By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

FYI: This is a SPOILER-FREE Turtle post. I won’t ruin Game of Thrones for those who haven’t seen recent episodes yet. Also, you don’t need to watch GoT or The Walking Dead to understand this post – so read on! 

Wow. The most recent episode of Game of Thrones (Episode 4.08: The Mountain & The Viper) was intense, to say the least. In a TV series that is marked by regular twists and surprises, no twist has shocked me the way this one did. Even after letting the episode sink in, I’m still thinking about it.

My reaction to the episode has shifted the more I think about. At first I was pleased: I love when a story – Game of Thrones or otherwise – surprises me. After all, great storytelling should surprise us.

Then, I gradually started to turn on the episode. The more I consider the conclusion, the more I’m displeased with it, because I believe the surprise ending sacrificed some deeply interesting long-term plot threads in favor of a short-term shock. Having not read the books, I’m hopeful that I’m wrong and that new, interesting plot threads develop from this conclusion.

Games of Thrones and The Walking Dead – two of the most popular shows on TV – both work well in part because each show is willing to do what most TV shows and Hollywood movies will not: kill of characters – or more specifically, kill off protagonists.

Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin loves to kill off characters!

Game of Thrones creator George RR Martin loves to kill off characters!

I love superhero movies. Just this year alone, I loved Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Typically, one of the flaws of superhero movies is that our main protagonists aren’t in any real danger. Secondary characters or villains may die, but when we go to see a Captain America movie, we are pretty damn sure that Captain American is going to survive. (Yes, yes, comic nerds, I know Cap gets assassinated in the Civil War story line in the comics, but that hasn’t happened in the movies – yet.) And even when a main protagonist dies, somehow they always come back – that was half of the point of X-Men: DoFP, to resurrect characters.

Thus, superhero movies have to find other ways of being satisfying without the real sense of danger for our main characters. In the Spider-Man movies (and comics) we know Spider-Man will survive, but his loved ones are in constant danger. Also, like in the first Spider-Man movie (2002), we see him lose out on love despite beating the bad guy. In The Dark Knight, Batman survives and beats the Joker, but at the cost of becoming a vigilante and more.

However, in every episode of GoT and TWD, we fear for our characters. Each show has proven, time and time again, that nearly any character can be gone in an instant. When Captain America is surrounded by bad guys, we know he’ll survive; when a character is surrounded by zombies in TWD, we have no guarantees. This is part of the appeal and power of GoT and TWD. We are invested in the characters and we’re scared for them.

In an appearance on Conan, GoT’s creator George R.R. Martin says all of this directly: “We’ve all seen the movies where the hero is in trouble, he’s surrounded by 20 people, but you know he’s going to get away, because he’s the hero. You don’t really feel any fear for him. I want my viewers and my readers to be afraid when my characters are in danger.”

The killing of characters is, typically, warranted in these shows. Both shows are set in worlds filled with chaos, destruction, and death. The core ethos of each show requires that characters not emerge unscathed from all of the horror surrounding them.

Yet, for as much as I applaud both shows for being willing to kill off characters, there are times when I wonder if the shows/stories aren’t just kill-happy, and end up killing off better story arcs for the sake of shocking us with character deaths.

From a writer’s perspective, the usual stance on killing characters is that a death has to be “earned,” meaning that a character is not just killed for the sake of killing a character; rather, a character has met his/her demise for sound, logical reasons that can be pieced together through the story. Even if we are initially shocked that the character is gone, we should be able – in hindsight – to understand why it happened and how it adds to the story moving forward. If it ever seems like a character was killed simply because his/her name was pulled out of a hat, that isn’t an “earned” death. And if a more interesting story is sacrificed with the death of the character, it isn’t an “earned” death.

So, back to my mixed emotions on “The Mountain & The Viper.” I wonder if the episode’s conclusion was “earned” for that second reason – were interesting story arcs sacrificed? Again, without spoiling anything for those who haven’t seen the episode, I will provide a hint for those who have:

When a certain character points a finger and yells, “Who gave you the orders?” toward the end of the episode, I immediately foresaw a WORLD of ridiculously interesting story possibilities in terms of character conflicts that could be played out over many episodes. Then, a few minutes later, that was all undercut. The short-term shock replaced the long-term story.

Again, I still loved the episode, but I will have to wait to find out of the conclusion was truly “earned.”

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

“Learned we may be with another man’s learning: we can only be wise with wisdom of our own.”
― Michel de Montaigne

I’m using a new book Alain De Botton’s quirky, exploratory text The Consolations of Philosophy to teach my summer course, the rather ambitiously titled Creative Reasoning and Investigative Learning: Critically Engaging Self & Society. Reading along with my students is a rare treat since I can be surprised by the assigned reading as my students are. This week’s chapter addresses the theme of inadequacy through a discussion of portions of the Essays of Michel de Montaigne.Essays

Every teacher of writing knows Michel de Montaigne as the “father” of the “modern” discursive essay, primarily because he was among the first to call what he was writing “essays” or “Essais” in French, meaning attempts, which casts a redemptively pleasant light on the endeavor to create meaning through reflective writing. Another important distinction of Montaigne’s work is that he wrote about anything and everything that interested him, sometimes including classical references and scholarly ideas, but most often not, thereby freeing prose writing from centuries of strict formality. Thus, the essays that my students consider excessively formal are actually a relaxed form encompassing a leisurely discussion of essentially anything.

A lover of words, I am a fan of eloquent statements, a trait I share with Montaigne (one of several similarities I can draw between my life and that of a man who lived and died more than 400 years before me). Montaigne collected and considered quotes from thinkers he revered, decorating the ceiling of his library with his favorites. I’ve posted favorite quotations to my walls since college, more evidence of the deeply personal relationship we seek to build with authors and texts we admire, seeing in them what we want to see in ourselves.A-Readers-Lens-and-Baggage-Framed-copy

One of my favorite books utilizes Montaigne’s essays as a means of understanding life. I may have already mentioned or recommended it here: Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Bakewell’s writing style is equal parts fluid and fascinating.

After finishing the Bakewell, I read Montaigne’s original essays because her explication makes them seem so fabulous, which they are to a large degree, the historical distance causing few difficulties. A brilliant scholar, Bakewell elevates her source material, identifying the most enthralling aspects and glossing over the rest. In fact, Montaigne’s essays were a tiny bit disappointing after Bakewell’s glittering overview, because they contain dull bits she chose to exclude.

Alain de Botton’s exploration of Montaigne is decidedly different. He offers less in the way of interpretation; instead, he uses Montaigne to discuss the selected theme of inadequacy. Honestly, I would never have connected Montaigne’s work with the theme of “inadequacy” as De Botton has done, but the results remain intriguing.

One of the central discussions De Botton supports with excerpts from Montaigne involves sexual inadequacy. When I think of inadequacy, my mind does not immediately jump to that of a sexual nature. I almost never contemplate sexual inadequacy. Indeed, I was surprised to see the subtopic as much as the connection to Montaigne.

This, coupled with a different reading of a crucial part of Montaigne’s life reveals a wonderful attribute of interpretation—a great many are possible, and a large number can be valid, as long as ample textual evidence and sound logic make the argument reasonable.

Another key difference between Bakewell and De Botton’s discussion of Montaigne pertains to his most intimate friend, Etienne de la Boetie. The friendship was exceptionally close, and while Bakewell considers yet ultimately dismisses a potential sexual aspect to the relationship, De Botton doesn’t address this possibility at all.  The differentiation is analogous to two portrayals of Hamlet, an apt correlation because source material must be richly complex in order to support a range of responses. With the same source material, these two capable authors produce insights that are only potentially true, and certainly not all encompassing.multiple-paths

Thus, all readers can and should add their voices to the conversation. I tell my students that if there were only one way to think about something, there would be only one book on each topic in the library.

This is part of what drives my devotion to books, and reading, and ideas: all open endless avenues to explore, allowing each reader to forge ahead to create his or her own unique path.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Ear blowing has been a hot topic in the past couple days.

On Wednesday in Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers was caught blowing into the ear of Miami Heat star LeBron James while defending him on the court. It was all part of Stephenson’s continued tactics, both on the court and in the media, to try to get under James’ skin and throw him off his game.

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The tactic, and the image of Stephenson mid-blow, has been all over sports media in the days since. Nearly everyone – from players to analysts to fans – has panned the tactic, such as Ray Allen of the Heat who called Stephenson’s antics “buffoonery.”

The incident has also prompted former players to share the oddest form of defense ever played on them. On ESPN, former player and head coach Avery Johnson said an opponent once tried to pull his shorts down during a game.

Yes, the reaction to Lance’s gentle blow in the ear has been negative.

But I will defend it.

In high school and college, my life revolved around basketball. I was particularly obsessed with competing in 3-on-3 streetball tournaments. One such tourney was Hoop It Up at Chicago’s McCormick Place in 1999.

On my tournament teams, I was always the shortest player at only 5’10”. However, I was also typically the strongest player on the court for either team. This often resulted in me guarding the other team’s biggest playing, meaning I regularly matched-up against guys a half foot or more taller than me. With looser street rules in tourney games (“no blood, no foul”), I could use my strength to push these taller players away from the basket like a football lineman. Not only did I get the big guys away from their spot on the court, but I also frustrated the hell out of them. For one, it was irritating for them to be pushed around like that by a “little” player. Also, I used my pointy elbows to do much of the pushing, which meant I was inflicting a tiny bit of pain. I frustrated plenty of opponents straight out of the game, to the point that all they wanted to do was try to shove back at me (unsuccessfully).

Then came Hoop It Up, when I got paid back in an odd way.

My team won our first round game in dramatic fashion, eeking out a hard fought game against a good team. Then, in the second round, we came out on fire. Our opponent was simply no match for us.

Yet I will never, ever forget this team.

Once again, I was guarding the tallest opposing player, who happened to be a big guy with a sweet, well-coiffed fro that had a pick in it the entire game. It was almost like he acknowledged that he wasn’t a good player, so he was going to make sure he at least had his style in place.

This particular game was perimeter-oriented, as my teammates kept making deep shots. This led me to spend lots of time tangled with this big guy under the basket for rebound position.

And the whole time we battled, he was tickling me.

Tickling. Me.

I don’t mean he grabbed me while trying to get position and he just happened to tickle me. He was straight up, blatantly tickling me. And he made no attempt to deny that’s what he was up to.

Apparently, if you can’t beat them, tickle them.

Despite the description, I was not being guarded and tickled by Questlove. Now that would be one hell of a story.

Despite the description, I was not being guarded and tickled by Questlove. Now that would be one hell of a story.

I spent most of the game wondering if the tickling was actually happening or if I was imagining things. I was more than accustomed to getting hit during games: elbows, hands, knees, hips. Anyone who has played basketball knows how deceptively physical and violent the game is.

Yet, for all the contact I was familiar with, I had never been tickled.

I kept boxing out and grabbing rebounds and I never said anything about the tickling, mostly because it was clear he trying to get in my head along with my ticklish areas. I figured acknowledging it in any way would be a win for him, a sign that it was throwing me off. And it was throwing me off. I never expected I’d spend a half-hour getting tickled that day.

Thankfully, it turns out that spending the entire game tickling an opponent is an effective method for psychological warfare, but is a horribly ineffective method for grabbing rebounds. I was a horrible rebounder, and yet I never grabbed so many as I did that game.

After the game, a blowout win for us, I asked my teammates if they had seen what was happening. They didn’t even hesitate: “Yeah, he was tickling you the whole game.”

All of these years later, I have forgotten most of the specifics about many of my tournament games, but I will always remember that guy. In that sense, the tickle technique was remarkably successful: it totally got in my head. On the other hand, when it comes to stats and victories, the tickle test did not earn a passing grade.

So, back to Lance Stephenson. I applaud his blowing in LeBron’s ear. In the video of that moment, as Lance is puckering his lips, LeBron shakes his head and smirks – visual evidence that Lance was getting in both his ear and his head. LeBron had a terrible game (arguably more due to the officiating that the ear blowing), and the Pacers won.

When it comes to sports, any (legal) way to get an advantage is something worth trying. Maybe tickle guy used his method in his first round game and it worked well. Maybe he persevered while tickling me figuring that at any moment I would snap and be thrown off my game. However, that clearly didn’t happen.

Or maybe he just thought I was adorable and deserving of tickles, which I suppose I am. In that case, thanks for the compliment – I’ll never forget our momentary basketball tickle bromance.

Ultimately, wins are what matter most in sports. If odd little tactics can provide some small advantage, then I say tickle and blow away.

By Eric Finlayson, RMU Student. 

Easter brunch in Chicago is a beautiful thing when the weather gods have lined up and allowed Chicagoans to have great sunny Spring weather. However, for a chef, it’s a 3 day weekend in the kitchen of extensive work and preparation. I work for Redstone Restaurant in Oakbrook Terrace and we do breakfast, brunch and dinner on Easter; breakfast and brunch are the big sellers.

While I’m on the way to work at 10 A.M. Easter Sunday, I can see everyone dressed up coming from church on their way to breakfast and brunch. I know what a crazy long day is ahead of me, but I’m prepared; game face on!

img_oakbrook-terraceAt Redstone Restaurant we have a huge patio overlooking a gorgeous look of the water, perfect for a sunny Easter brunch. As the day goes on, I’m red in the face from the heat of the kitchen. I run to the back to get some more towels. I pass our Easter bunny (an employee in costume) and knock over his whole basket of eggs in a hurry. Uhhh…. The orders are coming in just as fast as the customers, and it’s “Showtime”. We prepared for this holiday. All hands are on deck.  Energy drinks are passed out to employees. We will need a little extra energy today.

It’s been 7 straight hours now, and the dinner push is coming. The cooks and I are still in our groove. We’re ready for the next wave. Seats are being filled, orders are coming in and Easter is still here, and these people are hungry! Every 20 minutes I’m refilling my ice water; need to stay hydrated. It reminds me of cooking in Iraq when in the Army. HOT!

As the day winds down, things slow down. It’s now quieter in the kitchen; time to clean and call it a day. It’s been 9 hours now and we still need to clean and get this kitchen back to regular. Little by little everyone is losing lenergy. It’s apparent on everyone’ faces that we need food. As ironic as it sounds, you don’t get to eat much in the kitchen.  Food is for paying customers.

Now on 10 ½ hours my friend Juan let me know he’s making food for everyone in the kitchen; sirloin and potato tacos! Right on time! Finally I’m finishing up with work. I’m dog tired, hungry, in need of a shower, but I have an authentic meal right in front of me from my co-workers. Happy Easter to me! I drive home. Can’t wait to shower and put my feet up.

My fiancé tells me how everyone on Facebook was posting pics of the awesome brunch served today at my restaurant Redstone. That makes the Easter rush all worth it!

by Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

It’s graduation season. I’ll be fulfilling one aspect of my duties as faculty by attending RMU’s commencement ceremony on June 6, 2014. GraduationRMU

I find commencement speeches utterly fascinating and ceaselessly inspiring, so too do the people at NPR, who recently published a list of 300 speeches going all the way back to 1774 under the auspicious title The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever, and I tend to believe them. I’ll be listening with rapt attention to many on this list.

My list is less ambitious: JK Rowling at Harvard in 2008; Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005; David Foster Wallace at Kenyon in 2005, and I am certain (without even looking) that my favorite commencement addresses are considered among the ones designated by NPR as “Best, Ever.”

One of the best ways to annoy my students is require them to invite them to listen to a commencement address; they are not as fond of the form as I am. Fortunately, I enjoy tormenting my students with a relentless onslaught of profound ideas.

I share these speeches with my students with the ideal outcome of a rousing discussion about the implications of the advice shared and the insights offered. As is true of so many things, this lesson is more successful in theory than in practice. Nevertheless, I persevere. Perhaps they’ll thank me someday, perhaps not.

JK Rowling’s terrific address overflows with her lovely, self-effacing, dry British humor, but the heart-wrenching sadness at the core of the imaginative process is the true revelation.

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Steve Jobs offers a poignant discussion of his own experiences as a college drop out. His decision to audit classes just because he wanted to learn helps students understand that learning is a lifelong process, and while learning can be formal, it is just as often not.

“The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting. . . Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class. . . It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.”

EinsteinThe joys and rewards of disinterested learning are made evident though Jobs’ tireless dive to produce technology innovation that is useful and beautiful.

David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” overflows with brilliance, thanks to his intellectual virtuosity. He analyzes and dissects and constructs and destructs ideas like a hyper-cerebral Bruce Lee. His speech provides an unflinching description of the effort involved in “living a compassionate life,”

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Negotiating life is an arduous journey, slowed by frequent stumbling.

Simon Peres, The President of Israel, was the commencement speaker at my undergraduate graduation from The Ohio State University; I can’t remember a single word. I’m sure he said extraordinary things, but I was not yet ready to listen.

When I attended my friend Michele’s graduation ceremony at Ohio State in 2001 (she graduated six years after I did), Bill Cosby was the featured speaker. Cosby’s address was funny and wise, and I remember it quite well.

He told the story of his first visit home after starting college. Like every other college freshman, he was flush with the special (and fleeting) pride of being the burgeoning intellectual, eager to display his prowess. He told his grandmother he had been studying philosophy.

two-glasses

He explained, “Depending on perception, meaning fluctuates, resulting in profound uncertainty. For example, is that glass half empty or half full?”

Cosby’s grandmother dismissed his nonsense with an absolutely perfect retort, “Why, it depends if you are drinking or pouring.”

There are lessons to be learned in each moment, which is why wisdom can increase with age; we learn over time just how little we know.

Thus, we must resist the temptation to dazzled by our own intelligence or fooled by a seductive illusion, hoping, at best, we can make good choices, and that our mistakes will be forgiven.

 

 

 

 

 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Summer 1 quarter is my time off from teaching. But, as my esteemed colleague Peter Stern stated in his Turtle profile, “teaching is what life’s all about.  Everyone’s on this great green globe to teach and learn and/or to learn and teach.” Or, perhaps to put it another way: You can take the boy out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the boy.  Sure, I could just sit on the couch and watch TV, but I really would rather be thinking of new methods, new ideas and new courses.  Thus, most of my first four weeks off have found me elbow-deep in a book or two about a topic that has always intrigued me: Race.  I am working on a course tentatively titled ‘Race and the History of Racism’. The structure of the course is slowly developing in my mind; soon I hope to start transferring my thoughts to electronic documents.

I want to share with you, dear readers, an idea I have for the course.  By sharing this, I hope to get some feedback, and hold my feet to the proverbial deadline fire. I would like to implement the below idea by the time I return to RMU in July. Now, let me explain….

When dealing with the topic of race in America, it is often difficult to move beyond the notion of racial absolutism.  The idea that there are 3 or 4, or 5 or 6 ‘races’ that encapsulates all humans. Such racial absolutism is central to American culture and history.  It is, however, a fallacy and to disprove it we must shatter American notions of racial categories. But, how to do this?  There are many readings, essays or monographs that could do the trick.  But as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand words.  I want to SHOW the cliched rainbow of humanity in all its diverse form to my students. Luckily, technology is here to help.

During the last couple years, psychologists have utilized digital photography to ‘composite’ human faces into national average visages.  By so doing, these scientists have muddied up any simplistic notions of racial identity. Of course, this idea of ‘average’ physical image is somewhat flawed.  There can never truly be an ‘average national look’.  Still, the attempts are incredibly suggestive when viewed together at one time since they illuminate how the world’s population physically blend imperceptibly over created state borderlines. Just glance at the 40 images below, and try not to see the shared humanity.  The faces just blend from one to another.  There is no definitive color line.

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But, there is a problem here. These photos are ordered alphabetically, not geographically.  The psychologists miss an opportunity by ordering the pictures this way.  Why not put them on a map so that we can really see the faces physically blend?

Why not indeed?  This is my goal!  Edit each picture, and place them onto an interactive world map.  I am thinking of using Google Earth for this, since it is simple to add images  to this  fully immersive global Googe-Earthmap.  Doing this will illuminate for my students the malleability of race; hopefully, this will lead them to question absolutist American racial concepts.

I really think this has some promise. It may take awhile, but I have quite a few weeks off.  I will give you all an update later on.

Now, off to work!

by Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

Opening my email always results in a range of negative emotions, frequently accompanied by sighs and lamentations (ask my nearest work neighbors). I could change my outlook, but I don’t plan to do so.

I hate email enough to have volunteered to plan a “No Email” holiday at RMU. This would only prohibit emailing people in the same building for one eight-hour work day in August. I can’t wait for all the bureaucratic indignation.

Email reproduces like ungodly rabbits. If I have a “quick question” for someone, it often seems like a good idea to “send a quick email” and then get a “quick response.”

Oh-ho, but it rarely, if ever, ends there. There is the follow-up email, either a valid question that requires yet another email, or the dreaded “thanks,” or, infinitely worse, “thanks for your thanks.”Email1

While I do receive and send lovely, heartfelt emails from friends and family members, they are rarefied jewels glistening in my inbox. Most of us are simply too busy to correspond in this way. Besides, we’d much rather meet and discuss things over a few drinks.

My personal email account overflows with garbage that I must dispose of in the perfectly accurate trashcan icon. In early May, I got an “urgent” email from ProFlowers suggesting that my Mother’s Day flower order required my immediate attention. All the rest of the online shopping I have done comes complete with incessant, complimentary emails; Victoria’s Secret is positively desperate to earn my shopping dollars, offering me a free tote in a weekly email. Then there are frequent flier emails, great, yet I am I always just shy of a free flight.

I ask my students to email me only when necessary. They have the luxury of 24-hour access to an online learning system where I’ve provided all the information they need to complete coursework. I am scheduled to see them twice a week in two-hour sessions, that’s four full hours of contact with me per week, and additional office and on-campus hours. By my way of thinking, I should receive few, if any, emails from students. Sadly, that is not my reality. I attempt to assure them that I can offer more, and more fruitful, assistance when we have a genuine conversation happening in real time, my focus on them alone. I want to talk to my students whenever I am able, in person and in depth.

The main complaint I have concerning work emails is that they always require more work; they are hardly ever an invitation to a party.

Additionally, work emails come at all hours, and some bosses (not mine, thank my lucky stars!) expect people to read and answer their emails all day, all night, at any time. What’s the expectation: a person who works 24 hours? I don’t even own a personal computer, nor do I want one. I spend too much time in front of a screen as it is.

A few labor unions in France recently urged employees to stop conducting business after 6:00pm, reasoning that the work day should have a definite end. It is not an email ban, but perhaps it ought to be.

A true life-work balance is a remarkable difficult, ideally 8/8/8, meaning eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for leisure.eight

Much like unnecessary printing, eliminating unnecessary email should become a part of professional etiquette. Email is one way to communicate, but seldom the best way.

Similar to an invasive species, email will take over if given the opportunity. We ought to act now and cut back superfluous emailing before it strangles the life out of more multifaceted means of communication.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A disturbing story out of California grabbed my eye last week.  In the town of Rialto, just outside Los Angeles, a school board caught flack for an 8th grade assignment asking students “to debate in writing whether the Holocaust was ‘merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain’, or an actual historical event.  Facing harsh criticism, the board initially defended the assignment, saying it was a way for students to

The 8th grade assignment in question.

The 8th grade assignment in question.

evaluate evidence, and to use ‘critical thinking’ skills.   The schoolboard finally apologized for it’s poor judgement as news spread that the language used in the assignment had actually been lifted from a ‘revisionist’ website.  In the realm of Holocaust studies, ‘revisionism’ is a euphemism coined by anti-Semites and Neo-Nazis for Holocaust denial.  After such an embarrassing revelation, apologies are now flying, and amends are being made.  On Monday, the LA Times reported that the eighth grade teachers who oversaw the assignments will be going through mandatory sensitivity training, including a trip to the Museum of Tolerance.  Hopefully, the physical evidence of the Nazis’ war on the Jews displayed at the museum will illustrate to the teachers why the assignment was a horribly distasteful mistake.

Case closed?

Not quite. This story is about much more than an 8th grade assignment.  There are troubling implications here.

But first, let’s make one thing clear: I don’t think the schoolboard is run by Holocaust deniers, or Neo-Nazis. As the Anti-Defamation League stated, it seems this case is not a sign of a “larger, insidious agenda.” Instead, this is an instance of a group of people making an incredibly bad, misinformed decision.  No evil here; just banal ignorance. But, the banality of the ignorance points to the disturbance. This assignment was intended to be an attempt to get students to use ‘critical thinking skills.’  Critical thinking is a buzzword in today’s world of education. It has nothing but positive connotations, and rightly so.  But, here we see a danger.  Critical thinking skills can only be developed if we can critically recognize when thought and arguments deserve criticism. Not so simply put, we can’t be critical thinkers when we don’t have critical thoughts to critique. To recognize what stances deserve critical assessment, we need to identify what is worthy of discussion, and what is not. There are simply some opinions that are not worth hearing.  

The Rialto school board was ignorant.  They were ignorant that not all thoughts should be critically assessed, and they were even more ignorant of history. They simply took two seemingly disparate views, and told students to analyze them.  After all, to the school board, the ‘revisionist’ website used the language of a critically thought out position. It ‘seemed’ historically sound, which is exactly what the ‘revisionists’ intend. Holocaust deniers want to take advantage of such ignorance; when they do, they win the battle, and help destroy history.  

The other especially disturbing aspect of this story is the method the board used to get  information.  As mentioned, the assignment was taken almost directly from a Holocaust denial website.  The board’s ignorance is chilling, but it becomes dangerous when combined with the accessibility of extreme lies in cyberspace.  Now, I am not a luddite. The internet has  radically altered communication, and accessibility to information largely for the better. But the internet does not separate the noble from the vile. Extreme hate has found a new home on the web.

Teaching my Holocaust course, I realize this, and point out to my students to be cautious when doing research online.  There is a huge array of radical hatred that could be stumbled upon by them unwittingly as they

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda poster found in search.

search out for the answers to assignments in class.  Let me just give you an example how easy this is: If I Google image search ‘Nazi Jewish Propaganda’, I get over 6 million hits.  Most images come from the holdings of Yad Vashem, or the U.S. Holocaust Museum, or some other reputable memorial institution.  But, the image search also can bring me to other, more troubling sites. The 11th image retrieved in this particular search is of a Nazi anti-Semitic poster produced during the Second World War.  If I click on the image, I see that it comes from a page called ‘Zion Crime Factory.’  The small caption to this image states, “Hitler, like Goebbels, understood the reality of Jewish warmongering against the Reich…‘ What we have here is a modern anti-Semitic, perhaps Neo-Nazi site utilizing Nazi propaganda, not to illuminate Nazi persecution of Jews, but to illustrate that the Nazis were actually correct in their persecution.  If my students were looking for propaganda for one of my assignments, they may accidentally stumble upon this site.  Hopefully they would recognize this site for what it was and avoid it like the plague. But, what about all those who had never studied the Holocaust before, and don’t know what they are looking at?

What about 8th graders researching a critical thinking assignment?

By Jane Wendorff-Craps, English Faculty.

When the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts began our curriculum meeting one winter’s morning with a kitty meme from the internet, I thought, “No, no, not here, not now…” though internally I was clapping vigorously with my fingertips. It was so stinking cute I could puke right there in my auditorium chair with the pull up desktop, which strangely (and totally from a 70s timewarp) had a pencil etching of Kilroy.

Coincidentally, or not, our CLA (College of Liberal Arts) team put it upon themselves to have running jokes about kitties, their cuteness, and the sometimes pathetic human need to share and overshare this trendy feline phenomenon: cat memes. It is worse than the cute baby memes, in my opinion, because the baby pictures and videos are real time cuteness, and who doesn’t like to see babies doing what they do best: smile, burp, pass gas, and giggle.

It seems kitty memes have no proverbial line drawn in the sand. Each day on social media, and the televised news programs nonetheless, kitties are doing more than what kitties do. People are setting kitties in baskets of fruit with a title of “Still Life Cats.” Or, kitties are playing the piano with phantom human hands from underneath guiding poor Garfield’s paws as he tickles the ivories. Or, good ole Rover is curled up for a nap in the sunbeam with little tabby furball scrunched under his slobbery jowels… aw, ain’t that cute.

But oh, that is the least of our perturbed psyche expose; animal memes date way back… even before the invention of the internet by Al Gore. When I saw, as the article describes it, the “morbidly adorable work” by 19th century Walter Potter of Sussex, England, I had the Roger Rabbit double-take, eyes bulging out of sockets then springing back on coils, OMG WTF is this kind of reaction. I’ve heard of taxidermy, and I know many people with deer heads on their walls. I’ve read of people who stuff their pet dogs to have a continual remembrance of them after they pass. Heck, every museum I’ve ever visited had stuffed animals on display for whatever exhibit in whatever section, you know, as a learning tool for patrons. However, let us think about what Mr. Potter had to be doing in this image.

kittens1

Tea Time for Kittens?

We have what looks like 12 cute and adorable kitties having tea. No, those are not Beenie Babies set upon Barbie chairs. This is Victorian era craziness at its finest.

It makes one wonder… If the kitties are real, albeit stuffed, are the tiny foods real too. Did the “artist” bake mini crumpets, pour drops of tea in the miniature china tea service, and are those real biscuits on that diminutive Wedgewood?

The worst pursuit of realistic wonder would have to be where he found 12 kittens, all of the tiger variety, and what kind of person would expire a tiny living creature and then stuff it for a bizzaro tea party only more out-weirded by Louis Carroll. Is it a coincidence the two men are from the same era, and even lived their adult lives just miles apart in Surrey and Sussex? Just what is it about south England residents in the Victorian era?

I imagine psychologists are having a hey-day over this one. I’m searching for an article by Freud to show the connection of sexually repressed Victorians and stuffing animals. Or not, I’m not sure I could sleep well after that enlightening read.

kitten2

Fluffy bunnies exhibiting test anxiety.

What is it that humans are fascinated by in the “recreation” of a dead animal and posing it in some form? Hunters do it with their prey, saying something to the extent of “I killed this animal, and it was great, and I am great, let’s show this greatness to all who come into my living room.” Yet, what Mr. Potter did is a step further down the yellow brick road. He didn’t pose the animal in its natural form but in human situations. Was he the perverse(er) version of “the cat lady” who needs companionship of herds of animals in her living quarters? But dead ones. That’s the key point here. I’m alive, you’re dead, therefore I have power over your domain? Could it be the simple reason that Potter wanted to show how humans and animals are so similar? Yet when do cats ever elect to have a tea party? Or bunnies go to school to learn their ABC’s?

I’m having a hard time understanding how Potter is paying homage to the natural world by repositioning tiny animals in typical human activities. For some reason, when men of the past stuffed the now extinct dodo bird for posterity, I feel like that might have been of some service to the human race. Having a museum of kitties, bunnies, and hamsters eating and playing like they were the maker’s faux children seems a bit off (a bit Victorian cray-cray, so to speak). But that’s just one gal’s opinion.

by Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

I’ve been thinking about circles lately, those of man-made origin, built to provide a place for interaction, engagement, and celebration. The mystical togetherness inherent in the circle pervades all cultures and traditions.bonfire

 

 

A circle promotes intimacy

A circle promotes unity

A circle promotes equality

 

 

While I’ve been busy training to be a conservatory docent, a separate group has been training at The Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, an impressive outdoor space complete with a “Council Ring,” a circular meeting space modeled on Native American custom and reminiscent of many highly fraught, circular gathering spots in the woods I frequented in my youth.

CouncilRing

I encountered wonderful, glorious campfire traditions as a girl at YMCA sleep-away and Girl Scout camp. Fortunately, my family’s home also had a generous property that allowed for bonfire parties throughout our later school years, which between me and my six siblings lasted about three decades.

La_danseMatisse

La danse (I), by Henri Matisse

The circle remains ever-present in interactions with my family and friends. On Christmas, we (Mom, four sisters, two brothers, four brothers-in-law, two sisters-in-law, ten nieces and five nephews and I) form a circle, hold hands, and pause to give thanks and ask for future blessings: a phenomenal moment, imperfect though it may be. All of my friend groups form circles, around countless tables, on a thousand dance floors. Many of my favorite friend circles are shaped by folding chairs pulled together on a lawn, ideally with a fire pit at the center.

When I think like a teacher (which I frequently do), I know circles encourage engagement and provide a powerful tool for education.

I’m launching a seriously fabulous class this term, Summer 1, 2014, at RMU. The class is terrific largely because the students are willing to get into a circle and discuss ideas. Therein lays all the great mysteries of meaningful human interaction: cooperation and communication.

More important than all of the lofty, grandiose promises of the circle is students’ willingness to participate. If students don’t show up, really show up—physically and intellectually—learning just will not happen.

Engaged RMU Students!

My RMU Students engaging in conversation!

Thus, I ask my students to get into a circle, to join the circle, to make a circle: all requests for their active involvement. Teachers need students to join in the process to make education happen. When students comply, when they truly form a circle, a “community of scholars” as I have come to call it, I gratefully seize the opportunity to enjoy the pinnacle of shared experiences, honest dialogue undertaken with the intent of mutual understanding. Another mystical moment, brought about through the magic of the earliest of human knowledge, sensing in that circle, we can all belong, we can all be heard.