milespassion6 for passion blogs
milespassion6 for passion blogs
Gender/Sexuality and Race: milesgenderrace7
Politics 1: milespolitics61
Politics 2: milespolitics2
Environment 1: milesaltenergy6
Environment 2: milesenvironment6
Section 7 Passion Blogs
Vivek Anil sites.psu.edu/thoughtsofvivekanil
Tom Beeby sites.psu.edu/politicallypassionate/
Lauren Bello sites.psu.edu/laurenabello
Colin Brooks sites.psu.edu/kunst
Matt Brownlow sites.psu.edu/brownlowm
Vaudrey Carrillo sites.psu.edu/vaudreycarrillo
Allison Ching sites.psu.edu/allisonching
Laura D’Ambrogi sites.psu.edu/ledambrogi
Jacob Diamond sites.psu.edu/jldiamond
Jessica He sites.psu.edu/jhe2017
Julie Hetrick sites.psu.edu/juliehetrick
Sean Hixon sites.psu.edu/shixon
Grace Miller sites.psu.edu/hamilton
Matthew ‘Danger’ Mitchell sites.psu.edu/matthewblog
Raegan Pechar sites.psu.edu/toptedtalks
Ben Piazza sites.psu.edu/piazzatech
Robyn Ruggier sites.psu.edu/ruggierr
Abby Salem sites.psu.edu/abbysalem
Apoorva Shastri sites.psu.edu/ausblog3
Hannah Supplee sites.psu.edu/myfavoritequotes
Angela Ting sites.psu.edu/angelatingpassionblog
Andrew Warner sites.psu.edu/andrewwarner
Rosy Zhang sites.psu.edu/zhangpassion
Section 6 Passion Blogs
Milan Abramovitz – sites.psu.edu/mabramovitzpassion
Andrew Baak- sites.psu.edu/abaak
Nicholas Bhaskar – sites.psu.edu/nbhaskarpassion
Ritwik Biswas – sites.psu.edu/ritz
Awais Butt – sites.psu.edu/apb5471
Shannon Cikowski – sites.psu.edu/shanciko8
Robert Griggs- sites.psu.edu/robertgriggs
Ben Hartleb – sites.psu.edu/bhartleb
Marc Jakobi – sites.psu.edu/netflixshows
Mark Kazour – sites.psu.edu/mark711
Abby Luke- sites.psu.edu/abbylukenetflix
Sydney Montgomery – sites.psu.edu/smontygspassion
Sean Parsons- sites.psu.edu/parsons
Collin Payne – sites.psu.edu/collinpayne
Ann Puthumana- sites.psu.edu/annputhumana
Taelor Romero – sites.psu.edu/taelorromerorcl
AJ Rothenberger – sites.psu.edu/rothenberger
Julia Severyn- sites.psu.edu/juliaseveryn
Daniel Stiffler – sites.psu.edu/dstiffler
Nick Sonsini – sites.psu.edu/sonsini6rcl
“The love for all living creatures is the most noble aspect of man.”
“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That’s the problem.”
~A. A. Milne
The analysis of animal’s perspectives, their relationships with humans in society, and their role in culture has become a matter of great scholarly interest in the past couple of decades. From literature to law, history, philosophy, and psychology, animals are taking on importance not only as their own ethical subjects with consciousness, but for their intersectionality with human issues ranging from colonialism and gender to consumerism and class. Their role as literary symbols has long been recognized. This course aims to investigate not only those symbolic roles, but the larger social questions scholars have posed about animals, and, ultimately, the lived experience of animals themselves.
As a compact region, London and its environs present the perfect opportunity to examine animals from a variety of perspectives in a circumscribed area. In course readings we will look closely at the ways that animals have existed in British culture and how their experiences have been made manifest in British literature. From the romantic poets and 20th century children’s stories to Darwin’s theories and J.M. Coetze’s reflections, we will explore the ways animals are central to discussions of child development, evolution, imperialism, rights, pain, sentimental family bonds, and welfare. We will look at the 19th century animal welfare movement; the 20th century emphasis on pets and animal companions; Zoos and other efforts to contain, conserve, and conceptualize animals for the public; and the role of animals in nature — the wild — in both their own worlds and in the imagined landscapes of human readers and writers.
Selection of London Activities: The Natural History Museum, The Darwin Center at the Natural History Museum, The British Museum, the Darwin Museum, The RSPCA, Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, SEA LIFE London Aquarium, the London Zoo. Field trip to Oxford where fantasy authors such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, and A. A. Milne, among others, brought animals to life in children’s literature. A highlight of the course will be a road trip to the UK Donkey Sanctuary on the south-west coast to personally meet some animals with a rich and challenging history in the UK.
Dates: July 2019
The Impact of Efforts to Influence Grade Distributions on Student Diversity and Vulnerable Facutly
Grade inflation has been a problem for decades. Obviously, it’s vexing. Nationwide, administrators and faculty have not found effective ways to address it. Now we have a new problem: grade deflation efforts. Universities and colleges are looking for quick fixes to the complex, convoluted problem of inflation and are trying strategies, such as penalizing instructors whose class averages are higher than others’, either university-wide or at the college or department levels. I call this “externally imposed grade deflation”. It does not emerge from an individual teacher’s desire to use grades more effectively to help students learn. Instead, individual faculty members are being cajoled, scolded, and threatened with negative consequences – up to and including being fired – if they don’t start giving more bad grades. The question as to whether or not the students receiving more bad grades merit them is secondary. The issue is about numbers and reaching benchmarks. A bad grade helps faculty reach their benchmark, thus, in terms of the individual faculty member’s livelihood, well-being, and status, a bad grade is helpful and a good grade is harmful. Faculty are incentivized to look for the flaws rather than seeking to raise all students up to higher levels of knowledge and performance.
Here is why grade deflation policies do not work and actually cause immeasurable problems. More importantly, at this historical moment, they are in direct opposition to other initiatives at the university.
Diversity and Campus Climate
Diversity matters. Every member of the University benefits from having a rich and varied group of students, all contributing myriad ideas and experiences to community discourses. This vibrant culture exists on the contingency that students from multiple backgrounds, identifies, and perspectives actively want to be here.
Precisely because so many students have had varied educational experiences leading up to their enrollment at Penn State, their preparations may have been very different. Women and minorities, in particular, may have been exposed to cultural expectations that encouraged different approaches to learning and performance. This means that these students may not always be positioned to immediately embrace the types of rubrics and evaluative strategies that disciplines have developed through years during which there were not very many diverse perspectives being included.
In essence, students from diverse backgrounds may find themselves vulnerable to placement in less desirable areas on the grading curves. Teachers, forced to find students to whom they can give bad grades, may perceive markers of difference as indices of lower academic performance. (For research identifying this trend, see “What Happens When an Elite American University Kills Grade Inflation” – “the policy exacerbated existing racial gaps in student grades…Black and Latino students…saw larger negative effects on their grades”).
This issue grows more complicated in the current political climate. Faculty Senate has held important discussions regarding diversity, equity, and bias. In September, a group of thoughtful, articulate students from diverse backgrounds joined a plenary session to discuss ways that faculty might better foster inclusive learning environments. Several students emphasized the significance of being able to discuss issues of importance to them, even if those issues were tangential to the course topic. Several expressed how much they would appreciate being able to voice their views and life experiences without being evaluated or confronted with alternative positions. In January, The Committee on Educational Equity and Campus Climate proposed teaching best practices that included allowing students to weight the assigned activities for a class according to the student’s individual learning styles and refraining from expecting students to participate in class as part of their grades. Instructors were also encouraged to establish personal, supportive relationships with their students.
Clearly, these are early efforts to attempt to redress a very long history of uneven access to education and opportunities. By advertising our awards for diversity and presenting the university as a welcoming space for all, we seem to be making an implicit promise to help level the playing field – to make special efforts to raise all students up to the best of their abilities. Strategies for accomplishing this goal seem nascent and we need many more discussions, much more analysis, and far more practice before we get it right. The introduction of grade deflation efforts into this – I would argue – more important project, merely adds complications and confusion to an already complex agenda. How is an instructor, on the one hand, able to offer tutoring to a student for whom English is a second language, or understanding to the economically challenged student who is late to classes due to childcare issues, when the instructors are being evaluated, themselves, according to their ability to identify and penalize “weakness”? Who is to define “weakness” in such an uneven environment?
A Troubling Message from The Chronicle of Higher Education
This January, Eric Barron, excited about an article he had read in The Chronicle, addressed the Faculty Senate. Among other points that Barron raised, he noted that the article predicted that the demographics of most universities would be shifting dramatically in future decades. The students of the future would be more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and religion. Perhaps even more importantly, many would be emerging from high schools identified as failing to adequately prepare students for college and others would be facing severe economic crises. This would seem to amplify and underscore the importance of the efforts in the previous section.
Unfortunately, another section of the article made the seemingly illogical suggestion that students should learn “less by syllabus” and more “by learning to fail”. First of all, the disparagement of learning by syllabus is blatantly offensive to college level instructors. The syllabus – listing useful readings, important topics for discussion, learning projects, and key disciplinary dialogues – is a representation of the special expertise, knowledge base, and skills that a faculty member accrued through years of schooling, study, work with mentors, reading, and research. To dismiss the syllabus is to paint the modern college instructor as basically incapable of “professing” and holding valuable ideas and training that they can share with others. The instructor, instead, becomes one who simply asks the student to try to learn something then “coaches” them until the instructor can prove – with rubrics and evidence – that the student has failed. Meanwhile, why ought these students of the future be “taught how to fail”? Have they not already overcome challenges and disadvantages? Mightn’t it make more sense to teach these students how to succeed instead?
This would seem to be the worst possible historical moment at which to “transform education” by introducing lower grades and increasing opportunities to fail.
Student Seeking Employment
Beyond the most striking contradiction and lack of logic at the core of any efforts to discuss campus equity and grade deflation at the same time, there are myriad other reasons to tread slowly into the latter conversation. All students experience the impact of efforts to curve and lower their grades when they enter the job market or graduate school application process. Even if faculty are under orders from their departments to make 3.0 the average grade point in their classes, the student’s B+ (an above average grade) will look, on transcripts, exactly the same as the Harvard student’s B+ (where the average is a 3.5, meaning a B+ is below average). Graduates will simply be going out into the world with lower grades and no way to explain that.
In addition, students will have less influence over their grades. In the current system, if all students in a class perform well, all students are justly rewarded with strong grades. Under a system in which individual faculty members are penalized for having their students do well and rewarded for giving bad grades, faculty will be strongly incentivized to give some of those high-performing students bad grades.
Faculty at Princeton reported that this had a negative impact on students’ psychological well-being and mental health.
What about Learning and Academic Freedom?
Education professors are always studying the relationship between evaluation and learning and always producing new research and theories. Right now, individual faculty members are able to work with individual students to determine what evaluation system is right for that situation. They can investigate what types of grades will be the most motivating, fair, and just for each class type. Individual faculty members are also able to utilize grades in ways that work optimally with their larger pedagogical processes. We’ve all agreed that diversity is a core value in university life. Should we not value diversity in the different ways that faculty members work to nurture, encourage, and promote learning in all of its forms? Is there not room for many different pedagogical approaches? The more types of teaching and learning that we cultivate here at Penn State, the more likely we are to find some that work ideally for many different learners. If departments and administrators take away a faculty member’s authority to determine what grading scales and distributions work the best in their own individual classes, then those administrators are further limiting that faculty expert’s ability to creatively impart their knowledge, and depriving students of having a full, extensive experience of that faculty member’s pedagogical talents in a holistic package.
The Faculty Vise: Attack the most Economically Vulnerable Faculty
If departments are told that they must be sure that their classes curve to a specific point, their first logical step will be to begin punishing teachers whose students perform well and push up the curve. These teachers may be scolded, denied various benefits within the department, or simply fired and sent away. There are different types of faculty members. Clearly the tenured, named, senior professors are insulated against these types of “sticks”. Faculty seeking tenure and nontenured faculty will bear the brunt of the burden because these are people who literally *can* be fired at any time, in any place, for any reason.
A lecturer confronting the imposition of a university-wide bell curve ought to be afraid — very, very afraid.
That type of faculty member is put in a sort of pressure cooker. Their administrators threaten to fire them if their students perform too well. Yet, senior faculty also observe their classes, and may want to fire them if their students are *not* thriving and doing well. SRTEs are proven by research to correlate to a certain extent to grades. Faculty can be fired for receiving low SRTEs. There are also nationwide news stories about faculty members being fired when they are served with harassment complaints. Our culture is changing. Efforts to eliminate harassment and discrimination on campuses are part of an important project to create a more just and fair world. These efforts, however, are new and are not always pitch perfect. Some news stories have revealed that dissatisfaction with grades played a role in several harassment complaints. Nontenured faculty can be fired and publicly humiliated after harassment allegations. Thus, a teacher is terrified of displeasing administrative authorities, but also of upsetting a student who has at their disposal the power to file not only harassment complaints, but law suits.
This places the faculty member in an excruciating vise, threatened with being fired, humiliated, and punished from all sides. These faculty members are experts in their own fields. They are not trained negotiators or lawyers. Their pay grade does not merit this level of pressure. Faculty are already the public face of the school. The faculty interact directly with consumers spending a great deal of money for their educations: the students. Asking the faculty members to more aggressively evaluate, and potentially directly insult, these consumers forces them to open themselves ever increasingly to levels of risk and exposure for which they are not trained or prepared. Meanwhile, shouldn’t a student paying exorbitant rates to learn something hold the reasonable expectation that they will actually learn that subject well rather than experience it as just another “opportunity for failure”?
How is a teacher supposed to effectively help students learn when they are dealing with this level of perpetual terror?
Have other Schools tried this?
Yes, they have. Princeton and Berkeley, for example, tried to impose externally developed grading parameters upon the faculty. It caused problems. After much drama and chaos (which distracted from actual learning), they changed their minds and stopped doing it.
No One Likes the Grade Lowering Strategies that are Actually Logical and Workable
There actually are ways to quickly and easily lower the average grades across a university. Many law schools have employed these methods and they work. The key practices would be:
None of those options are ever discussed here. Frankly, they don’t sound pleasant to me…but at least they make sense; they are logical. The only idea I ever hear is subjective and vague. It usually involves charging an administrator – a dean or department head – with the task of getting their unit’s average grades down. The administrator then approaches a group of faculty with vastly divergent degrees of power – famous named professors and part-time adjuncts alike – and tries to figure out who can be effectively pressured into lowering their grades. Faced with such an amorphous situation, the administrator usually just ends up criticizing faulty with high grades. Among the nontenured faculty, that criticism escalates to threats of denied promotions, then denied promotions, then threats of being fired, then being fired. This is so obviously an utterly absurd plan. It shows nothing resembling creativity, attempts at fairness, logic, or critical thinking and should not even be discussed at an institute of “higher learning”.
“An Immodest Proposal”: Dystopia Ensues
What is the Darwinian Fixed Term Faculty member to do? What would survival of the fittest and the invisible hand suggest? I’d begin, of course, with gas-lighting. I’d identify the dominant personalities in the classroom and draw them into my elite circle of fans. Then, I’d ask the weaker performers into my office where I would talk in circles around them about how I was trying so, so hard to help them improve and they seemed incapable of understanding the most rudimentary readings despite the help I lavished upon them. But, in reality, I’d just be confusing them. Then, in class, when they acted confused, my dominant elite would stare at them as if they were very unstable. I’d spend a lot of time in class pontificating on Derrida or Baudrillard in ways that would have nothing to do with our assignments, but would make me sound smart and witty (important to keep the SRTEs from fully hitting the bottom….that’s where the gas-lighting comes in: confusion is ALWAYS the fault of the student, not me).
There are a few logistical steps one can take as well: schedule your senior classes after 3:30 on Fridays – the students who sign up will be the disorganized ones who got stuck with annoying class times. Then, they will want to miss most Friday classes for “Senior Year – it only comes once!”. I’ll just dock the points right off their heavily weighted participation grade every week. If the Equity Committee says I can’t grade participation, I’ll give a quiz on Fridays and say it’s “required by my department.”
If I should be so lucky as to have, say, a single mother with a special needs child, I should have plentiful opportunities to dock her for everything from late submissions and arriving to class even one minute late to missed classes and distraction during discussions. I mean, how can she really do a great job taking care of the precious soul who depends up her for life itself if she is consumed with my “rubrics” and draconian rules? Hopefully, students will develop mental illnesses but won’t realize what’s going on until it’s too late to seek help. They should drag down the curve in all sorts of desirable ways. Maybe some students won’t even be able to afford the books….or a laptop. Score!
You can catch a few additional absences by scheduling class in the library or a museum or computer lab, writing that clearly on the syllabus, but never mentioning it in class…until you arrive at the library and, at exactly one second after class begins, start registering the penalties.
Rubrics facilitate the lowering of grades because you can just plunk down a low number in a category (say, “free from error” and, when students complain, point to some misplaced metaphor or something).
Of course, if a student comes to you asking to “late add” a class (hopefully, really late) jump on that immediately. Explain that “to be fair” you cannot reteach all of the materials that everyone else learned in, well, class. So, the student will need to acquire the information some other way. They will need to take any missed exams the day they add the class. They will also lose attendance points for all courses missed since the add/drop period ended. These types of students are almost always disorganized and entitled, but desperate, so will agree to whatever you tell them.
Finally, Under NO uncertain circumstance should you accept an honors student into your class. Sure, some will sneak in with early enrollment, but NEVER agree to do honors options (this is often dissuasion enough) and never ever late add one of them. They are very bad for your GPA.
Where Did the Good Go?
Does that sound like an awful existence? It does to me. I wouldn’t feel like an “educator”, rooted in “educo”, which means to draw out from within. As scholars have articulated since Hippocrates and, later, James Agee, in Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a fundamental goal of human compassion is the eschewing of causing harm to other beings. Agee uses the argument as a peon against suicide – you may be free from worry when it’s over, but those who loved you will suffer agonizingly. Essentially, even if you can’t do anything grand to really help other people, at least you can try not to hurt them.
Under my “bad grade” plan, I’d spend most of my time shattering my students’ dreams, making sure that they would never want to write or do history again, and making them feel distressed about the advisability of taking out those student loans. That’s not good for them, but it’s even worse for me.
I’ve always considered teaching a calling and a sincere way to help students develop the confidence to try new things, hone their skills (especially in areas where they already have budding talent) and learn about some key ideas and trends in history and rhetoric. This will all help them to become compassionate, helpful individuals in their own careers, paying it forward.
If I’d wanted to earn my living scamming people, alerting them to the fact that they might be stupid, or crushing their hopes, I would have become something else — a litigator, a Wolf of Wall Street, or at least someone who got paid exorbitant amounts of money? I doubt I’d last t00 long under my cold and calculating regime. Putting the students through “survival of the fittest” and “weeding out the weak” is not in my nature. Darwin himself suffered depression when he realized that species evolved in such a brutal manner.
Making sure that students have a positive learning experience in class is good not just for them, or even just for me, but for the University. During a recent alumni event, I was able to have a good conversation with an alumnus who donates to the College and sponsors an exchange trip with China. He couldn’t get enough of telling me about a German professor who, upon hearing that this future alum only needed one more class to graduate, gave him a spur of the moment opportunity for verbal extra credit and changed his failing grade to passing. Forty years ago and this act of flexibility and empathy shines as a clear memory.
Fairness: Does it Matter Anywhere Anymore?
Ultimately, this is about simplistic fairness – a child could understand it. If a teacher is penalized and harmed because their students seem to persistently perform well, then that doesn’t seem fair. It imposes reverse incentives. The teacher is rewarded when students perform poorly and passively accept lower grades. This leads to a system in which the teacher is not motivated to try to help anyone to do better…but actually to wish that more students would make significant and easy to document mistakes. What kind of learning-nurturing, mentoring, supportive relationship does this form between student and teacher? A weak one. The student can’t control whether or not the other students in their class are talented or not. If they are in a class where the GPA needs to be pushed down, the teacher, not because it delights them, but because they are terrified of being fired, will give them a bad grade.
Nothing about the imposition of grading demands from external sources – administrators, faculty senates, or departments – is fair or just.
There may well be a problem with the fact that grade inflation leads to most grades being clumped near the top. It is, however, a national crisis that necessitates a national solution rather than harmful efforts at individual campuses.
*A humane solution addresses the myriad cultural issues and does not simply tell departments to force their faculty to “give more bad grades”. We deserve a better solution than that.*
For Further Reading
Faculty Committee Advises Princeton to Eliminate Grade Deflation Policy: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/08/princeton-grade-deflation_n_5662208.html
Black Students Were Hurt the Most when Wellesley tried to Control Grade Inflation: http://www.vox.com/2014/8/26/6067175/grade-inflation-college-wellesley
The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation :http://www.alfiekohn.org/article/dangerous-myth-grade-inflation/
The Case for Grade Inflation in Legal Education (article abstract): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2261393
In Defense of Grade Inflation at Harvard: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/in-defense-of-grade-inflation-at-harvard/282039/
What Happens When an Elite American University Kills Grade Inflation: http://qz.com/245006/what-happens-when-an-elite-american-university-kills-grade-inflation/
Philosophy 412 — Special Topics in Philosophy — met in Sackett Building. Professor Alphonso Lingis, awkwardly jammed into a chair/desk combo, looked painfully out of place in the drab classroom. Like his beloved birds, Lingus was born to color and flight, not to blackboards and fluorescent lighting. From his bright orange hair (natural or enhanced, I never knew) to his lanky frame and paisley shirts, Lingus looked better prepared for a night on the town than a day giving lectures. Philosophers, however, have little choice when it comes to earning their living. Abstract Ideas might be their passion, but the concrete walls of the classroom provide their bread and butter…and vino, and plane tickets to Buenos Aires.
Lingis didn’t bring a syllabus on the first day. He simply informed us that the topic for this semester was philosopher Jorges Bataille and that we should read “books by Bataille”. We would have one assignment: a paper due at the end of the term. The paper was to be “on anything”: literally anything we wanted — no length guidelines, no format instructions, no topic suggestions. Several students composed lengthy research reports on Existential philosophers, complete with footnotes. I laughed at them. Clearly, this class called for something unconventional. Ultimately, I wrote a story about a common NYC pigeon who was mistaken for a dove and hailed as a beacon of peace. Lingus claimed to love it and gave me an A in the course. I believe, however, that he gave everyone As.
Lingis conducted class by reading aloud from his own journals. By October, he was regaling us with tales of his latest trip to Rio, replete with details on the cocktails he consumed and the women with whom he made love. Occasionally, he strove to relate these stories to larger theories and concepts. Slowly, I began to piece together a basic sense of his life philosophy. He loved animals. Animals, like people, and even some objects, were capable of extending ethical imperatives. Lingis also seemed to perceive life on earth as a series of self-contained microcosmic worlds. These discreet worlds shaped the perceptions and experiences of those within them so that the universe was not as interconnected and holistic as was implied by the phenomenological philosophers (I had to make a quick visit to Wikipedia to refresh my memory of these ideas — of course, in the nineties, we did not have Wikipedia, we just had to figure out what he was saying).
One fall day, Lingis stopped reading from his journals a few moments before class was scheduled to conclude. He looked around as if awakening from a nap and took a deep breath. “I am holding an event at my home this Friday night and you are all invited”, he announced. In what appeared to be an afterthought he urged us to “wear your most fabulous clothes”. The philosophy majors looked as if their eyes might literally jump out of their heads. Their anticipation was palpable. I was simply intrigued that a professor had invited me to his home.
I convinced my sorority-sister, room-mate, best-friend, and partner-in-crime — Gretchen — to attend the party with me. We had to miss a sorority social, but this event at Lingis’ home promised to be worth the “sacrifice”. We selected our most fabulous clothes. Roughly translated into sorority-girl speak, these were cocktail dresses, deemed appropriate for “semi-formal” events.
Lingis lived in an older neighborhood adjacent to campus. When he came to the door, my understanding of “fabulous clothes” was forever transformed. Lingis sported a sparkling silver sort of space suit; a glittering affair that melded itself to his body. His face was painted white with extreme eye make-up (think KISS, the band). His hair was gelled and moused into a series of points. “Welcome”, Lingis exclaimed, followed by the magic words, “wine is in the kitchen”. Several goblets later, Gretchen and I were enjoying a tour of Lingis’ home. Never before had I so wished for a small, discreet camera…perhaps one attached to a calculator or even a phone. But, alas, I am left only with memories.
The largest and most significant space in the house was the aviary. Exotic birds of all shapes and sizes flew freely around a glassed-in realm. Trees, fountains, and perches provided a hospitable environment for them. The birds gathered on Lingis head, shoulders, and arms the moment he entered the room. Some spoke, “parroting” Lingis’ running commentary about his feathered friends. Like the aviary, the master bedroom was shaped by Lingis’ distinctive tastes. A giant, round bed topped a pedestal and an equally large mirror was affixed to the ceiling directly above. Silken, black sheets and lava lamps added to the impression that Lingis spent a lot of time enjoying his bedroom.
As always happens at parties, nature eventually called and we found ourselves in line for the restroom. Lingis had invited everyone to enjoy the “master bath”. By the time it was my turn, I was pleasantly tipsy. Upon my entrance to the room, this turned to tipped over. My perspective lurched as I looked into infinity. Mirrored surface refracted light from other mirrored surfaces to concoct a miasma of light and reflection such that all sense of spatial proportion fell away. I was shocked to open the toilet and find that the mirrors continued within.
Gretchen and I were gasping with laughter and amazement as we discussed the evening thus far, when we slowly started to acknowledge the presence of other guests. Most of these guests were 1990s philosophy majors. Their most fabulous clothes were basically black, all black — black turtlenecks, jeans, Doc Martins, and dog collars. They spent much of the party chain smoking and looking bored. But then, around midnight, things got interesting. Lingis pranced through the house exclaiming that several graduate students were staging a “happening” in the yard. As Gretchen and I stepped onto the back patio, we heard the cracking of a whip and caught site of a “ringmaster” circling a black leather clad (barely clad) couple. The woman held a lit candle several inches above her male lover’s back, dripping the molten wax along his body as he moaned/screamed in ecstasy/pain. The wax drizzled down his back and he began to turn over…
We had seen enough for one night. Gretchen and I left a cheering and chanting crowd of would be dominatrixes, checked our watches and realized that there was a good hour and a half left before last call downtown. We headed to the G-man where the girls in our sorority were continuing to party with the fraternity boys who had hosted our social. “Dudes”, yelled two SAEs upon our arrival, “you so missed a radical eighties theme night!” “Angel in the Centerfold” erupted from the jukebox as I was swept up in the arms of a “brother” and we twirled joyfully up and down the aisles. Slightly dizzy, I was, nonetheless, keenly aware that I had just traversed worlds. Lingis was right. Miniature worlds were whirling around and among each other and we were frequent travelers.
Background Theme Music: Social Distortion, “Story of My Life”
-Michel De Montaigne
Memory is strange. Striving to recollect my freshman (first-year!) self through now decades-long prisms of time is more challenging than I expected. As Montaigne noted, the most awkward moments are the ones that seem to remain permanently seared into our perpetually deconstructing and reconstructing self-narratives. Thus, many incidents from my first years at Penn State are crystal clear.
In Psychology 2H (now Psych 100), we learned about the “Imposter Syndrome”. Those experiencing this phenomenon believe themselves to be unworthy of whatever positions or achievements they have managed to procure. Though, at barely eighteen-years old, my station in life was not lofty, I still felt myself to be plagued by this syndrome. I was in the “University Scholars Program” with an academic achievement scholarship. In High School, I had never been an extremely enthusiastic scholar. I hovered between A-s and B+s, took a smattering of AP classes, participated actively in marching band, symphonic band, and wind ensemble (despite the fact that I could barely play the flutes or oboes that I carried with me to these activities), and, otherwise slacked. My saving grace came with the SATs. Throughout my life, standardized tests had proven to be my friends. They landed me in gifted programs, advanced sections, and awards ceremonies where I always wondered what on earth I was doing in such environs. Now, the National Testing Services had propelled me into an array of honors seminars and symposiums.
Honors History class began with the usual “fun facts”. Others spoke of scuba diving, science fairs, and political aspirations. I said that I really just wanted to marry a prince and be a princess. I thought it would be charmingly quirky. For real. Mouth, foot, remove, repeat.
I made a tremendous discovery: one way to obtain strong grades (and stay in my honors programs) was to take classes “for non-majors”. While others struggled in “Biology 200”, I enjoyed “BiSci 2: Evolutionary Biology For Non-Majors“. “Introduction to Astronomy 1 For Non-Majors” also proved to be an ego builder for me. Just knowing “my very easy method just shows us nine planets” kept you in the A range. The course even led to my first part-time job: note-taker for Nittany Notes. Each week, I photocopied my handwritten notes and took them down to the office where the employees made dozens of copies to sell to other students in the course who might have missed lecture. Some students relied solely on Nittany Notes and eschewed lectures all together. Nittany Notes was a remarkably innovative and successful small business. The advent of cheap photocopying had revolutionized information dissemination.
I spent most of my Nittany Notes paychecks on Ralph Lauren polos and oxfords: size large, tucked into my pleated and pegged jeans with white socks and penny loafers. This was my uniform not just for class but for “going out”. “Going out” took on a whole new meaning as I eased into the college scene. In high school, a big night out meant my mother driving my few friends and me to a pizza parlor or mini-golf. As I began befriending my fellow Penn State students, I quickly began to conflate “going out” with substance abuse binging. On my first ventures to places such as Sigma Pi, ATO, Beta, and College Republican Meetings (yes, oddly enough, even my first efforts towards “civic involvement” included copious quantities of Coors Light), I sipped the bitter cups of beer that my friends procured for me. Soon, however, I found that I simply couldn’t endure the “parties” without being thoroughly anesthetized. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. “Parties” in those days were essentially hoards of sweaty bodies pressed against dirty bars, hands grasping for overflowing plastic cups of watery cheap beer, other hands awkwardly striving to “cop a feel”, M.C. Hammer blaring through barely functional stereo speakers, broken down benches circling tables for beer-pong and I-never, bong smoke hazing the air…ok, yes, obviously, it was AMAZING!
One crisp autumn night, as I sweated and sweltered in the basement of some 1930s era stone fraternity house, insight struck like a cigarette butt in your can of Schlitz. I was standing in line — the long line — for the girls’ room. Some “brothers” strolled by and acidly critiqued the “freshmeat”: “nice eyes, but you could lose a few pounds”, “great smile but needs to calm down”, “sexy but loud”. As they fixed their eyes on me I heard, “cute, but big hair just isn’t cool anymore.” My heart swelled and tears stung my eyes simultaneously. Boys had called me cute!! But they mocked my hair. I’d permed my hair since eighth-grade…I didn’t know how to fix it any other way. As a self-proclaimed “shy nerd”, being the object of any male gaze was a novelty to me. I’d been objectified, reduced to an amalgam of physical traits. I didn’t really know what to do with that.
Passed out on friend’s dorm floor. Awoke hangover free because that’s youth. Time for Psych 2H. I made my way through the underground tunnels that used to enable you to traverse the intersection at Pollack and Shortlidge without confronting traffic, passed the construction site for what would one day become Thomas building, and settled into my seat. Professor Herschel Leibowitz was a world-renowned expert on the psychology of vision. An iconic member of the “Greatest Generation”, Leibowitz had fought at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII then developed expertise in neurology and visual psychology that he used to work with pilots and other servicemen who relied on good sight to stay alive. In class that day, the professor introduced a maxim that was known, internationally, as “Leibowitz’s Law”. He explained that “you can’t see a damn thing in the dark”. Deceptively simple, the “Law” reflected the significant neurological discovery that all visual perception was contingent upon light, and also summed up a sort of rule for living. “Open your eyes”, my esteemed teacher seemed to be urging me.
Later that afternoon, dozing in The Fishbowl (a large, glassed-in room that used to dominate the first floor of the HUB), I ruminated. I looked at my life and began thinking about the fact that others were looking at me too. They were looking not just at my physical qualities, but at the choices I made and the words that I chose. Maybe I really did want to be a princess, but perhaps I might prefer to represent myself as a budding psychologist. Perhaps I didn’t need to tone down my big hair to please others, but I could do so if I wanted to sculpt a new image. I thought again of the Imposter Syndrome. What if I didn’t really have to “impersonate” a scholar? What if I could actually be an engaged learner, thinker, and writer? If I was already posing as such, why not just do it? I began to play with notions of self-transformation. For the first time, the possibilities seemed to outweigh the limitations. I was a developing identity, not a finished product, and opportunities for change and re-creation were all around me. For a moment everything seemed to quiver with impermanence: my goals, appearance, social status, political affiliations, spiritual beliefs. I had a lot of questions about life and college seemed like the time to start looking for answers. I began reading for psych so that I could make some informed points at the next class discussion. But first, I stopped in the restroom to brush the mouse out of my hair.