Archive for July, 2008


Is It Corn Yet?

July 31, 2008

I consider myself an expert on corn. No pun intended — I mean corn, the crop.

For example, I know it should be knee-high by the 4th of July. I look to see how it’s doing when I drive around Indiana, nice and green or too brown. I know it needs to be detasseled and that kids and teens often do that as a summer job. I even found out, finally, what a combine is–a combination harvester and thresher (thanks to Richard Rhodes’ book Farm: a Year in the Life of an American Farmer).

My late mother loved to tell a story from her visit to Iowa when I lived there in the 1970s. As we drove along the country highway, she asked me to stop and get some corn for dinner, to which I replied disdainfully, “That’s field corn. You can’t eat it.” I don’t know why she thought that was so hilarious. To me, it was just something you know if you know corn, the way you know that local home-grown corn isn’t ready before August.

This has been an stressful year for corn. Thanks to the ethanol craze, corn prices doubled and farmers planted more to meet the demand. Sadly, floods in the Midwest devastated many potentially lucrative fields.

I will continue to keep an eye on the corn as I drive around this summer. As a Hoosier, I consider it part of my job.

This entry was posted by: Nancy

Rhymes Needed

July 31, 2008

I feel bad posting this blog in full so allow me a small digression by way of advertisement first. Futility Closet has been one of my favorite blog reads since I first discovered it years ago. It is the only blog I go to absolutely every day and the one I most frequently send my friends links to.

The entries are a not-so-eclectic mix of riddles, sea monsters, natural oddities, quotes, and mathematical perplexities. Even though I’m giving the entirety of this particular quote, I hope that you will head over to the site anyway and see it beneath the picture I’m not reproducing, and hopefully you will keep checking it out in the future.

I play a game with Futility Closet such that if a topic of one its posts is on something that I’m caring about that day anyway, I pretend it means something. It’s a game that works with Futility Closetb-based coincidences in a way it doesn’t with other coincidences.

So here’s the quote from yesterday that I thought Hoosierati readers would appreciate.

A whimsical letter written by W. S. Gilbert notes ‘a great want’ among poets. ‘I should like to suggest,’ he says, ‘that any inventor who is in need of a name for his invention, would confer a boon on the rhymsters, and at the same time insure himself many gratuitous advertisements, if he would select a word that rhymes to one of the many words in common use, which have but few rhymes or none at all. A few more words rhyming with ‘love’ are greatly wanted; ‘revenge’ and ‘avenge’ have no rhyming word, except ‘Penge’ and ‘Stonehenge’; ‘coif’ has no rhyme at all; ‘starve’ has no rhyme except (oh, irony!) ‘carve’; ‘scarf’ has no rhyme, though I fully expect to be told that ‘laugh,’ ‘calf,’ and ‘half’ are admissible, which they certainly are not.’

Miscellaneous Notes and Queries, March 1894


In this corner….The Humanities

July 30, 2008

Since it is practically, if not actually, human nature to learn through opposition, it is no surprise that the Humanities have often been defined by what they are not, most notably, the Sciences–the 800 pound marauder in the other corner of a centuries old fight.

We have to draw the line at centuries, though, and not millenia, because if you go back to too far, no one anywhere drew a line between these two “polar groups” (in the words of C.P. Snow). For most human history the humanities and the sciences were really just the pursuit of knowledge.

But the chasm between scientific pursuits and humanities pursuits is very real, not always, but often. It does not do us any good to think of both science and the humanities as equals in the “pursuit of knowledge” unless we also consider them complementary approaches–One as useless without the other as the other is without the first. Imagine a university without literature, philosophy, and history. It’s not just a nightmarish vision because scientists would have no human context in which to place their work (and would therefore create world dominating robots straightaway) but the quality of life of all of us would be substantially impoverished.

Reading literature, poetry, history–looking at sculpture and painting–enjoying good films–understanding world cultures, these are not things we do as a distraction from our otherwise busy and productive days (well they are, but they are not just that). They are not just pasttimes.They are times. They are important, critical, and productive pursuits in their own right. They don’t just teach us to be human but they also help us understand the world in a human way.

It has been said that the power of visual art is that it teaches us to see the visual patterns in everyday life by exaggerating those patterns. To extend the metaphor to literature, philosophy,, they all exaggerate–model–the patterns of real life and help us to find patterns in the actions and thoughts of others that we might otherwise have failed to see. There is no measurement of this skill–although people have tried–the DSM-IV and the Emotional Quotient exams are two such attempts at measuring the kind of skills or knowledge transmitted by the humanities. Theories of multiple intelligences (of which EQ is a part) are there too.

But as Max Weber famously said of science, that it lacks the tools to evaluate itself, the scientific apparatus of the DSM-IV and EQ exams will forever keep humanity at a distance. The only way to understand humanity is to study it on its own terms through tools that are not understood through dissection but rather through synthesis.

It’s not that the humanities only have intrinsic worth, but neither can they be totally reduced to extrinsic worth.


Preserving Our Language

July 25, 2008

In writing about the Salish people of western Montana, I mentioned their language. Native American languages are among those in danger of disappearing, but the Salish are employing interesting and successful methods to preserve their language.

For example, they are using a version of the International Phonetic Alphabet to write down the words in a script that captures their sound. They are also learning, from their elders, the Salish names for places in their traditional homeland — names that are often a capsule history — and putting them on road signs in both English and the phonetic script. Finally, they have elementary schools for language immersion and an impressive tribal college, a highlight of our visit.

One of my colleagues happened to strike up a conversation with some non-natives and told them about these efforts at language preservation. The huffy response: “Someone should work on preserving English!”

Well, there’s an idea. It’s a little late, though. Old English, also known as Anglo Saxon, lost its purity when the Vikings invaded the British Isles beginning in the eighth century and again during the Norman Conquest of 1066, which brought a flood of French derivations into the language. Then came my favorite linguistic event, the Great Vowel Shift, which changed the sound of Middle English entirely. Finally, a myriad of different cultures donated their vocabularies to English, which is why we don’t get on the phone and order an “Italian pie” for supper. Oh yes, and we Americans, along with the Canadians and Australians and so on, have participated in both the spread and corruption of the English language.

Perhaps the next question is what will happen to English in the age of the Internet. It will continue to evolve because it is the language of a living culture, just as the Salish language belongs to a living and thriving culture. The point is that it has always been, and will still be, English.

Side note: The Anglo Saxons had this odd sound in their language, represented by the letter called thorn. It’s the diphthong “th,” and it doesn’t exist in most other languages. That’s why English language learners have a tough time with “the” and will often say “zee” or “da” (da Bears) instead. (I’m sure the Anglo Saxons would enjoy knowing that.)

This entry was posted by: Nancy

Land of the Indians, But Not Indiana

July 22, 2008

I spent almost 4 days last week meandering Montana.

It wasn’t quite 4 days, of course, because you have to fly out for part of one day and fly back for part of another day. From my window seat I looked down as we flew over the Great Plains. When we began to see a sprinkling of snow on the Rockies, I thought about how amazed Lewis and Clark would have been to know that someday people, Americans, would be able to traverse that great distance, of which they made such an adventure, in only a few hours.

I spent an entire day in the company of a people of vision, a people whose elders remember stories handed down in their tribe about Lewis and Clark, about what their world was like then and how it changed when the explorers arrived. The story is told that the chief, seeing the white faces of the men, thought they must be cold and had fur robes spread out for them to sit on.

Our hosts for a day-long tour of the Flathead Reservation were the people of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of western Montana. A group of humanities council program officers from 20 different states, we were there for an annual meeting and a lesson in American values.

As the Salish view it, the land, the language, daily life, and the natural world all form a whole. In the end, the word that describes their philosophy, it seems to me, is “responsibility.” They express the utmost responsibility for thinking about what they have been handed down from the past and what they are passing on to the future, encompassing not one or two generations but many generations in both directions.

Humanities Montana, the state council, has played a role in preserving their story, which was narrated for us by Germaine White and Thompson Smith, a tribal educator and a historian. With their help the CSKT have created a wonderful book about their history and their language.

This entry was posted by: Nancy

Ravalli Hill on the Flathead Reservation, Montana

Ravalli Hill on the Flathead Reservation, Montana


Once, he put a woman he thought was dating Cormac McCarthy on the Ransom’s advisory board

July 17, 2008

I am nonplussed after reading this D.T. Max piece in the June 11 New Yorker. The only thing I know for sure is that I think this is horribly, horribly wrong:

Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online.

Seriously wrong.

It would be unjust for me not to say something nice about Tom Staley since Max paints such an intriguing and charming picture of the archive’s curator, but Staley is obviously not a man too moved by a sense of justice so, for the moment, neither will I be.


Shallow Reason #1 on Why You Should Self-Archive

July 16, 2008

Math is easy. I mean, not easy for me, and not “easy” to imply that it’s all memorizing and no thinking. I imagine that Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics has gotten more twenty-somethings to reconsider that Philosophy BA than any other single book written in the pre-Habermas era, second only to Heidegger’s … well…anything by Heidegger, really.

Take this amazing excerpt for example, brought to you by way of Fair Use:

This, then, is what is really asserted, and in this proposition it is no longer necessary that our variables should be numbers: the implication holds equally when they are not so. Thus, for example, the proposition x and y are numbers implies (x+y)2 = x2 + 2xy + y2 still holds equally if for x and y we substitute Socrates and Plato:both hypothesis and consequent, in this case, will be false, but the implication will still be true.

Try wrapping your head around what “Socrates squared plus two Socrateses times two Platoes plus Plato squared” might mean. Then go get that Literature degree you’ve been eyeing!

I mean that if someone says they study, teach, or practice mathematics, we all know generally what they do. I would venture to guess that nearly everybody has some daily interaction with mathematics in its simplest forms–and whether they know it or not in its highest forms. We all, for example have to do the reckoning* behind how much we’ve spent and how much we’ve got left.

But if somebody said, “Hey, what’s all that math good for?” somebody could easily point to Teh Internet and snark back, “That’s pretty cool, innit? And that’s what all that math is good for.” And then somebody else can pipe up, “Google’s pretty cool and it makes millions and millions of dollars and it will be so powerful people will hate it the same way that hate Wal-Mart and Disney!!!! And that’s all because of very complex of applied mathematics!!!!!”

I don’t know why that second guy is so excited about Google.**

At any rate, since you’re reading this on the internet, I assume you have just very recently used Google to do something and therefore, whether you knew it or not, you just brushed against some pretty complicated math. Its worth to you is proven by the simple fact that you now know exactly where that brick-and-mortar Threadless shop is in Chicago.

I, on the other hand, work in the humanities, and while everybody has benefited from the existence and practice of the humanities, there’s very little I can point to to prove it.  Which is one of the reasons the Indiana Humanities Council exists. Not only do we organize and sponsor projects that are the humanities, we also promote the humanities more broadly.

One of the ways we do that is by increasing people’s access to the work that humanists are doing. It is my hope that one day, professors and whatnot will co-mingle with the non-professors right here on Hoosierati. They don’t yet, but when they do, I hope they find this post…with this link…which will take them to a website that will give them a little of what I like to call “good advice”: Open Access Publishing. Not only does it help the environment and provide knowledge to people that seek it, but it might make them famous***.


*The original “Three R’s” stood for reading, rhetoric, and reckoning (reading, writing, and math).

**Probably because it’s me.

***College-professor-famous, not famous-famous.


The Burden of the Humanities

July 9, 2008

It turns out that providing a definition of the humanities is an incredibly difficult thing to do for a host of reasons. Coming to terms with what they “do” (or do not do) is even more difficult–which means that we are stuck often not being able to articulate the value of the humanities even though the value is immanently knowable to anybody who practices or enjoys the various humanistic arts: anybody who has run or gone to a museum, read or written a poem, even knows how to read, has visited a Civil War battlefield or performed in a reenactment, anybody that has felt a pang of nostalgia when driving through a childhood neighborhood, or wished their grandfather was still alive to talk about what baseball was like when he was a kid, anybody that has pondered whether life is worth living or if their job was worth showing up for, anybody that’s tried to figure out “what was going on” in that movie they saw last weekend, or learned a second language just for fun. All of these people and more understand, without reflection, the value of the humanities. For each of them that value is something different–different because the object of their pursuit is different, different because their ability to obtain that goal is different, different because their motivation is different, but mostly different because we are all different.

What we are left with then, as the Indiana Humanities Council, is to speak, as I just did, in Whitmanesque lists or in the soft pablum of a high school English teacher responding to the question “Why do we have to read Great Expectations? from a petulant sophomore: we pursue the humanities because human things make us human. It’s true, but it’s a sentence that leaves little to grasp, especially in an age of pie charts and Emotional Quotient Inventories.

Several months back Stanley Fish wrote a column for the New York Times called “Will the Humanities Save Us?” Fish’s answer was “no, nor should we expect them to” (I paraphrase). In some ways I was in favor of his answer because I am reluctant to want to defend the humanities based on anticipated outcomes; because if someone claims that “the results of a humanities education is ‘X,'” then statisticians, economists, MBAs, government officials and more want to see balance sheets and quarterly reports that prove it. If, on the other hand, we deny measurable outcomes, we remain free to explore the humanities as we want to.

Of course, it goes without saying in my admittedly biased point of view, that Professor Fish is wrong. The humanities not only can save us, they have already repeatedly saved us. That is not to claim that the effects of the humanities are any more measurable. In fact, the humanities, as a subject, are a lot like the ocean to the fish who doesn’t know he’s wet. You cannot separate the pursuits of language, history, culture, music, and art from the human story. Their ubiquitous presence makes measuring their effects basically impossible.

There has been a decline in scholars approaching the idea of the humanities as the humanities since the 1970s when there was a widely recognized “crisis” in them (also when the Indiana Humanities Council was founded–and partly why). Most of what has been written has been of the variety I called “pablum” above and what Wilfred M. McClay calls “airy fairy” in his recent Wilson Quarterly essay “The Burden of the Humanities.”

Although McClay’s definition of the humanities falls victim to all definitions of the term, I like this essay for two reason. McClay acknowledges that Americans are still desperately in love of the humanities and clearly value them very highly. The active comments section on Fish’s column and its sequel both stand as testament to the excitement we still feel around the subject. He also isn’t afraid to use hard language to get to his point. The humanities doesn’t have to be touchy-feely. The humanities is made up of disciplines, and that is his language of choice.

At any rate. Check it out. I’d like to hear what you have to say.


The Next Commentator

July 2, 2008

All kinds of things are happening this year–it’s not easy to keep up. I listen to three radio programs on the morning drive: NPR, Mike & Mike on ESPN, and the Tom Joyner Morning Show. (Ironically, it was from ESPN that I first got the news about 9/11: “I know this is supposed to be a sports show, but there’s something happening in New York…”)

Anyway, TJMS is going through an important transition right now. Tavis Smiley, an influential if controversial media figure who grew up in Indiana and graduated from I.U., has just left his position as political and social analyst. So they are looking for his successor and apparently using an American Idol-type format to find the next commentator on the state of Black America. The first “contestant” this week was Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., a named-chair professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University and a protege of Cornel West.

This process strikes me as an unusual opportunity to catch an intriguing and multifaceted glimpse into African American thought during a milestone year.

This entry was posted by: Nancy