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An Autobiographical Essay

by Dale L. Brubaker


Photo of Dale Brubaker from Okemos High School's Tomahawk Yearbook

Almost everything I have ever done or written has been autobiographical. (Sarason, 1988, p. 231)

My “I” has always been center stage in all that I have done.  I like to call it self-exploration.  Others may view it as a euphemism for self-indulgence. (Sarason, l988, p. 109)

There is a river.  The past is always with us. It shapes our discourse.  Not only are we constantly in conversation with past members of the field, but we stand on their shoulders. (Apple, 1992, p. 9)

Memory is not just about the past; it continues to inform and alter the present. (MacNeil, 2003, p. 162)

In the Godkin lectures at Harvard, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told us he had learned the conservatives’ truth that culture, not politics, determines the success of a society and the liberals’ truth that politics can change a culture and save it from itself. (Gergen, (2003, p. 60)


The essay that follows was originally written as a chapter in a book that was titled The Charismatic Leader: The Presentation of Self and the Creation of Educational Settings.  Editors at Corwin Press deleted this chapter so that in their words “the book would be the size of a book you could read on a plane.”  My original intention for including the chapter was based on the assumption that knowing thyself was an important part of presentation of self and a good way to do this is to write an autobiography.

Two questions set the stage for this essay:  “How did I, the reader, learn to present myself in everyday life?” and “How did I learn to present myself as a participant in the creation of educational settings?”  You will note that in answering these questions you will begin to see emerge your worldview as part of “contexts within contexts, ranging from the local to the national to the international” (Sarason, 1993, p. 99).

The following autobiographical essay should be useful as a springboard that will stimulate thoughts and feelings you have about your own autobiography.  I had not originally intended to write the present chapter, but the more I thought about the writings of Erving Goffman and Seymour Sarason the more curious I became as to why their ideas spoke to my own experiences.  Curiosity and the search for meaning therefore became the motivating factors for doing my autobiography—the very point that Sarason makes in the header quotes for this chapter.  Although hundreds of my graduate students wrote professional autobiographies in my classes and found the experience an enlightening part of their course of study, I frequently thought about but didn’t write an autobiography.

As you think about and perhaps write your professional autobiography, you will begin to share themes and stories with others engaged in this activity.  The result will be a reciprocity of perspectives.  The following themes will alert you to some things to look for as you read this chapter: the expanding of horizons as you look for meaning and identity;  the search for learning communities as another “home” and the joys and challenges that follow when you participate in these communities; the role of mentors and “coaches” who share their knowledge, care and love for you as special persons; examples of good and poor leadership practices; turning points or critical incidents in your learning about presentation of self and the creation of learning communities;  and the relationship between the individual and the learning community.  You will add to this list thus making it your own.

The following section begins with a description of my “sense of place”—a powerful concept that is the basis for much of Sarason’s autobiographical writing (Sarason, (l988).  Snapshots are included in my autobiography in order to take you, the reader, backstage in the telling of my story.  [Anyone who reads this will notice that a copy editor, normally used by publishers, was not used on this somewhat manuscript.]


Early Beginnings

As I sit in front of my computer on this rainy day, I look at a postcard taped to the base of my green-shaded reading light.  It is a postcard sent to me by a childhood friend, Janet Wurster.  I last saw Jan at the Memorial Service for my father, who died at age 91.  The postcard is a picture of the sanctuary of First Methodist Church in Trenton, Michigan—a downriver suburb of Detroit that we moved to at the beginning of my seventh grade year in school (1949).  The photograph has a well-lit view of the front of the sanctuary with a gold cross on a wooden background between a pulpit and a lectern, one with an American flag behind it and the other with the Christian flag behind it.  [Having the American flag in the picture tells me that the photograph was taken after my father left Trenton.  He was wary of nationalism for it often conflicted with the Christianity of his understanding.   Patriotism and jingoism, preparation for war, often went hand-in-hand.]  It is obviously the Christmas season as wreaths are on the organ pipes and poinsettias adorn the communion rails.  Two large candles are on the altar with a gold-plated lamp shining down on the Bible beneath it.  I ask myself, “Why did I immediately place this photograph in the prominent place it has on my desk?”  The answer is clear!  I can to this day see my father, Herbert, behind the pulpit—the place where he gave his performances as the senior minister each Sunday morning.  It was in this place at this time, 10 A.M. on Sunday mornings, that the congregation of approximately 300 parishioners met for the symbolic ritual known as the worship service.

Snapshot 1 - The Worship Service

Promptly at 10 A.M. the adult choir began its processional down the center aisle singing hymns of power—hymns like “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty…”  Choir members’ robes added to the setting’s front, what Goffman called the expressive equipment for setting the stage for performances that will follow.  The next to last person in the processional is the associate minister followed by the senior minister in the most prominent position.  Both ministers are wearing black robes with the vestment of the religious season around their necks.

The preparation for worship begins with the Prelude, an opportunity for the organist to excel center-stage, often playing a composition by Bach.  The senior minister performs the Greeting with special attention given to visitors and other prospective members.  The associate minister then begins a responsive reading, The Call to Worship. You will note that the distinction between the senior minister and the associate minister is maintained throughout the service.  For example, the senior minister always speaks from behind the pulpit, the associate minister from behind the smaller lectern.]

The Hymn of Praise is followed by The Children’s Sermon, the choir’s Anthem and The Offering.  It is now time for The Sermon—the time during the service in which the senior minister’s performance most vividly communicates his worldview.  The first thing that one notices is that the senior minister doesn’t change his basic way of speaking while in the pulpit.  He doesn’t assume a “holiness voice,” for example.  Rather, he is authentic or sincere—a person as Goffman would say who believes in the impression fostered by his own performance (1959).

And, he is outspoken.  He doesn’t “pull any punches” as he forcefully projects his belief in world peace, social justice, and racial equality.  The moral rectitude or correctness of his beliefs is clearly communicated:  “How could any believer think and act otherwise?”  His liberal social gospel, supported by Biblical references that seem most appropriate to make his case, is front and center.  Like him and his message or not, there is no doubt where he stands on the issues.  He is a liberal, social activist and pacifist—positions bound to get him in trouble with some parishioners during World War II, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam, and the Civil Rights Revolution.  Pacifists in the Methodist ministry

in the mid 1950s, perhaps 20 percent in number, were a respected minority.  Ironically, Herbert took up deer hunting at the family cabin in Northern Michigan and enjoyed the male comradery with a few of his parishioners. However, he never shot his 30/30 Winchester and got rid of it shortly after the Kennedy assassinations.

The senior minister’s sermon comes to life with what Goffman calls dramatic realization—the mobilization of activity to express during the interaction what he wishes to convey.  He does this with high energy during key times in the sermon and with stories that illustrate points he wishes to make.  He has also memorized poetry that fits with his views.  When speaking about poverty and the exploitation of the poor, for example, he says:

“There was a golf course on a hill,

one bright and sunny day.

The children working in the mill,

could see the men at play.”

A person in the congregation, the audience, is left with the feeling that the senior minister views the sermon setting as a serious opportunity to consider important social issues—not a time for feeling-good activities that distract the audience from real-life social problems. The content of the sermon is sheer polemics supported by the senior minister’s common sense derived from his personal experiences.  Theoretical and controversial issues, such as the Virgin Birth and the existence of an afterlife (heaven), take a backseat to the more pragmatic matter of making this world a better place that honors the dignity of persons.

The certitude of Herbert’s positions on controversial issues, such as the relationship between war and peace, evoked a polarity of responses from parishioners.  Those who agreed with his views respected him for his courage in making his views known.  They applauded Herbert for not being “wishy-washy.”  Those who disagreed with his positions saw little ideological humility and room for disagreement on his part.  They simply saw Herbert as a dogmatic, uncompromising liberal.  If there were any intellectuals in the congregation, they might have wanted a more balanced perspective on war—a perspective that made a distinction between Biblical passages that were directed to the person, such as the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, in juxtaposition to passages that focused on governance decisions.  [The latter make the case for a just war on the road to peace.]  Most members of the church probably appreciated his warm and personable interpersonal leadership and didn’t give all that much attention to ideological matters or they forgave him for his stand on a few controversial issues.  Fellowship, as illustrated by “potluck suppers,” usually seemed more important in the Methodist church than ideology.  During his 1949-1960 tenure in the Trenton Church, however, he had a longstanding political battle with the wealthiest member of the church—a businessman who gave 5 thousand dollars a year.  It was a war of wills as to who was in charge.  The businessman eventually left the church and Herbert survived.

Bishop Marshall Reed named Herbert the District Superintendent of the Saginaw Bay District to a six- year tenure in 1960.  This position, a middle-management one, provided Herbert with the opportunity to draw on his high energy and organizational talent in order to build new churches.  A churchman at heart, Herbert served another suburban Detroit parish, Plymouth, Michigan, from 1966-1968, the shortest tenure in his career, due to conflict over his political stands.  He finished his ministry (l968-1972) as an associate pastor in Midland, Michigan, the home of Dow Chemical, the maker of napalm used in Vietnam.  The role of associate pastor probably protected him as it was the senior minister’s responsibility to set the agenda on key issues.  In 1964, Albion College awarded Herbert an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.

It is important to know from whence he came in order to understand how Herbert, my father, presented his authentic self in the pulpit and in the communities he served.   Herbert Carlton Brubaker was born on August 20, 1907 in Toledo, Ohio but soon after the family moved to a farm near Lulu, Michigan—a pocket of poverty peopled by Western European immigrants to the United States.  The downtown intersection had three bars and a grocery store.  Herbert’s father, George Arnold Brubaker, born on June 18, 1860, had left Hirtzel, Switzerland, outside of Zurich, and traveled across the Atlantic Ocean as a lad to Upstate New York.  He married Bertha Hunciker, whose parents had immigrated from Berne, Switzerland, in Villanova, New York, on October 28, 1884.  Herbert was the last of twelve children—the only child to graduate from high school, college or graduate school.

Herbert dropped out of high school to work in an automobile plant in Toledo but returned to graduate from Ida High School in 1929, thanks to the good graces of his principal and mentor who let him make up two years in one.  This is clearly an example of Sarason’s point that leaders choose leaders and one person can make a difference for future generations (1972).  There were three major pathways out of poverty for young men like Herbert: the church, the armed forces and business.  Herbert chose the former given the support of his rural minister who urged him to go to a small Methodist undergraduate school, Albion College, in order to study for the ministry.  It was also his way of escaping his mother’s expectation that he would stay home and care for her in her old age.  While at Albion College, Herbert was mentored by its President, Dr. Samuel Harrison, a former missionary.  Dad told a story that illustrated the importance of Dr. Harrison in his life.  It was a cold winter day when my father was walking across the campus quadrangle without an overcoat.   Dr. Harrison stopped my father and asked why he didn’t have a coat.  My father explained that this was an expense he couldn’t afford at this time in his life.  President Harrison took off his own coat and gave it to my father, who then protested that Dr. Harrison wouldn’t have a coat.  Sam Harrison replied, “I have another one in my closet at home.”  [In 2008, while sitting in an adult Sunday-school class, we read the following Bible passage from Luke, Chapter 3, Verse 11:  “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”  These were the words of John the Baptist.]  This story about Dr. Harrison’s generosity not only illustrates the power of the mentor-student relationship but also says a good deal about the kind of community that existed on this campus in the early 1930s, particularly for pre-ministerial students—a community whose tone was set by a president who cared for its students.  Herbert’s generation “…had been brought up to regard human nature as benign and human society as perfectible” (Schlesinger, 2000, p. 511).  It was my brother’s generation of Methodist ministers who while in seminary at Northwestern University bought into the neo-orthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr’s mixed nature of man, an understandable reaction to Hitler and Stalin (Schlesinger, 2000).

On March 28, 1929, Herbert married Helen Armstrong Miller, who had finished summer school at Ypsilanti Normal School (now Eastern Michigan University) the previous summer, and was in her first year of teaching in a one-room school house in rural Michigan.  Helen’s aunt, Helen Armstrong, was a powerful mentor and advocate for her niece.  She went out of her way to take her niece to Ypsilanti Normal School for a visit.  The first place they visited was the school’s library.  Aunt Helen turned to my mother and said, “This library is for you.”  Mother told this story many times to make the point that her association with higher education and public-school teaching began with her Aunt Helen Armstrong’s invitation to be a part of Ypsilanti Normal School’s student body.  Today we would refer to this as inclusion and ownership.  It was the beginning of mother’s serious relationship with books, reading and libraries—a relationship that would last a lifetime and serve as a model for her children.  Herbert and Helen’s marriage serves as an example of Sarason’s definition of a setting:  “…any instance when two or more people come together in new and sustained relationships to achieve common goals” (1972, p. ix).  Helen taught school and Herbert served two rural churches in order to get Herbert a Bachelor of Arts degree from Albion College in 1933 and a Bachelor of Divinity Degree at Garrett Seminary, Northwestern University in 1937.

 Snapshot 2 - The Worship Service Revisited

The sons of Herbert, the Senior Minister, and Helen, his wife, were expected to be in the young people’s choir each Sunday—whether or not they were singing an anthem.  Bob, fourteen, and Dale, twelve sat with other choir members in the two front pews on the left side of the sanctuary.

These seats were the perfect observation posts to watch the performances of the ministers and adult choir members.  And, we considered ourselves key young members, what Sarason calls the core group, of the next generation of church leaders.  We perceived ourselves as having a highly visible and important role to play in the worship service.  I had an idealized vision or dream of the kind of husband and father I wanted to become—just like Fred Lutz, a young man who sang solos in the adult choir.  While sitting in the choir, I vividly remember two main feelings about my father:  I wanted to be like him and therefore mimicked many of his ministerial behaviors, while at the same time wanting to establish my own identity.

While sitting in the choir, I imagined myself behind the large pulpit giving a dramatic, well-received sermon.  I played out this vision over and over again, in much the same way that I saw myself making the final shot in a tied basketball game thus bringing glory to our team, our high school and especially myself.

One Sunday morning, when I was 15, I had an opportunity to realize the dream.  My father woke up sick with the flu and I said, “Don’t worry Dad, I’ll handle the service.”  What a reality check!!!  My sermon, the one I had composed in my head as a children’s choir member, lasted five minutes at the most with my brow looking and feeling like a waterfall of perspiration.  One member of the congregation shook my hand while exiting and said, “You only left out two words—God and Jesus!”  A few others said that it was a terrific sermon because it was so short.  Most simply shook my hand and said “Good morning.”

As I think back on this turning point in my presentation of self, I realize that I had turned the corner from critical observer to leader on the firing line, from reactor to actor.  I understand the power of psychiatrist Arnold A. Hutschnecker’s (1974) words:  “There is a constant battle in each of us between the forces of excitation and inhibition” (p. 8).  I would have the conflicting feelings of “Get involved, No, stay back” the first time I student-taught in front of a class (audience), whenever I applied for and interviewed for new positions, the first day on a new job, whenever I gave speeches and before every basketball game and tennis match I ever played.  It was as if a message was being shouted into a megaphone in my ear:  “Welcome to the world of leadership!”

Snapshot 3 - A Mother Teaches Her Children

Helen Armstrong Miller had real reservations about marrying Herbert Brubaker.  She was a “Flapper”—a young woman who loved to dance, thus challenging traditional social restraints upheld by some Christian denominations.  Helen and her friends, with the aid of her father, rolled up the carpets at home and “cut the rug” –as dancers described their love for this activity.   Helen was wary of how some parishioners would view a minister’s wife who loved dancing and she   wasn’t sure how much of her independence she was willing to give up in order to support what Goffman called decorum—the way in which the minister’s wife as performer was expected to comport herself while in the visual and aural range of the parishioners (the audience).

Her discrepant thoughts and strong will were masked by her ability to play the role of the Victorian woman—something she learned from her mother and grandmother Armstrong (her mother’s mother).  She loved Herb for his energy, hard work and can-do attitude but rather than confronting him when she was angry she would walk around the block muttering “the old Rip.”  She managed the impressions of others while performing on stage in the role of minister’s wife but she used her humor in backstage settings to tell her children what she thought about religious dogma and religiosity.  This only changed in her later years when her faulty hearing aid prompted her to say anything she thought in front of an unsuspecting audience.  At their Northern Michigan cabin, for example, she would say while in the kitchen where all could hear:  “When are these people (the guests) going to leave anyway?”   She was hilarious at such times—definitely what Goffman would call a performance risk.  Treatment of the absent is the phrase Goffman used to describe this behavior although in this case the absent were present.

Helen’s sense of humor was perhaps best revealed in a story she told her children about an evangelist.  The story is funny precisely because it illustrates his loss of expressive control.  The evangelist got carried away in what he said would come to those who lived righteously.  “If you live according to the Lord, you will go to heaven and you will be rewarded with 100 pounds of sugar, 100 pounds of flour, 100 pounds of salt and 100 pounds of pepper.”  He then paused and blurted out, “Oh hell, that’s too much pepper!”

As mentioned earlier, Helen began teaching after one summer of coursework at Ypsilanti Normal School.  She had wonderful stories about how she created a learning setting in a one-room rural schoolhouse.  Sarason would have been proud of the artistry she brought to the creation of this setting.  Older boys who were troublemakers were assigned tasks, such as chopping and carrying in wood for the stove and mothers brought soup and sandwiches each day so that the students had a healthy lunch.  It was teaming at its best.

Upon the birth of her first child, Robert, in 1935, Helen stopped teaching and gave all of her resources to homemaking and playing the role of a minister’s wife: hosting circle meetings for women, cooking Sunday dinners for guest ministers, folding bulletins on Saturday night, and making sure that the worship service ran smoothly.  For example, she made sure that ushers seated late arrivals at the proper time during the service in order to avoid interruptions in the flow of the ceremony.  In short, she gave attention to what Goffman called region   behavior—the maintaining of boundaries during a performance.

One of her functions as a minister’s wife would never be found on an organizational chart.  She used her good English, learned in the city, to help Herbert, raised in a rural pocket of poverty where German was often spoken in the home,  become more accomplished in his presentation of self as a speaker.  For example, she dinged away at how he should use “good” and “well” correctly.

All of the matters discussed in this snapshot were taken in by Helen and Herbert’s children.

I was born in Ann Arbor Michigan on July 16, 1937.  Dad was serving a small church in the nearby town of Dexter, Michigan.  Throughout our lives, Bob, born in 1935, Bette Jo, born in 1943, and I were told the story of our births by our parents in some detail on our birthdays.  After we left home, this was done on the telephone.  This reminds me of Sarason’s giving attention to family ties in the creation of the family setting.  As children, this simple ritual reminded us that we were loved, special and remembered—a gift to any person involved in the creation of a setting, including educational ones.

In 1940, our father began nine years of service as a Methodist minister in Blissfield, Michigan—a small southern Michigan town near Toledo, Ohio.  The three ministers in this rural town joined two doctors as the only people with college degrees.  The undertakers and attorney in Blissfield didn’t have to be college educated at this time.   The doctors mixed many of their remedies in their backrooms and the pharmacist’s sale of hard liquor was a real boost to his business.  He was called “Doc.” Bailey.  When Grandma Brubaker came for her month-long stay, moving from child to child, she had dad visit “Doc” Bailey in order to buy her pint of “cold medicine”—whiskey.  The visit must have been somewhat uncomfortable for dad as he didn’t drink due to his father’s alcoholism.  Dad never called his father an alcoholic but instead said that he had to do his business in bars.  His father was a sometime farmer and horse trader.  We would call this denial on my father’s part but Goffman called it discrepant behavior.

Grandma Brubaker’s visits rarely lasted the entire month as she alienated her child’s spouse by taking over the kitchen and telling the woman of the house, usually an in-law what a good cook she was compared to her.  She also applauded the efforts of those children she wasn’t staying with in contrast to her negative assessment of the adults she was staying with at the time.  Grandma could win a game of Chinese Checkers in three or four moves as she jumped several empty spaces at a time in order to collect your marbles.   My brother, Bob, didn’t call her on her cheating but I did.  As a result she would line us up every few days and gave Bob a quarter and me a nickel in order to buy candy.  My father referred to his mother as a saint, but mom’s view of her was reflected in her statement to Herbert after a week or so into grandma’s visit:  “Either she goes or I go.”  Grandma was driven to the next child’s home—an early arrival.  A psychologist would tell me later in my life that Grandma Brubaker was a judgmental, critical ingrate from whom little children needed protection.  Dad and mom’s differing views of her, however, kept such protection from being given.  Grandma taught me up close and personally how one person can work against the creation of community—in this case our family.  A judgmental, in-your-face leader who has all of the answers and demonstrates meanness in getting her or his way can make life miserable for people in a setting.

At the same time, the town of Blissfield in general and the congregation of the Methodist Church in particular taught me the absolute joy that can exist in true community.  We frequently had pot-luck suppers (covered dish dinners) that provided good food and fellowship.  Mrs. Kidder would come up to me before the opening prayer and say, “Dale, I made this lemon meringue pie just for you.”  She practiced what Goffman called audience segregation by tailoring her message especially for me.  After the supper, there would be entertainment by talented parishioners.  Mom’s talent was whistling—a performance that went awry one night when she had too many crackers with her meal.  Dad could have played the banjo, but mom sat on it at a party when they were dating.  Some relatives said this was a deliberate act given his questionable musical talent.

This feeling of belonging and making a contribution was shared throughout the communities of church and town.  Small  shop owners knew us by name and had special treats for children: white peppermints in the shoemaker’s shop and pink peppermints in the welder’s shop.  One of the first things we children learned to ask show owners was, “Do you give a clergy discount?”  People who put on airs were not part of these communities for they broke the norm of feigned parity.  The wealthiest of farmers and the poorest of farmers dressed alike when they came to the potluck suppers.

One of the most instructive times for me as a lad was when my father invited me along as he made calls on members of the congregation.  I watched and mimicked his gregarious presentation of self –the sharing of his warm, open and authentic self in relating to people, many of whom had health problems.  I also noted his increased energy and enthusiasm when he stayed longer in calling on attractive women.  He shared with me on one occasion that ministers are most vulnerable when they make calls on recent widows.  It was from such experiences that I learned how human clerics are when backstage.  One other illustration of the human side of ministers comes from a visit home when I was in graduate school.  It was the day before Christmas and our families, who always opened presents on Christmas eve, wanted to be sure that dad would return from a hospital call in good time.  When asked about his arrival time, he said:  “I won’t be long.   He isn’t a member of the church.”  I was once again reminded that all human beings have feet of clay.

When I began conceptualizing this chapter, I thought that it was important to make the point that my father, like all men with sons, teach their sons what it means to be a man.  I still believe this is true, but learned in the course of writing this essay that mothers also teach their sons their version of what a man should be.

Snapshot 4 -  A Mother Teaches Her Son What A Man Should Be

A year or so before my mother’s death at age 79, my sister, Bette Jo, asked our mother to write a letter about her children.  She described how her “sunny little boy, Dale, would follow her around the house.

Helen’s first child, Bob, had a reading problem and Helen, like any good mother who was also a teacher, immediately addressed this problem.  Bob quickly overcame the problem, fell in love with books and became valedictorian of his senior class.

I, eighteen months younger than Bob, spent little time with books and gave my attention to sports and following my mother around the house.  Serving as my mentor, Helen taught me to clean the house, cook, can fruits and vegetables, pull the washing through the wringer, hang clothes on the line, and do the ironing.   All of these activities were pursued while at the same time learning to cut wood, stack wood, play baseball, fish, garden, do lawn work and go camping.

As I reflect on these matters, it is clear that mom blurred traditionally held gender lines in raising me.  From adolescence on, my male friends observed me participating in male-dominated sports while I continued doing at home, indeed for the remainder of my life, what my mother had taught me as a child with regard to home responsibilities.  The mentoring of both mother and father can last for a lifetime.

Schools and schooling always seemed to take a back seat to my interest in sports—particularly basketball and tennis.  These sports taught me more about the presentation of self and the creation of community than any activities with the exception of our family—something I simply took for granted.  While in elementary school in Blissfield, Michigan, there was a park behind our house.  It was a community gathering place for any child who wanted to use the swings, slides, basketball court, tennis courts, and baseball field.   One of the best athletes at the park was a “tomboy” named Rita Horkey, who after graduating from high school in l955 became a basketball star at the University of Maryland.  She was the only girl in our pickup games and won our respect by being able to pin any boy to the ground at will.

My brother, Bob and I played tennis every chance we had.  The metal nets and court surface were second-rate but there was something about the individual nature of this sport and competition that really appealed to me.  The first time I beat my brother in tennis he leaped over the net, pushed me down and started beating on me on the asphalt surface.   Not knowing what to do, I yelled at him, “You can’t do this to me!  You’re going to be a minister!”  Surprisingly enough, he let me go.  And, I should add, he became a prominent Methodist minister and outstanding speaker in Michigan churches.  When he died of cancer at age 52, I realized that I had lost my best friend.  For the purposes of this essay, I realized that my brother and I had created an educational setting that had all of the plusses and minuses associated with competition.  We were inspired by our competition to stay in physical and mental shape.  We learned that improving our tennis skills depended on keen competition.  And, we were involved in a sport that kept us out of trouble in the larger community.  At the same time, our competition could be somewhat mean-spirited, a kind of “teeter-totter” with the winner enjoying the loser’s going down as much he enjoyed personally going up.

Tennis is obviously a more individual sport than basketball.  Most of my matches were singles, a competition in which I was on my own with no one to support me or cast blame upon for my errors.  I discovered a good deal about myself during these matches.  The more intense the competition and closeness of the score, the more enjoyable the match became for me.  At these times I found myself fully engaged in the struggle and a kind of calm came over me until the match was over.  This became true for me in any presentation of self off the court as well.  At such times, all of my energy and talents brought to the occasion were focused on something outside of myself—the challenge to be addressed.  When things were going well with my presentation of self, I felt as if I was “in the zone”—a place where I was totally connected to the game in progress and the environment or setting in which the game took place.  It is a place where the contrived and distanced processes of planning and analysis are set aside with one’s instinctive and authentic self in the driver’s seat.

“The zone” was also the place to be in a basketball game.  While in this place it was as if time stood still and every player’s movements were clearly in sight.  All movements were coordinated.  Passes were crisp and shots fell in that normally wouldn’t—especially those banked off the backboard when you aimed at the rim.  Unlike the average tennis match, the basketball game, what Goffman refers to as the setting, had the added dimension of a crowd (audience) and cheerleaders.  Preparatory activities for basketball games, such as pep rallies, added to the drama of the sport’s performances and our high school, like many others at the time, had post-game dances on the gymnasium floor.   During the week, I was occasionally excused from study hall to deliver basketball schedules and other printed material to merchants in the town.  When players went to barber shops, talk about next Friday’s game usually centered around the athlete in the chair.  The effect of all of these performances was to give me special attention and sense-of-self that could breed confidence that occasionally crossed the line into arrogance.  A poor performance at the next game could abruptly bring my feet back on the ground.  In fact, it was from losses that I learned the most about resiliency and work to be done in order to improve.  And, there was always a better tennis player or basketball team ready and able to define what needed to be done to make me more competitive.  The best description of all of these matters is in Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season (2002):  “Belief in oneself—authentic, inviolable and unshakable belief, not the undercutting kind—is necessary to all human achievement.  Once I began believing in myself and not listening to the people who did not believe in me, I turned myself into a point guard who you needed to watch” (p. 398).

Competition in basketball is with other teams but also within a team.  For example, who is going to be on the made-the-team list displayed on the cork locker-room bulletin board?  Who will be on the starting five?  Who will be the captain given special attention at the coin-toss?  Who will be named Most Valuable Player at the end of the season?   Who will get league, regional and all-state honors?  [These three honors came my way the last two years of high school.]  I didn’t fully understand the tension between competition within the team and teamwork until I had finished my playing days in high school and college.  All that I knew was that during the time I was playing I needed to keep some distance between myself and my team mates since we would be competing for a position on the team as well as honors afforded to individuals on the team.  This, obviously, is an issue that comes into play as we create educational settings.  I am reminded of the first-year high school teacher who discovered the book room the day after her colleagues had taken the new copies of the social studies texts.  I also wonder why we only have a Teacher-of-the-Year Award while spending much of the year talking about the importance of teams and teaming.

Any discussion of one’s involvement in sports must include the tremendous power of the coach.  The first place this plays out is in the coach’s power to include and exclude—who gets on the team and who doesn’t.  I have talked to player after player who described the long walk to the locker-room bulletin board to see if his name was posted as a team member.  And, when I was a ninth-grade basketball coach and teacher, a mother came to my room after school and pleaded, “Can’t Brock simply come out and run around with the team since he loves basketball so much?”  Brock’s name was not on the bulletin board.

Coaches immediately set the tone by addressing what Sarason calls “the constitutional issue” (Sarason, 1972).  Coaches determine team norms or “rules of the game” if you want to play for him or her.  This is not simply a matter of “No smoking, no drinking, no illegal behavior.”  The most important thing that coaches bring to mentoring is their attitudes and behaviors in the moment-to-moment interactions with team members over a sustained period of time.  My best coaches had a sense of timing.  They knew when to make their presence known and when to stand back and let things unfold on their own.  My worst coaches were at the two extremes of a continuum: those who were laissez-faire (anything goes) and those who felt they had to control every moment of practice and the game.  In the latter category, I had a college coach who was a hell-raiser when he was young and therefore thought it was his mission as a coach to control our basketball team without showing any emotion:  “The ball must be touched by three players before a shot is taken.”  To this day I have nightmares about his coaching.  I didn’t and still don’t know what his authentic self was and is.  His failure to honor a degree of spontaneity on our part took the joy out of playing basketball.

One of my best coaches, Harold Jaroch, taught me a good deal about teaching and indeed life, although at this time in high school I didn’t have the words to describe his gifts.  As a sophomore in high school, I was growing like a weed and returned home each night after practice to eat dinner and immediately go to bed.  My legs were so tight and sore that I could hardly walk across the room to climb into bed.  At a Wednesday afternoon practice, an intense practice to get us ready for the Friday night game, Coach Jaroch took me aside and said, “Dale, you need to go home early to rest your body since you are growing so fast.”  “But I won’t start on Friday,” I protested.  “Yes you will, “Coach Jaroch responded, and I did.  I was well into my fifties before I reflected on this incident.  Coach Jaroch had been willing to deflect any objections by fellow team mates who thought he was playing favorites in order to account for individual differences.  He had provided me with a living example of how to individualize instruction.

As I think back on my experiences with coaches, it is clear that the best coaches and mentors are as interested in their own learning as much as they are in the learning of their charges.  Pat Conroy (2002) returned to his alma mater for his mentor’s retirement party and said to a former coach, “Thanks for finding me when I was a boy.”  His mentor replied:  “No, no, no, Mr. Conroy.  You always get that part wrong.  We found each other, Mr. Conroy.  We found each other.” (p. 225).  Pat Conroy’s mentor and my mentor, Coach Jaroch, understood a major tenet of Seymour Sarason’s philosophy of education and life: a leader has to get at a high level in order to give at a high level and what better way is there to get than to experience the joy of learning (Sarason, 1972).

Our family’s move in 1949 from rural Blissfield to an emerging downriver suburb of Detroit was a critical incident or marker event in our lives.  The fact that I was between the sixth and seventh grades at the time made this cultural change all the more challenging.  The faster pace of life in Trenton was symbolized by my father’s statement to his three children as we stood at a street corner near the church:  “The cars won’t stop for you when you cross the street in this town.”  The parity of appearances by people in rural Blissfield was replaced by demarcations of status in Trenton.  The larger number of professionals in Trenton introduced me to the reality of expensive houses in some parts of town, expensive cars and both a country club and yacht club in nearby Grosse Isle.  I became conscious of the fact that a few mothers bought expensive clothes for their sons—something the mothers had taught their sons to bring to our attention at school. Status-consciousness became a major part of my life at precisely the time, adolescence, when I was most receptive to it.  Without knowing it at the time, I was introduced to the idea that individuals and contexts (settings) have personalities that shape us (Sarason, 1972).

I also was aware that my parents were on the upwardly mobility track.  Moving from a 1948 Plymouth to a 1950 Buick Special was a big deal as was moving the parsonage from a site near the Detroit River and downtown to a more prestigious neighborhood on the outskirts of town, Bretton Woods.  I was so focused on moving into a better house and neighborhood that I didn’t give attention to the fact that this move took me away from a wonderful place—the river itself, a source of constant activity with ore and coal boats plying the water and the sound of fog horns at night.  A short walk down the hill to the river took me to the boatyards where I kept my sailboats—each upgraded from the previous one that I had bought at a lesser cost, after which I renovated it and moved to a better boat.  My original $50 “Snipe” turned into a $500 “Star” that I sold for $50 after it hit a rock-pile in Canada, thus loosening its keel bolts.  Working on my sailboats and involvement in athletics “would keep me out of trouble”—the words of my mother.   Upward mobility removed me from many of the simple pleasures of life—a lesson that I needed to be reminded of throughout my life.

I was also on the outside with some of my friends and fellow athletes as they were experimenting with alcohol on cabin cruisers and elsewhere.  A minister’s son who doesn’t drink could be what Goffman called a performance risk.

Given the strong need for inclusion as a beginning junior high student, I was confused as to what to make of all of these changes.  Athletics, once again, became the vehicle for finding another home.  Even today, I can walk into a locker room at a school and immediately sense that this is where I was most at home in junior high school and high school.

Athletics saved me from a failed career in the world of music.  At the beginning of 7th grade, my father visited the Detroit Institute of Art on the corner of Cass and Putnam Streets in order to arrange clarinet lessons for me with Marius Fossenkemper, principal clarinetist with the Detroit Symphony.  For the next two years, I worked my way through all of the Lazarus books and came to the conclusion that I was one of the worst clarinetists to ever play the instrument.  I always suspected that Fossenkemper “buried” me in the recital order so that most parents could go home after intermission and not have to listen to me.  Ninth grade basketball practices saved me, and Fossenkemper, from further work on the clarinet.  Riding the bus for an hour each Tuesday night in order to get to my lessons was somewhat difficult, but experiencing a difficult and accomplished virtuoso was even more of a challenge for me.  The ride home was much easier.

My father’s seizing the opportunity for his children is something that I greatly respect now that I have become a father and grandfather.  Dad, a scout master,  took my brother, and me to scouting weekends although we were really too young to be scouts and he also worked for no wages during 8 weeks at Camp Charlevoix so that Bob and I could attend this private camp for rich kids without charge.  Dad’s creative energy got him out of a pocket of poverty in rural Michigan and gave his children educational opportunities that changed the direction of generations that followed, something that  demonstrates the power-of- one and the fact that parents can be important mentors in a child’s life.


Finding Meaning in Higher Education

When my brother and I were young, our parents prophesied that Bob, the high school valedictorian, would become a professor whereas I, who seemed more gregarious, would become a minister.  As any parent knows, such predictions are often meant to be broken.  Bob became a minister and I became a teacher and professor.

Both of us went to our father’s college, Albion College, a small liberal arts college of approximately 1,200 students.  As Bob began at Albion College in 1953, two years before I did, he prepared me for campus life.  The college’s excellent academic reputation attracted many fine students, some of whom were from wealthy Midwestern suburbs.   And then there were the rest of us.  I had spent my time in high school playing basketball and tennis with little understanding of scholarship.  When assigned a theme in a freshman English class, I handed in an outline.  Professor Keith Fennimore took me aside and said, “Young man, you need to begin reading.”  I responded, “What should I read?”  He replied, “Anything will do!”  Professor Fennimore was patient with me and I began to grasp the importance of reading and writing.  My other liberal arts courses gave me glimpses of this new and foreign land of scholarship.  I was particularly interested in how authors in the humanities struggled with the meaning of life.  There were many lessons in this struggle for me.  My major was political science and history, both of which fascinated me with their recurring leadership themes.

There were two tenured education professors, Dr. Eleanor McLaughlin, in Elementary Education, and Dr. Thomas Carter, in Education and Psychology.  Since I was pursuing a secondary teaching certificate, most of my coursework in education was with Dr. Carter, who earned his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Chicago.  For some reason, I became curious about teaching and learning and spent much of my time in Dr. Carter’s classes outlining how I would teach his classes if I were the professor.  One time, while in an over-zealous mood, I shared an outline for the class I was presently taking with Dr. Carter and he took this as a sign that I might follow in his footsteps to become an education professor.  He asked me to score the True-False tests he gave in all of his classes, the same ones my father had taken in the mid-1930s, and he also asked me to read and grade some of the short-answer essay questions he gave.  With the latter, he asked me to keep this confidential—which I have to this moment.  It is now clear that I was engaged in anticipatory socialization.  I was playing the role of professor of education well in advance of it becoming a reality.

Another anticipatory role I played was at the invitation of Professor Carter.  He asked me to attend an Education Club meeting.  As the only man in attendance, I was elected president of this organization and was engaged in performances or presentations of self associated with this office.  I had the opportunity to stand up in front of others in order to introduce speakers and quickly learned that as a leader “the devil is indeed in the details.”   It was my job to be in touch with speakers for our monthly meetings.  I invited Dr. John Porter, President of the Michigan Education Association and later President of Eastern Michigan University.  It was to be a special evening with a banquet honoring Dr. Porter, an esteemed alumna.  The problem associated with this event became clear when John didn’t arrive for the banquet.  I had given him the wrong date.  The banquet went on but I had “egg on my face” and John, bless his heart, agreed to return on a later date.  I am reminded at this time in my life that most of the leadership lessons I have learned have come from mistakes I have made.

Albion College’s tennis program gave me the opportunity to continue my interest in this sport.  I was able to build on my earlier tournament experience, such as playing in the Nationals at Kalamazoo and International Orange Bowl Championships in Miami Beach, thus exposing me to players outside of Michigan.  The Florida experiences in particular opened me up to players from Spanish-speaking countries and stimulated my interest in global matters—an interest that has lasted a lifetime.  Playing in the Nationals at Kalamazoo and the International Orange Bowl Championships taught me the difference between participating and competing (Feinstein, 2000).  As one of the lowest ranking players in a draw of 64 players, I lost in the first round to players from the warm weather states of California and Florida.  Indoor tennis facilities didn’t exist at this time.  Although I didn’t fully realize it at the time, it was a victory for me to participate in these tournaments even though I couldn’t compete with better players who shortly thereafter turned professional.  The presentation of self lesson in this for me was that one doesn’t have to win to sense the excellence of those whose company one keeps.  It was from experiencing their abilities-in-action that I recognized and appreciated what was possible to achieve in a particular sport or endeavor of any kind.

Our college coach, Dr. Darrell Pollard, a political scientist, was on top of organizational details and knew how to give us exactly the amount of structure and freedom we needed—particularly as we made our way south on early spring tours.  He led us to second place finishes with Kalamazoo College in first place.  Another tennis coach we had was Dr. Cedric Dempsey, who later became NCAA Executive Director.  Both Pollard and Dempsey were powerful role models who helped me strive to become the kind of husband, father and mentor I wanted to be.  I am still in touch with one K-College graduate, Vic Braden, whose brothers I played in high school and college.  Stowe Stadium, the home of the Nationals and Kalamazoo College, was named after “Doc” Stowe, a science professor at K-College.  Les Dodson, K-College, and I were awarded the first Stowe Memorial Award in 1958.  In 1993, I was inducted into the Albion College Athletic Hall of Fame.

Basketball was another story.  I played, largely “riding the pine” in the words of Pat Conroy (2002), the first three years at Albion College.  It was an exercise in humility that I have not fully understood to this day.  And yet, looking at Albion’s 1958 Albionian Yearbook, I appreciated being with some fine players and persons—a reward in itself for this was a fun-loving team that made college life much more enjoyable than it would have been without them.  I experienced what can go right and wrong in the creation of community as described by Seymour Sarason.

What all of this makes clear to me at this time is that Albion College began to expand my horizons—an essential requirement to improving one’s educational leadership.  It is easier and more comfortable to “hide” or hold back.  The final two years at Albion College afforded me the opportunity to hone my writing skills and integrate learnings from the liberal arts and education.  Suddenly my passion for the subject matter and my improved academic skill led to good grades—a shock to my friends and me.

Expanding one’s horizons certainly enhances the way in which a person presents self and gives leadership to the creation of educational settings.  And, one good way to do this is to travel overseas.  In the summer of 1958, between my junior and senior year at Albion College, I had the opportunity to join a Youth for Understanding group, under the leadership of my father’s friend, Ruth Andresen, that was off to Europe for ten weeks.  A friend and I boarded a Flying Tiger Airlines Super Constellation in Detroit for the eighteen-hour trip to Amsterdam.  My friend and I had no set schedule or itinerary to follow.  The result was one challenge after another in negotiating language barriers and travel arrangements.  I was reminded of what this did for me in reading Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s account (2000) of a similar journey when he was a lad:  “For a naïve and impressionable boy, a trip around the world was the best possible education.”  He added, “It widened horizons, polished manners, stimulated curiosity, strengthened self-reliance, and, along the way, provided an introduction to the political disquietudes of the twentieth century”  (p. 107).  I vowed after this trip that I would do everything possible to experience other countries and cultures in the near future as such opportunities met my desire for experiencing differences rather than simply reading about them in books.  The metaphor that best expressed this was “I want to shake life’s trees to see what happens.”  In thinking about this in my 60s, I realize that this metaphor was that of a youthful, radical interventionist quite different from my present desire to more patiently savor the moment.  Presentations of self and leadership in creating educational settings certainly vary with the seasons of life.

Student teaching during my senior year of college gave me the opportunity to stand up in front of a class in order to translate my learnings into language that was designed to help high-school students understand ideas.  However, I yearned for my own class where I didn’t have to follow the textbook to the letter as expected by my master-teacher.

High school teaching would have to wait, however, as I extended my passion for learning and ideas by becoming a full-time graduate student at Michigan State University (MSU) from 1959-1962.  I applied for and was admitted as a graduate student in the Social Foundations of Education in the summer of 1959.  This experience was a perfect match between curious student and veteran professors, many of whom had been forced to retire at age 65 from first-rate universities.  George S. Counts (Teachers College, Columbia University) and Ernest Melby (New York University) serve as examples.  They were joined by Visiting Professors George Axtelle (New York University) and Denis Brogan (Oxford University).

An independent study with Brogan on the American character complimented his large group lecture.  This independent study introduced me to a level of scholarship that I had rarely experienced before.  While recommending books for me to read in order to research and write a paper, he broke into French and I haltingly took notes while regretting not doing better in my French classes at Albion College.  It was in reading Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Life in the 20th Century that I was reminded of Brogan’s brilliance and wit:  “D.W. Brogan, a Scotsman of Irish extraction, knew more about both the United States and France than any other inhabitant of the British Isles.  He combined a fantastic memory for detail with a capacity for enlightening generalization.  He was generous, learned, pungent, witty, eloquent and highly inventive in denunciation” (2000, p. 189).

While working on my Master’s degree, George Axtelle, a Dewey scholar, sent a letter to the dean of the School of Education saying that he had a student who should be in the Ph.D. program.  This outward expression of support was a turning point in my graduate school education.  Wilbur Brookover, father of the Sociology of Education, took me on as one of his research assistants in the Social Science Teaching Institute for two years and Cole Brembeck introduced me to International Studies in Education and became a strong mentor and supporter.  John F.A. Taylor’s lectures, later published as The Masks of Society: An Inquiry Into the Covenants of Civilization (1966), introduced me to the spiritual equivalent of John Lock’s social contract theory, as spelled out in his Second Treatise on Government (1690), the philosophical basis for the Declaration of Independence.  Taylor’s ideas on covenants made their way into my writings about covenants a decade or so later.  George Kerner, tennis partner and friend, taught me a good deal about Linguistic Analysis in his Ethics course within the Philosophy Department, and Gilman Ostrander, handball partner and friend, swept me up in his courses in the Intellectual History of the United States.  Conversations with these intellectual giants, as well as coursework and independent studies with them, reinforced my love of ideas and they served as exemplars during my six years as a graduate student at MSU.  I reveled in the smorgasbord of courses in education, history, philosophy, anthropology and sociology.  In fact, I finished the Master’s Degree in 1960 and simply continued to take courses for two more years.  At the end of this time, I thought it wise to gain formal admission in a doctoral program.  I sought and received admission to the Ph.D. Program in Social Foundations of Education in 1962.

In June, 1960, Barbara Sue Stewart, who graduated from Albion College a month earlier, and I were married in a ceremony conducted by my father in Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church.  Her elementary-school teaching provided most of the financial support for my graduate school education—for which I am most grateful.  Thus began the creation of our marriage and family setting whose lessons in the presentation of self and the creation of settings are a book in itself.


High School Teaching

With the coursework for the Ph.D. completed, it was a good time (1962) to enter high school teaching in a school [editor’s note:  Okemos High School] just outside of Lansing, Michigan, a one-high school district that was changing from a rural to a suburban culture.  In fact, no one wanted to teach in the small agricultural building some distance behind the main campus and so I volunteered to have my classes there.  The autonomy was very appealing to me as the principal and assistant principal would rarely visit this structure.  Once again, anticipatory socialization best described my self-defined role:  I was practicing for the professorship I intended to get after finishing the Ph.D.   Few careers have the autonomy given to members of the professoriate.

What I didn’t realize at that time was that this decision on my part also kept me from being part of the faculty learning community, such as it was, on the main campus.  I was in effect a “Lone Ranger.”  To make matters worse, I flaunted my opposition to the bureaucratic structure introduced by the principal and enforced by his secretary and the school counselor.  For example, I stuffed students’ tardy and absence slips in my desk drawer rather than taking them to the main campus office.  The secretary was upset, brought it to my attention and placed me on her “hit list.”  The secretary and head counselor actually “ran” the school as the principal, who left coaching and driver’s training instruction due to the stress of both jobs, let faculty members do as they pleased. Two incidents speak volumes about his leadership:  He was hung in effigy [and then he] cut down the crude representation of himself, and placed it in the chair behind his desk.  It remained there for several days.  On another occasion, the principal was walking down the hall when a manhole cover was lifted and a young man and woman emerged from the tunnel below.  The principal immediately got on the public address system:  “Anyone who is caught in the tunnels underneath the school will be disciplined.”  This, of course, was an invitation for high school students to explore the tunnels under the school.

At the end of each of my three years of teaching, the principal wrote a single sentence as an evaluation of my teaching:  “Mr. Brubaker does a nice job with boys and girls.”  Although I didn’t have a sophisticated knowledge of assessment, I did know that this method of teacher evaluation left much to be desired.

A couple of months before I resigned after three years of high school teaching, there was a school assembly in the gymnasium with the Lansing Symphony Orchestra as our guest performers.  The principal and I were the only two adults in attendance, as teachers were in the smoking lounge or their classrooms.  Several boys stood on the top bleachers and dropped textbooks on the floor as the symphony performed.  It took the principal and me some time to make our way to these trouble-makers and quiet them down.  Region behavior, Goffman’s term for maintaining boundaries during a performance, was simply not maintained.

After this disturbing event, I went to my classroom and wrote a letter of resignation on a lined piece of paper.  That was enough for me!  It was a classic example of how the officially designated head of an organization sets the tone, for better or for worse, and how difficult it is to create community when it is for worse.  I sensed both relief and sadness with my resignation.  The sadness was the result of the fact that there were a few fine teachers in this school and the possibility for creating a learning community of educators was missed.  I was too immature to give leadership to such a venture.

High school social studies teaching provided me with an opportunity to draw upon my college and university courses in history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy.  I had three preparations: World History, American Government and Economics.  Five hours of teaching and one hour off for planning were a challenge in contrast to my graduate-student life at Michigan State University.  Full of youthful energy, I threw myself into the work and found it a mix of excitement, discovery and very hard work that wore me down before long.  Students in morning classes received my best teaching with classes after lunch frequently on automatic pilot.  I had not learned to pace myself and spent too much time with teacher-centered instruction.  Collaborative learning, such as small group work, was simply not part of my repertoire.  Giving attention to students’ writing also demanded out-of-class reading of essays—another drain on my resources.

Special attention was given to seniors in American Government classes.  Monthly seminars were held in our apartment or students’ homes with authors of paperback books, Michigan State University professors, as guests.  Between 50 and 75 students attended these seminars and autograph parties with rich dialogue between students and the professors took place.  Unintended consequences, such as one speaker showing up inebriated, were challenges to be met.  My wife, Barbara, and I hosted several student non-juried art shows in our new home so that students could share their work with the public.

The sheer joy of these experiences reminds me today that we had, without knowing it, created learning communities of a very different kind in contrast to most high school settings.  Students were engaged in intellectual experiences off-campus—experiences that were not part of most high school’s traditional curricula.  Why did we create these high school learning communities?  My love of ideas needed a forum outside of the traditional classroom format and students’ enthusiasm for contact with professors who authored paperback books read for the seminars, when coupled with students being treated as adult learners, gave them special status.  The novelty of this innovation gave us energy and optimism.  We moved ahead to have these seminars with no doubt in our minds that they should and could be held.  [We were in the process of supporting Sarason’s contention that “…people who create new settings have no organized formulation of what they are about” (1972, p. 277).] “What is so attractive to people about participating in the creation of a new setting is that it introduces welcome novelty and challenge into their lives.” (Sarason, 1972, p .267).  The superintendent of school’s daughter was one of the seminar members—something that immediately gave us the support of her father.  A minor car accident on the way to a seminar didn’t dampen her spirits or dispel support from her father.  We thrived on the idea that the seminars were in competition with regular classroom instruction, thus reflecting a kind of arrogance innovators often have.  A final reason for the seminars is that I wanted to play the role of professor while a high-school teacher.  At the end of the three years, 1965, I received the Ph.D.  and moved into the university culture.

As the teacher who gave leadership to this innovation, I failed to give attention to how the seminars could have been sustained beyond my three years of teaching.  If I had been more of a team player, other teachers could have been involved in much the same way that coaches of high-school athletic teams have more than one coach.  At the same time, I am mindful of Sarason’s view that “…explanations of failure are remarkably varied and seem to have but one thing in common: oversimplification” (1972, p. 274).  It may well be that forums like the senior seminars should be ad hoc, rather than standing in nature.   The carnival metaphor may be more appropriate than that of a circus since a degree of chaos brings life to the creation of a learning community.  Sarason’s description of true community describes best my feelings about the seminar experience:  “To say that the creation of a setting can be like a work of art is to say that it can involve in an organized way the most productive attributes of the human mind” (1972, p. 284).  “And heart,” I might add.

Susan Jacoby, prominent writer at The Washington Post and The New York Times, as  well as the author of several books including the best-selling The Age of American Unreason, helped me see what I was about as a high school teacher:  “The best thing a teacher can do for a student is open up a wider world, and that you did.”  (E-mail to me on 12/28/08).  I remember her well as a fine scholar and writer whose papers stood out from others in my classes.


The Professoriate

Like most doctoral graduates interested in becoming a university professor, I had little understanding of what I would encounter in the real world of the professoriate.  In particular, I didn’t know or understand the distinction that often exists between doctorate-granting institutions of higher education and non-doctorate granting institutions.  For better or for worse, I received an offer to become an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), in 1965.  The school of education was in transition from a teacher-education faculty to a school of education that expected significant research and writing.  The new hires were held to research and writing-standards while the veterans were edging their way into retirement.  The division between veterans and the eight new hires was a major reality of the culture of the school of education—something that was accentuated by both sides of the divide.  As newcomers, we didn’t confront the history of the setting whereas the veterans were history (Sarason, 1972).   The eight of us were driven by anticipation of becoming an essential part of a first-rate university system in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the fear that we would not receive tenure and an associate professorship after seven years as an assistant professor.  [Only one of us who began in 1965, David Gardner, author of A Nation at Risk and future President of the University of California system, received tenure and an associate professorship.   The rest of us were part of a “floating bottom” that moved on to other universities.]

The Dean, charged with reconciling the two factions of the school of education, while emphasizing the high standards of research and writing for the new culture, was R. Murray Thomas.  A Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Stanford University, Murray served as a role model for the emerging culture.  Although in his early 40s, Murray had a strong track record as researcher and writer.  While in the role of dean, Murray was personable but could make tough decisions essential to the creation of a new setting.

Murray became both role model and mentor to me—something that led to our co-authoring five books during our careers.  We also team-taught a course during my four years (1965-69) at UCSB.  As I look back on this team teaching, I am amazed at the bravado of a young man in his late twenties, teaching in front of his dean, who had the power to promote and grant tenure.  I can only describe it as the arrogance of youthfulness in creating new settings.  I mistakenly had “…a presumed superiority to what existed in the past” (Sarason, 1972, p. 64).

The first challenge facing me as a beginning assistant professor was to get along with the two factions in the school of education.  After all, the veteran professors’ recommendation to the dean with regard to promotion and tenure had to be considered by the dean, whose personnel decisions were then forwarded to central administration at UCSB.  The position of chair of the department’s social committee was open and I volunteered to take on this task.  We had several get-togethers  each year—something that gave me a chance to serve drinks and get to know all members of the department in informal settings.  One fall we had a fish-fry at Lester Sands’ home on the Pacific Ocean.    He asked me to come to his place three hours prior to the fish-fry.  “Why?”, I asked.   Lester responded, “We have to catch the fish!”  Lester, a veteran fisherman, delivered as promised.  Without being highly conscious of what I was doing, it is now clear to me that I used my gregariousness to build a recognition base.

While in the process of getting to know and be liked by the veteran faculty, I felt bolstered by the attention and support from the dean.  Common interests, such as playing basketball during the noontime lunch hour, were an enjoyable part of our relationship.   Although Murray, as dean, granted opportunities for all new hires to be successful, I saw him as my mentor and friend, thus making me a “leader” among the new faculty.  In short, I saw myself as an example of what it would take to be successful as a new hire in the emerging culture of the department.  This naturally created, at times, what Sarason calls “a morale problem from within” (1972, p. 52).  I entered into the competition for better rank and tenure as if it were an extension of my athletic experience.  It is little wonder that my newly hired colleagues found me difficult at times.

The main gift that Murray Thomas gave me was that he served as a guide in the socialization process.  I had no research and writing record other than the dissertation and he showed me how the game is played—in spite of the fact that his orientation as an educational psychologist was primarily in quantitative research.  I am also sure that he gave me a measure of protection as I made mistakes in relating to colleagues in the department.  I slowly learned from these mistakes without being punished by the dean.  For example, I learned the importance of discretion—what one says and to whom—from such mistakes.

My naiveté continued through my four years at UCSB.  At the end of Murray’s tenure as dean, I, the social chairman, thought it was a good idea to give Murray a thank-you gift for his years of service.  I bought, in advance of receiving contributions, a beautiful piece of leather luggage.  Low and behold, only those professors who liked and supported Murray contributed to the fund.  Murray paid the price for making hard but necessary decisions in creating a new culture within the school of education.  Murray’s tenure as dean and my stay at UNCG ended at the same time (1969).  I wanted, but was denied, tenure and an associate professorship after four years and had to decide between two job offers with tenure and promotion—one at Temple University and the other at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (UWM).

The latter position was more attractive given the School of Education’s commitment to urban education—as personified by the hiring of a young dean who had done his dissertation on gang behavior in Chicago.  The War on Poverty was the backdrop for the strong rhetoric surrounding the new leadership:  “We want to crack the schools!”  When I asked a high-ranking administrator if a particular high school was one of our targets, he said, “I have no earthly idea.”  Our war-like rhetoric, clearly an extension of being raised as males in win-lose competitive environments, simply had little focus.  The administration hoped most of the veterans on the faculty would leave and the new hires participated in a “carnival” supported by federal funds.  The excitement associated with being the new “core group” of leaders in the School of Education was no substitute for our lack of expertise in having and articulating vision and clear purpose as well as coordinated strategies for reaching desired outcomes.

UWM had some first-rate scholars and activists who made my brief stay there stimulating.  James B. Macdonald, a curriculum theorist who we would hire later at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (UNCG), liked research and writing that I had done on social studies education, at UCSB.  We shared an interest in philosophical assumptions underlying conceptual frameworks.  For this reason, we created the UWM Humanistic Education Project—later transferred to UNCG.

The origin of the conceptual framework created for the UWM Humanistic Project is interesting.  Jim Macdonald and I had lunch at one of our favorite haunts in Milwaukee, Kaults’ German Restaurant.  While introducing the idea of the project to Jim, I noticed that he was scribbling on a napkin.  I asked Jim what he was doing after which he showed me the rough outline of a figure that diagrammed what he felt should be the rationale for our project.  Surprised by his sketch, I said:  “Jim, you have just drawn a picture of the Tyler Rationale—the very thing that you have criticized in your research and writing!”   [The Tyler Rationale is the linear, sequential basis for lesson plans and methods books:  objectives, methods and materials (activities), and evaluation.]  Jim responded, “Well, you have to start somewhere.”  I was reminded of George S. Counts telling us in class that he wanted his children raised as Methodists so that they had something to reject.

A series of position papers and a number of books resulted from this venture:  Toward More Humanistic Instruction (co-authored with John Zahorik) is the most comprehensive description of the ideas and curriculum materials stimulated by the project. Recognizing that people who create new settings leave “tracks,”  we wanted to be sure that our efforts were prominently displayed (Goffman, 1959).

George Uhlig, an educational psychologist and co-founder of the United States Sports Academy, was a scholar turned activist who gave tremendous personal resources to the creation of new settings at UWM.  He became the Dean of Education at the University of South Alabama and served with distinction for three decades.  George knew how to integrate the editing and dissemination of knowledge with the practice of leadership in educational settings as few leaders do.  He founded and continues to be Senior Editor of the Journal of Instructional Psychology.  George was also instrumental in introducing doctoral studies in the School of Education at UWM.

In 1971, I accepted an invitation from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, to become a full-professor with tenure.  Dwight Clark, a friend and colleague at UWM, became Associate Dean at UNCG in 1970 and served as my advocate.  The role of networking in securing new positions was once again important (Sarason, 1972).  Dwight convinced us that something new was stirring at UNCG and we could be involved in the creation of new educational settings.  We had been spoiled by Santa Barbara’s warm weather after 27 years in Michigan.  The milder climate of North Carolina was a factor in our move to Greensboro.

Remnants of the Old South were still prevalent in the Greensboro we entered.  The civilities of the Old South were double edged—a superficial veneer giving comfort and the appearance of congeniality and a mechanism for assigning people their place in the scheme of things.

The School of Education had acquired university faculty lines that were formerly laboratory-school teaching positions.  I was in my third university that was in transition from a traditional teacher’s college setting to a more sophisticated research and writing setting, Woman’s College, in UNCG’s case, to a new culture emphasizing doctoral programs that called for new hires with experience in doing research and writing.  Doctoral students were stuck at the dissertation stage, largely because their advisors were not engaged in research and writing.  A new dean, Robert O’Kane, a Harvard doctoral graduate, was charged with recruiting faculty from outside of the South in order to promote diversity of intellectual interest and talents from which students could profit.  An illustration of the divide between Old South faculty and new hires is how we reacted to an invitation to visit a professor’s house in order to sit on the porch and eat persimmon pudding.  We didn’t know what persimmon pudding was and didn’t think we could take time away from our research and writing to “lolly-gag,” as they called it.  On another occasion, a veteran professor said she had reservations in hiring a new Northerner because “She toots her horn too much.”  I responded, “Arrogance is often a sign of low self-confidence.”  The veteran responded:  “No, no, I mean she tooted her car horn too much.”  This “Yankee act” represented the stereotype that northerners are too noisy.

As with most universities that attached high value to research and writing, UNCG professors heard rhetoric about the importance of teaching and being a part of a community of scholars while at the same time the university rewarded individualism—research and writing.  We would write about creating learning communities but we rarely participated in them.  School of education veterans, many of whom had received their doctorates at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the “Mother Church,” gave their energies and talents  to teaching and serving on committees while the new hires formed a political and social core group and focused on our own research and writing interests.

Those of us in “the game” of research and writing knew the national norms concerning writing:  it is better to be a single author than a co-author; it is better to be a senior co-author than a junior co-author; and it is better to be published in a prestigious, refereed journal.  I have italicized the word better because it always means better than something else.  A writing product, article or book, is always judged in relation to other writing products.  To enter such a “game” is an open invitation to “…ambitious, assertive individuals” (Sarason, 1988, p. 231).  These individuals know the game and the score.  Much of my anxiety about making it in what I called my “first real job,” the position of professor, was probably the result of being a first generation intellectual, as was the case with Goffman and Sarason.  I rationalized my anxiety as I had done in athletic competition:  “You can run twice as fast if someone is chasing you.”  This rationalization gets one through in the short run, but the holder of it can pay a tremendous price in emotional exhaustion and few real friendships in the long run.  It was only with time that I learned to pace myself and have deep, relatively non-competitive friendships.  Making it in a doctorate-granting university “…is a soul-searching, soul-searing, soul-changing affair” (Sarason, 1988, p. 234).

Fortunately for me, the school of education and UNCG rewarded both qualitative and quantitative research.  Most of my research and writing was exploratory or heuristic.  I observed and wrote about issues from a different angle, always concluding with an invitation to others to do more focused studies.  Sarason best describes my dilemma:  “The bedeviling conflict within me was the recognition that I was far more interested in ideas than I was in research” (Sarason, 1988, p. 233).  I told colleagues and friends that I was more interested in search than research.  Colleagues of a more scientific persuasion were primarily interested in “…clear formulations, data, proof, system building, prediction, and control” (Sarason, p. 233).  When push came to shove in our conversations, we were like ships passing in the night.  My grounding in the humanities (history, philosophy and literature) and the social sciences (sociology and anthropology) was fertile ground for writing about their often conflicting orientations and assumptions (Brubaker, 1967).

Teaching, from my point of view, was a forum to try out newly formed ideas, after which I would revise my writing.  The autobiographical nature of my writing, always based on personal experiences as well as the literature, helped me see that teaching and research/writing were compatible.  I had no role models or mentors at UNCG but relied on Seymour Sarason and R. Murray Thomas to fill this need.  When James  B. Macdonald joined our faculty as a Distinguished Professor, I viewed him as a scholarly and thought-provoking colleague and friend,  but not a role model or mentor.  He was a curriculum theorist who described my research and writing as inhabiting “…the middle range between theory and practice, where theory informs practice and practice informs theory” (Brubaker, 1982, p. xiii).  Perhaps the important thing to note about my relationships with Sarason, Thomas and Macdonald, is that they taught me to participate in the national arena of research and writing, which is to say that it was this context that would define my worth rather than a local context—a particular university in which I resided.  This appealed to me as my experience as a high school teacher taught me that local politics were both too powerful and constrictive.

Certain attitudes followed from the assumption previously italicized.  First, university, school of education and departmental administrators come and go and there is always a degree of tension between their goals and methods of operation and ours (professors’).   They are in the business of using their political and organizational skills to have others do things that make them look good.  When positive numbers can be attached to products, such as research grants, they look good.  The higher the level of administration, the more perks they have—better offices, access to travel money and the like.  It was a standing joke at Florida conventions during the winter months that stressed out university administrators would arrive early and leave late.  As professors, we envied and resented administrators for their perks.

We rolled our eyes when administrators retired and newspaper articles said that they had returned to their first love—teaching.  One wag murmured:  “Try that line out with your spouse and see what happens.  Go away for 20 years and return saying, ‘I’ve decided to return to you as you’re my first love.’”  We also knew that these end of career professorial appointments were courtesy appointments honoring years of administrative service and a new hire in this position would be more up-to-date than a person whose attention had been given to administration.  The second attitude toward administrators was that being close to such persons had both an up and a down side.  Proximity gives you access to resources and good merit pay increases, but, at the same time, you will be called on to serve as chairs of committees and head special task forces and the like.  Being in the core group can steal time needed for research and writing.

The third attitude I, a professor, had toward administrators was that they could deliver resources in order to help me reach important professional goals and agendas.  Support for the UNCG Humanistic Education Project and its publications is a case in point.  Travel money to build on research and writing interests is another example.   One dean went out on a limb to help us create and sustain an off-campus educational leadership program opposed by most of the school of education faculty.  As a result of this, I was able to research and write about the costs and benefits of such involvement.

I began to see how the creation of off-campus doctoral programs start as learning communities struggling to survive and turn, if successful, into large, bureaucratic “cash cows” that support other parts of the university.  Online courses are the perfect fit with this transition.  Management by mandate becomes a weapon in the hands of bureaucrats not held accountable by distanced professors.  If faculty members for off-campus programs are non-tenured, as is often the case, the bureaucrats can do as they please—an enticing arrangement for managers more interested in programs and structures that yield financial resources than in faculty and students as persons.  At the same time, I recognized and respected a few distance-education leaders who fought the trend toward bureaucratization and demonstrated their expertise and care for persons involved in their programs.  They recognized the difference between being an official of the university and being officious.

After a few years as full-professor with tenure at UNCG, I realized that the driving force for me as a professor and author was curiosity, the desire and ability to identify and frame questions that would guide my inquiry.  And, working with doctoral students, particularly at the dissertation stage, was an ideal forum for this activity.  There was a bonus at the end of their dissertation inquiries.  The oral dissertation defenses became learning communities for professors as well as students.  I discovered colleagues’ positions on important issues and how their minds worked in order to arrive at these positions.  The dissertation defenses were seminars that helped us address the question, “What is the purpose of research in general and dissertation research in particular?”  For example, do we expect the student to primarily demonstrate a unique contribution to a body of research and writing or should we give major attention to the personal growth of the student during doctoral study?  The range of doctoral student abilities and experiences is simply incredible—a constant challenge to professors interested in standards while at the same time recognizing developmental differences in students.

As a member of the doctoral admissions’ committee, the diverse nature of applicants’ interests and abilities was apparent.  And, it was clear that some marginal students who could profit from the program would need considerable faculty help at the dissertation stage.  Some practitioners were excellent in the field but poor researchers and writers.   Others were fine scholars but less able as practitioners.   As members of the admissions’ committee, we were writing our own professional scripts with the decisions we made.

About half-way through my stay at UNCG, I became intrigued with the idea of writing for more popular magazines.  After several rejections from editors, it was clear to me that I needed a “hook” in order to get the attention of editors and readers.  Gerald Austin, head National Football League (NFL) referee, who has worked several Super Bowls, and I talked about the possibility of writing sports leadership articles.  Our “hook” was obviously Gerald’s NFL connection.  We therefore published a number of articles in inflight magazines, the National Jaycees magazine and the like.  We used titles like “Leadership On and Off the Field” and “Winning Your Super Bowl.”  Working with editors and their staffs was both interesting and instructive, a nice diversion from academic writing.  It also gave us a chance to draw upon Goffman’s ideas on the presentation of self as the airline magazine’s editors and staffs were very professional in their work—particularly production and marketing.  Melinda Stovall, of Pace Communications, was especially helpful in this regard.  Gerald and I were, in effect, involved in the creation of new learning settings (Sarason, 1972).

Although I had every intention of separating my personal and family life from my professional life as a professor, I reluctantly learned that this was difficult, if not impossible.  Problems and joys at the university were often taken home, and personal matters were in turn brought to the university.  I found it interesting in reading Robert MacNeil’s Looking for My Country (2003) that this learned co-anchor of PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour reached the same conclusion:  “In those (earlier) years I prided myself on compartmentalizing my life, the personal efficiently partitioned off from the professional.  I can see now how the two mingled and affected my behavior at every stage” (p. 98).

Family concerns were a real joy—a respite from the pressures of life at the university.   And, some of the writing that I did, particularly the books that contained cases, came from the experiences with our three children—John, Michael, and Carol.  For example, building a tree house and establishing rules for its use raised a host of environmental and constitutional issues.   The setting of marriage, cited by Sarason as the smallest instance of setting creation, can provide a safety net and partnership that makes a positive difference.

“When our children are o.k., we’re o.k.” is a common saying that reveals the deep pain and challenge we feel when our children are suffering.  And yet, it is precisely from such critical incidents that I have learned the most.  Our oldest son, John, age 6 at the time, was walking to school and was hit by a newly licensed driver’s car.  This life-threatening incident taught me over an agonizing period of time to deal with the fact that “bad things do happen to good people.”  The arrogance and control orientation of my youth were rightfully challenged.  The still-birth of our first grandchild, Lara, was one of the saddest moments of our lives.  Out of frustration and powerlessness, I wrote Creative Curriculum Leadership (1994) and dedicated it to her, hoping that she would never be forgotten.   When my wife, Barbara, got breast cancer, we suffered together and once again I turned to writing a book, Staying on Track (1997), with Larry Coble, to work through part of my pain.   The present book was written during my treatments for prostate cancer.

In November, 2008, Carol, thirty seven, was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Our first reaction was one of shock!  Barb and I hugged each other, cried and said at the same time:  “I don’t want to lose our little girl.”  Carol joined us later and we wept and talked about the care of Matthew, six, and Kay-Kay, four.  We then turned to our religion and family to follow the plan that the doctors at Duke Medical Center, Carol and Todd constructed.  My trips to Duke for Carol’s medical treatment were priceless as we talked about what is really important in life.  Gaylord and Brenda Rush, Todd’s parents, and our extended families joined Carol’s friends to provide the love and care that Carol needed.  The record of this is on Caring Bridge, a website that chronicles Carol’s journey.

One of the most important lessons I learned from these trials and tribulations is that breakdowns can be turned into breakthroughs if we are willing to do the hard psychological working order to grow our faith.  I turned to Jim Macdonald, a colleague and friend, after one of these life-defining moments and said, “I’ve learned that I am stronger than I thought I was and I am weaker than I thought I was.”  He responded, “I would say that I am stronger than I thought I was and I am more vulnerable than I thought I was.”  Those we love often have insights that are simple, straight-forward and wonderful.  We learn during our darkest hours that what really matters is love given and received.


Summary and Conclusions

Autobiographies inevitably contain turning points, critical situations and marker events.   The occurrence of such times is usually not controlled by the person(s) affected.  These surprises, often involving a good deal of pain and suffering, afford the opportunity for growth and learning that would not otherwise occur.  The challenge is for those involved to turn “breakdowns” into “breakthroughs” –something that often calls for a good deal of psychological work and investment of other resources.  It is from such situations that one’s true character emerges.


It is simply amazing to observe and participate in the search for personal meaning.  The original and limited contexts of childhood are challenged as one’s horizons expand.  A major part of this lifelong process is the search for other “homes” or learning communities.  One experiences sheer joy when true community exists and yet there are difficult roads to travel in reaching this place.  Part of this process involves working through the relationship between the individual and the community.  We want the comfort and acceptance of community while at the same wanting to make a unique contribution and establish our own identity.  When the individual enters true community, he or she becomes a “person” rather than an “individual.”

The driving force behind all of this is our curiosity and desire to learn.  In a sense, we want to return to the awe, wonder and amazement that we experienced as children discovering a whole new world.  To keep this spirit is a gift we can all enjoy and in the process share with others.  In the Spring of 2006 UNCG held a retirement party for me in the Alumni House.  A handsome UNCG rocking chair that is next to me as I write this in my study at home was a gift at this celebration.  Jean Camp, School of Education director of instructional technology and EdD candidate wrote the following about my work at UNCG:

We laughed and learned, a combination that made us look forward to Class.  Not only is Dr. Brubaker a prolific writer, but a master storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor.  I really miss his wisdom and wit.

In November of 2008, Dr. Sue Burgess, Superintendent of Schools in Dare County, North Carolina, and a UNCG doctoral graduate, inscribed my name on a brick on The Walk of Excellence, leading to a gazebo at an affordable housing complex for teachers.  At the dedication ceremony she thanked me for being a highly valued mentor.


Dale L. Brubaker


Note:  This autobiography by Dale Brubaker is published here with the kind permission of Dale's wife (Barbara Brubaker) and their son (Michael Brubaker).


See Kerry J. Byrnes' "Memories of Dale Brubaker"