Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Father's Thoughts on Higher Education

This week my sons Tim and Sam start college, Tim after graduating from Orem High and working for his brother-in-law as a construction laborer and Sam after two years as a Mormon missionary in India.

As their father, I've got a lot of regrets and lots of good memories, and, naturally, I worry about my boys and have high hopes for them.

To assuage some of those worries, I'll do what parents often do when they're left with few options: give advice.

So then, thoughts on higher education:

1. Read. I don't mean your textbooks. You'll have to buy those big and expensive books anyway, and week by week your German and math and biology professors will guide you through them. You'll read them slowly and repeatedly and beat your heads against them before exams. And then you'll sell them for half price before they lose their value entirely. So I don't mean your textbooks. Read for pleasure. Read because you want to know things. Read to expand your inner life. Read to figure out who you are and the possibilities for who you might become. Read to learn new words and to meet new characters. I'm packing a couple of books for you, meant to augment your personal libraries. Tim, here's John Berger's and Jean Mohr's "At the Edge of the World," good words and good photos. Sam, for you Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," a playful and troubling addition to all the sights and smells and accents and personalities and economic circumstances you witnessed in India. Don't sell these books. Use them. And add books of your own choosing to the shelf. Come home with more books than you left with.

2. Be curious. Your university is like a Disneyland for the mind. Find the best rides. Stand in line for lectures and art shows and performances. See films and sign up for field trips. Hear live music and follow the arguments of fine historians. Pay attention to the architecture and to the sculptures in the courtyards. 

3. Ask questions. Educators are successful if their students learn. Professors are passionate about their subjects and like nothing better than answering good questions from curious students. Curiosity makes every question good. Do more than is required by the syllabus and then ask the professor to teach you beyond the class.

4. Go to class every day. Go to class every day after doing the homework. Go to class every day, not to get credit for being in class, but to learn the lessons of that day. Go to class every day. It adds up in good ways.

5. After you've gone to class every day, after you've done every day's homework, after all the work that will make you proud and smart, enjoy the people around you. . . . and here I'll slip away. Nothing quite so bad as a father giving social advice.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Monument, metaphors, interdisciplinary studies

Just down the hill from our house in Woodland Hills stands this fine piece of installation art. Or is it garden art? Or, as I've wondered more than once, is it a monument to interdisciplinary studies gone horribly wrong?

Well adorned with live and artificial flowers, guarded by a watchful plastic pig, fronted by plush rabbits and the proverbial pink flamingo, announcing that it's time to go back to school, the rusty green pickup stands (slumps) as a creative advertisement for the Hiatt Construction Company.

So far so good.

But as a monument for interdisciplinary work, it can only serve as a warning. 

Say you're working on a problem, like the question of how language both enables and disables us (the problem Alex Caldiero and I will address with a group of humanities and integrated studies and communications students this fall). If you think the problem additively (which is the methodology of the pigflamingoflowerrabbittruck) you'll end up with a hodgepodge, unfocused and superficial and unsatisfying. We're nervous about this and are working hard to use the tools we jointly have to get at the basic problem without slipping away toward yard art. Linguistics and poetry, literary criticism and history, anthropology and religious studies will all play parts in our investigations, and if we use the tools of these disciplines skillfully, we'll know a lot more about how we speak language and how it speaks us than we did when we started.

If the piggydodge is the anti-image, perhaps these photos of sunflowers are better indications of how good interdisciplinary work proceeds. Different views, different focal lengths, different sunflowers -- and the same question: sunflowers and light?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beauty, Browsing, Hunting, and Writing

In the late evening yesterday Lyn called me to the deck and together we watched this guy browse the oakbrush. He had two friends with him, one a three-point and the other a two-point. They browsed for a while, then stretched and lay down to ruminate a little and then stood back up to rip off a few more leaves. They didn't seem to mind us watching; and we surely didn't mind them browsing.

But while we watched, the thought was lurking back somewhere in our brains that this weekend bowhunting starts and that these fine young bucks, should they stray out of the protective confines of our fair city, will be fair game. And perhaps we've made them easier game by habituating them to human presence.

I used to hunt with my dad before I left home, and I admire people who know the habits and haunts of deer and elk and grouse. So it has been a pleasure  watching a fine hunter prepare for this year's hunt. Integrated Studies student Steve Taylor is writing a hunting blog for his senior thesis and it's chock full of detailed information and good stories. 

As I've read Steve's successive entries, I've thought how alike hunting and writing are. They both share a need for meticulous attention to detail. They require a thorough knowledge of the thing/topic/animal in question. They involve thinking and rethinking, finding creative solutions, following leads/trails. And so on.

Take a look at Steve's writing and hunting both at:

Friday, August 8, 2008

Still Photo, Moving Image

Still thinking about interdisciplinary work, I recorded the sunset a couple of nights ago in a still picture and then a moving image.

Same evening, same sunset, but the different modes of recording resulted in quite different views. 

The still photo is rich with information, and the visual stillness is easy on the psyche.

The movie with domestic sounds (the "Blue" in question is our dog, and the oddly wise and morally synesthetic comment "don't listen to bad behavior" is addressed to him), is rich in other ways and contains almost more information than my senses can focus on.

Like a problem approached from the vantage point of several disciplines, perhaps. 

In any case, ain't this valley pretty?