28 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: science fair, judging, and being judged

While climbing the long and sometimes steep "Rappleman Ridge" (see view, below; so named because Rick Appleman led me up there once upon a time for a few tele runs on a favorite hidden spot) at The Moulton this morning (10 deg F, a little new snow, Blue Extra a little sticky but made for good climbing), I had a good chance to digest yesterday's Science Fair experience.

About 50 high school kids displayed their projects here at Montana Tech. Most projects were from three high schools: Big Sky and Hellgate in Missoula, and Ennis (between Butte and Bozeman). Sadly, there were no project from Butte High. There seem to be some teacher & administration issues regarding support for Science Fair. Too bad, since Science Fair does some good things for kids: gets them to think about doing science as inquiry rather than just learning science from a book; hooks them into a network of mentors that can foster their scientific interests; recognize their accomplishments with scholarships, medals, and various awards; and enter them into a pipeline that leads to State Science Fair, International Science & Engineering Fair, Stockholm Water Prize Competition, Science Symposium, etc.

I'm a science junky, which keeps me going as "Chief Judge" at our regional science fair. Early on, after graduating and working in materials engineering, I realized I liked thinking about science & society and reading about science far more than I actually liked doing science. Science Fair gives me that fix. Even at our little regional competition here at Tech, there are projects ranging from "Toward a more equitable distribution: wealth dynamics for varying saving propensities in a closed market" to "Establishing the connection between eastern Laurentia and Western Siberia by a point-count analysis of rift-related sediments" to "Arbuscular mychorrhizal fungi response to components of global change." Good stuff.

Science fair judging is great. I began judging back in Bradford PA as part of my corporate service to the community obligation. Here at Tech we see really fine projects. This is largely because faculty at Montana Tech, University of Montana-Missoula, and other places such as the national laboratory in Hamilton mentor students. For kids to be competitive in high school Science Fair, they usually need access to cool tools and the guidance of experienced scientists.

Science Fair sceptics dismiss the best students and their projects with comments such as, "Mom did it for them." or "They were like a trained monkey in the professor's lab." Even a brief discussion with most of these kids will quickly disabuse sceptics of this notion. In fact, having talked with a lot of mentors, I've found that mentors are often awed by the Wunderkind's mastery of the topic and (at the same time) a little dismayed by the Wunderkind's lack of discipline in drawing reasonable borders around their questions and hypotheses.

Good judging is crucial to Science Fair. We try to bring out the best in every student's inquiry, challenge their knowledge and conclusions, and open doors to further explorations. At most levels, the degree of agreement among judges is remarkable. Like peer review in academic research & publication, the system works most of the time. At the highest levels, though, it can get pretty bare-knuckled among the judges as they "discuss" which project to name as the overall winner. The microbiologists want to know why a computer simulation of economic choice counts as research. The engineers want to know why a sexy lab technique like primer-based DNA amplification is so special. And then there is the discussion over whether field-based or laboratory-based science is "better." Surprisingly, at some point the dust begins to settle and nearly everyone comes to agreement over why one project is better than another. At the end of the day, judges come away with an enhance respect for what their colleagues in other fields do, and a lot of kids come away with adult validation of and encouragement for scientific inquiry.

Well, I got all that figured out on the long uphill climb, and now it's time for the downhill run back to the truck. Watch out for that big fat cow moose, and for the rather emaciated looking little yearling that is trying to survive its first winter.

26 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: Leben ist L/leben

18 deg F, an inch or two of new snow, wooden HeadT skis, Extra Blue wax.

Mike or Paul groomed sometime over the weekend, probably Mike since the Yankee Boy trail was not groomed. It's hard to groom its steep ups & downs, sharp twists & turns.

It's that time of the season when skiing becomes like breathing. Creature of habit that I am, I wake, peek out the window to check for new snow, brew my coffee, drop four waffles in the toaster, and decide which skis are right. Then it's eat, read the paper, wax the skis, lace the boots, and go. Once on the trails, though, the routine falls away. You can't langlaufen on the same snow twice, as Heraclitus the great crosscountry skier put it.

During my year of living and researching in the Germanies, I often heard the expression "leben ist leben." In German, of course, the capital "L" in Leben would define the word as the noun or state of being "Life," whereas the lower case "l" would define the word as the verb or process "living." To the ear, especially in a bar surrounded by philosophers ("Bierplaudereien"), you can't tell "L" from "l."

And so have I often puzzled over this expression. That's probably the whole point of it--to make you puzzle, much like Heidegger's Being (Seing) and being (sein).

Life is Life. Living is Life. Life is living. Living is living. Hmmm....

Given that German is unlikely to put the verb first, we can eliminate "Living is Life" and "Living is living."

So that leaves us with "Life is Life" and "Life is living." My (ehemalige) East German friends decidedly came down on the side of "Life is living." Life is about doing (and being done to), experiencing, active engagement. I like this version. It emphasizes the process as opposed to the product. Life is about the zen of bobbing along in life's flow, if you will. Critics might argue that this version is the sort of life a dog leads, with little sense of planning, purpose, or intention.

Usually when the expression is written out, however, it is "Leben ist Leben," i.e. life is life. This could be interpreted to mean that life is about making (and being made), producing, final results. The critic in me would argue that this version is much too static; in dwelling on what the world (including life) is, we lose the sense of how the world is, we lose the sense of our active relationship with the world (including life).

This latter sense can lead us to live entirely too much within our own head. I have a friend like this. If he reads a book about skiing, then he believes that he "knows" skiing. His primary relationship to the world is through a sort of ongoing mental fanatasy. I'm not sure that actually doing something really matters to him. As long as he can imagine it, think about it, and hear others tell about it he seems satisfied. Living vicariously, but without any sense that it is a vicarious existence.

Very Platonic, this belief that by knowing the idea you know the thing or all actual instantiations of the thing. Life is Life--a sort of abstract supreme concept.

Well, time for the downhill run and I need to get into the flow. Leben is leben. Tschuss.

23 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: mood swings

Wow. I woke up feeling great, excited as a child on Christmas morning as I peeked out the window at two inches of new fallen snow with more coming. I ate a leisurely breakfast, swept the walk and vehicles, and read literature related to my research. By 9:15 am I was rearing to go, and felt like half a day had passed already.

I was a little disappointed that no one else from the dept showed up today, having been expecting colleague Dr Bill and grad candidate Lori. Maybe they feared driving--though light powder, the snow had melted to the warmer pavement and was slick. Oh well, RTD & I make a good pair.

As we started down our hill, I saw that Tony Jangula -- our one man road crew in Walkerville -- was stuck with the plow truck. It's a big F350-size flatbed vehicle with chains on the rear, but Tony had dropped a front wheel off the edge while clearing a neighbor's driveway. I had my little LandRover, but it was a downhill pull so we hooked up a chain between the rigs, I gave a little tug and then a big jolt, and the most important truck in the town of Walkerville was freed. I felt good, as I always do after getting myself or someone else unstuck.

Driving up Moulton Road, however, a high school kid in a little black car slid sideways through a turn and I nearly T-boned him. Would have, had I not driven into a three foot snowbank to get out of the little bastard's way. I was pissed, as this kid drives recklessly as a matter of habit, and he's nearly hit me a few times before. Oh well, defensive driving pays off.

Still angry as I pulled into The Moulton parking lot, went through my basic "sun salutation" yoga, clipped on the skis, and headed up the main road/trail. Had to rewax right away: four or more inches of new snow, 22 deg F, but still Blue Extra gave little grip. Purple did the trick and I was on my way. Within a half mile I had forgotten all about reckless kid drivers.

RTD and I did a sort of figure-8 loop on upper Nugget, up Buzzy, slalom down the pole line (the fresh snow made my imitation of tele turns look pretty good!), up the old road to the east, back down the ridge and into Buzzy, then around lower Nugget. Simple and short, but sweet.

When I returned home the endorphins were still pumping and KUFM "morning freeforms" was playing waltzes. I had a deep moment of reminisence -- much like the way a smell can trigger a memory -- of waltzing little Emily around our kitchen many years ago. There was nothing to be done but scoop up PhoebeTheCat (who loves being held anyway, anyhow) and take a few turns around the kitchen. Life is good.

21 February 2007

Student Evaluation of Teaching

Student evaluation of teaching, or SET* as it is often called, can be a hot topic in academe.
Many managment folks (i.e. college administrators), not surprisingly, would like to simplify teaching assessment to a simple, quantifiable measure. Having a simple number makes it easy to say "Jo is a bad teacher and should not get tenure." or "Bo is a great teacher and deserves a raise."

Two crucial problems have stemmed from this simple approach: (1) grade inflation, since it is well established that, quid pro quo, students award teachers with high evaluation scores when teachers award students with high grades; and (2) decreased mastery of content by students, as measured with performance on standardized exams or through performance in subsequent, sequenced courses. Grade inflation has been a most obvious problem. And since it has occured during a period of decreasing SAT scores, it's hard to argue that "students are just plain smarter than they used to be."
Graph of grade inflation, from http://gradeinflation.com.

Many colleges have recognized this problem, and some have taken steps to avoid the misuse of SET. Schools that have tackled the SET/grade inflation issue have been mainly elite schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and UC-Berkeley. Maybe this is because elite schools have led in grade inflation. Run-of-the-mill schools have been much more reluctant to publicly address the problem, however, or to take steps to control it. Given that most colleges must compete for students and that funding for public institutions is tied directly to enrollment, this reluctance is easy to understand. We can't afford to chase students away. But certainly there are other things we can do to retain students, instead of padding their grades?

Grade inflation aside (it appears to be driven by other factors in addition to SET), keeping SET in perspective and preventing it from becoming a farce is not so difficult. Here are a few steps that schools & faculty that care about this issue can take:
  1. Do not base faculty promotion & tenure on the evaluation of teaching as measured by SET.

  2. Other measures of teaching include peer observation & review, evaluation of syllabi and student assignments, teacher use of formative evaluations to refine teaching strategies, pre- and post-class performance of students on standardized exams, and surveys of alumni.

  3. Do not base pay raises, teaching awards, or merit pay on the evaluation of teaching as measured by SET.

  4. Master teachers mentor new instructors.
Astute management types will argue, "But that's tooo harrrd!" Yes. Reality is hard to grasp. And when that reality involves having control over the professional lives of other human beings, we ought to be willing to do the hard work. To do less is cynical and irresponsible.

* SET is also called SEI, for Student Evaluation of Instruction.

A brief bibliography:

Arreola, Raoul A. Developing a Comprehensive Faculty Evaluation System: A Handbook for College Faculty and Administrators (2000).

"Higher Grades = Higher Evaluations," a brief annotated bibliography, at http://www.bus.lsu.edu/accounting/faculty/lcrumbley/Highgra.html.

Huemer, Michael. "Student Evaluations: A Critical Review" at http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/sef.htm.

Johnson, Valen E. "Beyond Grade Inflation: Grading Problems in Higher Education" (review)The Review of Higher Education 30 (Number 1, Fall 2006): 76-77.
Rundell, William. "On the use of numerically scored student evaluations of faculty," at http://www.math.tamu.edu/~william.rundell/teaching_evaluations/article.html [Rundell has great data on the negative correlation between evaluations (or grades) and subsequent performance.]

Seldin, Peter ed. Changing Practices in Evaluating Teaching: A Practical Guide to Improved Faculty Performance and Promotion/Tenure Decisions (1999).

20 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: reservoir flats

RTD and I humped it up to Reservoir Flats this morning, just to see how the snow was settling up that way. Skiing was a little tough (for me) given the wide variation in snow: crusty breakable crust where the sun has been on it, deep but fairly dense powder in the open but shaded areas, and pretty good in the trees--a solid base with a few inches of softer stuff on top.
RTD is feeling poorly again, but (I hope) I've figured the cause: she likes to eat snow. But in the yard we have a lot of spruce needles on the snow from the high winds last week. And at The Moulton, the dead lodgepole pines are dropping needles. When Roly vomits, there are invariably pine or spruce needles in it. I can avoid letting her out in the yard, and might need to leave her home a few days from skiing and see how it goes. How do wolves and coyotes deal with this?

19 February 2007

Emily Munday, Boston University Terrier

Sorry folks, but a Papa has to brag. Daughter Emily had a nice write up appear in our hometown newspaper today:

from http://www.mtstandard.com/articles/2007/02/19/sports_professional/hjjcjhiajigaid.txt :

Munday finds stroke in Boston

Former Butte Tarpon and Butte High School swimmer Emily Munday recently competed for the Boston University Terriers in the American East Conference Championships in Boston. In two races, Munday met up with Missoulian Colleen Miller, who now swims as a sophomore with the University of Maine.

On day one, the Terrier women’s 200-medley relay team tied with the University of Maine in a time of 1 minute, 48.31 seconds for third place. Freshman Ali Chester swam the opening leg of the race, followed by senior Lidija Breznikar, Munday and senior Marina Morie. Munday swam the butterfly leg of the race in 25.92 seconds.

On day two, the BU women’s 200-freestyle relay team of freshman Brigette O’Shaughnessy, Munday, Morie and sophomore Eve Kinsella swam to a first-place finish, breaking a 23-year-old team record in the process.The 200-free relay time was just seven one-hundredths shy of breaking the American East Championship record, as the team clocked in at 1:35.98. Munday swam a 24.02 in her leg of the race. Miller clocked a 25.09 and her University of Maine team finished in fourth place.

On day three, Munday earned points in finals in both the 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter backstroke. She took fifth place in the butterfly with a 58.08 and seventh in the backstroke with a 1:00.74.In the butterfly, teammates O’Shaughnessy and senior Tanaz Irani took sixth and eighth in 58.16 and 58.81, respectively. In the backstroke, BU’s Chester placed fourth with a time of 59.27.

On day four, the Terrier women’s 400-meter freestyle relay team placed second with a time of 3:30.16. O’Shaughnessy led off, followed by Munday, Morie, and Kinsella. Munday clocked a 53.39. Miller swam with the University of Maine relay team, this time to a fifth place finish and with an individual time of 53.68. Munday also won the “B” heat of the 100-meter freestyle with a time of 53.42. Teammate Kinsella won the “A” heat with a 51.27.

Overall, the Boston University women finished second in the seven-team field. University of Maryland took first place honors, and last year’s champion University of New Hampshire finished third. The University of Maine finished in fourth place.

The Moulton Journal: it takes a village...

I went for a long ski yesterday morning on the little Madshus classics. Except for the ungroomed trails of Yankee Boy and Buzzy, I did all the trails in what Rick Appleman calls "the grand tour" at The Moulton. Little Nipper was so delightful on these fast skinny skis that I took two laps around. Zooming down a little too fast, I did take a hard fall at the bottom of Widow Maker. It was icy at the bottom where the sun comes in through the trees and the little skis chattered sideways over the surface as I tried to make the turn onto the bridge at the bottom of the hill. I was leaning into that outside ski for all I was worth and believed I was going to make the turn until the moment my ski caught the soft stuff at the edge. It's been a few years since I've done such an elegant face plant into 18 inches of snow. Wouldn't have minded so much, but there was a crust on the snow and for a second or two I thought it split my lip. Keeps me humble.

Well, head plant aside it was a great run. Many thanks to Mike Stickney for grooming the trails in Paul's absence. The night before I toasted Mike's wife, Debbie, at her birthday party--along with many others who appreciate The Moulton. Even though you don't see a lot of other skiers on the trails, they get used a lot. Skiing the public and free trails on the National Forest land at The Moulton makes you part of a great community of those who love and appreciate the sport, the place, and each other.

Next year, sounds like another sort of birthday party is in order: Rick Appleman suggests a 25th year birthday party for The Moulton ski trails. While they might actually be a little more than 25 years old, it seems that 25 years ago the trail system was completed and a great map created. Hope the whole village can attend!

16 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: wind erases all

Wind erasing our tracks.

Wind, breath, pneuma, spirit, logos:
In the beginning was the wind.

This morning was the weekly TC Dept ski. Lori & I, w/ KelpieTheDog and RTD, went from Motherlode up Buzzy, then around Big Nipper and back. It was a blustery day on the heels of a blustery night, and my tracks from yesterday were barely discernible even in protected areas.

Not a long ski, but a discursive one--dissecting the nature of signs, Lori's goals in the MS project, the virtues of old & young dogs. On our way up the road we met Rick Rossi, dogless and on new skis. His ski buddy died of bone cancer and I was saddened to learn this. Owners of true companion dogs may be a diverse lot but we share an animal bond that, for better or worse, reflects truly on our own nature (if we dare to look).

Wind, that "spirit that moves in all things," erased our tracks as surely as it snuffs out the life of our dog. Short-lived companion, relative to us. Eventually the wind snuffs us out too. If we listen to and read canine companionship, then we can learn this lesson although we might never really accept or understand it.

Some beings endure longer than others. Methuselah the biblical guy lived 969 years. Methuselah the bristlecone pine is pushing 5,000 years and still going strong. And some signs endure longer than others. Gramps carved his name into a board on a horseshed wall in 1911 and last time I visited Cobb Hollow (near Nichols Run, NY) it was still there. Near Moab UT you can see 100-million year old dinosaur tracks. The wind just hasn't gotten to them. Yet.

For me it's still a matter of putting one foot (or ski) ahead of another and making tracks. In light of yesterday's thoughts on teleology, am I getting anywhere? Maybe to the next tree or to the next downhill run. And maybe that's enough.

15 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: getting Head/y

A Heady day, contemplating the nature of teleology and B/being.
I like cross country skiing above all other sports because of its contemplative nature. For some, hunting and fishing also serve this role, but I tend to be an alert, focused predator while engaged in these pursuits. If I want a period of reverie, I'll sit under a tree while fishing or build a fire and lay back while hunting. When I am actually engaged in hunting or fishing, the less thought the better.

I played some baseball and then softball when I was younger, but that didn't really lend itself to philosophy either. You don't want to be contemplating the rights of nature when a line drive comes at you down the third base line or when you need to know where the play is at after snagging that hot grounder. Even as an engaged specatator, you are at any moment fathoming the possibilities of home run or double play or strike out. Can Willie Mays in centerfield actually get to that flyball? And, if he does, can he make the throw to home? My mind never wandered much at the ballpark.

But skiing, like hiking, lends itself to thought. Had the peripatetic Aristotle lived in Norway, he would have founded the skidhenistic school (from the Norwegian skidh)--with groups of thoughtful, naturalist-inclined, skiers touring the hills while engaged in lively discourse. Sure, there are those thrilling runs down through the trees when the cross country skier must be totally engaged in the moment. But for every downhill run there is an uphill climb. And for both there are lots of long flats where, in company, the rhythm of conversation is one with the swish-swish of kick & glide.
Had the peripatetic Aristotle lived in Norway, maybe he would have been Arne Naess http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arne_Næss ?

Today's skidhenism was about the role of teleology in the construction of self. It's not merely a question of "What makes life worth living?," but of "What outcomes are worth working for?" Sadly, I suppose, American society has devolved into a teleology & B/being defined through material acquisition. This observation is not the mere grumbling of a disgruntled post-Kantian. The increase in materialism is well confirmed in numerous studies, and is especially evident in our youth [see e.g. Easterlin & Crimmins (1991)(http://www.jstor.org/view/0033362x/dm991752/99p02367/0]. Students and young adults want to drive a new truck, listen to tunes on the latest iPod, and party over Spring Break in Jamaica. Much of this consumption is conspicuous: ear buds, big SUV, 10,000 square foot McMansion = success.

For some of us, at least (or perhaps for a generation soon to pass from the face of America), there is more to life than appearance. Gramps raised a family in the Depression and always found time for the kids' ballgame, an evening of fishing, or a Sunday picnic. Dad joined the Army Air Corps and put his ass on the line so sundry Europeans could have their country back. As an academic, I (well, at least until my recent crisis of faith) wanted to contribute to an institution that valued research, social criticism, and the pursuit of T/truth.

Some sociologists make the academic world an economy of intellectual capital. Well, for some scholars or maybe sometimes for all scholars, maybe. But in reading Harold Bloom and newly appreciating my love of literature, the quest becomes "How to read and why?" I can't tell students that someday they will make more money at the McOil Drilling Company because they have read Shakespeare's Tempest and understand the role of magic-as-technology in controlling the American wilderness. Instead, I ask them to read as a means of discovering and becoming who they are. For more and more students, that is a less and less persuasive reason. And that is OK, for that is the way the world is and I shall not change it. For the fewer and fewer students for whom this is a persuasive reason, I dedicate my life.
[The HeadT "backcountry skies" pictured here were bought in a Butte pawnshop for $15. They had been blocked in storage to retain their camber, and were brand new--never having had a set of binding mounted on them. Sweet.]

14 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: blessed with snow

For several days in a row, we have been blessed with new snow. As of yesterday, there was about two inches of new stuff (less under the trees) at The Moulton. The first snowfall began wet & warm which helped that layer bond well to the old stuff, and yesterday's addition of two inches of fine powder was icing on the cake. And then again today we awoke to several inches of fine powder in Walkerville, which probably translates to more at The Moulton. I'll find out tomorrow! [Photo above: the neighbor's horses just west of my house.]

Yesterday's ski on the new snow was wonderful, with all the aesthetic & semiotic beauty of first tracks that I have elaborated on previously. On extra blue at 20 deg F with no wind and the soft fall of new flakes, it was a Norwegian version of heaven. While that much new snow made going a little slow, it also made it fun (and safe) to "ski the trees" here and there. Though much of The Moulton is dense lodgepole forest, there are some more open stands that lend themselves to the great wild slalom. I also took a run on the poleline along Buzzy, but it was a little too slow. [see pic at right]

But, oh, did I give myself a dope slap a half hour into it all: there I was, on plastic w/ metal edge E99s... on a day perfect for the old wooden Head BCs that I hesitate to take out on any but the softest snow with the firmest base! The old Norse gods will banish me for sure. So, come tomorrow, I'll be at heaven's gate with the proper gear.

12 February 2007

My College & Late Onset Realism

A midwinter fable:

I blame it all on Martha Montgomery, my beautiful, charismatic, and brilliant philosophy professor. In a sophomore-level ethics course, she turned me on to Immanuel Kant's Metaphysics of Morals. From there I turned to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason--first with the old English translation by Mueller, then on to N.K Smith's translation and commentary, and finally (as a PhD candidate) auf Deutsch. It was a dirty, rotten, Enlightenment trick: the idea that we might shape a new world of reality based on the transcendental application of pure concepts.

So here I am, a broken post-Kantian in a decidely un-Kantian world. Hell, most allegedly college educated people don't even know who the fuck Kant was; let alone do they care what Kant said, or what the hopes of the Enlightenment were. At least I've finally admitted my Don Quixotean tilting at windmills, and resolved to stop it. My wife calls it "late onset realism."

The roots of this conversion lie in my 17 years as a professor with the little college known as My College. When I hired on, I fell in with a like-minded (i.e. delusional) bunch of faculty that actually thought we could change our college for the better. By "change for the better," I don't mean realistic notions such as increasing enrollment or making it easier for students to take a degree.

Though we were a dedicated bunch, we had very limited and narrow experience. Dave had been a liuetenant in the jungles of Vietnam, taken a couple of psychology degrees from diverse Californian universities, and worked as a statistician for the Forest Service. Bill had ruined himself with unrealistic expectations through his time at various high-powered colleges in California, Hawaii, and Colorado. In my case, there had been engineering & humanities (that should have tipped everyone off!) at Drexel, a MS in Science, Technology & Values (huh?) with the Human Dimensions Center (oh, pulleeeze!) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, five years running a lab with a million dollar budget at an oil refinery (well, at least that was promising), and then a PhD in the History & Philosophy of Science & Technology (yikes! who hired this guy?) at Cornell.

In retrospect, I should have been much happier (and successful, which after all equals happiness, right?) had I started teaching with the MS and then, if necessary, picked up a Dr.Ed. Ah, but we can't go back, can we?

Well, anyway, back to the story: there we were at My College--a bunch of individuals who thought they were just too smart, a bunch of individuals with a very narrow view of the world, a bunch of individuals with unrealistic expectations.

I should have listened when my Dean and Department Head, dear dear Tommy, told me: "No, you really don't need to be doing any research and publishing. In fact, I think it will harm your teaching. You can't serve two masters." Tommy was a homeboy. He grew up on the mean streets of Butte at a time when Butte really was a tough town. Tommy had played sports, taught K-12, and went on to become a college professor, dean, and department head. He never published anything, either. Smart guy. Happy guy.

As the expression goes, "No man is a prophet in his own land." That is true. But lots of non-prophets do just fine. If Thomas Wolfe hadn't got all caught up in all that fancy-schmancy literature and tried to be a prophet, he could have went home again and done just fine. Disney had it right, folks: Hakuna Matata,--don't worry, be happy... Remember, George Bush (The First) using the song in his 1988 campaign? Happy guy. Kindler, gentler. It's a vision thing. Puppies. A scintillating kind of fellow. A man who steps out of the shower to take a pee. Best president we ever had.

Well, anyway, back to the story: there we were, and just because we wanted to change things and make things better and all that crap we started a new program--an MS in Technical Communication. The idea had been kicked around for years, but the old guard in the old Humanities & Social Sciences Department would have none of it. The college president didn't like the idea either--it would be just another program that might accelerate the mission drift of the insitution away from its identify as The School of Mines. Foolishly, we sought allies at the mother ship--the University of Their College down the river at Missoula. Oh yeah, we won a lot of friends with that move. Nothing like going over your colleagues and your boss's head to get what you want. Won the battle. Lost the war.

And then came the creation of a new undergraduate program in Technical Communication, along with the formation of a new department as an act of seccession. Oh boy. More friends won. As a department born of a long agonistic process, we not only made enemies: we also inscribed our identity. Yes, we were the progressives, embodying metamorphosis, leading My College to a new, bright future. Maybe not. Maybe we were mere changelings, caught up in some self delusion of "progress" and "enlightenment."

Agonistic identity. It has not worked, and it has made us unhappy. It is not fun to be perceived as "negative" by your colleagues and by management. Never mind that in this Age of DisEnlightenment no one distinguishes between "critical" (oh, my dear Kant) and "negative." Yes, perception is reality. It's time to shed that identity, and to embrace something happier, something more realistic. Pretty simple: shut up and be a team-player; otherwise, you're negative.

When I first hired on at My College, I thought it remarkable that so many department heads and other management-types were homeboys. And when I think of the three most recently selected department heads (that I know of), they too are homies. There is good reason for this, primarily because it works. People who are locally embedded, share cultural markers, and "speak the same language" can network together effectively. In the local culture, Montana Tech is IT. There need be no silly comparisons with how things are done at other colleges. That which is foreign makes no sense, is not possible, has no intelligenge--like the bar-bar sounds of Persian language to the classic Greek ear. WE are the world. Whatever happens "away" is irrelevant. Autopoiesis.

Because I did not take any of my degrees at My College, I cannot really be native. But I have been here long enough as a sort of cultural anthropologist to figure things out. Here's a simple example: I cross country ski. But cross country skiing is not a Butte thing. As I traverse the trails of The Moulton, I meet Paul from Vermont, the Stierles from California, the guy from Austria, the Stickneys from Missoula, the Smiths from Texas, Rossi from California/Oregon, sundry young folks from Bozeman or Helena... You get the picture. I can recall meeting only one Butte native on the ski trails--and he has largely given up the sport. Cross country skiing, though it lends itself marvelously to the geography of the place, marks you as someone from "away." To the Butte ear, it is like the bar-bar nonsense to the Greek ear. Best you don't talk about it too much.

Well, when in Rome... Or Athens... Or Butte... Those who are from "away" can work at My College, but generally it is very difficult to become truly part of the institution in a way that allows you to change it. Unlike many other colleges where one rarely meets a homie, at My College it is a general rule. That is the reality. A small group of agonistic faculty is not going to change that.

With a new Vice Chancellor and, soon (according to the rumor mill--which at My College is an authoritative source), a new Chancellor, agonistic faculty who base their identify on how things are done elsewhere and who expect My College to conform to their model should wise up. There is a new slate, and a new opportunity. Embrace the force. Go with the flow. Don't worry, be happy...

The Moulton Journal: thoughts of swimming while skiing

Sunday morning, and I was on a tour up Buzzy, a few loops around the north trails, and then down Sluice Box. It was a nice ski--a little fresh snow, warm temperature c. 30 deg F, very active flocks of black-backed woodpeckers and chickadees and pine siskins. Mostly, though, I was thinking about swimming. So much for being in the moment! Luckily the snow was not too fast, so I could get by with daydreaming along the trails.

Daughter Emily is in her freshman year and swimming for Boston University. The past four days was the championship swimming & diving conference meet--a competition between BU and seven other colleges, about 400 swimmers (male & female; plus I'm not sure how many divers). Each day, Jan & I listened eagerly to Emily's telephoned reports of her & her team. She swam well, making finals in her events and contributing to first, second, and third place relay team finishes. Come the end of the meet, the BU women took second honors.

For those who are not part of competitive swimming culture, anything short of the Olympics is probably considered dull fare. Certainly I feel the same way about most other sports. But in college, of course, we hope that the social and psychological benefit of engagement in sport -- well, almost any sport -- justifies the huge amount of time that goes into practice and competition.

It is animal nature to compete physically. The sociobiologists will argue the evolutionary benefits of this, but even RTD knows the primary reason: it's fun. Just ask RTD while she is racing ahead down a steep slope, digging for all she is worth to stay ahead as the tips of my skis gain on her... Of course, RTD is getting old and can stay ahead only on the gentle descents. She has aged gracefully and come to terms with her own limitations. She steps out of the way to let me pass even on the gentle downhills as I go into skating form. I felt the same way when, as a 10-year old, Emily began easily outswimming me even on a short sprint.

So here is to the young athletes -- children, young adults, or dogs. May they enjoy the peak years of their physical ability, and may they always enjoy the thrill of a good downhill run.

09 February 2007

Montana Tech faculty: a Union of Professionals

This is truly an historic moment. Montana Tech is more than a century old, and recently the faculty formed a union. In a vote held yesterday, we have now agreed upon a tentative bargaining agreement with management. The vote was favorable by a margin of more than three to one, and nearly all members voted. Furthermore, there was a flurry of faculty joining the union in order to vote, and that rush to join indicates how popular and sorely needed is our union.

Increasingly in recent years, many college and university faculties have unionized. Oftentimes this unionization movement has been prompted by the growing corporatization of academe. But colleges and universities are not and should not be operated like corporations. Through democratic governance, intelligent and dedicated professionals can make decisions in the best interest of their institution.

The unionization of university faculty is a major step forward, comparable to that great nineteenth century invention of tenure and academic freedom by faculty at German universities. Unionization helps protect the foundations of higher education. Of equal importance, it democratizes academe through faculty self-governance. In many ways, universities have been the last bastion of feudalism in the modern world—a place where administrative officials sometimes have an unreasonable degree of control over the activities of professional faculty.

There are also, of course, financial considerations. When I first joined Montana Tech seventeen years ago, full professors at Tech made about the same salary as University of Montana-Missoula faculty. Since that time, our salaries have fallen behind on average more than ten thousand dollars. I hope that this bargaining agreement is a first step in rectifying that problem.

The Moulton Journal: purple haze

Yes, it was a Jimi Hendrix experience this morning. An inch of snow fell overnight and the temperature hovered around 30 deg F. Off and on, new snow fell softly to the ground through air so quiet that you could hear the flakes' gentle hiss. The exercise-opiates were surging this morning.

Two loops around the north trails--one alone with RTD, and then one with Lori & Kelpie.

Wow. After several days of not skiing, I was getting grumpy. In town, even on the hill in Walkerville, no more than a dusting of snow accumulated overnight. But I trusted to faith, knowing the ability of The Moulton to pull snow like a magnet from the dry culdesac of the west slope of the Great Divide that is Butte.

Swix Purple fills a small niche in the ecosystem of kick wax. Blue Extra seems to work tolerably well most days even as the temperature approaches freezing. But when it's that warm (but freezing or below) with new snow, it's Purple time.

I discovered another virtue of Purple this morning. It provided great grip and I could walk up even the steepest hill on Yankee Boy, yet released with a simple kick as I went back to gliding once I crested the top; this I knew. What I did not know was Purple's weird braking effect: as I began a descent the skis were virtually frictionless. However, as my speed reached a fast pace I could feel a gentle but distinct deceleration--which I appreciated given that the runs are very icy under that new snow. My hypothesis: as the speed of the ski accelerates to some critical point, it generates enough heat to cause a transition in the snow. The warmer, transitioned snow sticks to the Purple and brakes the ski.

Probably this is one of those micro-bits of practical knowledge that occurs only a few times in the life of a recreational skier, like those rare moments on the river when you find just the right drift/dry fly combination and you can trigger trout to strike at will.

But that is what embedded knowledge of nature is all about-- appreciating the unique and varied nuances of our world. As the great Enlightenment-era biologist Buffon said, "There are no species, only individuals." Like snowflakes or stepping into rivers, each occurs only once.

06 February 2007


Well, another spate of warm weather has wrecked the skiing, so instead of skiing today I walked to work. I've been sawing out buttons from a deer antler to restore an old Woolrich coat, so along the way (it's about a mile and a half, so I have some quality thinking time) I thought about the whole "antler thing." That is, why do we save and treasure antlers? Is it a mere acquisitiveness, like rats hording useless items or children collecting baseball cards? Well, I like to think it's a little more than that.

Maybe it's more like scars. Get a bunch of men & beer together, and they (the men) will start talking about their scars. The thumb they split with a wood chisel, the stitches where the chainsaw kicked back and split their scalp, the band of scar tissue where they nearly cut off a thumb while reaching up inside an elk's chest cavity while wielding a sharp knife in the other hand... Antlers, like scars, are a material reminder of memorable events.

Certainly, many antlers just end up a debris in the corner of the basement. At my house, most antlers do not get saved anymore.

But some do. Rarely, I might use them for something quasi-practical--like buttons.

In Pennsylvania, I grew up in a deer hunting family that did not treasure antlers. Usually, they ended up "recycled" back to nature along with the offal, feet, bones, and other inedibles. Or they ended up in the yard, gradually reduced to oblivion as the hounds chewing on them. In my twenties, though, I worked at an oil refinery and got to know fellow chemist Bill King. Nailed up in his garage, Bill had the rack from every deer he'd ever killed . Because in most years he killed a buck in both New York State and Pennsylvania (we lived very close to the state line, and it was common to hunt in both states), there were more than fifty of them. So I began saving mine, nailing them up on various posts around a now-gone family oil property.

I left the refinery and went back to school for my PhD. In central New York State, I shot a classic "8-point" (eastern count) whitetail and mounted it on a nice hickory board slabbed out of firewood. This deer was all-the-more-special because as we were skinning and quartering it, my friend Andy Wilson found an arrow shaft with point embedded between the shoulder blades. The deer had healed completely. It makes a good hat rack and catchall for things like Great-Grandpa's M97 Winchester.

When I moved to Montana 17 years ago, I began to adorn the interior of our home with antlers. The first to go up was the rack from my first elk bull. As I look at these antlers, I recall it all seemed so easy: I just went out the first day of season, hunted elk like I had always hunted whitetails, found a big track, followed it all day, and late in the afternoon shot the bull. Wow. Sometimes it is just that easy.

Having grown up seeing small whitetail antlers, I am still amazed by the size of mule deer antlers. Even young bucks sometimes carry a rack that won't fit in a broom closet. So another hat rack made it inside the house.

My wife was feeling a little crowded by this time, so the next memorable buck I shot had its rack go to the office. It's not a big rack by any means, but it's a bit unusaul: a biologist told me the deer was a mulie-whitetail hybrid (not uncommon, I've found).

Since then, memorable racks go up on the back of the house on the outside wall to the mudroom. Oh yes, you can also see a buffalo skull with horns on the upper right (on the roof). I shot a couple of buffalo for a high school history outing when my daughter was in the history club; sent one skull to my friend Don for his barn (he has a nice elk rack I sent him, too).

What makes a memorable rack? Something about the hunt, usually. I must admit, I cannot recall most of my mule deer hunts. They all blend together into one universal, Platonic hunt that ended up with a 125 pound forkhorn providing good meat.

But I do remember every successful elk hunt--whether I took a cow or a bull. These two racks -- a mulie and bull -- are especially memorable because I shot the two within minutes of each other, and I shot them with my old hunting buddy Dave Carter. Though Dave had given up hunting, he joined me one day for a deer hunt in one of our favorite mulie haunts ("Dave's Deer Mine"). And for the first time, we saw an elk there, too. Also, the bull's left antler is deformed --it never grew out much, and part of the base split off and a brow tine grew down the elk's head between its eye and ear.

Speaking of Dave's Deer Mine, this is from the first buck I shot there. I learned that, to get these deer to the nearest road, you have to wade across an icy river. I've since learned to quit shooting big mulie bucks. Frequently -- if they are in rut -- the meat is so strong as to be nearly inedible. People will deny this, but then they start describing the strong seasonings and other cooking methods...

When I shot this bull, it was a long haul out through very deep snow. I left the head in a tree and hiked back up the mountain to retrieve it the following July. A porcupine found it first, as you can see by the nearly-chewed-through spot on the main beam of the left antler.

These two bulls were shot from opposite sides of the same bedding area in two consecutive years. The bull that carried the upper rack was a sort of dwarf: its body size was more-or-less normal, but its legs were abnormally short and it had only half a liver.
Well, I'm no trophy hunter, and certainly none of the racks I've taken over the years are trophies. But they are memories. By the way, ask me sometime to tell you about that scar on the inside of my left forearm...

05 February 2007

The Moulton Journal: February moonlight ski

In each of the 13 lunar months of the year, I strive to get out in the light of a full moon--on a moonlight ski, a backpacking trip, or sometimes just a walk back to the truck after fishing until dark. It's madness. A simple walk down a familiar old trail becomes enchanted. And even a moderate downhill on a familiar ski trail can be terrifying. Delightful, wild, lunatic madness.

Usually, at The Moulton, I'll run into other lunatics out for their moonlight ski: the Stierles most often, and I look forward to seeing them for it offers the prospect of an apres' ski cup of hot chocolate at their cabin. Alas, this moonlit night RTD and I found ourselves alone out on Big Flat, taking in the full moon and Butte by night.

On a still, clear night the cold seeps in through my jacket. Standing out in the open, you can almost hear the sucking sound of heat being drawn away from the ground and up into the sky. RTD says "Time to head home."

The Moulton Journal: a new skier

Some people are like squirrels, hiding away information about their favorite activities the way squirrels hide nuts. I enjoy what I do, and if others are interested, then I like to help them get into it. Thoreau said, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." I would modify that to, "In nature is our salvation." So I'm a bit messianic about getting others to do outdoors-stuff. Of course, don't ask me just where a I shot my last elk ("Just above the heart.") or where I caught my last mess of trout ("Right in the lip, everyone of 'em.").
Howard Smith lives out on the Moulton Road, just below the ski trails. He downhill skied while living in Germany, but his cross country thing on skinny skies is new to him. We hunt together once in awhile, and I've been urging him to ski. He gets a lot of exercise walking back and forth from his house to the barn to tend his horses, but winter in Montana needs to be more than that or shooting the neighbor dogs for bothering his chickens

Here's Howard on Big Flat (aka Moonlight Flats); his house is on the ridge more-or-less in the center of the photo.

And here he is on a downhill run. I've loaned him my old Karhu fishscale skis with a big sturdy set of 3-pin telemark boots. A little slow, but a very stable set-up.

One of the pleasures of teaching something is that the teacher gains new perspectives. In this case, I slowed down and appreciated some aspects of The Moulton that usually blur past in my aerobic haste--like this old trail sign, one of the few remaining original signs made by Dave Carter with a woodburning kit. Another shotgun blast or two, and it'll become just a memory.

01 February 2007

The Real State of the Nation

Bush lies and our kids die. Before Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” publicity stunt on the aircraft carrier, 139 American soldiers had died in Iraq. Our death toll is now over 3,000 and the end of Bush’s mission is nowhere in sight. By destabilizing Iraq Bush recruited tens of thousands of Arabs to the radical Islamic cause. Bush kicked in the neighbor’s door and gave him a black eye, and now he wants us to fight the battle.

But the war is just one way in which Bush and the Republicans misled and harmed America. Bush tried to be our all-powerful and all wise father, but clearly this father does not know what is best.

Our average household income declined under Bush’s rule, while corporate profits soared. We’re paying more than two bucks a gallon for gas, while Bush’s cronies at ExxonMobile made more than $36 billion in profits for 2006. Republicans sent our hard-earned dollars into corporate pockets.

Though Bush tells us health care is a top priority, about ten million Americans who had health care in 2000 lost it by 2006. And families who have health care now pay an average of $248 per month, whereas in 2000 they paid $135. Republicans made America less healthy.

Bush also told us that he’ll “make it easier for Americans to afford a college education.” Yet the cost of a college education increased more than 30% since 2000, and at the same time, Bush cut federal aid for college students. Republicans failed to invest in the future of America.

Bush’s irresponsible spending and tax breaks for big business turned a $236 billion surplus (2000) into the current $423 billion deficit. By sending jobs overseas, he doubled our trade deficit. Republicans spent our treasury like drunken sailors.

Two years from now, we again go to the polls. By twice electing Bush and other Republican stooges, Americans proved they were suckers for what Bush said and oblivious to what Bush did. Speak up, America. Challenge the big money corporate agenda. Take back America.

The Moulton Journal: blizzard & cold

(Temp hovering around 0 deg F) + (Wind gusting to 40 mph) + (An inch of new snow) = Ground Blizzard

(Green kick wax) + (Madshus "classic" skis) + (Sluice Box-->Claim Jumper-->In Vein-->Yankee Boy-->Big Nipper) = A Good Morning

All in all, very good. RTD might disagree as I pause in the meadow to take her photo--she's on the far left, floppy ears blowing in the wind. But she's happy to be back on the trails after her illness.