Archive for July, 2013

By Jane Wendorff-Craps, English Faculty.

ImageI hate to stereotype, but… city people are so funny sometimes.  What seems like general, foundational knowledge just isn’t so obvious to others. And as Jerry Seinfeld would say: “There’s nothing wrong with that.” People’s lives and experiences are just different.

It is my experience to eat, what I think is a normal, everyday summer lunch at my desk: red and green leaf lettuce, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, herbs, etc along with some bread and jam. A student (who grew up in the city) comes in and said to me, “That looks colorful and yummy, where’d you get it?”

I replied, “From my garden.”  She was silent for a moment, and her hamster wheels were spinning as if she wasn’t sure if “My Garden” was a new restaurant near campus. Note to self, not a bad idea if this teaching gig doesn’t pan out.

Anyway, I further explained that my garden, at my home, was flourishing despite the heat, and I loved to eat from it, raw and undressed (the veggies, not me), sometimes with a fatty piece of cheese, which I do buy at the store.

She again looked puzzled and asked, “You grow food at your house?”  “Yep, and I can it too so I can have some things in the winter months.”  I should have said “put it in jars” because “can” may have given her a false image.

She stood there befuddled for what seemed like a long time, and I didn’t really know what else to say.  I’ve been eating this way my whole life, thanks to my mom who had a garden, thanks to her dad who always gardened after a long day in the locker (butchering animal flesh for a living for those who have never been to a meat locker- grandpa wasn’t an athleteJ).

This experience with my amazed student, who admittedly had never grown anything from a seed before, which thoroughly amazed me, reminded me of a neighbor who had grown up “in town” and had never lived rural before moving to Farmington. She was driving past my house one day, years ago when I had 4 kids under the age of 6. I had a newborn at the time, and I was nursing my baby all the while sitting in my garden picking peas and pulling a few weeds, multi-tasking at its finest.

My friend had to stop, laugh, shake her head, and make a few comments before going back home.  Since then, she has called me “Prairie Jane.”  At first I was a tad insulted, but I’m not sure why. I had stereotyped the term “prairie” to be disconnected and perhaps uneducated and simple. Yet after a bit of contemplation, I began to like the term. Prairie can also bring thoughts of connection to nature and reliance on self.

This nickname came 15 years ago, BTY (before teen years). While I knew tons of people who had been gardening, canning, and freezing at that time, it has become more popular in recent years—thank goodness!  I like the term sustainable better than what I called it then, necessary!  After choosing to stay home with my young children rather than work, growing my own food was truly the only way to feed my family healthy food.

It is because of this time in my life that I have such empathy for people who are food unstable, who may have to rely on food banks for healthy food since buying fresh fruits and vegetables for a large family could easily take out of the budget area for the electric bill or a tank of gas. Just think, purchasing a few tomatoes, an avocado, and some lettuce could also buy several boxes of mac and cheese, some Kool Aid, a box of crackers, some cookies, and even a jar of peanut butter. The choice is made price per serving for the mom who has to feed a family on a budget. 

Knowing that, and experiencing it myself, I love the trend of communities creating shared space for gardening, especially in urban areas where loose dirt is a minority to cement and blacktop.  And I love that people are supporting, out loud, farmers and markets where food is grown locally, where people make a living at “growing food.” What I would love more is if I could eat at my desk and not have any surprised looks at fresh veggies in full color because someone had only seen hot house tomatoes and wilty greens at the local Walmart.


By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty. 

My friend Kris is a wonderful man, and not just because he always keeps his promises. He does much more. When the summer heat finally arrived, I asked him to help me install my window A/C unit. He said he was happy to help. In fact, he suggested coming over to get it done the next day. The next morning, he called me asking when I would like him to come over to help. Kris is an extraordinary friend.Image

After he’d assured me that the A/C unit was securely in place in my dining room window, I asked if he wanted to stay for lunch. He cooled down in front of the freezer and fan while waiting for the A/C to cool the room, and I prepared two salads, placing his closest to the now churning A/C unit. I love a good talker, and Kris possesses championship conservation skills. We talked about our plans for the day. We talked about our tendency to be attracted to difficult men. We talked about the books we were reading. We happened on the topic of biometrics, because I had read an article in Smithsonian magazine (a great read He was quick to offer more ideas and examples of biometrics in action. Have I mentioned that he’s smart, too?

Feeling sure I should offer him more than a salad for lunch and eager for our conversation to continue, I remembered I bought cherries at the Farmers Market. I jumped to wash and serve them. We began discussing whether or not life is, in fact, like a bowl of cherries, analyzing the simile in which a bowl of cherries signifies the easy sweetness of life. But a bowl of cherries is not so simple. I suggested that, like cherries, life always includes some sort of unpleasantness, the pits, naturally. Kris added that when people think about cherries, the pits are overlooked, most people are happy enough with the sweetness of the cherries that the pits aren’t even considered, or, once eliminated, they are quickly forgotten. Cherries aren’t always in season, either, signaling the need to accept that the happiness we want cannot be expected to be immediately available. Pleased with our insights, we continued, discussing interpretation more generally.

Then, we began eating the cherries. They were exquisite. We talked about their perfection—the cherries melting on the tongue, the pits just falling away. He observed, “These are the best cherries I’ve had, ever.” I agreed. We ate slowly; I went back into the kitchen to get the rest, dividing them equally between our two bowls.

He asked, “If this lunch we’re having—salads and cherries in a cool room on a hot summer Sunday were in a novel, how would students interpret it?”

A good question to ponder while eating the season’s most perfect cherries.

The variety of accurate interpretations, and the individuality inherent in them, has always intrigued me, which is one of the reasons why I so thoroughly enjoy my work as an English professor. How might this scene between my friend Kris and I be interpreted? A student could begin by noting the balance of opposites—heat and cold, in this case. The interior coolness, the cold salad and washed cherries creating an oasis in the midst of summer heat. Another student might discuss the shared pleasure derived from the fruit, symbolizing perhaps a harmonious relationship between equals. Another could note the post modern tendency to address the multiplicity of possible interpretations. And they’d all be right.

For me, the appeal of analysis rests in the excessive attention given to the small details that comprise life. We must capture the moment, inspect it, and turn it over in our mind like a fine sculpture, noting the nuances, attempting to know what it could mean. Interpretation allows us to linger in moments we wish we could stay in forever.

I went back to the Farmers Market the following Sunday, but the cherries were gone. 

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Just look at these people! Makes me want to have a Revolution.

Just look at these people! Makes me want to have a Revolution.

It really annoys me that so many Americans are obsessed with the British royal family.  I am not what you would call an ultra-patriot, but I must say that every time there is a big happening across the pond with the royals, and the American media has a hissy-fit, I suddenly feel a great swelling of pride in our nation’s revolutionary heritage.  Damn straight we kicked off the yoke of George III, and we will do it again with William and Kate’s aristocratic progeny if need be! As you can see, I get flustered by the discordant love Americans have for these nobles, and I often angrily wonder why this love exists.

When I was getting ready to write this blog, I remembered seeing some recent news stories that compared the Royals to Reality TV stars, and I thought, ‘Ah-ha!  That’s it!”   Our obsession with British royalty comes from the same dark orifices of our souls that obsess over shows like ‘Jersey Shore’ and ‘Pawn Stars’.  Family drama and dysfunction?  Like reality TV, the Royals have their fair share. They are the ‘Real Housewives of Windsor Castle’.

But wait just a minute.  Realizing that America’s love affair with the royal family is similar to our love/loath affair with reality TV stars really skirts the most important question: Why do people give a darn about either?  The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar may provide an answer.

In 1996,  Dunbar published Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, a book that tackled the extremely difficult, and oft-asked question of why did humans develop the capability of speech?  Very simply put, Dunbar argued language was a reaction to complexities of social relations within our large social groupings.  Dunbar theorized that humans have the mental ability to have close, personal relationships with about 150 people.  In comparison, chimps and bonobos usually live in groupings of about 50 others. Why the676x380 difference? What Dunbar surmised was that 50 was the maximum number each chimp could personally and physically groom. For chimps, grooming is a way of playing politics, soothing hurt feelings, and creating social bonds.  As human groupings got larger, this ability to personally ‘groom’ each member became more and more time consuming, and less realistic for our Homo forebears. The way to overcome this challenge was language.  Those who could replace physical grooming with ‘verbal grooming’ were more successful in the Darwinian sense.  According to Dunbar, much of this ‘verbal grooming’, or what we would call gossip, allowed us to play politics, sooth hurt feelings and create social bonds more efficiently than our chimp cousins. Gossip allowed, and allows, us to control social relations without a physical presence.  Not surprisingly, Dunbar discovered that much of our time today is still taken up with this verbal grooming.  In other words, each of us is a ‘chatty Cathy’

With modern media, our gossip capabilities have greatly evolved. We still love to talk about other people, but the size of our social groupings have greatly enhanced. This is most notable in the world of social networking websites. I have had students inform me that they have up to 4000 Facebook ‘friends’.   Such ‘friends’ stretch the definition of the term.  We can’t possibly know much personal information about our 1759th friend. Interestingly however, the opposite trend seems to be occurring when it comes to our celebrity ‘friends’.  Modern social mass media allows the average person to know innumerable personal details about movie stars, reality TV personalities, politicians (hello Anthony Wiener), and, yes, even royalty.  Tabloids, ‘TMZ’, blogs, exposes, and biographies give us extreme detail about the intimate decisions and actions of our chosen celebrity obsession.

This combination of celebrity information overload and our need for ‘verbal grooming’ discards the negative aspects of gossip.  Gossiping about your personal friends, or your enemies,  has one big downside: What if the word gets back to him/her.  You may lose a friend, or gain yet another enemy. There is no such fear with celebrity gossip.  We can talk all day about Justin Bieber urinating in some kitchen, and it will not hurt our friendship with him.  We can gossip about Tom-Kat’s messy divorce, and the future of little Suri without ever fearing Tom Cruise will get his revenge.  So, why not talk incessantly about William and Kate and baby George?  There is no danger in it?  Right?

Wait! What am I writing?  No! This baby is going to be King George, for goodness sake!  Read the Declaration of Independence people!  I prefer my King George to be an 18th century ‘tyrant’ (little American hyperbole there), not a cute and cuddly baby!

(Cue Yankee Doodle)

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

While getting ready for work yesterday, I was listening to the album “R.E.V.O.” by the band Walk Off the Earth. I saw them for the first time this past weekend when they headlined the post-race festival at the Rock n’ Roll Half-Marathon in Chicago’s Grant Park, and I’ve been hooked on their album since. This time while listening, I instinctively labeled their song “Gang of Rhythm” as a “great Summer Song.”


And immediately after, I thought, “What the hell is a Summer Song?”

Every summer, a song is labeled THE Song of the Summer. Billboard defines the top summer song as the one with the best “cumulative performance on the weekly Billboard Hot 100 chart from Memorial Day to Labor Day.” Currently, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is in the lead (even though it was released as a single on March 26, well before summer). Last year, the winner was Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

thicke-blurred-lines1But defining a Summer Song by Billboard data is too simple. Too numerical. Too inaccurate. Partly, this is because there is a difference between The Song of the Summer (ie: the song that just happens to be the most popular during the summer months) and a Summer Song (ie: a song that somehow just FEELS like summer.)

When I defined “Gang of Rhythm” as a great Summer Song, it wasn’t based on data. It just FEELS like a Summer Song. In fact, “data” works against it. It isn’t a chart topping hit. It isn’t even one of the three best songs on “R.E.V.O.”

This then means that a great Summer Song doesn’t necessarily have to be a great song. (Ahem – lookin’ at YOU Carly Rae Jepsen….)

But to be a Summer Song, the song must have certain qualities.

Consider two songs that are undeniably Summer Songs, both by name and by sound:  “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and “Summer Song” by Joe Satriani.

One is lyric-driven rap. The other is guitar-driven instrumental rock. Yet, both are Summer Songs.

Both songs are upbeat, light-hearted, and fun. More than that, they are anti-melancholic. The same can be said (for me) for “Gang of Rhythm.” The same can be said of “Blurred Lines,” and for the last several Billboard winners of Song of the Summer.

Still, the case is not closed. I can think of plenty of upbeat, light-hearted, fun songs that don’t FEEL like Summer Songs.

It must have something to do with how we view summer. Notice that we don’t do a Song of the Season for the other seasons. Come early December, you won’t hear people saying, “Jingle Bells is the WINTER JAM of 2013, y’all!”

What is it about summer that makes us want to crown a song and to label some as Summer Songs? And what are the remaining qualities that a song must possess to fit the description as a Summer Song?

I need help here, people, because I wouldn’t accept “….it just FEEEEEEEEEELS like it,” in an argumentative essay from my students, so there must be some solid way of defining a Summer Song.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Evidently I am on both a biography, and a leftist revolutionary kick.  Immediately after finishing Service’s Lenin biography, I picked up Jonathon Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx. Was this just a natural evolutionary 20130707_inq_bk1marx07-areading choice; finished with Leninism, now go for Marxism? Perhaps. Or, perhaps I decided to look into Marx for another, more convoluted reason.

Jump back to last Thursday. It was the second day of my American History course, and I offered up a quick and easy classroom assignment to get my students thinking about important cultural and ideological trends in American life. I asked the class to get into groups, and think about words and phrases that come to mind when they hear the word ‘America’.  After a couple minutes, I had them shout out to me what words they thought of, and as they did, I made a list of their responses on the board.  The words were predictably recognizable, with both negative and positive connotations, which was exactly what I wanted and expected.   On the negative side, students provided such terms as “oppressive”, “arrogant”, “greedy” and “lazy.”  On the positive side, they came up with words like “opportunity”, “industrious”, “freedom” and “equality”.  These descriptors led to classroom discussion about the complexity of American history, culture, ideology, etc.

But, this Thursday I had one quite surprising response from an unknown student.  As I wrote down the terms, I heard from the back of the classroom a descriptor that I had never gotten before doing this exercise: ‘Socialist’.  I was a little taken aback, but, I said “okay” and wrote it on the board. I had my back turned to the class, so I didn’t catch who said it, and hence, I didn’t look for clarification, and instead, I just kept writing as the other terms were shouted at me. Once we started to investigate some of the responses, I focused upon the words and ideas that have been central to American History from our national origins, and still form most of our idealistic portraits of America: Liberty, equality, opportunity, merit, hard work, immigration, etc.  Then, we also examined words that pointed to the negativity and hypocrisy of the American past: Racism, nativism, prejudice, injustice, etc.  I really didn’t even ask about the ‘socialism’ comment because it seemed so out of place.

As the class ended, and I started to clear the board, I paused at the scribbled word ‘socialism’.  It made me ponder.  After giving it some thought, I came to the assumption that the student who yelled out the word meant it as a ‘negative’ and not a ‘positive’ aspect of America, simply because today the term socialism is generally utilized by the right-wing as a political attack.  A socialist would not say America is socialist.   Those on the left generally see the nation and the economic story of America as the antithesis of socialism, and unfortunately so.  If anything, an outspoken socialist would say the problem with America is that we have never had enough socialism, not that America is analogical to socialism. In our political situation, when someone shouts that America is socialistic he/she means that the country has moved away from it’s roots; it’s true essence.  Hence, the far right wing, and the Tea Party especially, attacks President Obama by calling him a socialist; or a Marxist; or a communist. Such language is intended to smear him as an outsider; as not a true American.

socialist-leagueUsing ‘socialist’ as attack rhetoric seemed to have a rebirth during the 2008 presidential election. At that point, it struck me as odd and outdated.  Calling someone a socialist was a political slur of the 195o’s or 1980’s, not the early 21st century.  But, after starting Sperber’s Marx biography, and with the help of this nameless student’s usage of the term ‘socialist’ , I had a realization.  We are stuck in a social and political lexicographic timewarp that we can’t, or don’t want to escape.  We live in the 21st century, but we think in 19th century parameters.  After all, ‘socialist’ actually isn’t a 1950’s term; it is an 1850’s term. Sperber’s biography makes this clear.  He points out in his introduction that he wants to study Marx as a nineteenth-century man, with nineteenth-century ideas, in contrast to how later hagiographers and smear artists depicted him as a man who foresaw and intentionally created the tragic 20th century Soviet and Maoist future.  Sperber hopes we are far enough removed from such dark 20th century history to appreciate the 19th century Karl Marx.  Unfortunately, after erasing that board, I don’t think that is the case.  Just look at the list below, and you can see that  19th century social and political concepts still control our discourse, and hence, much of our thought.

  • Socialism: First used as a term in 1832.
  • Capitalism: First used as a term in 1854.
  • Communism: First used as a term in 1843.
  • Liberalism: First used as a term in 1819.
  • Nationalism: First used as a term in 1844.
  • Race: A bit earlier in 1780, but becomes biologically based in the 1870s or 80s.
  • Democrat and Republican: Obviously these are older terms, but in American political parlance, both major parties were formed in the mid-1800s.
  • Liberal: First used as a political identifying term in 1820
  • Conservative and Conservatism: First used as a term in the 1830s.
  • Progressive:  First used as a term sometime between 1840 to 1880.
  • Radical (political sense): First used as a term in 1802.

Our political world is still carrying the weight of 19th century mentalities.  Our political identity, and our political attacks are often 150 or 200 years old. I wonder what our politics would look like if we were just a little more original?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Just today, I finished a biography of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known to posterity as V. I. Lenin.  The biography was written by the historian of twentieth-century Russia, Robert Service. I enjoyed the book, but Ibooks2_stout thought it was a bit schizophrenic. The first half of the biography explored Lenin’s early life, early adulthood of revolutionary activity and exile. In these 250 pages, Service did a great job of balancing the story of the man, with the story of his politics. This first half was chocked full of the esoteric details of Lenin’s life that brings to light a true person. Unfortunately though, the second half of the book was not as enlightening. Service started to become a bit too enthralled by the minutiae of Lenin’s political decisions during the early days of the Russian Revolution and subsequent Civil War, and in so doing, lost sight of Lenin’s non-political experiences. This discordant nature of Service’s book illustrates why I often don’t read biographies.  I find that biographers usually have a hard time balancing character study, human interest stories, and the larger political or social events that shaped their subjects’ lives. On the other hand, when biography is at its best it has the rare ability to humanize mythologized figures. Biography can deconstruct the demonized or lionized historical statue, and transform him or her into a human being. Happily, there were moments when Service transfigured Lenin into a living, breathing man.

Lenin as a Child.  Notice, no goatee.

Lenin as a child. Notice, no goatee.

There was one fleeting portion in Service’s biography that provides a perfect example.  Evidently, when Lenin was an adolescent, he was obsessed with books, reading and literature.  No real big surprise there, right? Like me, you  probably imagine little V. I. Lenin (admit it, this makes you think of a bald headed, goateed boy of 12) picking up some heavy Russian literary tomes.  Sure enough, according to Service, Lenin did love Russian literature, even when that literature was at odds with his later political fanaticism.  He read Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol.  But, Lenin apparently had cosmopolitan tastes.  He loved non-Russian books and authors as much, if not more, than Russian ones.  He enjoyed Zola, Hugo, Machiavelli.  Though I can still imagine him reading such authors, some of his reading tastes seemed more out of the blue. Most notably, Lenin evidently loved an unexpected American classic: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.


That was exactly what I said to myself, out-loud, as I read about this factoid.  I gave a little laugh, cocked my head, and kept reading.   But, I had to come back to that unforeseen UTCcover1853statement: “Lenin loved Uncle Tom’s Cabin“.  To me, that just seems strange. In my mind’s eye, I initially had a hard time picturing Lenin reading Stowe’s sentimental novel.  However, once I wrapped my head around it, Lenin was transformed, and Service’s biography was a success.  Before knowing about his love of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I imagined Lenin exclusively as the father of Bolshevism, the founder of the Russian Revolution, the advocate of state-terror against class enemies, and the mummified corpse in Red Square.  By simply providing his reader with Lenin’s unexpected literary tastes, Service made him into a person who was multidimensional; not quite so easily categorized or understood.

Now, let’s be clear.  After reading Service’s biography, I don’t really like the human Lenin.  He was obsessed with politics and power as much as any other twentieth-century dictator, and Service makes this blatantly clear.   That being said, Service’s description of a young provinicial Russian’s love of Harriet Beecher Stowe provides the complexity of a life story that Lenin himself, ironically enough, wanted to hide away for propagandist reasons. Service illuminated what was hidden, and I thank him.

Still, I can’t get completely past the mummified Lenin laying in Red Square.  Man, that was creepy.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Yesterday was Bastille Day.  I changed my Facebook profile picture for the occasion. Very few people noticed, and even fewer cared.  This is not surprising since most Americans pay little attention to their own history, much less French History.  Nonetheless, every July 14th, the anniversary of the day in 1789 when the people of Paris stormed and overtook the medieval prison known as the Bastille, I quietly commemorate the Tricolour.220px-LibertyEqualityorDeath

The French Revolution is fascinating. Everyone, including notoriously Franco-phobe Americans, should take at least a cursory notice every July 14th and maybe even sing a few bars of the La Marseillaise. Here are a couple reasons why:

  •  The litany of incredible personalities that changed the world.  Robespierre, Danton, Saint-Just, Marat, Jacques-Louis David, Olympe de Gouges, Condorcet, Lafayette, Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Thomas Paine, and of course, Napoleon Bonaparte. Paris was a political soap-opera.
  • The French Revolutionaries understood the importance of words and symbols.  From ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, to “The Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen”, the Revolutionaries attempted control of language foreshadows our postmodern world, and our obsession with discourse.
  • The Revolutionaries did not just want to tweak a couple things; they wanted to create their world anew.  There is no denying such apocalyptic hopes led to terror and state-induced murder (see Louis and Antoinette, 220px-Heads_on_pikesand the guillotine,) but it is less remembered that they also produced idiosyncratically mundane social transformations. The Revolutionaries truly did ‘sweat the small stuff.’  They revolutionized places (Notre Dame became the Temple of Reason), people (name your kid Brutus, not Louis), measurements (Metric system), time (New months, days, and holidays), fashion (Hair down, no more wigs) and objects (Get rid of the Kings and Queens in chess, playing cards, etc).
  • The French Revolution, in all its gruesome violence, causes  a ‘gaper’s delay’.  Like a car crash on I-94, I just can’t look away from all those heads on pikes, Revolutionary wars, and mob killings.  Disgusting, but horrifyingly fascinating.
  • Lastly, in much of the world today, being for or against the Revolution still illustrates your political worldview. The events of 1789 are still contentious, and for many since that July day, the hope has been to put the revolutionary genie back in the bottle.  Though this hope is inevitably fruitless, as a historian, I love that events that took place over two hundred years ago can still cause heated arguments in every corner of the world.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

squirrel1How have squirrels survived as a species?

Walk down a forest trail and nature will envelop you. You’ll hear life all around, but beyond the vegetation and insects, much of the life remains out of sight. Sometimes an animal as large as a deer can be within steps and you’ll never know it was there.

Then there are squirrels.

Squirrels are the loud, drunk uncles of the animal kingdom. They bounce around, crash through leaves, stomp on branches, then run up trees and stop midway to shake their tails just in case you weren’t already aware of their presence. I’ve seen more discretion from bachelorette parties cruising the Mag Mile in a stretch limo.

How can an animal survive when it is A) so low on the food chain, and B) so happy to announce its whereabouts? Think of all the things that prey on squirrels: coyotes, hawks, children with BB guns.

So, I ask again, how have squirrels survived?

Partly, my question is a product of my talent for odd, random thoughts. But the other part is that I have always been fascinated by science. At its root, this squirrel question is about science: animal behavior (ethology). There has to be an answer to my question: maybe it has to do with coloration and how squirrels are naturally camouflaged; maybe squirrels are more evasive than I’m giving them credit for; maybe they’ve developed weapons technology.

squirrel superman

Does this explain how squirrels have survived?

For the first several years I worked at Robert Morris University, rather than Google search my random questions, I would spin my desk chair 180 degrees and ask my dear colleague Dr. Virginia Pezalla, who taught science at RMU and was an animal behavior expert.

Dr. Pezalla always happily answered my questions and it would often lead us to discuss that topic and more as we (unintentionally) eschewed work as we talked. Science aside, I always enjoyed talking to her. She was so nice, incredibly knowledgeable, and deceptively funny.

Though we sat next to each other in the office, it took awhile for us to break the ice and get to know each other. However, once she got to know me, she was well aware of my odd thinking and sense of humor. Given some of the strange science questions I threw at her, I’m sure she wouldn’t have been shocked to have me ask her about how squirrels are surviving. For example, I also asked her, “What are these ‘zombie ants’ I’ve been reading about? Are they real?,” and, “What other animals have the potential to rise to human-level intelligence? Could that happen while humans are still here?”

Some people may have simply responded, “Don’t you have papers to grade or something?” Dr. Pezalla, on the other hand, provided legitimate answers. (The zombie ants exist – it has to do with these mold spores that infect them; it’s incredibly fascinating. And she said humans, eventually, will lose their stranglehold on the Earth, and something else will rise to dominance. [I was disappointed with that answer. I was really hoping she’d say that dolphins are going to eventually be our uber-intelligent cohabitants and that they will open cities in the oceans we can visit.])

Dr. Pezalla passed away late last year, and I miss having her around, and not just as someone to answer my silly questions. But my relationship with her is one example of how fortunate I am to have the colleagues that I do. I am surrounded by great people who are extremely knowledgeable about all sorts of subjects. There are the “academic” subjects like psychology, philosophy, history, science. Then, additionally, my colleagues know about all kinds of other stuff: rap/hip-hop, camping, folk music, Bikram yoga, local brew pubs, thrifting, baking…the list could go on endlessly. Every day I come to work, I get to learn something new and interesting from my colleagues.

A new academic quarter begins next week at RMU. During the first week, two of my classes will be sharing with their classmates what topics they are “experts” on. For this activity, I define an “expertise” as anything a student knows extremely well, even if it’s not something deemed academic. It can be a movie, a book, a TV show, a sport – whatever. It is a chance for us to learn about each other and learn from each other. Just like I learn from my colleagues, my students always know all kinds of things that I don’t and I get to learn from them as well. I’ve done this particular activity for years, and I am no longer surprised by the great variety of amazing things my students know about.

As we enter a new quarter, it’s something I need to remind myself, and that I hope to remind all of the faculty and students about as well – learning isn’t a one way street from professor to student. We are all able to learn from each other. Students should learn from the professor, the professor from the students, and the students from other students. If we open ourselves up to that possibility, we will end the quarter in 10 weeks having learned way more than just the topics on each course syllabus.

We may even learn how those loud-ass squirrels have managed to survive.


By Tricia Lunt and Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

If you missed PART 1 or PART 2, check them out!


Once a Reddit gift is received, recipients are expected to return to the Reddit Gifts site and post pictures of what they received and leave a little note. Now, let’s find out how the process concluded.

Trish’s Gift to Monika

My Reddit gift made it to Poland in record time! The recipient, Monika, seemed pleased with the gift and posted a great photo of the entire contents of the package i sent with the heading “Awesomeness from Chicago.” The heading was exactly what I was going for, so I’m glad that’s how she interpreted the gift. She did a great job of being specific in her thanks, which made my deliberation in selecting the items seem appreciated! We exchanged emails, and I would say the gift I gave did what I had hoped: shared some uniquely wonderful Chicago things with a person far away! Arbitrary Day success!

Paul’s Gift to Warren

Warren, my giftee in Arizona, received his gifts and seemed very happy with them, particularly with the mosaic shark from the Shedd Aquarium. He posted two pictures of the shark on his desk and had nothing but positive things to say!

Trish’s Gift from Elsa


The Threadless Book Lover T-shirt.

I received my Arbitrary Day gift on June 26, just one day after the celebration! The gift I received was a Threadless t-shirt, the “book lover” in green. I love Threadless tees, and the company’s philosophy, so it’s definitely a good gift. The giver explained in the note that she thought I’d like the shirt because I love books. I do; it’s true! Nice work, Elsa!

Paul’s Gift that Wasn’t: (or The One that Got Away)

Unfortunately, I didn’t receive a gift! The person assigned to me did confirm that a gift was sent, as we all had to. However, the option is also provided to enter tracking information when confirming shipment, which I did when sending my gift to Warren. There was no tracking info for the gift sent to me, which seemed suspicious from the start. I waited a few weeks before giving up hope. Reddit does ask participants to report if they did not receive a gift and there is the opportunity to request to be gifted to again by someone else if enough people volunteer to send additional gifts.

When Trish and I attended the TEDx lectures and heard about Reddit Gifts, my initial reaction to the process was, “There is NO WAY this could possibly work!” because I assumed that what happened to me this Arbitrary Day would happen far too often. Essentially, the entire process works on the honor code, and perhaps I just didn’t believe that massive amounts of people could all be held in check by an honor code. However, when Dan McComas, creator of Reddit Gifts, provided statistics about how successful the process is, I was pleasantly surprised. Statistically, only a small percentage of people get snubbed (and only a small percentage of people are taking advantage of the system).

Trish’s Conclusion

I definitely enjoyed the Reddit Gift experience, particularly because Paul and I got to talk and get excited about the gift-giving and receiving process together. I’d love to get more of my friends involved. Also, it’s fun to know that I connected with two other generous, quirky people in the world. I’m thrilled we decided to participate in Reddit Gifts, and it is definitely something I’ll do again, though I’ll likely decide to join the item-specific exchanges, which will take away the pressure of choosing what to buy. I’m interested in Pens and Stationery Exchange, the Book Exchange 2013 and the Hats and Scarves Exchange (as you may have heard, I love scarves!)

Paul’s Conclusion

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI had a lot of fun with my Reddit Gift experience, despite getting snubbed. As Trish noted, I enjoyed talking about it all with her. I liked the fun and challenge of picking a gift. I liked the anticipation of waiting for my gift (even though it never came). There are bound to be some bad apples in any experience, but it seems that most people can be held to the honor code and will do their best to make the experience fun for everyone involved. So, despite not turning out to be a perfect experience, it was one I thoroughly enjoyed and I will definitely sign-up for another Reddit Gift exchange.


Now it’s YOUR turn. If Reddit Gifts sounds interesting, check it out and join in the gift giving fun at

By Tricia Lunt and Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(If you missed Part 1, check it out here!)

While Paul and I wait for our gifts to arrive, and wait for word that our recipients received their gifts, we decided to discuss further the many interesting facets of the Reddit Gifts idea and process:


Tricia: Why do you suppose people are interested in giving presents, especially to people they’ve never met?

Paul: In the case of Reddit Gifts, I suspect there are a few elements involved. One is that it makes the gifters happy to make other people happy. Another element is that this process turns gift giving into a game. Gifters have to investigate clues from the recipient’s profile and through “non-creepy stalking” figure out who the person is and what gift would be ideal. That process is fun, like solving a mystery.

Paul: What is the interest in receiving gifts from a stranger?

Tricia: I suspect one of the foremost desires in adult life is to be understood by others. A sense of recognition and acceptance, an “Oh, you get me,” drives relationships. By outlining what we like and what we are like in a few sentences, we are holding a metaphorical mirror in front of ourselves and asking this stranger to describe what he or she sees. The gift is a manifestation of that understanding. Any “good” gift is profoundly personal, and signals that we have been understood, in this case through our own tastes as interpreted by someone who doesn’t know us very well. It’s as if we’re all yelling out into the world, “This is who I am,” and hoping for an echo in return.

Tricia: Gift giving is an incredibly important way to build community and celebrate accomplishments, but it is a slippery thing. What if you give too little? Too much? The wrong thing? How does the expectation that what you give says something significant about you drive your gift-giving?

Paul: How the gift reflects back on me is an important part of giving. As you pointed out, the parameters of a relationship define gifts, so our gift is also a way of reaffirming where we stand, thus giving the gift a larger meaning beyond the material possession. In the case of Reddit gifts, it is a bit different. I don’t know the person I’m gifting to, and likely never will. Aside from a profile, this person is a complete stranger to me. Therefore, I want my gift to reflect on me as someone who could look in that “mirror” and accurately decode this stranger’s personality. Furthermore, I want my gift to reflect on me as someone who is thoughtful and creative enough to use that information to produce a good gift. In the end, if my recipient is happy with his gifts, then I’m pleased to have made him happy, but additionally, I’m pleased that I “won” by proving I could analyze, reflect, and be creative.

Paul: Speaking of the “mirror” – all of the profiles, ours included, contain an eclectic set of info. Mine talks about running, sports, movies, books, writing. Any small subset of my info, separated from the rest, could paint me as a very different person from another subset. All people are dynamic in that we have many different sides and interests, but as you anticipate the arrival of your gift, what do you think would prove that your gifter accurately “got” you?

Tricia: I would hope to see some essential aspects of myself in the gift I receive. Thus, I am forced to consider what the essential aspects of me are. I looked back at my profile, and I noticed that I spoke about my relationships with my friends and family before closing with the line, “I teach English/Writing/Literature at a college in Chicago.” I now realize this is quite an accurate depiction of my life, but not very helpful. My likes list was better, but still! It is awfully challenging to buy a good gift, even when it is someone well-known! Because the giver doesn’t know me at all, I have to assume they’d trust what I told them and zero on some specific detail I’d provided, probably one that “lends itself” to gift-buying.

Tricia: Let’s take the gifts out of it for a second and talk about the desire to give. What makes you want to buy something for someone else? What compels you to seek a gift?

Paul: Gifts are to make someone happy, to strengthen my relationship with the recipient, and also to get something in return. That sounds selfish, but it isn’t. When giving, I think all givers have some reciprocation in mind, even if its immaterial. For example, maybe the reciprocation is for the other person to see you as nice or caring. Maybe the reciprocation is for them to remember you in return on birthdays and holidays. Maybe it’s just to make yourself feel good to know you did something nice. It’s never truly one-sided. With the Reddit Gift process, it obviously isn’t one-sided. Everyone is giving with the knowledge that they will receive something in return. So part of what compels the giving here is the knowledge that reciprocation is coming. If we didn’t know that was the case, it would make this more like a charity donation.


In Part 3, we will reveal the results of our experience with Arbitrary Day 2013. What did we receive? Did our giftees like what we sent?