Some Things We Don’t Get to Know

One of the first sentences that I learned to string together was apparently, “I can’t know that,” when I didn’t know something. I can know that I said that because many family members and people who knew me then like to remind me of this fact. It may have been cute toddler babble then, but I can’t don’t know… I’m starting to think that I was on to something. While “can’t” might not be completely accurate, I’m convinced that there are some things that we just don’t get to know.

Early in my career as a teacher I realized that while I worked hard to assess what my students were learning, there were some things that I would not be able to witness them achieve beyond the context of my classroom. Anyone who has taught for more than a year knows that once the students leave your classroom, you often never know where they are going to end up or even what, if any, impact you have made on their lives.

Some things we just don’t get to know.

"George Washington Carver c1910" by not listed - Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

George Washington Carver c1910” by not listed – Tuskegee University Archives/Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This past weekend I spent some time thumbing through my third and fourth grade yearbooks. I was on the hunt for the first name of my third grade teacher, Ms. Hoskins. Unfortunately, the yearbook editors only listed the adults in the yearbook by Mr., Mrs., or Miss so-and-so. The information hunt continues.

I was searching for Ms. Hoskins’ first name because I was preparing for the reading that I will present at the upcoming annual African American Read-In event later this month. I’ve selected a few poems from a collection by Marilyn Nelson titled Carver: a life in poems. The Ms. Hoskins connection comes in because she is the first person that I remember telling me about the contributions of African American scientist Dr. George Washington Carver. I can remember being fascinated by Carver’s story and amazed at how his innovations had shaped the world I lived in. Ms. Hoskins was the first person to teach me about her alma mater, the Tuskegee Institute, and told stories of the incredible accomplishments of its graduates. She made an impact on my life in that third grade classroom. Here I am over two decades later recalling the things that she taught me about the world. And I wonder… does she have any idea that I remember what she taught me?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Fast forward to early in my career as a librarian. I was working the reference desk one afternoon when the phone rang. We were well into the Google era and so we didn’t really get a lot of genuine reference questions via the phone. One that day, though, someone needed the assistance of a reference librarian. The exchange went something like this:

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Tambako the Jaguar via Compfight cc

“Reference desk. This is Elizabeth, how may I help you?”

“I need to know what the gestation period is for an elephant.”

“Okay. Just a moment and I’ll look up that information for you.” (meanwhile, I’m… Googling the gestation period of an elephant. Yes, sometimes we use Google too.)

“The gestation period of an elephant generally lasts 20-22 months depending on the species.” (I also would have told her the source that I used)

“That’s what I needed to know. Thank you.” (Click)

What just happened here? Did I just help in determining the due date for an elephant? The caller gave me no information about why she needed the information. Was she using this information for a purpose other than satisfying her curiosity? What made her think to contact the local librarian for this information in the age of the internet?

Some things we just don’t get to know.

Today I often experience this phenomenon of not knowing when I help a student with a research project or speak to an entire class. Many of my interactions with students are boiled down to somewhere between a 3-minute online chats and a 50-minute one-shot instruction session. Knowing the nature of the job does make me more intentional about forming relationships with students when I am able. Still, there will always be the fact that I don’t see the end results in much of my work. I get them started on their research, but rarely see the final paper. I teach them about the ethical use of information, but I don’t get to see how that plays out for them in practice. As teachers (and teacher librarians) we usually don’t get to see the rest of the story. We plant seeds that we may never have the opportunity to see harvested.

Some things we just don’t get to know…

…And yet, the older I get the more I find that I’m okay with some of the not knowing. 

Admitting that I’m comfortable not knowing something in this world where we pride ourselves in knowing things seems a little risky. After all, I’m a librarian. I’m supposed to be excited about knowing things. And I am… most of the time. I used to think that the uncomfortable thing was not knowing the answer; that was until I got to things that I just flat can’t figure out – things I can’t know.

The Apostle Paul wraps up his well-known writings on love to the Corinthians with a discussion on things that we don’t get to know… yet.

“We don’t know everything, and our prophecies are not complete. But what is perfect will someday appear, and what isn’t perfect will then disappear. When we were children, we thought and reasoned as children do. But when we grew up, we quit our childish ways. Now all we can see of God is like a cloudy picture in a mirror. Later we will see him face to face. We don’t know  everything, but then we will, just as God completely understands us.” 1 Corinthians 13:10-12 CEV

There are still so many things that I don’t get to know. Does Ms. Hoskins know that what she taught to a poofy-haired, snaggletoothed third grader has influenced what I will share with the ETBU community later this month? Highly unlikely. What in the world was that elephant phone call about? Beyond satisfying idol curiosity, I have no idea. What stuck in the mind of the student who sat on the third row of the class that I taught two weeks ago? I haven’t reviewed my assessment data, and so at this point I can only hope.

Let’s take it up a notch. Why do bad things happen? For that matter, why do good things happen? Does what I do help his kingdom come? What is God like? Well, as Paul says, I do have a fuzzy picture. I guess the comforting thing is that while I don’t get to know some things now, God knows them, and hopefully there’s a big YET at the end of some of things I just don’t get to know.


The Christian Gaze: How movies assume a religious audience

In my post two weeks ago I discussed the potential for movies to serve a religious function. I would like to come back to that topic today.

Usually when I mention to someone that I study how films serve a religious function the first response of that individual is to bring up a religious film, like The Greatest Story Ever Told or The Passion of Christ. Or, as one comment mentioned on my post, we think about films that are solely produced as “Christian” products—Kirk Cameron’s films or Billy Graham’s productions.

However, it is not just these “religious” films that offer themselves up as interesting subjects for religious discussion. There are a vast number of “secular” films that are regularly examined under the microscope of religion and film studies. In fact, I only discuss “religious” films in order to explore the more foundational elements of how film offers religious experience.

Surprisingly, films that audience members typically label “secular” often provide us with some of the most interesting discussions on the religious aspect of movies, often more than those films that we might usually describe as “religious.”

And, it makes sense. God often reveals himself to us in the great stories that happen in everyday life, not just stories we share in the confines of the four walls of the church.

"Gran Torino poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - such “secular” film that I have studied is Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, which depicts a crotchety widower forced by a chain of events to use violent acts to protect his neighbors, a family of Hmong immigrants. In the end, the man, Walt Kowalski (played by Eastwood) sacrifices his own life in order to save the Hmong children from the violent world of Detroit’s ethnic gangs.

It is the penultimate scene of the film, in which Walt is gunned down in the street leaving his bloodied body lying on the ground in the form of a crucifix, that gives us ample material for spiritual analysis.

This scene does not simply depict a heart-wrenching moment when an innocent man dies for others, it also invites the audience to interpret Walt’s character as a Christ-figure.

Christ-figures are not uncommon in the realm of “secular” film, or literature for that matter, but what is most interesting is how the film uses its own language and conventions in order to assume a kind of religious, particularly Christian, audience.  It is my observation that film does not merely propagate religious themes or relate theologically charged narratives, but film assumes a religious audience that discovers a sense of rich fulfillment in finding religious meaning in movies.

Before I demonstrate how this is true, it is important to understand how movies assume a particular perspective, or gaze, for the audience.

The most obvious example is when a movie objectifies a woman on screen.Rear-Window-pic-2

So, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window when Jimmy Stewart’s character carefully watches a beautiful woman through his binoculars, the film assumes the perspective of his male gaze as he looks at her as a potential sexual object. As we know, it is not an uncommon occurrence in the movies when the female lead is introduced to the audience the perspective of the camera emphasizes her female form, assuming a male gaze regardless of the gender of the audience watching the film. The camera assumes the perspective of a man who gains a sense of pleasure from looking upon a woman as an object of affection. This is what we call the male gaze.

If there is a male gaze, why not a Christian gaze?

Therefore when we watch Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski fall dead in a cruciform position, the film assumes the gaze of a person who is familiar with the significance of a sacrificing savior who dies on a cross. Even more than that, as the camera zooms in to a close-up of Walt’s hand as blood pours down his wrist, then switches to a bird’s-eye shot of Walt in his cruciform death, the film assumes the gaze of an audience who feels a particular sense of religious affinity for Christ on the cross and experiences a sense of spiritual pleasure from the religious imagery on the screen.

It is the movie’s choice to take that particular perspective, assuming the audience will find a bit of spiritual satisfaction or pleasure in understanding that Walt has just made the grand sacrifice.

Without even thinking about it, the audience knows that Walt’s act of laying his life down for the lives of others is not just the right thing to do, but it is a holy act of sacrifice akin to the act of Christ on the cross. This is accomplished through the simple body position of Walt and the careful perspective of the camera angles.

This observation does not merely suggest that the director made a choice to borrow the sacrifice of Jesus in order to bring weight to his film’s climax. When we see the camera’s perspective on Walt’s death we are reminded that the religious perspective, particularly the Christian perspective, is still powerful and relevant.

It is also a reminder of the universal and powerful significance of the imagery of the cross. For, there is no more compelling way to emphasize a self-sacrificial act than to liken it to the substitutionary act of Jesus on the cross.


Everyone Is a Critic (or… Respecting the Work)

“You’re only as good as your last blog.”  Those are the words ringing through my head right now as I fight writer’s block.  That’s not a good sign when you’re only on blog #4.

Those words echo what I hear every time I select and direct a show.

“You’re only as good as your last show.”

I know exactly where those words come from.  I know they aren’t healthy and, furthermore, that they aren’t the truth.  Ironic as it may sound, I *know* my self-worth is not found in my performance.  But what I feel… that’s a different matter.  Heart over head sometimes, right?

Most times, actually.

We live in a day and age where everyone is a critic.  With the advent of the internet, anonymous vitriol is as easy as the click of a button.  Don’t like a restaurant?  Leave an anonymous review.  Displeased with a doctor?  Write a scathing diatribe against her practice.  Inconvenienced by a store clerk?  Send an email to his boss.

And if you’re in the entertainment business?  Boy, oh boy.  Everyone is an authority.

In my twenty-five years as a director, I’ve heard some doozies.

One patron, after a three-hour show, complained as she was leaving, “Why did it have to be so long?  At least they could have told us it would be that long.”  We did.  It was written in the program.  What else can we say?  Sometimes we do shows that are classics.  And the classics tend to be long.

One didn’t like a rug we used as part of a set design.

One didn’t care for the playwright.  Found her annoying.

One said I was “still learning my craft.”  At this point, I had two degrees and twenty years of experience.

As recently as a few years ago, I heard a young patron exclaim in the lobby at the conclusion of a show,

“Well, that was awful!”

I was standing right next to him.  And I felt the rage climb up out of the dark recesses of my heart and find its voice in my own.  I zeroed in on him with cold precision and said, “You need to leave.”  He looked at me in complete disbelief.  I repeated myself, lest he misunderstand.  “You need to leave… now.”  Then he understood.  Then it registered all over his face.  He immediately stammered out, “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

“Well, you did.  Leave.  Now.”

He did.

Not my proudest moment.  But I did not want my students to hear that.  And I did not want my heart to hear that.  We had just finished five weeks of 12-15 hour days to launch the show.  We had fought budgetary limitations, casting woes, calendar conflicts, rental costume mistakes, and a ton of multimedia issues.  Memorization alone was deeply challenging for several of the actors.  Sleep deprivation had claimed most of us, but we pressed on; for every minor victory, there seemed to be some major setback.

The play was tough material, to be sure, but worthy of examination.  It asked the audience to engage their minds, to sit up and follow the subtle clues dropped by the playwright, and to ask hard questions in the end about life, responsibility, and reality.  It was meta-theatrical and self-referential.  It’s textbook canon, for crying out loud!

Either this patron wasn’t up for that… or we failed in our attempt.

Did we fail in our attempt?

I don’t know.  We seem to forget the kind things people say.  Though I am sure there were several for this particular production, I can’t seem to remember them.  I remember the putdown.

But it taught me something.  It taught me to respect the work no matter who the producing company is.  It reminded me to stop and look at the minutiae in the piece.  Someone typed that program.  Someone designed the artwork for the poster.  Someone painted the detail on that set.  Another hung and cabled those lights.  Still another stitched the trim on that gown.  Another choreographed the fights.  Another braced those platforms.  Who collected the props?  Who styled the wigs?  Who sound designed or stage managed or directed the show?  How long did it take to memorize those lines?  It is such a hugely collaborative process that the amount of man-hours invested would be near impossible to count.  And that amount of work–that crushing and unyielding amount of work–I will respect that.

How many details can you discern from a single photo from a production?

How many details can you discern from a single photo of a production?

Admittedly, we may not like the end result.  And I believe differing opinions are valid and healthy.  But I will not speak unkindly in their house.  I will not speak unkindly in their house.


On Information Literacy

In my first blog this semester I mentioned that one of the things I’m still discovering is how the library and more specifically, information literacy, fits into the idea of faith & learning. As an institution we focus many of our discussions around how to integrate faith and learning in a way that engages students and equips them to make the connections between our disciplines, the world they live in, and their Christian faith. That discussion often brings me to the question – where do faith and information literacy intersect? Or, why in the world do I think it is so important to teach this stuff to our students?

First, I should probably define information literacy for those of you who aren’t immersed in the topic like I am on a daily basis. What is information literacy? The term “information literacy” was actually coined in 1974 by the then president of the Information Industry Association, Paul G. Zurkowski. He began by defining information this way:

“Information is not knowledge; it is concepts or ideas which enter a person’s field of perception, are evaluated and assimilated reinforcing or changing the individual’s concept of reality and/or ability to act. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so information is in the mind of the user.”

From there, Zurkowski puts forth the idea that an information literate is a person who is “trained in the application of information resource to their work.” His assertion was that while most Americans were literate by 1974 (meaning they could read and write), fewer than one-sixth of the population could be considered information literate – able to understand the value of information and use it to meet their needs. We’ve come a long way with the concept of information literacy since then, but for the most part, this still seems to get at the heart of the issue.

Photo Credit: verbeeldingskr8 via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: verbeeldingskr8 via Compfight cc

I think most of us would agree with the notion that a person wouldn’t be fully educated unless they could be considered information literate. When a student graduates from the university, he or she needs to have the ability to continue learning on their own outside of a classroom setting. If they don’t know how to locate information, interact with it, evaluate it, and use it to inform their own thinking, how will they ever learn anything beyond what they learned at the ripe old age of 23?

We have not educated the whole student unless we have taught them how to interact with information.

But where does our faith fit in? Is the way we interact with information important to our faith somehow?

Of course it is.

Bill Badke – one of my librarian heroes who also happens to be one of the people who talk about information literacy in light of faith -  explains the intersection of faith and information literacy like this:

“In the world of Christian Higher Education our passion for information literacy – teaching students how to do research well – arises from the fact that we are a faith of the Word. The very concept of the Word, of Jesus Christ the Word, as well the Word of God tells us that we have bedrock on which we can base the growth of knowledge… The very means by which our minds are created to explore and to want to move forward provides us with the opportunity to really make our world a better place. Whatever research [we’re doing] is to advance our understanding of God’s world, of God’s truth, [and] to discover things that we didn’t know were there before. Because of that, student research becomes a significant factor in their education. How are they going to advance their world if they don’t know how to seek and find the truth?

And so that’s where I’ve ended up so far in my quest for discovering where information literacy begins to intersect with who we are as Christians. I have explained it to students like this: If we are called to be people of the truth, then shouldn’t we make sure that what we are reading, saying, and contributing to the conversation is actually truth? Scripture frequently warns us against bearing false witness. It seems that the ethical use of information should be a factor in the conversations we have, the research we conduct, and the stories we tell.

What does information literacy look like in 2015?

For starters, it is crucial that we recognize our need for information – honestly, sometimes that is the biggest hurdle. So much of the time we have already made up our mind about something before we’ve even really stopped to ask a question. From there, we need to know how to find that information – how is it created? where is it kept? how do I get to it? Then when we find it we need to be able to think critically about it. We need to evaluate the information that we encounter to determine its reliability and relevancy to our question. Finally, we need to be able to use the information that we’ve gathered to inform our ideas and influence our decisions.

"The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction — how to teach himself."

Paraphrase of Alvin Toffer’s citation of psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy in Toffer’s 1970 book titled “Future Shock”

If learning is about exploring God’s creation, about discovering new truths, about making the world a better place; then information literacy and faith don’t just occasionally cross paths — they are interwoven. When I teach students about information, I try to make it about more than just how to work database xyz or a demo of the library catalog. The concept that I’m actually trying to teach them is the deep structure of how information works so that they can use it for themselves in the future. As an instruction librarian, my part in the kingdom work includes helping students develop information literacy competencies so that they can continue to advance our understanding of the world. Hopefully, the way that we use information plays a role in the larger story of redemption. I think Gordon T. Smith summed it up nicely when he said,

“Few things are as redemptive as an honest exploration of truth.”


Is there a Happily Ever After, Daddy?

One night while putting my kids to bed I opted to tell them a story, rather than read them a story. The difference is subtle. When I read them a story, I read the words on the page and show them the pictures illustrating the narration.

When I tell them a story, I put into my own words a given story, usually a fairy tale or bible story, from my own memory. No pictures illustrate the narration, but for some reason they love it. Maybe it is the sound effects I add or the fact that every time I tell a given story it is a little different from the last.

Whatever the case, they now prefer stories I tell more than stories out of a book. Just between you and me, I am beginning to run out of stories.

three bears

One of our favorites is “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.”  I admit, my version probably does not remain entirely faithful to the classic tale—Goldilocks eats pancakes or oatmeal, not porridge (What is porridge anyway?).

Yet, just like the original, in the end the Bear family discovers Goldilocks asleep in their home.

I honestly don’t know what is supposed to come after that, but to contemporize the story I used to say that the Bears call the police and have her arrested for trespassing. Perhaps that is not the best ending for small children, so now I narrate that the Bears unite Goldilocks with her parents who have been desperately looking for their daughter lost in the woods.

In order to capture the meaning of a story about a lost girl who finds safety and aid under the hospitality of strangers, I end the story with something like, “And Goldilocks returned home safely to her family who had a party because she was safe and well.”

Last week after concluding the story, my daughter asks me, “Did they not live happily ever after, Daddy?”

Now, anyone who lives with small children in the 21st century understands how my five-year-old daughter has been so indoctrinated with Disney fairy tales that she just assumes that every story is supposed to end with, “And they lived happily ever after.”

But, how should I answer that question?

Not wanting to verbalize all the thoughts that went through my head without thinking about the best answer, I answered her with a quick, “That’s not how this story ends, but she and her family were happy to be together again. Good night, I love you.”

Lame, right?

Ever since she asked, I can’t get that question out of my head. I sense I may have missed one of those important moments, a moment where I have an opportunity to teach my child something about the way the world works. Or, about the true meaning of happiness. Or, about anything of value instead of just trying to get her to go to sleep as quickly as possible.

But now that I have had a few days to think about it, I have a couple of responses.

My first response to her question comes from my framework as a literature professor. I read and teach stories for a living, and anyone who has ever sat in my class knows none of the stories I teach end with “happily ever after.” In fact, most stories in any recognized academic canon of literature do not end happily at all. So, my first answer could have been, “No, a lot of stories don’t end with happily ever after. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.”

My next thought was much like my first. As a “grown-up” pushing 40 I am well aware of the way life goes. I considered answering with, “Nope. Life doesn’t work that way.”

Thankfully, I had the wherewithal not to verbalize either of those responses. I sense that a father should not pass on to his child such a cynical view of life at the ripe age of five.

The side of me that prevented me from giving my first two answers, though, is not simply ruled by common sense. It is that part of me most influenced by my faith.

While nowhere in the Bible does the phrase “happily ever after” appear, there are some important aspects of the Biblical narrative that embody the values of the fairytale ending. The fairytale ending is not merely about happiness; it reflects the simple hope that we can experience all of the best things life has to offer—love, well-being, health, personal success, and the full realization of our individual role in our community.

Therefore, what is the Garden of Eden if not the original plan for happily ever after? And what is heaven if not the ultimate realization of happily ever after? And, we can’t ignore the 28th verse of the 8th chapter of Romans, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (NIV).

If we can say anything about the Biblical perspective on “happily ever after” it is this: God’s original intent and ultimate hope for mankind is to experience all of the perfection that he created for us. In understanding Romans 8:28 and knowing what our Father has in store for his followers in afterlife, we can say that God intends a “happily ever after” for all of us.


Furthermore, if I am completely honest with myself, I still believe in fairy tales.

Certainly, I am a cynical grown-up and a critical thinking academic. But, when I think of the joy and fulfillment I find in my marriage, in raising my children, in going to work everyday, and in the pursuit of my faith, I am convinced that if there is a “happily ever after,” then I am living it.  And, I most definitely hope that what I model in my roles as father and husband demonstrates “happily ever after” to my children.

Yes, life does not work out how we plan. Yes, there is a lot of everyday-stuff-of-life that makes us unhappy. Yes, we all experience loss and regret. Yet, those things don’t prevent me from believing in God’s great plan for all of us, that he wants “happily ever after” for all of us.

So, next time my daughter asks me whether they lived “happily ever after” my answer will just be, “Yes, they did.”



The Make-Believe Major (or… People Say the Darndest Things) – Part II

This week’s blog is a continuation of a discussion I began last week which focused on criticisms typically leveled at those who pursue theatre as a profession.  What was so surprising about that initial post were the reactions it generated from a variety of individuals in vastly different professions.  I received emails, blog responses, and Facebook comments from many wonderful people who shared their struggle with similar naysayers.  I found it both heartening and disheartening: heartening to know that others understand what we endure in theatre, disheartening to know that this sort of criticism is widely used across numerous disciplines disparagingly.

So let’s face the grumpy cusses together and tear down two more reproaches this week.

These two go together because they are aimed at the common sense and intelligence of those who tread the boards.

1.    But you’re so bright!  Wouldn’t you rather be a (insert “nobler” profession here)?
2.    Well, all I know is that there is no way you could do what I do, which is (insert profession here).

Exhibit C: But you’re so bright!  Wouldn’t you rather be a (insert “nobler” profession here)?

This one actually tickles me because it assumes that theatre is peopled with idiots, and it’s a complete waste to channel your God-given intelligence into a creative field.  There’s also the subtext of: “No one who has a shred of wisdom goes into theatre.”

But the theatre is actually peopled with brilliant minds – historians, poets, wonderful dreamers who create world-changing art, truth speakers who nourish our soul, and motivators who unite and guide hundreds under a single vision.  There are Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winners.  There are designers who stretch the limits of engineering and technology.  Just imagine our libraries without the works of Euripides, William Shakespeare, Molière, Aphra Behn, Anton Chekhov, Susan Glaspell, Federico García Lorca, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Henry David Hwang, Sarah Ruhl, or Lynn Nottage.

Russian playwright Anton Chekhov practiced medicine his entire life, but his greatest love was writing. Chekhov’s plays continue to be widely studied, performed, and adapted.
He’s also extremely good looking. Am I right, ladies?

Choosing theatre isn’t a safe choice.

That. Is. Fact.

But just because you take the risk (even if you fail in the end) doesn’t categorize you as stupid.  Sure, it might be unwise financially or unwise for job security or unwise emotionally because of the rejection you will face time and time again.  But I’ve seen engineers squander their wealth into bankruptcy.  I’ve seen high powered executives get ousted from their jobs.  I’ve seen lawyers disbarred and doctors sued.  And life brings rejection to everyone sooner or later, whether in love or in a career.

So, let’s not label someone negatively for pursuing their dream.  Rather, let’s call them brave.  Or courageous.  Or daring.  And maybe, if we give them a lot of support and a little push, they just might do something memorable and amazing.

Exhibit D:  There is no way you could do what I do, which is (insert profession here).

You’re absolutely right.

But chances are, you couldn’t do what we do either.  We aren’t all called to be politicians or professional athletes or health practitioners or corporate officers or even parents.  Yet, in the great scope of things, isn’t variety an amazing gift to humanity?  The Bible talks about different gifts both in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12.  Howard Gardner, a world-renowned psychologist and Harvard professor, has identified multiple intelligences and their importance in education.  We are all made to contribute to the world in unique and wonderful ways.  Why must we continually be striving to have the most worthwhile pursuit or the best career plan?  Why can’t we appreciate the hard work and sacrifice others experience in their own field?

Because we have placed a lot of our self-worth, as a culture, in career investment and success…  and that’s hard to battle.  Society has this unsettling power to determine whether or not we fit into this neat little box of acceptability.  If my career doesn’t “look” safe and successful, it must not be worthy.  But that’s not true.  The body of Christ is made up of so many varied talents and gifts, who are we to say that one isn’t useful? Or important?  Or valued?  Or wise?  Or commendable?

Yet we continue to seek affirmation and approval from those around us and, as a result, often decide against something that is actually very right for us.

I will candidly admit that even this post reveals my own need to have my choices affirmed by the masses.

Yet, ultimately, my worth should be found in Christ alone, who made and formed me as this unique individual.  It’s a hard thing to believe sometimes when society says otherwise.  Nevertheless, I’m grateful I have chosen to use my gifts to serve Him and those around me in a profession “less traveled.”

Let us be ever mindful, though, of how a little arrogance can disorder so much goodness and light in the beauty of our differences.  You each have great value.  Don’t forget that this week.


Reference on Aisle 3

I was asked an actual reference question in the frozen food aisle of Wal-Mart last Friday night. True story.

Photo Credit: spirobolos via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: spirobolos via Compfight cc

In my previous post I rambled on about our need to ask questions and how that all plays out in the world of reference librarians. One of the things I focused on was that a lot of times students find it difficult to approach the librarian at a reference desk. There are all kinds of hypotheses that have been studied as to why this happens. Summary – it happens. Library anxiety is a real thing. Asking questions about things that you don’t know about can be difficult.

Knowing all of that makes having a student ask you a question in the frozen food aisle very exciting. File this one under #smallvictories.

Working and teaching at a small, faith-based institution has been an eye-opening experience for me. The idea of faculty members interacting with students beyond disseminating information and assessing students had not really been a part of my college experience at two state universities. Honestly, it never occurred to me that my professors might actually want to talk to me or be concerned about me beyond what happened during 50 minutes of classroom lecture. If that didn’t occur to me back then, it certainly never occurred to me that there was a librarian on a college campus who would be researching ways that he or she could help me search for information. As my dad says, “Who would’ve thought it?”

All that to say – I get it.

In some ways I can double as my own research subject. It makes sense to me that students don’t realize that librarians are ready, willing, and capable of helping them with their research. After all, when I was them I didn’t know about me either.

So why in the world would a student feel like he could ask me a question about finding research on teacher turnover in the middle of the frozen food aisle on a Friday night? Simple. He had already met me in one of his classes earlier that week.

In all of our research about the information seeking behaviors of students, we have found something that seems to help – face-to-face library instruction.  A 2003 study showed that classroom library instruction increased the “demand for reference services.” The correlation seems fairly obvious to me – meeting the librarian in your classroom helps to establish a librarian/student rapport. In his research  into student perceptions of their professors caring about them, Steven A. Meyers concluded that “caring is a powerful teaching tool.” And while that’s probably not earth shattering news to you today, I must admit that making sure the students know that I care about them isn’t always the first thing on my mind when I start planning my one-shot library instruction. It’s not that I don’t ever think about it – it’s just that I usually have a limited amount of time with them and it is easy for me to get caught up in all that I want to teach them in the next 45 minutes.

Photo Credit: Austin Kleon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Austin Kleon via Compfight cc

So how do I work to build that rapport with students? One study found that 51% of students knew they could meet with a librarian because their professor suggested it. Thirty-seven percent knew it because a librarian had talked to them in class about it. The key to librarians establishing rapport with students seems to be partnerships with faculty and classroom library instruction. I’m so grateful for the relationships that I have with our faculty on this campus and their willingness to allow me to teach their students about the information in their disciplines (and hey, if we haven’t worked together before, let this be your gentle nudge). The spring semester is usually jam-packed with library instruction sessions and I love every minute of it.

I’ve jokingly told faculty that even if the only thing that a student gets out of my library instruction is that I have a name and I’m here to help them with their research that I consider myself successful. Of course that’s not all I hope they get – I’ll talk more later about how information literacy is crucial to educating the whole student and creating life-long learners. The truth is that I hope they get much more than just my name – but even if they don’t, it does seem to be a step in the right direction.

What about you? How do you build a rapport with students?


The Sanctuary of Cinema: Can Movies Perform a Religious Function?

Last week I wrote about one of my interests, specialty coffee. Today I would like to write about another one—movies.

I will never forget one of the first movies I ever watched, the original Superman. When I say “original,” I mean Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.

I don’t remember the movie theater in which I viewed the film (In fact, I think I watched it on laser disc), but I know one thing; it had an unforgettable impact on my personal, childhood beliefs. Like any boy of that age, I was mesmerized. The bright colors of Superman’s costume, the power of Superman’s abilities, and the movie magic that allowed me to witness a man fly, are all reasons I wanted to watch it over and over again. Yet, the movie altered my four-year-old perspective in a more foundational and lasting way.

SUPERMANWhat Superman imposed on my four-year-old mind is simple, that good and evil exist and that those with the power to do so are obligated to defend what is good and fight against what is evil.

Like most children with hero fantasies I was determined to act out those fantasies in my everyday life. My mother, sympathetic of my desire to fight bad guys and aware of my appreciation for Superman in particular, sewed me a cape. It wasn’t exactly like Superman’s cape; in fact, it was Superman red on one side and Batman blue on the opposite. I suppose she used scraps from her pile of left-over material because neither the blue nor the red were solid colors. They both were covered in a pattern, a silhouette of a seagull in flight. But, that fact was easily overlooked. I love it and I wore it every, single day.

On one of those days as I was ‘flying’ around the barnyard of the farm next to our house, I discovered the two older, neighbor boys throwing rocks at chickens. Channeling my inner Superman, and inspired by my celluloid hero, I placed myself between the would-be villains and the helpless chickens. The cape became my shield from the barrage of stones.

As anyone can imagine, a cotton cape is ill-suited for protection from stones, and my actions only encouraged the boys to double their efforts.  Not surprisingly, my misadventure ended in tears, a trip to the hospital, and two small stitches under my left eye.

The scar from the stitches, still barely visible today, is a constant reminder of the power of movies.

My actions were not simply the result of my upbringing under the leadership of loving parents that taught me the clear difference between right and wrong. My actions were fueled by a child-like desire to emulate a hero, a larger than life character made real to me by the power of movie magic. By embracing Superman’s example I put myself in harm’s way with great gusto. Superman put substance on the moral framework my parents had taught me. Watching the film undergirded that morality and inspired my action.

I may not wear a cape anymore, but I am convinced of the power of movies to inspire us, challenge us, and bring us to tears. But more than that, movies have the potential to serve a religious function by undergirding, illustrating, enhancing, and even altering our beliefs. Film has the potential to not just reach us on an emotional level, but to also serve a religious function.

At times during this semester I will write more about the religious functionality of film, specifically how film uses conventions and film language to assume a spectator that finds pleasure in the religious experience.



The Make-Believe Major (or… People Say the Darndest Things) – Part I

This post begins with a love storyCrush.  Ill-advised infatuation.

And a competition.

During my time as an undergraduate, there was a certain young man who took an interest in me, and I definitely took an interest in him.  He was whip smart, witty, ambitious, handsome enough, and a great conversationalist.  He was not a theatre major, though he took several classes in our department.  Throughout our doomed acquaintance, we had a sort of friendly cut-throat competition centered on academics.  In fact, he wagered that he would easily graduate with a higher GPA than I would.

He didn’t.

After losing, however, he argued that it wasn’t an equitable battle.  If he told me once, he told me over and over that his major was much harder than mine (and more worthy and more academic and more serious and… you get the point).  I never knew how to respond except to roll my eyes and call him a sore loser.

But it stuck with me, and my academic pursuit felt diminished for a long time.

He’s not alone in his opinion.  Throughout my professional career, I’ve encountered many individuals who have said deeply disparaging things about theatre as an academic endeavor or a profession in general.  Aside from being hurtful, these comments come from a place of ignorance grounded in stereotypes and half-truths.

So from my own limited experience, I would like to address some of the statements that have been leveled at me at some point during my studies and career.

Exhibit A:  Don’t you all just play games in class?

There are always acting or directing exercises practiced in select classes that may look, to the outsider, like pointless frivolity.  But they are not pointless.  So much of what we do demands creative problem solving and fresh, innovative ideas.  Many of these exercises are used to develop and hone critical thinking abilities in a time-sensitive environment.

There are also many classes that demand extensive research, analysis, and memorization.  We constantly examine dramatic structure and literary theory.  We must communicate in the language of design (set, lighting, sound, costumes, make-up, hair and wigs, properties, graphics) and be skilled in carpentry, scenic painting, sewing, make-up application, hairstyling, electrics and wiring, publicity, public relations, business management, and technology.   We must have a solid grasp on math (especially geometry), psychology, world history, major literary movements, foreign languages, fire and safety codes, structural engineering, politics, current trends, cultural differences and personal health.  We should be critical of our own work and thoroughly versed in the ideas, problems, and history presented in each new production.  By necessity, we must also be trained as good communicators, listeners, and collaborators—always able to provide an answer for the artistic choice we are determined to pursue.

So no… it is *not* all fun and games.  But it is a comprehensive education that results in very marketable skills.

Exhibit B: But everyone just ends up working at a Starbucks.  Or starving.  Or switching careers.

First of all, I see no shame in holding down an honorable job to pay the bills, no matter where that comes from.  Life hits us hard from all sides, and sometimes you just have to survive.

However, in my experience, I’ve known two (TWO!) theatre majors who took jobs at Starbucks.  I imagine if we took a comprehensive query of Starbucks baristas, we would find people from all walks of life with a myriad of specialized interests and pursuits.  So, this argument against theater seems a little short-sighted at best.  But yes, *some* theatre majors end up in an entirely different field.  Yet I’ve known mathematicians, nurses, foreign language specialists, teachers, businessmen, lawyers, cooks, and engineers who, at some point, have significantly changed career paths.

That said, theatre provides individuals with a wealth of skills and knowledge that can be utilized in almost any job.  I’ve got this lovely man’s article posted outside my office door.

But I also want to highlight the wealth of opportunities available in the theatre.  If you are willing to learn and branch out, the options are vast.  There are far more jobs to be had than just as an “actor.”

Backstage View

Backstage View

Let me provide you with a sampling:

  1. Stage Manager
  2. Designer (in any area)
  3. Director
  4. Playwright
  5. Choreographer (Dance or Fight)
  6. Casting Director
  7. Technical Director
  8. House Manager
  9. Business Manager
  10. Artistic Director
  11. Dramaturg
  12. Educator/Academic
  13. Critic
  14. Carpenter
  15. Seamstress
  16. Crew Member (in any area)
  17. Box Office Manager
  18. Scenic Painter
  19. Master Electrician
  20. Board Operator (Lights or Sound)
  21. Rigger
  22. Music Director
  23. Dance Captain
  24. Vocal and/or Dialect Coach
  25. Agent

Yes, it’s true that many theatre practitioners must supplement their income by taking second or third jobs.  Yes, it’s true that most theatre practitioners market themselves in more than one area or specialization.  But where there is true passion for the art, there is determination, sacrifice, and grit.

We’ll pursue this discussion further next week with an examination of two related comments leveled against the wisdom and intelligence of those who champion theatre, but for now I hope this has generated a deeper understanding of the discipline and a respect for the level of training demanded of our majors.

To be continued…


Asking Questions

Last week my colleague Will Walker sent me a link to a photo essay blog discussing some of the more interesting questions that were asked at the New York Public Library during pre-Google times. NYPL is posting photos on Instagram each Monday from their reference archives of questions they have received over the years. I don’t know about you, but knowing that makes my Mondays a little better.

I did enjoy looking through the questions that they have received along the way and chuckled at some of the questions that reminded me of my own experiences working public and academic reference desks. My personal favorite from the NYPL collection was the card that showed a variety of questions that were asked in a single phone call. This was not unlike my experiences with an elderly gentleman who made a habit of calling the public library reference desk asking me questions about how much I thought a painting might be worth or where he could find a manual for an antique small appliance whilst he rummaged around in his attic. Answering questions or helping others find the answers they seek is a large part of my job. Truth be told, it’s actually one of my favorite parts.

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(Image Courtesy of the New York Public Library)

All of that has me thinking about our ETBU students and how they ask questions and interact with me at the reference desk. How do students go about finding answers to the their questions? In my world, we call this “information seeking behavior” and we study how users engage in the search for information. One thing we have learned about information seeking behavior among college students is that they don’t often think to approach the reference librarian for help.

Librarian Barbara Fister discussed why students don’t ask questions at the reference desk in her appropriately titled Fear of Reference article. She found that students were embarrassed to admit that they didn’t know something that they thought that they should already know. To them, it can appear that their fellow students already have this library thing down pat and here they are just trying to figure out how to find a journal article (when truth be told, many of them couldn’t tell you the difference between a journal and an article).

The reference desk isn’t the only place that this happens. There is something vulnerable about asking a question and admitting that there is a gap in your knowledge. There is some element of trust involved with letting another person know that they know something you don’t know. After all, most of us can recall that annoying, “I know something you don’t know” sing-song taunt that our grade school peers used to tease us on the playground… or was that just me?

In life, we need to be able to ask questions. It starts with curiosity and the humility of admitting that there is something you don’t know. We see examples of people asking questions all throughout scripture. We know that the Bereans searched the scriptures each day after Paul and Silas taught to make sure that they were telling the truth – one assumes they were asking questions to guide them in their research. Proverbs 2 encourages readers to “cry out for insight and ask for understanding.” Jesus was even known for responding to a question by asking another question. Clearly, questions are part of the process of learning and seeking the truth.

We know we should be asking questions, but that still doesn’t change the fact that sometimes asking a question can be down right scary. So how do we help our students become more comfortable voicing their questions? I believe we start by making them feel safe to ask questions.

The first two weeks of the semester generally sound the same at the reference desk. Since we are still a good ways from research due dates, I can usually rely on the questions that I answer to be fairly basic – How do I login? Where’s printer 2? Do you guys have textbooks here? – you get the idea. And while some in my profession would see those types of questions misuse of their expertise – I say bring it on.


I welcome their questions because I know that if a student can feel comfortable asking me a tech support question during the first week that he or she might be a little less anxious about asking me for research help when the time comes. I hope that maybe if asking the first question isn’t too painful that we can break down that library anxiety barrier (yes, that’s a real thing we’ll talk about more later) that separates us that we can make some real progress in finding the information that they seek.

Last academic year 78% of the 733 user interactions we had in information services occurred in person at the reference desk. The experience those students had when they got up the nerve to ask a question is important to me. Whether I have a student who needs help finding an article involving a certain statistical method, or someone who just needs to know which printer to use, I’ll take that question. After all, I know what it might have taken for you to decide to ask it.