Interview with Joe Petito

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Like everyone else, I had to write in school. But I wasn't good at it and hated writing though I loved to read. My fifth grade teacher, Judy Cagle, would pretend not to notice me in the back of the classroom reading National Geographic magazines and science fiction when I was supposed to be doing other stuff, like math and social studies. I've recently reconnected with her; to this day she's a huge encourager.

After the Marines and in college I took a class in U.S. foreign policy by Dennis McNutt--Vanguard University. It was a semester seminar where eight of us and the professor would sit around and talk books on American policy, war, social issues. I took on a topic for a thesis on how the United States invaded Russia during their revolution. Spent a lotta time in the library at U.C. Irvine researching it to find out what really happened because I wanted to tell the story. Nobody had heard of it. The events framed our relationship with the USSR for a long time. In the early 80's, nuclear weapons negotiating was a big issue, and learning about our history with the USSR made the background history to the negotiating understandable.

The first story I was conscious with is an actual event in the Philippines in 1977. About a helicopter crash and the rescue efforts- something called Mindoro Island. It was the first narrative thing I worked on to communicate feeling and presence and situation. It was writing I'd never done before. Very emotional for me. Going back over the events and recall the best I could after the fact and try to make it accurate to the situation. There were a lotta guys there helping out, a bunch of people affected to this day. Link: 1/blog.aspx?Post=51e04a18-138e-4ba0-a467-0b967bd36200
When did you first start writing?
Aboard the U.S.S. Austin on a deployment in the Mediterranean. In the late-70's. Days tend to stretch out forever aboard ship, and I found a blank-page logbook in the trash, and began writing my thoughts. It eventually turned into a journal that I kept up occasionally, then after the Marine Corps I went to college, it got more intentional- things like events, people, how I felt about situations. It was mostly pretty dark, loneliness tended to bring out the writing, like having someone to talk out stuff.

But it comes back to the ten-thousand-hour thing. When you make a personal assessment, when you compare yourself to good writers, you have to be honest about your skills. But the more you write, even if you think it's pretty bad, when you invite people to critique it, the more you do the better you get. Eventually you learn to communicate no matter how heavy-handed it starts out.
Of all things to write on, why vocational education-what used to be called shop class?
This is such a cliche-- it's a social justice issue. Other people have said it: "poverty is a kind of violence." Kids get out of school and have no skills to get a job. We make them learn stuff that's useless when all they want is work for a living-make their own way in life. It's like what James talks about-- "Hey, good luck! Be fed, stay warm, have a great life" but give a big proportion nothing to (help them) live in the real economy. I teach in a fairly affluent area where most parents are university grads or they're small business owners and such. Still a lot of their kids have different skills and traits that don't fit the common curriculum. It's beyond frustrating-- what we (teachers & administrators) say we're doing isn't connected with street reality.

Then there's the big picture thing of skill erosion in the economy, a whole-nuther thing. Educators don't see it. We're confined in our four walls- don't have to interact with that environment. We have a bias against physical work earning a wage-- we think we're better because we're better educated than most people. Then we project what has made us successful onto our students so they will be successful too.
Who are your favorite authors?
These aren't favorites. They're some formative ones. Like everybody, you get tweaked a little, sometimes a lot, by everything you read: T.E. Lawrence. Michael Crawford of Shopclass as Soulcraft. Persig. M. Scott Peck. J.R.R. Tolkein. Robert Heinlein. Frank Herbert. C. S. Lewis. H. Richard Niebuhr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If I had to pick favorites, it would be Lewis and Persig. I've probably read Tolkein's Ring series five or six times.
Where do you write? Describe your desk.
I've a couple-- One's in the garage; a six-foot by eight-foot steel fabricating table I used when I was a building contractor to do welding. My dad built it to fabricate steel products like gates and stuff-- I've put a layer of tempered masonite on it and go out and write when the weather's good. We've a vegetable garden and fruit trees and flowers and it's good to get up and dig or water or rake for awhile and come back to the keyboard.

The other's in a small office at the front of the house-- the room used to be a porch, but it was framed in and plastered-- I've got the frame of an old Hammond organ from the 1940's my grandfather bought for my mother. Died of cancer in 1983. The organ stopped playing and I tore out the electrical parts and keyboard and stuff, and added some supports, and put my computer down below and a couple of monitors on it. The thing is indestructible. It's beat and has this old urea-based finish that stinks when it gets wet. My mother taught piano and organ and marimba-- She'd be shocked and then she'd laugh.
You've picked a style that's pretty much counter to what most educators and researchers expect. Why?
We're on this binge of being data-focused. Counting things to demonstrate legitimacy. When you read the literature, it's mostly focused back on our ability to put things in placeholders, be conscious of the "scientism" aspect. We're trending to making education science-based instead of relationship-based. It takes our ability to connect with students on the human level and makes it mechanistic, cold. I think we've done it with mostly good intentions to process so many through the system, but the result is bland, common. We've even put the word in the newest version of national curriculum.

Pick up any administrator's Ed.D dissertation, read the literature on whatever education topic. The authors cite research the average Joe never heard of, but must be cited because it's pro forma. It's narrow stuff that insulates us (educators) from the real people we interact with- students and parents. What I call the research pile is irrelevant to students, the Joe and Jane parent, business person interested in education.

That's not where real people live. Real lives are messy and imprecise. We can't count the variables. The odd kid with odd skills or different attitudes can't be accommodated by differentiation. Teachers know this- but we're stuck in this institutional groove and it's hard to break out--do the constructivist intoxication thing. Yeah, from front to back the thing mocks convention, the establishment. The "research" I cite has a tongue-in-cheek attitude with the format but antithetical to the substance of conventional research. Right or wrong, I think it makes for a better read.
Who has or have been the formative people who motivated you to write?
I never intended to write. I never intended to go to college. I could barely endure school, and the best classes were those that had a hands-on component, like the shop classes. I hung out with like-minded kids, and we did the time like everyone else looking forward to getting out. For me, I so despised the environment growing up that I ran as far as possible, to the Marines, and met a lot of weird people along the way.

You look back, you look at the formative people in your life, some are teachers, but a bunch are not. There was a Captain in the Marines who took the time to teach me the accomplishment of life or death goals despite the obstacles; what we would now call "outside the box thinking." A facilities manager at Vanguard University who took the time to teach me how to plan long and complex endeavors and account for unplanned difficulties. Another man at Vanguard, Hugh Carr, who had destroyed knees from contracting accidents, he was in pain 24/7, but he showed up every day with a good attitude and taught me as much as I wanted to learn.

Some of the formative things are not people but places and experiences. Traveling and spending a lot of time in what we here call "the third world" has shaped my outlook on the here and now, and how I conduct education in my classroom.

A lot of the good writers have intentionally studied writing and the language. I've learned much from them though I'd be incompetent at teaching writing or the language arts. Every writer I've come across has been formative in one way or another.

All these things, the people, places, experiences, the reading, take you to the place where you can stop being safe about your life and jump off that safe cliff into whatever, and accomplish whatever you want to accomplish.
Published 2014-08-24.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Ditching Shop Class: Eliminating Vocational Education in America's Public Schools
Price: $9.95 USD. Words: 190,880. Language: American English. Published: July 1, 2014. Categories: Nonfiction » Education & Study Guides » Philosophy & social aspects, Nonfiction » Education & Study Guides » Educational policy & reform / general
Within public schools,Vocational Education has mostly been eliminated. But then we wonder why kids exit the public school with no job-worthy skills. From the perspective of a STEM/CTE educator, a rationale for why we (educators) disposed of Vocational Ed and the teaching of skills leading to middle class lifestyle, and how this feeds the Achievement Gap and what we're calling the Poverty gap.