Tag Archives: liberal arts

What Should We Learn in College? (Part II)

by Wade Maki

In my last post I discussed comments made by our Governor on what sorts of things we should, and shouldn’t, be learning in college. This is a conversation going on across higher education. Of course we should learn everything in college, but this goal is not practical as our time and funds are limited. We are left then to prioritize what things to require of our students, what things will be electives, and what things not to offer at all.

One area we do this prioritization in is “general education” (GE), which is the largest issue in determining what we learn in college. Some institutions have a very broad model for GE that covers classic literature, history, philosophy, and the “things an educated person should know.” Exactly what appears on this list will vary by institution with some being more focused on the arts, some on the humanities, and others on social sciences. The point being that the institution decides a very small core for GE.

The drawback to a conscribed model for GE is that it doesn’t allow for as much student choice. The desire for more choice led to another very common GE system often referred to as “the cafeteria model” whereby many courses are offered as satisfying GE requirements and each student picks preferences for a category. This system is good for student choice of what to learn, but it isn’t good if you want a connected “core” of courses.

In recent years there has been a move to have a “common core” in which all universities within a state would have the same GE requirements. This makes transfers easier since all schools have the same core. However, it also tends to limit the amount of choice by reducing the options to only those courses offered at every school. In addition, it eliminates the local character of an institution’s GE (by making them all the same), which also reduces improvements from having competing systems (when everyone does it their own way, good ideas tend to be replicated). If we don’t try different GE systems on campuses then innovation slows.

Image

No matter which direction we move GE, we still have to address the central question of “what should we learn?” For example, should students learn a foreign language? Of course they should in an ideal world, but consider that foreign language requirements are two years.  We must compare the opportunity costs of that four course requirement (what else could we have learned from four other courses in say economics, psychology, science, or communications?). This is just one example of how complicated GE decisions can be. Every course we require is a limitation on choice and makes it less likely that other (non-required) subjects will be learned.

As many states look at a “common core” model there is an additional consideration which is often overlooked.  Suppose we move to a common core of general education in which most students learn the same sorts of things.  Now imagine your business or work environment where most of your coworkers learned the same types of things but other areas of knowledge were not learned by any of them. Is this preferable to an organization where its already employed educated members learned very little in common but have more diverse educational backgrounds? I suspect an organization with more diverse education employees will be more adaptable than one where there are a few things everyone knows and a lot of things no one knows.

Image

This is my worry about the way we are looking to answer the question of what we should learn in college. In the search for an efficient, easy to transfer, common core we may end up:

  1. Having graduates with more similar educations and the same gaps in their educations.
  2. Losing the unique educational cultures of our institutions.
  3. Missing out on the long term advantage of experimentation across our institutions by imposing one model for everyone.

Not having a common core doesn’t solve the all of the problems, but promoting experiments through diverse and unique educational requirements is worth keeping. There is another problem with GE that I can’t resolve, which is how most of us in college answer the question this way: “Everyone should learn what I did or what I’m teaching.” But that is a problem to be addressed in another posting. So, what should we learn in college?

SECAC Art Conference: Coming to Greensboro in 2013

by Ann Millett-Gallant

SECACSECAC, the Southeast College Art Conference, was founded as a regional arts organization in 1942 and now hosts an annual, national conference for artists, art educators and scholars, and art museum professionals.

The organization also publishes The SECAC Review, presents awards for excellence in teaching, museum exhibitions, and artist works, and posts opportunities and jobs for art professionals.  I have attended and presented at numerous SECAC conferences in the past, in Little Rock, AR, Norfolk, VA, Columbia, SC, and Savannah, GA.  The 2012 conference was held in my hometown, Durham, NC and sponsored by Meredith College.  Conference panels are proposed and selected by panel chairs, and this year, I chaired a panel titled “Disability and Performance: Bodies on Display.”  This topic is central to my research and especially my book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

millett-gallant_book

The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art

My panelists gave presentations on independent films; the canonical painting by Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875, and comparable images of disabled war veterans; and the collection of freak show photographs in the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, CN.  This was my second experience chairing a panel on disability and disability studies at a SECAC conference, topics that are still somewhat new for art historians and professionals.  The panel went well and sparked much interest and lively conversation.

I also attended a panel on Doppelgangers, or images of doubles or identical pairs, which engaged art historical examples from diverse contexts and time periods, as well as a panel on self-taught, or outsider artists.  This latter panel was of special interest to me, because my good friend from graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill, Leisa Rundquist, presented a paper on the work of Henry Darger (the link is to works by Darger in the Folk Art Museum, whose administration and education employees hosted the panel).  Leisa is now a professor of art history of UNC Asheville, so the conference was also a chance to see her.  I especially enjoy SECAC conferences, because I see a lot of old friends and usually meet new and like-minded people.

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

Thomas Eakins, “The Gross Clinic,” 1875

I didn’t attend as much of the conference as I usually do, ironically, because it was too close to home.  On the day before my presentation, my refrigerator broke, so I returned home right after the panel to wait for a new refrigerator to arrive.  I attended two panels the next day and caught up with friends over glasses of wine at the bar.  I didn’t participate in any of the organized tours of local museums and art venues, as I can see them whenever I want.  It was nice not to have to pack for and travel to the conference, especially in light of how stressful and expensive flying has become, but there is something nice about going to conferences out of town, staying at the conference hotel, and immersing yourself in the atmosphere and activities.

This Fall, the conference will be held in Greensboro, NC, so hopefully I will see many of my colleagues from UNCG and the Weatherspoon Art Museum there, as well as, perhaps, my students.  I will be chairing a panel titled “Photographing the Body.”

What Should we Learn in College? (Part I)

by Wade Maki

Recently Governor McCrory made some comments on William Bennett’s radio show about higher education. These comments got a lot of people’s attention and not necessarily the good kind. Before reading any comments on what someone else has said it is best to check out the original source. To that end, I suggest listening to the entire segment of the Governor on the show (which you can download as an MP3 here).

Governor Pat McCrory

Governor Pat McCrory

Several comments were made regarding higher education including the importance an education has in getting a job, the shortage of certain kinds of training (welding), and the surplus of workers in other kinds of education (including gender studies, philosophy, and Swahili). While there are a lot of things worth responding to in the radio segment, I will address only one issue: Why disciplinary training in philosophy is valuable. Philosophy is, after all, my field and it is wise to restrict one’s public claims to what one knows.

What does philosophy teach us? Common answers include increased critical thinking, argumentation skills, and clarity of communication. In practice this includes a bundle of skills such as: seeing the logical implications of proposed ideas or courses of action; the ability to identify the relevant issue under discussion and separate out the “red herrings”, unsupported arguments, or fallacious reasoning; being able to break down complex ideas, issues, or communications and explain them in a logically organized fashion, etc. I could go on, but these are a sampling of the real skills learned from an education in philosophy.

What the governor and Dr. Bennett (who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy) said gives the impression that a philosophy education doesn’t help students get jobs. This has been a takeaway message in the media. Since, others have made the case that a job isn’t the goal of an education, I leave it to the reader to examine that argument. There are two points about the discussion that should be noted. First, Dr. Bennett was suggesting that we have too many Ph.D.’s in philosophy, which is a separate claim than philosophy lacks educational value. It may be true that we have an oversupply of Ph.D.’s in many disciplines (and a shortage in others). The causes of this are many and include the free choice of students as to what to study, the impetus for universities to create graduate programs to enhance their reputations, and the ability to reduce teaching costs by putting graduate students in the classroom. Again, I leave it to others to examine these causes. Nothing Dr. Bennett said indicated that undergraduates shouldn’t learn philosophy.

Dr. William "Bill" Bennett

Dr. William “Bill” Bennett

This leads me to the second point—Dr. Bennett is himself an example of the value philosophy adds to education. What do you do with a philosophy education? Dr. Bennett parlayed his philosophical training, in addition to legal training (a common set of skills), to become Secretary of Education, a political commentator, an author, and a talk radio host. His logical argumentation skills, knowledge of Aristotle and virtue ethics are seen throughout his work. The very skills described above as benefits of a philosophical education are the skills his career represents.

There are very good reasons to include philosophy as part of our higher education curricula. Unfortunately, philosophy becomes an easy target in public discourse disparaging what we learn in this discipline for at least two reasons. First, most people don’t have an understanding of what philosophy is and how it develops numerous valuable skills. Second, philosophy teaches transferable skills that enhance many careers without having a single career associated solely with it (besides teaching). In other words, the value of studying nursing may be to become a nurse in a way that studying philosophy isn’t to become a philosopher. The value of philosophy is found in the skills it develops which can be applied to all sorts of jobs. I suspect Dr. Bennett would agree and I hope Governor McCrory will as well.

The Clock is Ticking

By Claude Tate

I’ve been thinking lately about the problem of overpopulation.

WARNING:  I cannot verify the following story from my sociology professor is true. However, I can verify it got my attention.

My first encounter with the population problem came early in my college career. I had a sociology professor who told us of an effort in a rural village in India to help women use the rhythm method of contraception. The health workers gave each woman of childbearing age an abacus.  Each day they were to move another bead to one side. They were told how it was safe to have sex once all the beads of a certain color were on one side. The abacus experiment did work exactly as planned. The women did not move one bead a day as intended. They simply moved all the beads that indicated danger over at once, and went on their merry way.  Of course in America we believe in using more reliable methods of birth control…or do we?

Recently, the Obama Administration got into some political hot water in issuing a requirement that birth control pills be covered in the new health reform legislation.  Schools, hospitals, and other institutions supported by the Catholic Church felt the government had overstepped its authority in requiring them to offer birth control through the health insurance policies they offered.  For many Catholics, this was a matter of faith.  But unfortunately for many politicians, it was just an opportunity. President Obama thus sought an accommodation. The accommodation, that the insurance companies that cover the costs of birth control must assume the full cost, took some of the air out of the opposition, but it still may have a political impact.  Only time will tell.

And at the time of this writing, a bill is moving through the Arizona legislature that would require employers to ask women who take birth control pills if they are using it for birth control or a medical condition. It will allow an employer to refuse to cover a prescription used for contraception. And according to the American Civil Liberties Union, the law would make it easier to fire a woman if the employer found out she took birth control medication for the purpose of preventing pregnancy. In other words, the beliefs of the employer would take priority over the beliefs and needs of female employees. It has already been approved by the House, and as of this writing, is in the Senate Rules Committee. If approved there, it will be considered by the full Senate.  Whether it will pass or not or what the specifics of the final bill will be is still up in the air, but the fact that it is actually being considered by a state legislature is disturbing. I wonder if those opposed to medicine to prevent unwanted pregnancies would allow insurance companies to buy abacuses. Who knows, maybe they will work this time.

They call the time leading up to elections the silly season. But for this election cycle, we may need some new descriptors. I can see the arguments of the opponents of abortion.  But I find it difficult to believe that insurance coverage for medication to prevent pregnancy be denied, especially in a world whose human population has just passed 7 billion people and counting.

Our world is facing many problems.  In fact, their number is so daunting it’s simply hard to wrap one’s mind around them.  I may deal with some of the others in future contributions, but for this blog I thought I would focus on one problem, that of overpopulation. But as I thought about it, I realized it was simply too broad to deal with in such a limited format as overpopulation is a factor in one way or another in so many of the problems we face today. So, I decided to limit my discussion to only one aspect of the problem, the impact of our increasing population on the future of the biosphere. We are going forth and multiplying at an alarming rate.  And for the earth, that means we are running through its resources at exponential rates.  Mineral resources are growing more and more scarce, the problem of what to do with waste products is growing worse on land and on sea (there’s a major floating trash dump in the Pacific that we do not know how to deal with), fresh water is being depleted and is already running low in many areas, the demand for food is leading to deforestation on a massive scale, and plant and animal species are disappearing daily as natural habitats are destroyed or altered. And of course, regardless of what some still say, we are changing our climate.  If something is not done to rein that growth in, and rein it in soon, we will reach the point where the planet’s biosphere simply will not be able to support any more humans.  We will reach its “carrying capacity”.  And the entire biosphere will be impacted.  Life is tenacious. It will continue. Human life will even probably continue. But it will be different.

As you can see, even introducing the impact of overpopulation of the biosphere is simply too complex to adequately deal with within this space. So I searched for some websites that would introduce this issue to anyone who may be interested in the impact of overpopulation and the environment.  So I typed in ‘population growth and the environment’ and received 5,480,000 results. After closely reading 5,479, 999 websites, I settled on an essay from the website, 123helpme, called “The Population Explosion” .  It provides a nice, brief overview of some of the major environmental problems associated with the growing human population.

Note:  I was just kidding about reading ALL of those sites. I really read only a few hundred thousand or so before deciding on including “The Population Explosion”.

Obviously, we need to bring our population growth under control, but how to do that is still very much open to question. Any solution will involve among other things, something we deal with in the last unit of my BLS class, “Visions of Creation”; how we understand what it means to be human.  However, as with any problem, the ‘devil is in the details’.  And the details here will have implications for every human on the planet.  So any discussions of solutions must wait for another time and another place.

But I do know this… the clock is ticking.

Medici: Money, Murder, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and More!

By Wade Maki

Early in the 15th century an ex-pirate enters a small shop in Florence. A visit to the shop is not his goal. In the back of the shop is a small family bank from which the ex-pirate hopes to gain a large loan. The man running the bank, Giovonni de’Medici, grants the loan. The ex-pirate uses the money to fund a new career in the church and within a few years he becomes Pope John XXIII. As a reward the Medici become the bankers to the church expanding Medici Bank’s reach across Europe.

Giovonni represents a successful business career. Of course, during this time in Florence business, family, and politics (including murder) were all interconnected. To promote and protect the family, more than just money was needed. To rise in social standing without noble blood required a different display than business success. The Medici began to fund the arts making themselves patrons of the Renaissance.

Giovonni’s son, Cosimo, had the luxury of a classical education in literature and philosophy. He also grew up in the banking business. Cosimo continued to run the bank, fund the arts, and collect classical texts which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Medici became patrons to the architect Brunelleschi who would create the largest dome in the Christian world. In addition, Cosimo commissioned works from many artists such as Lippi, Donatello, Michelozzo and Gozzoli.  The Medici even took in a young boy and raised him with their own children because of his artistic aptitude. That boy was Michelangelo.

Santa Maria del Fiore - Brunelleshi

Late in the 15th century, Lorenzo de’Medici, known as “the Magnificent”, would go on to run the city of Florence and commission work from Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo. All of the Medici successes, the Renaissance they helped create was not appreciated by all. In 1492 Lorenzo was murdered and the family driven out by religious fundamentalists who then held a “bonfire of the vanities” to publicly incinerate classical “pagan” literature and non-Christian artistic works.

Birth of Venus – Botticelli

Exiled from Florence, Lorenzo’s son Giovonni, a cardinal in the church, sought to reclaim Florence, which had become a republic. Giovonni found the Pope sympathetic and with papal support raised an army to march on Florence. One of the young advisors to the republic arranged a citizen army to defend the city. This defense would not succeed, as Giovonni’s tactics were so brutal (massacring an entire village) that the leaders of the republic surrendered rather than risk a more violent end. The young advisor who led the resistance to Giovonni de’Medici was arrested, tortured, and exiled. His name was Niccolo Machiavelli who went on to write a book, The Prince, dedicated to the Medici in the hopes of regaining a government job. This did not earn him a job, but the book has made him one of the most infamous political writers in history.

Macchiavelli

After retaking the city, Giovonni went on to become Pope Leo X by 1513. His financial mismanagement of church funds led to the selling of papal indulgences (you simply paid for a document forgiving various sins). Pope Leo’s actions caused a little known German priest to protest church corruption. The Priest’s name was Martin Luther who started a little thing called the Protestant Reformation (maybe you’ve heard of it).

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

During this period, Medici patronage allowed Michelangelo to complete the statue of David (which was damaged during an anti-Medici revolt in the city), paint the Sistine Chapel, and the Last Judgment (which included nude people, who the church had another artist paint undergarments on the exposed genitals).

The Last Judgment – Michelangelo

Other Medici ruled Florence as Duke, became Popes, and one even went on to rule France as Queen (with a belief in the writings of Nostradamus). In the 16th century the Medici hired a tutor who taught three generations of Medici students. The tutor was especially skilled in science and astronomy. His name was Galileo and he remained with the Medici until the Pope sent the Inquisition after him for writing that the earth revolved around the sun. Not even the Medici could save Galileo from the Papal Inquisition.

We often talk about interconnectedness and complexity within the human experience. This is reflected well in the lives of the Medici. Their motivations were very human. They desired wealth, power, and status and found business, religion, and the arts useful methods to achieve those ends. They also had a sincere appreciation for history, philosophy, and the arts—especially for the classics—which had been lost since the fall of the Roman Empire. They were greedy bankers, ruthless rulers, corrupt Popes, patrons of the arts, promoters of science, preservers of culture and essential to the Renaissance. All of these things connect to a single family within a 200 year period. It doesn’t get much more human than that.

Will it Play in Peoria? (Putting More “Distance” in Distance Education)

By Matt McKinnon

That should really be: Will it “Work” in Peoria?

Or better: Can “I” Work “from” Peoria.

I have been involved in “distance education” in the form of teaching online for six years now. For the first five of these, I, like many BLS instructors, taught traditional face-to-face classes in addition to my online offerings, working a joint appointment in both Religious Studies and the BLS program.

My approach to online education was probably pretty common: It’s just like my “regular” courses—only entirely online: lectures can be morphed into notes that students can read, the discussion board will work just like class discussion, and the rest is really just students reading books and writing papers.

Distance education, I assumed, meant distance “learning,” and any differences between the teaching I did in my face-to-face classes and that of my online courses would be logistical—and up to the students to work out.

And then I moved to Peoria (right on the edge of “Forgottonia”) and discovered what anyone who has ever taught online while on leave from the University already knew:

Distance Education means distance “teaching” as well as distance “learning.”

(Well duh! It makes sense now, but as is the case with all Copernican-type revolutions where the “center” gets displaced from it place of fictive prominence, it came as quite an eye-opener.)

Of course this does not change everything; nor should it. Many professors, including myself, still feel that the best way for education at the highest levels to occur is, well, students reading, discussing the material with the class, and traditional assessment strategies like examinations and papers. (And maybe the occasional interactive activity.)

But it does change some things, and one of the things it changes the most is approach to research and access to a top-rated academic library.

Luckily, however, the same technology that is driving distance education has already been driving distance research for quite a while.

I remember way back in graduate school —not long after Al Gore had invented the internet—when I was assigned my first research assistantship. I worked for Father Kurtz, a Roman Catholic priest (a Jesuit in fact) who didn’t have a lot of things to do other than writing articles and books. So he did a lot of research, which of course required that I do a lot of research.

The major religious studies data bases had recently been put online, going in a matter of a few years from print to computer, and then to “computer that I could access from the comfort of my living room.”

I could compile in an hour research that would have taken his previous assistants days to sort through. (He thought I was brilliant, driven, and a workaholic like himself when in reality I was just knowledgeable of the available resources and lazy enough to find a way to access them from home.

The good news is that now BLS students have even better resources available to them—and presumably more comfortable living rooms than a poor graduate student holed-up in Milwaukee.

The place to start is the Library’s own website dedicated to Distance Education Services.

It has links that assists you in getting hard copies of the books and articles that the library possesses (or that may be better accessible closer to you).

It has online workshops where you can participate in seminars on everything from learning Jing to career assistance.

It has a link to “Path,” the Library’s 10 module research tutorial.

It has links to technical assistance as well as the University’s very own Distance Education Librarian, Beth Filar Williams, who is trained to help you with your online research projects.

(Beth can be contacted at efwilli3@uncg.edu or 336-256-1231.)

Some BLS courses even have research guides tailored to their specific requirements (and hopefully more will have them soon). Here’s an example from the Pathways course.

And, by clicking on “Other Help With Research,” it has links to “Research Guides by Subject,” which will put you in touch with all of the major academic data bases that made yours truly Father Kurtz’s star researcher back in grad school.

(I won’t tell if you won’t tell.)

On Talking Trash (and lovin’ it!)

By Carrie Levesque

So unless you’ve been living under a rock (or used your spring break to take a much-needed vacation from all media, and if so, good on ya!), you’ve probably heard about Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘slut’ for her testimony at a hearing related to the controversial federal Health and Human Services contraception mandate.  In the uproar that has followed Limbaugh’s comments (numerous online petitions and the withdrawal of dozens of sponsors from his radio program), though few, if any, have defended his abusive rant, conservatives have been quick to remind us of similar attacks liberal commentators have made on women like Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham.

That ‘liberals do it, too’ does not in any way excuse Limbaugh’s behavior (especially since Limbaugh is somewhat unusual in having done what he has done repeatedly, and has even made sexist remarks against another young woman since the Fluke debacle, which is impressive, even for him).  But this tit-for-tat deflection is actually a relevant point when considering the larger question.  When Limbaugh insists he ‘did not intend a personal attack’ on Sandra Fluke, I can almost believe him, considering the casualness with which we throw around names like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ (and worse) in our media.  It only takes about 10 seconds of searching this topic on the web to find plenty of examples of male commentators (liberal and conservative) who have been chastised in recent years for choosing to attack female public figures with sexualized epithets.  Which leads me to the questions: why do they do it, and why do we put up with it?

The line between ‘news’ and ‘entertainment’ has become so blurred in our society that one wonders whether there is a line at all anymore, or if it isn’t all, with few exceptions, ‘infotainment.’  Limbaugh, and conservative commentators like him, simply deliver what their most dedicated listeners expect: a snarky, no-holds-barred skewering of all things Left.  As Neal Boortz’s tagline (“Somebody’s Gotta Say It!”) suggests, the success of these shows rests on the commentator’s willingness to say the outrageous, to offer the brashest, crudest version of a ‘truth’ that the ‘mainstream’ media lack the cojones to utter.

It’s not any different on the Left.  Bill Maher famously called Sarah Palin a c*nt (among many other very rude, sex-related remarks).  This crude talk excites listeners; it boosts ratings, and isn’t that what it’s all about?  Sadly, too often the people we look to to comment on current events are entertainers and calling female public figures demeaning and sexualized names is, for many consumers of ‘news’ media, entertaining.

I’ve partly answered the second question in answering the first.  Many of us put up with this because, frankly, it doesn’t offend us; few might admit it, but many of us don’t see the harm.  To me, it’s similar to an article I read in the Greensboro News & Record last Sunday about mudslinging in political campaigns.  Everyone complains about it, yet politicians continue to run attack ads and negative campaigns because it is proven to work.  Studies show that we may say we are not influenced by a candidate’s negative campaigning, but truth is, we are- those doubts Candidate A wants to plant in your mind about Candidate B find their mark.  Candidates are rewarded for bad behavior, as many of these sexist commentators are in the long run, provided they don’t push that envelope too far.

Similarly, people who continue to listen to Maher and Limbaugh probably would not say they condone their most over-the-top remarks, or that their dismissal of these comments as ‘no big deal/just entertainment’ does not in any way contribute to the persistence of misogynistic attitudes toward women in public life.  There will be a bit of finger wagging about ‘making better word choices,’ but mostly the issue will be treated as an individual’s unfortunate gaffe and not an issue with our larger society.

But this is not just about ‘making better word choices.’  While it would be a vast improvement, I don’t think it’s going far enough for people to still think their misogynistic comments but not say them.  We need to work toward a media culture where people, public figures particularly, approach one another and the issues with enough respect that they don’t even let their emotions get to a place where they would think to call people those names (you know, the most basic standards of professionalism the rest of us work with).  Maybe that’s not realistic, but I don’t think it’s a bad standard to work for.

This just in: the UNCG Women and Gender Studies program is showing a documentary this week, Miss Representation,  which “challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women,” portrayals which “contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America,” (WGS flyer) on Wednesday, March 14 at 7pm. This post may not come out in time to get you there, but you can check out the website to find out other ways to view this documentary.

Transcendence on a June Night

By Claude Tate

The topic area for this blog is designated as “Arts, Entertainment, Sports, Leisure, Family”, So naturally I thought about a little lightnin’ bug, whose scientific name is Phausis reticulate, but is commonly known as the blue ghost.

Image from the Encyclopedia Britannica

 

     “As humans we are born of the Earth, nourished by the Earth, healed by the Earth.  The natural world tells us:  I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal you.  Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate the divine and the human.  For I offer you a communion with the divine, I offer you gifts that you can exchange with each other, I offer you flowers whereby you may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other.
In the vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape, and in the foreboding of the great storms that sweep over the land, and in all these experiences I offer you inspiration for your music, for your art, your dance.”

~From  the essay, “Evening Thoughts”, included in Thomas Berry’s 2006 book of the same name.

I was first introduced to Thomas Berry (a native and resident of Greensboro) in classes I took with Dr. Charlie Headington in the MALS program here at UNCG.  Sadly, Dr. Berry passed a few years ago, but fortunately, he left us with a considerable body of writings, some of which I’ve included in my BLS class, “Visions of the Creation”.  Thomas Berry’s legacy cannot be summed up easily.  As one of the world’s leading eco-theologians, he drew on numerous cultural, scientific, philosophical, and religious traditions to weave a narrative of a universe filled with mystery, wonder, and the sacred.  But to me, perhaps the most important message Dr. Berry imparted to us is that this knowledge and these insights are accessible to everyone. The earth stands ready to reveal its sacred knowledge, and show us our place and role, and what it means to be human. All we have to do is to pay attention.

Far too often, we only give the earth a passing glance as we go about our daily lives, but we do not really pay attention to it.  But from time to time, the earth will show us something so special that we must stop and pay attention. One such instance occurred to my wife and me last June.  It wasn’t one of Martin Buber’s “I/Thou” moments, but it was magical nonetheless.  Since I’m somewhat lazy, or maybe a should say extremely busy, I’ve pasted a portion of the letter my wife and I wrote to Our State in August of 2011 concerning our ‘stop and check this out’ moment.

“We read with great interest “Southern Lights “about the “blue ghost” fireflies in Henderson and Transylvania counties. About 10 pm on June 5 of this year, we hurriedly left our place outside of Etowah (10 miles NW of DuPont State Forest) to be with our son and his family as they awaited the birth of their second child in Hendersonville. At the foot of our mountain, near the French Broad River, there’s a large open valley.  That night the entire valley was positively aglow in fireflies, from the ground to the tops of the trees. While we wished we could have stayed longer, we could only stop briefly to appreciate this remarkable display as our granddaughter was on her way.

We had no idea why so many fireflies had gathered in that particular place until the arrival of our August edition of “Our State”.  We are now convinced that blue ghosts were responsible for this magical moment that heralded the arrival of a new life.

We have returned same time, same place but have never seen them in such abundance. But with a healthy granddaughter, a memorable sighting and another keepsake edition of Our State, we are blessed threefold! ”

The article “Southern Lights” was written by Diane Summerville.  There are several things that make them remarkable.  First, they are rare.  According to the article, blue ghosts only exist in a few places, and “Henderson and Transylvania counties are two of those places.” They can also be found in areas of Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas. One reason for this is that they are very fragile.  We referenced DuPont State Forest (the legislature recently changed its designation to DuPont State Recreational Forest) because due to the cool, moist climate, there are a number of colonies there. But even there, they only come out during late May and June when the temperature and humidity are just right.  Everything was ‘just right’ on that night in June when we saw them. Another reason they are rare is that there are very few females. So when the population of a colony drops, it may take years for them to re-establish themselves. So sighting them is special.  Also, their lights are special.  First, they are slightly bluish, thus the name, blue ghosts.  And rather than staying lit only a second or two like other fireflies, their lights stay lit for several seconds, and sometimes up to a minute. They don’t twinkle. So a few thousand blue ghosts will be far more visible than ordinary fireflies. That was why our valley looked so magical that night.

But understanding what lit up our valley on that June night has taken nothing away from the wonder we experienced. In fact, it has only enriched the memory. I’m sure Thomas Berry would agree.

If you are ever traveling to the Hendersonville area in late May or June, and have some free time, you may want to contact The Friends of DuPont Forest. They normally take two or three blue ghost tours each spring.  But sightings aren’t guaranteed. Conditions must be just right. Wonder cannot be ordered at a take-out window, and it doesn’t come with fries.

Image from the Blue Ghost Post blog of a blue ghost sighting.

And the Oscar Goes To…

By Marc Williams

This Sunday, the Hollywood glitterati will turn out for its annual jubilee, the Academy Awards. While I’ve never been a fan of award shows (see my post from last summer regarding the Tony Awards), I certainly view an Oscar as the highest recognition in the entertainment industry. While lots of quality work is unrecognized by the Academy each year, I still regard an Oscar nomination as some validation of quality work.

In the decade or so after I finished high school,  I took that validation quite seriously. I made a point of seeing all of the Oscar-nominated films before the awards ceremony. I would definitely see all the Best Picture nominees but I tried to see the documentaries and foreign films too.Indeed I saw many terrific films I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. In 1998, everybody saw Titanic (the Best Picture winner, among many other wins) but I hadn’t seen L.A. Confidential until after it received nine Oscar nominations. In 2004, it was a Best Director Oscar nomination for Fernando Meirelles that prompted me to view City of God–which I now count among my favorite films of all time.

When I first started trying to see all the Oscar-nominated films, my motivation was largely snobbish. I felt I earned a certain cultural cache from seeing all of the “great” films of the year, especially the obscure films my friends hadn’t heard of. Admittedly, there were many times I forced myself to sit through movies in which I wasn’t remotely interested. In earning my status as a highly cultured individual, I figured I had to pay the price of boredom. I suffered through The Red Violin, The Gangs of New York, and many other Oscar nominated films, hating every minute of them.

Naturally, circumstances change. I can’t fit self-imposed boredom into my schedule anymore. Nowadays I find it exceedingly difficult to go to the movies at all. My wife and I try to watch films at home but that can be challenging with a two-year old asleep down the hall. Not surprisingly, we’ve fallen behind on all the movies we want to see–we’ve learned from experience that Netflix only allows users to put 500 movies in the DVD queue. I doubt we’ll ever catch up. The result of our changing circumstances is a need to prioritize our film viewing and spend time only with stories we find truly fascinating–the Netflix queue is getting pared down to the essentials and we make very careful choices when we are able to make a rare trip to the movie theatre.

Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year, I’ve seen half. In recent years, I’ve seen far fewer.

In 2009, I had only seen two of the eight nominated films at the time of the ceremony. This year, I’ve seen Hugo, The Artist, The Descendants, and Midnight in Paris. I doubt I will ever see Moneyball or Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close because I’m just not interested. And this, for me, is how the Oscars reflect my changing views on achieving “cultured” status. I’m not willing to endure disinterest in exchange for this status.

I’m convinced, however, that I’m not the only person who has consumed boring art for snobbish reasons. In fact, I believe many of us go to the theatre, museums, or obscure films with boredom as an objective: “If I can withstand this boredom for two hours, I’ve paid my cultural debt to society.” I agree the arts are vital to communities, to self-awareness, and communication but if the work isn’t engaging, interesting, or in some way entertaining, how valuable can it be?

I’ve seen this phenomenon at work in some of my BLS courses. My Eye Appeal students, for instance, are required to attend a live performance in their community. My hope is that the assignment will be fun–and for most of my students, this assignment is the highlight of the course. But sometimes, students attend events in which they clearly aren’t interested. Perhaps they are trying to impress me with their sophistication, attending a ballet or opera that they secretly despise, hoping to manufacture some cultural credibility?

Have you ever suffered boredom for the sake of feeling cultured?

A Day at the Museum

By Ann Millett-Gallant

The renovated NC Art Museum

Last weekend, my husband and I visited the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.  Over the past few years the museum has undergone major renovations, as the main East Building was reorganized and expanded with an education wing was built, and a new, state of the art exhibition building was erected.  This 127,000-square-foot West Building, designed by Thomas Phifer and Partners, allows for natural light to enhance the color and detail of the works in the space and enhance the ambiance of the environment for the museum viewer.  Most of the museum’s permanent collection resides in the West Building, including the museum’s vast collection of Rodin sculptures, many of were acquired after renovations were completed.  The building contains both the Rodin court and the Rodin garden, where the expressive, early modern figurative sculptures embrace, stretch, and coil in moments of intense thought or meditation.  I have explored all the rooms and collections in the Museum’s new spaces, but for this visit, we concentrated on two exhibits in the East Building, Presence/Absence, a collection of photographs from the museum’s permanent collection, and Reflections: Portraits by Beverly McIver.

The idea that “presence” and “absence” are  important characteristics in the essence of photography has long, theoretic and poetic origins, yet here the exhibit chose to focus on landscapes and domestic spaces in which the human body was physically absent, yet where life forces were profuse.  Dimly lit houses glow in the moonlight of a rural vista, spilled milk expands on the floor in front of densely stacked convenience store goods, and stains on the wallpaper in front of an antique headboard hint of ghostly inhabitation.  I was drawn to the works by photographers whom I know; Jeff Whetstone is a professor at UNC at Chapel Hill and Pamela Pecchio, who is now a professor at the University of Virginia, also taught at UNC-CH when I was in graduate school there (I graduated in 2005).  The exhibition was small, but very intriguing for me.  I write about photography in my work and teach an online class about the diverse contexts in which photography is found, as well as some of the theories surrounding the role of the photograph as evidence and as illusion: BLS 345: Photography: Contexts and Illusions.

The museum also featured an exhibition of the portraits and self-portraits of North Carolina artist Beverly McIver.  Many examples of her work can be viewed here.  McIver was born in Greensboro and now lives with her developmentally disabled sister in Durham, where she is currently the Suntrust Endowed Chair Professor of Art at North Carolina Central University.  Many of McIver’s works are about roles for African-American women according to racial, gender, social and occupational identities, and they therefore directly to relate to my class Representing Women, in which we study roles for women in society and representations of women in diverse forms of visual culture.

Reminiscing (Beverly McIver, 2005)

This collection on view currently at the NCMA focuses on McIver’s portraits of her family, especially her mother and sister.  Captions on the museum walls present bits on McIver’s biography, including how her mother was such a strong role model, who lovingly cared for McIver’s sister, Rene, who had developmental impairments that, according to the text, caused her to behave as a child.  From my background in Disability Studies, I was at first critical of the museum’s texts that described Rene as “mentally disabled,” but was fascinated by McIver’s numerous portraits of Rene.  McIver’s characteristic, expressionist use of color and bold, thick paint strokes highlight Rene’s colorful and multi-dimensional personality.  Portraits of Rene show a range of intense facial expressions, as well as Rene’s love of expressive costumes.  McIver’s self-portraits also exhibit ranges of emotion and identity.  For example, Reminiscing, 2005, shows McIver’s vibrant and dramatic face in three different facial expressions, created with bold brush strokes of reds, oranges, yellows, and, with smaller flashes of blue and green.  Reminiscing suggests that the artist is musing over her personal and professional history, as an African-American woman and artist, yet the title also signifies a long history of the works’ form.  The selection of three canvases is reminiscent of a triptych, an artistic form that originated in Greek art, consisting of three panels that could be closed.  Later Christian altarpieces adopted this triptych form for depicting saints and Biblical stories.  It is in these sacred traditions that McIver paints her ranges of identities.

McIver’s work is included in the permanent collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the NCCU Museum of Art, the Asheville Museum of Art, The Crocker Art Museum, the Nelson Fine Arts Museum on the campus of Arizona State University, the in Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of UNCG.  I would recommend anyone to see for themselves.