Monday, December 24, 2012

The Worst Christmas Eve of My Life?

Coming to terms with things that are not so bad.

It is Christmas Eve. 

I am in my favorite room in the house. We generally call it our "den." It has walls lined with books, a desk for the computer, some filing cabinets, our television with PS3, a comfy couch, a recliner and a wood-burning stove which currently houses a cheery crackling fire. Right now, the the television and PS3 are occupied playing a series of about 100 Christmas carols that I have on MP3. The dogs are playing somewhat too rowdy game for the house, but outside a mix of rain and snow makes me want to keep them in despite the rambunctious antics.

Earlier this evening, my wife and I attended our church's Christmas Eve service. We sang some lovely carols and took the Lord's Supper along with our church family. When I got home, I made some snickerdoodle cookies with alternating green and red sugar. I may take them with me to a gathering planned for tomorrow. I am also bringing a cheesecake that I made in the shape of a Christmas tree and a chocolate pie. Others will bring assorted good things to eat and we will have a wonderful time.

If my Christmas Eve sounds positively idyllic, that's because it probably is. The fire is warm. The carols are great. There are so many presents beneath the tree that it can barely contain them. If Dickens were to have written in modern times, I imagine he would have described a setting not unlike the room I am in. If this picturesque image of holiday perfection makes my readers wonder why I would describe this as my worst Christmas Eve of my life, well, that's kind of the point.

This year's disappointments.

Nearly every year of my life I have traveled for Christmas. There was a brief period during my teens when my parents lived close enough to their parents that major travel was unnecessary, but otherwise, Christmas has meant piling into a car and travelling a long distance. This is normal, I believe. At least it is common enough for Perry Como to have made a song famous regarding it:

I expected this year to be no different. My wife has a job which is none to wonderful for a number of reasons, but one advantage about which we were excited was the fact that she was to have two weeks off over Christmas. Since October, however, the company for which she works has undergone some changes. Among these changes was that there would be less holiday time available. At first, we thought we might have at least one week of Christmas break off. Then we heard that we did not. Our plans to travel to see family for Christmas were squashed.

As if that wasn't enough, promising two weeks and giving none, she had to spend tonight at work. Christmas Eve she must spend the entire night at work. So, while I am enjoying the carols, the dogs' antics and the cheery fire, I am doing so alone (except for the dogs).

I've never spent a Christmas Eve alone before. Normally, I like to be alone. Generally, I look forward to the evenings when my wife must work her overnight. I am a solitary person by nature and interaction, even with people I really love, wear on me. I am not particularly social. Don't get me wrong. I love certain social gatherings, but I enjoy the energy I get from being alone. Generally, I find the opportunity to be alone exciting.

But not on Christmas Eve. Being alone on Christmas Eve stinks. It is probably worse for my wife who not only is not able to be with people she loves, but actually has to work all night.

But complaining is wrong . . .

I can get so caught up in the negative. I am alone on Christmas Eve, but my Christmas is much better than Christmas is for the Christians who celebrate in Sudan, Iran or China. It is, in fact, beautiful, comfortable and amazing. My wife will come home in the morning. We will open our presents. We will play with our dogs. We will have a good time.  I often get so caught up in what I do not have that I forget all I have.

Our pastor said something interesting Sunday. It was not a major point of his sermon. In fact, I am pretty sure it was an unintentional short digression. He pointed out that for Christians, Christmas should not be about "giving," it should be about "receiving." Christmas is not about family. It's not about friends. It's not about food. It's not about giving gifts, it's about receiving them. The incarnation, the ultimate gift from God, is for us to receive. It opened the door for us to receive the gifts of salvation, the gifts of the Spirit, the gift of a personal relationship with The Most High God. For me, it is harder to be a grateful receiver than a generous giver. As a receiver, I lack gratitude and always seem to be demanding more.

That's what I've been doing lately. I've been complaining to God, friends, family, everyone about the changes in plan I've had to endure. I haven't focused on all I am receiving. I haven't seen God's grace in the wonderful Christmas I can and will have. Because of that, I have almost ruined it for myself.

So, I am going to change.

I am going to focus on the good. I am going to be a grateful receiver of gifts. I am going to be thankful for what is here. Really, that should be easy. I have been given a great deal and it is wonderful.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Program Prioritization

Coming to terms with university changes.

Every college or university that wants to stay current must occasionally evaluate what majors, minors and certificates it offers. The concept of the university developed from the academies and gymnasiums of Greece and Rome. Those institutions offered more limited training, usually in math, public speaking or philosophy. The idea of a "university" was that it would prepare certain people for a "universe" of knowledge. Not everyone could go to a university. Only those who had enough resources and time that they could pursue intellectual ends rather than the production of goods and services could go. Those people were seen as more free than those trapped in productive labor, and so those things one learned at the University were known as the "liberal arts." There were seven of these. First students learned the trivium: logic, grammar and rhetoric. No one could have the mental acumen to move on to more advanced studies without mastering these, so they were taught first. They were called the trivium because there were three of them. The fact that they were the basis of everything else is the reason that today we call basic knowledge "trivia." Once one had mastered the trivium one could move on and study the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Only after one had mastered these could he (and it was virtually always he) study philosophy and theology, the study informed by these others.

For centuries, some near variation on the program described above was a university education. As a "liberal arts" advocate, I think that there is much to commend it. First of all, I strongly believe that teaching arithmetic to people who haven't mastered logic is a massive failing and the reason so many students struggle with math.  I certainly never understood math growing up. Those who were good at math seemed to see it as a game. Understanding it as part of a larger logical structure and one of many logical systems finally made it click for me, but that wasn't until I took classes in logic in college. How can one really understand trigonometry when one doesn't really know what an axiom is? But this is a digression.

Today's courses of study are not the same as those of a millennia ago. For one thing the lower, "practical" arts have merged with the liberal arts and the rise of democratic philosophies and related democratic societies has rendered the division between free people and those who labor as obsolete (for now). Free people are expected to work. Work for wages is no longer seen as an inherent impediment to an intellectual life. The university for the past two centuries at least has encouraged a "major" in one area, often a practical art, but sometimes a liberal art and "general studies" which give free people the access they need for an intellectual life as well.

So, there are two areas where a university constantly needs to update their offerings. One area is in the practical arts. The other area is in the liberal arts. In a democratic society, the liberal arts are more than just intellectual games. They are the means by which one acquires the knowledge one needs to perform the practical arts as they change. The liberal arts really haven't changed a huge amount since medieval times. We use "algebra" instead of arithmetic or geometry because of its ability to incorporate both logical systems. We have added "science" understood broadly. Most liberal arts programs require a couple different sciences so that scientific ways of gaining knowledge are understood by students. We've sort of decided that any kind of "art" can be substituted for music; it can be painting, sculpture, theater or music. The main thing is that students know how to arrive at knowledge through a creative process. While every university has a slight difference in how it manages the liberal arts, but we could probably create a new series. Students should know how to garner knowledge, logically (through argument), mathematically (through manipulation of numbers), dialectically (through interpersonal conversation or group work), lexically (through interacting with media), scientifically (through empirical observation of the natural world), social scientifically (through empirical observation of the social world) and artistically (through creation). While I could easily find people to argue over my choice of terms, these are the goals of most "general studies" programs, the vestiges of the liberal arts.

The practical arts are the ones that have changed the most and will continue to change the most. It will also be the most different from university to university. The program prioritization at Western New Mexico University is completed, for now. Mostly it has involved the consolidation of certain programs. No positions on the "professor" track will be eliminated, but it looks like some very good adjuncts will probably find their services no longer required.

Perhaps the most shocking to me is the elimination of the Computer Science major (the Computer Science professors will be asked to teach "computer literacy," a form of lexical thinking, and math). When I was an undergrad, during the height of the dotcom bubble, Computer Science was where the "smart" students majored. I.T. was a lucrative field with a guaranteed middle class income for competent practitioners and those who were both competent and creative were guaranteed wealth. Now, the person who can code in 10 languages and do calculus in his or her head seems to be struggling to keep his or her job at McDonald's.  The code monkeys in cubicles have moved to Asia where they make what is well below the minimum wage in the United States. In short, Computer Science majors cannot get jobs. Because people increasingly know that they cannot get jobs with a Computer Science degree, sensible students don't major in that. Because sensible students don't major in that, the program has died. This is the problem with the "practical arts." Whatever skill set one develops is only one skill set in a world wide market. It is almost certainly a skill set that will be obsolete soon. Often, what was most marketable one day is considered useless the next.

I am really sad to see Computer Science go. It is hard for me to entirely explain why. It might be related to my sadness at seeing smoking sections in restaurants go, seeing so few students wearing flannel and the disappearance of the bookstore. It might just be nostalgia for a time when I looked at the future and saw more hope. Of course, as I write this blog on an IPad during a meeting on modernizing and redesigning our courses using contemporary tools, I have a lot of hope for the future and no desire to return to a time when a computer was a big box in my dorm room.

Things change, and the courses that are "practical" right now will be useless in a few years. The courses in gaining and maintaining different kinds of knowledge, however, will continue to allow the people who majored in the "smart" practical fields can adjust to whatever the smart practices of tomorrow are. I am excited to see "what comes next."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Some thoughts on Pearl Harbor Day

I don’t like jerks, which I define as people who can’t have respectful, civil disagreements. I tend to be a right-leaning antiauthoritarian, but I get along well with statists and lefties, although I disagree with them. I can’t stand the anarchists on my “own” side who break windows or vandalize public property. I am a pretty orthodox evangelical, but I like to have respectful conversations across the religious spectrum, although I disagree with them. I can’t stand people on my “own” side who think it is their job to take Satan’s cosmic role and act as “accuser.” I usually try to be more critical of those with whom I agree than those with whom I disagree. It is easy to praise Athens to Athenians (Rhetoric,1367b). To me, critiquing those outside one’s ideology (whether or not that ideology is dominant) is cowardice, and jerks are cowards. Failing to critique one’s own ideology is equal cowardice and shows a lack of intellectual and emotional capacity for critical thinking.

Today jerks are in the spotlight. Reality television makes celebrities out of those who take violent offence at those who slight them. The isolating structure of the Internet assures that a person can surround his or herself with like minded sycophants. The country seems poised at the edge of a fiscal cliff because Republicans and Democrats can only see the anomalies in each other’s ideologies and will not engage in thoughtful self critique. Secularists complain about people of faith’s expression of holiday cheer. Many of those faithful people turn “Merry Christmas” into a warlike attack; “I am going to wish people a ‘Merry Christmas’ no matter whom it hurts!” Think about what you’re saying! America has been engaged in a decade of war, the longest war in American history, mostly because we can’t come to any acceptable terms with those with whom we are fighting. The advocates of marriage between same-sex partners and those who do not approve of such unions do not simply see each other as wrong, they see each other as EVIL. The last election even saw men and women pitted against each other, as if somehow the interests of the genders are dialectically opposed to each other.

There is, as the Bible says, a time for war (Ecc. 3:8). There are times when an attack is so blatant and so violent that a response of violence in kind is necessary. There are times when a failure of retribution is an encouragement for continued inhumanity. Today we remember a time like that. We remember when the Japanese bombed the American military base at Pearl Harbor so as to secure oil shipping lanes for themselves. We remember that this happened on this date in 1941. We remember 2,403 people were killed and another 1,178 people were wounded. The bombing was unprovoked and unexpected. A response was required and America did respond. Both my grandfathers took up arms against the Japanese and fought them in the Pacific. The war ended nearly four years later when the United States used an even more horrific type of bomb, a nuclear bomb, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. War was necessary. It was fought. It ended.

When it ended, ideological differences between the United States and Japan did not end. Shinto, the religion that at some level informs all of Japanese policy both before and after the war, is not particularly friendly to foreign intervention. The United States was still firmly allied with China at the time, which has a historical antagonistic relationship with Japan that continues to this day. Still, we worked together. Over the next 40 years, the United States helped Japan develop into one of the most economically capable countries in the world. To this day they are our strongest ally in the region and our best trading partner, making equitable trades. We could have been jerks, and kept smacking them down until they agreed with us. They could have been jerks and refused our help unless we also agreed with them. We weren’t. They weren’t. Because of this it’s better for everyone.

See, loving our enemies turns out to be really good advice. Engaging in a civil manner with people with whom we disagree allows us to work together for our mutual benefit. Getting offended and taking your ball and going home means not only that your enemies are deprived of a ball, but that you are deprived of a game. Saying that those who disagree with you cannot win means that nobody wins. Somehow, some way, we’ve all got to stop being jerks, or we’re going to kill ourselves.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Buttons and Responsibility

Coming to terms with my hot buttons

Why is this a struggle now

I sometimes have the privilege to teach Interpersonal Communication. It’s not my area of expertise, not the way Public Speaking, New Media, Rhetorical Philosophy or Spiritual Communication are. In fact, it’s not even something at which I am particularly skilled. I wouldn’t quite say that I am misanthropic. I am quite comfortable working with groups and crowds. In fact, while I am entirely introverted, if you give me an audience, I tend to ham it up. Still, I struggle with the basic interplay between two people at an emotional level. My best friendships in my life have always been primarily cerebral, spiritual and only consequentially emotional. I have better emotional communication with dogs than with human beings (but they rarely challenge me intellectually ((but I have this red dog right now who I think is smarter than me))). Part of the reason I love teaching it, however, is how much I learn from the class myself.

Right now I am preparing to teach the class in the spring. This will be different from when I’ve taught it before. First of all, it is to be taught at the junior level. Other times I’ve taught it as a sophomore or even freshman class. Secondly, technology has made great strides since last time I taught this. Moving my thinking from a bulleted Power Point epistemology to one that is more informed by thought mapping, like Prezi, has been instructive.

Finally, I’ve never taught the class as a married man. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that marriage is good for your self esteem! I came to marriage as an expert on communication, but marriage has made me question everything again. Everything that seems rock solid becomes ephemeral when you are one in spirit with someone whose reactions to life’s events are totally foreign. It makes a person question all that he or she knows. I question my faith. I question my intelligence. I question my masculinity. I question my traditions. I question my values. And most of all, I question my competence.

Somehow, before this class begins in January, I need to find a way to either find a solid intellectual place on which to stand, or to find some way to teach credibly from a place of intellectual insecurity. So, this might end up being a series of blogs. Of course, I’ve predicted that before and been wrong. My next post might well be about how awesome ice-cream is (answer=very).

Guidelines for expressing emotions. 

After four years of marriage, my wife and I have learned to push each other’s buttons and get the other one really upset. You might wonder why we would want to do that. So do I. The fact is that if you question us outside the situation, “would you say or do this or that thing?” We’d probably say “no, I know that would upset” the other one. Still, in that situation, we do or say things that we know will affect the other one. We also know what things affect us, but let ourselves get worked up over it anyway.

As I look at the text I plan to use next semester, it seems like this should be easy to overcome. The authors give some excellent guidelines for expressing emotions. They are guidelines I recognize intellectually. Each of them is backed by solid empirical research and tried and true philosophy. In the text, each of these guidelines is explained thoroughly and fully documented; it’s a good text. Here, I’ll just give you the bullet points (literally), but if you want to read it thoroughly, use the link above to check it out through your local library (interlibrary loan is great) or buy it, if you’re rich. The relevant pages are 132-141.

  • Recognize your feelings
  • Recognize the difference between feeling, talking and acting.
  • Expand your emotional vocabulary
  • Share multiple feelings
  • Accept responsibility for your feelings
  • Be mindful of the communication channel

Sweet. Good advice. I’m gonna do that. Except, it’s not all that easy.

Accept responsibility for your feelings.

Everything on that list is harder than it sounds, but the part that’s floating around right now is “accepting responsibility for your feelings.” When I was in college (undergrad) I learned to do this. I remember well sitting in Dr. Maurine Eckloff’s General Semantics class and learning how to redefine and use layers of abstraction to choose which feelings we would have as a result of things happening. I came to understand that no one could make me angry, sad, happy, etc. (Dr. Eckloff would love that “etc.”). Instead I recognized that I could choose which emotion was appropriate and useful to the particular situation and apply it, almost like a tool. That I choose my emotions was a truth that set me free. It was amazing. I was no longer controlled by my emotions. Since then, I’ve used those same tools both in classes and individual conferences to help other people get set free. I’d say I’ve gotten more thank you notes from students for help with that than anything else, but that would imply I’ve gotten thank you notes from students for something else. No one can make you feel anything!

Except . . .

My wife makes me happy. My wife makes me sad. My wife makes me angry. And I do the same to her. And we can do so with almost scientific predictability. When I am in that moment, and the emotion seems to hit me, I really don’t seem to have a choice. The feeling comes up. I fight it, but it’s there. Now, the pleasant feelings are no trouble. Let them come. Still, I need to find a way to get passed the angry feelings. It does help a little to recognize my “buttons,” but even though I know that these feelings are likely, right now it seems hard to take responsibility for them.

My angry buttons

  • When someone swears at me. I experimented with profanity in my youth, but have come to dislike it. I can give all kinds of theological, theoretical and philosophical reasons why it is bad. When it is directed at me, it is very hard for me to not get angry. To me, these words need to be limited to times when actual hatred needs to be expressed. When I hear them, I feel hatred directed at me. Then I get mad. 
  • When someone implies I should do more. I work more than a full-time job, teaching an overload every semester and summers, on the most time consuming committees, with a complete research agenda and service commitments. Even my “relaxing” time watching TV or reading sees my phone in my hand, answering emails from colleagues and students until late in the evening. I do this because my paycheck pays ¾ of our bills and I have to be on the ball. Still, I don’t let work interfere with household chores. I do all the cooking for our family meals. I do all the grunt work for pet care. I do my own laundry. I take care of the dishes (usually). I make the bed (which I never did when I was single). I mow the lawn. I do the grocery shopping. I plan the menus. I drop into bed exhausted at night. I don’t mind. I like work.  But I am really and truly doing all that I can. I don’t mind being reminded that the litter box needs cleaned or that there are dirty dishes in the sink. I forget stagnant details sometimes (scientifically, men don’t notice these things as a symptom of nature, not nurture or desire). When there is an implication that I am not going the extra mile or doing my part, however, I get mad.
  • When my family is criticized. This is a line no one can cross. There are families where they can attack each other, but won’t let an outsider attack. Not in mine. My mom CANNOT criticize my wife. My wife CANNOT criticize my mom. Both of them have tried and both of them have head from me about it. Everyone, clear out to cousins, are off limits. You can be honest; my mom doesn’t prioritize house cleaning; my brother doesn’t recognize his limitations; my wife doesn’t apply the same standards to herself as others but NEVER imply that these are bad things. My mom prioritizes people. My brother exceeds expectations. My wife crusades for justice beyond what it is possible to achieve. If someone criticizes them, I get mad.
  • When I am pushed away or dismissed. This is probably the hottest of the hot buttons. You don’t have to agree with me. You don’t have to think I’m right. You can be angry with me. All that is fine, so long as you look me in the eye and stay with me. When someone doesn’t do this, they are saying nonverbally “you are nothing” or “you don’t even exist to me.” When this happens, I get mad. 

But nothing can make me mad.

It is really hard when I look at these buttons to agree with the research. If you don’t live with someone all the time, it is easy to deny those buttons exist. When they are with you, however, and push your buttons regularly, it is every difficult to say that they didn’t “make” you angry. It is difficult to say that I choose to be angry in these situations. Maybe that difficulty is the whole point though. Maybe if I can get to the point where I can really take responsibility and say “I can choose to be angry” I can develop. I have to say though, that where I am now, it doesn’t “feel” like a choice.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Society is not the Government

Coming to terms with social institutions.

It's not just governments anymore

We often hear "society needs to do something" which gets translated into "Government needs to do something." I think that is a mistake. After watching the Presidential debate which aired last Tuesday, I don't hold out much hope for the government accomplishing anything good. So should "society" just give up? I don't think so. Government is one of many social institutions. I have made a list of 100 social institutions besides government that I think are more poised and more likely to do good in the next four years than is government.

The list is alphabetical, not in order of importance.

4-H, 501(c)3’s, AAA, Academics, Acupuncturists  Alcoholics Anonymous, Artists, Beach Boys, Bible Belt, Bible Studies, Bicyclists, Black Panthers, Book Clubs, Boy Scouts, Campers, Churches, Comedians  Communes, Community Theater, Concealed Carriers, Consumer Coalitions, Cooperatives, Corporations, Cowboys, Crafts guilds  D.A.R, Dead Heads, DIY Movements, Dungeons and Dragons Players, Entrepreneurs  Faith Healers, Families, Farmers, Fishermen, Fraternities, Fundamentalists, Girl Scouts, Golfers, Google, Hackers, HAM operators, Hikers, Hippies, Holy Rollers, Hunters, Illegal Immigrants, Jesus Freaks, Jews, Journalism, Kennel Clubs, Little league, Mafias, Markets, Martial Arts, Media Conglomerates, Media Pirates, Militias, Musicians, Native Nations, Nebraska Corn Huskers, Neighborhood Watch, Nerds, NGO’s, Ninjas, Nudists, Nursing Homes, Open Source, Outlaw Bikers, PAC’s, Parents, Parrot Heads, Pirates, Pop Warner Football, Private Partnerships, Professional Sports, Protest Movements, Reality Television, Rednecks, Rick Rollers, Rifle Associations, Roller Derbies, Scene Kids, Schools, Service Organizations, Sluts, Soccer Moms, Social Networks, Sole Proprietorship  Sororities, Survivalists  Tea Party, Teachers, Thespians  Think Tanks, Trekkies, Truthers, Unions, Wiki's, Yuppies, Zealots.

So don't give up.

Okay, give up. Give up on government working in your interests or solving your problems. Still, there are problems that we cannot solve as individuals and can only solve if we work together. Working together, however, does not mean working with the government.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Speech Teacher's Sermon In the Classroom

Coming to terms with Public Speaking

And seeing the multitudes, Public Speaking Professor went up into the classroom and when his LCD projector had warmed up he opened his mouth and taught them saying:
Blessed are the poor in preconceptions: for theirs is the Kingdom of Learning 
Blessed are they that weep: for they express pathos
Blessed are the moral: for they express ethos
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after valid sources: For they shall find them in the library. 
Blessed are the respectful: for they shall obtain the respect of their audience 
Blessed are the pure in citation: for they shall see A’s. 
Blessed are the syllogism-makers: For their logic shall result in an A. 
Blessed are ye when your classmates and even your professor shall revile you and persecute you and make all manner of rebuttals against you for your argument’s sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for you have found a topic worth discussing. 
Ye are the makers of speeches, yet if the speech lacks valid sources, wherewith shall it be spoken. It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be given a “D” and even erased from your hard-drive. 
Ye are the movers of minds. A great movement does not begin standing still. Nor does action happen within a bushel basket; but occurs when it is out in the open. So let your floor movements include the whole room, that you may make eye contact with everyone and not have your body hidden by a podium. 
Think not that I come to destroy Aristotle or Cicero, but to apply them. For verily I say unto you as long as people express themselves in language, Arrangement and Artistic Proof will not pass away. Whosoever shall say that contemporary technology negates classical rhetoric shall be the least among great speakers: but whosoever uses contemporary media to apply them, shall be called the new Martin Luther King Jr. 
For I say unto you, that except your public speaking exceed the eloquence of the politicians on CSPAN, you shall not obtain a better grade in my class than a “C.” 
You have heard it said from Dale Carnegie “Begin thy speech with a joke for it shall set thee and thy audience at ease.” Yet I say unto you, that this is a bastardization of Cicero and that the Narratio of a speech need not be humorous, but should move the emotions of thy audience where thou wilt. Therefore if thou speakest of painful subjects use not inappropriate humor. In so doing you will alienate and anger thy audience and you cannot move them. 
It hath been said, “whosoever copieth from one source committeth plagiarism, but whosoever copieth from many sources doeth research.” Yet I say unto you, whether from one source or from many, unless a student cite aloud the sources, plagiarism is committed and he shall be cast out of school. 
Again, you have heard it said “Alcohol and tobacco kill, whereas marijuana hurts no one.” Yet I say unto you that this is a non-sequitor and the student who says such shall be as guilty of fallacy as the student who compares the politician to Hitler. 
Ye have heard it said: “expose the other side’s hypocrisy, and thou needst not defend thine own arguments.” Yet I say unto you, an accusation of others is not a defense of thyself.” Instead put forward the goodness of thine own arguments and let thy enemy’s argument fail against it. 
Ye have heard it said that when you rise up to speak, thou shouldst be thyself. Yet I say unto you, unless one improves ones delivery, appearance and style, thy speech shall not be seen as important by thine audience and they shall not be moved. 
Take heed that ye do not give a speech without including other’s ideas: otherwise ye shall seem a mere opinionated buffoon. 
Therefore when thou speakest find valid sources who share your beliefs. That way when others argue, they argue not with you, but with the great knowledge and wisdom of those you cite. 
And when thou speakest, be not bound to thy podium. For the human eye is attracted to movement and thou shalt keep thy audience’s attention better if thou walkest about during thy speech. 
So when thou speakest, speak not as one who has not arrangement, but rather speak like this 
Begin with an Exordium that states thy thesis and explains thy credibility
Next give a Narratio which builds in emotion
Preview thy main points in thy Partito
Then explain each of these points in detail, citing sources throughout thy Confirmatio.
Explain what other points of view are common and why you do not hold them in thy Refutatio.
End with a call to the audience to move their minds in thy Peroratio
Moreover, when thou speakest do not as the failing students do and write the speech the night before it is due. Rather, prepare in advance and practice outloud, for when one practices in private, one shall receive one’s reward in public. 
Wait not until thy senior year to take Public Speaking. For you shall need to give presentations in thy major classes and shall do poorly in thy attempts. 
The greatest connection thou makest is in thy eye contact. Yet if thou readest thy speech how will you look at your audience! 
No speech can have two theses. Either one point will be made and not the other or neither one point will be made nor the other. One cannot speak on both the history and rules of baseball. 
Therefore I say unto you, take no thought about thy embarrassment in front of an audience. For I tell you the truth, even great speakers are nervous when coming before an audience. But I tell you the truth, even Abraham Lincoln in giving the Gettysburg Address felt fear as he stood before his auditors. Yet, who among you does a good job at what does not worry you? Instead, focus on moving thy audience and with or without nervousness, they shall be moved. 
Therefore, do not worry about worrying. Sufficient is the worry you will have before thy audience. 
Judge not the other students’ speeches, for thou art not yet qualified to tell them if their job is good or bad. Yet, if thou hast simple ideas for improvement, discuss them in class that all may be edified. 
Give not a speech which is not well researched, neither give a speech is unrehearsed. For the validity of thy argument and thine own morality shall be called into question. 
Ask if you do not understand the assignment. Read the textbooks and other ancillary materials. For your Professor is judged by the number of students who continue to graduation after this class and has no desire to see you fail. 
Therefore, in all things, the way you would like to see a speech given, give that kind of speech.
Unless thou believest that thy audience would be better for having heard your speech than if they did not, thou hast not chosen a good enough topic. 
Beware of bad advice that comes to us from people not trained in oral rhetoric. For although many mean well, many will tell you to do things that are not conducive to good presentations. Instead, see my lectures as a model for thine own speech, for if thou speakest as I speak, thou wilt get at least a “B.” 
Not everyone who stands before an audience is a public speaker. Only the one who follows all five canons of Invention, Style, Arrangement, Memory and Delivery can truly be said to give a speech. 
Therefore, whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them, I will give unto that person good grades. Then if at some point the GPA droppeth due to life’s difficulties, the student will remain in good academic standing. But whosoever heareth these sayings of mine and doeth them not, shall be a student who receives low grades. Then if at some point the GPA droppeth due to life’s difficulties, that student shall be suspended for failure to make academic progress. Such a student shall have no college degree, but must still pay back the student loan.
And it came to pass, when the Speech Professor had ended these sayings, the students were astonished at his doctrine. For he spoke as one who’d actually studied the subject, and not as a writer of self-help books.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

“The Bible says it. I believe it. That’s all there is to it.”—Except it’s not all there is to it.

I, like most people, probably, eschew labels. I think people should be free, including free to do things that I see as wrong. I think we have a responsibility to the poor which includes saying that if a person won’t work, he or she shouldn’t eat. That puts me in opposite corners with both leanings. I was raised in the “Christian Church and Churches of Christ” tradition, which has fought for a long time not to have a label, and has, therefore, ended up with a long one. Because of that tradition, if you accept Jesus and I have any say in what happens next, it will involve water. Still, I can’t comfortably lump myself in with that group because I think if you get shot while learning about baptism, you go to Heaven. Nowadays, I go to a church where people speak in tongues, and do so myself, but I don’t like to be called a “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal” since I feel like that lumps me in with people who think we go to Heaven in shifts (some go in the Rapture, and come back, others don’t get to go until after the millennium) or spend too much time yelling at the Devil instead for talking to God. I believe the Bible is the literal, inspired word of God, but I don’t really like being called a “fundamentalist.” Those guys blow up buildings, don’t they? I prefer to learn from people with whom I disagree.

Part of the reason I don’t like to be called a Fundamentalist is that it tends to be the Fundamentalists who also make the above statement about the Bible. “The Bible says it, and that’s all there is to it.” The implication is that there is no room for meditation, contemplation, or even understanding. The relationship between me and God becomes purely mechanistic, like the relationship between me the writers of the operating manual for my toaster.

There are so many problems with this point of view I don’t even know where to start. First of all, it doesn’t work. I could get all into Aristotelian discussions of ethos or Ciceronian discussions of government or Locke’s discussion of when we break social contracts, but I won’t. Let’s look at contemporary business literature. In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Effective People, habits 2 (Begin with the end in mind), 3 (put first things first) and 5 (Seek to understand) would all be banished if we looked at the world this way. We wouldn’t know what the end is. We wouldn’t know what things are to be put first (all things seem to be equal). Most importantly, we wouldn’t be able to understand. We know that in businesses where critical thinking is squelched, the business breaks down. We know that in countries where there is no right of dissent corruption persists. Study after study has shown that in families where rules are made without explanation the children are worse off than if they’d grown up without rules. “The Bible says it and that’s enough for me” attitude is one that would inculcate habits of ineffective people. I don’t think that’s what God wants.

Secondly, it ruins relationships with God. For most of us, God doesn’t speak to us in audible voices. It can happen; I’m sure. There are about five people I trust who have heard the audible voice of God. There are bunches more who I don’t know well enough to trust. God’s never spoken to me in an audible voice, and I don’t think he often does to others. Still, God speaks to us and we speak to him, we have a conversation. At least we should. Relationships aren’t built around giving arbitrary information. Relationships are built around giving and receiving information around the asking of questions. That’s how we come to know each other’s hearts, by asking “why?” It is the question that I feel God asking me as I make my requests known unto Him. Me: “God, I need a new car.” Him: “Why?” Of course, God knows why I want a new car. He wants a relationship with me, and He wants to search my heart with me, so He asks. God: “Thou shalt not steal.” Me: “Why?” Over time, He answers. That is what God wants from us. He wants a relationship. He doesn’t want automatons programmed to obey. He wants friends who grow to love Him as we learn more about Him. That’s what relationship is. That’s what love is. If I were to sum up what loving someone really is, it would be asking that person “why?”

The worst problem with this is that the Word of God disagrees with it. One of my favorite verses in the bible is Daniel 10:12 when an angel appears to Daniel and tells him “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.” God wants us to try to understand. Isaiah 1:18 tells us what the rest of the book will be about saying “come let us reason together.” God doesn’t lay down the law. He invites us to talk about the law together.

But didn’t God lay down the law? On stone tablets no less. Sure, but look carefully at that story. You’ll find that they weren’t originally given that way. In Exodus 20, God spoke in an audible voice and gave the 10 Commandments orally. When that happened, the people freaked out. They didn’t want a real relationship with a real God. They basically told Moses “We’ll have a relationship with you. You have one with God.” So then Moses went and got the stone tablets. God would have, and did, explained “why” for each of these things, but people didn’t want to get to know God.

So, God had to be sneaky. Maybe you could argue that from Moses’ protégé, Joshua, to Samuel, God sort of did have an “I said it you do it” relationship with His people, but I think if we look at examples like Gideon’s fleece throwing, we’d see that this isn’t really the case. God wanted to be questioned. He didn’t want to be rebelled against, but He wanted to explain Himself. Once we hit Samuel (assuming Samuel wrote Judges), it is like the floodgates are open. Not only do we start getting historical books written that show what happens when one does and doesn’t follow God’s suggestions, thus explaining why. We also get outright philosophy being written, explaining the reasons behind the commands. The Psalms (mostly written by Samuel’s protégé, David) and then Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (both mostly written by David’s son, Solomon) are not lists of do’s and don’ts at all. They are explanations as to why what was already written. 

They were the answers to questions put to God.

It doesn’t say anywhere in the Bible that the Bible is sometimes wrong. That’s not what I’m claiming either. I also don’t think that one should rebel against authority simply because it is authority. What I am saying is that what God wants from us is a relationship. He wants obedience, but not blind obedience. He wants to explain Himself to us. He wants us to come to know Him.

Note: When I sat down to write this blog, it was going to be about undocumented immigration. That’s sure not where this went. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I'm no scientist

Coming to terms with how big the galaxy is.

I believe in extra-terrestrial life. 

I kind of think that the likelihood of it just makes sense. Evolutionists claim that life came into being as a result of a high-energy reducing atmosphere and evolved from there. The basic building blocks are out these elsewhere. Now, certainly, scientists admit that having the appropriate conditions for life to evolve would not guarantee that it would evolve. Still, the universe is big. As Douglas Adams notes, it "is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is." So, it stands to reason that somewhere else, life evolved, if it evolved here.

But I know that many of my readers don't believe that life did evolve here. That's fine. I've read enough creationist writing to be rather unconvinced myself. There are a couple different "intelligent design" theories as to how life came into being. The Abrahamic religions talk about a particular time when, to quote a Hebrew source "God created the Heavens and the Earth." Then God created life on the earth, but not just on the earth. Oh no, he also filled Heaven with all kinds of weird creatures we learn about later. So, God filled earth and heaven with funky animals and then created a whole universe he just left unpopulated? None of the sacred texts of these religions make those claims and it doesn't seem in character for the guy who put life everywhere else. 

Then there's Hindu/Buddhist belief that the universe is really just a dream. For Buddhists its a collective dream. For Hindus it's the dream of a particular god, Brahma. In this case, there would be extraterrestrial life because, well who dreams about nothing going on? Dreams are dreams about life.

Then there's one of my favorite "intelligent design" theories, that we were put here by aliens. I like this one not because I subscribe to it, but because so many people who laugh at the notion of divinity and mock believers in the supernatural are totally on board with this. Anyway, if one subscribes to this belief, there obviously are aliens.

But I don't think we'll ever meet them.

A NASA scientist just proposed a theoretical model for a Star Trek like Warp Drive. Apparently, the thing could allow travel at up to 10 times the speed of light relative to our space-time, without violating the laws of physics. That's a pretty sweet story to geeks like me. That puts space flight to a place like Alpha Centauri only about 6 months from take-off. That's a whole other solar system. Still, it is a star quite different from our Sun and unless life is really pretty ubiquitous, it's doubtful we'd find life there. 

The closest star that is like our sun that scientists have discovered is called 18 Scorpii. It is about 45 light years away. So, if we could get this machine going, it would take us 4 years there and 4 years back to find out that most of the planets there are like most of the planets here: lifeless. And while there are probably billions of potential planets in the universe, the universe is big. Just our galaxy, with all the stars that you see at night, is 100,000 light years across. Moving the decimal one place to the right isn't going to make much of a difference when we're talking about those distances. So the chances of two planets which both have life ever finding each other are pretty slim.

That's just something I thought about today.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Arkham City, Silver City

Coming to terms with where I live.

I recently finished the videogame Batman: Arkham City

It was a fun game and an intelligent sequel to Batman: Arkham Assylum which one reviewer described:
“Hyperbole can be venomous to a review's credibility. Any insightful merit which a video game critique may possess seemingly goes out the window as soon as the reviewer starts dropping bombs like ‘best game ever’ or ‘literally mindblowing’ or ‘it will birth you anew in its magnificence.’ Perhaps it is because we've all heard these phrases -- save for that last one -- so many times that they've lost their currency with us.
“Rest assured, I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that Batman: Arkham Asylum is unquestionably the best licensed game I've ever played. At the end of the day, however, that's a fairly low hurdle to clear -- it better reflects the game's quality to say it's one of the best stealth-action games ever made, and easily the best video game 2009 has had to offer thus far.”
I (and a large number of critical award presenters) agree with this review and share the reviewer’s temptation to engage in hyperbolic praise for a really great game. I will refrain and merely say that Arkham City is a sequel that more than does its predecessor justice. Not only does it continue with similar game mechanics, a larger map and a bit more of a sandbox style (which I prefer). It also poses, at its root, something of a philosophical question and one which interests me personally and politically; we recognize that “as a society” certain behaviors cannot be tolerated. Now, what those behaviors are and in what way they should be sanctioned are ever and always in contention, but that there are such behaviors is widely agreed. To that end we have tightly controlled panoptical prisons (Bentham, Foucault), invasive and unwanted psychological interventions and tax subsidized attempts to force acceptable behaviors from those who have little or no desire to conform to our strict social standards. Yet we know that
He that complies against his will
Is of his own opinion still
Which he may adhere to, yet disown,
For reasons to himself best known
(Butler, Hudibras, Part III, Canto iii, lines 547-550)
But what if we found another option? What if we simply gave those who could not live by society’s standards a place where they could, within the bounds of that place, create their own society with their own standards and follow their own rules?

Arkham City plays with this question. Video games are great for playing with questions. My former classmate, Georgina Gabor, has written that “play,” in the postmodern era is one of the most effective means of engaging with philosophical concepts. I would extend her argument with reference to video games and say that in the 21st century, that video games are the primary literary device through which serious thinkers can engage in ideas. The “play” which began in silly Atari and Nintendo button mashing has moved with improved media into spectacle, from there to literature and finally to philosophy. While we “play” the games we also play with ideas and thereby engage philosophically with a number of different perspectives in philosophical positions on subjects that matter to us.

Without giving any spoilers (I’m a story-based player and prefer to read critiques without spoilers) I will merely say that the question is considered through the eyes of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ra’s Al Ghul, Professor Hugo Strange and to a lesser extent through a number of well known Batman villains and allies. It is fascinating to see the “society” that develops in the game and the views on whether this approach is right, what is better, what constitutes society and how we develop social systems of behavior and morality. In ultimate postmodern fashion, the game is played through but in many ways the philosophical issues are left unresolved and the questions regarding the way that we socially deal with our deviants is thoroughly explored and unanswered.

Playing, in a video game world, is a relatively “safe” way of working through philosophical issues. Much like books, movies and television, the videogame creates an alienation from the philosophy it confronts where the concrete actions and consequences of living reality involve real pain. McLuhan wrote about media as being anesthetic and Burke talked about how even the act of speaking separates people from reality. So, while playing the game was a fun way to cycle through the issues regarding social deviants, living it is not so easy.

And that’s where I am.

I’m going to begin my third year teaching in the borderlands of southern New Mexico in a few weeks. As a libertarian with tendencies toward anarchism, I found the inclination against intrusion refreshing. I strongly feel that the less society attempts to limit the individual actions of free people, the more functional the society becomes. Relationships should be voluntary and mutually advantageous. Economies should likewise be uninhibited by external structures. Faith should be more a relationship with God and less a religion of “practices” and “dogma.” Those seem to be “common sense” truths around here, which is nice.

Still, I have to admit that I didn’t come here “by choice.” I was very happy teaching at a small, private, liberal arts college in the Midwest. There were lots of rules at that school, both official and unofficial. There were so many, in fact, that one was inevitably violating some rule or norm all the time. The community was small, poor and dirty, but God help you if the police found your lawn above three inches. Church was formal and separate from daily life. My shotgun had to be registered with the sheriff. There were rules, norms and codes by which people lived their lives and demanded others do the same. I have never really learned why that school neglected to keep me on, refused to renew my contract, but ultimately, in some way, I must have violated some rule spoken or unspoken and they chose to excommunicate me from their order. That exorcation created a ripple effect which largely excluded me from gainful employment in much of the country. I was a risky bet. If I violated the rules one place (though no one knew which ones), I might violate them elsewhere.

So, finally, I came here. I was hired to teach, write and think here. I do my best to like it here, to grow where I am planted, but to a large extent, I see Silver City as my own Arkham City. It is historically, the home of Billy the Kid. It is the place where Geronimo hid and took pot-shots at the US Army. It is where Kit Carson first saw combat. There have always been minerals here, silver, gold and now copper, but people didn’t really come here for the mines. There are minerals all over the place. They were driven here.

In pre-Columbian times, the Mogollon were driven here by tribes invading from the north. Then tribes from northern Mexico were driven north by the Mayans. Then the Apache, who rarely played well with others, were driven here by nearly every Native tribe and left to die. The Spanish who came here were the ones who could not handle the relative civilization of the more southern colonies. The Mormons came to where their polygamy would go unregulated. The other Anglos who came later were largely the social discontents who were forgiven their social trespasses in return for exile. Even today, the hippy, the biker, the “artist,” the survivalist, the homosexual, the pothead, the elderly who can’t afford Arizona or Florida and the general weirdo steadily grow the population in an economy that does not call for further influx of people. I was recently asked by someone why, with the mines faltering, people stay here. They stay here for the reason they came here, for the reason I came here, because this place, this town, would take them when they had nowhere else to go.

Oh, and it’s beautiful (that much is different from Arkham City, which is sublime, but not pretty). The mountains, the weather, the wilderness and the desert show me every day that God loves to play as much as any postmodern. Even going into my third year, I sometimes realized I have forgotten to breathe as I take in the beauty of it all.

So, that all sounds pretty good, right? We’re free to be you and me here and the weather’s great. Ninety percent of the time, it is great. Then there are the real problems. There is the crime; a chiropractor shot in his office recently, another murder in a nearby community, rampant graffiti, burglary, and petty theft all tend get to a guy after a while. There is also the poverty. One way to refuse to conform to society is to refuse to get a flippin’ job. The poverty is further exacerbated by rampant drug use and alcohol abuse. This kind of poverty is contagious and entangling.

And I leave this blog the same way that Arkham City ended. The concept considered. The question examined, but ultimately, unanswered.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

God Let's Us Down

Coming to terms with God letting us down.

I hear it often: “People will let you down. Governments will let you down. The economy will let you down, but God will never let you down.”  Of course, this person either has very little experience with God, doesn’t know what “let down” means, is lying, or (most likely) has heard the cliché so many times that he or she just feels like the must repeat it. I think that there are three reasons God lets us down, but they can be summed up in a single sentence: “He’s God and you’re not.”

The Book of Job Letdown

When I hear someone say “God will never let you down,” my thought is, tell it to Job. Job was faithful. Job was doing what he was called to do and was being blessed as he did it. Then he hit hard times. Suddenly, his kids die, his wealth dries up, he gets sick and his wife tries to get him to commit suicide. Then his friends come over and basically tell him that God doesn’t let people down, and so Job needs to work on his relationship with God. Job finally gets fed up with it and says that God was wrong to let him down. Finally God shows up and tells Job’s friends that they are wrong. Then God tells Job that Job is wrong; God can do whatever he wants. Then God blesses Job a lot. He gets new children (as if children could be replaced), builds his wealth back up and lives to be an old man with a lot of stuff. There, I just summed up a book of the Bible for you in a single paragraph.

Of course there were all kinds of things going on in the spiritual realm of which Job was unaware. God had put a hedge of protection around Job (Job 1:10) that prevented the normal calamities of life from assaulting him. When God took it away, it seemed like everything hit at once . . . because it did. It seemed like God had stopped protecting Job . . . because God had. It seemed that God had let Job down . . . because God had let Job down.

Yes, God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy and have grace on whom he will have grace and it is not our place to say that anything at all is “not fair.” Still, Job was COUNTING on God. Job knew that it was only by God’s blessing that he had gained and maintained what he had. Job was counting on that blessing to continue. Job had plans and dreams and goals all of which involved God continuing to do what he had begun in Job’s life. When God stopped protecting him, Job was let down.

A reader might point out that God eventually restored Job. That’s true. Job knew the whole time that he was going through this that he was going to be restored. He kind of thought it was going to be after he died (Job 19:26) but he was sure God would vindicate him. Knowing that God will eventually take care of us, possibly after death, does not keep us from being let down from time to time.

God let’s us down because we have bad motives

Job’s case is the most extreme one I can think of. Still, we are let down by God often to much lesser degrees. I remember being “let down” by God very young. It was a different time than it is today, and quite a few kids brought to school these plastic toy guns which fired rubber, suction cup darts (today students would be expelled for pretending a stick is a gun). I wanted one of those. I was aware enough of our financial situation to realize that approaching Mom and Dad for such an item would be unrewarded. Santa Clause was unlikely to respond to my requests because it was spring semester. So, I prayed. I prayed every day that when I came home from school, there would be a dart gun for me. I knew such miracles happened because I’d heard testimony in church and even seen it happen for my parents: there was a particular need, they prayed, the need was met.  I needed a dart gun, so I prayed for one. I prayed earnestly and fervently until the dart guns went out of style and all the kids were playing something else.  I only remember this because, even though they were now “out of style” so to speak, I still wanted one and asked for one for my next birthday and received it.

Praise the Lord! Your prayers were answered!
Six months too late.

I’m fairly certain that God letting me down, in this case, falls into the James 4:3 clause as to why I didn’t get what I wanted: “And even when you ask, you don't get it because your motives are all wrong--you want only what will give you pleasure.” I wanted a dart gun because everyone else had one and they were all enjoying shooting each other all over the playground. This is not to say that God doesn’t want us to have pleasure. He does. Sometimes he even gives us what we ask for despite the fact that we are asking from the wrong motives because he wants us to have pleasure. He is in no way bound to do it, however.

 When we don’t get what we are asking for because we are asking from the wrong motives, we feel like God has let us down. My motive for wanting a dart gun was so that I could “fit in.” What I didn’t realize at the time, however, is that God made me a unique person who was never supposed to “fit in.” I came to realize this several years later. I wanted another thing that many of my peers had (acid washed Jordache jeans?) and approached my Dad about it. When he asked why I felt like I needed them, rather than sturdy wranglers for one tenth the price, I explained that I wanted to be like other people. I remember quite clearly my Dad saying “You shouldn’t be like other people. You should be better than other people and when you can’t be better, you should at least be different because God hates a conformist.”

 My Dad was right. God was right. I don’t know about all conformists although I’m fairly certain I know some of the scriptures that were in Dad’s head when he said that (Ezekiel 11: 12, Matt. 5:48, Romans12:2, 2 Cor. 6:17, I Peter 2:9). I do know, now, however, that God did not call me to be like other people. I have a God-given personality that, even when abstracted by MBTI type, still only accounts for less than 5% of the population. I have been called to college teaching which requires a terminal degree, which fewer than 3% of the population of the US acquire. As far as people who work in my particular field (Communication Studies) the National Communication Association estimates that there are just over 8,000 of us in the whole flipping world. That is .0001% of the world’s population.  Oh, and I have a niche specialty within that discipline. God had a very specific and, yes, weird, plan for my life. And when I think that I asked God and my earthly Father to help me be normal, I realize that I would have been MISERABLE. Still, at that time, when I asked, and the answer was “no” I was very let down.

God has something else

Sometimes our motives are right and God is not removing his protection for his own divine reasons. Sometimes God just has something better for us. One of my favorite line from the film The Social Network is when Sean Parker’s character, played by Justin Timberlake tells Mark Zuckerberg’s character, played by Jesse Eisenberg, “A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars!” I think that God lets us down because what we want just isn’t awesome enough. Ephesians 3:20 talks about this God being able to do “exceedingly and abundantly beyond all that we ask or think!”

I keep a list of things that I want. Part of the reason I started this is that my wife’s love language is gift giving, and if she’s going to spend my money on something for me, I thought, I’d prefer it be something I want. I kind of see that as a snotty attitude now, but I’ve kept the list going. It’s done a lot for me. First of all, when I see something new that I want I can check myself. Would I rather have that $20 video game now or that $200 projector for my classroom in a year? Here’s the thing that I didn’t expect when I made the list, however. Fully ¾ of the stuff on the list has come to me since I put it on there. The vast majority has come for free and not as a gift from my wife drawing on our joint checking account. Even when I did have to pay, it is always at a fraction of the price I list when I say I want something. It is like God saying “Letting you set aside $2000 to buy a used suv isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Getting you an SUV for $250” or “giving you a chance to buy that book isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Finding the book you want in the free box at the library” or "getting that paperback isn't cool. You know what's cool, getting the entire series in library editions for free." This stuff happens all the time.

Still, while we are waiting for what we want, and don’t get it, we feel let down. We want it and we want it now and if we don’t we’re let down.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Coming to terms with the past

"And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good’” (Luke 5:39 ESV). 

It seems so often that we long for what we have lost. We remember the deceased dog that willingly obeyed our commands. We think back to when our bodies could take more than they can now. We remember times and places with friends and want that back. We throw open the hood of our car and remember how easy it was to change a sparkplug before they changed things. We think back on our idyllic childhoods, or better yet the childhoods of our parents, grandparents or great grandparents and wish we could live in those moments. We look back on the price of gas, the price of rent, the price of bread and remember it fondly. 

I am as prone to nostalgia as anyone I think. Whenever I have change in my pocket totally one dollar or more, I'd remember how I'd scrounge for change each month as a child. I'd get up to a dollar and then go down to the local drug store and buy a Fantastic Four comic and a candy-bar. Now, I could maybe get the candy-bar. For many years I looked back on "college" as some kind of utopia. I loved late nights with friends, chatting, drinking and smoking. Now, I do not smoke, rarely drink and certainly do not stay up late with friends. Post-collegiate friendships are much more limited and contextual. I simply do not "hang out" anymore. 

I am also prone to nostalgize experiences I've never had. I imagine myself as a professor 50 years ago. I imagine myself discussing ideas in the faculty club, when there were such things, wearing wool suits and smoking a pipe. I imagine a time when one could, quite legally, hitchhike across the country and wish I could experience that. I even go back further in my mind and imagine a world where men worse suits of armor and settled legal differences with a trial by combat. In such situations, in my mind, I win.

And that is the problem with nostalgia. We remember the wins, the pleasures, the friends, the laughter, the joy. We forget that life sucked then too. In many ways, it sucked worse. Good history, in my opinion, reminds us of this. It keeps us from becoming too nostalgic and dwelling in a past that was not as beautiful as we see it. 

Good history looks at documents and reminds us of facts. I was a quite prolific poetry writer during my college days. While I remember the time as one filled with parties and friends, I can return to my old writings and see how excruciatingly lonely I was. How is this in keeping with my memories of the parties? I write about going out and coming back, alone, to my empty room. I may rarely go to parties now, but when I do, I always come home with my wife. While I may miss those close friendships, the loneliness I feel now is always mitigated by her presence. While I rarely have friends who "drop by" as they did in my 20's, I have a person who is just about always there. I wrote in one poem that I had gone three days without speaking a word to anyone. I have no doubt that it was true. I wonder what my wife would think of it if I tried that!

I love to take my friends who are so concerned about "crime these days" to the Department of Justice's Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics site which tracks crime since 1961. There was this little uptick of crime in the late 1970's and a considerably smaller one in the late 1990's (during that idyllic time when I was in college). Other than that, violent crime rates have gone down markedly or in a couple cases stayed the same since the 1960's. Groups like the Justice Research and Statistics Association track violence for even longer, and it is clear the violence in America is no where near the level it was in the 1930's and looking at their graphs it is difficult to even imagine how "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (to take Hobbes completely out of context) life was for people only that short time ago! 

Sometimes we get into this circle of nostalgia. We start dreaming of the good old days. One person makes a comment about how good things use to be. The next person believes it. Before long we actually start to believe that things use to be better. I recently read an article where a historian takes a polemicist, passing himself off as a philosopher, to task for talking about how the money plays such a greater role in the culture "these days." The article did not even cite Milton Friedman's Noble Prize winning proof that while the gap between rich and poor may be increasing, the gap between poor now and poor earlier is such that the poorest people today would be considered wealthy by the standards of 40 years ago. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting richer. They only see themselves as poor because they are comparing themselves to the rich. The starvation which was so prevalent in America has been replaced with an obesity epidemic among the very poor. Now, that's not a good thing and we should move toward a place where the poorest people can eat healthy diets. Still, we have to admit that obesity really is a step up from starvation. 

Now, don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with raising an Ebenezer from time to time. It is important to remember the good things that have happened in the past so that we can repeat them. There is also a problem with being so focused on dreams of the future that we miss the awesome stuff going on right now. The problem lies in the idealizing of the past. It lies in wasting the present because we want to remember a past that is better than it actually was. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Classical Rhetoric of Video Games

Coming to terms with video games.

I think it is time to get a new video game for my PS3. I've played through the story-line of all of them that I have. So, I need a new one. I'm very open to suggestions, but I don't want to get a game I won't like or that I won't have time to play.

I like games that have a strong aesthetic component. That needs to have two parts to it. I'll call them delivery and style, because I am a classical rhetorician. First of all, delivery, the game needs to be visually appealing. I played the 8-bit games as a kid, and was never too impressed with video games. Then one day when I came home from graduate school and my brothers were playing Final Fantasy X. It was beautiful.  Watching the main character traverse through beautiful forests and sparkling waterfalls amazed me. I went home and blew student loan money and a PS2 that I am still paying for to this day. It wasn't the game itself, it was the beauty, the images, that almost haunted me. The delivery doesn't have to focus on the beautiful. As we know from Longinus, the sublime can be quite terrifying. I liked the more gritty and bloody imagery of Dragon Age II or Arkham Asylum every bit as much as I liked the sparkling waterfalls of Final Fantasy. Remember, this is a VIDEO game, and I need to be amazed by images.

Style is also important. Whether the game is an epic, a tragedy, a comedy a didactic, a jeremiad (that would be something I've never played), an elegy, a satire or whatever, the game needs to tell a fitting story. This is why I do not like "sports" games or "fighting" games as a general rule: "2-3-4 what are we fighting for?" I need to be invested in a reason to do what they are doing. Fighting without reason lacks catharsis and just seems mean. We need a good story. The story should not get too complicated, however. While I loved the graphics of Dragon Age II, the plot line got way too complicated for the way I play. I do not have time to play video games every day. When I do, it might be for an hour or so, and only get a good three hours in one weekend a month. I need to remember what I am doing and why. That is part of the reason I prefer nonlinear gameplay of the classic Role playing games, like most of the Final Fantasy series. Sometimes I have time to complete a quest. Other times, I need to be able to help my character just by gaining some experience points.

I also  need to have what the classical rhetoricians called good "invention," logic, emotion and character. We need coherence. No, it does not have to be fully rational. Magic and superhuman abilities are an important part of why we play. However, if you can fly one minute, you should not be falling the next unless some reason was given as to why you lost that power. If you can knock down one wall, you should be able to knock down similar walls. I need to be emotionally tied to the characters. While an aura of mystery for one or two members of the party are great, I am not going to care that much in the violent world of video games if someone I don't know dies. Finally, the character is essential. There are a number of reasons why video games based on movies are often so bad. The writers assume the characters of the movies and do nothing through game play to flesh them out. Sorry, not interested.

I also need to feel the arc of the story-line, what the ancient rhetoricians called "arrangement." The best arrangement I've found for video games are those that follow the traditional: equilibriumproblemdisequilibriumepiphanyclimaxconclusion model of the contemporary novel. That is not the only choice, and it can be great for us to think we're going to get resolution a few times and be wrong. On the other hand, constantly finding that the princess is in another castle eventually gets tiresome. Give me a beginning which foreshadows the middle which foreshadows the end, please. 

Those of you who are rhetorical scholars know I still have to talk about the final canon, memory. I don't want to have to take notes during a video game. I do, however, want the pleasure of seeing things come together. I love it when things suddenly make sense based on what I remember from earlier in the game. That is awesome.

So, that's what I'm looking for in my next video game. Any suggestions? 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

On Notice

Coming to terms with no terms of surrender
On Notice
Consider this a blast of the Shofar!
Hear this holy chant as my battle cry!
For the soldier comes ready for full war
Rouse the whole camp and be ready to die!

You may flee to the mountains, flee to the cave
Fortify those great strongholds you still own.
But nothing can hide you nothing can save
you from losing your seat, your stolen throne.

Usurper, Murderer, Master of Lies,
Killer of Innocent babes in the Womb,
Hope Stealer, Lie-Talker, Blinder of Eyes
You must prepare for your fiery tomb.

Too long I've hid beneath my faithful shield.
Too long I've prayed for the strength to endure.
Too long I've been willing too much to yield.
Too long I've tolerated the impure.

But I will not stand for what is not right.
I've come not to cower. I've come to fight.

June 28th, 2012

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Not really a "break."

Coming to terms with my job.

Another semester has come to an end and I sit here in my office knowing that there is much to do, but still too tired to do it. The Spring 2012 semester has probably been one of the most successful semesters I've had. Research has moved forward. Teaching has gone well. My various committees have been more successful than I would have thought possible. All of this has been great, but I am tired and struggling to get on with the next stages of what I have to do. What makes it worse is all the voices I hear from students, friends and family saying "enjoy your break." The truth is that we don't really get a break the way that they're thinking. That is just one of many things that people don't really understand about what I do and that's okay. Still, I thought that I'd sit down for a minute and tell people what a Communication professor at a small state university does.

It is easy enough to explain what I do, because I have to do explain it three times every semester in my MBO (Management By Objectives) meeting with my boss. Then she has to explain what I do to her boss. I am not sure if her boss really has to talk to anyone about me or not. The end result is that it's all written down, documented, explained and defended.I can tell you EXACTLY what I do.

55% of what I did this year was teaching.

That number is not some made up number. I know it's 55% because that is what is registered witht the State of New Mexico. If everything goes right, I teach 12 three credit-hour classes per year. That's five classes in the fall, five in the spring and two in the summer. I am only contractually obligated to teach eight classes per year, but that doesn't really pay a livable wage. So, I teach an "overload" of one class each semester and two extra classes in the summer.

Classroom instruction isn't the whole of the "teaching" part. This 55% also includes training on various pedagogical tools available, creating new courses, designing syllabi, evaluating textbooks, writing exams, and answering phone calls. Teaching is my favorite part of the job and I am very blessed that such a large percentage of my job involves teaching. If I were at a larger school, it would be far less. For the rest of May, I will not be teaching, but that doesn't really mean, however, that I have a break. I still need to do all of the parts of teaching that are not classroom instruction, and there is also, still, the other 45% of the job which continues throughout the summer.

5% is advising. 

This is a small amount primarily because I do not have any majors. I do help a lot of students who are planning to transfer fill out the paperwork that they are supposed to be dealing with all along if they are planning on transferring. I do this because I get all the students passing through my class, and I find that most are not told that there is paperwork to fill out if they are taking their general studies here and plan to transfer later. If they'd fill out the paperwork, they'd probably have better luck getting stuff to move.

I do more advising during the summer. Admissions calls in anyone who will to help incoming freshmen with setting up their first semester. I like meeting the new folks, so I generally do this. Besides, it is 5% of my job.

20% of my job is research. 

Last academic year I presented a paper I wrote in New Orleans and another in Albuquerque. I submitted three competitive papers to academic journals. One was rejected. One needs to be revised and resubmitted. The third one is still in the process of peer review. I also got one chapter of an edited volume out and it is in its second stage of revision, but has been fully accepted.

Research is one of those things I find people who are not professors don't really understand. We travel to these conferences with very little reembursement and often none at all. My department allows $600 per year per person. You can see, flying to New Orleans, staying in a hotel for a week and having to eat out does not really get covered by $600. The other one, in Albuquerque, I was on my own. We also don't get paid for our journal articles, papers and chapters. Those are printed in academic journals that are generally only sold to university libraries at a cost that doesn't always cover printing and shipping costs.

Books, if single authored and not edited volumes, do make a little money. I've been working on a book and have done a great deal of research recently on how Academic publishing works. Academic books are not like books that are published by the popular press in their business model. Books published by Random House or Hachette generally publish large runs of a few books and pay fairly substantial royalties to their authors. Academic books generally publish one or two small runs of a few books which are only sold to research libraries in universities, government and sometimes graduate classes. A typical academic contract for a book is like this: The publisher agrees to run 500 copies of a book. The list price is $80 and the author makes 10% of actual reciepts after invoices. That would be $8 per book, so around $4,000. That wouldn't be a bad check, but for academic books, it won't happen. A third of the books will be given away to professors teaching seminars on related topics in hopes that they will adopt the book for the class. The reciepts on those will be zero. That takes it down to $2672, still, not a bad check. But in academic publishing the book has to be peer reviewed. Peer reviews I've done have paid about $200 and that money comes out of the author's royalties. So, if there are five reviewers, we're down to $1672. Unfortunately, if there is any artwork in the book, that also is paid for out of the author's royalties. What this means is that the first run of a book generally nets the author a royalty check somewhere in the three digits.

BUT remember those free books that were sent out to professors? If a few of them actually DO adopt your book for their classes and students have to buy it, there can be a second run and there are much better chances that the author will actually make a little money. I have a good friend who has published a book that is quite popular by academic standards. The book has gone through several editions and is used in a number of classes. I asked him outright how much he makes in royalties. He told me that he can pretty much count on making enough every month to pay his cell phone bill.

Edited volumes are much like this, but the royalties go to the editors, not the authors.Editors are contracted by royalties like authors are. The book chapter which will hopefully be coming out soon will not earn me a dime. Hopefully, Zack, my editor, does make some money though. He's earned it with all the work he's done collecting authors and packaging our work.

We don't get paid much if anything for our academic writing by publishers, but we are getting paid. Research is 20% of my job. So, taxes in the State of New Mexico and students' tuition dollars pay me to do research. If I ever get anything from a publisher, that's bonus.  Research is actually an enjoyable part of my job, and it continues all throught the summer.

10% of my job is Professional Contributions

Universities are not the same as high-schools. We do have management and administration, but a massive portion of our governance is managed by the people who teach the classes. I hate this part of my job, but think it should be larger. I served this semester on the service learning committee which created a definition of service learning which made it a requirement for all incoming freshmen beginning in Fall 2012. I served on the Academic Symposium committee which put on a pretty amazing show a couple weeks ago, if you want the truth. I took part in our assessment convocation, where I did some pedagogical training of my own. This summer I have to be on the judicial committee and listen to student appeals. I was also active in our General Assembly and department meetings.

Like I said, I hate this part of my job and think that there should be more to it. I hate it because meetings are a boring way to do thing. I hate it because it involves hours and hours of roberts rules of order and dull data crunching. I hate it because I'm not a very social person and I have to deal with people.

On the other hand, I think we should do more of it. Over the past 20 years, tuition costs for students have skyrocketed. All this time, however, professors' wages have been stagnant, even plummeted if inflation is figured in. Part of the reason for this is that states have steadily decreased the tax funding which goes to colleges. The other reason
is that professors actually don't do as much committee work as we used to. Teaching and reseach requirements have increased and we've turned over the management of our schools, increasingly, to professional administrators. These administrators could be administrating Fortune 500 companies, and can demand paychecks as though they were. They administrate the universities around the country like for profit businesses and demand much of that profit be returned to them. I think this is a bad direction. I really think that faculty such as myself should be spending LESS time teaching and more time administrating so that we could cut out a few of these high-priced positions, especially because education, not the bottom line, needs to be formost in the decision making.

10% of my job is "Personal Relationships."

I need to be actively engaged in creating a positive relationship between the community and the university. This academic year I taught a Financial Peace University class at my church and later created a "Communicating God's way" weekend seminar for the community through my church. I volunteered at the Blue's Festival, taught a "leadership" course for highschool students through one of the local non-profits, gave a speech for Kiwanas, and other stuff that I'll not go too much into here. When summer comes, I have to keep doing this stuff. I enjoy it. I love it. I have to do it.

So, that's it 100%.

I do feel better now. Hopefully, next time you see me, you can  say "how's your paper coming" or "I saw in the newspaper that you're doing such and such" or "Did you get outside yesterday, or were you in meetings?" You can say this stuff instead of  saying, "How's your break?"