . to update this blog. Last week was one of the most hectic and excruciatingly stressful weeks I’ve had an in a very long time but not due to my studies at UCR. As a result, I didn’t get a chance to write much (at least not here) so I’m going to catch up today. The personal matters I’m dealing with have been simply overwhelming and I’m fighting to keep my head in my books. My classes at UCR; however, remain extraordinarily enlightening and I’m absolutely thrilled with the quality of instruction.

It’s been a long time since I’ve taken so many classes where the instructors (in this case, real professors) can not only chew gum and walk at the same time but are; indeed, brilliant individuals who have no need to pontificate on their own virtues. Each course is very dynamic and I walk away from each with a few million more questions than I had when I entered the classroom (which, is actually a good thing). One of the  things that strikes me as being very different than when I earned my Masters Degree is that the matter of “statistics” is now dealt with in a completely different manner. I can remember sitting in previous classes working over piles of statistical problems in order to understand the concepts (surprisingly, I haven’t forgotten everything I learned 20 years ago) while now, much of the work is now left to (or blamed on – ha, ha!) computers.

Mentioning computers – wow! How things have CHANGED over the past twenty years! I completed my Masters on a Commodore 64 using a word processor that I manually entered into the machine from magazine (and, for my BA, I had to use a typewriter <GASP!>). Now, I bring my laptop to class, do all of my work on a computer, e-mail my professors, even register for parking on the Internet. The young “whippersnappers” (a term that I’ve been using with increasing frequency) have no IDEA as to how much technology has enhanced formal academic pursuits. This does not mean that things are now “easy” (they’re not) but that much more attention can be provided on meaningful things – such as learning.

To emphasis this point, some of my fellow-students were “whining” that they had to manually enter data sets into a computer program for analysis (gosh, imagine that) and our instructor has now sent us files with contain the raw data so we don’t have to worry about such things. Okay, I admit, I’m getting spoiled too – I like it when those materials are provide to us. Just the same, entering data into a computer program and letting that construct pretty charts and graphs (not to mention, do all of the number crunching too) feels like a luxury compared to doing everything by hand. Ah, life is good!

Well, almost good. Aside from the ongoing personal trauma (again, unrelated to UCR), I’ve also come to temporarily HATE my computer. Actually, I don’t really hate it, I just hate Microsoft and friends. When school began, in addition to buying a few million books and other supplies, I had to get another computer. I’ve had my home PC for a very long time and it’s been trying to give up the ghost for at least a year – something that absolutely can’t happen during the middle of a quarter. As a geek, I knew that now was the time to get a new computer (if I want to survive) and got a great deal on a new system. While the machine is fabulous, setting it up and transferring data is an entirely different matter. To compound the situation, I’ve learned that it is now essential to keep everything backed up on redundant hard drives (through a system of networked RAID 1 drives) to prevent total meltdown. Case in point – I nearly killed my Commodore 64 (twenty years ago) when I stayed up all night (not an uncommon occurrence) finishing up a paper only to have the blankety-blank thing lock up on me when I hit “save” in order to preserve my document on a cassette tape. (Remember those? That was in the days when the pterodactyls still ruled the skies and even floppy drives hadn’t been invented yet.) I ended up having to re-write the ENTIRE paper which was not a pleasant experience. Not wanting to ever deal with that type of situation again and due to the fact that it is now relatively easy (did I say that?) to use networked drives in order to save my precious data from a computer meltdown. Getting back to “easy” – well, let’s say that it took me nearly an entire week and a half in order to get the blankety-blank thing working. Not only did I have to completely restore my new computer to its original state (I really did) but also spent endless hours on the phone to various tech support people in India who also couldn’t get things to work. Did I mention that this was a genuine nightmare?! I really don’t understand how anyone could deal with these issues if they weren’t fully computer literate.

Okay, I’m beginning to break out in hives from all of the stress just thinking about the computer mess – most things are working splendidly now so I can get on with my studies. Back to the books. . .

My first classes!

I’ve got a bit to catch up on but this will bring my blog current. As noted previously, I’ve been very, very busy getting settled into school. On top of that, my “old life” continues to swarm around me and I’m, quite frankly, very tired of it. All I can do is hope and pray that it will all be behind me in the near future and that my schedule will settle down as I want to focus 100% of my attention on my studies.

Last Thursday, I attended my first two classes and WHAT A JOY they both were! I felt like I had finally arrived home after a very long (and much unwanted) journey. It was exciting to immersed back into a field which I know so well only to discover that my previous training and experiences remain relevant today. While techniques may change and research is certainly beginning to reveal why certain exemplary (but previously unstudied) pedagogical practices work, much remains to be done. After attending these courses, my mind was left with countless possibilities for potential research topics that beg to be explored. Of course, my overactive mind merely went into overload as I thought about many of these but that’s alright! It’s better to have too many ideas than not enough.

I just returned, a moment ago from my third (of four) classes and, again, I was absolutely thrilled with the calibre of instruction, the professionalism and expertise of the professor, and enthralled with the topics discussed. Without question, the academic environment at UCR is VASTLY SUPERIOR, in every way, nearly all others I have experienced over the past twenty years (since I earned my MA).

One thing that I really noticed – something that hasn’t ever happened before – is that unlike my previous educational experiences, my age seemed to actually be a benefit. Specifically, my life experiences made once theoretical topics jump out at me with relevancy – simply because I have gone through so much. This was vastly different from both my undergrad and grad experiences because, at that time, I simply did not know what I do today. Interestingly, it also causes me to have many, many more questions  – too many to ask (otherwise, the professor wouldn’t accomplish anything else) – so I asked only the most relevant ones. My only concern is that, at this point in time, I’m free associating so many ideas that I might overload my professors. 🙂

I’m going to have to call it quits tonight as I’m just too tired. But it’s a “good tired” – not the stressed out “tired” that I’ve come to know and hate. 🙂 Tomorrow, I’ll be attending my fourth (and final) class for this semester and I’ll write more then.