Embarrassment In Evanston

Northwestern University is dealing with an embarrassing story that is, I think, symptomatic of some deeper problems with higher education in America.

The story has to do with a popular class called Human Sexuality that is taught by a psychology professor.  The class often offers optional after-class events, such as presentations by panels of convicted sex offenders, question and answer sessions with “swingers,” and similar programming.  Last week, however, the optional after-class event featured a naked, non-student woman being repeatedly sexually stimulated by a provocatively named sex toy.  Moreover, the man who presented the demonstration says Northwestern will pay him between $300 and $500 for the performance.

Not surprisingly, once the story leaked there was an uproar.  Equally predictably, the professor defended the presentation as being educational about sexual diversity.  The professor says his students are open-minded about such things, and added in a statement that students find “the events to be quite valuable, typically, because engaging real people in conversation provides useful examples and extensions of concepts students learn about in traditional academic ways.”

I am sick to death of absurd activity being defended in the name of “academic freedom” and “intellectual curiosity.”  Is a university professor really unable to appreciate that having a university pay someone to present a naked woman being stimulated by a sex toy is offensive and inconsistent with an institution of higher learning?  Does the professor really not understand that such a demonstration is better suited to an X-rated theater or a Dutch sex show?  Is it too much to expect that people might actually have a sense of propriety about something so outlandish?  This is the kind of story that makes American colleges seem like an increasingly ribald joke, obsessed with pandering to the hedonistic and prurient interests of students who are more interested in having a good time than actually becoming educated.

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The Big Ten Basketball Meat Grinder

A lot of people have been saying that the Big Ten is the strongest basketball conference in the country this year, and it is beginning to look like they might be right.  Five games into the conference schedule (six for Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State), it looks like the Big Ten has a number of very good teams, lots of wonderful players, and a conference race that is and will continue to be up for grabs.  This is a conference where anything can happen on any given night of rugged Big Ten play.

The Buckeyes sit atop the standings at 5-0, a record that includes three invaluable road wins.  Ohio State has not been blowing its opponents out of the gym, however.  In its last four games Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State have taken the Buckeyes down to the wire, and we can expect more of the same as opponents develop ways to defend against Ohio State’s inside-outside game.  Saturday’s game against Penn State was a good example.  The Buckeyes pulled out to a ten-point lead, Penn State went to a zone that took Ohio State out of its game, and it took some last-second heroics from Jared Sullinger to ensure the victory.  It is clear that Penn State — which has been one of the surprises of the conference this year, having already upset Michigan State and Illinois — has a very good, well-coached team, led by senior guard Talor Battle and other experienced players.  They will give other teams fits.

Right behind the Buckeyes, at 4-1, are Michigan State and Purdue.  Michigan State has not been overwhelming — it needed overtime to win its last two home games, against Wisconsin and Northwestern — but it has found a way to win, and the Spartans always seem to be in the thick of the conference race under their great coach, Tom Izzo.  Purdue may have the best one-two combination in the conference in splendid senior center JaJuan Johnson and senior guard E’Twaun Moore and won its first four conference games handily before losing at Minnesota.  The always-tough Wisconsin Badgers, with their deliberate offense, and athletic Illinois are 3-2, the surprising Nittany Lions and the huge Minnesota Golden Gophers are 3-3, and spunky Northwestern stands at 2-4.  Indiana and Michigan, at 1-4, and Iowa, still winless, round out the conference — but don’t think they aren’t putting up a fight.  Michigan and Iowa both played well in their home games against the Buckeyes and gave Ohio State all it could handle.

This may be the best and deepest the Big Ten has ever been in basketball — and that is saying something.  The upcoming games where the top teams try to knock each other off, in the kind of bruising battles you expect in the Big Ten, should be epic.

A Big Ten Bowl Day

Today five Big Ten teams play in bowl games.  The big game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Rose Bowl, but other Big Ten teams also will have a chance to strut their stuff on the national stage.  Northwestern matches up against Texas Tech, Michigan State plays Alabama, Michigan will break its bowl drought against Mississippi State, and Penn State and Florida will square off.  I’ll be rooting for all of those Big Ten teams — even Michigan.

In recent years Big Ten fans have paid careful attention to the conference’s bowl record.  They feel like the Big Ten is disrespected on the national level, particularly in comparison to the SEC.  (I regret to say that Ohio State is responsible for a lot of this perception.  The Buckeyes are one of the Big Ten’s flagship programs, and they have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game.  That record unfortunately includes two national championship game losses.)  Bowl games are supposed to be fun, but for the Big Ten they are serious business, and not just because they produce significant revenue for the member schools.  Big Ten fans want everyone to recognize what they believe to be true — that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, with the biggest stadiums, the richest traditions, the greatest rivalries, and the most dedicated fans.  If you want to exercise such bragging rights, however, you have to earn them on the field.

This year the Big Ten has gotten off to a good start in bowl season.  It is 2-0, with Illinois and Iowa both posting bowl wins.  Today will tell the tale, however, particularly since three of the bowl games match up the Big Ten and the SEC.  Each of the games, moreover, poses intriguing questions and matchups.  How will Northwestern perform without their fine quarterback, Dan Persa, and will it be able to win its first bowl game since the Truman Administration?  Can Michigan State put a signature win over the defending national champions as a capstone on a break-through season that has seen the Spartans win 11 games?  How will Michigan’s Denard Robinson fare against the Bulldogs, and can the beleaguered Michigan defense keep the Wolverines in the game?  And which Penn State and Florida teams will show up for the Outback Bowl?

To me, the most interesting game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Grandaddy of them all.  I haven’t had a chance to see much of the Horned Frogs and their top-ranked defense, and there are lingering questions about the toughness of TCU’s schedule and the Mountain West Conference.  TCU will have a chance to answer those questions when its faces Wisconsin’s power running game.  If Wisconsin wins convincingly, on the other hand, it will quiet complaints about the BCS system by members of non-BCS conferences.

Too Wet or Too Hot?

Kish, Russell and I have made it home safely after the Northwestern graduation festivities; Richard will be home in a day or two as he enjoys the last few moments of college life.  The long drive gave us the opportunity for some additional reflection on the weekend, and two additional points seem worth making.

After Friday’s rain-soaked ceremony, Kish and I were surprised and a bit critical of the Administration’s decision to have graduation outdoors, despite the threatening weather advancing from the west.  After we attended Saturday’s Weinberg School graduation in the Welsh-Ryan Fieldhouse, however, we have a much better appreciation for the context of the Administration’s decision.   Even with only the Weinberg School graduates and their guests in attendance, the Fieldhouse was ludicrously hot on Saturday morning, with almost no air circulation save for that caused by furious (and largely ineffective) fanning of graduation programs.  It is impossible to imagine how hot it would have been if the Friday night graduation ceremony for the entire university had been moved indoors and every seat was filled with panting parents and grandparents.  Confronted with that unattractive option, the decision to go ahead and have the ceremony outdoors and hope that the weather would cooperate seems much more reasonable.

I also think attending a college graduation makes the other “graduation” ceremonies we have attended seem silly.  Our kids, like many other schoolchildren, went through “graduations” after fourth grade and eighth grade.  At the time, and even more in retrospect, the lower school and middle school “graduations” seem like foolish contrivances that cheapen the real meaning of graduation.  Perhaps those ceremonies are an outgrowth of the same suffocating, overly protective parental attitudes that require every kid who participates in an organized sport to receive a trophy, no matter how poorly they performed.  The significance of trophies have been sacrificed on the altar of general “self-esteem,” and so to an extent has the significance of graduation ceremonies.  Graduation from college is “graduation” in the literal sense — the student receives an academic degree — and also in the sense of the Latin root of the word, gradus, which means a step.  Regardless of what the graduate may go on to do, he or she has taken an irrevocable step forward into adulthood and a career.  College graduation is truly a momentous occasion, and I hope Richard and his classmates recognize its significance.  (Of course, when I graduated I didn’t.)

This link will take you to an on-line newspaper report on the NU graduation.  I’m sure that Northwestern officials appreciate that the story includes some comments from parents on the cost of a Northwestern education.

A Memorable Graduation

Richard received his diploma from Northwestern University last night, and it was a memorable evening for many reasons.  He got the job done in four years, got very good grades from a school where academic performance still means something, and contributed to the school community through his work as a radio DJ and as a columnist for the campus newspaper.  It is important to reflect on such accomplishments when graduation day comes — it is one of the reasons that the day exists.

In the future, when our family remembers the day, I think we will recall three things in particular.  First, Wynton Marsalis made a valiant attempt to provide a meaningful address to the graduates, despite looming threatening weather conditions that required the entire ceremony to be abbreviated, and I think he succeeded.  His gave the first page and last page of his prepared remarks, and still managed to deliver thoughts that were positive and well-suited to the occasion — and punctuated by a sweet little bit of trumpet work. 

Second, we didn’t manage to escape the rain and storms that rolled through Evanston all day.  The school administration made the call to have the ceremony outside at the football field, and as soon as the last speaker sat down the skies opened.  We all got soaked waiting for the shuttle buses to return us to the downtown area.  This article says the rainfall set a record for the day, and I am not surprised.  You know it was a real gullywasher when there is so much rain they have to close beaches.

Finally, we ended the night with an exceptionally good meal at Va Penzione, a restaurant we have been hearing about, and trying to dine at, for four years.  It was worth the wait.  The food was excellent, the wine was superb, and the company and conversation were wonderful.  Although we had been soaked to the skin at variouis points during the day (and will forever curse the bus driver who bypassed our shuttle bus line as we waited in monsoon-like conditions) it will be a day that Kish and I always will remember with pride.

Congratulations, Richard!

ASB Part II

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Carrying the toilet out of the house

Carrying the toilet out of the house

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

Here’s my long-awaited second post about the ASB trip I took last spring break.

The day after we destroyed the house, we got up early again, as usual. One of the worst parts about the trip was using the bathroom in the church we stayed in. Only the girls bathroom had showers, three of them. The bathroom floor flooded whenever we used them, so after a day the tile floor was a mess of fallen hairs, wet towels, and loose clothing. The showers were so small a guy my size couldn’t turn his body around without hitting the walls. The dividers between the showers were so short that when the guys used them they could see each other’s heads. The conversations the guys had in the showers became one of the running jokes in the trip. I didn’t participate in the conversations though – everyone on the trip took their showers at night, but I can’t stand that, so I got up ten minutes earlier than everyone else to shower in the morning.

We drove an hour to get to our site. It’s too bad we had to stay an hour away from where we worked. We debated a few times whether or not the trip had a net positive environment impact, considering all the driving we did.

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Jeray put us to work trimming some palm trees growing outside a museum in the national park. I took a lopper and cut down branches that were too low or went out too far. Some of the girls took the cut branches and put them in piles. Then a ranger brought a pickup truck and we threw the branches into the back. It got full fast, so I climbed on top and compressed the pile of branches by stepping on them. It was fun.

The next day we finally got to do what we came to do – real environmental work. We drove to the ocean, where we got onto a boat that took us to a little island. The floor of the island was comprised of crushed sea shells in many places. Jeray told us the island was once inhabited by natives, then by a wealthy family who built a house there, the stone foundations of which were still standing near where we docked. We walked through some wilderness to a barren area. It was very hot every day we were there (I forget if it was two or three days). There was little breeze at the center of the island, and the white sea shell fragments seemed to reflect heat. We made sure to drink a lot of water.

On the boat

On the boat

Our job on the island was to remove an invasive species, the Agave plant. Actually, there were native Agave plants on the islands that were distinguishable because they had ridges on the edges of their leaves. Let me tell you, there are few non-poisonous plants you want to stay away from more than Agave plants. There are painful spikes at the tip of each leaf that hurt like hell if you ran into them, which you inevitably did. Actually I’m not sure whether they should be called leaves. They were more parts of a cactus: firm, with a watery inside. Their firmness made the spikes hurt even more. It was important to cover as much skin as possible, and we all wore sunglasses so our eyes wouldn’t be poked.

Some people spent the entire day going ahead of the group and cutting off all the spikes was loppers, and the rest of us would tear the plants out of the ground. The roots often went deep and were tangled with other roots, making this difficult. When we finally uprooted the plant, we either threw it into a big pile, rested it on a branch, or threw it onto an area of ground that was so salty there was no threat of the plant taking root there and growing again.

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

You can see the chopped-off tips

You can see the chopped-off tips

On the last day on the island, another girl on the trip and I walked around with a woman who was working for the park. She had just graduated from college and was eager to be around people her own age, because usually she worked alone. She had a plastic canister of some sort of plant killing solution on her back, and our job was to clear the way so she could spray it on the center of an invasive tree species. Her backpack started leaking and the toxic orange liquid got all over her shirt.

At the end of the last day, all the guys got together to work on the biggest Agave plant we could find. It looked like something out of Land of the Lost. It had grown to the height of a tall tree, with the center branch turning into a trunk about six inches thick. We rocked it back and forth until it finally fell. Jeray told us it was already dead, but we were proud anyway.

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

We only worked three hours or so a day, due to our long drive, the heat, and frankly the lack of much work to be done. The work could be hard sometimes, but it was fun. Honestly, it seemed more like a vacation than a service trip for me, and I think most students treat ASB that way.

Observing the alligators

Observing the alligators

Most nights, we drove to an area of the park with a boardwalk that allowed us to view alligators and other species common to the everglades. We got pretty close to the alligators. We must have seen dozens, but they almost never moved, even blinked. One girl shone a flashlight into the open eye of one of them at night for at least a few minutes, and it did nothing. Seeing one actually glide through the water was rare, and I never saw one walk on land. There was a dead alligator in the water that turned a disgusting white and smelled horrible. Perhaps the most exciting alligator moment happened when another alligator came up and bit the body.

At the end of the week, we packed our possessions into the vans and started the drive back. There was a little dispute over what to do with the half-day or so we had for recreation. About half of us, including me, wanted to lounge around on the beach in Miami. The others were obsessed with seeing a manatee and wanted to go to the manatee park. We took a vote, and the beach option won.

On the beach in Miami

On the beach in Miami

We ate lunch at a bar in Miami with a surly Australian waitress, then we spent some time at the beach. The people who wanted to see the manatee were making it clear they weren’t enjoying themselves, sitting on benches near the entrance of the beach and watching us lay there. Finally, the site leader who led the manatee faction pressured us into leaving the beach to see the manatees, and we did. We drove an hour or so to a manatee park, but there were no manatees to be seen. We left and drove north.

I don’t remember where we slept that night. The next day, we drove through a big storm in Georgia. We ate at a Waffle House because one of the guys on the trip was curious what it was like. I think I was the only one who had been to a Waffle House before. Since Waffle House is predominantly a southern chain, and Columbus has Waffle Houses, they joked that this made Columbus part of the south.

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

We were so eager to get home that we ignored ASB rules and drove through the night, arriving in Evanston around one or two in the morning. We slept on the floor of the apartment of one of the site leaders. When we woke up the next morning, there was snow on the ground.