Category Archives: UNCG

News at UNCG; faculty and alumni profiles

The First Day of School

by Matt McKinnon

Well, it ain’t what it used to be.  The first day of school, I mean.

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And I don’t just mean the back-to-school shopping, though that has changed a lot, to be sure.

We did most of ours online this year, since navigating Walmart.com is a LOT more appealing than navigating an actual Walmart.

And since many public schools have gone to uniforms, there’s not really much fun in back-to-school clothing shopping with the kids:

“How about the khaki pants and red polo shirt?”

“No, I won’t be caught dead in those.”

“Okay, then there’s always the red polo shirt and khaki pants.”

McKinnon Boys on First Day of School

Gone are the days, at least for those of us in uniform schools, where back-to-school shopping was a creative endeavor to get the coolest outfits possible, actually enjoying the prospect of new clothes.

Toughskins jeans.  Converse Chuck Taylor hightops (later surpassed by real leather offerings from Addidas and Nike).  Cool football jerseys.  A new jean jacket.

Toughskins

Man, those were the days.

And it didn’t cost $250.00 to fully outfit two kids for the entire school year.  (Or at least until they get stains all over their shirts and wear holes in the knees of their pants.  Do kids not wear patches on pants anymore?)

And picking out your clothes for the first day of school was just as exciting, and became even more important the older you got.  After all, I had to make a nice impression on those 10-year old girls I was not going to talk to.  Or even look at.

But now the shopping carts are virtual and the clothing is all the same: red polo shirts and khaki pants.  Maybe shorts.  If you’re feeling crazy…navy blue.

Of course, school supply shopping is still best done at an actual store, especially since the local Walmart and OfficeMax and Staples all have lists sent to them by the school district and even the local schools.  And then there’s the additional list that the teacher sends out.

Back to School SuppliesThe cumulative effect of all this is that there are three lists for each of our two elementary-age kids that my wife and I have to carry around with a real shopping cart (the one with the wheel that won’t swivel right), juggling from one list to the other, trying to mark off what we have while we search for what we still need, all the while trying unsuccessfully to keep items not on the list out of the basket.  (How we ended up with a “Duck Dynasty” pillow in the cart I will never know.)

Not to mention that our high school junior is too cool even to shop with everybody else, so we had to make a special late-night black-ops trip, just he and I, outfitted in dark clothing and sunglasses, so no one he knows will see him…with his dad…shopping at Walmart of all places.

And not to mention that the entire school supply deal set us back about $150.00.  A hundred and fifty dollars?!  For notebooks and paper and pencils?

Yes.  And pens, and erasers, and binders in every size and color imaginable.  And glue and glue sticks.  And highlighters, and rulers, and note cards, and composition books.  And more binders.  And pencil boxes, no wait, they have to be bags with three holes to fit in the binder.  And lunch boxes.  And Clorox Wipes and Kleenex (are those really our responsibility?  Whatever happened to that green stuff the janitor would just spread around on the floor when some kid threw up?)  And we still can’t find any graph paper.  Does Walmart have something against graph paper?  Are American kids just not expected to plot graphs anymore?  No wonder we’re falling behind the rest of the developed world.  I bet they have graph paper in Sweden.

But I digress.

I’m not talking about any of that.

No, what I mean when I say that the first day of school ain’t what it used to be is that, as someone who taught mainly face-to-face classes for years but who now teaches entirely online, the first day of school just isn’t quite the same.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I am NOT complaining.

Just observing.  (I tell my wife this all the time.)

First Day of Class

There used to be a nervous energy about the first day of class—when that meant standing in front of a theatre-size room of 100 students or so.  There was electricity in seeing the fresh faces of students experiencing their very first day of college, or even in the nonchalant smoothness of seniors who had waited until the very last moment to complete their GEC credit.

There was magic in the anticipation of how hard the course might be, or how boring the professor was, or how anything I was saying would have any bearing on anyone’s intended career.

I used to enjoy coming up with new ways to start the first day: by proclaiming to the class, for example, that the only thing I hated more than the first day of class was…the next day of class.  Or by moving everybody outside to enjoy the weather.  Or even sitting at a desk like everybody else: just sitting, waiting, and watching as the time for class to start came and went, and still no teacher.  And then getting up abruptly, as if annoyed, audibly mumbling something to the effect that if nobody else is going to teach the damn course, then I might as well.

Yes, those were the days.

But those days are gone.

And again, don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining.  Only observing.

I love teaching online, and have come to see what we do in the BLS program as not just a service to the University, but more importantly, as a service to students—some of whom may not be able to take classes or finish their degree any other way.

And my students, overall, tend to be older, more mature, more driven, and actually interested in what is being taught.

And there is certainly energy and magic in the first day, though clicking on a link to make the course available doesn’t quite compare to bounding around a lecture hall like Phil Donahue in his prime.

No; it’s just not quite the same.

Even though this year I tried.

Fresh Shave and a Haircut

I got a haircut.  I took a shower.  Heck, I even shaved, and thought about adding some color to my graying beard before deciding against it.

And then I sat down, clicked on “Make Course Available,” and…

Well, nothing happened.  At least nothing spectacular.

For that, I’ll have to wait for the next 48 days—or however many are in this first session.

But of course, it’s not that bad…

After all, other than strippers, “escorts,” and the occasional politician, who else do you know can go to work not wearing pants?

Comforts of Home

Yes, there’s something to be said for the comforts of home.

Life Becomes Art: Modeling for Joel-Peter Witkin

by Ann Millett-Gallant

Joel-Peter Witkin, "Retablo (New Mexico)" (2007)

Joel-Peter Witkin, “Retablo (New Mexico)” (2007).

In 2010, I published my first book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.  In it, I analyze the artworks of contemporary disabled artists, many of which are self-portraits and performance, in comparison with images of disabled bodies by non-disabled, contemporary artists.  I also place such contemporary work in comparison with images from the history of body displays in art and visual culture, such as fine art painting, medical photographs, freakshow displays, documentary photographs, and popular culture.  I was very proud when the book was called the first to cross the disciplines of art history with disability studies and am happy that it has been adopted as required reading for courses on a variety of subjects related to visual culture, disability studies, and cultural studies.

Joel-Peter Witkin, "First Casting for Milo" (2005), as used for the cover of The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

Joel-Peter Witkin, “First Casting for Milo” (2005), as used for the cover of Ann Millett-Gallant’s book, The Disabled Body in Contemporary Art.

The book overlaps with subjects of many of my online courses at UNCG.  In it, I discuss the work of Frida Kahlo, which, although it precedes the time period on which the book focuses, set much precedence for the self-portrait and performative work of contemporary disabled, as well as many non-disabled, women artists.  We discuss such work in my online Art 100 course in a unit about feminist art and notions of arts and crafts.  Much of the artwork I analyze in my book is photography, which relates directly to my BLS course: Photography: Contexts and Illusions.  I also discuss performance, which is a major subject of my BLS course: Representing Women, as well as The Art of Life.  The Art of Life course focuses on the intersections between art and everyday life in a variety of ways, which is also a theme of this book.  In all three of these BLS classes, we debate the implications of self-display on the part of artists.  I delivered a talk about my book for the art department of UNCG in Fall of 2010 and again at the Multicultural Resource Center in Fall of 2012.  At both meetings I received a lot of interested feedback and compelling questions, as well as generous praise.  I am interested in teaching an online course centered on the subjects of my book in the future.

Frida Kahlo in 1931

Frida Kahlo in 1931, six years after the bus accident that left her in lifelong pain.

The subject matter of this book has proved to be personal to me in more ways than one, and in some ways unexpected.  I have been physically disabled since birth, involved in studying and making art since childhood, and interested in bridging these subjects in my teaching and writing as an academic professional.  And there is more.  While researching the beginnings of this book in New York City in the Fall of 2004, I visited the Ricco Maresca Gallery for a Joel-Peter Witkin exhibit (examples of Witkin’s work may be viewed at the Catherine Edelman Gallery and the Etherton Gallery).

I viewed the gallery and met the photography curator, Sarah Hasted, who was as enthusiastic about Witkin’s controversial work as I was and was also a personal friend of his.  She thought that because of my interest in his work, knowledge of art history, experiences (personal and scholarly) with disability, and, above all, because of my body, Joel and I should meet and collaborate on a photograph.  I was eager to serve as his model.  I felt that while arguing that self-display for disabled people, as well as other individuals, can be a liberating personal and political act, I felt that I should have the experience, or in other words, I should put my body where my mouth was.  After much correspondence and many sketches later, in the Spring of 2007, I traveled to Albuquerque, NM to meet him and to become a performing agent in one of his tableaux.

WitkinSelf1995

Witkin self portrait (1995).

I wrote about my many experiences in my journal and later in my book.  The long weekend is now a blur, but I recall specific details: visiting with Witkin’s horses and dogs earlier on the day of the shoot; befriending his wife, Barbara; taking off my prosthesis and my clothes, yet feeling no embarrassment; being painted white to replicate the color of marble sculpture; and posing beside another nude model for different shots.  Covered in body paint, I almost felt costumed, and as time passed and I posed with other models and in front of photography professionals, I felt less self-conscious.  Being posed as an eye catching detail in the photograph, I felt picturesque.  I remember how Witkin would become animated: “That’s it!” he’d exclaim, with almost orgasmic excitement.  Yet it was all business for him.  He was creating his work, which was the source of his fiery pleasure, and we were actors playing roles.

The resulting photograph is titled Retablo (New Mexico) (2007), referencing Latin American, Catholic folk art traditions (and, for me, many self-portraits by Frida Kahlo).  The image was conceived when Witkin saw a retablo image featuring two lesbians embracing, wearing only thongs, and posing above the following retablo prayer:

San Sebastian, I offer you this retablo because Veronica agreed to come live with me. We are thankful to you for granting us this happiness without having to hide from society to have our relationship. Sylvia M. (translation)

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer

Ann Millett-Gallant at her computer.

Witkin’s photograph also contains this prayer and, of course, fabulist imagery.  It is based on this and other similar retablos, printed in France, of homosexuals giving thanks to God and to saints for graces received in their lives. In Witkin’s version, Duccio’s Christ resists Lucifer’s temptations after viewing the future of the world, which includes the tragedy of 9/11.  Witkin’s composition features a triumphant female nude figure as Vernocia, displaying her corporeal glory and gazing down at her lover, Sylvia, a seated nude figure (me), beside her.  We are staged on a pedestal covered in flowing drapery and in front of an elaborate backdrop, which includes a photograph of the same model in a characteristic St Sebastian pose and a painted, shadowed, and winged form confronting a hand of salvation.  An iconographic reminder of death and a warning symbol of righteousness, a skeleton, lounges comically on the left side of the scene.  I cannot logically explain the photograph, as it defies a central narrative.  It is far more sensory than sensible.  I have my back to the camera and am seated on my two shorted legs (one congenitally amputated above the knee and one below), as I extend my “deformed,” or here fabulist/fabulous arms.  The female figures are opposing in the positions – one flaunting the front of her nude body, the other much smaller and flaunting her back.  The two bodies complement one another and complete a disfigured, heavenly narrative. Witkin said he especially, aesthetically admired my back, which inspired the pose.  This seated figure that is me is magical and all-powerful; as viewers stare at my back, I stare back.  Like the other models in my book, I perform for my readers/viewers.  Life becomes art.  The photograph epitomizes the Art of Life for me.

Today, a print of the photograph hangs in my living room, while another image of Witkin’s graces the cover of my book, I refer to the photographer as Joel, and Paul, my companion on the trip who served as Joel’s assistant, is now my husband.

Making Magic on Broadway

By Marc Williams

The Tony Awards are Broadway theatre’s version of an Oscar, recognizing the highest levels of achievement in commercial theatre. This year’s nominees include a revival of Pippin, a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1972 and hasn’t been seen on Broadway since that original production.

Pippin poster

Pippin was conceived by composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who is best known Godspell and, more recently, the Broadway mega-hit Wicked. Schwartz began working on Pippin as an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University and after achieving a seemingly overnight success with Godspell in 1971, the 23-year old Schwartz and his collaborator, Roger O. Hirson, were able to find a producer willing to put Pippin on Broadway.

Like Schwartz’ earlier hit Godspell, Pippin had great popular appeal. The scores to these musicals contain pop/rock songs that became crossover hits on top-40 radio. The original Off-Broadway cast recording of Godspell’sDay By Day” climbed to the #13 position on the Billboard Top Singles chart, while songs from Pippin were recorded by the Jackson 5, Michael Jackson (solo), the Supremes, and Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield. On stage, Pippin was a bona fide Broadway hit, running over 1900 performances–one of the longest runs in Broadway history. An interesting side note to Pippin’s successful run was its very effective marketing campaign; Pippin was the first Broadway musical to use clips from the production on a television advertisement. The famous “Manson Trio” dance number was featured in this minute-long television commercial that is credited for generating much of the musical’s early ticket sales (pardon the water mark):

Ben Vereen as the Leading Player in Bob Fosse’s 1972 production of Pippin.

While Pippin enjoyed popular success, the script and score were not embraced by the influential New York critics. In his New York Times review, Clive Barnes called Pippin a “trite and uninteresting story with aspirations to a seriousness it never for one moment fulfills.” He similarly wrote of Schwartz’s score, “It is a commonplace set to rock music, and I must say I found most of music somewhat characterless.” However, Barnes praised the production as a whole, noting its inventive staging and choreography, the work of the stage designers, and the triumphant performance by Ben Vereen as the Leading Player.

Bob Fosse.

Barnes and other critics took notice of Bob Fosse’s work in particular, which deemphasized the script’s naïve and passive title character and focused on the dark, dangerous agenda of the musical’s ringmaster, Vereen’s Leading Player.

Stephen Schwartz.

Rather than Schwartz’ story of a young man’s search for fulfillment, Fosse viewed Pippin’s plot as the story of a young man being seduced into self-destruction. In an effort to support the theme of seduction, the production visually evoked burlesque and carnival performance, highlighting themes of sexual exploration and discovery. The 24-year old Schwartz, whose musical influences were more James Taylor and less Jimi Hendrix, perhaps had not imagined his musical with such a seedy underbelly and as a result, the rehearsals for Pippin were famously contentious, with Fosse, Schwartz, and Hirson battling for control of the production’s tone. Eventually, Fosse banned Schwartz and Hirson from attending rehearsals!

Some criticism of Schwartz and Hirson’s work is warranted. The story is fragmented and the central action unclear. The musical’s original ending is among the most jarring and dissatisfying endings one is likely to find in a musical. Structurally, Pippin is incomplete and any production of Pippin seems to require additional directorial focus in order to hold the entire script and score together into a cohesive evening of theatre. Fosse seemingly knew this, and his work earned him a Tony Award in 1973 for Best Director of a Musical; Fosse also won a Tony Award for his iconic Pippin choreography.

Diane Paulus

Forty years after Fosse’s original production, a new production opened on Broadway April 25, 2013. Directed by Diane Paulus, the new production has been called a “natural extension” of Fosse’s, a Pippin for a 21st century audience. If Fosse’s production was suggestive, Paulus’ production seems to opt for excess. Fosse’s dancing ensemble, for instance, was conceived as a group of traveling burlesque clowns. Paulus’ vision for these traveling players is less burlesque, more Cirque du Soleil. In fact, Paulus’ production employs a troupe of Canadian acrobats that creates a sense of grand spectacle throughout the show. If Fosse’s production is a story of seduction, Paulus’ production seems a story of astonishment. Here is a glimpse of Paulus’ new production:

Much has changed on Broadway since Fosse’s Pippin opened in 1972. The 1980’s was an era of musical spectacles, lavish musicals like Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Miss Saigon that boasted some of the most eye-popping visual effects ever seen on stage. More recent musicals like Wicked and

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark have continued that tradition into the 21st century. In my BLS course, Eye Appeal: Spectacle on Stage and in Life, we discuss musical spectacles and how 21st century audiences have come to expect a certain degree of “eye appeal” at a Broadway musical. With many of these musical spectacles, the stage designs are frankly more impressive than the scripts the designs are attempting to support. Some of these productions could be called “style without substance,” in spite of their commercial success. In the case of Paulus’ Pippin, it seems the director is using the fad of musical spectacles not to distract from the script’s flaws but rather to enhance the script’s central action and deliver a story about amazement to an audience that demands to be amazed. Given the positive reviews and ten Tony Award nominations Paulus’ production received, one wonders if Pippin is poised to be a Broadway hit yet again.

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An interesting “Making of…” feature published on the New York Times’ website, demonstrating how Paulus and her collaborators conceptualized Pippin’s famous opening number, “Magic to Do.”

Claude R. Tate, Jr.

Claude Tate, an indispensable teacher in the BLS Program since its inaugural semester, passed away suddenly this past Thursday, April 25. He was in Hendersonville, where he and his wife of 35 years, Suzanne, have a mountain getaway.

Claude came to the BLS Program by way of his enrollment in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (his second master’s degree), during which he studied under Dr. Stephen Ruzicka, who has been involved in the BLS Program since its conception. Claude’s love of learning and teaching, his humanitarian spirit, and his interests in widely varied topics of learning made him a perfect fit for the BLS Program from the beginning.

Originally a native of Ossipee, NC, Claude began his college career at Rockingham Community College just out of high school. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in history at Appalachian State, before coming to UNCG for his first Master of Arts, also in history, and education coursework toward his Advanced Competencies certification. He taught history at Southwestern Randolph High School for twenty-eight years before retiring in 2008. Meanwhile, he had completed his second Master of Arts, in liberal studies, and begun teaching online for the BLS Program. A lifelong learner and teacher, Claude enjoyed the opportunity to teach students at a higher level and in more esoteric subjects. After his retirement from SRHS, he also enjoyed the fact that teaching online allowed him the mobility to teach from his home in Asheboro, his mountain getaway in Hendersonville, or wherever else his family or interests took him.

Claude had a knack for engaging students in difficult subjects and for bringing struggling students to the joy of learning. He was a consummate teacher, even in retirement from a career as a teacher.

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Dr. Ruzicka, who taught Claude in the MALS Program and introduced him to the nascent BLS Program in 2004, remembers that Claude “was always simultaneously a learner and teacher,” and that he “pursued advanced degrees both for his own sake and for what he could add to his teaching.” He observes that Claude would take on developing and teaching new courses in order to broaden his own understanding of the world. As Dr. Ruzicka puts it, Claude was “a wonderful big thinker and relentless interpreter, who always sought and found links and interconnections among seemingly disparate ideas and events. His own intellectual vitality made long dead people, unseen places, and forgotten events come alive as part of a timeless web of meaning.  He gave himself over selflessly to students for nearly 40 years.”

Claude’s wide variety of interests is reflected in the posts he wrote after being conscripted as a contributor to the BLS Program blog. He immediately jumped on the rapidly rising cost of higher education, and wrote a few other posts on such political topics as (in no particular order) the resurgence of the American Right, the problem of explosive population growth, and the insidious power of congressional redistricting. But not all his posts were about political issues. He also wrote about excellent movies, gloriously bad movies, a rare little lightnin’ bug, and perhaps most telling of the wild diversity of his interests, a post in which he outs himself as an “old space nerd” and gives us the news from the final frontier. This is neither a complete nor a chronological list, but there are some links if you want to go back and read some of his posts.

Claude is survived by his wife of 35 years, Suzanne, by his adult son Matt and daughter-in-law Ashley, and by their children Mason and Adeline. He also has a surviving half-brother, a sister-in-law, a niece and nephews, great-nieces and a great-nephew.

There will be a Celebration of Life gathering this evening from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at The Exchange in Asheboro. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested memorials be made to Friends of DuPont State Forest, PO Box 2107, Brevard, NC 28712, or to a charity of the donor’s choice.

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.

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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.

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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?

Environmentalism and the Future

by Matt McKinnon

Let me begin by stating that I consider myself an environmentalist.  I recycle almost religiously.  I compost obsessively.  I keep the thermostat low in winter and high in summer.  I try to limit how much I drive, but as the chauffeur for my three school-age sons, this is quite difficult.  I support environmental causes and organizations when I can, having been a member of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society.

1I find the arguments of the Climate Change deniers uninformed at best and disingenuous at worst.  Likewise, the idea of certain religious conservatives that it is hubris to believe that humans can have such a large effect on God’s creation strikes me as theologically silly and even dishonest.  And while I understand and even sympathize with the concerns of those folks whose businesses and livelihoods are tied to our current fossil-fuel addiction, I find their arguments that economic interests should override environmental concerns to be lacking in both ethics and basic forethought.

That being said, I have lately begun to ponder not just the ultimate intentions and goals of the environmental movement, but the very future of our planet.

Earth and atmospheric scientists tell us that the earth’s temperature is increasing, most probably as a result of human activity.  And that even if we severely limited that activity (which we are almost certainly not going to do anytime soon), the consequences are going to be dire: rising temperatures will lead to more severe storms, melting polar ice caps, melting permafrost (which in turn will lead to the release of even more carbon dioxide, increasing the warming), rising ocean levels, lowering of the oceans’ ph levels (resulting in the extinction of the coral reefs), devastating floods in some places along with crippling droughts in others.

2And according to a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 (less than 100 years) 25% of all species of plants and land animals may be extinct.

Basically, our not-too-distant future may be an earth that cannot support human life.

Now, in my more misanthropic moments, I have allowed myself to indulge in the idea that this is exactly what the earth needs.  That this in fact should be the goal of any true environmental concern: the extinction of humanity.  For only then does the earth as a planet capable of supporting other life stand a chance.  (After all, the “environment” will survive without life, though it won’t be an especially nice place to visit, much less inhabit, especially for a human.)

3And a good case can be made that humans have been destroying the environment in asymmetrical and irrevocable ways since at least the Neolithic Age when we moved from hunter and gatherer culture to the domestication of plants and animals along with sustained agriculture.  Humans have been damaging the environment ever since.  (Unlike the beaver, as only one example of a “keystone species,” whose effect on the environment in dam building has an overwhelming positive and beneficial impact on countless other species as well as the environment itself.)

4So unless we’re seriously considering a conservation movement that takes us back to the Paleolithic Era instead of simply reducing our current use and misuse of the earth, then we’re really just putting off the inevitable.

But all that being said, whatever the state of our not-too-distant future, the inevitability of the “distant future” is undeniable—for humans, as well as beavers and all plants and animals, and ultimately the earth itself.  For the earth, like all of its living inhabitants, has a finite future.

Around 7.5 billion years or so is a reasonable estimate.  And then it will most probably be absorbed in the sun, which will have swollen into a red giant.

5(Unless, as some scientists predict, the Milky Way collides with the Andromeda galaxy, resulting in cataclysmic effects that cannot be predicted.)

At best, however, this future only includes the possibility of earth supporting life for another billion years or so.  For by then, the increase in the sun’s brightening will have evaporated all of the oceans.

6Of course, long before that, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (ironically enough) will have diminished well below the quantity needed to support plant life, destroying the food chain and causing the extinction of all animal species as well.

And while that’s not good news, the worse news is that humans will have been removed from the equation long before the last holdouts of carbon-based life-forms eventually capitulate.

(Ok, so some microbes may be able to withstand the dry inhospitable conditions of desert earth, but seriously, who cares about the survival of microbes?)

Now if we’re optimistic about all of this (irony intended), the best-case scenario is for an earth that is able to support life as we know it for at most another half billion more years.  (Though this may be a stretch.)  And while that seems like a really long time, we should consider that the earth has already been inhabited for just over 3 and a half billion years.

So having only a half billion years left is sort of like trying to enjoy the last afternoon of a four-day vacation.

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Enjoy the rest of your day.

Do You Hear the People Sing?

By Marc Williams

On Christmas day, Hollywood’s newest movie musical will open at theatres nationwide. Les Misérables is based on Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer’s hit stage musical, which of course was based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. The English version of the stage musical opened in London in 1985, on Broadway in 1987, and was eventually translated into twenty-one languages and performed in over forty countries. Along with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and the Phantom of the OperaLes Misérables can be considered among the most commercially successful stage musicals of all time.

Hit stage musicals have often been adapted for the screen. In recent years, Chicago, Hairspray, Rent, Dreamgirls, and The Producers were captured on film. It’s therefore no surprise that a mega-hit like Les Misérables was destined for the silver screen. However, one important aspect of this latest movie musical demonstrates a significant departure from most of its predecessors: the singing.

Historically, the vocal tracks for these movie musicals are recorded weeks or even months in advance of filming. This method gives the director, musical supervisor, sound editors and engineers a clean audio sample that sounds nearly perfect. Consider this clip from the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis:

You’ll see that as Judy Garland dances, the heels on her shoes contact the wooden floor just beyond the rug. This dancing would surely create a “tapping” sound but of course we don’t hear this tapping in the clip because the audio was recorded long before the scene was filmed. Likewise, there are a number of actors in the shot; a single cough or sneeze from any of these actors would ruin the audio sample if it were recorded live. Additionally, if a musical number features an actor moving from place to place, the cameras also have to move–this means that the clanking of equipment or shuffling of feet could also destroy a live shot. Finally, it is physically difficult to sing and dance at the same time. Singers engaged in brisk physical activity, even light dancing, can easily find themselves out of breath. Recording the vocals in the studio eliminates all of these problems.

However, recording vocals in advance creates two important complications for the singing actor. First is the technical challenge of lip-synching. In the clip above, Garland must dance and engage with the other actors, all while she is attempting to flawlessly match the vocals she had recorded in a studio many weeks earlier. It’s difficult enough to sing, dance, and act at the same time–simultaneously lip-synching is a near-impossible challenge.

A more extreme example can be seen here, a dance number from High School Musical.  The choreography is more intense than the Judy Garland clip and the viewer can easily see the singers struggling to mimic their prerecorded vocals.

Notice also at the end of the first verse, sung by Zac Efron, that he is doubled over, getting a playful rub on the head from another actor. Amazingly, his singing is unaffected by this physical posture. This example introduces the second problem with prerecorded audio for musical films: lack of spontaneity. If the actors behave spontaneously on camera, their physical action almost certainly will not match the audio; this creates the dubbing issues seen in the clip from High School Musical. On the other end of the spectrum, actors attempting to perfectly match the prerecorded vocals will almost certainly disengage from the acting moment and may even have to adjust choreography in order to truly match the vocals–the audio might sound “pretty” but the song will look dull on the screen.

For these reasons, director Tom Hooper decided to record the songs for Les Misérables live on the set. It’s an incredibly innovative approach that eschews nearly a century of movie musical tradition. This “behind the scenes” video provides a look at the techniques used to capture live audio.

As I read about the film and how the audio was recorded, I thought about the audio presentations my students give in Shakespeare Off the Page, one of the courses I teach in the UNCG BLS program. I ask students to give online presentations by recording their voice and submitting that audio file for evaluation. When I first taught the course, I was most interested in evaluating 1) Is the student’s argument convincing? and 2) Can I hear and understand the student’s voice? But as I’ve continued teaching the course, I’ve started thinking more like Tom Hooper. What I really want to hear in a presentation is the speaker’s personality–their interest in the topic, their engagement with the material, and their willingness to be spontaneous rather than “perfect.” After all, if one is simply going to recite text, what’s the point of speaking aloud? It’s a wonder that it’s taken Hollywood so long to figure this out.