Cultural Inventory

Wild Strawberries

* This piece was written in response to a “personal cultural inventory” assignment, and is a reflection on connections between my cultural background and educational preferences.

My ancestry is difficult to trace. My family has shot across long distances, rooting only briefly before moving on. The oldest relative I’ve located is James Whitman Inman, who was born in London, England, in 1648. Three generations later, his grandson Edward Inman hopped the Atlantic and had a family in Rhode Island. The next generation was born in Maine, and the one that followed was rooted in Ohio. Emma Inman from Ohio married James Ward of Missouri, and the couple moved to Oklahoma during the 1889 land rush. My relatives converged there to take advantage of the land that remained after thousands of Native Americans were forcibly migrated to reservations. I know little about the Wards, but I can guess that they originated in the South given the number of African-Americans who share my last name.

James Ward prospered in Oklahoma and died in 1924. One of his sons, Jestus Ward, married Goldie Brasier, a cook for a sorority at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. When Oklahoma became a dust bowl Jestus left for California, leaving behind a family of nine. One of those left behind was my father, Chester, born in 1925. My father told me he was glad to see Jestus go, because he was an alcoholic who sometimes threatened him with a gun. My father also claimed that he dropped out of the eighth grade to “stare at the backside of a mule,” helping his mother support his family. Farm work wasn’t all that he tried; Dad apprenticed as a carpenter under his mother’s second husband, although they did not get along either.

My mother was Bessie Douglass. I know little about the Douglass family, except that her father was a farmer who was extremely moral and strict and her mother’s side of the family controlled the bootlegging in Oklahoma City during prohibition. To escape her father’s tyranny, Bessie ventured to California for several summers to pick grapes. My father was there at the same time, scarcely a hundred miles away. Chester had joined Jestus there in an unsuccessful search for work. My future parents returned to Oklahoma, and Bessie met Chester at a malt shop in Norman, Oklahoma. They married in 1943, and my father and his brother Kenneth left in a different direction searching for work.

Dad found work near Chicago, and soon sent for my mother. During their first winter, Kenneth wrecked their car. They spent a frozen and miserable few months with their first child, my oldest brother David, in a basement apartment. My father was desperate and decided to try California again. Life in California was hard, because no one wanted to rent to “Okies.” Eventually, my father got a job with an oil company, bought a plot of land, and built a house in Ojai, California, with his own hands. I was conceived the year that Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries was released, and born in 1958. I was named after an actor that played Geronimo in a Western, Jeff Chandler, and James Dean. My flaming red hair had changed to blonde when my father sold our home in 1963.

Strawberries spread by sending horizontal colonizing shoots that search for soil to root in. Wild strawberries are seldom found in large groups, and often struggle to fruit at all. Though it was important to him, my father had little opportunity for education. Like many of his generation, educated himself by using the public library system. He passed a certification for a welding test, and transferred to the desert of Bakersfield, California, because the oil near Ojai had nearly run out. In Bakersfield, we lived by the airport, in a tract home in a suburb called Oildale, and in a slum area called Weedpatch that grew from a labor camp. Eventually, my father built another house on a five-acre farm about two miles from the Hilltop labor camp where the The Grapes of Wrath was filmed.

Growing up, I thought I might become a film director. UCLA film school was only two hours away, but I only had the money for a community college. I tried it, but was frustrated. I wasn’t able to take the literature courses I wanted because I failed the writing test. I dropped out in 1977. I supported myself as a salesman, a retail manager, and as a product trainer, while doing what I loved at night—documentary photography. Home moved away from me when I was twenty-three. My parents went back to “Native America,” Oklahoma. Fed-up with the bureaucracy of work, and unwilling to accept a supervisory position, my father settled for a $400 a month pension after 30 years at the same company. Twenty years later, I got fed-up too and became a reverse migrant. I moved even further east to Arkansas.

All my life I had followed my father’s educational example by dropping out and getting a library education. I read constantly. However, on a trip to Oklahoma to visit my parents, it occurred to me that since I was constantly researching like a student I should get a degree. With my father’s help I became a college freshman at the age of 38. At first, I thought of becoming a librarian. However, this time, professors insisted I had a talent for writing. Four years later I had Bachelor’s degrees in English literature and in rhetoric. Due to my interest in representation (both visual and verbal), I moved on to get a Master’s degree in rhetoric. My goals shifted considerably when I changed sides and moved to the front of a classroom as a teacher. I loved teaching as much as I loved research. While I could teach at a community college with a Master’s degree, to work at a four-year school I would need a Ph.D. That is what brought me to Minnesota.

I’ve been looking at the backside of the educational mule for seven years now, from Little Rock, Arkansas, to St. Paul, Minnesota. In Little Rock, I taught online classes in HTML web writing and in research writing. I love the way that technology allows us to move from site to site to find the most fertile ground. My cultural background, ultimately, is that of a migrant and so is my learning style. I have found the patch that interests me—rhetoric, technologies, and education—and I am growing down deep roots hoping to bear fruit. I am finally doing precisely what interests me. I welcome evaluation, because it is the best way to grow. However, grading, in the strictest sense, is another matter entirely. Blemishes can be cut from fruit rather than sorting them into piles of “grade a” or “grade c,” although in the end, all teachers must give grades.

My attitudes about collaboration are complex. As a retail manager, I worked to attain consensus rather than directing projects arbitrarily. Groups of motivated people working together can do incredible things. I have had little problem in workplace group settings. However, like my father before me, I do have problems with collaboration. In particular, writing in classroom groups has not worked well. I prefer to work independently because I trust myself. But more than that, my resistance comes from my experiences in school group work that involved a type of evaluation I am uncomfortable with. As Isak says in the opening of Wild Strawberries:

I feel that I’m much too old to lie to myself. But of course I can’t be too sure. My complacent attitude toward my own truthfulness could be dishonesty in disguise, although I don’t quite know what I might want to hide. Nevertheless, if for some reason I would have to evaluate myself, I am sure that I would do so without shame or concern for my reputation. But if I should be asked to express an opinion about someone else, I would be considerably more cautious. There is the greatest danger in passing such judgment. In all probability one is guilty of errors, exaggerations, even tremendous lies. Rather than commit such follies, I remain silent.

I am in favor of peer evaluations of products, but resistant to collaborative projects because they usually result in the assessment of conduct by the people involved. My background, history, and experiences have led me to favor autonomy. My process of working, of writing, is different from most people and it is hard to find ways to fit in.

However, perhaps the most important perspective from my cultural heritage that shapes my response to educational environments is a utopian belief that they should be open access—not held exclusively behind password encrypted University walls, but freely accessible to all. I believe that educational material should be shared openly. Otherwise, my father would have had no education at all. I resist draconian efforts at rating the worth of people on a scale, and granting or denying access based on notions of standardized merit. I believe in education in its most democratic and utilitarian sense. My background make me believe that education should be is a tool that allows us to build things, not a locked gate where only the privileged are allowed to apply.

* * I wrote this in a big hurry, because I could not access the class (due to my late registration) until three days before it was due. In retrospect, it seems too forced. O well. Everything I write can�t be a winner. Short pieces are the hardest for me, because I’m always wrapped up in big stories.