Tag Archives: online learning

On Writing that #@%& Essay

2am

We’ve passed the halfway point in the semester (wait…what?!), and your Final Essay is due soon (wait…WHAT?!). You’re starting to feel the burn…you have nothing to say…but you have to say something. The mere sight of a blank screen puts a knot in your gut and makes your palms sweat. You try to put it out of your mind; it’s not due yet, so maybe you’ll just procrastinate on it until $#@% it’s due TONIGHT!!!1!@!! And then you’ll spend that last-minute panic attack hating yourself, convinced you completely deserve the F that you just know you’re going to get on this utter disaster that you didn’t even spell-check before submitting because holy crap it’s 11:59. Sound familiar? Yeah. Me too.

I’m not the world’s foremost composition-and-rhetoric expert—not by any stretch of the imagination—but I do have an MFA in writing, and I am a guy who sometimes writes 5,000-word essays for fun (yep, I’m a nerd). I’ve learned a few things in pursuit of that hobby that you may find helpful, so here’s some unsolicited advice.

1. Start early. Better yet, start now. If you don’t know what you’re going to write about yet, you won’t know what you’re going to write about at the last minute. The difference is that if you start it now, you have time to figure that out and you don’t have to do it in a panic. Also, the earlier you start writing on your essay, the earlier you’ll start thinking about it, and the longer it has to marinate in the back of your head. Not all of the writing process happens at the keyboard. Once you’ve started working on a project, it will be there running in the background while you’re doing other things, and that eureka moment is likely to come while you’re doing something completely unrelated. Walking to the cafeteria or driving to pick up your kids. As an example, this point came to me while I was cleaning my cat’s litter box (it’s also my third point #1).

2. Let It Suck. Your first draft is going to be bad. That’s okay. First drafts are always bad. We’ll get back to this later (and you’ll fix it before you turn it in), but for right now, just write. Just write. No matter how bad it is, if you’ve got something on the page, you’ve got something to fix. A blank page is just that: blank.

3. Keep It Simple. You’re not going to write a successful 8-page essay on “imagery in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.” Entire books have been written on that topic. Books. Plural. You might, however, get a successful essay out of that image that shows up in chapter 47, of her hair falling loose dangerously close to the grinding machinery of that steam-powered threshing machine. You might get a successful essay out of examining how that image works as a metaphor for the precarious position of a poor woman in Victorian England, and how that is one of Thomas Hardy’s dominant themes throughout the novel. Or you might choose to take a different approach to that same chapter and write about how the one person offering to take her away from that precarious life is her wealthy rapist. Either way, keep it focused on something small enough to manage in the space you’ve got. And eight pages may feel like a lot when you’re just sitting down to write it, but it’s really not all that much room. Remember, the opposite of focused writing is vague writing, and vague writing doesn’t tend to get the best grades.

4. If you know exactly what you’re going to write, you’re (most likely) wrong. I have seen far too many times when someone wrote a beautiful introduction to their essay, then proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot trying to stick with what they had written in that introduction. Writing projects have a way of getting away from us—of turning out differently than what we sat down to write—and the best way to deal with that is to expect it from the beginning. To that end…

5. Write your introduction last. Sometimes you’ll also see this phrased “write it backwards,” but I don’t like that because it’s not really accurate. In my experience it’s something more like this:

  • a] Notes and rough ideas (see below);
  • b] Rough body paragraphs;
  • c] Essay structure/outline;
  • d] Refined body paragraphs;
  • e] Transitions between the paragraphs;
  • f] Conclusion;
  • g] Introduction.

Sometimes c and d can be reversed. Some people prefer to start with an outline; there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you remain flexible enough to rearrange your essay if it becomes necessary. This list also only talks about the first draft. Immediately after that, you’ll start reading through the whole essay for flow and continuity and language issues.

6. Start with notes. Use index cards. While you’re doing your research (or reading what you’re planning to analyze), write down the important stuff on index cards. And by “the important stuff” I mean both the relevant details you’re finding in your readings (quotes and such) and your own thoughts about your subject. Be sure to jot down the relevant sources (the bibliographic data) and page numbers on those cards so you can go back to your sources later, and so you have that information when it’s time to write your works-cited list.

Index cards have two primary advantages: one, they force you to keep it short, and two, you can easily shuffle them around while you’re figuring out your structure. Also, according to cognitive scientists, handwriting notes (as opposed to typing them) tends to be better for learning and retention.

7. Write your body paragraphs as mini-essays. Each of your body paragraphs, as you get it closer to finished, should resemble a mini-essay detailing a specific element of your argument (e.g., why X-character or Y-event relates to your main topic). For each element, your goal is to introduce it, analyze what is significant about it, and conclude with why it is relevant to your greater argument.

8. Eschew the thesaurus. (See what I did there?) As a student, you’ve been exposed to a lot of overwritten material. It’s entirely possible you’ve even had teachers encourage you to mimic that sort of writing, because it’s “what academic writing is supposed to look like” (or some such nonsense). Don’t. Seriously. Just don’t. The best writing is simple and direct, and gets its point across without a lot of effort. I like to say write like you’re explaining it to a smart high-school student. Ineloquent applications of unnecessarily obfuscatory verbiage and etymologically arcane esoterica render the trajectory of any presented suppositions virtually impossible to disambiguate. That’s not good writing.

9. Be prepared to rearrange at any point. As you get your body paragraphs more refined, you may find that the most logical progression of your argument isn’t exactly what you expected it to be. Usually it’s going to follow the organization of the book you’re discussing (e.g., chronologically from beginning to end), but sometimes a better structure will present itself. Sometimes you may discover that the most interesting thing showing up in your body paragraphs isn’t even what you planned to write about. Sometimes your intended conclusion will totally implode (I’ve had this happen on a major assignment, and it’s really disturbing). That’s why I put outline/structure so late in the process up there, with the option to move it even later, because your ideal structure isn’t always clear from the beginning.

10. Be prepared for your conclusion to change. Obviously, if your body paragraphs start leading to a conclusion other than what you thought you were going to write, then you need to be ready to adapt your conclusion accordingly. When this happens—and it does happen—it’s a lot less painful if you haven’t already committed yourself to a specific conclusion.

11. Now that you have written your conclusion, go back and write your intro. Because it would have been pretty hard to write an effective introduction to an essay when you had no idea what it was going to end up talking about, but now that you know what’s going on inside, you know how to set your reader up to ride along with you.

Pro tip: In the introduction, when you mention the things you’re going to talk about in your essay, list them in the same order that they’re going to show up. If your introduction says you’ll be discussing how Tess was wronged by John Durbeyfield, Alec d’Urberville, and Angel Clare, your readers will expect you to discuss the characters in that order.

12. Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! Read it aloud to someone. Or at the very least record yourself reading it and listen to that recording. If you can, have someone else read it back to you. These exercises will help you discover the rough spots, such as awkward language, or unclear analysis, or non-sequitur transitions. Also, depending on how seriously you took “Let It Suck” up there, this stage may involve several passes (even dozens of passes) as you take the raw material of your rough draft and mold it into a finished essay.

13. When you’re satisfied that it’s finished, it’s (most likely) not. First-year undergrads tend to start with this notion that you can hammer out a good essay in a couple of hours, in the middle of the night after staying out too late with your friends, before it’s due in the morning. More advanced students realize that it takes more time than that, and more preparation. Graduate students often spend most of the semester working on the final essay for that 600-level class (or the essay is the cumulative result of that semester-long project). Graduate-degree candidates work for multiple semesters under the supervision of thesis advisors, who read every word critically, usually through several revisions. Professional-grade writers go through numerous revisions (often dozens of them), first on their own, then with feedback from colleagues, then with feedback from agents or editors, and then with feedback from publishers. When you read that story or essay that is just sublimely written, you can rest assured that the first draft looked absolutely nothing like what you’re reading. In fact, likely as not, the first draft looked kinda hopeless.

I say all this not to discourage you as you’re writing your essays, but to emphasize that, as with any creative endeavor, writing is never—ever—a straight-through, beginning-to-end process. It’s more of a process of continuous growth and refinement. The more open you are to that process from the beginning, the more you open yourself to the possibilities of what you can create.

—Jay Parr

Advertisements

Studying in Ghana

by Nargiza Kiger, BLS student, Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza in Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza Kiger in Tamale, Ghana.

I am in the middle of my online midterm test, and rather confident that I know the material, but becoming anxious because the test has a limited time and my internet connection is being torturously slow. I click to submit my answer, and watch the precious seconds go past, becoming more anxious as I wait for the next question to finally appear. I answer it…click…and wait again.

That’s when the power goes out.

Cussing and feeling defeated I storm outside to calm myself. The last time the power went out (the day before the test), it lasted for over twelve hours. In my head I am already drafting yet another email to my professor trying to explain my situation. “Just don’t make it sound like one of those excuses professors get from students all the time,” I tell myself as the security guard approaches me.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

I have been living in the West African region since 2011—the same year I became a student at UNCG—and since then I have been taking my classes from Nigeria and Ghana. Living in West Africa is exciting and rewarding both on a personal and a professional level, and the new phenomenon of “distance learning” creates huge opportunities for a student like me, who can live in Ghana and take online classes from an American University. However, living in and taking online classes from Tamale has its own set of challenges. Sudden power losses and slow, at times non-functioning internet are common situations. Reliable internet access and reliable electricity are rare. As a distance learner I face these challenges on daily basis. It can be maddening.

As Ibrahim the security guard approached me, I wanted to vent my frustration and complain to someone about how challenging it is to be a distance learner when you have such poor infrastructure around you. In the course of our conversation something special happened that made me reflect back on the bigger picture and why am I a student in the first place. He brought me back to reality, and now any time I am frustrated about my tests, quizzes and mid term exams, I remember the story of Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim

Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim is a 22-year-old young man who wants to be a medical nurse. He was the oldest son of a farmer who relied on him greatly in managing the farm. When Ibrahim was 14 an educational project “Literacy and Development through Partnership” came to his community. This project focused on adult education and taught them how to write and read in English, the formal language of Ghana. Ibrahim joined the project and started going to night school after long, labor-intensive days in his family farm. Only at the age of 14 did he have access to basic education that I had had access to at the age of 7 growing up in Uzbekistan.

In rural parts of Ghana basic education can easily become a burden for parents. In rural Ghana a person on average lives on $2 USD a day. Although the education itself free from 1st grade to 9th grade, if you want to go to high school you have to pay on average 100 Ghana Cedi ($50 USD) per academic year. Private schools are 4-5 times higher. Because Ibrahim wanted to further acquire his higher education, it was crucial to graduate from high school.

Ibrahim committed to his night school education so much that his uncle noticed his abilities and convinced Ibrahim’s farther to let Ibrahim go to high school. In the following farming seasons, his father encouraged Ibrahim to hire some assistance in the field, so he could spend less time on the field and more at school. Ibrahim joined the junior high school at the age of 17 and graduated from High School in 2013 at the age of 22. He paid for his school from the small profits he made from growing rice. He told me that one year he had such a bad yield (6 sacks of rise) that he did not have any money or rice left when he paid his school expenses.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim told me that he was surrounded with classmates who were much younger than him and always felt a bit ashamed, but he said that adult students like him tend to have clearer goals and have less time to “play around.” Now he is studying for his standardized entrance exam for the Nursing School. He tells me that it is very competitive and mostly not based on merits. Since he has no connections to the influential people at nursing school, he says that he has to only rely on his abilities and knowledge. At the same time the educational system favors those with financial capabilities. Ibrahim says that if a person pays about $5,000 in bribes to “the right person,” the person’s place at the Nursing school can be secured without any exams. He knows that it is impossible for him to save up that much money working as a security guard and making about $150 a month. So, he is determined to challenge himself and take the test. He told me that most of his salary and harvested rice is spent on his siblings’ education. He wants them to be educated at much earlier age than he was.

The day Ibrahim and I shared our educational journeys was the day I told myself that I will not feel frustrated over small challenges and will do my best to focus on the bigger picture. Ibrahim’s story made me reflect on educational journeys that many young people go through in different parts of the world, facing their own challenges. Most of us in the United States are lucky to have the opportunities in front of us. We only have to recognize them and take advantage of them. Immense resources and technology make education even more accessible. Online education has become a widely used approach in non-traditional education. It definitely allows me to achieve my educational progress from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Ibrahim’s reading spot under the mango tree.

Ibrahim and I became good buddies since our bond over our educational goals. We both encourage each other in our so different world, and remind each other of our ultimate goals in this journey. Recognizing poor availability and access of the resources for Ibrahim, I now share my books with him, as he is very nervous about passing English on his big test.

—–

Nargiza Kiger (rhymes with “tiger”), a senior in the BLS Social Sciences concentration, currently lives in Tamale, Ghana with her husband. A resident of North Carolina, she finished her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Technical Community College before coming to UNCG. Prior to that, she grew up and started her education in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, and she speaks enough languages that the College foreign language requirement probably won’t be an issue for her.

The First Day of School

by Matt McKinnon

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

Image

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.

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Carrie Levesque

Recently in the Russian Novel of Conscience course we have been discussing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, about a highly mechanized and regimented totalitarian society (the One State) hundreds of years in the future where citizens have achieved the ultimate happiness: unfreedom.  Taking as our starting point Marx’s claim that machines, invented to help man, have become the symbols of his servitude, we debate the extent to which machines and technology have enslaved or liberated men in today’s world.

As a class, we’ve compiled a pretty good list of technology’s benefits (efficiency, convenience, online degree programs!) and costs (myriad media addictions, a privileging of online relationships at the expense of face-to-face ones).  At midterm, several students have written excellent papers on how we have created a sort of One State within the United States through certain government policies and technologies which reduce rather than foster our individuality and humanity.

Many of these discussions have stirred up nostalgia for simpler times, when it seems people had different values and a different relationship to one another.  They’ve made me think about a book I read recently on a more extreme response to this question, the Back to the land movement (which is a great deal more complex than just ‘living simply,’ but I’m limited to 800 words…).

I grew up in a remote area of northern Maine that has always attracted Back-to-the-landers.  What possesses these diehards who apparently find the southern Maine homesteads of the followers of Scott and Helen Nearing not austere or isolated enough, that they would haul their few remaining possessions to the place where the logging roads end and call it home, I can’t say for sure.

But I’ll admit to having a touch of that idealism myself- to unplug, to live off the land, to disconnect from our nonstop media and rampant consumerism of all the latest technology (though you’d have to be insane to choose the wilds of northern Maine, a place with two seasons: Brutal Winter and Rainy Black Fly Infestation).  Though I now prefer a more comfortable climate, I understand the appeal of living in a beautiful, natural setting, devoting most of one’s time to work in the outdoors without a care for whatever new technology or entertainment the rest of the world is enthralled with.

Coleman Family

And yet, through a closer examination of life ‘off the grid,’ I’ve also come to a greater appreciation of many benefits of our modern life. I recently read Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life Is In Your Hands about growing up the daughter of famous homesteader and Nearing mentee Eliot Coleman. She chronicles the great strain that the demands of homesteading put on her family, resulting in her father’s ill health, her baby sister’s tragic death and her parents’ divorce.  (On a lighter note, she also reveals some of the purist Nearings’ well-kept secrets: Helen’s love of ice cream, mail order fruit and other delicacies.  Even the folks who wrote the (sometimes a tad righteous) book on living local and off the grid indulged a little on occasion).  Though there were certainly aspects of their lives on the homestead that were richly satisfying, some readers may come away wondering if their chosen cure for the ills of modern life wasn’t in some ways as harmful as the disease, physically as well as spiritually.

Another interesting look at the real-life struggles of those who lived in those idealized ‘simpler times’ is the PBS reality series Frontier House.   In 2001, three families (selected from among some 5,000 applicants!) lived off the land for six months on the simulated frontier of 1880s Montana.  The success of their venture was assessed by historians based on whether each family had put by enough food and fuel over the summer and fall to survive a Montana winter.  Though they labored admirably, through all sorts of drama, if memory serves it was decided all would have perished.  The simpler times were never as simple as they seem.   (Frontier House is available in UNCG’s Instructional Film Collection, but sadly, not on Netflix).

There are no easy answers to the question of man’s relationship to technology.  Most people I know lament their dependency on smart phones, social media and a food supply so highly engineered that many of us have no idea what we’re really eating half the time (pink slime, anyone?).   Yet we have so much to be grateful for.  We live in a time of amazing medical advances.  Whatever may plague or disappoint us in our lives, we have the freedom and resources at our fingertips to research alternatives and connect with like-minded people to find a solution.  For all our similarities, thankfully these United States are not the One State.  Our ultimate happiness is not to be found in our unfreedom, but in our freedom to negotiate these complex choices and relationships, to choose our own adventure.

Enrichment Online: The Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies at UNCG

By Tyler Steelman (BLS Class of 2012)

Facing the completion of my Associates in Arts in English, I was quite undecided on how I would continue my college career after leaving the community college I entered after high school.  Thanks to her wisdom and insight into my interests and character, my college adviser there introduced me to the BLS program at UNCG.

I have always had a deep interest in the fields described as humanities: literature, art, history, philosophy, and religion.  Thus, the BLS program was a great way to formally study subjects I have always loved.  The online learning environment was also a major factor in my choosing the BLS program.  Having completed my associate’s degree online, I had grown comfortable with the freedom and flexibility of online courses, so I knew I would be successful in the BLS program.  Furthermore, UNCG’s low tuition rates make it quite an affordable way to further your education.

While my focus in the program was on literature, to my delight I have been able to delve into the other branches of the humanities as well.  One of my favorite courses during my time in the program was Magic, Media, and Popular Imagination with Dr. Emily Edwards.  In this course we examined the effect the supernatural has had on popular media.  We watched several films with supernatural themes which we discussed in discussion forums.  For the final project we created a visual narrative blog, where we used photographs and narration to create a documentary or creative piece.  It was interesting to learn how profound an influence the occult has had on popular media, and the visual narrative project was an enjoyable experience.  To view my visual narrative project, click here.

In my time in the BLS program, I have been fortunate to also take three courses with Dr. Carrie Levesque.  In American Motherhood, I studied how the role of motherhood is perceived by our society and the different ethnicities and sub-cultures that it contains.  For that course I created a blog examining how motherhood is represented in popular media.  I also took Religious Resistance to Political Power, where I examined how various religions responded to oppressive measures by governments.  In Women, War, and Terror, we read three memoirs written by women during times of war, violence, and social upheaval.  Dr. Levesque is a very insightful instructor who provides a warm and informal atmosphere to discuss these often challenging and distressing issues.

Finally, I have also been able to explore the world of drama and theater with Professor Marc Williams.  In Big Plays, Big Ideas, I read numerous plays, analyzing how they portrayed various issues pertaining to society and the human condition.  In Eye Appeal, I learned how spectacle (costuming, lighting, set design, music, etc.) adds to or affects dramatic productions.  I wrote a review of a theatrical performance I attended, detailing how spectacle was utilized.  Professor Williams offers wonderful critiques on assignments that not only advise you on how to be a better student in that course, but also on how to be a better writer.

I am not the typical BLS student, as the program is geared to working adults and I am a full-time student who just graduated high school four years ago.  Thus, I do not have as much life experience as most students in the program.  However, the BLS program has in a sense opened up the world for me.  I have learned more about the various cultures, beliefs, conflicts, and arts that characterize humanity in the two years I have been in the BLS program than I believe most people my age or perhaps any age have.  I am confident that the insights about the human condition I have acquired in the BLS program will be invaluable in whatever direction life takes me.  I will be graduating with honors in May, and I am hoping to continue my liberal arts education at UNCG next fall with the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  If you want a quality liberal arts education that not only gives you freedom and flexibility but also enriches the way you see humanity and the world, I highly recommend looking into the BLS program at UNCG.

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.