Tag Archives: creativity

Why I Chose an Online Degree at UNCG – The Asynchronous Advantage of the BLS Program

By Catherine Kahn
(Class of December 2012)

I began my college education as many people do:  fresh out of  high school, living in a dorm, attending a top tier institution.  As many of you know, life has a way of changing your plans.  After three years of working towards my degree, I met and married a Naval Officer.  My education took a backseat to supporting him and his career especially in the aftermath of September 11th, when he was more likely to be flying missions over Afghanistan and Iraq than to be home.  Life eventually settled down, and I thought it time to complete my educational goals, but by then there were a myriad of options− so many online programs− private, public, for-profit, not-for-profit, etc in addition to classes in a traditional setting.

Online courses definitely appealed to me.  I live just minutes from another public university in North Carolina, but the asynchronous nature of the online environment definitely fits into my schedule as a mother of three far better than traditional classes.  It seems that almost all schools offer online classes these days, but the BLS program and UNCG stood out to me for several reasons.  I am not merely an online student in a degree completion program; I have the opportunity to connect with other students and attend traditional classes should I so choose.  I have all the resources of UNCG as a state-supported institution behind me.  The school’s full accreditation and low tuition made it an easy choice for me to complete my degree here.

I’ll admit I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the classes or the BLS program, but I received a thorough well-rounded education.  The BLS program is a traditional liberal arts education that teaches critical thinking skills by exposing students to a variety of topics in the humanities.  In today’s society, which often places job training over critical thinking skills, programs like this are becoming extinct, yet I believe that these sort of classes truly make for better students and better people.

Professor Claude Tate’s “Visions of Creation” class was perhaps the most intense of the eleven courses I took within the BLS program.  By reading and analyzing creation myths from various cultures, the class was able to see patterns emerge and challenge our own views towards creation and learn what influences such beliefs.  This course was more than a religious survey, because it really forced the students to view the studied societies through the lenses of their respective creation myths, and in doing so we saw how these creation myths can shape an individual culture, including our own.

“Women, War, and Terror” taught by Professor Carrie Levesque opened my eyes to how women have been brutalized by war utilizing first-person narratives written by women who had lived through 20th century atrocities such as the Holocaust, Stalin’s post-WWII Soviet Union, and the Bosnian War.  As a student, I had often wondered why we never heard the women’s stories.  Surely, they were just as horrific as the men’s.  Surely they were beaten, starved, raped, tortured, and treated like no human being every should be treated.  Professor Levesque’s class delved into these topics, and while the readings and discussions were often painful, they were nothing compared to what the authors experienced.  The authors were marginalized in their own societies, but our society needs classes like this to remind us that women have voices and sometimes they scream out in pain, and we need to listen.

I could go on and on about the classes I have taken, because save just one or two I have enjoyed them immensely and learned so much.  While studying the plays of Shakespeare, the history of the theatre, writing my own memoirs, discussing ethics, reviewing some of the great trials that have shaped America, or studying one of countless other topics, all the courses in the BLS program forced me to make connections.  I learned to connect whatever I was studying to my experiences and to this culture.  And, that is what critical thinking is all about.  I feel my education at UNCG has prepared me for my next step in life.
I’m graduating next month from UNCG with my BA summa cum laude, because of the BLS program, and next fall I’ll be attending a top ten law school to which I have already been accepted.  The UNCG BLS program has made it possible for me to succeed and fulfill my dreams by both fitting into my demanding schedule and providing me with a world class education.

Beyond Apple

By Marc Williams

Following Steve Jobs’ passing on October 5, countless articles, blogs, and remembrances have paid tribute to Jobs’ contributions to the technology industry. I could certainly join that chorus, given that I do so much of my online teaching for the BLS program from my iMac, iPad, and iPhone. I’m a dedicated and unabashed Mac user and I thank Steve Jobs for helping make life a little simpler through these brilliant gadgets.

Somewhat overlooked in the tributes to Jobs are his contributions as the owner/CEO of Pixar. Jobs purchased Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986, which at the time was developing 3D animation hardware for commercial use. Pixar’s hardware development and sales business was not terribly successful and the company began selling off divisions and laying off employees.

During this period of struggle, Jobs was willing to consider a proposal from one of his employees, John Lasseter. Lasseter, an animator who had been fired from Disney and subsequently hired by Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with short films and advertisements, all completely animated by computer. Lasseter pitched Jobs on the idea of creating a computer-animated feature film. Such an endeavor would be tremendously risky for a company like Pixar, which had not been organized as a film studio. Not only did Jobs sign off on the idea, but he was able to secure a three-picture deal with Walt Disney Feature Animation. Jobs shifted the company’s primary focus to making movies.

The feature film Lasseter pitched to Jobs became Toy Story, and he went on to direct A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2. Lasseter also served as executive producer for virtually every other Pixar film (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3) and he is now the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

There’s no denying Lasseter’s genius but Pixar as we know it today would not exist without Steve Jobs. Jobs took a tremendous leap of faith, entrusting the company’s future to the brilliance of his collaborators.

A leader doesn’t necessarily have to be the person with the best idea; sometimes the leader simply must recognize the best idea in the room—and get out of the way. Harry Truman said, “it is amazing how much you can accomplish in life if you don’t mind who gets the credit.” The story of Pixar demonstrates that Steve Jobs fully understood this simple truth.

John Lasseter

“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.”

– John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer & Ed Catmull, President, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios

A Thousand Faces

By Marc Williams

I teach a number of courses involving dramatic literature, including Big Plays, Big Ideas in the BLS program at UNCG.  In most of these classes, I discuss dramatic structure—the way that incidents are arranged into a plot.  Whenever I teach dramatic structure, I always turn to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to serve as an example.  Aristotle believed this play to be tragedy “in its ideal state,” partially because the incidents are arranged in a clear cause-and-effect manner.  One incident logically follows the next and although there are some surprises, none of the events are random, accidental, or tangential.

The story of Oedipus is an ancient myth.  20th century mythology scholar Joseph Campbell wrote about Oedipus frequently, including in his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this book, Campbell outlines the “monomyth,” a dramatic structure that many, if not most, stories seem to adhere in one manner or another.  The monomyth consists of several stages of the hero’s journey: a call to adventure, a refusal of that call, followed by aid from a supernatural entity, crossing a threshold into unfamiliar territory, entering/escaping the belly of the whale, traveling a road of trials, and so on, all the way through the hero’s return.  Oedipus’ journey follows Cambell’s pattern almost perfectly. The pattern applies not only to Ancient Greek myths but to stories from virtually every culture across the globe.

Campbell describes the stages of the hero’s journey at length in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and also diagrams the hero’s journey thus:

I was instantly reminded of Joseph Campbell and his diagram today when I came across this:

1.  A character is in a zone of comfort
2.  But they want something
3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation
4.  Adapt to it
5.  Get what they wanted
6.  Pay a heavy price for it
7.  Then return to their familiar situation
8.  Having changed

This diagram was developed by Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, and according to this article on Wired.com, is apparently the inspiration for every episode of the show:

Dan Harmon

[Harmon] began doodling the circles in the late ’90s, while stuck on a screenplay. He wanted to codify the storytelling process— to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

Harmon calls his circles embryos— they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story— and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”

The eight-step Harmon embryo model is simpler than Cambell’s monomyth, which contains seventeen structural units. Harmon’s embryo model, because it is simpler than Campell’s, is probably also more universal.  And indeed, Harmon uses this embryo as a litmus test to determine if an episode of Community is structurally sound. It is, after all, a tried and true formula for great storytelling.  So where else can this structure be seen?

The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars come to mind.   Have you encountered a monomyth on television or in a movie theatre recently?  Or a story that follows Harmon’s embryo model?

Thinking, Adapting, and Thinking

By Marc Williams

Eric Ries

Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, has some bold ideas about entrepreneurship.  In a recent interview for Wired magazine online, Ries argues that old adage “right place at the right time” is not a formula for business success:

 “There was a study done in the early 20th century of all the entrepreneurs who entered the automobile industry around the same time as Henry Ford; there were something like 500 automotive companies that got funded, had the internal combustion engine, had the technology, and had the vision. Sixty percent of them folded within a couple of years.”

Ford, according to Ries, was simply better at adapting to changing circumstances than his competitors.  It wasn’t the quality of his original idea, which wasn’t at all unique, but rather his willingness to change his idea.

A contemporary example Ries uses is Dropbox, a file-sharing program that allows uses to sync files and folders online—and allows users to designate folders as public, private, or shared with only selected users.  Dropbox didn’t begin with a massive PR campaign—it started small, adapted to what its small customer base wanted, and experienced overwhelming growth because they continued to adapt.

http://www.justin.tv/widgets/archive_embed_player.swf
Watch live video from Startup Lessons Learned on Justin.tv

So what can teachers do to help prepare students for a world in which adaptability is key?  In my online courses in the BLS program at UNCG, I typically utilize at least one assignment that requires revision.  Sometimes it is easy to focus on obvious errors—mechanics, spelling, grammar, punctuation, syntax, et cetera.  When reading student writing, I challenge myself to look for the ideas and challenge my students to strengthen, support, or even reconsider those ideas.    In what other ways can teachers promote adaptability in the classroom?

Video Games: Live!

By Marc Williams

RSC's production of "The Winter's Tale," photo from the RSC.

This summer’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York hosts one of the most highly-anticipated theatrical events in recent memory: a six-week residency by the Royal Shakespeare Company that began on July 6.  The RSC is located in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home town, and is widely considered the world’s top producer of classical theatre.  For this New York residency, not only has the RSC brought five of its exquisite productions to the Lincoln Center Festival but it has also reconstructed its Stratford performance space right inside the Park Avenue Armory.  For American theatre enthusiasts, the residency is a dream-come-true: a chance to see five RSC productions without purchasing five airline tickets.

While the RSC has generated appropriate buzz over the past few weeks, another Shakespearean experiment has stolen some headlines.  Sleep No More, a loose adaptation of Macbeth, is produced in a 1930’s Manhattan hotel on 27th Street.  The production embraces mansion-platea staging, a technique we study in my Eye Appeal class in the BLS program at UNCG.  Mansion-platea staging involves small performance areas (“mansions”) that represent a particular location in the story, with several mansions lined up in a row or circle, each representing a different location.  The actors and audience move together from one mansion to the next as the story progresses. This isn’t how most of us encounter theatre today, so Sleep No More may seem highly unusual.  However, walking through a haunted house or even sitting on Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride replicates mansion-platea staging faithfully.

Sleep No More‘s producing organization, PUNCHDRUNK, has inserted an unusual twist on mansion-platea staging: audience choice.  This production not only immerses the audience into the playing space with the actors but also gives the audience freedom to wander about the six-story building however they like.  They can follow characters from one room to the next for a linear narrative experience, or move randomly around the building for a more fractured experience.  No matter how they choose, the audience cannot possibly witness the entire production at once since there are events happening simultaneously in different areas of the building.

One of the rooms from "Sleep No More," photo from the NY Times.

I’ve not seen the production but have read much about it.  I was surprised when I read Wired.com’s Jason Schreier’s review of this production.

[Sleep No More is] a nonlinear narrative in which the order of events — and consequently, the plot — is determined by what you see.

The primary problem with this method of storytelling is that you’re not really part of it.

Sleep No More has two rules: Keep your mask on and don’t talk to anybody. Outside those restrictions, you can do whatever and go wherever you want. At one point you might wind up in a dimly lit graveyard, alone and terrified. Then you’re in a ballroom, where garishly dressed gentlemen and ladies are dancing to an infectious beat. Next you’re in a pantry, opening jars of candy and trying to decide whether eating them will kill you. Problem is, nothing you do really matters.

A screen shot from "L.A. Noire," by Rockstar Games.

The title of his review (“Interactive Play Sleep No More Feels Like a Game, But More Confusing”) suggests the experience is intended to be interactive but that  isn’t true.  He goes on to compare the production to several popular video games like L.A. Noire and Fallout: New Vegas, arguing that the games are superior experiences primarily because the game player isn’t “just an observer.”  This perspective probably seems reasonable to Schreier, who is primarily a video game critic.  My question for Schreier is: are audiences accustomed to having an effect on the outcome of a theatrical performance?

In a way, all theatre is interactive in that actor and audience inhabit the same space; the audience’s reactions and attitudes psychologically affect the actors and this effect subtly (and sometimes boldly) influences the performance.  But audiences aren’t typically expected to participate in the action, which is what Schreier seems to expect: a kind of theatrical “Choose Your Own Adventure.”

In contrast to Schreier’s dissatisfaction, several major theatre critics have responded positively to Sleep No More and audiences have been attracted to the production’s novelty.  However, many theatre practitioners have long wondered how video games and other electronic media might affect the next generation of theatregoers.  Will the theatre adapt to its changing audience? Will there be an audience at all?  Schreier’s review makes me wonder if the if the next generation of theatergoers is already clamoring for theatrical evolution.  And while PUNCHDRUNK and other organizations are experimenting with theatrical form, one has to wonder how (or if) a theatrical institution like the Royal Shakespeare Company will adapt when the time comes.  How will other artistic forms evolve with the video game generation?

Are You Ready for Some Football?

By Marc Williams

I’ll begin by confessing that I am among America’s truly die-hard football fans.  I follow football throughout the year, even though the season only lasts about four months.  Serious fans like me are thrilled this morning: the NFL’s 130+ day lockout appears to be ending today following months of intense negotiations.

During the past few months, analysts have criticized both owners and players in news articles and fans have sounded off on sports talk radio.  Given America’s economic struggles, how could these sides complain about having to share $9 billion in revenues?  While the owners initiated the lockout, most of the criticism I heard seemed to be directed at the “overpaid” NFL players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and NFL Players Association Director DeMaurice Smith, right.

Listening to talk radio over the past 130 days, I often heard fans suggesting, “the players should be more grateful–I’ll go play football for a fraction of what those guys make.”  Every time I listened to the radio, I heard someone cite his $30K salary, how hard he works, and how happy he’d be to play football for the minimum NFL rookie salary, which was $325,000 in 2010.  What many fans fail to realize is that these players earn a minimum of $325,000 because they have specific skills and physical attributes that are exceedingly rare and have found a way to capitalize on those traits.

Consider one of my favorite players, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as an example.  In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covered the first 40m of his record-breaking 100m run at a speed of 8.6m/second.  When Calvin Johnson was entering the 2007 NFL draft, he was timed at a similar distance at about 8.4m/second, only slightly behind Bolt’s pace. These numbers are especially notable since Bolt, the 100-meter world record-holder, weighs only 198 pounds while Johnson weighs almost 240 pounds. Further, Johnson is 6’5” and has a 42” vertical leap (four inches better than NBA star Kobe Bryant’s). Johnson, like most NFL athletes, possesses not only exceptional football skills but also a rare combination of size and athleticism.

While these physical attributes are indeed rare, many argue that twenty year-olds have no business earning so much money for simply playing a game.  After all, many of us go to school, earn degrees, work from the bottom-up in our chosen fields, taking years to earn promotions and raises, and never approach the $325,000 minimum NFL rookie salary.  Is this evidence that something is out of whack?

Shakespeare

Perhaps what is truly out of whack is the notion that education, job skills, and a lifetime of service should entitle one to fame or a generous salary.  Consider Shakespeare as an example.  Unlike most of the successful poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was not college educated.  His success generated enormous jealousy from writers who had “paid their dues” through university education.  To this day, there are scholars dedicated to attributing Shakespeare’s work to other individuals from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself, arguing that an uneducated son of a glove maker couldn’t possibly be the author of Hamlet and King Lear.

 In my BLS course on Shakespeare, we discuss this “authorship question,” a premise I dismiss as snobbery.  Perhaps Shakespeare was simply brilliant; an individual with exceptional skills who was creative enough to find a way to apply and capitalize on those skills.  Mozart composed his first opera when he was twelve years old—there is no accounting for that kind of genius.  Isn’t the same true of professional athletes? When we express jealousy about the financial success of professional athletes, are we jealous of their unique gifts or are we jealous because we haven’t figured out what to do with our own talents?

Usain Bolt breaks the world record in the 100 meters, Beijing 2008:

Calvin Johnson in action:

Is the Future of Racing a Thing of the Past?

By Jay Parr

NASCAR

As anyone who has made the mistake of taking I-85 past Concord on a race day knows, NASCAR is one of the largest professional sporting organizations in the country. Major events draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the stands, and sometimes millions of viewers watching from home or their favorite sports bar. Total revenues are in the billions of dollars, and the revenues of the top teams are in the tens of millions of dollars apiece. It’s a huge business.

We tend to think of auto racing as being at the forefront of high-performance technology, but that’s not actually the case in NASCAR. The regulations in that organization dictate that the cars must be front engine and rear wheel drive, despite the fact that the street versions of those cars are almost all front-wheel drive. But it doesn’t stop there. The engines must have carburetors, not the fuel injection of most cars on the road today. They must be naturally aspirated, so they can’t have the turbochargers that are becoming so common in passenger cars today. They must have pushrod-operated valves, so they can’t even have the overhead cams found in a twenty-year-old Saturn. Far from being at the leading edge of engine technology, NASCAR engines use hundred-year-old technology that is arguably fifty years out of date.

Tour de France

Auto racing is not the only racing sport where the rules place big restrictions on the technology used. If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or any other major bicycle race, you may have noticed that all the bikes look almost identical. That is not a coincidence, and it is not because the bike you see is the best configuration for performance. Nearly a century ago, shortly after the familiar diamond-framed “safety bicycle” took over popularity from the dangerous old high-wheeled “ordinary bicycle,” a Frenchman by the name of Charles Mochet designed the first commercially-produced recumbent bicycle. The rider sat back as if on a chaise lounge, with his feet stretched out in front of him and the rear wheel behind his back. It won several major races, and in 1934 it broke the one-hour world record when his rider covered 28 miles—and the wins and the record were all piloted by second-tier cyclists. At their very next meeting, the International Cyclist’s Union (UCI) decided that recumbent bicycles could not compete against diamond-framed bicycles in any major bicycle race. That is why you never see a recumbent bicycle in the Tour de France—despite the fact that they’re faster, more aerodynamic, more comfortable to race, and much safer in an accident.

Recumbent bicycles

In both of these racing venues—motorized and human-powered—political decisions have kept the sport from evolving toward superior technologies. The philosophy in both cases is to put the emphasis on human competition, but the technological ramifications reach far beyond the racetrack. In the past, the highly-funded and competitive environment of racing has led to major advances in both efficiency and safety. Your brake lights, rear-view mirrors, seat belts, and radial tires were all pioneered in race cars, as were many other features you take for granted, like the side-impact bars in your doors, the fuel injection that has doubled your gas mileage, and the variable timing advance that allows your engine to run efficiently at a wide variety of RPMs. Even on a dime-store bicycle, the gearing and brake technology were perfected in the racing world before trickling down to the kids’ beater bikes.

Restricting the natural advance of racing technology has a negative impact, not only on racing sports, but on the society as a whole. Consumer technology tends to mimic high-performance technology, and to benefit from high-tech advances in a trickle-down effect. Imagine how the world might look if the UCI had forbidden the chain-driven safety bicycle. Would the serious cyclists be teetering around on top of huge 54-inch wheels? Would we be afraid to teach our children to ride bikes for fear they might take a header and break their necks? Now, imagine it the other way, if the UCI had not forbidden the recumbent. Would most of us be cruising around on comfy lawn chairs? Would we stare in amusement when we saw one of those old dangerous head-first relics? Would our kids be more likely to land on a nice soft buttock instead of a fragile face or wrist when they dumped their bikes?

What if NASCAR technology had been allowed to develop unchecked? Pit stops happen on the clock, so it’s entirely conceivable that racing engineers would have poured a lot of attention into increasing fuel efficiency to minimize those stops. If they had been allowed to experiment unchecked, would we have race cars that could complete a 600-mile race on ten gallons of fuel? Imagine how that technology would trickle down to a little Nissan on the highway. Think about that next time you’re fueling up for that trip down I-85.

Cyclist Sam Whittingham exceeds 82 mph in a streamlined recumbent bicycle.