Thursday, December 31, 2015

To new heights

2015 was not a great year, in a lot of ways, for a lot of people. Aside from my friends and acquaintances who've suffered setbacks or losses, personal and professional, there's been a lot of garbage fires in the news. Hateful rhetoric and bullying by politicians (and wannabe politicians), war and chaos in the Middle East, epidemics in Africa, breathtaking mendacity and corruption in the halls of power.

But if I allow myself to refocus (and if you'll allow it, with all of the above stipulated and duly mourned), 2015 was a great year for me. I published a book, the culmination of four years of research, fieldwork, and writing. I was lured back into weekly TV reviews to write about Better Call Saul for the A.V. Club.  I lost 30 pounds. I sewed my first dress. I knit a lot of stuff I'm proud of (I'll post more about that over on the other blog). I left administrative work behind and debuted a successful new course, with others in the works. I celebrated my fiftieth birthday feeling stronger, healthier, more creative, and more content than I have in many years. My children continue to astound me, and my husband graciously allows me to bask in his reflected glory.

For causes I care about, too, there was good news. Marriage equality prevailed at the Supreme Court. Thanks to Obamacare, the number of Americans without health care coverage dropped to historic lows. A historic deal to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions was reached. Relations with Cuba were normalized, allowing travel and commerce to resume after decades of fruitless sanctions. Guantanamo Bay continues to shed its detainees, slowing bringing to a close a shameful episode in American history.

I think back a few years, and remember being fearful, frustrated, strangely lost. I cast about for disciplines and programs to try to regain control of what seemed to be slipping away. That time seems like a dream of a distant sickness. The prescription was simple: autonomy, fulfilling work, creative and nourishing leisure, loving and being loved.

Whether you are bidding a fond or a bitter farewell to 2015, I wish you greater things in 2016. May we find peace, empathy, and mutual flourishing there.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Way We Lived Then

I preached on these texts (Track 1) yesterday at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway. What a lovely correspondence they had to my gender and religious belief class this semester, to my work with older women in prayer shawl ministries over the past few years, to my obsession with the category of "widow" in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and to the raging war over the moral statuses of the poor and of women in our culture. I think the sermon turned out rather well.

Sermon for November 8, Proper 27 Year B

A few years ago someone recommended that I read Anthony Trollope, a prolific and very popular British novelist of the nineteenth century. His Victorian-era fiction turned out to be right up my alley, like a mix of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Most of his characters are marginal members of the aristocracy -- clergy with a parish granted by the local lord, baronets who gamble at London clubs and play at Parliament, widows with money besieged by suitors with none. The rules were different at that time and place, and among those people. A young man with a title was not supposed to stoop to earn money with a regular job, but at least if they lost all possibility of living off inherited wealth, they could go into law or finance, shameful as such a fate might be.

Trollope’s women, however, are in an altogether more desperate situation. Every now and then some spirited young lady will take it upon herself to explain to a male character that while he might not like his options, at least he has them. She has none. Her choices are: (1) marry, and acquire some share of her husband’s property and independence, (2) live with family members as a spinster until she dies, (3) become a live-in companion to a widow or a tutor to someone else’s children. Getting a job, much less a profession, simply isn’t a path that’s open to her. So when an offer of marriage evaporates because the man changed his mind, or a parent can’t afford to outfit a daughter for the social scene where potential husbands roam, these women stare into the maw of impending doom. It’s not just that they will fall off the approved track of their culture and into some disreputable state. It’s that their very lives have become insecure. Who will take care of them? How will they live?

Those women came immediately to mind when I read the passage from Ruth. “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you,” Naomi tells Ruth, before outlining exactly what that security means: a wealthy husband, a landowner. And how does one get such security? By “uncovering his feet” when he lies down to sleep. I have to keep this sermon G-rated, so I’ll just say that in this biblical euphemism, feet does not mean feet. You can find other examples of this delicate language in Exodus, regarding the circumcision of Moses’ son, and in Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim covering themselves with their three pairs of wings. I’ve seen some Bible commentaries that try to sanitize this story by claiming that Ruth was trying to wake up Boaz by making his feet cold. But Naomi specifies that Ruth is to wait until Boaz finishes partying at the threshing floor, put him in a state of undress, and lay down next to him. It’s clear that she is bent on creating a situation in which Boaz believes he is obligated to Ruth, and indeed, in the next chapter, Boaz takes it upon himself to make sure that Ruth has a husband -- a “guardian-redeemer” as the text puts it -- whether it be himself or another relative who has a claim on Naomi’s property. That is the only way a woman can find security. Faced with no way to fend for herself, her only option is -- by hook or by crook -- to get a man to accept her upkeep as an obligation.

The readings for today are unified by the theme of widows. Perhaps we gloss over that word without too much thought in our ordinary reading. Widows are women whose husbands have died; it’s a simple designation of marital status. But it’s anything but simple for women in the ancient near east. In both Hebrew and Hellenistic law and custom, a woman has no independent legal status as an individual. She can only be represented in society by a male guardian -- first her father, then her husband, and finally perhaps, her son. A woman without any of those people to protect and speak for her is the most vulnerable member of the community, with the exception of slaves. She literally has no standing -- no way to acquire a secure footing from which to lead a life that deserves respect and contributes to the community.

So when Jesus praises the widow who gives her mite at the synagogue, he was noting not just her financial contribution relative to her economic wealth. He points out that she is relinquishing the only thing that stands between her and nothingness. How is she to get something to live on? There is no one to procure it for her, and she has no respectable avenue of procuring it for herself. She is giving up the possibility, slender and temporary as it might be, of the pretense of membership in the community. And she does it, Jesus says, for the sake of a greater community in which she hopes to find a place.

I would like to think that those who heard Jesus’ words didn’t just watch the widow walk out of the synagogue with the vague thought that God would reward her bye and bye. Perhaps one of them ran after her and said, “My mother,” or “My aunt, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.” After all, that’s what the community of apostles did, the author of Luke and Acts tells us, organizing a system of contributions and support for the widows and orphans among them -- a welfare system, a social safety net, if you will. They did not wait for the coming kingdom of God to make things right. They took responsibility for creating that reality in the here and now.

Too often the message “give sacrificially and trust that the Lord will provide” gets preached disproportionately to those for whom any giving is a risk. For these, a finger pointed to the Lord as provider is a finger pointed very deliberately away from those of us right here and quite able to provide for more than ourselves. I hope women have more and better options for finding security these days than tricking men into marrying them. (I’m terribly afraid that many do not.) But what I really see in these passages is a reminder that we are responsible for each other -- that when one of us casts off their last mite and throws herself on providence, they should find that God’s sheltering hands look a lot like my own.

Friday, October 23, 2015

These are the good old days

National attention has been focused for the last few decades on the effort to create meaningful standards for K-12 education. In recent years, Common Core standards have become a flashpoint for conflict. I see Facebook posts from friends both local and far-flung complaining that Common Core is forcing an unnatural and incomprehensible pedagogy on children, especially in math, frustrating kids and parents alike.

Parental complaints like this always reminds me of the Peanuts comics Charles Schulz drew in the 1960s about the so-called "New Math," which focused on set theory, concepts of equivalence, and number lines rather than memorizing arithmetic facts and computation methods. It's clear from the set of strips that Schulz understands the new math, and while he lets Sally channel the displeasure of a generation of angry parents, he doesn't side with her. Instead, he presents her as the voice of willful ignorance and stultifying lack of ambition.

Noel and I were talking yesterday about how we sometimes seem to have stumbled through a portal into an alternate educational dimension, with our kids. Their teachers are, almost to an individual, dedicated, energetic, creative, and loving. Their administrations stress college and career preparedness, and I see that emphasis in the teachers' classrooms. The assignments they give and the pedagogies they employ engage our highly intelligent children; nearly every day we hear from them about what they are learning, and the innovative ways the lessons have been brought home to them. Real-world applications have been presented and stressed; when I ask my kids how a certain abstract concept matters in life or careers, they are always ready with an answer.

Maybe we have just lucked out with the teachers and schools we've had. But I don't think so. Seems to me that, despite all the obstacles in their way (of which the greatest by far is legislative parsimony -- far more than unions or out-of-touch professional training, the favorite villains of conservative media in the state), most educators never stop trying to do their job well. I'm constantly amazed at what my kids are learning to do and how they're being challenged. I went to expensive college prep schools when I was their age, and in so many ways they are getting a better education that I did -- largely because teaching methods are so much more advanced, standards are clearer, assessments measure actual learning better, and enrichment opportunities are more plentiful and more challenging.

I'll always be grateful for the teachers and principals that are giving my kids this terrific foundation for advanced learning and lifelong curiosity. What they're being asked to do now -- and how they're rising to the opportunity -- bodes very well for what they'll be able to do five, ten, and twenty years down the road.

Friday, October 16, 2015

30 minutes

I find myself with 30 minutes and no obvious task pressing itself upon me, demanding to get done. Next week is a short one, only three days of classes before a four-day weekend. I'm running (well, jogging) (well, mostly walking) (okay, all walking) a race tonight, so I don't need to squeeze in time at the gym. I glance up at my open tabs and there is my blog, opened when my browser starts like everyday. So here is my 30 minutes.

Like this unscheduled time, I feel the unbearable lightness of waiting. The steps toward my book's publication have been many in the last four months -- some big, like the compiling of the index and the final proofing of the galleys, which I did in late July and early August; and some small, like approving cover copy and answering copy-editor queries. But on October 5 my patient production editor sent the book to the printer. Now I look forward to holding it in my hands. A part of me worries that it will seem small and insignificant when I do, not worth the years I invested (not to mention the unbounded generosity of my interviewees). A part of me defensively shouts that I don't care if nobody reads it. But of course I do. All those steps, large and small, have left me proud of what it's turned out to be -- a pride that makes me vulnerable to what becomes of it.

And meanwhile my husband takes his own career-expanding steps (like his byline in the New York Times) and my children grow (into their choirs and online communities and YouTube channels and artistic endeavors). I think about what comes next after this book. I'm contracted to write a volume in this series, and I'm looking forward to it, but taking the first step is always difficult. I'm having a great semester teaching, and that makes me want to create new classes, but I also know that I should be making what I'm already teaching even better, for next time -- learning by redoing.

I turned 50 last week. It was marvelous; I feel great, I've lost 30 pounds since this time last year, I'm so much happier than I was two years ago. 50 feels like a freeing milestone instead of an ominous one, like the moment when the drive to the trailhead ends and the actual adventure begins. Noel threw a little gathering over Mexican food and fishbowl-sized margaritas, and I thanked my lucky stars that my terrible friendship skills haven't yet driven away my generous and forgiving friends. We're starting our twentieth year of marriage. I find it hard to believe how much we've done of what we always wanted to do, and how close we are to what we always wanted to become.

My time is up, and I'm off to the conclusion of a work week, spent as always with my students listening to some provocative, challenging, informative ideas. Until the next half-hour presents itself ...

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


When I'm working on a book, I naturally sometimes picture it on a shelf, in a bookstore, on a conference display table, in a reader's hand. When I do, though, the image of the book is indistinct. I don't imagine a particular color or font on the color. It's all kind of a blur.

I think I've had next to no input on the covers of my other books. Perhaps I've blocked it all out; I do remember that Clayton, my co-editor, had an artist he wanted to use on the jacket of our book Cosmology, Ecology, and the Energy of God, and asked me which of several paintings I preferred. For The Divine Decision and Handbook of Process Theology, to the best of my recollection, the covers were presented to me already complete. I probably had some kind of opportunity to approve or make suggestions, but nobody involved me in the design. And that was pretty much okay with me. I wouldn't have known where to start.

So when I'm asked (as I was last week by my editor) to weigh in on cover design, I feel like I'm completely at sea. I don't have any firm opinions about what my book ought to look like. I scroll through page after page of possible templates, try out various combinations of keywords at the stock image library. It's all far too indeterminate, with way too many possibilities, for me to express any kind of preference.

Somehow, though, with my editor's considerable help, we arrived at a cover design after a dozen emails back and forth. Forced to look at possibilities and think about options, I developed some opinions, some preferences, some absolutely-this and if-possible-this and certainly-not-that, all of which nudged me toward a dwindling number of designs and images. And after a week of this, like magic, we have a cover. I can see it. I know what it will look like, the image and the font and the layout and maybe even the color. My imaginary scenes of shelves and laps and tables and pages turning now have a detailed object at the center of them.

This is a new kind of excitement for me. I have no expectation that my book, specialized as it is, will set the world on fire. But being able to picture it as an object in the world, several months away from its emergence in that physical form, is unexpectedly thrilling.

Friday, July 3, 2015

A big week

It's been quite a week here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Tomorrow is Independence Day, and several Supreme Court decisions have transformed the emotions, opportunities, and political rhetoric of millions of people across the country, in all parts of the political spectrum.

As for me, you can all probably guess what my emotions and outlook are in the wake of this momentous week. But regardless of my personal views, as a Christian theologian I want to resist the framing of these issues as Christians versus Everybody Else. That framing requires us to distinguish between True Christians and Fake Christians (since people who consider themselves Christians are on all sides of the issue), and that leads us down a path that is untenable in light of history (Christians have always believed and behaved in a wide variety of ways; there is no one pure doctrine or creed to point back to).

I've shared a lot of resources on Facebook and Twitter over the past week that I think do a good job of raising issues, pointing out nuances, and providing perspectives that people like me, my family, my neighbors, and my students are likely to find helpful. I thought I'd collect them all here.

However, for those seeking to be faithful to the example of Jesus, to the prophetic strain of Jesus' message, and to the countercultural vision of the kingdom of God shared by Jesus and Paul (at what I consider his best moments), here are a few ideas you might find inspiring or thought-provoking.

A New Day (Jason Hines)

Let There Be Light (Don Bowman)

And a few takes that reflect some righteous anger, but which make points I needed to hear:

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


I woke up to an email from a student, asking for a list of ten or so books "that you have found essential in the formation of what we know as Donna." Having taken a few minutes to put together a briefly-annotated list, I thought I might as well share it here. Links are to the Goodreads page, so you can add whatever takes your fancy to your "to-read" shelf or click on through to buy from Amazon.

Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus to Christ -- a very readable account of the transformation of Jesus' message in the first few centuries of the common era, not just philosophically and religiously but also politically.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics -- an entire aesthetic and media theory in the guide of a comic book about how comic books work. Amazing.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms -- using records from the Inquisition, historian Ginzburg reconstructs the diversity of the intellectual enterprise from the side of both commoners and elites during the tumult of Reformation. A constant reminder that intellectual history isn't just the record of great thinkers, it's also the story of how ideas were received and transformed by the population, and how that transformation boomeranged back on the elites.

Erasmus, Enchiridion -- Erasmus is my favorite Reformation writer, and this is his great work on the life of faith. He's just such an amazing prose stylist, even in translation.

David Hume, The Natural History of Religion -- Hume demolishes the idea that religion began with pure revelation and has degraded to the conditions we see today, with wit and irony, in this brief little treatise. Essential to my understanding that every reality we encounter has an evolutionary history.

Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion -- my favorite book, which I reread every couple of years, a fantasy trilogy about a soldier who becomes an instrument of the gods. You may find it very silly if fantasy isn't your thing, but it's undeniably the work of fiction that has most shaped me.

Shusako Endo, Silence -- For years Martin Scorsese has been trying to make a movie of this novel about Jesuit missionaries in 19th c. Japan. The most powerful portrayal I know of the sacrifice of Jesus.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The Age of Homespun -- an examination of women's lives in colonial America through the objects they made. Reads like a detective story, uncovering something previously anonymous and subterranean.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead -- A pastor reflects on life and faith and relationships as he nears his own death. Engages with all kinds of great thinkers, but never ceases to be an unfolding revelation of a novel.

Paul Collins, Not Even Wrong -- One of the great non-fiction writers tries to understand his autistic son by digging back into the prehistory of autism.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Every now and then I hear our song

Colleagues on campus who foolishly ask what I'm up to are likely to receive a lengthy explanation of how I've never really had an academic summer. If I recall correctly, I taught a summer course my first or second year at UCA, and then went straight into an administrative position that offered 10.5 month employment for a few years, followed by a long stretch of 12-month administrative contracts. That ended in summer 2013 with a summer sabbatical, the only kind available to administrators. I took two week-long research trips that summer and spent every remaining day researching, conducting phone interviews, traveling within the state, correcting transcripts, and scrambling to be ready to start writing my book. But during this sabbatical, my dean pressed me for a commitment on whether I would continue in administration, and I declined to do so. The summer of 2012, then, would be the last I would spend working full time.

Turns out I would continue to do phone and local interviews into the early months of 2014; the only part of the book with a complete draft by the time classes ended that spring was the introduction. So I spent every day of summer 2014 writing. By the end of August, with classes already underway, I had six chapters done, with four more to go before my Christmas deadline. As I wrote in a January post, that summer I wrote a chapter every 2.4 weeks.

I got a very helpful reader report from my editor on March 2 of this year, and immediately began revisions. Once classes ended in early May, I was in the office full time every day doing additional research, editing, and rewriting. I turned in a revised manuscript on June 10.

And since then, it has been Summer. The kind where I don't have to come to the office, where no one is expecting me. I have work to do -- classes for fall to prepare (including a new one), some assessment (done), some faculty reports (done), and then the research and dreaming and thinking about the next scholarly projects -- but it's completely up to me when I want to make progress on that and when I want to do Summer Things. That's the life a lot of faculty live. Yes, many of them teach summer classes or take other temporary work (scoring standardized tests, teaching at summer programs), but many just have a Summer. Like the one I'm finally having.

I come to the office most days. I have research I want to move forward, and interlibrary loan books that I can only keep for a short time. Reading and thinking is a pleasurable occupation, especially compared to the stress of rewriting and cutting and checking citation formatting on a deadline. I give myself plenty of leeway to follow my train of thought wherever it leads, chasing down information on a stray inquiry if it grabs my interest. 

But I also take a walk every morning before the heat and humidity build to unbearable levels. Today I listened to podcasts, but most days I just think for half an hour. Yesterday I took the kids to a nearby state park and hiked a trail along the river. Now that Summer is here, I am going to do more of that.

Summer seems very short when the first six weeks of it are eaten up by deadline work. In July the kids have camps and Noel has trips; my days will not be my own, like they are now. In August the new semester will be on the doorstep. But Summer seems so long, so luxuriously empty, on a day like today. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

Against the tide

Most days that the weather is bad -- raining or threatening, too hot or cold -- you can find me walking on the indoor track at the HPER Center, my campus's exercise and recreational facility. The track runs around and overhead of the basketball courts. It's 1/10 of a mile on the inside lane, where walkers are supposed to stay, and 1/9 of a mile on the outside.

Now, I'm there so often that I feel rather proprietary about it. And I'm there so often that I see all sorts of people who either don't know or don't care about the rules. Walk in the direction indicated by the arrow (which flips every day). Runners on the outside, walkers on the inside. I see people stretching right on the track, with people having to step around and over them. I see them doing interval work where they stop running suddenly in order to start doing lunges or something, heedless of people behind them. And naturally, I see lot of people completely ignoring the lane rules, running or walking in any lane they want, weaving around people or forcing others to weave around them.

But what I saw yesterday was a first. There was only one other person on the track when I arrived -- a jogger. And he was going the wrong way. I looked at the arrow, looked at him, and as I stepped onto the track as he approached, I said, "Dude, other way," indicating the arrow. He shrugged. "This is the way I go," he said as he passed.

I walked 27 laps before he finished his jog. He never turned around to go the other way. Just kept running the way he goes. Other people arrived to walk and run. They joined me going the right way. A fellow faculty member who jogs as much as I walk, and that I see almost every time I'm there, spoke to him like I did. I saw him step onto the track and make a circular gesture with his hand as the wrong-way jogger passed him. Again, the jogger shrugged and kept going.

Because we were going in opposite directions, I met him two times on each lap -- a little more, actually, because he was moving a bit faster than me. Because he was jogging on the inside lane (sigh), he had to move out of my way every time we met. After the first time, we didn't make eye contact. He had to snake his way past oncoming traffic in multiple lanes when the several users of the track happened to converge in his path.

What was he thinking for those 40 minutes before he stopped jogging against the current? Was he annoyed every time he had to dodge another person? Did he ever consider turning around and going with the flow, or was he dead set on his own direction? What were his feelings toward me and the other faculty member who had questioned him? What about the others who joined us and mutely testified to the rule, and against his choice, with their actions?

Most of all: Why?

During those 27 laps and maybe 50 face-to-face encounters, I thought a lot about what I would have done if I found I were going the wrong way. Many years ago when the HPER was new, I feel certain I went the wrong way, before somebody pointed the arrow out to me. I don't remember it particularly, but I have many similar memories of learning the rules and folkways of an exercise facility because I did it wrong at first. I might have gone to the start of my lap and turned around there, so I didn't have to account for incomplete laps in my counting. But I can't imagine just continuing on, minute after minute, lap after lap, as the evidence of my error mounted.

But perhaps he was aware from the start he was going the wrong way. "This is the way I go," he said to me, as if he had a private methodology that no rule could sway. I'm not sure why running the track counter-clockwise was preferable. The direction arrow changes daily so that we don't all get shorter legs on one side like mountain goats from always pivoting on the same foot. Maybe he had an injury that made it hard to turn to the right. But that's also why runners are supposed to be on the outside, the rule that he and others widely ignore, so that the curve at the corners is more gentle, not requiring a pivot at all.

I recognize myself in the wrong-way runner. I can be stubborn. I don't necessarily want to be told what the right process is; I prefer to reinvent the wheel because (and I've only just recently recognized this about myself) I get irrationally mad in certain situations where other people know more than I do. But I think I'm learning to overcome these flaws, in large part thanks to my research among the prayer shawl makers, where I had to listen and refrain from imposing my knowledge and perspectives. I've had too many experiences where hindsight tells me I could have saved myself frustration, and done a better job, by trying to learn from others at the outset rather than just bulling through on my own unfounded notions.

What can I learn from Mr. The Way I Go?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015


I walked to school today thinking about Archer's future.

He came home last night and told us that he'd gotten his scores on the ACT Explore test, a version of the college-entrance exam given to eighth graders. His composite was 23 out of 25. His math score was a perfect 25 out of 25.

Now, as a member of a collegiate admissions committee, I know that tests like this don't tell you nearly as much about a student's college readiness as the test companies would like to claim. But because admissions officers find it convenient to craft policies -- including scholarship policies -- that rely heavily on such tests as a shorthand for aptitude, the one thing you can say about a person who scores high is that he will receive lots of attention and lots of opportunities.

I thought about that on my two-mile walk to Cady Gray's school, then to mine. I talked about it with Cady Gray; she told me what her fifth-grade teachers were saying to their students about scholarships and college. Archer's college choices are likely to be shaped by his autism; he may not be able to leap into independence and go to school away from home. His sister won't have any such limits. I thought about the training, the challenges, the resources that will be available to students as capable and promising as they are. I walked onto my campus under a gorgeous blue sky, feeling like a wind was gathering under their wings, ready to lift them up. I imagined how they might soar.

Then I glanced at my phone while waiting for my chai latte, and saw the news of the three Muslim students killed at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.* Suddenly I was aware of the fragility of any student's promise. Hate and violence, motivated by whatever ideology makes you see difference as a threat, can strike anyone. It seems especially tragic and sad when it happens at a college, a place devoted to enlightenment, a place that draws people of all backgrounds and beliefs in a common quest for a better life, a more informed mind, skills that can build the future and solve problems. If we can't find a way to live without fear of difference there, then where?

Like all parents, I worry about the treacherous parts of college for my children: binge drinking, sexual assault, study and recreational drugs, depression, time and task management, interpersonal relationships, anonymity and isolation. I see students just as smart as my kids get derailed by one or more of these, year after year. One test, no matter how remarkable, won't inoculate them against those dangers. Even years of training and character-building are no guarantee -- for some of those pitfalls, you can do everything right and still wind up shattered and victimized. And then there's the rage, the prejudice, the deadly weapons, that sometimes strike out of a clear blue sky.

We can do better -- as college officials and administrators, as teachers, as citizens, as communicators, as neighbors -- to change the culture, to rescue those who stumble before they hit the ground, to talk back to hate loudly and consistently, to insist that the values of the education we provide -- complexity, diversity, rationality, empathy, free inquiry, solidarity -- escape the classroom and reach into every moment of our students' lives.

Only if we do better can my children, and yours, and the children of people all around us who look to the future in hope, climb on to that upward trajectory with confidence.

* Early reports don't indicate conclusively that the murderer was motivated by racial or religious hatred. I don't mean to draw that conclusion here about this particular crime, just to follow a train of thought sparked by the way I am routinely shocked by expressions of hate, division, intolerance, and violence in threat and actuality on my campus and others.

Monday, February 2, 2015

No regrets, just love


Today's post, about the spirit of experimentation, is at Toxophily.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The ideal student

This semester, the team of instructors that teaches our first-year sequence is taking a fresh look at the syllabi for those courses. We've had some turnover since we last did this exercise, and it's time to incorporate the new members fully and reassess what the rest of us (including some folks no longer in the team) have brought to the table.

To start off, I borrowed an exercise that I found in a description of an earth sciences curriculum revision. The course designers think of the ideal student who has just finished the class, and ask themselves: What should that student be able to do? What should that student know?

This seems to dovetail nicely with a common topic of conversation among the faculty in my department. When we discover that a student in our upper-division courses, who like all our students has had this introductory sequence, does not know how to do something, we are frustrated. Why can't she cite her sources? Why doesn't he know how to use the library card catalog? Didn't they learn this in the first year? So one could approach answering those "ideal student" questions from the negative side: What gaps in skill or knowledge surprise us when they appear in our upper-division students?

Here's my first pass at answering those questions. Keep in mind that these are high-ability students, for better or for worse. For better: They've almost all had advanced courses (such as AP) in high school, and so can be presumed to start from a higher baseline and make more progress in the first year in college. For worse: They've often been able to conceal lacks and gaps by competence in other areas, and sometimes their schools have not pushed them because scarce instructional resources must be spent on lower-performing students.

The ideal student finishing Honors Core I and II should be able to ...

  • summarize the main points of a text
  • understand that different academic disciplines utilize distinct toolsets to shed light on "big" cross-disciplinary questions
  • defend assertions about an author's meaning and intent with textual evidence
  • understand how historical and cultural context shapes thinkers, thoughts, and texts
  • write meaningful, effective introductory and concluding paragraphs
  • outline an effective argument
  • follow that outline to produce an effective prose argument
  • construct clear, efficient sentences in formal writing
  • construct sentences with active verbs and agential subjects (avoiding passive voice and impersonal constructions)
  • avoid empty verbiage, including unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, repetition, and framing devices
  • employ effective and well-selected search strategies to find relevant information in the library, on the web, and in online databases
  • evaluate the reliability and value of information sources
  • apply the perspective of major thinkers and schools of thought to the student's own experience, beliefs, and assumptions
  • reevaluate, with an openness to revision, personal beliefs and assumptions in the light of new information, perspectives, and contexts
  • appreciate the disciplinary expertise and perspective of each member of the instructional team
  • welcome new information, perspectives, and contexts as an opportunity for personal growth
  • reflect on the student's own education as a historically-conditioned institution reflecting contested social values and visions
  • commit to further thought and exploration as a way of reconciling conflicts of perspective and value
  • exercise judgment in responding to feedback
The ideal student finishing Honors Core I and II should know ...
  • how Platonic philosophy came to shape current popular understandings of Christianity
  • how existentialism challenges claims, both ontological and moral, about essences and natures
  • how Darwin, Marx, and Freud crafted rich and compelling accounts of human nature's developmental history
  • the broad difference between idealism and materialism as accounts of reality and experience
  • the power of environment -- social and physical -- as a shaping force in experience and thought
  • the power of language and metaphor as a shaping force in experience and thought
  • that the answers to "big" significant questions are complex, historically conditioned, and multi-faceted
  • how the kinds of answers we give to "big" significant questions about humanity shape our response to current challenges and crises
I'm sure there's more -- or maybe there should be less. When the rest of the team responds and we look at it all together, I'll be interested to see how our ideal students are alike, and how they are different.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Style and struggle

2015 marks my sixteenth year teaching college freshman in writing-intensive courses. And not just any freshmen -- the top high school graduates of my state. Here's how the first few assignments of any given semester goes. They write informal reading responses for me that I love -- natural voice, clear presentation. Then I give them their first formal writing assignment. And all of a sudden, they write like space aliens forced to learn English through a 19th century grammar text and a thesaurus. Out of 500 words, fully half will be empty verbiage. Dangling introductory phrases appear out of nowhere. Idiomatic prepositions get mangled. Sentences run on and on, liberally sprinkled with commas -- or curiously devoid of a single pause. Avoidance of first person leads to pretzeled contortions -- or extraneous "I believe thats" and "In my views" pepper every other sentence. There is not a sentence to be found that would ever come out of a human being's mouth.

I find my hardest teaching task is getting these students to see and hear the impracticality of their writing. They are mortified when I point it out; it's obvious upon even a cursory second look. Yet the task of formal writing somehow makes it impossible for them to give that second look to themselves. I labor to get them to turn in clean, simple drafts. They have been rewarded for writing in this way, I suppose, and so that is the spigot that gets turned on whenever paragraphing and word counts are among the expectations. I wish I knew the magic words to get them to approach these formal writes in the natural, conversational, clear way they write informally.

Friday, January 16, 2015

And I'm sending you out this signal here


Today's post, about what is coveted and what is priceless, is at Toxophily.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Replay ruins everything

At some point during almost every football game Noel and I watched this season, he had to endure the same rant from me. It's the replay rant. There are ancillary rants, but they are all related to the replay rant. I can sum it up with the title of this post, although of course there are so many nuances.

Here are some of the things replay has ruined:

  1. Pace. It's very possible that replay is what prevented Oregon from competing in the national championship on Monday.
  2. Refereeing. All calls are provisional now. I even heard the color announcer Monday night praising the referees for making a call precisely to provoke a review so they could see what really happened.
  3. The rulebook. The infamous Calvin Johnson rule is only one example. Verities on which I have built my life -- the ground cannot cause a fumble, for instance -- are now subordinate to bizarre standards that stretch the definitions of "catch," "fumble," "possession," and even "move" into absurdity.
  4. Touchdowns. Even though the new rules require players to "control the ball" all the way through their fall to the ground and beyond, the "break the plane" standard for touchdowns means that as soon as the ball pierces that barrier, nothing that happens thereafter matters. Players shove the ball toward the plane knowing that even if it leaves their hands, they still score.
  5. Consequences. Coaches have challenges, which was supposed to keep the play moving on the field so that every incident wasn't litigated in replay. But now referees call for reviews much more often than coaches, and certain plays are automatically reviewed, so the coaches don't have to make those calculations about whether it's worth it to challenge.
Tennis is the only sport I know where replay -- in the form of the Cyclops -- has actually improved the game, helping the officials "get it right" without destroying the athletes' pacing and provoking an infinite regress of arguments. Baseball is moving in football's direction, even after only one season; the idea that a replay of a close play at first is more likely to yield the truth than the ump watching the foot and listening for the ball to hit the glove is a fantasy. And it's a dangerous one -- a fantasy that insists that higher frame rates and better definition and more detailed rules will result in more justice, when what it actually does is disintegrate the event under examination until it is completely lost.

If I ever teach that class on philosophy of sports again, I'm going to hold a class full of students hostage with that rant. I hope somebody in the league offices is wise and powerful enough to ski off this slippery slope before then.

Monday, January 12, 2015

You've got to set them up


Today's post, about the long journey of yarn to find its purpose, is at Toxophily.

Friday, January 9, 2015

One hour, twelve years ago

Yesterday I walked over to the College of Business to work a shift at the Welcome Tent. The university sets up several of these around campus, food service stocks them with cookies and hot apple cider, and faculty volunteers staff them for the first couple of days of class, making returning and new students feel welcome and answering any questions they might have.

There were three faculty chatting at the table when I walked up. I greeted them, and the one I knew by name introduced me around to the others. "When I first started here," he said, "Donna bought me coffee and spent an hour talking with me. I've never forgotten it."

His reminiscence startled me. I had certainly forgotten it. But it came back to me. I had seen him at church, and gone over to say hello and introduce myself during the peace. He mentioned that he was new at UCA, and I emailed later to invite him to grab a cup of coffee and chat. Make him feel welcome, just like we were trying to do with the students that day. Answer his questions. And here he was, twelve and a half years later, telling these other faculty how much it meant to him.

I remember that impulse, to take some extra time to make sure someone sees a friendly face, has someone to listen to them. It's something that I was never consistent in doing, back in those early days, but occasionally the opportunity would arise and I would seize it. The busier I got, the higher-stakes every hour of my day seemed to be, the less I did that. I've been uncomfortably aware of how little time I've been willing to devote to such things in the past few years. One of my 2015 resolutions is to commit to them again -- to spend time with students and colleagues, to take advantage of those chances that come along to be the friendly face, the listening ear.

Thanks, Mark, for reminding me how much even a little time, a long time ago, can matter.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Opening day

Ah, the first day of the semester. When everything is pristine. None of the students are jaded yet; none are alienated. No papers or journals are stacked up waiting to be graded. All is possibility.

I read years ago that students form an impression of their teacher's competence in the first few minutes of watching them, and that nothing that occurs thereafter changes that impression. That's a terrifying thought. What if the technology goes wrong in those first few minutes? What if you call someone by the wrong name? What if you make a joke and it falls flat?

A couple of years ago, I went to a teaching workshop where one of my teaching heroes, David Dussourd, told us about what he does on the first day of his introductory biology class. He's an entymologist, and a world-class photographer of insects. "Why study insects?" he asks his students. They typically offer a wide range of answers: to fight insect-carried diseases, to understand evolution, etc. Then Dr. Dussourd offers his answer: "We study insects because insects are exquisite."

That word has stuck with me. It simultaneously conveys the intrinsic value of the object of study, and the wonder and delight it evokes in the student. I think every scholar should feel the same way about her subject. And if that's so, then the role of the teacher is to open the student's eyes to the ways what is being studied is exquisite.

Every year I enter the classroom for the first time hoping to do this for my subject -- whether it be religious belief, religious practice, scripture, axiology, film, television, or the big interdisciplinary questions raised in the first year of our program (what is human existence? how do we experience it together?). And by the end of most semesters I'm pretty sure I've failed. Yet on the course evaluations, somehow it becomes apparent that more students than not have gotten it. They've seen through all the mess of a course -- assignments, logistics, timetables, deadlines, organizational schemes, improvisation -- and grasped what it was supposed to be all about.

It's their perseverance in the face of what Walker Percy called the "preformed symbolic complex," the educational "package" (or "postcard" as we like to call it here), that makes the class work. It's not my doing, believe me. All I can offer is a little space in the window of education with the mud rubbed away, smeary and streaky and soon fogged over. If they are alert and intrepid enough to gaze through, they get all the credit. On the other side, without fail, there is something exquisite.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

One shivering step at a time

One of the great things about getting back into the semester routine is that my exercise and eating habits level out a bit. I'm making my first concerted effort to lose weight in many, many years, and I've been looking forward to the day when I could start counting on that two-mile walk every morning: taking CG to school, swinging back by the house to pick up my stuff, then heading to the office. It's a lot easier to get to my 10,000-step goal when I start every weekday that way.

So I watch the weather like a hawk, because storms or dangerous conditions can derail that exercise I count on. And dangerous conditions might be present tomorrow morning, with overnight temperatures forecast to go as low as 11 degrees. I'm going to have to make up those 6500 steps somewhere else tomorrow.

When I say that I'm making a concerted effort to lose weight, this is what I mean. For many years -- including here on this blog -- I've been following the No-S Diet. It certainly kept me from getting out of control. But it's a rule of thumb, a way to give yourself structure so you don't overdo it. It's not -- at least in the way I handled it -- a goal-based system that holds you accountable for results.

It's not like I haven't known I'm overweight. The Wii Fit Balance Board made sure of that, along with every BMI chart that got handed to me at an employee wellness meeting. I won't even mention the way the mirror disapproved. But the thing that made the consequences of that real to me were the cholesterol numbers that came back from a blood screening. Researching how to lower them, the first thing on every list was "lose weight." Time to get serious, then.

For me, having a plan and a program is fun. I love systems and collect them obsessively. Systems for time management, workflow, organization -- they energize me. Finding the best system is fun. Implementing it turns on my reflective and assessing capacities, keeping me alert and aware of my own reactions. Living within a system is soothing. At its best, an elegant, well-designed system delights me on a daily basis.

So of course I made my New Year's resolution into a system -- an ecosystem, really, with quantified-self tools old and new feeding into the plan. I was already using a Fitbit to set step and climbing goals for each day, Runkeeper to track walks and jogs, and Gym Hero to record strength training (uh oh, looks like that last one might be about to hit the skids -- hasn't been updated in 18 months). Years of reading about various diet schemes made it clear to me that the only thing that mattered was calories -- more out than in, the weight comes off. MyFitnessPal integrated with the tools I was already using, calculated a daily calorie allowance for me, and provided a food diary so I could keep myself within it. Noel, really rolling the dice but coming up a big winner, got me an Aria scale for Christmas. I couldn't even wait to start until after the holidays, so enticing was this system.

In some ways, the system provides a kind of satisfaction that makes it hard for me to feel deprived. Gamification really works on me. A badge, a smiley-face, a cheer from an online friend, keeping my graphs in the green -- those stupid rewards matter, for whatever reason. I dreaded getting serious about losing weight for years, and hoped futilely that by exercising more or cutting out dessert, it would be enough. I was afraid of feeling constantly deprived, constantly aware of what I wasn't getting to have or do -- a depressing prospect. But my dread was misplaced. It's not like that at all. And the realization that all I really have to do is keep going like I have been these last three weeks, and slowly but surely my goal will come into sight, a goal that once seemed unattainable without drastic measures -- well, that produces a kind of euphoria that even my most-loved foods would be hard-pressed to match.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015


It's fun to say. Try it! Insta-Hat!


More pics, and the story, over at Toxophily.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Welcome back

I finished a book in 2014. It's the first time I've done that all on my lonesome since the early days of my professorship, when I turned my dissertation into a book. Looking back at the process, similarly to that previous experience, it's hard to believe I had the discipline. The introduction was written during the spring, but it wasn't until early May that I had a chance to start the body of the book in earnest. During the twelve weeks of summer break I wrote five chapters -- a pace of 1 chapter every 2.4 weeks. I knew that once the fall semester started, I wouldn't be able to keep up that pace. But with a deadline of late November, I needed to get close to it.

I'll never forget the moment in early October when I finished chapter 7. For weeks I'd been mapping out the time remaining on my deadline. "Chapter 7 is the third from the end," I rehearsed to myself. "Then one in October, one in November, and boom -- I'm done." Then, after putting that antepenultimate chapter to bed, I turned to my master outline. Wait -- what's this? There are ten chapters in my book?! That's right. I had allowed myself to misremember based on the nine themes I was exploring, one per chapter. But chapter 1 was background, not one of the themes. I still had three chapters to go. Writing the third-from-the-end chapter again in October was a low point. And I knew that Thanksgiving was right out. So I told my editors it would be Christmas, and I worked through my trip to the annual AAR meeting in San Diego -- the one I thought would be a book-finishing party -- to finish chapter 9. Finally, on the Friday before Christmas, I submitted the manuscript.

Since then, it's been vacation from almost everything having to do with school or scholarship. We played tabletop games with the kids everyday, from their first day of the break through New Year's. I relaxed into post-Christmas-rush knitting, the very best kind, when the deadlines fade and the knitter can consider her long-term needs and goals as well as her short-term gratification. Football ruled on the television, and we snuck a few screenings of 2014's best movies into our schedule, too. Noel made the most amazing holiday food of our lives -- baked goods, prime rib for Christmas dinner, a Yule log, corned beef and cabbage for New Year's Day.

I knew that when the calendar rolled over to 2015, my life would look very different. There's no book that I need to push forward a few more pages every day. Without having to carve out an hour or two, whatever could be spared, in my schedule for writing -- without promises to editors looming -- my prospects seemed to stretch out before me limitlessly.

So I made some resolutions. Here I am fulfilling one of them -- I'm going to get back to freewriting every day. It may not always be blogging, but it's likely to be blogging, quite a bit of the time. I've got a year's backlog of projects to post on Toxophily. And I'm tired of having a thought worth exploring, thinking "I ought to blog about that," and realizing that I'm not going to because all my writing energies need to be bent toward my book. I'm going to blog about those, this year.

Because it's freewriting, it's not going to be priceless pearls over here every day, loyal readers. Some days it will be just a brain dump, or worse -- the writing equivalent of taking the garbage to the curb. I'll try to be discerning enough to leave the dregs in draft.

But I'm excited about being back here. It's part of a larger set of resolutions, about making time for people I care about. Far too frequently in the past two years, as I've researched then written this book, my students and colleagues have knocked on my door only to have me communicate to them, by words or attitude, that I don't have time for them. I've stopped reading blogs and participating in my online communities. Yet when I do spend time with people who need my help or just want my company, they receive far more from me than I am actually expending. This year, and going forward, they're going to be welcome in my office, on my schedule, in my life.

That includes you, if you're reading this! I'm here for you. Ask a question, suggest a topic, offer feedback. I'll see you back here often.