Oliver's Observatory

The Blog & Observations of Oliver H. Evans

American Shakespeare Center

I've been going to the Blackfriars--the world's only recreation of Shakespeare's indoor theater--since this past May, when I saw Henry V, a play about a cynical man who, conniving with a cynical clergy, undertakes to conquer France, which he succeeds in doing. Some business schools, with no sense of irony, assign Henry V to their students as a primer on leadership. Well, since facts don't matter and people will stupidly follow along wherever Henry tells them to go, I guess that makes some sense. But the play might better be used to teach the futility of succession planning, since Henry dies at 36 and leaves behind a nine-month old Henry VI and a widow (Katherine of Valois) who secretly takes up with Owen Tudor, thereby giving rise to the Tudors. 

The ASC approaches Shakespeare through the essential performance practices of Shakespeare's theater. I say "essential," since the ASC does not undertake to recreate all the practices. Boys, for example, do not play the women's parts. I suspect the ASC drops the boys because of the rather high levels of anxiety their presence might engender.

The ASC relies on two companies of players: a touring company, which I saw do Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, and  he Two Gentlemen of Verona and a resident company that I saw do Twelfth Night more times than I can remember, as well as King Lear and Henry VI, part 2. 

Much as I admired Henry V, I was disappointed by Romeo and Juliet--presented as one long bawdy joke. It certainly is wonderfully bawdy, especially--say--in Mercutio's placing of time's hands on the prick of noon as a means of telling time. And I was unpleasantly surprised by the portrayal of Thurio in Two Gentlemen as flamboyantly effeminate--it would be an insult to say "gay," although that is probably what for many in an audience the portrayal signified. Discussions of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio in Twelfth Night, and the speaker in Shakespeare's Sonnets demonstrate the anxiety aroused by possible homoerotic presence. It was odd, however, to see such stereotypical behavior trotted forth as was done in The Two Gentlemen.  The resident company, which was not responsible for Two Gentlemen, will return after the Holidays with The Merchant of Venice. I am confident that company will do a fine job with a character whom Shakespeare's audience might have been seen as a stock comic character, although Shakespeare's play makes of Shylock considerably more.

The resident company's Shakespeare has been consistently satisfying, even if--as must be the case--one is seeing conceptions of characters that do not necessarily match one's own idea of what the characters will be. More than the pleasure of seeing Shakespeare week-after-week, the ASC reinforces the absolute necessity of connecting the words on the page and the performance of those words. In other words, simply reading Shakespeare's text is rather as though one looked at the score of The Goldberg Variations without hearing them played by an Andras Schiff, an Angela Hewitt, or a Murray Perahia. Watching the players at Blackfriars makes it difficult not to quote Hamlet's advice to the players; instead, however, I will quote Olivia: watching the players bring the words to life is "most wonderful." 

Copyright Oliver H. Evans 2016

From Boker to Business

Sooner or later--Little Long Lake will be welcoming--photo by OHE

Sooner or later--Little Long Lake will be welcoming--photo by OHE

So with few prospects for offering an upper-level seminar in the minor poets of American literature, I had an unexpected opportunity when a colleague at South Dakota State University (long story how I got there and what I was doing) invited me to teach technical/business communication and to collaborate in the development of a minor in technical communications, which, unlike a minor in English, might prove interesting to students pursuing degrees in agriculture, engineering, or business. Although at the time I did not think of it in these terms, I now regard the texts created in business and technical communication as examples of functional art, a concept I have mentioned before and one that very much attracts me. When I spent the year in Iowa, which I have talked about in earlier posts on this blog, I came to regard the Iowa landscape at whatever time of year I saw it as itself functional art, a literal landscape created by farmers for a function and which, with its lines, its colors, and its communication with the horizon and the sky both functioned and could--in Keats words--"tease us out of thought." And when the sound of the landscape was added to the smell, especially at the time of year that the fields were ripe with manure (which some described as the smell of money), then sight, sound, and smell all came together to create functional art.

Photo by OHE

Photo by OHE

To give a sense of the profundity of agreeing to teach business communication, let alone to work on developing what would turn out to be an interdisciplinary minor, I need to tell a little more about my time as a graduate student at Purdue University. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a heady time. To reduce many complex forces swirling around at that time, suffice it to say that as graduate students, we were convinced (perhaps correctly) that we saw both the transparent and rather seamy motivations of many of the faculty, especially when it came to setting requirements for degrees, and at the same time were struck by their blindness to those motivations and their assumption that the kind of power they had enjoyed throughout their careers would continue unabated.

To take but one example, student evaluation of faculty came into existence--at least at Purdue--during that time; and as graduate students, our classes were often used as groups to test questionnaires and to get reaction both to the questions and to the whole idea that students might have an expectation of expressing an opinion on faculty. To take just one other example, the option for a student to enroll in a class and then to drop the class after attending it for a session or two was unheard of (so far as my experience was concerned) until this time. Some of us had mixed feelings toward the idea that--theoretically--all the students might, on meeting a professor, walk out of the classroom and register for someone else. Forget whether one wanted to teach minor poets, what would the idea of giving students a choice do to one's employment?

Photo by OHE

Photo by OHE

As a graduate student, I remember being a bit torn between a commitment to students' rights and powers and a recognition that the world of the faculty, which I hoped to join, was undergoing a profound change. As graduate students, we were slightly more than students--we were also teaching assistants, a status I would describe as being slightly better--although perhaps not much better--than the status of  an adjunct faculty member, a status I occupied for a number of years after finishing my doctorate. A teaching assistant is "better" solely because one is pursuing a degree, which, in theory, will lead to full-time employment. Adjunct status, as I and many others have come to find out, is often to "eat the air, promise-crammed," but to end up going nowhere.

As a graduate student, I was not as concerned with conditions of employment as with a more meaningful role in governance. I will talk about this more in a later post, but as I write this post for Sunday, March 30, I find the ruling that Northwestern University football players can form a union recalls some interesting memories. As teaching assistants, of course, we did not bring the wealth to an institution that football players do. But considering what was paid (there were no benefits, of course) against the revenue from students who sat in our classes, Purdue did quite well.



After considerable discussion, graduate students were granted two representatives on the English Department's Graduate Committee. I was one of those two representatives. At the time, I did not fully understand the nuances and apparent meanings of what seemed to us graduate students a reasonable and justified decision. But I now understand that graduate faculty were the Grand Masters of the English Department, superior in every way to the louts consigned for their academic careers to teach undergraduates, most of whom were fulfilling general education requirements and not even majoring in English. Thus graduate students, who were only barely qualified to teach anything, were sitting amongst the powerful and deliberating on issues the non-graduate faculty were never invited to approach.

But there is one final piece, which I now recognize, but did not recognize then. One category of faculty in the English Department that was so far removed from the land of the living (so marginalized and devalued, one might say) that no one ever thought of them, unless one happened to see one of these beings wandering the halls. These were the people who taught technical and business writing. Today, rhetoric--or the teaching of writing--is a specialty; but at the time I was at Purdue, anyone who was not in literature counted for nothing. So when a colleague invited me a few years after I was at Purdue to become both an instructor of technical/business communication and to work on a minor in the area, I had to "work through" my sense that I was leaving the respectable world for the demi-monde. I did not realize until later that this decision would lead both to two full-time positions down the road and to the opportunity to work across an institution.




Early Fall--Little Long Lake (Photo by OHE)

Early Fall--Little Long Lake (Photo by OHE)

Later this year, I will have the opportunity to teach the introductory class in a doctoral program in higher education leadership—a program designed for people who have decided they wish to pursue a career in higher education administration. My experience appears to lend me some credibility in the area of administration, for which I am grateful. But unlike the graduate students with whom I will have the privilege of engaging, I wandered into higher education administration. There was little that was conscious or deliberate in determining that administration was a career I wished to pursue. This post is the first installment in an explanation of how I ended up spending some thirty of my more than forty years in higher education in administration.

George Henry Boker

George Henry Boker

To simplify, I will focus on the role of George Henry Boker in leading me to administration. When in the late 1960s I was selecting a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I was enamored—as I still am—of the Elizabethan sonneteers, of whom Shakespeare was, of course, one. I was delighted to discover that an American poet, George Henry Boker (1823-1890), had written an extensive sonnet sequence—in fact, more than one sequence—modeled on the Elizabethan sequences. I knew nothing about Boker when I discovered him. I did discover early on that although he was married to Julia Riggs, who came from one of the most prominent banking families in America, Boker apparently had not written his sonnets to—or about—her. I suspect she was grateful for that.

One might ask why any American poet would have bothered writing sonnets in imitation of the Elizabethans, let alone this particular poet from a wealthy background in Philadelphia. Well, since one might as well ask that question as ask any other, I asked it—and proposed to my major professor that I would explore Boker’s career and answer the question, which, I happily assumed, the world was anxious to know.


I am not certain my major professor knew much about Boker other than his name and that he was associated with the history of American drama, having been famous in his own time both as the author of Francesca da Rimini and as “the handsomest man in America.” (He was either famous or notorious, depending on your point of view, as a man with remarkable success with women—candidly, based on pictures of Boker, I am not sure I understand this.) Interestingly, Boker’s most famous play appeared in 1855, meaning it comes at the end of the remarkable five years (1850-1855) in American literature that saw the publication of many of American literature's most significant works.


What neither my major professor nor I thought anything about was the marketability of a person whose area of specialization is so rarefied that it did not auger well for success in the job market of the early 1970s--a time when thousands of Ph.D.s scampered to secure a few hundred open positions teaching, if one were fortunate, freshman composition, as opposed to an upper-level seminar in obscure American poets—of whom Boker was certainly one.

A current copy of what my book apparently does not look like now; plus I am now Olive H. Evans. Someday scholars will write dissertations on this minor figure--Oliver H. Evans--and how he went from being Oliver to Olive. I would warn such scholars--just as there was no market for Boker, there is no market for such a study of Olive.

A current copy of what my book apparently does not look like now; plus I am now Olive H. Evans. Someday scholars will write dissertations on this minor figure--Oliver H. Evans--and how he went from being Oliver to Olive. I would warn such scholars--just as there was no market for Boker, there is no market for such a study of Olive.

I did go on to publish a book on Boker in the Twayne Series on American Literature. The most interesting aspect to Boker, which my book touched on, but did not meaningfully explore (I must admit) was the anxiety of masculinity Boker and others at the time felt about the implications of a man's pursuing a literary career. 

The anxiety received expression from Nathaniel Hawthorne, when he complained of the "damned mob of scribbling women" whose work dominated American literature and made it impossible--in his view--for a real writer to succeed. But to succeed, a male had to clearly indicate that he was not one of those "scribbling women."

In Boker's case, he, and especially his friend and fellow-Princeton graduate, Charles Godfrey Leland, were admonished by their powerful and socially prominent fathers to "act like men" by going into business.

Especially intriguing was Boker's relationship with Bayard Taylor, whose Joseph and His Friend is counted as the first American novel to deal openly with homosexuality and whose letters to Boker--and his to Taylor--often express intense affection.

In any event, armed with a specialization in the American sonnet and an even narrower specialized little book on a minor American author, I sallied forth, only to discover through any number of accidents and chance encounters that faculty positions in American literature would not materialize for me and that the path to more secure employment lay--as Boker's father had tried to tell him--in pursuing a career in business--the subject of my next installment.

Little Long Lake in early spring. Photo by OHE. These photos have no particular significance, except that I am looking forward to being back on Little Long Lake soon.

Little Long Lake in early spring. Photo by OHE. These photos have no particular significance, except that I am looking forward to being back on Little Long Lake soon.

Functional Art

Early Spring in Mississippi--Photo by OHE

Early Spring in Mississippi--Photo by OHE

Grecian Urn

Grecian Urn

I am a fan of functional art; and one of my favorite poems is itself a work of functional art--its function being to explain an urn—which, in turn, is another piece of functional art. The poem is John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; and the urn, of course, is the functional piece the poem explains; and the urn's function, in addition to holding whatever it might hold, is to be "a friend to man" to whom it communicates through its "still" existence. ("Still" has at least two meanings, but I resist the temptation to explicate this lovely poem.)

McCarty Pottery--photo by OHE

McCarty Pottery--photo by OHE

This past week, I have been in Mississippi, wisely leaving Michigan the day before yet another winter storm would strike and driving to where the temperature was 75 degrees. One of the most enjoyable aspects of a trip to Mississippi is the chance to visit Merigold, Mississippi, the home McCarty Pottery. http://mccartyspottery.com/

The photo on the right shows McCarty pieces in a table setting in the Gallery Restaurant in Merigold.

Incidentally, to see one of my favorite functional artists, I do not need to leave Kalamazoo. Sue Caulfield, whose rich career includes many roles at Western Michigan University, is a functional artist whose work in fabrics, like McCarty pottery, emphasizes the intimate connection between functional art and the body--something that for many people gives rise to anxiety and causes the devaluation of functional art and the elevation of art that can claim to be functionless, although if I wished, I could easily argue that all art is functional. http://strandsofcommonthread.com/ I am planning a longer post on Sue and her work shortly.

Garden at McCarty Pottery--photo by OHE

Garden at McCarty Pottery--photo by OHE

I returned from Mississippi with a piece of McCarty pottery that I already love because it has so many functions--it might be a planter, it might just sit quietly and serve only the function of giving rise to the contemplation of potential, or it might--as it will for awhile--be a waste paper container, reminding again of the intimacy to which functional art gives rise. I have taken the liberty of photographing it in Mississippi and alluding to Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of a Jar," another poem I will resist explicating.


What will become a wastepaper basket channeling in Mississippi Wallace Stevens' jar in Tennessee--photo by OHE

What will become a wastepaper basket channeling in Mississippi Wallace Stevens' jar in Tennessee--photo by OHE

The Piano--Once More

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Recently, I read an online post and an article that coincidentally reminded me of an interest I had in graduate school. The online post was the biography of this year's Gilmore Artist, Rafal Blechacz.   http://www.thegilmore.org/gilmore-artist-award/rafal-blechacz/ 

In addition to his success as a pianist (he won the Chopin Competition, receiving not simply the first prize, but all of the prizes in that competition), Blechacz is a doctoral student, pursuing aesthetics and the philosophy of music. Checking further In an interview that appeared online--http://www.examiner.com/article/interview-with-pianist-rafa-blechacz--he mentions Roman Ingarden, whose name I did not know, but whose book--The Literary Work of Art--I bought and read. It is one of those delightfully opaque books that I would have found more interesting were I still a graduate student. 


My second coincidental discovery happened because I accepted an offer from Listen magazine. http://listenmusicmag.com/  In exchange for agreeing to subscribe, I received for free what is, in fact, a great treasure--Andrew Rangell's CD Bach Keyboard Masterworks.

My first issue of Listen included an article by Damian Fowler on Jonathan Biss's MOOC on the Beethoven Sonatas--the article is also available online http://www.listenmusicmag.com/online/virtual-beethoven.php.

Part of Fowler's article centered on the question of what is lost by not having a direct interaction with a professor through a MOOC (many MOOCs do try to create some interaction, but it is not the same as being the classroom with the professor, even if she/he were to ignore you). Fowler's girlfriend (whom he refers to as such in the article) suggested that the personal contact with the professor might be a significant loss if one were teaching Schenkerian analysis.

To me, the more interesting question than whether one loses anything without being in the physical presence of the professor is the question of what background might one need in order to listen to Beethoven. In other words, Biss speaks of tonality and of sonata allegro form, of Beethoven's shifting the emphasis in his sonatas away from the first movement and toward the final movement, and of Beethoven's use of the mediant, as opposed to the dominant, as the key in which he presents the second theme of the first movement of a sonata. But he does not mention Heinrich Schenker.

I discovered--thanks to the internet--that Heinrich Schenker developed a theory for the analysis of tonal music. His books include Harmony, as well as Five Graphic Music Analyses. Checking that book on Amazon, I found that trying to read a musical score that has been subjected to analysis was more difficult than reading the score itself. Exploring this whole area further, I found on line Eero Tarasti's analysis of the first movement of the "Waldstein" Sonata, a semiotic analysis that makes reference to the work of Schenker.


Because my degrees are in literature, and not music, I was not familiar with Schenker or Tarasti. And, in fact, Ingarden was new to me, although most of what he writes about had some familiarity. Together, these accidental discoveries reminded me of a concept I had adored in graduate school-"the ontological status of a poem," which I put in quotation marks because it is derived from--or associated with--John Crowe Ransom.

Although it is still slightly interesting to ruminate over a poem's status--ontological or otherwise--that rumination is no longer as interesting to me as are certain poems themselves, which probably have no ontological status relative to me except for their moments in my mind. Similarly, the semiotic analysis of the "Waldstein" was neither as meaningful nor as helpful as Biss's analysis. And even Biss's analysis is not essential to someone being swept away by the "Waldstein."

At the risk of seeming anti-intellectual, for me the pushing of analyses to the point that only specialists are left in the room, usually to fight with one another over some obscure point of theory, has done a disservice to arts that were and still are accessible. The initial question is always whether a given work is captivating; and if it is, what more about it might be a means of deepening that interesting experience.  For example, assuming one responds to Bach's Prelude in e-flat minor in the first book of The Well -Tempered Clavier,  does it deepen the experience if one is told that Bach may have composed the piece after learning of his wife's death?

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These are idle thoughts that lead to no particular conclusion. You will notice the photos of winter that accompany this post. That is solely because whatever else may be said about this winter, it was a good time to re-read Italo Calvino's absolutely gorgeous novel, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. This novel is about the act of reading a novel and sort of make's one wonder what the ontological status of a novel is. 



MOOCs, Again

Plato's Academy

Plato's Academy

During the past several months, I signed up for three MOOCs—one on modeling (scientific modeling, not fashion modeling, although fashion modeling might have been more fun); one on mathematical thinking; and one on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Although many people seem to be developing “global” positions on MOOCs, whether they will replace the academy, or play some other--or no--role in higher education, I only have some casual observations at this point.



One casual observation is to wonder with many of them why they are in video form. Why could we not read the same material? Or simply hear it in an audio blog? What is the "advantage" of watching someone talk to a camera? The assumption is that a professor who does a MOOC is a celebrity--on the order, say, of Socrates--and thus so compelling that watching the professor "adds value" to the experience. Based on my limited experience, I would not say that that is always the case.

A more significant observation has to do with audience—who is it that the instructor imagines is engaging with this course? And in responding to that question from my own point of view, I am going to risk appearing to be not a very “good” student, but one easily distracted by irrelevant considerations, but considerations that took me back to my undergraduate (and even graduate) days.

Let’s start with the professor’s wardrobe. I had forgotten how as a student, I wondered if certain faculty members had only one shirt, one sport coat (I don’t remember faculty in suits), one pair of slacks, and one tie that would be (I thought) hard to find in any store, assuming one deliberately looked for such a tie.

With MOOCs, which are videoed, of course, whether the professor is wearing the same outfit in one session as in the preceding is noticeable—whether, as a student, I should even notice this, let alone contemplate it and thus lose track of the lecture, is a good question.

Plato's Academy

Plato's Academy

But to watch someone as interesting as the phenomenal pianist Jonathan Biss essentially sit and talk at the student and to notice that he seems to be wearing the same clothes he wore in the last video led me to engage less with the content than to wonder about the logistics of how the course was created—was there no wardrobe adviser? Was the entire series videoed in one day, for example? With Biss, I was also struck—positively, actually—by the way his left hand accompanies or even conducts his talking. I was fascinated to see the engagement of an essential part of his pianist’s body carried into his communication through language.

In some instances, the professor’s lack of awareness of audience struck me as a pedagogical weakness. For example, in the modeling course the professor introduced in passing the “Monty Hall Problem.” This problem boils down to this: on Let’s Make a Deal, you have a choice of three doors; your chance of choosing the right door appears to be 1 in 3; you choose a door; the host opens another door, reveling the “zap” prize; should you now change your choice from the door you originally chose to the other remaining door? The answer is that you should switch your original choice.

I cannot explain why you should switch your choice. Indeed, it is not intuitive to me that one’s chances are improved. Remember, this was something introduced in passing, so the professor did not stop to try to explain it. Had I been a freshman—or even a graduate student—sitting in this class, I would not have raised my hand to ask about it. I would have sat—as I did before my laptop—and been lost, unable to figure out where the professor’s lecture had wandered because I was trying to determine why I must be too stupid to understand what apparently everyone was supposed to recognize intuitively as true.

Had I been a freshman sitting in class, the odds are I would have been lost for the rest of the semester. I now know that students who get lost early in a class usually do not ever recover and end up paying for classes in which they are doomed to fail—an issue that is significant for those of us committed to student success and to understanding how students navigate their way through college.

But I digress. Because this is the modern age and I was not sitting at a computer and not in a classroom, I stopped the lecture and Googled “Monty Hall Problem.” Imagine my surprise to discover that for many people, including some people with Ph.D.s, not only is the Monty Hall Problem not intuitively true, but some people even argue that it is not true at all.

My concern here is with the assumptions someone must make about an audience when offering a college-level course for tens of thousands of students, especially when the open access of such courses gives rise to the idea that one needs to know nothing in order to take the course—no pre-requisites (not even that one can understand the language—in most cases, English--the professor is speaking).

The Second Volume of Biss's Beethoven Sonatas

The Second Volume of Biss's Beethoven Sonatas

Much as I enjoyed Jonathan Biss’s course on Beethoven’s sonatas, I found the same confusion as to what the audience is assumed to know. And, for what it is worth, while I am totally confused by Monty Hall and while I am not an expert on Beethoven or the sonatas, I did study music, including several of the Sonatas; I have read the Heiligenstadt Testament—the letter in which Beethoven agonizes over his increasing deafness—I know what is meant by the progression from the tonic to the dominant and back again; I can analyze the harmonic structure of a piece that has a harmonic structure, and I have read Charles Rosen’s Sonata Forms—a book to which Biss refers and which to read requires that one can read music if one hopes to make sense of the numerous examples Rosen provides.



But suppose one does not know much about Beethoven, let alone the Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas. I wondered what people who come “cold” to this subject made of a passing reference to the “Harp” Quartet. Actually, I have asked several people, some of whom have guessed it could be a work for four harps; others, who know that a piano quartet is usually a work for piano and three string instruments, have wondered if it is a work for Harp and three string instruments. Those who know already know that it is the nickname of one of Beethoven’s Tenth String Quartet.

Count von Waldstein

Count von Waldstein

When Biss spoke of Beethoven’s fondness for presenting the second theme in the mediant, as opposed to the dominant, I wondered what knowledge of tonality is assumed on the part of people who take this course—which, as do so many MOOCs, says it has no pre-requisites. Incidentally, in addition to a famous example of the second theme given out in the mediant in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Twenty-First Sonata (known as the Waldstein Sonata because Beethoven dedicated it to his patron, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein), there is a breathtaking moment of the use of the mediant in the sixth measure of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.

Jonathan Biss is one of my favorite pianists—in fact, I intended to hear him at Interlochen on January 14), but a snowstorm intervened. He is in the process of recording all the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. He is a thoughtful and deliberate in his approach to Beethoven. He is an extraordinarily engaging lecturer, partly because it is thrilling to hear what someone who can play these works as he plays them also thinks about these works. But his wonderful series of lectures on the Sonatas illustrates one of the most interesting questions about MOOCs in terms of their role in a college setting where grades are awarded and credit granted: namely, given that a college class is not designed for people who already have a command of the subject, but are relatively “new” to it, what common body of knowledge about a subject can we assume some 20,000 or more people share?


What I Was Doing--2013


I am spending 2013 as the interim provost at Upper Iowa University, an institution that has grown since its founding in 1854 from a small, locally-based school to a University that serves a remarkably diverse group of students. In addition to the 950 students pursuing undergraduate degrees in Fayette,  a town of 1,300 people in north-east Iowa, Upper Iowa University serves an additional 5,300 students at locations in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arizona. Beyond that, Upper Iowa provides opportunities to 975 students at its campuses in Malaysia and Hong Kong.


Upper Iowa University’s locations include several military bases, and Upper Iowa’s commitment to serving students in the armed forces has been recognized by Military Advancement Education and G. I. Jobs as one of the top “Military-Friendly Schools.”  Upper Iowa University has an enviable record of providing access to higher education to people often denied such access either through geographic, economic, family or other factors. I am especially delighted to be associated with a University that is as diverse as is Upper Iowa. Its combined African American, Hispanic, and Native American students number more than the 950 students studying in Fayette. Committed to serving students whose family, professional, military, and other obligations can often disrupt their education, Upper Iowa has developed over many years the ability and flexibility to respond to those disruptions. Upper Iowa University was a pioneer of online learning before online learning became the trendy thing it is today.

I have spent this time speaking positively about Upper Iowa University because as an administrator, I have found that I cannot engage with an institution unless I respect its mission , which I certainly do when it comes to Upper Iowa University.


Strictly speaking, I am a consultant to Upper Iowa University, brought to the University through the work of The Registry for College and University Presidents. Being a consultant who serves in an interim capacity as the provost allows me the opportunity to offer Upper Iowa University my soon-to-be fifty years of experience in higher education.

UIU's campus is idyllic, as the photos show. The photos were taken by one of UIU's students--Daphne Barness. 



A MOOC I Will Follow

At age seven, I began studying piano, an instrument I formally pursued until age nineteen. By that time, I was in college and majoring in music, but after a year, I changed my major from music to English.

Playing the piano is a bit like riding a bicycle or swimming, in that one never forgets the location of middle C. But unless one practices, one does not automatically get better with time. And yet even though I do still practice, I am not sure I improve with time.


But I love piano and pianists, especially classical pianists, and a few years ago I discovered Jonathan Biss, thanks to the Gilmore Keyboard Festival.

Recently, on Coursera, Biss began a class on Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. The class is offered through the Curtis Institute of Music, where Biss teaches. Biss is also a concert pianist who records for Onyx; and he has begun while still in his early thirties a ten-year project to record all thirty-two Beethoven Piano Sonatas.  

Unlike some other MOOCs, I have mentioned, I know I will follow this MOOC not only because the subject interests me, but because I find it fascinating that a young pianist is allowing us a glimpse into his journey as he begins recording Beethoven's entire thirty-two.

And I am especially delighted that in covering the early Sonatas, Biss chooses to focus on the 4th Sonata, Opus 7, a work I studied and played at age eighteen or so in a master class conducted by Coleman Blumfield--a pianist I wonder if people still remember. 

The MOOC by Jonathan Biss is now in its third week. I am interested in this MOOC because in addition to the Sonatas themselves, I love the idea of a young pianist talking about his experience with these works; and I am most interested in the whole areas of MOOCs and their potential, or lack thereof, for changing higher education.

I find it wonderful that two interests--music and higher education--can come together for me in the land of MOOCs; and I will continue to post about this experience with Jonathan Biss and Beethoven in the weeks to come.



MOOCs and the End of the World

"When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over." – Thomas Friedman

"When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over." – Thomas Friedman

I keep intending to say something about my experience with MOOCs--that is, about what I experience when I go into the classroom of either Mathematical Thinking or Model Thinking. And I have just signed up for Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do. But I keep getting sidetracked. This week, for example, I got sidetracked because an argument erupted not as to how, but as to when, MOOCs would spell the end of the world--or at least the end of the world according to the conventional wisdom of higher education.

The rider on the eschatological white horse bent on destroying the world as we know it appears to be Thomas Friedman, whom most know as the author of The World is Flat. By an interesting coincidence, Upper Iowa University, which does not see MOOCs as the end of the world, does invoke Friedman's book as one of the foundations--or sets of assumptions--on which an institution of higher education should base its educational philosophy and mission. But that is a subject for another day.

Friedman rode forth on the white horse of the apocalypse by writing a piece in the March 5, 2013, New York Times, a follow-up to an earlier piece he had written. Friedman believes in the potential of MOOCs to change higher education in some fundamental ways. And to get at those ways, here is a quick summary of what a number of people are assuming at present about MOOCs:

 1. The creation of MOOCs belongs to the premier institutions of higher education and to the celebrity faculty who are the source of the credibility of those institutions. Put another way, institutions in the tributaries of higher education have neither the resources, including the technology, nor the faculty, to mount a serious MOOC effort. Thus it is not surprising that a stir is made when Taylor Branch is going to offer a MOOC or when, as was recently announced, Michael Sandel of Harvard, famous for his course on justice, will offer that course as a MOOC beginning just recently, on March 12 to be exact.

 2. In some instances, the credible institutions are beginning to demonstrate some potential for MOOCs to change not only the way in which students may learn, but the ways in which institutions may understand the nature of the faculty. For example, according to Friedman, Harvard Business School no longer offers first-year accounting, but will make use of the MOOC developed by a professor at Brigham Young University, because of the excellence of the BYU course. As Friedman put it in his March 5 piece, "When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over."

 3. The implications of item 2 can be exciting and threatening. Suppose, for example, that an institution in the tributaries decides to offer the first year of accounting in the same way that Harvard is reported to be offering first-year accounting. What are the implications for the role of the faculty in the coming years? How will the role of faculty change? How will the classroom change? For some, this is a continuation of what is sometimes referred to as the "unbundling" of the role of the faculty. Traditionally, faculty have been the developers and the implementers of the curriculum, as well as the assessors of students and the evaluators of the curriculum itself. When those roles are "unbundled," new ways of thinking about faculty identity emerge. And new kinds of classrooms become possible,

Suppose, for example, that an institution has both a residential student population and a large population of students at sites spread throughout a given state or even several states. Could a learning community be formed that makes use of a MOOC and that through technology creates a "classroom" of learners different from the classrooms the institution currently creates? And given the pressures on institutions in terms of the question of quality of adjunct faculty--not to mention the impact of healthcare on the costs of continuing to use adjunct faculty--might an institution be drawn to the excitement Friedman feels in imagining a shift in higher education from education as "time served" to education as what a student can demonstrate and to the possibility that students might suddenly have access in some sense to faculty famous in their disciplines, as opposed to those in the local neighborhood? How, indeed, would one keep them down on the farm?

It is important to remember that most people talking about MOOCs and their potential use--including Friedman himself--see the MOOC as giving rise to a blended model of education. But the sight of the white horse issuing forth filled many in higher education with fear, loathing, and anger--emotions that arise when people see a threat to their traditional identity and--identity and work being closely aligned--a threat to their traditional conditions of employment.

Although compared with some academics Rebecca Shuman is an amateur when it comes to high dudgeon and invective, her piece in the March 8, 2013, Chronicle of Higher Education may amuse you if you are new to higher education's version of reasoned discourse. Friedman has upset Schuman, to say the least. 

The potential for MOOCs is very much in the process of being defined. Personally, I am confident that institutions that seek to be part of that definition will discover ways to extend access and value to their students. Friedman ends his March 5 piece by referring to Clayton Christensen's comparison of today's higher education with the General Motors of the 1960's. Interestingly, Maureen Dowd ended her March 9, 2013, New York Times column on Time Warner's "breakup" with its magazines; including Time, by pointing out for journalists what is true as well of MOOCs. "It will be good if this moment provokes a reckoning about what really needs to be preserved in the culture, about what is valuable." Dowd notes that while appearing on the cover of Time no longer means what it once did, the need for reporters and commentators who can provide content for the new forms of reporting will not go away. The same holds true for those professors who know how to embrace the new possibilities of "professing." 

Returning to MOOCs, Part 1


My initial foray into MOOCs was not the most successful undertaking I have made--mostly because I did not manage to complete either one I signed up for--neither the Model Thinking nor the Mathematical Thinking. But MOOCs have loomed larger and larger in my work in higher education, especially after retirement as I have discussed with some institutions ways they might use MOOCs; and I am going to return to them in the coming weeks, but this time with what I hope are fairly well-defined goals. And just to get one thing off the table immediately, those goals do not include successfully completing a MOOC.

To review, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. They are currently being developed by a number of the most prestigious (which is to say credible) Universities, with more institutions becoming involved all the time, especially with Coursera, one of the most famous companies developing them. And the courses themselves are often taught by what are sometimes called Rock-Star Faculty.

Notable recently, for example, was the announcement that starting this past January, Taylor Branch would teach a MOOC on Civil Rights through the University of Baltimore. We can read Taylor Branch's books, of course. We could write him fan mail - or fan email, for that matter. But in theory signing up for his MOOC would allow some direct interaction with him - albeit one would have to wave his/her hand profusely to get his attention from among the tens-of-thousands of students who might sign up for his course. More interesting would be the possibility of joining - or forming - a learning community with whom to interact and with whom (possibly) someone such as Branch might interact.

Having access--even a very limited access--to a person of Taylor Branch's calibre is part of what makes the concepts of MOOCs so exciting to me. Access is for me one of the key drivers in how I view higher education--how to provide an avenue into the opportunities higher education can provide. Engaging in ideas, experiencing great embodiments of human imagination and insight, whether in the form of Hamlet, the b minor Mass, mathematical thinking, model thinking, or whatever, is an exciting and ultimately quite rewarding experience.

And in theory, MOOCs, whatever else they might do, seem to allow the potential not just for eavesdropping on monumental thinkers--e.g., a Taylor Branch--but in some sense actively engaging with them. And how much subtlety can be built into the experience of a MOOC when someone such as a Taylor Branch is doing the course is indicated in his discussion in this article of how the MOOC will work.

Having said all of that, I did not sign up for Taylor Branch's MOOC, but I am signed up for the repeat of Model Thinking and Mathematical Thinking, both of which, depending on your point of view, I either failed or Withdrew Passing from the last time.

Meeting Manon Saudray

The KCRG-TV's Fayette CityCam, from the roof of Alexander-Dickman Hall

The KCRG-TV's Fayette CityCam, from the roof of Alexander-Dickman Hall

The Peacock - UIU's official mascot

The Peacock - UIU's official mascot

The key for me in getting to know Upper Iowa University is discovering the varieties of opportunities the University offers its remarkably diverse students. One of the first I met is Manon Saudray, to whom I was introduced by Dr. Melissa Maier, a faculty member in the Communication Program, who told me of Manon's having had a presentation accepted at the Central States Communication President's Undergraduate Honors Research Conference in April, a juried event that had only a 50% acceptance rate of papers submitted.

Having grown up in France--and returning to visit her family when she can--Manon heard about Upper Iowa University and decided to pursue her education here. She will graduate in December 2013. She made her decision based on exploring schools in general and Upper Iowa in particular through Google, meaning she knew both the town and the University would be small. She arrived on her own, met people from Upper Iowa, and really has come to enjoy the benefits of studying at the University. Manon reminds me of others I have known who launch themselves into unknown new adventures, whether in large cities, such as New York or Chicago, or small communities, and both make their ways there and change the communities they join.

I was really interested in Manon's research project because it involves an issue in higher education--"Students' Perceptions of Satisfaction and Expectations of their Academic Advising Relationship." For many reasons, finding one's way through the many decisions involved in pursuing a University degree can be a journey through a thicket of unknowns as daunting as figuring out the New York Subway.

In addition to the unknowns a person experiences when wondering if he/she is really in the right major, a student is discovering his/here abilities, a well as wondering about the potential for life after graduation. In theory, a key guide to that journey can be the academic advisor, and especially at a small institution, that advisor will be a member of the faculty.

Because Manon's research is based on a solid protocol and included a meaningful sample of people, I got a quick insight into the strength of what Upper Iowa is doing for its students and the generally positive perceptions students have of their experiences. If you seek an advisor, you may find a prescriptive form of advising--to which some of us don't object--"Just tell us what to do, and although we may ignore your advice, at least we know what it is." But most people benefit from, and seek advisors who, engage with us as people and rather than prescribe what we should do, allow us the opportunity to explore options and develop our sense of the choices we want to make.

Thanks to Manon's research, I had a chance to get to know a good deal about students' perceptions of Upper Iowa University. And I had a chance to see through Manon a specific example of what Upper Iowa can offer an outstanding and highly-motivated student.

Robert Coombs and ArtPrize


One of the delights and achievements of ArtPrize is that it provides a diversity of venues for a diversity of artists. Fountain Street Church, for example, is a venue that reflects its values in what it chooses to exhibit. Growing out of the Baptist tradition, Fountain Street Church “strive[s] to be a vibrant church community that challenges individuals to craft their own spiritual journeys and to engage in creative and responsible action in the world.” That Robert Coombs is exhibiting at Fountain Street testifies to Fountain Street’s mission and to Robert’s stature as an artist. I have to start with the most obvious thing about Robert. A few years ago, he was an outstanding gymnast whose body responded to whatever he wished it to do, gliding—as the photo from those days shows—as though gravity did not exist. But that ended with an accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Robert has taken the occasion of his accident to embrace the fullness of who he is. As a creative artist, as a gay man, and as a man with a disability, he has articulated through photographs of himself and of other men the reality of that disability and a simultaneous assertion of himself and the other men as sexual individuals.

Not at all sentimental, Robert’s photographs cause some sadness in their uncompromising portrayal of the reality of these men’s bodies. Robert’s work compels us both to engage emotionally with them in embracing who they are and in celebrating their lives lived out as though gravity still does not exist.

Observing Robert’s work gives rise to many thoughts. The photo of him as a gymnast leads inevitably to thoughts of Icarus and to W. H. Auden’s poem, “Musee de Beaux Arts,” with its discussion of Breughel’s Icarus, and of how everything turns away from suffering. Robert's work does not allow us the luxury of "turning away."

For anyone struck by an overwhelming injury, many ways exist for the person himself or herself to “turn away, “ to deny, to strike out in anger, or simply to seek to ignore what has happened. Obviously something of tremendous importance has happened to Robert, and he sometimes makes me remember the Joy Hopewell, the central character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Good Country People.” Having lost her leg and confronting a life with an artificial leg, Joy Hopewell changes her name to Hulga and decides she “believes in nothing.”  I resist the temptation to summarize what goes on in this wonderful story; it is a one of those works that is an absolute delight, which may seem a strange way to describe Hulga's encounter with a man who tells her that he has been believing in nothing since he was ten years old.

Robert is not a man who has given up being joyful; nor does he avoid making us confront what may be uncomfortable. He clearly believes in something, starting with his ability to construct and communicate complex and moving visions through photography. He has connected that ability with his own valuing of himself. Prior to his injury, he expressed that valuing through photographs of himself that in their expression of the freedom of movement through the air and the triumph over gravity. The work he exhibits in ArtPrize reflect a different kind of triumph on his part and on the part of the courageous men he presents.

I know that if all goes as planned, Robert will graduate from Kendall College of Art and Design in May 2013. Assuming commencement happens where it has happened for many many years, that commencement will take place in Fountain Street Church. On the day he graduates, Robert will be appropriately at home in Fountain Street Church, just as his work is appropriately at home in a venue that “challenges individuals to craft their own spiritual journeys and to engage in creative and responsible action in the world.” That is a wonderful description of what Robert has achieved and of what he presents for all to see during ArtPrize.


Pursuing Two MOOCs

A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course. At present, one of the largest organizations offering MOOCs—Coursera—counts over 1.2 million people enrolled in 123 courses. And depending on whether Coursera’s enrollment numbers are a duplicated or unduplicated headcount, I am one (or two) of those more than 1.2. million people, for I am enrolled in two courses: Model Thinking and Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. MOOCs are college-level course. At the moment, the courses can result in a certificate, but MOOCs do not carry college credit. And although the institutions offering MOOCs are well-known institutions of higher education, I cannot claim that I am now a student either at the University of Michigan or Stanford. Interestingly, the perceived failure of the president of the University of Virginia to jump quickly enough into online educational ventures  may have been a factor in her dismissal, which was quickly followed by her reinstatement, although the issues surrounding the events at the University of Virginia are, as Lady Macbeth once said of hell, "murky" and may have included the her wardrobe.

Massive refers to the number of people enrolled in such a course, partly a function of the global reach of MOOCs, since MOOCs are online. Thus anywhere the internet reaches, people can enroll in a MOOC. And enrollments in a given MOOC sometimes reach into the hundreds of thousands, partly since the course is both free and open to anyone who establishes a user name and password and pledges to abide by the honor code. In other words, a person with or without a high school diploma, with or without the qualifications to be admitted to the University of Michigan or Stanford, and with or without the prerequisite knowledge or abilities (for example, it appears that one needs an ability to communicate through written English, but no one asked me to prove it) can enroll in a MOOC.

I am both very serious in my pursuit of Model Thinking and Introduction to Mathematical Thinking and respectful of the potential of MOOCs. MOOCs are exciting and intriguing to me for a variety of reasons, which I will discuss in a future post. On the simplest level, MOOCs may be an extraordinarily innovative idea in exploring the potential of expanding access to higher education. And as should be the case with innovation, MOOCs are being prototyped and offered before anyone knows whether or not they will work or even what their implications are for higher education. I did smile, for example, when I took the honor pledge because neither Professor Page nor Professor Devlin has any idea whether I really exist or whether I can be trusted. But innovation must be characterized by a rapid prototyping process. If MOOCs, which include a commitment to access, waited to know their outcome, they would never get started, because most institutions of higher education follow the dictum “Do nothing for the first time.”

So I simply wanted to announce through this Blog that I have enrolled in two MOOCs. My commitment to anyone who cares to follow my posts is to report in future posts exactly how I proceed. Most importantly, I will engage in self-assessment as to what I have learned from this experience. Should you already be pursuing a MOOC, or should you have the leisure to pursue lifelong learning and decide to sign up for a MOOC, I would be delighted to be in conversation with you.

Learning to Read Shakepseare

I learned to read Shakespeare for the most basic of reasons: Shakespeare represented forbidden knowledge. I remember there was to be a presentation of Macbeth on TV and thanks to Wikipedia, I can identify specifically what and when that presentation would have been. In 1954, when I was ten and when TV was not only relatively new in and of itself, but brand new in our home, the Hallmark Hall of Fame presented Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in Macbeth. For me, the Hallmark Hall of Fame was the highest of high culture, although I did not know of such a concept as high culture at the time, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame succeeded in making high culture synonymous for me with Hallmark cards—a lovely example of branding.

But my dream of experiencing high culture in the living room of a Methodist parsonage in a small upstate New York town crashed when my dream met my mother, who, never as interested in branding as I, was also not taken with my watching a play which, as she said, “has murder in it,” never mind that it is one of the monuments of western culture. That would be like thinking it is all right to look at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because it is about the Bible.

Without going into the pros and cons of protecting a ten-year old from a play in which the central murder takes place off stage, I was not able to speak reason on this matter to my mother. But the situation was similar to my earlier experience with the comics in the newspaper—my parents would read certain comics, but not others. Figuring out that once I could read, the entire world of comics would open to me, I decided to apply the same principle to Shakespeare and to start reading these forbidden works myself.

We had an edition of Shakespeare in our house because at one time, my parents had belonged to a book club that for its bonus books  gave away copies of classic literature, thereby providing an avenue to culture. For reasons I do not now remember, I decided to start, not with Macbeth, but with Richard II. I quickly discovered two things: first, it takes forever to get to the murders in many of Shakespeare's plays (Titus Andronicus is another matter, but that play was on few people’s radar screens at that time, although it is more popular now. And to digress for a moment, one of the great things about the internet and the ability to search quickly is that I just found out there is now a band named Titus Andronicus).

The second thing I discovered was that the prose sense of Shakespeare did not automatically leap from the page. I now know and love Richard II--in some ways, I chose better than I knew at the time. But my memory of trying to read the first act boils down to some vague sense that there was going to be a duel almost immediately after the play opened and certainly someone would be killed. Alas, the happy expectation of that duel was dashed by King Richard who seemed to like to talk a great deal. And to make matters worse, it was not always clear what either he or the other characters were talking about.

I was fortunate in knowing a high-school English teacher who discovering I was trying to read Shakespeare, advised me on the importance of paying attention to the punctuation and not stopping at the end of each line. She also suggested  that one read Shakespeare aloud (I still subvocalize when reading Shakespeare, but more because of the pleasure of the language than from a need to figure out what in heaven’s name is being said). Nonetheless, I still did not get the hang of exactly what was going on.

Recently, and quite serendipitously, I met Dr. Ellen Hurwitz, who, having retired as a college president, remains active in academia as a leadership coach, writer, and lecturer. In addition to being a scholar of Russian history, Ellen has also served as president of Albright College, New England College, and the American University of Central Asia. Finding ourselves in the midst of discussing the nature of leadership and comparing notes on our experiences, we found that we also shared an interest in the opportunity to re-invent one’s self following retirement. But the most amazing and delightful discovery for me was that Ellen's family originated Classics Illustrated--indeed, working with her father, she was sometimes asked to comment on whether the illustrations successfully integrated with the text in Classics Illustrated Junior.

Through an informal survey of a couple of my friends, I find that whether people know Classics Illustrated is often a matter of when a person grew up, unless a person has an interest in the history of the comic book.  Started in 1941 by Albert Kanter, Ellen's great-uncle, Classics Illustrated was a series of comic books that sought to introduce great literature by integrating text and illustrations. Needless to say, some controversy attached to this worthy endeavor. For most literature--for example, The Iliad or Ivanhoe--the text might sometimes be taken directly from the work, but it was more often a condensation of the original. In other words, the Classics Illustrated version of A Tale of Two Cities did not include every word of Dickens' novel.

The interesting thing about Shakespeare within the format of Classics Illustrated was that in approaching the text, the creator of the comic had no text other than the lines of the play. Thus a Classics Illustrated version of Macbeth or Hamlet--both of which I remember reading--in large measure reproduced and illustrated Shakespeare's words themselves.

"Macbeth" by William Shakespeare; Classics Illustrated No. 128 (1955)

"Macbeth" by William Shakespeare; Classics Illustrated No. 128 (1955)

Classics Illustrated was in and of itself a beautifully conceived and executed set of comics that, in the case of Shakespeare, integrated the text with gorgeous drawings—indeed, in terms of the beauty of its illustrations, Classics Illustrated belongs with Prince Valiant for someone like me, who grew up long ago. Once I discovered Classics Illustrated, I bought every issue I could find, including both Macbeth and Hamlet.

And more than that, I remember the night I was lying in bed reading Macbeth and suddenly Lady Macbeth’s line “Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be/What thou art promised” made sense. And once those lines made sense, her wonderful greeting of Macbeth as “Great Glamis! Worthy Cawdor! Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter!” seemed to become the pure joy of child’s play, as reading Shakespeare ought to be, murders and all.

Thanks, again, to Wikipedia, I see that Hallmark did a remake of Macbeth with Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in 1960, a production I do remember vividly because—at least in my memory—of Judith Anderson's glorious sleep-walking scene and Maurice Evans’ way with the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech.

And I remember that particular production for another reason. By 1960, two things had happened—first, I could then read Shakespeare and so reading Macbeth in tenth grade was not a walk in the swamp. And, second, I encountered in Flint Southwestern High School an English teacher—Elizabeth Calkins—who required that we memorize both that speech and Macbeth's  speech that begins "Is this a dagger which I see before me."  Mrs. Calkins was the best teacher of all the teachers I had in elementary, high school, undergraduate, and graduate school. Few teachers had, or have, the ability to engage, to challenge, and to communicate a a subject as she did. Because I am about to register for a MOOC, I may encounter a professor more influential on my life than she, but I doubt it. And when the Southwestern class of 1962 meets on September 29 to celebrate fifty years, toasts should be made to her memory.

Memory is a funny thing, as Marcel Proust showed in In Search of Lost Time--sometimes eating a cookie will open a flood of memories. (Yet another digression: I just linked Proust's work to an article on Oprah Winfrey's site on how to read Proust. Think of it! Making Proust accessible through a popular entertainer--an idea as preposterous as making Shakespeare accessible through comic books or painting scenes from the Bible on a ceiling.) Meeting Ellen Hurwitz brought back such a flood of memories. And, in case it is not clear, I think not only that comic books can be an excellent entry to high culture, they may be high culture themselves--assuming high culture still exists.