What I have Learned About Writing from Writing

On the penultimate (What a great word. How often does one get to use that word?) blog for this semester I would like to reflect on the activity of writing from my perspective as a faculty blogger this semester. Before I do, keep in mind the following:

1)      I have taught freshmen writing courses for ten years now, on average of four courses per year. There are things I teach my students in class about writing that I have repeated so many times I am beginning to put myself to sleep.

2)      In my chosen profession I write more pages than the average citizen, along with a book-length dissertation I have written numerous essays, articles, journal entries, emails, and job letters. And, I am expected to maintain a certain level of writing activity. Even if our small, liberal arts university has not adopted the publish-or-die mindset of research institutions, I understand how important writing is to my professional development.

3)      I have spent more than half my life in higher education, as a student (Don’t ask how long I took to complete my doctorate) and as an educator. There have been a lot of teachers and colleagues along the way that have passed on instruction and wisdom about how to be a good writer. I still hear Dr. Ann Hawkins’ voice ringing in my ears every time I put off my writing activity until the next day, “Write early; write often. Write early; write often. Write early; write often.” One of my least favorite professors whose words nag at me like a toothache.

The truth is, though, you cannot grow as a writer unless you force yourself to write on a regular basis, at least weekly, preferably daily.  This is why I chose to take on the task of blogging this semester. I know that, in order to be good at anything it is essential to practice that thing. I regularly employ the analogy of writing to training for an athletic event to remind my students of the importance of practice in the pursuit of quality writing. More than anything, I hope to cultivate the discipline of writing in my own life, and I don’t mean just for my professional life.

So, here are a few things to consider about writing, not from a writing teacher, not from a professor, not from a lifelong student, but from a person who has spent the last 15 weeks writing this blog.


1.       Never underestimate the importance of approaching writing as a process.

Early in our academic life, we develop some very bad habits, the worst being writing a paper the night before it is due. Even if the peak of our academic career is high school graduation, I will guess that we have all succumbed to this temptation, even though every writing teacher, always, will tell students to allow plenty of time for revision. I admit, a couple of my blog posts were written within 12 hours of submission. I also know that the best blog posts, those that reflect my best work were blog posts I worked on a little bit everyday over the course of the week.  The process must include prewriting—planning, researching, organizing, etc.—drafting, and revising. Leaving one of these steps out can lead to a poor and ineffective writing product.

2.       You must carefully consider what informs and inspires your writing.

First, the subject and content of what you write about is something that you should be thinking about constantly. When I am really invested in a blog post or a paper, I will think about it all the time, especially during down time, as I am lying in bed at night, driving in the car, or watching my kids play outside. I discover new approaches to organization, draft sentences, or anticipate my conclusion, among other things, in those moments when I am not actually sitting down at a computer participating in writing. Those are some of the most valuable moments for drafting a piece of writing.

Second, you must understand that there are ebbs and flows of writing production, based on a number of factors. Sometimes I find inspiration for writing in something I have been thinking about for months. Sometimes it is something that comes to me the week the blog is written. Sometimes inspiration does not come and I must write about something that is simply necessary to my own professional existence or personal thought process. Keep in mind, sometimes writing, even a blog  post, is not about you. It is about the subject, the thing you are writing about. It is good to remain true to your own interests or passions, but sometimes things just need to be written about. For example, the Quran is not my primary field of expertise, but at this point in history, if my students are not exposed to a basic understanding of that text, then I am doing them a disservice. So, I teach it in class, I wrote about it, and I encouraged them to read it.

3.       Writing is primarily an exercise in thinking.

This is the simple truth about writing and the reason why we teach all those dreaded writing classes that students must overcome in their academic journey. You will never learn about anything more than the things that you write about. When we sit and think about a subject enough to write about, it changes us. That’s also why writing is so challenging at times. It is hard work. It’s weightlifting for the brain. But, that is also why writing is so important, so valuable for a true education. I wish my students would understand and embrace that fact. For that matter, I wish our society would embrace that fact. We are slowly losing the oh-so-valuable assumption that writing is a skill that we should embrace and cultivate simply because we are humans.


Something Brave (or. . . The Performance)

Theatre performance, in its most basic form, requires an actor, a space, and an audience.  Historically speaking, I can’t think of a single deviation from those requirements.  But a good performance requires something more.  Something brave.

It requires vulnerability.

When you step out on that stage, as a performer, you expose yourself to ridicule, critical rants, disapproving looks, and a hundred different authorities on your craft.  It takes a thick skin to smile in the face of the critic and thank them for their input.  Do I believe that all performances should be praised?  Heavens no!  But I do think that there is a tactful way to praise the effort if you cannot praise the result.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani demands raw and honest performances

Almost, Maine, by John Cariani, demands raw and honest performances

One of the most telling paragraphs I’ve ever read about actors in performance is from a textbook on improvisation.  Greg Atkins, in Improv! A Handbook for the Actor, writes:

As an actor you must be aware of everything that is occurring onstage.  You must know your lines, your character, and your blocking.  You must instinctively wait for laughs to die down, find your light, smoke convincingly, make sure the safety is off on the prop gun, and hit your musical notes.  You must check your spacing in the dance number, quick change your costume and your character, maintain your accent, pick up the glass that happened to fall off the table, and be conscious of the other actors as well. (7)

That’s a pretty comprehensive list, though I’m sure anyone who has ever acted in a play could add a number of additional details to that record.  And it can be a ridiculous amount of stress to juggle.  Some people thrive on the stage.  Some buckle under the pressure.  Some know no fear; others must be coaxed onto the boards.

Bold.  Terrified.  Insecure.  Fearless.  All of the above.


The Act I Finale of Urinetown, the Musical by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollman

Whatever you are, you must be quick.  Quick thinking.  Quick problem solving.  Quick recovery.  Quick analysis.  Quick inventory.  Quick adjustment.  Quick ad-lib.

And natural.  The audience must never know there was a problem—though the big ones are hard to mask entirely.  Ah, the thrill of live performance!

In our work, we must tap into emotions that we hide in public every day.  On stage, we act in ways that are questionable, admirable, laughable, and even damnable.  But these are the characters we explore.  We work hard to portray them, but they aren’t wholly us.  Just because we examine their choices doesn’t mean we condone them!

The climax of Iphigenia 2.0

The characters make tough choices in the climax of Iphigenia 2.0 by Charles Mee

In our training as actors, there are several different “methods” of learning (not to be confused with The Method made famous by Lee Strasberg).  I’ve always looked askance at any teacher’s declaration that the methodology they teach is the only one that results in success.  And I encourage my students to explore and try different approaches to acting, finding the one that best suits their needs and individuality.  Should it be driven by inner truth or physical action?  Or both?

Are there those I prefer?  Certainly.  I will always encourage my students to read and study Konstantin Stanislavki, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau; I will also share with them my personal concerns with the aforementioned Strasberg.

There are classes on emotional realism, movement and dance, voice, Shakespeare, physical technique, improvisation, musical theatre, stage combat, auditioning, the Greeks, commedia dell’arte, and film.  Chances are, if it can be used as a tool or defined as a style, someone somewhere teaches a class on it.

Honestly, I am a huge advocate for taking as many classes as you can because the body and voice are our instruments and they must be in good working order.  You must learn to act with your toes as well as your eyes, with your spine as well as your speech.

But the best instructors for acting are experience and life itself.

A scene from our December 2014 production of Proof by David Auburn

A scene from our December 2014 production of Proof by David Auburn

Experience will teach you how to recover from a costume malfunction, a set change mishap, or an actor’s missed entrance.  It will teach you how to hold for laughter and project your voice.  You’ll find the best routines for memorizing lines and warming up for a show.  Distractions in the house will be dismissed as if they weren’t there at all.  And you’ll gain confidence with the routine of rehearsals and performances.

But life . . . life will school you in a way that deepens your performance to a visceral level.  There are reasons why King Lear and Willy Loman are not played by young men—why Phaedra and Amanda Wingfield are not young women.

Yes, there are those out there with amazing natural abilities who rise to dominance in their teens and twenties.  And those performances will ripen with age, if they stick with the discipline and LEARN.  But, natural ability will only take you so far.  At some point, you have to hone your craft and strengthen your technique.  The value lies in the work.
And I want my students to grow in their craft with each passing year—driven by determination, buoyed by experience, and shaped by life’s difficulties.

So we work hard at this trade called acting.  And if we do a good job, maybe you will walk away with something profound, something new, something provoking, or something stirring after the lights have dimmed.

That’s our hope.  Always.


Access & Equality

When I first tell people that I’m a librarian, I’m often asked about what the profession is like in the digital age. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but people sometimes have a difficult time imagining just what it is that I do now that “the books are gone.” For starters, the books aren’t gone and libraries are still and have always been about information. Despite the changes that the library has encountered in the centuries since Alexandria, there is one thing that stands out in my mind when I think about the mission of libraries –


Photo Credit: mythic_moonlight via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: mythic_moonlight via Compfight cc

This past week I attended the Texas Library Association Conference and caught this nugget from author David Baldacci’s speech during the General Session,

“With rising illiteracy rates comes increased inequality.”

It reminded me of the role that libraries play in providing equality within the information landscape. Baldacci highlights the level of inequality that is experienced by those who are unable to read. A person who is not able to read is at a significant disadvantage in our information culture that relies heavily on the written word. But what about those who can read and aren’t able to access the information? They also are find themselves on an unlevel playing field when it comes to making life decisions and engaging with the world around them. I would add to Baldacci’s statement in saying that with limited access to information comes increased inequality.

Libraries attempt to stand in the gap to provide access to information for all regardless of race, gender, or income level.

The American Library Association advocates for information access and makes strong statements about the library’s call to providing “equity of access” to its patrons.

“Equity of access means that all people have the information they need-regardless of age, education, ethnicity, language, income, physical limitations or geographic barriers. It means they are able to obtain information in a variety of formats-electronic, as well as print. It also means they are free to exercise their right to know without fear of censorship or reprisal.”

As a Christian and as a librarian, I consider my role in working to provide this access to information as a high calling on my life. Librarian and author Gregory A. Smith highlights the core values of Christian librarians in light of the biblical commandments to love. In his essay, Smith discusses several different virtues of librarianship that use Jesus’ teachings about love to provide a framework for library service. Smith uses Jesus’ call to us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,” as confirmation that God intends for us to continue to grow throughout our lives in each “facet of our personality.” Smith suggests that this command to continue in all aspects of our growth has implications for librarians –

“We are called to provide access to information so as to lead our patrons to well-being in every area of life–physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual.”

Photo Credit: lisainglasses via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: lisainglasses via Compfight cc

So when I’m asked about the library “since books” or if I think we will be able to continue our mission into the 21st century, I try to respond by talking about information access. While illiteracy is still certainly a recognized barrier to equality, the evolving information landscape comes with its own hurdles for access.


But everything is free now since we’ve got the internet, right?


Since I entered the profession in the late 2000s (and probably years before that) we have been talking about the digital divide. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 16% of American households do not have a computer at home (desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone) and one quarter of Americans do not have any form of internet access at home. Some may say that 16% and 25% aren’t terrible numbers when it comes to digital access to information – that’s unless of course you happen to find yourself within the 16 or 25%. Access continues to be a problem despite and because of the digitization of information.

Access and equality go hand in hand. Libraries still have a place in today’s world and as librarians we have a call to continue to provide our users with access to information be it print, digital, or otherwise.


Mothers, Maidens, and Mistresses: The Story of Women in World Literature

This past week, after spending a few class periods on the literatures of the world’s three largest religions, we switched gears to focus on a subject that is surprisingly underrepresented in world literature: women. It is only surprising when you consider that about half the population of the world is comprised of females, so one would think that the literature that fills the canon of the world’s great writing would consist of a decent representation of writing by and about women.

The reality is that for the large bulk of human history, women have not been given a voice. They have primarily been treated as the subordinate to men, and therefore, lack access to an education to learn how to write, are not provided the opportunity to publish, or are simply oppressed as objects that only have worth fulfilling roles of child-rearing and home-making.

In fact, recently, in 2011, the writer V.S. Naipaul dismissed women writers as “unequal” to him and expressed his criticism for their “sentimentality.”

As a consequence, out of the pages and pages of text in our very substantial world literature volume, (It’s the kind of book that you dread taking to class because how heavy your backpack becomes and how sore your shoulders get) only a handful of selections in the book are written by female authors.

Not only are the texts of world literature written by women rare, but the depiction of women in world literature is typically not positive.

Traditionally, women fill three different roles in literature: mothers, maidens, or mistresses. For example, Gilgamesh’s Ninsun is a wise and loving mother, Penelope is a loyal and chaste wife to Odysseus. Don Quixote’s revered maiden is the sweet Dulcinea, and Ezinma is the good daughter and maiden in Things Fall Apart. Finally, there are a host of Mistresses, ranging from The Odyssey’s Circe and Calypso to Chekhov’s Anna in “The Lady with the Dog.”

The point is that women in the bulk of world literature, most literature for that matter, are depicted as objects—shallow characters that play roles that are essentially interchangeable parts. They lack characterization, they rarely play centrals roles to plot and theme, and readers are not allowed to glimpse the depth of their perspectives, motivations, and emotions within the action of the story. And, very often women are depicted as manipulative and highly-sexualized.

John William Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse

Of course, these roles are not always negative. In fact, Penelope is a model example of a loyal wife, staying true to her husband even after 20 years of his absence. And Ninsun is the wisest character in the story, passing on her wisdom to Gilgamesh when he reaches a crisis.

However, it is the fact that women across the canon of literature are objectified, filling set pieces in stories that place the male protagonist in the central and most important position. The bulk of literature is comprised of stories about men. Women are just there to nurture, advise, tempt, corrupt, or be possessed by the men.

So, in my world literature course we dedicate block of time to consider texts in which women play central roles, often stories written by women or about women—stories that depict women as subjects, not objects.

The first is Scheherazade, ironically a character in one of the most sexist texts of all literature, The Thousand and One Nights. Yet, Scheherazade is unique among women of ancient world literature.

Scheherazade had read books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by heart, had studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined. She had read and learned.

Scheherazade becomes central to the story, risking her life to save he fellow women and ultimately the kingdom itself. She
convinces the king and the reader that women are not manipulative, disloyal, sexual objects.

Scheherezade_tells_her_storiesThe second is Chandara and Mrinmayi from two of Tagore’s short stories, “The Punishment” and “The Conclusion.” Tagore writes these stories in order to present strong, female characters who resist the oppression of their society—one chooses death over dishonor while the other becomes a wife only under her own terms.

Then, we read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and find a woman’s perspective on the oppression of the imposed expectations of women in 19th century American society. Gilman’s cure to her own malaise is to make herself the subject of her own art, to tell her own story. Gilman, a supporter of the women’s movement, gives women a voice.

Finally, we read Egyptian writer Sadawi’s “In Camera,” which tells the story of a girl’s horrible punishment for speaking out in a public sphere. She is beaten and raped for her transgressions. Yet, Sadawi, a woman who devoted her life to exposing the human rights abused of women in the Arab world, gives her female protagonist a voice by putting her situation in the central focus of her visually driven narrative. Hence, the title, “In Camera.”

All of these examples are stories that shift the place of women in literature from roles as objects to characters as subjects, subjects who think, feel, and act as central figures in their own stories. All of these are rare exceptions to the depiction of women in literature.

This act, of studying, the depiction of women in literature also, I hope, reminds my students of another example of women in literature: the New Testament.  For when we observe the norms of placing women into objectified roles, then the gospel’s account of women stands out as Carl_Heinrich_Bloch_-_Woman_at_the_Wellexceptional in the realm of ancient, world literature. You see, Jesus viewed women as subjects. That is clear. For out of the typically patriarchal cultural of the middle east comes stories of Jesus ministering to harlots, offering his message of love and forgiveness to the woman at the well, healing women of unclean diseases, and including women amongst his closest followers. Jesus’s treatment of women falls under the rare examples of stories of human history in which women are treated as they should be, as humans.


HOLD! (or… Technical and Dress Rehearsals)

It’s amazing how the timing of things works out.  As I sit writing this, we’ve just completed a weekend of tech rehearsals and two weekday dress rehearsals.  One dress rehearsal remains before the show opens and closes.

Technical rehearsals are the long hours where every light and sound cue are worked into the performance.

That’s oversimplifying it a bit.

It’s also the time where the scenic elements are finished and fully functional, set changes are perfected within their time limitations, all performance props are added, and special effects such as haze, fog, or dry ice are executed.

Before a director sets foot in a tech rehearsal, he or she will meet with the designers and the stage manager to go over every page of the script, meticulously marking each cue that will be called over the headsets during the run of the show.  This is appropriately called “paper tech.”  A show with minimal technical elements could probably schedule paper tech over lunch.  However, a spectacle-laden show could need as many as six hours of paper tech to make sure every cue is laid into the stage manager’s script with accuracy.  Much discussion is had about the order of the calls, some of which will be simultaneous.

View of the stage manager's script, from the booth looking towards the stage

View of the stage manager’s script, from the booth
looking towards the stage
Photo by Natalie Oates

Armed with the cues, the involved parties move to tech rehearsal with all the board operators, run crew, and actors.  Often they will opt to do a cue-to-cue rehearsal.  The stage manager practices calling cues in order, but skips large chunks of dialogue where there are no changes in lights, setting, or sound.  A cue or a series of cues may be repeated ad nauseum until perfection is achieved.  The stage manager will call “HOLD!” and everyone knows to freeze until the problem is rectified, actors are reset, and the sequence is started again.  Problems could range from sound levels that need adjusting to incorrectly recorded light cues, from set changes gone afoul to a missed call on the part of the stage manager.

I should take a moment to explain the role and importance of the stage manager and assistant stage managers.  Any director knows how vital it is to have an organized, dependable, and detailed-oriented stage manager.  They are the center of operations and communication from day one of rehearsal.  They record the blocking as it is set in rehearsal, they take notes every night to type up and disseminate later in the rehearsal report, they stay on script to provide lines during the weeks of memorization, and ultimately they call the show in performance.  Stage managers must take initiative, problem solve, and be authoritative.  In professional theatre, their role expands even further to include actor contracts and working in swings, understudies, or replacements after the director has moved on to his or her next project.

Back to the tech rehearsal…

True technical rehearsals begin once a cue to cue is complete.  The object is to run the show without stopping, mastering every specialized element added to the performance.  It takes a while to get there.  Also, the director and stage manager may choose to layer in certain difficult aspects only after another is mastered.  It always takes time to adjust to the additions.  For example, actors must find their light, project over sound cues, and consume the edible props that were previously absent from the rehearsal process.

Tech rehearsal for Iphigenia 2.0

Tech rehearsal for Iphigenia 2.0 by Charles Mee

At ETBU, we typically schedule three days of tech rehearsals, lasting 5-12 hours each, depending on the complexity of the show.  Some shows may have as few as fifteen light cues and three sound cues.  Other shows may have upwards of 200 light cues and 75 sound cues.  It just depends on the show we produce.  After those three days, then it’s time to add the costumes.

By the time we hit dress rehearsal, quick changes have been practiced a few times by the wardrobe crew and actors involved.  Actors know where to go once offstage to meet the crew who will help pull off one costume and exchange it for the next, sometimes in as little as a few seconds.  Hair and makeup are also fully rendered during dress rehearsals.  Jewelry is added as well as accents such as hats, gloves, scarves, etc.  Actors will usually have staggered call times for arrival at the theatre so that the makeup, hair, and wardrobe crews can easily manage the preparation of the entire ensemble.  If our shows begin at 7:30 pm, actors may arrive as early as 4:00 pm to start getting ready for the evening’s performance.

The makeup room before dress rehearsal

The makeup room before dress rehearsal

I truly believe that actors both gain and lose a lot in a dress rehearsal.  First, they take about twelve steps backwards as they adjust to shoes, hems, period clothing restrictions, and hats. You name it, the details of their wardrobe become obstacles until they learn how to make the costume an extension of the character.  This is why rehearsal shoes and skirts are vital during the weeks before; they help ease the transition to the final product.

Once actors master all those elements—finding their light, projecting over the sound, handling their props, adjusting to their costumes—then the transformation is complete.

Magic begins to happen.

And you have everything you need for your show—except for the final component.

The audience.


In Praise of Scholarly Conversations, Conferences, and Diversity

TLA Sync Up! 2015

TLA Sync Up! 2015

This morning as I packed my bags for another adventure (Texas Library Association Conference 2015), I thought about the variety of librarians that I would encounter this week. Conferences have always been one of my favorite ways to continue my education. When I talk to students about scholarly communication, I explain journals by pointing out that scholars are usually not able to get together in one room to share their research so one of the ways that they “talk” to one another is by publishing their research in academic journals. Of course, each time I use this example to teach the concept of scholarship as conversation I am thinking in the back of my mind that there are exceptions in the form of conferences. One special time a year when my disciplinary “peeps” are gathered together in a convention center and are completely immersed in the world of libraries.

When we talk about scholarship, I can’t help but be enthusiastic when I think about what is about to conspire. The scholarly conversation that is usually given to me a few times a year in print is going to unfold right in front of me. I’ve been invited to listen in on the great things that are happening in Texas libraries and libraries across the United States – perhaps even around the world. Even better, I’m going to spend a few days with a group of people who know exactly where I’m coming from because they are from the same kind of place. We can share ideas for better instruction, find out new ways of providing information services, and talk about ways to engage our college students with the library. What’s not to love?

Stereotypes, We've got 'emThis will be my third TLA to attend and one of the things that always stands out to me is the diversity that can be found within my own profession. I joke to my non-librarian friends that at a library conference I can expect to see a wide range of librarians – from fanny packs to tattoos and everything in between. Despite the persistence of the librarian stereotype,  as I scroll through my conference session offerings I’m once again reminded of the many parts and personalities that make up the modern library as we know it. Being that this week is also National Library Week, I would like to take a cue from my fellow blogger Traci Ledford and highlight just a few of the different types of librarians that I’ll be rubbing shoulders with in Austin this week. TLA has 28 “round tables” to reflect the diverse interests of its members. By highlighting just a sampling of these interest groups, I am hoping that you’ll get just a glimpse of what variety exists within my profession –

  • Acquisitions and Collection Development – Having once been a part of this fine group, I can tell you that this is a fun job that also requires a tremendous amount of what seems like constant analysis. These people are responsible for acquiring and maintaining the collections within libraries. They devote their time to studying patron needs and interests to make sure that the information that you need/want is available to you. They also work diligently to ensure that you have access to the most quality information available. They study gaps in the collection, weed items that are no longer correct/relevant/usable, and carefully evaluate their ever-shrinking budget to make the best decisions in terms of spending.
  • Archives, Genealogy, and Local History – If you want to have a fascinating conversation about history, these are your go to people in my world. This group is taxed with the task of preserving and providing access to history – can you fathom how big of a job that must be? The specialized training that they must continue to undergo within this field is extensive and they have my utmost respect. If you have ever watched one of those genealogy shows (PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow or NBC/TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are?) and wondered how they just “happened” to find that obscure document detailing the whereabouts of someone’s second cousin twice removed, I can guarantee you that someone from this branch of the discipline was involved.
  • Automation and Technology - Often referred to as “systems librarians” this talented group of people is devoted to “the art and science of combining the principles of librarianship with the abilities of computing technology.” If you haven’t already noticed, today’s libraries aren’t about books. One could make the argument that they never really were – they are about information and access. Books were just the way that it happened up until the age of computers. Today’s library relies heavily on technology and to make all of that happen, we need a specialized professional who knows the theories of librarianship and can speak the language of computer science. From hardware to website design to intricate software, this group is vital to making information accessible in the 21st century.
  • Cataloging and Metadata – When I describe these professionals to my students, I generally stick with “these people make my job much easier and make my information skills look much more impressive.” The cataloging librarians of the world create reliable search experiences for library users by categorizing information, setting and maintaining standards, and providing subject analysis of the library collection. You as a library user should know of the extraordinary attention to detail that goes into every single catalog record that enables you to almost instantly find the book on the keyword/subject/author/title you are interested in accessing. As my metadata (the data about the data) professor once said, without a cataloging system basically what you’ve got is a big pile of books. You want Harry Potter? Good luck. See ya next Thursday.
  • Reference and Information Services – The TLA description says, “encourages the advancement of information, bibliographic, and research services in all types of libraries.” This is the area of librarianship that I hope to always call home. Providing reference assistance to patrons who are in need of information gets to the core of why I love being a librarian. These are the question answerers — the constant thought on our brain is “now where would that particular piece of information live?” Reference librarians are those who eagerly await your inquiry and aspire to being able to connect you with that perfect information source.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! This year’s theme for National Library Week is “Unlimited Possibilities @ your library.” While it is meant to draw attention to the fact that libraries are more than just warehouses of books, the theme makes me reflect on the career paths within my own discipline. As Traci highlighted earlier, these people I am called to work with paint us a picture of community – one body, many parts. Whether they come with cardigans and buns or hipster glasses and tattoos, I’m glad to be numbered among this diverse group of professionals.


Belief Matters, Part 2: Al-Qur’an and Belief

Ten years ago, after the terrible tsunami struck the Northern tip of Sumatra, I found myself serving as head of a small group of volunteers attempting to improve the water quality in neighborhoods of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. I will never forget the day I met my most devout Muslim friend, Imam, as I was cleaning out debris and salt water from the ground-water well outside his home.Now, it is important to note that I had come to Indonesia originally as an English teacher. In fact, I had just finished my Master’s degree and was about to begin my doctoral degree when I was given the opportunity to serve the victims of that terrible disaster that claimed approximately 200,000 lives. It was because of my past experience teaching English in Indonesia that I had been chosen to lead the volunteers there. I was familiar with the culture and, as you will soon understand, I knew enough of the language to get around and get myself in trouble.

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

Photo/Dita Alangkara, File)http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/24/world/2004-tsunami-survivors-recall-how-mosques-stood-firm/#.VSf9p1J0zIU

I will never forget the circumstances surrounding my first encounter with Imam because that is the day I learned how little Indonesian I really knew. The submersible pump  I was using to rid the well of salinized, dirty water had become stuck on some debris.  When Imam came out of his house to help me he asked me if the pump was stuck (machet). I became a little concerned when I thought he said there was a corpse (mayet) in the well.  Of course, things got even more confused when I replied, “No, there is just a human head (kapala).” I meant to say, “There is a coconut (kalapa).” So, because of my poor language skills, we were both convinced that the other person saw a dead body in the bottom of the well. In point of fact, it was some palm branches, a pair of shorts, and a couple of coconuts.

Looking back at it today, it seems humorous. But, at the moment it was anything but funny.

We must remember how devastating it would have been for Imam and his family to deal with a body in the bottom of their well. For them, it is so much more than an issue of sanitation. Imam and his family are devout Muslims, and a dead body is a ceremonially unclean thing. Its presence would have had a significant negative religious impact on them.

It was this moment that Imam and I first became friends. And, we would get together a few times over the course of the next couple of weeks and have conversations, largely about religion. In those conversations, it became clear to me that there was a great distinction between Imam’s faith and my own. One of the most powerful differences was that Imam’s faith gave him no assurance for where he would spend eternity. And, as we sat on his tsunami-damage porch surrounded by neighborhoods destroyed by the earthquake and its aftermath and talked about the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, several of whom were close to Imam, there was absolutely no comfort for him and his fellow Muslims that those souls would be in Paradise. “If God wills,” was the only possibility of hope.

This fact struck me as particularly tragic. For, had the tsunami hit my hometown, grief-stricken though I would be, I would have some measure of comfort that my family and friends who had passed would be in a better place. Isn’t that one of the simple and profound aspects of our faith that comforts us all, all of us who have lost some dear?

quranI tell this story to illustrate one of the characteristics of the Muslim faith that we discuss in my World Literature class. The first Sura of the Al-Qur’an says this:

Praise be to God, Lord of the Universe,

The Compassionate, the Merciful,

Sovereign of the Day of Judgment!

You alone we worship, and to you alone we turn for help.

Guide us to the straight path,

The path of those whom You have favored,

Not of those who have incurred Your wrath,

Nor of those who have gone astray.

We can learn a lot about Muslim theology from this first Sura, a passage that is quoted daily by Muslims around the globe.

What does this text teach its readers about humanity?

The people on earth are divided into two groups: 1) the favored and 2) those who have incurred God’s wrath. Those who are favored are those who have followed the straight path. Those who incur God’s wrath are those that have gone astray.

What does this text teach its readers about who ‘God” is?

God is the Lord of Judgment, judging people to either be deserving of his favor or deserving of his wrath. He is the sovereign Lord of the universe. The god of the Qur’an is not a god who acts on our behalf. He sits and judges.

What does this text teach its readers about right or wrong or how to appease God with our actions?

As humans we must attain God’s favor by following the straight path, lest we incur his wrath instead. For Muslims, this verse, recited during prayer five times a day, is a constant reminder that the only way to win God’s favor is to stay on the straight path. Their ticket to Paradise is not dependent on God’s mercy or Grace, but on their own righteous works.

How does this faith contrast with our own faith?

Isaiah 53:6 reminds us that we have all gone astray. In the biblical view, all are deserving of God’s wrath. But, the verse also reminds us that Jesus has shouldered all the iniquities for us all. This is the great assurance that the gospel gives its followers. It is that we know that we are deserving of God’s wrath, but through his grace we have been spared that wrath.

In the 21st century, as we witness the atrocities of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, my students have a lot of questions about Islam. And, although I am unable to answer all of those questions in one class period, I hope my students understand this one thing: one primary belief that motivates a segment of the Muslim population to do such horrible things is the simple understanding that they must win their way to Paradise. They must prove their devotion and righteousness to their Allah. Muslims are literally scared to death that their good deeds will not outweigh their evil deeds and they will spend eternity in hell. At its heart, the problem of militant Islam is a spiritual problem.

Once again, as we observed in our reading of the Hindu Gita,  we are made aware that what we believe informs what we do. Faith matters.


Just a Technician (or… The Importance of the Individual) – Part II

As promised, I continue to highlight the jobs done behind the scenes by our technicians who are so very essential to our success.  Please remember, what you read here is just a basic overview of what these hard-working individuals actually do during the production season.

In costuming, the designer will deliver the renderings and research to the costume shop manager and crew.  They must then work together to pull items from stock, to rent from reputable warehouses, or to pattern and construct a new costume from scratch.  Most of the time, it’s a combination of all three approaches at ETBU.  Costumers’ work can also include dyeing, distressing, and altering.  Every detail on a new build, from the fabric to the trim, from the buttons to the thread color, is carefully considered in conjunction with a director’s approach, the actor’s complexion, and the lighting and scenic designers’ mix of colors.

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

Student lighting designer, Lindsay Silva, consults with student costume designer, Samantha Pettigrew, about color choices for Iphigenia 2.0

The show is then handed off to the wardrobe crew who must plan, rehearse, and execute any quick changes that a play may demand.  Nothing is scarier than an actor who misses an entrance because of a wardrobe malfunction, so great care is taken to ensure a timely and complete change.

Cast members line up for costume parade, when the director approves the work done by the crew so far.

Cast members line up for costume parade, a time when the director approves the work done by the crew so far and addresses any problem issues

Makeup, Hair and Wigs
Makeup, hair, and wigs collaborate with the other design areas, especially costumes, to complete the look for an ensemble.  Once a designer has submitted drawings for each character, crews must work to fit the design to the theatre.  Lighter makeup is used in intimate spaces and more intense makeup is used in larger venues.  The designer and artists must work to balance foundation with the actor’s skin tone, execute special effects (which may include age, injury, or creature makeup), and master prosthetic additions like large noses or extended chins.  Wigs must be built or styled from stock.  And, if working with an actor’s natural hair, appointments are made to predetermine the preferred look.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency.

Crew member Trace Craver tests fake blood before adjusting the color and consistency

Properties and Set Dressing
Properties and set dressing involve both hand props and those used to decorate the set.  Often these demand extensive research, especially for period plays.  Props are pulled from stock, borrowed from friends or family, purchased, or constructed from scratch.  Property crew members must set up tables backstage where each prop is labeled and stored during a performance.  Often props must be “tracked” as they change hands or make numerous exits and entrances in the course of a play.  Additionally, the props crew is responsible for any perishable foods needed for a production.  This may include cooking every night before a show as well as clean up after the performance has concluded.

Run Crew
Run crew (alternately called stage crew) are the individuals whose work is predominantly featured during the actual performances.  They move set pieces and furniture, man the fly rails to raise and lower scenic drops, open and close the curtains, and operate any special effects equipment including fog machines or special trap doors for the set.

Publicity and Box Office
We take great pains at ETBU to make sure that all our promotional materials present the necessary information in a professional manner.  This includes all our posters, programs (a good program can spark curiosity and conversation about the department), voice mails, web sites, and press releases.  Our front-of-house staff has responsibilities that can include design, proof reading, distributing posters, writing press releases, answering phone calls and emails from patrons, tabulating head counts, and totaling box office receipts.  The box office crew—and by extension our house manager and ushers—are the first people our patrons encounter whether for reservations or for will call pickup.  Naturally, it’s important to us that our guests be treated with courtesy and professionalism.  Positive word-of-mouth reviews about the entire experience are essential to our success.

A sample of posters from our productions.

A sample of posters from our productions


Let me close by saying that we do not believe in sexist assignments.  Our female students learn to be confident carpenters and electricians, and our male students are expected to know how to handle a sewing machine and apply make-up.  Sometimes, when a student faces a challenging assignment in an area they have little experience with, he or she stumbles upon a hidden talent.  New confidence is found, new skills are discovered, and an opportunity avails itself for future employment.

Theatre truly personifies I Corinthians 12:15-19.

Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.  Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

I think of these verses often when I look at how many different specializations there are in the world of theatre and how these individuals must all work together—with respect for each other’s gifts—to create something completely dependent upon the ensemble.

There are many talents, but only one goal.


You teach???

Ah, the two word question that I have found myself answering for the last four or five years… “You teach?”

I think I first encountered a version of this question as I talked to my sister about my new job here at ETBU in 2011. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’ll be the Manager of Instruction & Information Services for ETBU.”

Sister: “What do you actually do in that job?”

Me: “Well, a large part of it involves teaching students about information and the library.”

Sister: “Oh no, you’re going to be like that boring library lady that used to come to our college classes.”

That exchange has become a part of my narrative when I venture out to classrooms and introduce myself to students for the first time. I always let them know that one of my goals in any instruction session is to not live up to the “boring library lady” stereotype. I think sometimes I succeed… other times, it may be a toss up!

All that to say, that yes, librarians (especially instruction librarians) teach.

I’ve mentioned before the I tend to acquire random things in my travels. One such trinket is a small, brown paperweight that occupies a space on my desk.

This paperweight has high expectations.

This paperweight has high expectations.

Full disclosure, I purchased this as a reminder for myself when I was still teaching language arts in the middle school classroom. That’s right… you can’t scare me. I taught middle school and I liked it. At the time, I think I probably used this as an encouragement that what I was doing mattered and was somehow to contribution to the world. But today? Some would say that this belongs with my boxes of classroom teacher stuff now that I’m a librarian. While my role has shifted and the “teaching” often happens in a different context, I keep this out to remind myself to reflect on what it is that I’m doing and how it makes an impact on the world around me.

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: HAMED MASOUMI via Compfight cc

To answer the “you teach” question, let me first acknowledge that some of the impetus behind that question stems from a general misunderstanding of the librarian’s role in the 21st century. Back in the day we were the gatekeepers – we had the stuff and you had to come through us to get it. We amassed literal towers of information in areas that were referred to as closed stacks – just in case you didn’t get the picture. Now the gate has been flung wide open and there are even places where the fence is down. Perhaps it is because I’ve only been a librarian in the time that is sometimes called the Information Age, but I am excited about this shift (although, I’ll admit that having the title Official Keeper of Information would be pretty great).

While some seem to think that the Information Age has made librarians obsolete (HA!), the truth of the matter is that if anything, having a librarian there to help you navigate the tidal wave of information is that much more important. The extensive changes in the ways we access information should be giving librarians a more active and vital role within the context of learning and the research process. For today’s student, the research process has gone rogue and is full of moving parts that can simultaneously make it the most accessible and daunting time in our information history.

We librarians used to be the keepers of the information… now we are more like the guides in the information jungle.

When do librarians teach? It seems obvious to say that instruction librarians teach when they are called upon to provide information literacy instruction to students. We generally are asked to teach what we call “one-shot” sessions in which we attempt to provide customized information literacy instruction that will enable the student to make key connections with their own research questions, their discipline’s epistemology, and the specific information landscape for their discipline. But what about the other times that a librarian teaches? Librarians teach one-on-one (sometimes saying the same thing many times a day) with students when they meet with us at the reference desk (or on our chat service, or by text, or by email…). One of the things that I love about this job is that on any given day I could have taught someone something about the information in nursing, business, and biology all in the same day. If I could count the number of one-on-one citation formatting sessions I’ve taught… well, let’s just say the APA and MLA manuals and I are good friends (Turabian and I are still on an acquaintance level in our relationship).

Is it the same as being a classroom teacher? As one who has done both, I’m comfortable with admitting that it is not the same… but it is still teaching. Do I refer to myself as a teacher? Not usually. Despite the misunderstanding of the evolving librarian profession, I still find that the title of librarian fits what I do best.

But do I teach like the world depends on it?

That’s the goal. Maybe not the entire world. But my little corner of it? I hope what I do and how I teach makes an impact on the world. I keep this little brown paperweight on my desk to remind me as I build my lesson plans or meet with a student individually that I believe this to be true – the world depends on the information concepts that we librarians teach. And, hopefully keeping this sentiment in mind as I teach helps me steer clear of becoming “that boring library lady.”

What about you?Do you teach like the world depends on it?


Belief Matters, Part 1: The Bhagavad-Gita and Belief

In my World Literature course my students spend some time reading excerpts from texts that represent the top three religions on planet earth: Augustine’s Confessions (Christianity), The Bhagavad-Gita (Hinduism), and Al-Quran (Islam). I would like to spend two blog posts discussing what we talk about in our literature class pertaining to those texts.

Today, I would like to share just a little about some of what we discuss when we read the Hindu text of The Bhagavad-Gita.

Bhagavad_Gita_LgThe Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord) is a Sanskrit poem from the first century B.C. in which a warrior is instructed in how to fulfill his sacred duty (to shed blood in war) and still continue on his spiritual path to enlightenment.  The Gita is a well-known Hindu text that has influenced poets such and Henry David Thoreau and important Indian leaders like Ghandi.  As a work of poetry, it certainly possesses a distinct sense of aesthetic beauty, and as a piece of literature it utilizes some important rhetorical devices.

We examine the text from both of those aspects. Yet, as part of my student’s exposure to important sacred texts of the world’s largest religions, we also spend a good deal of time on the theological aspects of the poem.

Here are a few of the questions we consider:

What does the text teach its readers about humanity?

Just as the embodied self

enters childhood, youth, and old age,

so does it enter another body;

this does not confound a steadfast man (2.13).

This stanza verbalizes the Hindu belief in reincarnation. Hindus believe that the soul or “embodied self” is reincarnated by changing bodies like we change clothes. Furthermore, when the warrior expresses grief over killing his blood  relatives  he is reminded that, because the self is eternal, “He who thinks this self a killer fail to understand; it does not kill, nor is it killed.”  In other words, those who kill the body are not killers because one cannot kill the soul.

The warrior is also reminded that his purpose in life is to fulfill the sacred duty of the caste to which he belongs. As a warrior his sacred duty includes waging war when necessary to protect his people and defend the faith.

What does the text claim about who god is and what god is like?

In the Gita Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu the supreme god, appears to the warrior in order to instruct him and encourage him to fulfill his sacred duty. At the end of the conversation, Vishnu reveals the “true majesty of his form” to the warrior.

It was a multiform, wondrous vision,

with countless mouths and eyes

and celestial ornaments,

brandishing many divine weapons (11.10).

Arjuna (the warrior) saw all the universe

in its many ways and parts,

standing as one in the body

of the god of gods (11.13).

The supreme Hindu god is a henotheistic divinity. Unlike monotheism, which claims that there is only one true God, and polytheism, which claims that there are a host of gods, henotheistic religions believe there are many gods who are all parts and incarnations of the one, supreme god. Additionally, in the teachings of the Gita the reader understands that all of the universe is part of the god of gods. Creation, including all the eternal souls of men, are inseparable from the body of the supreme god.

What does the text communicate about good/evil, right/wrong?

The sins of men who violate

the family create disorder in society

that undermines the constant laws

of caste and family duty.

The standard of right and wrong is based on the laws that govern the caste system. Doing good means fulfilling the sacred duty of your caste system.

Additionally, when a man gives up desires and is content with only fulfilling his sacred duty, then his insight is sure, or he is on the path to enlightenment, which will eventually end his cycle of rebirth.

How do these theological claims compare or contrast to your own beliefs?Slumdog-Millionaire

It is important for my students to consider the aspects of Hindu belief that contradict teachings of the Bible. While in Hindu teaching humans are eternal, disembodied selves, the Bible teaches that humans are created at a specific time and, while our souls will live on after our bodies die, our bodies and souls are uniquely bound to each other. No reincarnation in Christianity.

Furthermore, the God of the Bible  is the only God and he is holy, separate from his creation. He has always existed, but the universe was created in a particular space and time apart from Him. All the elements of creation, including us, are not God, or even part of God. Only God is holy and perfect.

Finally, there is a moral standard of perfection that is expected of all humanity. That standard is the same for everyone, regardless of race, socio-economic class, language group, geographical location, or gender. And, we have all fallen short of that standard.

We illustrate the reading of the text with a viewing of the film Slumdog Millionaire. The primary reason I show that film is to give students an exposure to the sights and sounds of modern India. For students who have never left U.S. soil, it is impossible to imagine the abject poverty of India and the regular daily occurrence of socio-economic injustice that characterizes life for the vast majority of Indians.

I want my students to understand two simple things. First, despite what our pluralistic society teaches us, all paths to “God” are not the same. There are important, significant, and contradictory differences between the world’s major religions. Second, what you believe really does matter to real people. I know that what I am saying is not politically correct, but I believe it with my whole being. Life experience and scripture both confirm to me that your religious belief and practice makes a real and significant impact on the everyday lives of normal people.

When my students see the children swimming in a dirty river full of garbage or being sold into slavery as professional beggars, I want them to know that those things really happen and that the foundational belief system of Hinduism allows and even encourages those injustices to happen.

There is no doubt that people of religious faiths may stand up and object to human rights’ abuses, and that human rights’ abuses happen on every continent regardless of the prevailing religion. However, India is the way India is in large part to its prevailing religious belief. What you believe makes a real difference in the lives of real people.