16 July 2011

And we wonder where the women scientists are...

As reported by the Council of Graduate Schools, care of the Ph.D. Completion Project...
* Women comprise only slightly more than one third of PhD students at large American research universities.
* Women in STEM fields complete their PhDs at notably lower rates -- somewhere between seven and nine percent -- than men.

As overheard by me, care of two female STEM graduate students on the patio of a local coffee shop...
"Do you know what her P.I. said?"
"No. What?"
"'After everything we've done for her, I can't believe she's pregnant.'"

26 June 2011

Edible Art and Science

Wedding cake by MOF Philippe Rigollot
(Press photo courtesy of Kings Of Pastry)
These are not the frosting flowers from the bakery counter and they are certainly not the botched edibles from Cake Wreckes....

If you have been following the recent “art and science” posts here on Somewhere Between, you might enjoy a 2009 documentary I watched on the public television last night.

Kings of Pastry is a ninety-minute film that chronicles the Meilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France) or “MOF” competition among the best-of-the-best-of-the-best pastry chefs in France. Unlike other competitions, though, entrants in this event are not in competition with each other: any and all (or none) of the entrants can win a MOF metal in a given year.

These master chefs compete against themselves and, basically, gravity. Over the course of the three-day event, bakers and confectioners produce delicate, beautifully sculptured, and towering creations – all of them entirely edible. In the process, they have to carefully monitor cooking temperature, variation in ingredients, and environmental factors. (“Humidity is the enemy of sugar!”)

As I watched in awe, I turned to my wife and said, “Talk about art and science….”




Kings of Pastry – in addition to telling a very charming story of gastronomical glory and bittersweet heartbreak – offers a lesson I have recently overlooked. That is, appreciating the art and science in everything we do rather than merely the science in art or the art in science. The sheer complexity of chemistry, physics, and artistry involved in these MOF creations is staggering. You simply need to realize it's all there.

It’s funny that, under the slightest scrutiny, the divisions between various disciplines and crafts will melt like butter. And I could not agree more with French President Nicholas Sarkozy who, as the start of the film, declares his wish to rid France of the “morally scandalous” notion that “there are two forms of intelligence.” The MOF competitors and their masterpieces are a testament to the blending of knowledge, art, and dynamic skill.

Check your local PBS listings, visit the film’s website, or make room for Kings of Pastry on your Netflix queue.

Trust me… c’est delicieux!

24 June 2011

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Scientist: A Guest Post

While drafting a recent post about a very cool senior thesis by a young artist at MIAD, I discussed the question of art and science (rather than art verses science) with my wife, Kira. She is an architect by training and will be starting a graduate program in architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle this fall. She had some really interesting comments about the similar creative conceptual rigor demanded by both art and science but there was no way I could work all of this into my previous post. Instead, I asked her to write her own guest post. 

So, without further ado, please give it up for my thoughtful, talented, and much better half….




I am a sucker for science. Nothing excites me more than trying to comprehend something as massive as the universe. I am easily entranced by DNA diagrams. I love reading about species long extinct. Call it geeky or nerdy... I’m fine with that.

The thing is, I am definitely not a scientist. I am a designer.

Somewhere between partial differential equations and linear algebra, my aptitude for the math required to devote serious study to science reached a plateau. Fortunately, I had learned enough to capably continue with my design studies in architecture. Nevertheless, I still peruse the periodic table, indulge in learning about string theory, and feast on new photos of the Large Hadron Collider.

Art and science are often portrayed as the north and south poles of academia—distant extremes. But, as someone who enjoys both of these areas, I can tell you that this portrayal is a shallow interpretation of two vast and complex disciplines.

09 June 2011

Excuse Me, Miss... There's Some Science in My Art

“Give the STEMers some credit,” I said in a recent post. There is a lot more to science and engineering than formulae and schematics. Working in a lab and developing new technologies requires artistic sensibility, dynamism, and an all-around creative drive.

I was thinking about this – art in science – when I visited the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design last month.

My cousin (the wildly talented Molly Radke) recently graduated from the MIAD with a degree in communication design and my wife and I wanted to see her senior exhibit. It was great fun. My son loved the colors and textures. My wife enjoyed being back amongst her people – artists and designers. And I found the experience very interesting from an education perspective. Seeing the culmination of a fine arts education on display was an opportunity to think about the multiple pathways to a successful postsecondary education.

But, I digress.

As we left the gallery, I noticed an impressive project done by a young animator and illustrator named Kaycie D. Her thesis was titled Elements. In its full glory, Elements is a complete representation of the first eighty-eight elements (hydrogen through radium) on the periodic table with each element represented by an animated character.

ELEMENTS by Kaycie D.



Pretty cool, right?

The full arrangement of characters is really eye-catching. But, more impressive still, the individual graphics do a great job of giving each element a face and personality. In a sense, Kaycie D had made the same argument I was making about bringing creativity into science – but in reverse. She brought science into her art. I loved it.

28 May 2011

Will Chancellor Martin Make Peace?

Photo by Eric E. Johnson
The Wisconsin State Journal reported yesterday that the proposal to split UW-Madison from the University of Wisconsin System is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Several key legislators have publicly stated that the proposal will be stripped from the biennial budget and the Madison campus will remain a part of the greater University of Wisconsin.

Good.

Thankfully, Chancellor Martin appears to be accepting this development with some dignity (rather than accepting a better paying position at another university, for example, and suggesting on her way out the door that this is what happens when people don’t listen to her). In response to the legislators who claim to remain interested in administrative reform, Chancellor Martin said, “I'm focused on ensuring that these flexibilities, as we call them, that all the campuses get are actually still meaningful when the vote is taken.”

Did you catch that? Yes, she said it. All campuses.

It’s about friggin’ time.

13 May 2011

A (Scientific) Miracle on Graduation Day

UC Berkeley, College of Engineering


I wanted to share this story as a follow up to my recent post on the creativity and imagination inherent, yet under-acknowledged, in the STEM fields. I suggest taking a look at the article in full.

Austin Whitney, a young man paralyzed in a 2007 alcohol-related car accident, will graduate from UC Berkeley this weekend. Along with his classmates, he will cross the dais, accept his diploma, and shake hands with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. And, again like his classmates, he will do it on foot.

Thanks to some remarkable innovations developed by mechanical engineering faculty and graduate students, Austin will be able to walk across the stage with the aid of a robotic exoskeleton. The research and achievement themselves are remarkable but I thought it was worth noting that the team behind this breakthrough have made it clear that research and design in this case have not been an exercise in knowledge and progress "for their own sake."

Throughout the research and design process, which Austin has participated in for the last several years, the team has focused on questions of usability, reliability, and affordability. They weren’t simply focused on making the fanciest contraption possible and adding lines to their resumes. The temptation to flex some design muscle was there of course and at least one of the researchers acknowledged the challenge of avoiding over-engineering. But, as another researcher explained, “Our goal was to create a workhorse device able to faithfully handle the most essential tasks of daily life.”

The result, Austin said, is “much more than just steel and circuits – it has been built with compassion and a great devotion to the idea of touching lives all around this world.”


It’s just one more example of the way in which university-based research – including work in the STEM fields – is not, at least not when it is at its best, about useless abstractions and journal publications. The great innovators and practitioners on campuses around the world work tirelessly to balance the purely intellectual value of new knowledge and technology against other, very human concerns. They do it with a deep-seated desire to make the world a better place… not on paper or in the lab but in the lives of real people and communities. For that, I believe, they deserve more credit than they get.

And, by the way, can I get a “GO BEARS!?”

* * *

Congratulations to the graduating Class of 2011. Where ever you are and whatever your field of study, accept your degree and celebrate your achievement with pride. (However, as Austin Whitney would remind you, please celebrate responsibly and safely.) As you head out for your next venture, take the best traditions of higher learning with you. You never know… by combining your knowledge and achievement with creativity, compassion, and a desire to accomplish meaningful and relevant things outside of yourself, you might perform something close to a miracle.

09 May 2011

Relevance & Empathy

John Dewey
(Andre Koehne, 2006)
Somewhere between my first survey course in the history of American education in 2007 and my last seminar, Classics in Education, in the spring of 2011, I’ve developed a fondness for John Dewey. I’m not necessarily a Deweyan expert nor do I think he always gets things right. But, I nevertheless find myself frequently offering commentaries like, “This is what John Dewey was saying when he wrote….” My wife reeeally likes it when I bring Dewey to the dinner table. I just can’t help myself. It’s hard for me to disagree with someone who believes that education is on-going. That it’s a process. And that, above all, it is experiential.

Experience & Education (1939) is one of my favorite works by Dewey. In it he attempts to explain that education through experience (i.e., “learning by doing”) is only one part of effective and meaningful learning. Educators must also concern themselves with education as an experience. Traditionally, this argument translates into discussions of learning environments where topics and activities are stimulating, age-appropriate, and presented to learners in a way that resonates with them. Education and schools – as experiences unto themselves – ought to be relevant to the learners.

In the past week, though, I have been giving a lot of thought to another issue of relevance in education. Materials, tasks, and the environment, need to have appeal and relevance for students but educators are part of the learning experience too. Teachers need to make themselves relevant to their students’ experience.

30 April 2011

Digging in the Archives… ‘Idlers Hard at Work’

Spring has been slow about its arrival in Wisconsin this year. But, at last, today and yesterday have been beautiful. And even though there is a storm on its way this evening, it’s OK because it’s a spring storm unlike the wintery storms of the past week.

What’s the difference? Storms in the spring smell good.

With this in mind, I thought I would dig up something fitting the change in season. The following is a revised version of an article I wrote last semester for a magazine writing course in which I researched and wrote about gardening in Wisconsin.

Enjoy.

* * *

I am an unapologetic idler. This is why, several years ago, my wife gave me a copy of Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle as a gift. This is also why, several years later, I have yet to finish reading it. I pick it up every few months, read a chapter or two, and then put it away for an unspecified length of time. This is as it should be. For the true idler, the greatest joy is doing what you wish, when you wish, and how you wish.

Let’s get one thing straight, though. Idlers are not lazy slobs. Well, most of us are not lazy slobs. We do not wish to wallow in disarray or avoid accomplishment. For example, idlers don’t like a mess. “Mess ends up stealing time from you,” Hodgkinson explains. “One lets things descend into chaos because one can’t be bothered to clean up, but then wastes hours trying to find socks…. to be truly idle, you also have to be efficient.”

We, the idlers, simply wish to command our own time and activities. We seek to free ourselves from the botherers who schedule 7am working breakfasts and develop ad campaigns that instruct us to ‘Just Do It.’

No. You do it. I’m doing my own thing over here.

24 April 2011

You Wish You Could Be Wolowitz

Picture an engineer.

Let me guess. You’re thinking of someone like Howard Wolowitz (or any of the lead characters) from CBS’s Big Bang Theory – a rigid, awkward, neurotic dork.

Am I right?

* * *

The other day I was talking with a young engineering student at my office. We were discussing summer internship applications, cover letters, and the preconceptions people have about engineers. The conversation was, in a way, ridiculous because this student – except for being extremely bright and hard working – defies every single stereotype about engineers. She is funny, articulate, sociable, and creative. Plus (not that it should matter), she is an attractive and stylish she.

We talked about her various interests and some of the things she included in her applications. We discussed the logic test she took for one application and how difficult it can be to make yourself stand out with just a resume and cover letter. The conversation covered a wide variety of topics but I said her letters sounded great. I also mentioned I recently learned that, just like social science and humanities majors, engineers are among those who demonstrate strong improvements in writing during the first two years of college (particularly when compared with peers in, for example, business school). And I confessed, apropos of the rest of the conversation, that I was originally surprised by this finding.

Like most people, I imagined engineers excelling in math and technical diagrams rather than writing and communication. I did not think engineers were incapable of writing well. I just assumed it wasn’t the type of thing engineers and engineering departments were concerned with – too artsy and impractical.

Then I remembered something from my last year working at Berkeley.

16 April 2011

Nursing Our Young

Last week I did a little number about the way American women continue to be objectified and used in our national diatribe -- err -- dialogue. It was one of the occasional tangents I am prone to explore even though it has no direct relationship to higher education. Well, let me see if I can swing this puppy around and get ‘er back on topic without entirely abandoning the question of women in America….

Last month, researchers at Montana State University published the results of three studies that explored the ways in which breastfeeding mothers are objectified and judged. In the publication, Spoiled Milk: An Experimental Examination of Bias Against Mothers Who Breastfeed, they found that study participants (both male and female) considered breastfeeding mothers warmer and more caring than other women but also assumed them to be less skilled in math, less competent generally, and less desirable as potential employees.

As a feminist, a parent, and the non-lactating half of a couple that struggled with breastfeeding, I was pissed. Then, when I read that the study participants were college students, my initial anger morphed into frustrated wondering at what could possibly explain these students’ thinking. I concluded that, basically, they were not thinking at all. That really pissed me off.

09 April 2011

Girl Stuff

Yesterday my wife and I were in the car listening to the latest news about our looming budget crisis and the fact that negotiations were hinging on issues of funding for women’s health programs. We were both pretty annoyed. Then the newscast turned to a discussion of Planned Parenthood. This is when my wife’s blood pressure wound up like the RPM display on the dashboard.

“All women should be outraged!” she said. And she was right.

You see, Planned Parenthood receives federal money to support medical care to women. The problem is that Planned Parenthood also provides abortion services. Federal funds do not pay for abortions in any way. Private money covers the costs of these services. But, as some have pointed out, the fact that Planned Parenthood can use federal dollars to pay for wellness exams makes it a little easier to locate other funds to cover abortions. And, apparently, this conundrum is such a critical issue that the entire United States government may need to close up shop until we fix this particular problem.

Personally, when it comes to cutting Planned Parenthood, I think the whole thing is another lame-ass attempt to destroy important services without any regard for why those services were created in the first place. But I want to take a moment to note – very clearly – that the logic behind this particular argument is sound and the concern is legitimate. It’s a fair question and it requires a fair and thoughtful response. Everyone with a serious concern and a serious desire to work out a solution deserves to be heard.

That being said, I still think women – actually, everyone – should be outraged.

You see, every time programs like Planned Parenthood are made the target of partisan hackery, every woman in America is being used and abused on national television.

30 March 2011

William Cronon will be fine but that doesn’t make me feel better.

There is natural cycle to higher education news. In the mid-fall, we read about outrageous football budgets and coaches’ salaries. In the spring, folks are interested in admissions policy. In late summer, we get ourselves jazzed up about financial aid. And, somewhere between these perennial headlines, there are other oldies-but-goodies that show up: compensation for chancellors and presidents, US News and World Report rankings, or “Why can’t college students write good?” Aside from my belief that we treat most these issues superficially, I am constantly annoyed by our nasty little habit of evoking important ideas and using them as convenient shibboleths or attention-grabbing buzzwords.

“Academic Freedom” is possibly the most overused and misunderstood term in the higher education. When it creeps into the headlines, I cringe. Then something happens and (just as I’m getting ready to roll my eyes) I realize that we have, in fact, stumbled upon an important issue and now is the time to call upon our cherished principles.

I am referring, predictably, to the “Cronon Affair” unfolding at UW-Madison. This is one of those rare cases worth getting upset about. However, my concerns are not what one might expect.

27 March 2011

Catching a Lifeline at Office Hours

The last several weeks have been downright ugly. The unions that represent me and my wife have been stripped of most their bargaining rights and, as public employees, we have been called everything from selfish and lazy to bloodsuckers and whores. So, that sucks.

Let’s see… what else? The flagship campus of a great public university, which I uprooted my life and career to attend, is pushing an embarrassing policy to ditch the other public campuses in the state. Bill Cronon – a brilliant, fair-minded history professor – has been targeted with a FOIA request by the Wisconsin GOP for dubiously unspecified reasons. Gas prices are climbing. The largest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history has claimed thousands of lives, caused partial meltdowns at nuclear power plants, and literally knocked the planet off its axis. A-a-and the United States Congress is trying to strip all public funding from Rick Steves and Elmo.

Yes, my friends, it is the Golden Age of Man.

But, somewhere between the end of common sense in Wisconsin and what feels like the end of days, this month hasn’t been entirely bad.

11 March 2011

There is Life Outside Your Lab

Earlier this week I wrote a question-laden post about the inherent need and responsibility to train STEM students to engage with ideas and populations from outside their immediate laboratory. And, shock of shocks, I'm not the only one who wonders if we really prepare students to become responsive and responsible scientists.

W-a-a-a-it a minute... You mean there are other people who think we could maybe do a better job preparing students for, ya know, life?

I know. Crazy, right?

Shortly after posting on Monday, I came upon a 2009 essay by Jennifer Frederick, Associate Director of the Graduate Teaching Center at Yale University. In it she raises similar questions; offers an insightful, passionate proposal for innovation; and concludes,

As we push for transformations of increasing scale, we should bear in mind that the potential payout is tremendous: meaningfully educated scientists capable of understanding assumptions of their work and thus more able to converse with nonscientists. The next generation of scientists will seek solutions to global warming, environmental sustainability, and the humane use of science and technology. Let us train them well.

Well said, Dr. Frederick. Well said indeed.

* * * * *

The entire essay, Non-Science for Majors: Reforming Courses, Programs, and Pedagogy, can be accessed (for free!) care of the Essays on Teaching Excellence series published by the Professional & Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education.

07 March 2011

Questioning Science

Last weekend, I read an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It profiled a UCLA faculty member, J. David Jentsch, and his resolve to continue live-animal research in the face of escalating, violent tactics from extremist animal rights groups. Dr. Jentsch’s story – which includes having his car fire bombed in his driveway – was juxtaposed with the experience of others who left animal research after their homes were vandalized and their children frightened in the dead of night. I could go on at length about how outrageous these acts are, the dilemma of animal research, or the complexities of using university resources for contentious research. But these topics seem best left for another time.

At the moment, I am most intrigued by an issue raised toward the end of the article:

"You're called upon to defend what is a completely legitimate, ethical thing to do," Mr. Jentsch says of his own work. "Society has grappled with these issues and thinks using animals is legitimate. But we are constantly called upon to redefend it."

Part of the reason for that, some say, is that universities—fearful of alienating students and donors—have shirked their role in educating the public about the benefits of animal research. And scientists are so busy doing their work that they either assume that the public shares their views or will simply trust that scientists know best.

23 February 2011

Freedom and the Greater Good


I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t going to allow myself to lose focus on my current projects and take on Chancellor Martin’s support for breaking apart Wisconsin’s higher education system. Right now I’m focusing on ideas of teaching, education, and – as my post earlier this week indicated – the way that these issues play out in science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) fields. Focus is good and I need to work on that.

But, alas, I could not help myself. Too many important ideas are at stake and this should not pass unnoticed. Too many foundational values are being tossed around and misrepresented; and, somewhere between high rhetoric and self interest, the big ideas behind the real issues deserve at least a little attention.

* * * *

Last week, it came to light that UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin had been engaging in closed-door discussions (without the UW President or Regents) with Governor Scott Walker. The result of these discussions is an imminent proposal to separate UW-Madison from the UW System and establish it as a stand-alone public authority. The proposal has been met with support by some, apathy by others, and outrage by others still.

Differing opinions are good. They lead to healthy debate. However, as is typical of discussions about complex issues, some commentators have taken up the cause and put forth arguments that sound nice but turn out to be deeply flawed upon closer examination. Poorly conceived arguments and half truths are frustrating, but they are a fact of life in democracies. The right of an individual to say thoughtless things is – however distasteful – unassailable. However, the right to go off half-cocked and make cavalier use of language and reason does not include the right to go unchallenged or even to be taken seriously.

21 February 2011

Fee-for-Service Teaching

With the events in here in Madison over the past week, there has been much to discuss and watch. (And we all know how easily distracted I am….)

First there was Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill and its combined proposals to increase state employees’ contributions to healthcare and retirements and benefits, remove some employees’ benefit eligibility entirely, and drastically curtail collective bargaining rights. This, in case you haven’t been watching, has resulted in large-scale protests, all-night committee hearings, and an Illinois-bound exodus of democratic State Senators. Next, information merged showing that the Chancellor of UW-Madison, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, and the Governor’s office have circumvented the UW System President and Regents to hatch a backroom plan that splits the state’s largest campus from the other campuses.

Regardless of how these issues play out, they have come to the fore this week for one simple reason. The current administration is using the dubious, but politically expedient, practice of nesting major policy changes and political agendas inside budget proposals. To put it simply, in the current economic and budgetary climate, many people are concerned with price tags before policy; and combining political agendas with budget legislation is an easy way to give the impression that it’s just about the money. A-a-and, it’s working.

However – believe it or not – I don’t really want to talk about budgets. I am more concerned about the issues that our budget debates tend to overlook.

In one of the less venomous comments posted to an online news story about the budget/labor law and the teachers who oppose it, one reader offered what I’m sure he felt was a genuinely meaningful response. Teachers are sellers of a service and the state is the buyer of that service. And, as he saw it, the buyer in this case is not willing to pay the price that the sellers are demanding. End of proverbial story.

Is it, though?

14 February 2011

Brainy Valentine

A few months ago, I wrote a cheeky email to WPR in response to a discussion on the drawbacks of doctors’ wearing the archetypal white lab coat. Though the conversation brought up significant issues – including the fact that the coats are often worn day after day, from one exam room to the next without being laundered (um, gross) – I felt one aspect to the white coat was overlooked.

Lab coats are sexy.

My email to the program’s producer was meant to be silly and I was pleased to receive an appropriately amused response. But, somewhere between hyperbole and nerdy humor, I was trying to make a point. Far from objectifying anyone, I was attempting to offer a reminder that smart people are attractive and interesting to be around.

Attraction, though, is a funny thing.

There is a term that my friends and I toss around in fun. It refers, broadly speaking, to the fascination one feels regarding the work, ideas, and personality of a particular academic or intellectual figure. We call it the educrush.

12 February 2011

Seize the (Teachable) Moment

Last week I renewed my campaign in favor of greater flexibility in graduate education and raised the question, What happens to undergraduate education when disciplinary research and specialization are the sole, legitimate emphasis in training future faculty members? My aim was to defend and encourage interdisciplinarity among scholars and future academics. However, I am the first to admit that “breadth of curiosity” is a poorly defined battle cry. It leaves my position open to the criticisms that it lacks meaningful direction and undermines the scholarly expertise that contributes to intellectual progress.

These critiques are fair and it serves little purpose to fight for big ideas that rely on grand notions of learning that are not necessarily shared by everyone. Nevertheless, there are significant issues for the education community to face regarding the pieces of professional and intellectual development that may be missing or underdeveloped in higher education. Consider, for example, development of teaching skills.

Wait… strike that. Forget the classroom-centered image of teaching and consider the skills that prepare someone to educate.

03 February 2011

The Problem with Interesting People

Do you know what your problem is?

You are always there. You’re like a noisy neighbor in an apartment building: banging around, doing what you do, and being an enormous distraction. It is getting to the point where I can hardly focus on the academic and professional progress expected of me.

That is your problem; you and all the other interesting people.

It’s a problem with higher education in general, I think. A college or university is meant to be a gathering of great (or, at least, well-trained) minds. And the undergraduate 'college experience' is supposed to be a time away from familiar surroundings when you encounter new people, new ideas, and new experiences. Graduate school, though, is less oriented toward expanding one’s horizons. Grad students are intellectual apprentices, meant to foster their own special expertise. And the variety of experiences and people – so valued in undergraduate education – are a constant source of frustration and delay when you are a graduate student.

26 January 2011

White Milk

My wife, my son, and I were returning, recently, from a day-trip to visit family in South Milwaukee. It’s a two hour drive from my Aunt’s house to our apartment on Madison’s far west side. We had left later than we meant to and our son was starting to scream in his car seat. We quickly realized we would not get home with enough time for both dinner and a bath before bed. The decision was clear: stopping to eat something would be better than waiting and arriving home with an exhausted and hungry toddler.

Upon exiting I-94, our best option was one of those chain restaurants with a hapless assortment of film-and-television memorabilia covering the walls. Definitely not our first choice. But, we thought, compared with drive-thru fast food, this was our best hope of finding something that resembled actual nourishment.

When you’re a nouveau-hippie food snob and your wife is one of those people who wants to place a copy The Omnivore’s Dilemma next to the Gideon’s Bible in hotel rooms across America, you tend to wring your hands over everything your child eats. Similarly, when you’re a student of educational theory, dinner time is just one more opportunity to worry about life-long habits of heart, mind, and body. As I pulled off the highway the air was heavy with sighs of guilt and I could feel the chilly breath of John Dewey’s ghost on my neck: To say that all genuine education is based in experience is not to say that all experience is genuinely educational….

It’s just one dinner!, I told myself. The kid needed food and I needed to finish the next sixty-five miles of driving without frantic wails from the backseat. The place was clean, the employees were friendly, and there were other little kids – reducing the risk that our toddler would be the only diner who might cry and make a scene. It wouldn’t be our proudest parenting moment or a meaningful culinary education, but we could do worse. Michael Pollan and John Dewey would have to suck it up.

21 January 2011

Consciousness and Righteous Rage

"Bullsh*t" is a popular card game among college students and high schoolers.

It’s a simple game of one-upmanship and bluffing. The first player announces she has a certain number of cards of a certain value. I have two fives. The next player, if he believes her, must best her with a claim of greater value. I have two sixes. This process continues until a player thinks he has encountered a bluff – I have four Queens – and declares, Bullsh*t!

After the tragic events in Tucson, there has been a similar one-uping game in the media. The cable news version, however, is a moralistic one. Who is to blame? Did talk-show hosts contribute to a hostile environment? Is the left grasping for a chance to discredit the right? Unfortunately, much of this particular outrage feels less than genuine if not outright hypocritical. But glass houses and thrown stones are nothing new in public debate. And I, like many others, accepted this fact a while ago.

Yet, somewhere between the finger-pointing and the cries of Don’t pick on me!, I have grown increasingly tired of the game in all its forms. The shooting in Arizona and the ensuing debate speak for themselves. I have no comment, right now, on either point. At the moment, I’m frustrated with the on-going pissing match in higher education.

17 January 2011

On Heroes

I am not a person given to hero worship. This is not to say that I don’t have role models or don’t deeply respect the accomplishments of men and women of good character. On a day dedicated to honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., I join all Americans as we stand in awe of the leadership and courage he demonstrated. He is a national Hero.

I must confess, though, that I have never thought of anyone as my personal Hero. Put simply, I have been holding out for someone who would affect something singularly amazing in my life – something beyond being kind and doing the right thing. I will never forget the people who have been my inspiration to be a better friend, to be a good father and husband, and to pursue education. But, taking on a Hero, per se, has never come naturally to me. It is just my hang up.


I met Tora in my first semester of graduate school but we didn’t become friends until a few years later when we were working in the same office. It was easy to consider her a friend. We share similar interests, are annoyed by the same people, have compatible senses of humor, and are both parents of small children. So, after several weeks of chatting over the noise of the photocopier, we set up a play date. In theory, it was a chance to bring our kids together. But the kids didn’t care. It was really a chance for me and my wife to meet Tora and her husband, Raj, outside of work and, hopefully, become friends with other parents.

07 January 2011

In Good Company

Last week, I posted the final (and long delayed) installment of a nine-part series on gardening, what it looks like, and why the heck we go to so much trouble. I’m a little disappointed because I hoped it would be a ten-parter. But… if I count this post… that makes ten! Done and Done.

I undertook this project as part of a fall 2010, agriculture-themed journalism class with the immensely talented and passionate Deborah Blum. She has been, and continues to be, a valued teacher and mentor. For those interested in a little science, real-life crime drama, and history, I recommend her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. I finished it over the winter break and can assure you that it’s a – wait for it – killer read. What? Lighten up.

Lowest of Lows

If you read home and garden magazines, shop for mail-order seeds, or listen to programs like Wisconsin Public Radio’s Garden Talk, you are probably familiar with the “zone” system. If not, here are the basics:

Not all plants can survive in all climates. At a certain point a plant will freeze to death. Similarly, as the mercury rises, there is a point at which a plant or vine will simply bake and wither. Thus, a map of climatic zones was established to help gardeners and landscapers know (a) what zone they are working in and (b) which plants, trees, and flowers can survive there. The zones are labeled with low numbers for colder climates and high numbers for heat. The continental United States covers, roughly, zones 2 (in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota) through 10 (in southern Florida and California’s Death Valley).

It is a fairly simple concept and the resulting map looks something like this.


I’ve consulted zone maps many times. They are very helpful. But, being the inquisitive, ornery type, I wondered, Where does this information come from? Who determines these zones?

I had my theories. I thought, perhaps, it was a product of the gardening industry – something developed by retailers to help customers make informed choices and avoid refund requests when orchids start dying off in February in Fargo. Or, maybe it was compiled by an organization like the American Horticultural Society as a sort of public service announcement. I was curious.

But, with a little digging, I learned a lot more about the zone map than I expected.