Archive for September, 2013

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

I had a strange realization last quarter.  I was in my American History course, and I just mentioned in passing, apropos of nothing, that people get far too outraged at young men wearing baggy, low hanging pants.  To my surprise, my teenager/twenty-something students started to complain about the droopy trouser fashion in the gallery_1_1_11337 (1)exact same language as most octogenarians. I think some may have even muttered something about ‘kids these days’. I felt as though I was surrounded by cooler, younger Abe Simpsons, waving their fists at passing clouds.

I wouldn’t say this was the first time I have noticed this unexpected phenomenon.  I have heard students before speak of loose-fitting slacks in negative terms.  But, as I looked around the room this time, realizing the ethnic and racial diversity of a 40 person class at Robert Morris University, I was struck at the different characters reviling the fashion in a similar….well….fashion.  White, African-American, Latino, Asian, young, old, male, female; a small majority of the class had the same negative opinion when it came to baggy pants.

My mind started to wander.  As I checked in on social media in the days and weeks after this particular course last quarter, I saw a handful of memes posted by extremely different Facebook ‘friends’ that were supposed to be funny, but obviously masked a severe outrage and hatred concerning young men’s pants.  Again, the strangely divergent backgrounds of the people posting about an innocuous fashion trend struck me.  Old and young; white and black; urban and rural; educated and not-all-that-educated; men and women; northerner and southerner; liberal and conservative; religious and secular.  They all agreed on a topic.

It hit me! The outrage about baggy pants is pluralistically democratic.  I can’t think of any other social topic that a broader range of divergent people agree upon.

Ironically, I think this outrage is backfiring.  If these people want to get rid of the baggy pant look, they may be more advised to start practicing it themselves.   Most other youth fads, whether it be music, movies, language, or fashion, lose their revolutionary chops when less rebellious populations co-opt them.  As soon as mom and dad start to listen to rock and roll, rock and roll is dead. Along comes punk, and mom and dad are outraged. Long live rock and roll.

The baggy pant fashion has never been co-opted by mainstream society, and it probably never will. Perhaps this is why the baggy pant look is a freakishly long youth fashion trend.  The best I can figure, the look began around 20 years ago, gaining its first full-throated pop culture critique from Alicia Silverstone’s character in the film ‘Clueless’.  See this clip:

Such long lasting outrage raises two big question.  First, what upsets people so much about this fashion choice?  Is it the ‘sloppiness’ of the look, as Alicia Silverstone points out in that clip?  Or, is there something more sinister?  Is racial bias tied up in the disdain as well?

I am going to avoid this query, since I think each person who hates baggy pants has their own reason, and to pigeonhole anyone‘s particular feelings is unfair.

The second question is more intriguing, and, I believe, more important.  Why are people so outraged with another’s pants, all the while ignoring much more outrageous social ills? I will take up that troubling question in next week’s blog post.

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By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

“Years and years and years ago when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp shaped hills and it was snowing, always snowing, but it’s hard to remember if it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.” These passages with some regularity course through my brain, as I wait in line at the Jewel, or Walgreens, or am walking the doggies in a muggy late July evening.

This guy....

This guy….

Not this guy....

Not this guy….

And sometimes I wonder about the rosy fingered dawn, as the sun rises over the Hogbutcher’sbroadshoulderedlake, again walking the doggies, perhaps, and similarly–in my mind anyway–conjure up Caesar–Great Caesar–dividing Gaul into three parts, and then crossing the Rubicon, so he can take to Rome and set up in a huge penthouse apartment at the Hyatt, his new lady love, the superstar famous Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, fluent in nine different languages, it was said, who then would hook up with Mark Antony (no, I don’t mean the singer) with memorably horrific results.

And I also was wondering about four score and seven years ago, what a nice ring that has vs. the more pedestrian, but no less accurate, 87 years ago, when our nation was founded establishing thereby a government of the people by the people and for the people which then issued in a great civil war testing whether this nation or any nation so dedicated and so conceived can long endure.

All of which now comes briefly to mind as I consider yet again teaching–the art of teaching– and how to do it and how to do it better and better and better. And this leads me to thinking again about the role of testing in teaching and of course in learning for ain’t that what teaching is all about? Obviously the answer is: Yes it is. Teaching’s goal is for students to learn.

And I again come to the conclusion that the current take on testing is dead wrong. The problem–or one of the problems in schools today–isn’t that they demand students take too many tests. I conclude this in part because I recall that I took tests and I never got the idea that I was taking too many of them. I just took them,

Peter Stern's grade school teacher.

Peter Stern’s grade school teacher.

and didn’t give much thought to how many I was taking. Obviously this proves nothing in and of itself. But I don’t remember fellow students complaining either. Maybe this doesn’t prove we weren’t taking too many tests. Indeed perhaps the opposite was the case: we simply were brain washed (our brains were scrubbed and scrubbed with Tide or All or Arm and Hammer until they were nice and shiny) and thus we were too dumb to know better.

Ezekiel Emanuel

Ezekiel Emanuel

That was then. But now–and I mean NOW!–I’ve got proof that I wasn’t taking too many tests nor were my confreres. For just yesterday Ezekiel J. Emanuel, holder of several very advanced degrees, extraordinarily gifted brother of our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, published an article in the New Republic–a top drawer, well regarded, highly literate magazine for intelligent people worldwide–with the title: “Tests make Kids Smarter: Let’s Give Them More.”

In his article, he cites a neuroscientist named Andrew Butler who showed conclusively and beyond a shadow of Cartesian doubt that tests make kids smarter and even more creative and even better critical thinkers. Better still: Professor Butler proved that the more tests test takers take the better they do on them and the smarter they become. This is because the brain’s neural powers “bulk up” or as Zeke puts it, they operate under the “use it or lose it” principle.

Well I’m most certainly not much of a number cruncher, nor can I claim expertise in neuroscience, but in all candor, and with no dearth of alacrity, I can say with absolute 100% Cartesian certitude that through different, more “intuitive” methods, I came to the exact same conclusion as Zeke and Professor Butler. Tests are good things; tests are our friends. Tests help rather than harm. And one of the data sets that give me confidence I’m on the right track here is that even today, many many years after first reading Chapman’s Homer and encountering Julius Caesar and Dylan Thomas I still remember a surprising amount of what they wrote. And I’m convinced this is due in part–not entirely of course– but nonetheless due in part to taking tests which, according to Zeke and Professor Butler–build up my neural powers just as carrying the groceries builds my biceps.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

***This post is dedicated to my freshman students, and all of the lovely freshman new to our university. And all freshman at all universities. And people who know freshman, or were freshman. And people who just generally like to smell and feel fresh. Is that inclusive enough? Ok, cool. Let’s do this.***

From comedian Demetri Martin's book of drawings called "Point Your Face at This."

From comedian Demetri Martin’s book of drawings called “Point Your Face at This.”

 

Hi. My name is Paul, and I don’t know much. And by “much” I mean almost nothing. And by “almost nothing” I mean absolutely nothing.

I was an awful high school student. I rarely studied, rarely did my homework, and never lived up to my potential. My GPA was never even as high as Lindsay Lohan’s resting BAC.

When it was time to apply to colleges, my top choice was the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When my advisor reviewed my transcripts with me to see if I could get in, all she said was, “Oh, honey. That’s not gonna work out.”

She then asked me if I knew how to dig a ditch or work a deep fryer.

My teachers probably didn’t see me as the brightest student. I gave them little reason to. But that didn’t irk me quite as much as being labeled as one of the “dumber” friends in my social group. I knew I was as smart as any of them; I just had no evidence to support that claim.

In college, I got off to a rocky start. I switched colleges and dropped out twice in my first year. When I finally finished a full semester of classes, I managed to make the Dean’s List almost on accident. I hadn’t tried particularly hard, but somehow I earned two A’s and two B’s to just make the cut.

That little victory lit a fire under me and I started to put some effort into school. When I graduated, it was with honors and the distinction of being the co-winner of the “Departmental Award” for the best student in my major.

As I found more academic success, I started to really believe in my own intelligence.

Then I started to believe in it way too much.

By the time I was a junior in college, I was a hubristic little monster. And by the time I graduated, I was even worse. I had no doubt that I was an intellectual giant capable of any mental feat just short of telekinesis.

On second thought, I’m pretty certain I at least tried to move objects with my mind.

I told everyone I would be rich and famous by the age of 25: friends, family, classmates, people in line at Starbucks, the dude on the off ramp squeegeeing windshields with a newspaper. I didn’t have a get-rich-plan; my brain power was simply going to spring forth riches and glory.

Actually, my plan was to be a monstrously successful writer. (I mean, I am NOW with the Turtle….) I thought I was great. I thought I knew EVERYTHING. My success was predestined!

Yeah, not so much.

As it turns out, it’s actually quite hard to be great at something.

And as it turns out, I didn’t actually know everything about the universe by the time I was 22-years-old.

As I went through graduate school and got into teaching, I got the opportunity to meet many extraordinarily talented and brilliant people. I graduated from college thinking I was at the forefront of genius; by my late 20s, I had firmly moved to the back of the genius line.

Now in my department at Robert Morris University, I openly acknowledge that I am the least knowledgeable person on the roster. Even for the subjects I know a lot about – creative writing, movies, music, sports, humor/comedians – I can quickly identify someone else I work with who knows as much or more about those subjects.

I still believe I’m smart. but I eventually learned what most people learn with a little age, that truly intelligent people aren’t the ones who know everything. Truly intelligent people are the ones who are acutely aware of how little they know, and they want to fix that problem by soaking up every learning opportunity.

None of what I’m saying is meant to be discouraging, though it may sound like I’m saying, “Look around and realize how NOT awesome you are!”

Instead I’m encouraging you to recognize how much room for growth you have. Take every learning opportunity you can get so that you can get stronger, smarter, and better. Give yourself the chance to fulfill your full potential. Be confident, but don’t hype yourself to the point that you think you’ve figured the world out already. And don’t discredit any subjects or classes as if you are certain that info won’t come in handy in the future; that’s a terrible decision. Never push away learning opportunities. You’re just holding yourself back and if you do.

But look how preachy I’ve gotten. Ten years from now, I’ll read this post and groan at how obnoxiously sagacious I was trying to be.

And then I’ll groan about using the word “sagacious.”

And if you don’t know what “sagacious” means – take this opportunity to learn by looking it up.

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

I’ve taught thousands of students over my fifteen years of teaching. I’ve forgotten nearly all of their names. If they remember my name, I’d be surprised. I’d rather them remember something I taught them, though I prefer the verb “share” to describe what happens in the classroom because share is the most accurate verb for what teaching encompasses. Teachers share their passion, their intensity, their curiosity, their perspective, and their (frequently groan-worthy) jokes. Teaching is the act of sharing ideas—a wonderfully generous act, and teachers devote their lives to it. Teachers share facts, information, and, ideally, knowledge. How magnificent that ideas are not depleted but expanded through the act of sharing. Ideas are meant to be taken and shared, like bread passed along and across an endless table filled with teachers and learners.

I think about the countless ideas shared with me over the years by my patient, brilliant teachers, my talented, supportive colleagues, and my engaged, enthusiastic students. One of the most fantastic aspects of my teaching career is Teach-New-Conceptsthe time spent with students. What a fantastic way to spend the day, surrounded by unique individuals who challenge and surprise and delight me every day. My students push me to explain myself more clearly, to think from a different perspective; my students bring new, unexpected ideas and experiences to the classroom. My students regularly make me laugh. My students are generous, and I gain an immense amount through knowing them. I elicit book, film, and music recommendations.  Some students have offered even more amazing treasures. An eager student in my literature class created compilation CD’s to accompany his essays on Kafka and Existentialism. One student was inspired by my poetry lessons and wrote a sonnet (a sonnet!). Since college terms move quickly (especially at RMU), the years and students cycle by me at an alarming rate. I will encounter students and assume a year has passed, only to learn they have already finished graduate school. Some things that my students have shared with me in the past have become a part of my courses. One remarkable idea—a gift from a student whose name I have forgotten—continues to inform my teaching and learning: “Progress is success.”

I’m lucky to be a teacher, happy to be a teacher. One of my favorite “games” to play when I was young was “school.” My older sister Theresa pretended to be the teacher while I was the diligent student, listening attentively, working hard. Was that nature or nurture at play? In any case, I have spent the majority of my life happily learning, reading, and writing. I talk to my students about the necessity of investing in themselves. When teachers do all the things that make teaching—that is, sharing ideas—possible, we are investing in the education process. I believe in education as a means of individual and, consequentially, social empowerment.

There is nothing better than a good day teaching. A good day teaching is wildly exhilarating; it is a ride on a luck dragon

“A good day teaching” is about one thing: connectivity. I am overly fond of quotes, especially the simple, beautiful command from E. M. Foster to “only connect.”  A good day teaching is about confluence and culmination and ultimately an arrival at a point of connection between ideas and people that results in insight. This moment of insight sparks a remarkable phenomenon: the student’s face will actually, noticeably light up (and what a lovely light).

“We do not remember days, we remember moments,” says Italian writer Cesare Pavese.  And so it is that “a good day teaching” consists merely of moments. A good day at school has been captured in many inspiring films. I’ve cried watching every one of those films which elevate the classroom experience, but the subtle accomplishments in the excellent documentary The Class reveal a more perfect truth. Extraordinary moments of learning are fleeting, like the sighting of a rare a astonishing bird. In reality, “a good day teaching” entails, perhaps, one brief hour on the luck dragon, the other seven hours  (or more) are spent preparing course materials, reading ancillary documents, researching curriculum, grading assignments, updating course materials, attending meetings, holding office hours, and other necessary aspects of education.  This does not mean that all the other aspects of teaching are drudgery. They are the things that must be done in order to get a ticket for a brief, yet glorious ride.

By Blake Whitmore, RMU Student

Ever since I was little I have watched a lot of television, but I always just saw it as research. I dream of being a television writer or screenwriter for film, so watching television and analyzing characters and stories is just preparation. I enjoy deeply analyzing everything I watch. Anything from Family Guy and South Park to Hannibal and Game of Thrones is worthy of deep analysis of how and why it works.

breaking-bad-logoRecently I was talking to my mother about Breaking Bad; she hasn’t seen any of it. When I said it was coming to an end my mother responded, “Why? I thought that show was so good.” I smiled, because I agree entirely that the show is great. I explained to her that despite the show being possibly the greatest show of all time, show creator Vince Gilligan is smart in ending it now.

Breaking Bad has changed television in a way that I can’t even put into words how important it is to the medium. I know I am not the only one going on and on about Breaking Bad, and some continue to argue The Wire is still the best television show, but Breaking Bad did something Lost, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Dexter, and even The Wire never did.

There is a general outline people follow when writing screenplays for television and film. The outline varies based on whether it is a half hour sitcom, one hour drama, or film, but generally pretty similar points are always hit. The major point that is always hit in sitcoms and some one hour dramas like, Law & Order and Warehouse 13, with a lighter feel is the reset button. At the end of every episode an event happens to kind of reset the show. A problem is usually solved within one episode and then another will present itself at the end to set you up for the next episode. As for most one hour dramas, the characters change a little over the course of the series due to the over arcing story that spans the season or longer, but overall they are still recognizable by the end.

Tony Soprano was incapable of change. The cast of The Wire wanted to change, but in the end the system proved to be too big. Dexter Morgan is still a serial killer and the cast of Mad Men are still conniving their way through advertising . Then we meet Walter White. Vince Gilligan took things to an all new level for television.

In Mad Men and Dexter the premise does stay entirely the same, which most shows have to, and the characters have changed only in subtle ways that seem, well normal to an extent. Walter starts out as a chemistry teacher with cancer that struggles to support his family, so he decides to cook meth with a bumbling former student. Now he is a drug lord, mass murderer, and a very terrifying man. The change is so drastic that the show is almost unrecognizable from the pilot now.

It is a transformation similar to Michael Corleone in The Godfather, but even more drastic and detailed. Granted, The Godfather is about three hours long, but after the finale of Breaking Bad there will have been 62 episodes and that’s just a little more than 49 hours that we have spent with Walter and Jesse.

Walter’s transformation is comparable to literary classics of The Great Gatsby and the fellowship from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the key is that this was television, the medium everyone scoffed at and turned up their noses. People have always thought higher of film and books, but television is coming into its own. Looking at this year’s Emmy nominations I could only stand in awe of how far television has come. Breaking Bad was nominated alongside Game of Thrones, Homeland, House of Cards, and Mad Men for best drama series. Breaking Bad ultimately took home the Emmy for Best Drama Series.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and the cast on stage after winning the Emmy for Best Drama.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and the cast on stage after winning the Emmy for Best Drama.

Back to my mother’s question of why to end such a brilliant show; well, there hasn’t been much of a reset button on Breaking Bad. It has constantly been moving forward at a rapid pace. The characters have all drastically changed and so has their environment and the circumstances. This chapter of Walter’s life is coming to an end. Rather than drag out into more story like The X-Files and Supernatural , which both clearly went past the originally planned storyline, Vince Gilligan has decided to end the story and I respect him for that decision. The show ends this coming Sunday in what I am sure will be an epic finale.

Thanks to Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, and the other shows nominated for Emmys this year, television is no longer a medium to underestimate .

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

As illustrated from my previous posts, I am a self-proclaimed, proud, outspoken bibliophile.  I love most everything about books.  Book-sales?  Love them.  Bookstores?  Love them.  Reading? Of course, love it. The great Carl Sagan spoke for me when he rhapsodized that,

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for saganthousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.

Hear, hear Carl!  No doubt, books are magic. They have metaphysical superpowers. 

As I am sure my fellow bibliophiles will freely admit, there  is even more to our obsession with these ‘leaves’ and ‘pigmented squiggles’.  You see, as a lover of books, I yearn for the emotional, spiritual fulfillment that Sagan poeticizes.  But, just as important is the physical nature of books.  A book is a feast for the senses.  The look of the cover, paper and text; the smell of the pages, glue and ink; the feel of the paper; the sound of the turning pages, These sensations assist any true book fetish.  

In fact, Sagan’s metaphysical magic can only be created if the physical is just right. It is difficult to lose yourself in a book if the environmental surroundings are distracting.  It is similar when it comes to the physical components of the text. For me to be enraptured by the spiritual, the physical ‘look’ or ‘feel’ of the book generally must meet certain criteria.  These are,

  • Paperbacks please! Paperbacks are better than hardcover as they are lighter in the hand, and malleable.
  • No small text! I don’t want my eyes to hurt after one page.
  • Down with tiny margins! I want to feel like I am progressing in the book, and with tiny text and small margins, one page can take an hour to read.  I would rather read a format with larger text and margins making a book 1000 pages long, than a format that shrinks down such a book to 200 pages. I want to feel like I am progressing.
  • Pages should be rough to the touch, with a hefty thickness. I don’t want to see the next pages text bleeding through the current page.
  • I like a pretty face. Though not absolutely necessary, an intriguing cover is a nice bonus.

book_of_art_01These physical attributes make a magical book even more readable.  Of course, I can look past some of these criteria if it is absolutely necessary.  However, if a book that sounds interesting is missing many of these criteria, it will often fall down my “what to read next” list.

Physical appearance is central.  All of this may seem superficial to some, though I am certain we all share the same feelings regarding the objects of our desire.  It is nice to tell ourselves that we only think about what is inside, but the truth is we always are concerned about the physical…..

Please people!  Get your minds out of the gutter.  I am talking about books here. Come on!

  By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty.

 I feel I must report what at the time felt like and what now, looking back in retrospect, in all candor, still feels like a very memorable experience.  The memorable part started when I heard someone say “this isn’t hooky.”   Though I remember the phrase, I’m troubled that I’m not sure who said it.  It might have been Michael, it may have been Gerry, then again I might have been the one to say it.  I simply can’t be sure though it wasn’t very long ago that this incident took place–in fact, I believe it may have been yesterday or, at the latest, the day before yesterday which would have been Tuesday .   

The full context for the “this isn’t hooky” statement was not uninteresting.   Michael Stelzer Jocks and I were discussing the Imagepossibility of going to some Hyde Park bookstores on Friday.  Then the question arose whether Gerry Dedera might also wish to prowl about the myriad dusty shelves of Powells et.al.  Whereupon Ms. Paula Diaz, our intrepid Dean, inspired leader, and savant of most things worth knowing, just happened to be walking by as our Powells’ discussion was getting into full gear and, overhearing our conversation, reminded Michael that he was supposed to be at school on Friday, and hence the sense that implementing such a plan would clearly constitute an act of hooky.  Q.E.D.—meaning, hooky proved.  Case closed.

Oh contraire.  Not so fast.  Amateur sleuths beware.  First of all, what if we were planning to go to Powell’s after fulfilling school responsibilities Friday?  Then no hooky, wouldn’t you agree?  Thus the hooky charge is rendered moot, nay less than moot.  Second, and here’s where my own signature fruit cake spin starts to play a vital role in this story, and why the occasion remains memorable for me.  An altogether different consideration almost immediately arose in my brain which was this:  Is it really possible in the year 2013, in the month of September a full week after the anniversary of 9/11, for any individual or group of individuals to engage in an act of hooky at any time anywhere at all on this great green globe we call home?

Image

Peter Stern?

The reason I ask this question is that I’m more or less convinced that hooky is an old fashioned, hugely archaic word so tied to an earlier time and place that it no longer has any genuine relevance or meaning to life lived today.  I would say the same thing about a buggy whip or about using a mimeograph machine to duplicate piles of papers for a high or low level meeting even if the low level meeting was peopled by higher ups.  Ditto taking a covered wagon with friends to go through the Cumberland Gap, or to head out from let’s say Akron Ohio with the wife and kids to settle down in Colorado or Idaho or Wyoming.  Instead of the covered wagon, I’d recommend you fly or get a U Haul or take a bus.  And don’t worry about getting caught playing hooky for hooky don’t exist.  Not anymore.

Such is the nature of historical time.  It doesn’t simply pass;  it does much more than this.  It renders old ways of doing things meaningless.  The unique feel, smell, touch, taste, and special meaning of an experience or way of life not only of individuals but of whole communities even of countries simply vanishes.  Artifacts remain.   Historians and anthropologists and archeologists find buried buildings, furniture,  jewelry of all kinds, even diaries and records of business transactions but the feel–the inner spirit of the time–and how exactly people experienced the world is lost forever.

 Thus for hooky to be possible the world would have to take absolutely seriously–as if no other possible mode of behavior made any sense–that attending school and showing up at work every day was mandated by God himself such that not doing those things was a terrible violation of an ancient and sacred order.   Of course this doesn’t mean that every living soul viewed the world this way.  But it does mean that that was the default position for the society overall.  And then playing hooky really meant something.  Hooky was freedom.  Hooky meant escape.  Hooky was a thrilling adventure and you were living dangerously indeed.  And woe to you if you got caught. 

 And today?  Today you simply call in sick or tell your supervisor that your kids are sick.  Better still:  You turn on the tube and hear on the 7:00 a.m. news that the schools are closed due to exceptionally heavy rains and I-94 is flooded so you’re better off staying home and keeping off the highways.  Don’t you think most people would agree it’s awful hard playing hooky in this sort of world?

Still, in closing, to avoid sounding too shrill or foolish or just plain stupid, I should admit to some hyperbole when I state so emphatically that time renders the past utterly meaningless to future generations, for the historians and archeologists I mentioned earlier, especially the extraordinarily gifted members of those professions, do bring to life or try to bring to life the authentic spirit of the age they’re exploring.  Moreover, the law of averages suggests that they must actually succeed from time to time.  And so thanks to generations of historians we do get some sense of what it must have been like riding across the plains of Iowa and Nebraska in an un–air conditioned covered wagon during weeks on end of a dry summer 100 degree heat wave.  And, going back in time, Caesar crossing the Rubicon must have been an extraordinary sight and a mind boggling experience. 

 Yet some small voice keeps telling me that something of these events must get lost in translation.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

TaylorAmerica’s Got Talent was my guilty pleasure this summer and I was excited for Wednesday’s finale when my two favorite acts, Kenichi Ebina (dancer/performance artist) and Taylor Williamson (comedian), finished first and second respectively. I was rooting hardest for Taylor, because I thought he was hilarious and I’m more than a bit biased in favor of comedians.

During the finale, as the Top 6 was whittled down to the final two, each of the losing finalists shared the typical parting words of all reality TV contestants: “This has been an amazing journey,” and “This isn’t the end; it’s just the beginning,” and “This proves dreams do come true. Follow your dreams.”

Follow your dreams! Follow your dreams! FOLLOW YOUR DREAMS!

These soon-to-be-anonymous-again people have inspired me! I am immediately stepping away from teaching to simultaneously pursue basketball, stand-up comedy, and music. I’m doing a one-man show called “Dribble Funny Notes.” It’s going to be one-half Harlem Globetrotters, one-half Second City, and one-half of one-half of a dueling piano bar.

I can’t wait until I’m famous and trending on Twitter. I’m totally going to retweet the retweet of a tweet that pickles me tink.

This can’t fail. My dreams, mortgage, and fragile self-esteem depend on it.

Hmm. Is all of that risk worth it to get my face on the side of a bus next to Judge Mathis?

Okay, forget dreams. I’ll just continue to spend my nights eating peanut butter out of the jar with my fingers and then go to work in the morning smelling like I just did the walk of shame from Mr. Peanut’s house.

Mr. Peanut's ex, the Green M&M, told me he's nuts in the bedroom.

Mr. Peanut’s ex, the Green M&M, told me he’s nuts in the bedroom.

This “chase your dreams” stuff sounds great when it comes from people who succeeded. But I want to hear from the contestants who quit their jobs to audition, didn’t make it far on the show, and are now performing their acts on a street corner for loose change and the uneaten half of an Egg McMuffin.

Chasing a dream doesn’t guarantee success. If it did, I would already have Zooey Deschanel’s phone number, Matthew McConaughey’s six pack, and Spider-Man’s superpowers.

Zooey, raise your hand if you'd like to date a slightly overweight, moderately unattractive English professor.

Zooey, raise your hand if you’d like to date a slightly overweight, moderately unattractive English professor.

With no guarantee for success, it leads to the question of juggling reality with dreams. In college, I wanted nothing more than to be a writer – a successful, famous, rich writer who works during the day and throws raucous, sexy, Anchorman-style parties at night. All of my college English professors knew that’s what I wanted. Therefore, I’ll never forget the warning one of my favorite professors gave me when I decided to attend graduate school to pursue teaching: “Full-time teachers don’t make full-time writers.”

The message was both simple and obvious. Plug in any two professions and the message remains the same. We only have 100% to give, and when that 100% is rationed out to several jobs, goals, and dreams – and to the ample other responsibilities we have in our daily lives – something is bound to suffer.

If I give 50% to teaching and 50% to writing, will that be enough to sustain either? If I give 90% to teaching and 10% to writing, will anything ever get written? If I give 23% to teaching, 72% to writing, and 5% to studying statistics, will I be able to write more engaging mathematical examples?

Reality TV contestants tell me the solution is to pick one single dream and dump 100% effort into it. But, again, their perspectives are skewed, because they were on TV long enough to offer that opinion. The dude dancing for the McMuffin might tell you to stay in school and keep your job.

lets-make-a-deal-doorsIt’s the classic Let’s Make a Deal conundrum: take the modest prize in Monty Hall’s (or Wayne Brady’s) hand, or risk it all for what’s behind the door.

It’s great when there’s big cash or a fabulous vacation behind the door, but it’s not so fun when there’s a Zonk.

Thankfully, I love teaching. And I get to write stuff! I’ve made out with a little bit of the best of both worlds.

But, as Robert Morris University starts a new academic year, what advice would I give if a student asked me about pursuing their dream? What if the dream conflicts with their education? What if the dream seems unrealistic?

I really don’t know what to say.

The dreamer in me wants to say, “Go get’em!”

The realist in me wants to say, “Dreams don’t pay bills.”

And the kid in me still likes the frosted side.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A couple weeks ago, I covered the First World War in my American History, and Western Civilization courses.  The First World War has always been an event that has obsessed me, and I really love to teach it since Americans generally know very little about it.  Since these are introductory courses, I usually portray the war as a definitive cataclysmic event that left enduring scars on the twentieth century. This standard narrative of the conflict draws a line between the Victorian, 19th century world, and the modern, 20th century world.  The old world died in 1914.  A new world was born in 1918.

Though this narrative of the war has been challenged by many over the years, there is no denying that the world of 1914 seems distantly foreign from the rest of the twentieth century.  Though, again, it generalizes the complexities of this era too much, it is easy to see the world before the war as a time of innocence, perhaps even naivety. A famous example of such cultural innocence is what happened in many European capitals once war was declared in the late summer of 1914. During the first week of August, thousands of Europeans of all ages, and all classes, flooded into the streets in evident war euphoria, cheering the outbreak of a continent wide conflagration.  I showed my students the photos below of those early August, 1914 days of excitement:

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Crowds in Paris

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Berlin

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Students off to Enlist

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London

Historians now realize that this evident war euphoria didn’t infect everyone.  Many Europeans were nervous, anxious, dreadful or apathetic about the outbreak of war.  However, there is no denying that the thousands of people in these photos are revved up for what they believed would be their nation’s inevitable victory (each national community felt they would win victory quickly, and cleanly.) These photos make the informed student crack an ironic smile, since he/she knows that the next four years of war would be anything but quick and clean.  The young men were cheering their generation’s death sentence. The First World War killed 9 million soldiers, made empires fall, and still is the epitomizing symbol of the absurdity and destructiveness of modern conflict.

For 21st century Americans, even those knowledgeable of WWI, the fact that people would be cheering for the outbreak of war is absurd.  War in our world is not something to cheer; it may be unavoidable, but any self-respecting American will solemnly swear that ‘war is hell,’ and it should be avoided at all costs. We are more likely to see people in the street, shouting for the end of wars, than cheering for the outbreak of war.

So, why were these people in 1914 so excited?  Why would they want war?   When I asked these questions a couple weeks ago, I got a familiar answer from my classes. Like some in previous classes, one student shouted out that people want war because it is “good for the economy.”  In response, I politely pointed out that these people were not cheering for an economic windfall. After a couple minutes of thinking, and some hints from me, my students gave responses closer to the truth.  They realized that these men had lofty expectations for the war. War was thought to provide glory. War could produce honor. War created adventure, and the opportunity for true manliness.  Many cheered for war simply following their friends, trying not to be left out.  Some believed fighting the war was their duty. Most felt the war was necessary to protect their families from enemies.

So, why does it take my students some time to come up with these answers?  Why is ‘the economy’ often the first response I get? Simply put, my students are 21st century Americans, and many have the typical worldview that goes along with that identity.  Since their youth, they have been inundated with a simplistic materialist ideology that points to the national economy as the most important social issue. How could they not think that economics make the world go round, since media, pop culture and schools have constantly reinforced this belief.  As a result, they often misinterpret human motivations as misinformed psychologists, thinking that people make all their decisions as if they were homo economicus.  It is my job to try to dispel such beliefs, because the notion that human beings live and die for the strength of an economy has dire consequences for our understanding of the past and present. The human story is not always based upon the direction of the Dow Jones Industrial.

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

An old adage has it–old? adage? isn’t this an oxymoron or redundant? or just simply unnecessarily wordy, I ask myself anxiously. No, it’s fine! Keep writing. OK, thanks, methinks!–old adage has it that politics makes strange bedfellows. Strange bedfellows! Politics. Wow. Very interesting. Very exciting. Then studying and following politics must be great fun, must it not? I’ll bet no one ever said physics or sociology or history makes strange bed fellows.

And the phrase is relatively easy to remember. Nonetheless, though well known and easy to remember and though I’m now a seasoned watcher of politics with hard earned academic credentials to match, I usually have difficulty coming up with good examples of strange politicians getting in bed together. For in my laterally structured mundane mind, people who oppose each other head off in opposite directions and stay out of each other’s beds. For example, think of Hamilton and Burr, or Adams and Jackson, or Truman and Dewey, or Nixon and Kennedy, or Gingrich and Clinton, or Obama and Bonheur and tea party republicans.

C-T-SYet candor does compel me to confess I do eventually end up remembering one super famous example of strange bed fellows; it’s the alliance forged between Churchill and Roosevelt and their polar opposite, Joseph Stalin. Difficult would it be to find two more opposed individuals than Churchill and Stalin. Yet we must all thank our lucky stars for these two (or three) politicos getting together for defeating Hitler may well have failed if they hadn’t. So strange political bed fellows do indeed exist.

And, dear reader, early this morning in my steaming pre dawn bath, roaring into my dulled, tired and beleaguered brain is the extraordinary realization that another example of strange bedfellows is taking place during my bath as I try removing my peach shampoo’s nasty sting from my now (i.e. then) burning eyeballs: to wit, President Obama’s new Syrian policy is based on the same principle and uses the same lingo President Bush (i.e. 43) utilized when he announced his Iraq Plan. Lest this similarity be missed, soon after Obama explained why we had to bomb Syria , he welcomed to his bed two of his most despised Republican rivals, John Boehner and Eric Cantor.

This development significantly ratchets up the increasingly quoted Apppple Goooogle amazement/incredulity factor or, if you prefer, the more familiar strange bed fellow factor, when we realize that Obama has been busy relentlessly attacking Bush’s foreign policy principles since he began his run for the presidency back in 2008. I mean, dear reader, these guys do indeed represent a gaggle of exceptionally strange bed fellows! No political savant–whether sane or insane–could have possibly predicted such a development which is why methinks President Obama’s Syrian strategy will long remain a hugely bewildering event.

obama-putinBut wait! Go not into that good night too quickly for, as of mid week, one further strange bedfellow event has exploded unto the Syrian Scene: The President’s most hated international antagonist, Russia’s Mr. Vladimir Putin, signaled his willingness to lean on the Syrians to surrender their chemical weapons. And as Mr. Putin hits the Moscow mall looking for an extra large king size mattress to share with the President, the President announced he’d be happy to join Mr. Putin in bed, the sooner the better.

Once again, no pundit in this here Milky Way could ever have predicted Putin and Obama would soon be in bed together. Putin was (is) notorious for going out of his way to mock the President. Then, all of a sudden, he’s pulling Obama’s well roasted chestnuts out of the fire and unto dry land (if you can send mixed messages why not mixed metaphors, is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot of late).

So if you read in the paper or hear on the tube that the old adage about politics and strange bed fellows no longer enjoys much currency, please dear reader, don’t plead ignorance and don’t play dumb. Instead, get on your smart phone, check Facebook, or pound out the Flaneur’s Turtle on the web, and re-read this post. For I hope I’ve shown even the most ardent strange political bed fellow skeptic that politics really does make for strange bed fellows with results that remain awfully hard to predict.