The cross-country education of an ‘angry, young’ academic

Professor Michael Strickland teaching in the Elon University Community Garden
Professor Michael Strickland teaching in the Elon University Community Garden, photo by Dalton Cox

by Dalton Cox

Michael Strickland sat cross-legged with dozens of others on the floor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Elementary School in Boulder, Colo. The door to the classroom swung open, and a musical procession led by Tibetan monks began to encircle the students. Four men, dressed in the style of Hells Angels, followed the Tibetans. This leather-clad foursome each pulled from their backpacks a Yuban coffee can.

They opened the lids.

These visitors brought to the Catholic school, not gifts of frankincense and myrrh, but dozens of marijuana cigarettes. The benevolent bikers sparked the spiffs and began to distribute them. At the front and center of the hazy room stood the American poet Allen Ginsberg.

The students were not children, but young-adult writers attending the fledgling Naropa Institute – now Naropa University – which had rented the building during the summer months. It was the mid-1970s and Michael Strickland was in his early 20s.

“The school was started by a Tibetan monk, who was Ginsberg’s meditation teacher,” Strickland said. “Ginsberg named it the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and immediately upon hearing that name I said, ‘I have to go there.’ Now it’s accredited and everything. When I went there, it was this totally crazy scene.”

That day of the monks and Mary Jane was Strickland’s first day of a Bachelor of Fine Arts program that he would never finish, though he currently holds several graduate degrees, including a Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Georgia. Today, Strickland is surrounded by more traditional academia, as a lecturer in English and environmental studies at North Carolina’s Elon University.

Apart from his formal learning, Strickland has also received another equally extensive education by his own travel and experiences, as an active disciple of the Beat Generation writers.

Strickland sits in his present-day office in Elon’s science building. A photo of Allen Ginsberg stands on his desk. Near the frame is parked a small replica Harley Davidson that doubles as a lamp – Strickland’s wife’s alternative to him owning an actual motorcycle. It is March and finally beginning to become warm. Strickland prefers this weather. Wearing a faded Pawleys Island baseball cap, he remarks that North Carolina has always hosted much colder winters than his native South Carolina. Strickland grew up on the South Carolina coast, though he did spend much of his childhood summers in Stanly County, N.C. on his grandfather’s farm.

Professor Michael Strickland in the Elon University Community Garden
Professor Michael Strickland guiding students in the Elon Community Garden, photo by Dalton Cox

“As a young kid, I was very happy,” Strickland said. “As I got to be in my late teens I was an angry young man. I grew up in the ’60s, so that was a volatile time for young folks. The Vietnam War had been dragging on for a long time, and there was a lot of change we were hoping for. As a young person, you don’t always see the big picture of things, so you get impatient. The older you get, you understand how embedded things are.”

It was during such restless days of Strickland’s sophomore year that one of his classmates lent him a copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” Kerouac had passed away that fall; Strickland, inspired by Kerouac’s novel, hitchhiked for the first time during a holiday weekend that spring. He had told his parents he was staying at a friend’s house, but had truly spent much of the weekend in Montreal with a young couple that had picked him up in southern Pennsylvania. Strickland did not tell his father about the trip until nearly 30 years later.

“I immediately came back and read all the rest of the Kerouac I could get my hands on,” Strickland said. “It doesn’t have the same impact toady. I’ve read ‘On the Road’ enough times; I teach it once a year. I see it for all its bumps, warts and flaws now, but at 16, at 17, at 18 and still well into my 20s, it was a really, really powerful novel. It doesn’t have the same impact today, but it still does have impact.”

Hitchhiking would soon become a custom, shaping much of Strickland’s early life. Though it began as an outlet for adolescent angst, hitching rides became necessary once Strickland began attending Clemson University in 1972; it allowed for spontaneity, and when an oil crisis caused gas prices to escalate in his sophomore year, hitchhiking became an economic inevitability.

“I would never recommend it for people today,” Strickland said. “It was way safer. People went out of their way to pick you up and not just young people. I would get rides sometimes from little old ladies, who would say, ‘you look like a nice young man, and I’m getting tired of driving.’ There was a lot more trust.”

Still Strickland recalls several instances when hitchhiking took a turn for the worst. Once when Strickland was escorting a young woman to her home in Boston, the two were picked up in the Berkshires region of Massachusetts by a man in a rickety, English sports car.

“He made her sit in the front seat and me in this nonexistent, little backseat,” Strickland said. “He was either very drunk or very high, and he was driving erratically.”

When the two companions switched seats at a gas station, the driver became livid. Once back on the road, the driver pulled a pistol on the young couple, and demanded that they switch back to their original seats as he weaved through traffic. When the driver finally pulled up to a stop sign, the two passengers jumped from the vehicle and ran.

“That wasn’t the only time I had a gun pulled on me,” Strickland said. “Probably happened three or four times over the years. I never had the real sense that this person was insane to shoot me, but insane enough to pull a gun on somebody.”

As the 1960s’ “spirit of love” began to fade and hitchhiking became more dangerous, Strickland developed a fervor for another means of travel.

“I went to a big train phase in the mid ’70s,” Strickland said. “I rode trains all over the country and in Canada, sometimes legally – sometimes not so legally. I never was big on the hobo train travel – the jumping on freight trains. There’s certainly a lot more options for that kind of train travel, but I did it once or twice and it’s really hard and uncomfortable.”

Professor Michael Strickland teaching in the Elon University Community Garden
Professor Michael Strickland instructing a student in the Elon Community Garden, photo by Dalton Cox

Though Strickland would eventually obtain several graduate degrees, he spent four of his postgraduate years on the road in a Volkswagen camper van, earning an income as a woodworker. Strickland’s grandfather – the one who was not a farmer – had taught high school woodshop and agriculture classes, and he had passed to his grandson his love for craftsmanship.

“I told myself that I was in a phase of life where I was actively trying to avoid winter,” Strickland said. “A good year for me, I’d be working in Maine in August and in South Florida in January. I would’ve considered that a very successful year.”

After completing graduate and doctorate degrees and teaching at several other institutions, Strickland began his career at Elon in 1999. He had come to conduct an outside evaluation of an academic program, and admired Elon’s intimate community and growing resources. Elon was on the cusp of a rapid period of expansion, and Strickland had always enjoyed watching things grow.

Both Strickland’s grandfathers were proficient agriculturalists, and Strickland’s father had owned an agriculture supply shop. Strickland carried on this familial tradition. From the day he began teaching at Elon, Strickland has been involved with student gardening. In 1999 a garden was located on the location that became Elon’s south campus, then a site for Elon Homes and Schools for Children (EHSC).

“It was an orphanage school,” Strickland said. “There was this beautiful, permaculture garden over there. I don’t know how I found out about it, but I found out about it immediately.”

It was then that Strickland began to supplement gardening in to his coursework, even in his English classes. His students would work alongside the children of the EHSC to cultivate the garden; however, as a result of Elon’s expansion it bought the property. The EHSC was relocated, and Strickland was cast out of the garden to find a new genesis for student agriculture.

In the fall of 2006, Bree Detwiler, Class of 2007, developed Elon’s Community Garden with Strickland as an academic project. Strickland’s currently teaches a garden studio class to continuously tend the site.

“Michael’s work in developing and maintaining Elon’s Garden enables students to have hands on experience with innovative and organic practices,” said Megan Isaac, chair of Elon’s English Department. “He believes in experiential learning. I got to know Michael eight years ago, when I was hired at Elon. As a colleague, I think he brings some unique qualities to his teaching – qualities that reinforce Elon’s commitment to engaged learning.”

This belief in engaged learning has been reinforced for Strickland by a lifetime of education through experience. In his garden studio class, students become familiar with Strickland’s philosophy.

“You are continuously learning, and it’s the exact opposite of a lecture class,” said Kelsey Price of Elon’s Class of 2015. “I feel like I’ve already learned more about soil, compost, productivity and the work that goes in to gardening than I could have from a formal class, simply by asking questions. It’s a unique space where people from all across can connect, and I think a lot of that spirit originates from the open attitude that Professor Strickland encourages in his students.”

Strickland also traditionally teaches a month-long course focused exclusively on the Beat Generation.

“My goal is to give students an alternative perspective on a literary period that may be closer to them in time than the many others that they may have studied,” Strickland said. “As long as each new generation of students find their own way to engage in it, then I’ll continue doing it. If I ever get to the point where it’s no different than studying something for the 19th century, then I’ll stop.”

Strickland believes in learning from experiences, and encourages his students to take the time after their undergraduate gradation to peruse experiences that may be less obtainable in later years, ridden by responsibilities.

Strickland is the personification of engaged, experimental and interdisciplinary learning – the embodiment of an idea, heatedly expressed by Jack Kerouac in “On the Road.”

“The best teacher is experience,” Kerouac writes.


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