Let Confederate Statues lead charge promoting clear principle, symbolic chains, and open Socratic self-criticism

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UT should keep Confederate statues but add context with plaques

Posted on-line: 11:27 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015 Austin American-Statesman

Print Edition Wednesday August 12, 2015

Al Martinich and I wrote this public response to the report of the Task Force on Historical Representation of Statuary released to the president and the public yesterday morning (August 10th), arguably one of the deadest days of the year for drawing faculty, student, staff and community response.

The subject phrase summarizes our main points. We explain them more fully in the commentary here below.

We particularly were concerned about direct or indirect notions in the report (1) that our University could not openly be seen to be involved in self-examination and self-criticism and (2) that a clear statement of ethical values on an important social issue might be considered ‘inflammatory’.

Ours is a public university that proclaims on its seal that the education it offers is the guardian genius of democracy.  We should obey always the Socratic principle that “the unexamined life is not worth living”—and certainly not worth paying tuition money for.

TGP and AM

http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/ut-should-keep-confederate-statues-but-add-context/nnHS4/

By Al Martinich and Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

The Task Force on Historical Representation of Statuary presented University of Texas President Gregory Fenves this week with five options for the controversial statues of Confederate leaders.

One option is to keep the statues but to add “explanatory plaques that would enhance the educational value of the six statues and provide historical context.” We think this is the best option. But it can be improved.

“Educational value” and “historical context” are too vague and evasive. An objection to that option is that it is “difficult to provide contextualizing statements that are strong enough to counteract the powerful message sent by bronze statues on high pedestals on our Main Mall, while not so strong or intemperate as to be simply inflammatory.” We think otherwise.

What if all six statues had a plaque with the same unequivocal message: “The University of Texas condemns slavery and regrets that its history is closely tied with slave owners who never recognized the equality of African-Americans and Hispanics”? Would this message be weak or inflammatory? No, it would forthrightly declare the true values of the university and the state of Texas.

In addition to the plaques, chains should be added at the ankles of the statues. The meaning would be clear and conspicuous. If anyone should be enslaved, even symbolically after the fact, slave owners should be. Slavery shackled the ideal of developing a society that treated all people equally.

The report also objects that adding plaques “would be like engaging in vigorous self-criticism on the university’s homepage.” Yes indeed! And all for the good! This is no objection. It is a strong reason to do so. No human institution is perfect, as the statues themselves show. Self-criticism is crucial for a healthy democracy.

Universities, especially public universities like UT Austin, are special places. The values of the university should be expressed clearly and discussed. UT’s core values are generally cited as marketing tools that establish what in the present discussion is historically ironic, a “brand” that distinguishes UT Austin from other universities competing for students. The core values are learned by rote like the Ten Commandments: Once learned, they are rarely consciously put into practice. The values should be examined again and again in the context of what has happened in our society over time, what is happening now and what is likely to happen under the guidance of those few graduates who become our future leaders — and the many, many other students who become the day-to-day doers and the heart and soul of our country.

We have long been preoccupied at the University of Texas at Austin with maintaining a façade of high achievement. We focus on those who attain high distinction in the classrooms, out in service to the community and on athletic fields. We forget that our university, like our society as a whole, is made up of struggling human beings with varying talents and abilities. To have all passersby, students, their friends and families, and other outside visitors be reminded on a regular basis of the fundamental questions — historical and contemporary — posed by race, ethnicity and other behaviors within society as whole will work to strengthen our democracy.

Socrates in 399 B.C. accepted a death sentence rather than go on living without questioning the moral and ethical values of his society. The one core value of our university that should trump all should be that the unexamined life is truly not worth living. It was a lack of strong commitment to imaginative self-criticism in Texas that enabled slavery and later promoted racial discrimination. Imagine yourself and your children as slaves. Feel the chains around your ankles. Would you support slavery?

The other four options presented to our president involve removing one or more of the statues to some other location. Keeping any of the statues unaltered is offensive. Removing all of the statues is a way of suppressing our history and missing an ongoing teaching opportunity.

Once more: No human institution is perfect. Self-criticism is crucial for a healthy democracy. Universities are special places where the values of our culture need to be discussed in the future much more than they have been. Let the Confederate statues lead the charge in what is always an uphill battle against human ignorance and prejudice and toward examined lives of dignity and respect for all of us and all our children.

Al Martinich and Tom Palaima are professors at University of Texas at Austin.

Minds of 2015 graduates in Liberal Arts give hope for the future

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Palaima: Minds of 2015 grads give hope for future

Posted: 11:00 p.m. Wednesday, May 20, 2015

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

The University of Texas at Austin at the end of the spring semester is a place of relics and memories. Senior thesis writers and Ph.D. dissertators in the humanities leave their supervisors and readers with an assortment of parting gifts.

Their completed work offers insights into the human experience: how and why our society doesn’t work as well as it should, what individuals can do to make a difference, what lies we are told, what lies we tell, and what lies we want to believe. I speak here personally about five students I have worked with who are leaving my colleagues and me with the kind of empty-nest feelings that other faculty share.

Plan II honors student Brina Bui worked with psychiatrist Stephen Sonnenberg and me analyzing art programs in pediatric hospitals in Texas’s five major cities. Only Dell Children’s Hospital here in Austin employs trained art therapists who use art in an informed therapeutic process to discover what children are feeling and thinking. Bui’s research suggests that art programs, despite their therapeutic value, generally are viewed as inessential add-ons in pediatric hospitals and are not prioritized in their budgets.

Johnathon Reddinger, who is part of the Polymathic Scholars Program, studied representations of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Hollywood films and documentary films. Reddinger joined the Marine Corps out of high school in summer 2007. He was deployed in summer 2009 to Al Anbar province, Iraq and in winter 2010-2011 to Helmand Province, Afghanistan, serving as 0311 Infantry Rifleman and 0313 Light Armored Vehicle Crewman. He matriculated at UT Austin in 2011. Reddinger doesn’t see the wars American soldiers fought in the war films Hollywood makes.

In his view, Hollywood films do bigger box office when their ideologies match the audience’s. This explains the switch from anti-war sentiments in Vietnam war films to patriotic sentiments in Iraq and Afghanistan war films. Hollywood films leave out, except in hints, “the debilitating injuries — mental and physical — that soldiers sustain on the battlefield and then bring home.” They stereotype the enemy and do not show how our wars devastate other cultures. Documentaries about soldiers and film interviews with soldiers, even ‘stars’ of Hollywood features like Chris Kyle, get at the truth. But the truth doesn’t sell tickets or reassure the general public or help recruit more soldiers.

Ciaran Dean-Jones’ Plan II thesis, directed by me with Sonnenberg and historian George Forgie as readers, helped earn him a $3,000 UT Co-op George H. Mitchell Award as one of the top seven undergraduate researchers this year. Dean-Jonesstudied President Abraham Lincoln’s writings closely to trace how Lincoln’s emotional and psychological struggles in early adulthood related to the theological beliefs he developed during the Civil War. As seen in his second inaugural address, Lincoln took to using the suffering of the Civil War to move our divided nation toward reconciliation rather than punishment of the South.

Commander Mike Flynn, a 1995 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, also came to UT in 2011, like John Reddinger. He is taking up a teaching appointment at the academy this fall. His doctoral dissertation in comparative literature, directed by Katie Arens with Cesar Salgado, Hector Dominguez-Ruvalcaba, Gabriela Polit and me as readers, runs a PTSD Geiger counter — as he puts it — over the literature set during the drug-war violence in Colombia. Flynn identifies the broader social pathology of trauma and highlights the destructive force of human greed, the signifier that destroys all significance. His work focuses our attention on complex PTSD, on the ways trauma is transmitted across generations and from person to person, on how it persists in memory, and on what narration can do partially to heal personal and collective trauma.

Finally Jorge Wong, a classics major and McNair Scholar, explored the crisis — ancient Greek for point of decision — that King Agamemnon, himself an inheritor of multigenerational trauma, faced in the Greek tragedy named after him. Agamemnon was given the same choice Yahweh gave to Abraham: Sacrifice your child or bear the consequences of divine disfavor. Jorge highlighted the Greek ritual vocabulary the playwright Aeschylus used to make clear to readers and viewers from 458 BCE to the present how complicated the factors in Agamemnon’s decision were.

My memories and relics of this academic year preserve my faith in students with bright minds and passionate souls who persist in examining who we are as a society and my gratitude to my learned colleagues who provide inspirational nurturing to fledglings in the UT nest and even old birds like me.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

Failure to reform NCAA is at Root of Cheating Scandal at University of Texas at Austin

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Palaima: Failure to reform NCAA is at Root of Cheating Scandal

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Friday, June 19, 2015 Austin American-Statesman
print edition Saturday June 20, 2015

http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-dont-blame-victims-in-athletics-cheating-s/nmf8H/

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor LINKS TO COIA reports at bottom

As we move through life, we experience moments of revelation when we see clearly what meaning we want our lives to have, how we will spend our time on this earth. Saul, on the road to Damascus, was surrounded by a blinding light, went three days without sight, food or drink, and changed his ways of thinking. He became St. Paul.

Sometimes we realize we have had enough, like world welterweight boxing champion Roberto Durán 35 years ago conceding his rematch with Sugar Ray Leonard by telling the referee, “No más, no más.” Durán was widely ridiculed, but he knew it was the right thing to do. He went on to hold titles as a light middleweight and middleweight and is considered the greatest lightweight boxer of the twentieth century.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Brad Wolverton alleges that three student athletes who played basketball between 2003 and 2014 at the University of Texas were guilty of academic misconduct and “illustrate how the university has appeared to let academically deficient players push the limits on academic integrity as it has sought to improve its teams’ academic records.” Notice how easy it is to blame the victims.

From September 2008 through May 2011, I was the UT and Big XII representative on the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, a national organization formed originally to try to make sure that all student athletes in the big-time sports entertainment industry known as the National Collegiate Athletics Association get something we could call an education.

COIA’s members have a bit of St. Paul in them. They are mostly senior professors who have reached a point where the problems that major NCAA sports programs cause for the academic integrity of their institutions obligate them to try to do something.

In my case, the timing seemed right. In 2007 the Austin American-Statesman published a series of front-page stories on the excesses of UT’s NCAA program. Remarks from the UT athletic director and his chief financial officer like “We eat what we kill,” meaning we raise lots of money for sports and are darn sure going to spend it all on sports, and “We are the Joneses,” meaning we kill and eat so much more than most everybody else that they all want to be like us, made me think that someone in a position of power in the UT Tower or the Legislature or the Board of Regents would do something.

I was dead wrong. Likewise, graduation rates for minority athletes were embarrassingly low, and the differentials in standardized exam scores between regular students and basketball and football players were shocking to anyone who prioritized education and intellectual life.

In late January 2011, COIA met at Big Ten headquarters near Chicago. We heard talks from NCAA President Mark Emmert, from Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, and then from Graham Spanier, for 15 years president of Penn State University. All stressed the morality and integrity of NCAA sports and the need for independent faculty oversight of NCAA programs. There is still none at UT.
Spanier went further. He assured us that every year he spoke to everyone having anything to do with NCAA sports on his campus and told them if they knew of the smallest infraction, he wanted to be informed so he could correct the matter. Nine months later, in November 2011, came revelations about sexual predator Jerry Sandusky and the “conspiracy of silence” by Spanier and other top officials at Penn State. That was my “no más” moment.

The NCAA mandates that student athletes should devote no more than 20 hours a week to their sport. Their own survey in 2008 proved that football players average 44.8 hours per week. Their Academic Progress Rate requires cumulative GPAs of 1.8, 1.9 and 2.0 at the end of the second, third and fourth years. UT’s average GPA for all students, including athletes, is ca. 3.2. And a satisfactory APR requires completion of only 80 percent of coursework by the end of the fourth year. The NCAA then runs a system in which, in comparison with average students, student athletes have too little time, many make poor grades and many end four years without a degree.
The academic misconduct of the NCAA, countenanced by regents, university presidents, college coaches, season ticket holders, men’s and women’s athletics councils, sports writers and NCAA officials is what needs to be addressed. They should all head toward Damascus before it’s too late.

FOR links to COIA reports 2009 and 2011, see http://www.utexas.edu/faculty/council/2008-2009/reports/COIA_08-09_rpt.pdf

http://www.utexas.edu/faculty/council/2010-2011/reports/COIA%20REPORT%20APRIL%2011%20PALAIMA.pdf

Perhaps we should be honest about unhappiness

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Palaima: Perhaps we should be honest about unhappiness

http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-perhaps-we-should-be-honest-about-unhappin/nkKHw/#a0c0d70a.3469532.735656

Tom Palaima

Posted: 12:43 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

In his recent book “Cowardice,” Chris Walsh points out that the life expectancy of American males doubled between 1850 and 2008, going from 37.2 years to 75.5 years. He pinpoints one momentous effect that this and other changes, like increased urbanization, have had on us. They have made our “greatest fear, that of death, seem distant and vague.”

Here is a related case in point. At a recent meeting of experts on public health care issues in Texas, a psychiatrist speaking on behavioral (mental) health care quoted Sigmund Freud on what his therapy was aimed at. Freud stated that he was trying to transform the “hysterical misery” of his patients into “common human unhappiness.” This prompted general laughter from the audience and other panelists. I wondered why.

To borrow a phrase Willie Nelson used when I interviewed him about his classic song “Jimmy’s Road,” the general laughter at Freud’s remark struck me as “some kind of strange thing.” Willie’s song, written back in 1968, expressed his deep feelings about the damage the hard experiences of war can cause to the body, mind and soul of any young person. Listen to it once or twice and you, too, will wonder what is funny about Freud’s insight.

Freud was dead serious, and the word “misery” connotes pity and sympathy for those who are suffering. When I was a young and pious Roman Catholic altar boy, during the Easter season we performed a solemn ritual known as the Stations of the Cross. We followed Jesus Christ on his suffering path from his condemnation (station 1) through his crucifixion and death (stations 11 and 12) to his entombment (station 14). We sang and chanted prayers in Latin in our thankful belief that Jesus, the son of God, took on such misery himself because he saw our suffering and pitied us.

Recognizing our own suffering, we sang the Litany of the Saints, petitioning Jesus Christ, “miserere nobis,” “have mercy on us.”

Freud like all caring medical practitioners treated those who came to him as literal “patients,” from the Latin patior “I suffer.” He knew their psychological suffering deserved to be relieved. He also knew that, no matter how successful he was, all he could do was to return his patients to the normal human condition.

Why does it strike us as “some kind of strange thing” that our normal human lives partake of “common unhappiness”? Is it because not wanting to confront our own doubts about our lives, we look away from the general misery of our fellow human beings? Our founding fathers looked at reality. On July 4, 1776, they declared that happiness was a goal to be pursued. We now seem to view it as a state that is already ours, and rightly so, so long as we ourselves have acquired and maintain the right mix of income, power, education, job security, retirement income, religious piety, and health and life insurance.

We delude ourselves when we equate happiness with a protected and blinkered way of living. This delusion will vanish if we reflect upon the many hardships and sorrows we face moving through relatively privileged lives. It will vanish if we look at those on the bottom of our increasingly steep social and economic and educational pyramids. It will also vanish if we take time to look, listen, read, hear and learn.

To return to the medical profession, I recommend the writings of poet William Carlos Williams, a medical doctor among the urban poor and needy. In his essay “The Practice,” he flatly declares, “I have never had a money practice; it would have been impossible for me.” And he speaks of “the peace of mind that comes from adopting the patient’s condition as one’s own to be struggled with toward a solution.” Rejecting what we would now call nightly news as a useless distraction, he finds “whole academies of learning” in a single patient’s eyes.

Walt Whitman, too, discovered soul-shaking truths about our general capacity to look away from human unhappiness. In late 1862, he became aware of the abominable treatment of wounded Civil War soldiers while searching for his wounded brother George in field hospitals. He stayed and worked devotedly with the wounded. He found that just listening in a human way might be enough to help a soldier pull through.

We all know in our hearts that human unhappiness is not uncommon, no matter how much we want to pretend that it is distant, vague or laughable.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

Is evicting fraternity for racist behavior the best course?

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Palaima: Is evicting fraternity for racist behavior the best course?
Posted: 6:00 p.m. Thursday, March 12, 2015
http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-is-evicting-fraternity-for-racist-behavior/nkTjB/

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman print edition March 13, 2015

Like many Americans, I watched the two video clips of white student members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity dressed in black tie and singing a racist chant on the kind of bus well-heeled groups charter to go to and from fancy occasions. I then read what the president of OU said and did in response. I felt déjà vu all over again.

Remember back to November 2008. Right after the historic election of Barack Obama as our first black president, a University of Texas football player posted on his Facebook page the racist message, “All the hunters gather up, we have a (expletive) in the White House.”

In both cases, those in charge of the universities disappeared the offending parties. The UT student athlete was quickly off the team and transferred to another school. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at OU was closed down fast. Two fraternity members have been expelled.

Do you think that the students involved suddenly decided of their own rational choosing to behave like racists? No one truly educated in the history of racial prejudice in our country and its enduring effects long after the civil rights movement of the 1960s would post the Obama joke or sing the fraternity chant. In Austin in 2008 and Norman in 2015, the perpetrators appear to have acted without even conceiving there was something to think about. They have suffered serious consequences. But are these the right consequences?

Is a larger issue being ignored? Shouldn’t we ponder what kind of upbringing and education kindergarten through 12th grade disposes fortunate young white men at respected public universities to not recognize when they are being racist? If we “disappear” them, are we not in some ways giving them and us an easy out? Are we failing to take hold of an opportunity to unite in learning?

In the case of the UT football player, the argument was made that his teammates would have been uneasy and tense around him, that his transferring was best for all concerned. But wasn’t that an odd kind of enforcement of the status quo? Young men with racist instincts, especially if acquired unthinkingly, should have to confront how what they have done affects those who are objects of their racism. And those who are the objects would benefit by having to confront their own feelings of anger or despair about how ingrained racism still is in our society and try to make their way along the courageous nonviolent path of Martin Luther King.

In both cases, we see a lack of strongly felt historical imagination. The UT student athlete had no capacity to feel the deep meaning of Obama’s election. And just a few days after the end of Black History Month, many white OU fraternity members had no sense of what it would be like to be on the receiving end of their chant. If any of them had watched the movies “12 Years A Slave” or “Selma,” they had not internalized what those movies were depicting.

Instead of disappearing the problem, why not keep these students on as students and have them live through what their actions mean in a healthy, open communal way? Surely with pressure from college presidents across the country, Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members nationwide could sign on to conduct educational events throughout Black History month annually for the foreseeable future. That would do much more social good than forcing a single fraternity chapter to disband and the members to go their anonymous, unthinking ways. Further separation will not promote the human togetherness we all need to feel.

I say all this having come to realize in my adulthood just how segregated my own upbringing was. The Cleveland, Ohio, of the 1950s into the 1970s had no Jim Crow laws. But most black Clevelanders lived on the near East side in neighborhoods left behind by the children and grandchildren of white European immigrants chasing America’s suburban dream.

We had no apartheid. But my Catholic grade school and Jesuit high school had no black students 1957-1969. There were few black students at Boston College from 1969-1973. None ever took a class with me.
Growing up in such racial separation makes it easy not to see racism in the first place. And when we do read about racist conduct in America’s past or about a racist act by somebody somewhere else, it is easy not to feel the continuing presence of racism where we are right now.

Palaima is a professor of classics at the University of Texas.


http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/letters-to-the-editor-march-15-2015/nkWWR/

Evicting fraternity sidesteps issue
Re: March 13 commentary, “Palaima: Is evicting fraternity for racist behavior the best course?”

When hearing about the University of Oklahoma fraternity boys and their racist song, I remembered another song. This was “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” by Rodgers and Hammerstein from the movie “South Pacific.” One of the verses says: “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Then I read Professor Tom Palaima’s column. He argues that the university should not have closed down the fraternity, giving these members an “easy out” by having them disappear from campus.
Palaima poses the question of looking at what would motivate “fortunate young white men at respected public universities to not recognize when they are being racist.” He further recommends that we take hold of an opportunity to unite in learning. I agree that this would be a good start.

MARY LOU GIBSON, AUSTIN

Charlie Strong’s core values should match the rest of UT

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Palaima: Charlie Strong’s core values should match the rest of UT

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 Austin American-Statesman print October 26, 2014

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-charlie-strongs-core-values-should-match-t/nhrJ3/

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

There are many occasions for us to wonder how or why people in positions of authority make the decisions, adopt the policies or say the things that they say, without their advisers offering forceful objections beforehand or anyone offering criticism at the time or after the fact.

There are many reasons for this. It is not easy to speak frankly to people who hold and use power. Few leaders follow Abraham Lincoln’s sound policy of having as his Cabinet a team of rivals who naturally viewed issues differently than he did and said so. It is also hard to dig down to underlying assumptions or to see hidden implications.

Praise has been heaped on University of Texas at Austin head football coach Charlie Strong for adopting and enforcing a strict set of five core values for student athletes on the UT football team. In late September, Strong spoke forthrightly in person to the commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, about National Collegiate Athletic Association programs sending “players with questionable character” to the NFL where the mix of bad character and lots of money “accentuates the problem.”

Yet the very core values that Strong has enunciated indicate how out of synch big-time college sports programs are with the cultural values of the educational institutions with which they are, in some views, only loosely affiliated.

Imagine, if you will, a general pool of non-athlete prospective students who have expressed interest in enrolling at UT, or Stanford University or Stephen F. Austin State University.

During a campus visit, these would-be students and their parents listen intently to the dean of students or the university president or the head of the physics department. What they hear is this: “Our core values are the same as Charlie Strong’s. If your sons and daughters come here, they will learn to treat women with respect, be honest, and no stealing, drugs or guns.” There is a good chance those students and their parents would probably think that they had accidentally found their ways into a youth correctional facility.

There is a night and day difference between the UT football program’s core values and the core values that UT promotes for the other 75,000 students, faculty and staff: “The core values of The University of Texas at Austin are learning, discovery, freedom, leadership, individual opportunity, and responsibility. Each member of the university is expected to uphold these values through integrity, honesty, trust, fairness, and respect toward peers and community.”

Far from finding Strong’s core values laudable, I find them troubling, even demeaning to the true student athletes in his program. They point out a Grand Canyon separation in attitudes and outlooks between students and faculty on one side and student athletes and coaches on the other.

Strong’s idea that somehow bad character is reinforced, or at least not corrected, only during the few years — often less than four — when student athletes are actively participating in NCAA programs is also questionable. The corruption begins when NCAA recruiters start contacting prospective athletes even before they are in high school. Young athletes start losing touch with reality from that point right on through to when national television networks broadcast as events of major importance where a high school athlete during his senior year has decided to “go to college.”

The disconnection between big-time NCAA athletics and serious higher education is countenanced and reinforced by the policies of the NCAA and of the colleges and universities. At the University of Texas at Austin, in response to pressure from the Texas Higher Education Board, the Board of Regents, the Texas State Legislature and other state political leaders, there is now an emphasis on students graduating within four years of matriculation. UT-Austin has even appointed Vice Provost David Laude to serve as a special “graduation czar” with a hefty $291,000 salary to enforce policies that will increase our four-year graduation rates.

Yet the academic success or failure of athletics programs has been and still is determined on a six-year time schedule. Student athletes satisfy the requirements of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate if they have finished about 80 percent of their course work within four years with grade point averages of 2.0. Compare this low satisfactory GPA to the average GPA for all students at UT-Austin, around 3.2, and we can see how the Academic Progress Rate’s emphasis on maintaining sports eligibility is a disincentive regarding academic achievement.

Our colleges and universities are homes to learning. Let’s think of ways that, for athletes in major revenue sports, they can be much more than houses of correction.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

AAS Sunday June 15, 2014 Even in death, some fathers hold onto their secrets

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Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday June 15, 2014 Father’s Day

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, June 14, 2014

Palaima: Even in death, some fathers hold onto their secrets

By Tom Palaima

Regular Contributor

Ever since Oedipus tried to find out who his real father was and Patroclus set sail in search of information about Odysseus, the long-absent father he never knew, when we wonder why we are who we are, our thoughts turn to our parents. As Father’s Day approaches, many of us ponder the mysteries of fatherhood too late to get real answers from parents who are no longer with us.

I became my father’s second surviving son on Oct. 6, 1951, at 8:30 a.m. at Doctors Hospital in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. That was six years after my father returned from fighting alongside other soldiers in the 1st Cavalry Division in World War II and five years after my only surviving brother Michael was born.

You may wonder why I call us surviving sons. On my official birth certificate, acquired last year, appears a question: “How many OTHER children were born alive but are now dead?” The answer typed in on the form is “One.”

I found out that I had a second older brother about ten years ago. On a trip back to Cleveland, I visited, as usual, Calvary Cemetery where my beloved paternal grandparents and my uncle Joseph are buried. This time I forgot to bring their plot locations with me. The clerk in the central office retrieved information for Palaima.

I was stunned when he said, “Here are your four plots: Michael, Sophie, Joseph and Baby Boy.” My second older brother was born on October 23, 1950, eleven and a half months before I was. He lived from 5:54 to 5:59 AM. He was buried the next day in the infant section of the cemetery.

When my brother and I asked my father, then in his late 80s, about our unknown brother, he replied that between our births, our mother had had a miscarriage and then lost a child right after he was born. Their doctor, Dr. Pasquale Ferrara, ordered them not to have more children, stressing the danger pregnancy would pose to our mom.

Our dad smiled and said something like, “But you know your mother.” We could see that he knew well his wife of 57 years.

We were left to wonder how the strong-willed, beautiful, devoutly Roman Catholic, anxiety-ridden woman who was our mother and our choir-boy father found it in themselves to defy the kind of authority figure they generally obeyed without question just as recruits in basic training snap to orders from their drill sergeants. I wonder now if Baby Boy Palaima had lived, would I be here.

My father still holds onto secrets, even seven years after he died at age 90. Like many kids our age, my brother and I had a father who became an adult during the Great Depression. The son of immigrants, he had seriously thought of becoming a priest. He remembered throughout his life the feeling of being at war far away from the woman he loved. He had the same strong, silent role models most fathers after World War II had: Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Humphrey Bogart in any Bogart film. On television, Oswald “Ozzie” Nelson on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and Robert Young in “Father Knows Best”— but is rarely asked his opinion — were their paradigms.

Our fathers worked hard at jobs we knew little about. They kept to themselves their fears, troubles, doubts and emotions, positive and negative. They rarely talked to us about their views on life, their hopes, dreams, successes and failures. They were to be seen and respected, but, within the household, heard only when their sons were trying to work around the mother who ruled the roost.

If cultural icons and prevailing social norms did a good job of implanting such behavioral notions, the religious role model for Roman Catholic fathers made sure they were ineradicably rooted. St. Joseph, the husband of Mary, never says a word in the New Testament. He is wrapped up in the same obscurity that enshrouds most of the childhood of Jesus. We can deduce that he passed his profession as carpenter on to Jesus, a son who was not his son. Joseph may have had other children by Mary or by another wife, depending on scholarly interpretation of the gospel of Matthew 13: 55-56. But that was way before birth certificates.

If your father is still with you, find time now to say to him, “Hey, Dad, how’s it going?” And then, “No, really, how are you doing?”

Palaima teaches classics and war and violence studies at the University of Texas. He may be reached at tpalaima@sbcglobal.net.

Palaima: Key points for UT’s next president to consider

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Palaima: Key points for UT’s next president to consider

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, July 9, 2014 Print Thursday July 10, 2014
http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-key-points-for-uts-next-president-to-consi/ngbsF/#94082040.3469532.735423

By Tom Palaima – Local Contributor

The controversy surrounding Bill Powers’ future as president of the University of Texas at Austin has finally played out, with Powers submitting his resignation effective next spring. Even so, we have not seen drama like this since Powers dragged out the process of deciding whether head football coach Mack Brown would go or stay. Eventually Brown went, in mid-December, two years into a four-year contract extension and one year after getting Powers’ full public support.

There is another irony about the timing of the press leak concerning Powers’ position. The best parallel is how Powers timed his announcement of the $2 million raise for Brown, mid-December 2009. Then fall semester had ended. The faculty council could not gather a quorum.

The regents used the same chicanery in scheduling public discussion of the report from planning firm Cooper Robertson on the fates of the Brackenridge tract, its biological field laboratory and Lion’s Municipal Golf Course. They met on June 18, 2009, when members of the faculty committee advisory to Cooper Robertson and many golf aficionados were away.

We live in Texas, after all. That is why Ronnie Dugger’s classic “Our Invaded Universities” and Ken Ashworth’s “Horns of a Dilemma” will remain standard reading for the UT community (its faculty, staff, students, outside supporters, alumni and alumnae).

All members of the UT community should read the Regents’ Rules and the Handbook of Operating Procedures that govern UT-Austin. We might then avoid repeating the mistake of thinking that the UT president is our leader and one of us. He is not.

The UT president is not elected or selected by the UT community. Whoever aspires to become president knows from the start that their experience, values and ways of working must first and foremost prove satisfactory to the Board of Regents and the chancellor the regents appoint.

Once appointed by the Board of Regents, the president also knows that she or he “serves without fixed term, subject to the pleasure of the appropriate Executive Vice Chancellor, to whom the president reports and is responsible, and approval by the Chancellor and the Board of Regents.”

In this sense, UT presidents do preside over the university community. They adopt and adapt policies and practices to suit the regents. Presidents can be fired at any time. This applies a conservative pressure that prevents anything too radical, from any perspective, from happening to education and research at the university.

We would do well to be calm and refrain from the demonizing that Thucydides described as characteristic of these kinds of public debates, even if a doctor and a lawyer are at the center of it. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is a philosophical public servant with a strong record of achievement. Powers can point to many accomplishments. Opinions will vary on the decisions he has made since 2006 and the directions in which the university is going.

Now, we should focus on how to improve the academic and cultural values of the university and strengthen, maintain or repair its vital educational, research and outreach services to our state, our country and our world — no matter who presides over us. Our next president might well consider some of the following key points:

We should, as a No. 1 goal, accomplish former President Larry Faulkner’s plan, announced in 2000, to add 300 tenured or tenure-track professors to the UT faculty and to bring what university leaders have known for 15 years are unacceptably high student-faculty ratios down to acceptable levels. Both these objectives were picked up as priorities in Powers’ first state of the university address in September 2006. Neither goal is close to being reached. Both initiatives are forgotten flotsam.

The faculty council and its various standing committees need to be made meaningful once again. The faculty in virtually all areas of university operation and governance can only advise, so there is no harm in making sure the faculty council is the main forum for public discourse before decision-taking, not the “closed-door” meetings of presidential and deans’ staffs and committees.

Times are lean. Budgeting and setting of compensation must be transparent and fair. No future president should arrange exorbitant compensation (e.g., $325,000 for five years) off the radar screen for doing the job he then has.

Admissions must be kept free of insider influence.

UT presidents preside, but their actions set precedent. They are not Caesars, but they should act like Caesar’s wife.

AAS May 25, 2014 Listening Improves Humanity

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Palaima: Better listening improves humanity

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, May 24, 2014
Austin American-Statesman print edition Sunday May 25, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

A few years ago, several veteran Austin guitar-playing musician friends — John Inmon, Derek O’Brien, Denny Freeman, Richard Jessee — took time to talk with my son about what their lives devoted to playing music were like, where their inspiration and passion for music came from, what difficulties they faced and still face.

What stays with me was how well these masters of soul-inspiring guitar sounds listened to what a 16-year-old fledgling musician had to say.

True attentive listening is a vanishing skill and underdeveloped talent. We all want to be heard. Yet it is the capacity to hear sympathetically that makes us truly human. The words we share in our native languages, the specific meanings we give words within our families and social groups, the feeling of outsiderness we have when we cannot understand what others are saying, all define who we are in our connections with or disconnections from other human beings.

Inmon posed a conundrum that applies not just to playing music, but to all other forms of human communication. He said: “When you are playing the guitar you are just sending out vibrations that travel through the air. They don’t mean anything until they reach the ears of the people who are listening. Figure out how to get what the song means to you across to your audience.”

What a wonderful concept. Applied to nonmusical communication, it asks that we do one simple thing: listen before or while we speak so that we can best express what we mean to others.

How is listening, especially John’s kind of pre-listening or imaginative listening to what others will be hearing, important? Without it, we lose contact with others and with ourselves, we become less able to help others and ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Freud Museum in Vienna and stood in front of the famous couch upon which Freud’s patients reclined and the famous chair where Freud sat, behind his patients. What he was practicing was called “the talking cure,” but it depended on patients knowing that a sympathetic, if invisible, listener was taking in what they were saying.

Psychoanalysis is now a multi-faceted science, but the art of sympathetic listening was known to Homer. Achilles, when in his deepest suffering from the public insult to his core self as a dedicated field commander, talks at length to his mother, Thetis. She listens with maternal care. Later when his closest comrade Patroclus is killed, Achilles unburdens himself to Thetis again about his sorrow and his guilt. He later speaks with Priam, king of Troy, who appeals to Achilles to return the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles had killed. Achilles in his anger and grief had tried to mutilate Hector’s corpse. Listening to Priam’s words, Achilles remembers his own father and becomes fully human once more.

Walt Whitman in his famous commentary on the abysmal medical care given the wounded well into our Civil War, “The Great Army of the Sick,” cites the case of J.A.H., “a young man from Plymouth Country, Massachusetts,” “prostrated by diarrhea and vomiting” and virtually catatonic because “no one spoke to him” or did so “with perfect indifference” or “heartless brutality.” Whitman “sat down by him without any fuss — talked a little — soon saw that it did him good — led him to talk a little himself.” By humanly listening, Whitman pulled J.A.H. from the brink of death from a despondency caused by nobody caring to listen.

Unfortunately, in our society the reward structures in many professions promote single-minded self-expression. A just-completed senior honors thesis at the University of Texas at Austin by Bethany Hamilton that Stephen Sonnenberg and I supervised looks at UT students who are military veterans. We need to listen to opinions like those Hamilton gathered from veterans. One was that veteran students would rather be at Austin Community College than at UT because the professors at ACC take time to listen when veteran students talk about their special needs.

This problem doesn’t apply only to veterans. UT has long had dauntingly high student to faculty ratios. And faculty members know that, except for award-winning performers in the classrooms, devoting time to research and publications is the one sure way to be among the chosen half of the faculty who now receive annual small merit raises.

The art of listening needs a public hearing, and we all need to lend our ears.

Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.

AAS March 18, 2014 HRC UT Austin: Heed Story of WW I: WHAT WAS MADE KNOWN AND WHAT WAS NOT

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http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-take-time-to-heed-stories-of-war/nfFw/?icmp=statesman_internallink_textlink_apr2013_statesmanstubtomystatesman_launc

Palaima: Take time to heed stories of war

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 10:41 a.m. Tuesday, March 18, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

We owe it to the shrinking percentages of American men and women who now fight our wars to practice what Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq, preaches in a recent commentary. Klay encourages nonveteran civilians to use our sympathetic imaginations and our own experiences of trauma to take in what those who have been through war have to say about it, despite the widely acknowledged “divide” between soldiers and civilians.

In World War I, 23,000 Australian soldiers were killed in six weeks during the Somme Offensive. One Aussie soldier cries out to us still, “For Christ’s sake, write a book on the life of an infantryman and by doing so you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.”

You might reply cynically that plenty of books have been written about the war to end all wars, yet wars continue. But ask yourself what stories get told? And how many of us listen in the right way?

We have a great chance right now to experience a war and the telling of a war start to finish. Set aside about three hours. Go to the exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. It runs free and open to the public until August 3, 2014 at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Meditate upon the items that curators Jean Cannon and Elizabeth Garver have put on display.

Notice what is there and what is missing in the newspaper clippings, manuscripts, photographs, recruiting and movie posters, official leaflets, letters, and books. Listen to the audio readings by members of Actors from the London Stage. The Great War is laid out, from the prophetic words of Otto von Bismarck circa 1897 that “the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” to facts about operations on facial disfigurement performed in Kent, England on 5,000 patients between 1917 and 1925. One photo shows us what mechanized warfare did to human faces.

The exhibition helps us see how the war was “marketed” in official propaganda. The British relied on an all-volunteer army until May 1916. A recruiting poster from 1915 proclaims “Step Into Your Place.” Its drawing shows a long line of men snaking off into the distance. At its front, healthy soldiers march in crisp uniforms and helmets, rifles on their shoulders. At the rear, stepping into line and blending with soldiers are civilians with different attire and accessories: top hat and tails, barrister’s wig and robe, briefcase, pickax, farming fork, a miner’s tool kit, even a golf club. Nowhere are we told that 1 out of 3 of those who joined the line were killed or wounded, about 3 million total.

If you have read the poems of British officer Wilfred Owen or his letters, you will never forget that these once healthy men a short time later cursed through a sucking octopus of mud, moved like old beggars under sacks, drowned in water-filled shell holes, and coughed to death like hags from poison gas. A German poster from 1917 encouraging book donations shows jolly, clean-shaven, clean-dressed soldiers lazily reading in a tidy trench with books stacked neatly on a crate as if by a librarian. The newspaper photos of the dry trenches look like they were taken at a Boy Scout camp. That’s what the people back home saw of the war.

Only one photo in the exhibition shows what might be a dead soldier. But the Allied and Central Powers, by the war’s end, produced more than 13 1/2 million corpses. The war also produced 21 million wounded. Yet a photo of the wounded from the “New York Journal American” shows fifteen soldiers relaxed and smoking on an open hillside. Three have neat head bandages. Three have arms in slings. None is an amputee.

A counter-balance to this public face of war is offered by Hugh Walpole’s letters of June 1915, written while he served in the Russian Red Cross in the Balkans: “Every kind of horror. Wounded on both sides of the road in the wood crying and screaming. … Day before yesterday eight hundred wounded in twelve hours. I cut off fingers with a pair of scissors easy as nothing!’

Ernest Hemingway, if he were alive today, might advise you to read the letter of Henri de Lallemand at the Ransom Center. Then go home and read Hemingway’s poem “Champs d’Honneur.”

And think.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

AAS February 20, 2014 Guthrie’s legacy: How to face the hard path

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Guthrie’s legacy: How to face the hard path

Posted: 11:31 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014  PRINT VERSION February 20, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

Show me how, how to fight my battle in life /Show me how to fight / And I’ll run away with you.

Teach me how, how to fight my hard times in life /Teach me how to fight and / I’ll run away with you.

And I will never dread the day I will die / ’Cause my sunset is somebody’s morning sky.

—Woody Guthrie, “My Battle”

These profound words were written by American folk music genius Woody Guthrie. We never heard them until Jonatha Brooke recently set them to music. I heard Brooke’s version sung with extraordinary meaning by Eliza Gilkyson in the “Walking Woody’s Road” show she performed with her fellow Austinites Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Sam Baker, Bobby Kallus, Glenn Schuetz, Phil Hurley and Chip Dolan.

Guthrie spent his too short lifetime looking at and feeling with ordinary people. He did his utmost to make all Americans see the neediest among us. One could say that Woody was a one-man national version of the Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring program.

He began his adult life during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl. He lived and fought alongside farm families forced off their land, seeking desperately anywhere for basic living wages.

Woody fought against fascism in World War II. He wrote his poignant song “Deportees” in 1948 when he read in a newspaper that a planeload of migrant workers died in a plane crash and were treated as a nameless and worthless mass who, to quote from his “Pastures of Plenty,” silently “come with the dust and go with the wind.” To Woody, every human being had dignity.

The ancient Greeks believed that we learn who we are and how to treat others through our own suffering. Modern American culture promotes the illusion that a life of perpetual enjoyment is our birthright. But we all learn eventually that the Greeks were right. We all confront what another American musical giant sang out, “I’ll never get out of this world alive.”

Woody wrote “My Battle” when he faced something worse than Hank Williams’ realization of our mortality. In 1952, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s chorea, a degenerative disorder that would rob him of his mind and leave him alive, but somehow dead. He was permanently involuntarily institutionalized in 1956.

Eliza’s evocation of what she calls Woody’s “dark night of the soul” in singing “My Battle” was so moving that I asked her where her inspiration came from. I asked other soulful people what they thought of the song.

Eliza said she could feel starkly Woody confronting “one of those archetypical pivotal moments in the life of someone who serves and suffers on the world stage.” She could empathize with Woody “looking left and right for a way out and ultimately accepting his fate,” much like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And she knew the power of seeking someone with whom to share life’s inevitable tragic moments with strength and dignity. She found her life partner, University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, a committed activist for social justice, at an antiwar rally.

Recently retired Statesman feature writer Brad Buchholz, a longtime friend, feels Woody’s words partly through his own battle with cancer. He says, “Eliza inhabits the song. She makes Woody’s words and experience real to us. She is sensitive and understands.” He hears Eliza saying, “I’ve been there. I know what that means. I know that trial. I know that longing.”

Brad’s partner, Margaret Slovak, a beautiful and humanly caring jazz guitarist, was robbed of her full creative powers by a sudden motor vehicle accident. She performs for patients battling with cancer and other life-changing injuries and losses. When she heard Eliza sing Woody’s and Jonatha’s song, she thought, “Each one of us faces life-changing physical and emotional challenges through accidents, diseases, loss of loved ones. We come out the other side stronger with an increased awareness of what really matters in life. Most importantly, we learn how to give and receive love in the purest sense.”

Lucinda Alwa, a Methodist minister in an economically challenged community in Wisconsin, knows the despair of losing a loved one suddenly. She writes, “Woody’s song gives a striking sense of peace. Whatever Woody meant by the line, ‘I’ll run away with you,’ I find myself running away with the song. It melts the dread, soothes the soul, lights the sky.”

Thank you, Woody, Jonatha and Eliza, for reminding us that we are all hard travelers through life together.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Palaima: Pope Francis & Karl Marlantes Tell Us We Need to Feel & See Need

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Palaima: Comforts of society make it difficult properly to see need

Austin American-Statesman  Posted: 11:53 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014

http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/comforts-of-society-make-it-difficult-to-properly-/ncfHR/

By Thomas Palaima – Regular Contributor

Pope Francis, Time magazine’s person of the year for 2013, enjoined us in his Christmas message to “place ourselves at the service of the poor.” His message took me back 50 years to my Jesuit high school days when the Catholic Church and our country were trying to put into action the radical religious and political message of Jesus Christ found in Matthew 25:35-46.

Roman Catholics then were instructed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and Pope John XXIII to “recognize the essential dignity of every human being.” Governments worldwide were charged with “protecting the rights and equality of all citizens as part of their essential role in promoting the public good.” In response to the courageous actions of Americans in the civil rights movement and the realities brought home by race-related urban riots in Los Angeles (1965), Cleveland (1966), Detroit and Newark (1967), Washington (1968) and elsewhere, our own government developed the Great Society programs.

The Gospel passage that Pope Francis uses begins, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The Gospel writer and the pontiff both make clear how easy it is for us not to see those in need.

In fact, we have to go beyond seeing need. We have to internalize the feeling of need and act upon it. We all belong to groups, organizations and institutions within society, including our own families. Most of these only have the moral conscience we infuse into them.

We need to reach the stage of “consciousness and spiritual maturity” about how we contribute to and tolerate the human suffering of others that United States Marine Corps veteran Karl Marlantes writes about in his recent book, What It is Like to Go to War. Marlantes write profoundly about the debilitating effects that war experiences will continue to have on young men and women unless we all change our ways of thinking.

He makes two key points that we can apply to our civilian lives. The first is that “our young warriors are raised in possibly the only culture on the planet that thinks death is an option.” Indeed, we shy away from looking not only at death, but at the realities of poverty, income disparity and lack of access to essential services like health care.

Marlantes’ second point is that in American culture, we no longer have initiatory rites of a “spiritual nature” that make us aware of hunger, of how easy it is to die, of how small and vulnerable we are. He points out that “we mostly undergo a series of partial initiations and we undergo them unconsciously and without guidance.”

Pope Francis calls for us to place ourselves at the service of fellow human beings who are poor, hungry, homeless and marginalized. I think he means more than writing out a check to Meals on Wheels or working a few weekends a year for Habitat for the Homeless or doing one Eagle Scout project. These are all good and important acts. But the pope means something very akin to what Marlantes understands from his service in the U.S. Marine Corps and his own resulting life problems. We need to initiate or re-initiate ourselves to feel the needs of others in ways that re-focus our own appetites, desires and actions on others.

When I was young, we Catholics fasted during the Lenten season before Easter. We ate no meat on Fridays. We fasted until after we received the Eucharist on Sundays. My father recalled in his teenage years during the Great Depression calling out and claiming “core” when a buddy was lucky enough to have an apple to eat. We reminded ourselves regularly of hunger.

In the last year of the Great Depression, Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” captured the spirit of the times when she declared, “I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.” Pope Francis asks us to do more than look to ourselves. He asks us to be so committed to tending to the needy around us that eventually no one will go needy. He asks us to remember that Jesus was a social activist.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Austin American-Statesman 120713 A slow erosion of core government services

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Palaima: A slow erosion of core government services

Austin American-Statesman

Posted: 7:00 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, 2013  Print edition December 7, 2013

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-a-slow-erosion-of-core-government-services/ncBmy/

By Tom Palaima

“Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone.”

It took a trip to Hawaii in 1970 for Joni Mitchell to realize that we let important things slip away without noticing until it is too late. She wrote these lines after looking out from her hotel room window at “beautiful green mountains in the distance.” She then looked down on “a parking lot as far as the eye could see, this blight on paradise.”

Sometimes a long view helps, like Mitchell’s out across natural distance and then down upon the impervious pavement made by and for human machines. In other cases, a view through time helps.

Since the 1980s, I have been watching the dismantling of public services motivated mainly by the idea that government is inefficient or worse. In most cases that I am aware of, the process has been gradual.

Budgets are cut a little at a time or frozen below yearly cost increases. Regulations are changed; legal safeguards removed; institutional structures modified. All this is done in the name of free enterprise. The effects are felt down the line, and they are generally felt by those who had little say in the decisions being made or little grasp of the consequences of those decisions.

You can think of your own examples. In my mind are the steady cutbacks in state funding of public higher education, insufficient appropriations for the long-term maintenance of highway infrastructure, removal of controls over savings and loan institutions, budget cuts for National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting System and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the undoing of the safeguards of the Glass-Steagall Act (Banking Act of 1933) through the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (the Financial Services Modernization Act) of 1999.

Front and center in my mind right now is the United States Postal Service, an independent agency of the federal government that was viewed as so important by our founding fathers that the United States Constitution mandates that Congress “establish Post Offices and post Roads.”

Note that the USPS is a vital national “service,” just like our armed services. It is part of a worldwide postal system that is arguably one of the greatest feats of international cooperation the world has ever seen.

In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. It mandates that the USPS uniquely set aside from its revenues $5.5 billion per year for 10 years in order to cover retiree health care 75 years into the future.

So when you read the headlines this last month: “Postal Service crisis persists: The agency has lost $41 billion since 2007” (Nov. 11) and “U.S. Postal Service cites $5 billion loss” (Nov. 16), do look at the fine print, do the math and think of the bottom line.

Consider also that in the United Kingdom standard-service first-class letters up to 3.5 ounces cost 96 cents. In Sweden, first class mail up to 0.7 ounces costs 90 cents and then up to 3.5 ounces $1.80. U.S. postal rates are kept well below such rates: up to one ounce 46 cents; two ounces 66 cents; three ounces 86 cents; 3.5 ounces $1.06.

Think also of the human beings throughout our country who depend on postal service, like the widow of my late cousin Paul. In 2000, at age 57, Paul, a mechanical engineering grad of Cleveland State University and a Vietnam vet, was laid off from his long-time job as a computer numerical control programmer when the once vibrant industry-based economy of Cleveland was just about finished rusting away. He died in September 2005, feeling thrown away.

Paul’s widow, Elizabeth Palaima, mother of their three now grown children, is a high school graduate who admits that she barely made it through her math courses. She writes me simple letters about the daily joys and problems faced by her children and grandchildren in economically blighted Cleveland. She encloses clippings from the newspapers, occasional snapshots and drawings her grandchildren have made. Since May 15, 2011, I have received and kept 198 letters, each mailed from the front porch of her small house and safely delivered to my Austin mailbox for 46 cents each. It is what she can afford and how she stays humanly in touch.

Elizabeth, like many Americans, cannot pay the entrance fee and high toll charges on our electronic information highway. She depends on a service from our government that Abraham Lincoln declared was “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin  tpalaima@sbcglobal.net

MOOCs, Braindead Megaphones, the Golden Goose & the Artzt of Public Discussion

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Palaima:

Talk loud and say something  (on-line title) Dopey Discourse Is All Too Prevalent (print title)

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:49 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-talk-loud-and-say-something/nbT7b/

https://utexas.app.box.com/s/t3qtk25kbbvn3p5ccf8r

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

Recently I heard Karen Artzt, Ashbel Smith Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the University of Texas at Austin, give a talk about some of her life’s work. She explained the process of searching for coding sequences in mammalian genomes and how the results help prevent physical defects from developing in young children.

Artzt was asked what new discoveries lie ahead. She took time to think and then said, “Progress in this field of research is saltatory.” She traced in the air with her index finger a research timeline marked by sudden steps upward.

In that moment, Artzt’s thoughtful command of language matched her mastery of science. Even those of us who abide by George Orwell’s rule to use plain English words whenever possible knew that the Latin-derived word saltatory — proceeding by leaps rather than gradually — was perfect.

Later, I wondered why Artzt’s reply struck us as so special. I think I now know why, and it is no trivial matter.

We are used to listening to what George Saunders calls “braindead megaphones,” presenters of information who, as the late godfather of soul and plain-speaker of many social and political truths, James Brown put it, practice the art of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.”

Artzt gave a direct answer. She did not pretend to know what she could not know. She did not preen as an expert in the spotlight. She told us the truth.

The truth is what James Brown learned growing up in the soul-destroying Jim Crow poverty of Barnwell, S.C. and Augusta, Ga. In his autobiography, Brown said that “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” was “aimed at the politicians who were running their mouths but had no knowledge of what life was like for a lot of people.”

Instead of straight talk and meaningful discussion, we get in the media and from our political, cultural and institutional leaders what Saunders calls “dopey communication.” Leaders have agenda to push and push fast. They short-circuit discussion and truly democratic deliberation. They speak to wide audiences who have little time to think over what is said and no opportunity to pose questions or counter arguments. Their language is vague, unclear, filled with jargon phrases and assertions unsupported by facts.

For example, UT Austin and the UT System have been mobilizing quickly to be major players in producing massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can be taken electronically by tens of thousands of students worldwide. UT President Bill Powers made a public statement in February, “Our faculty is enthusiastic about this frontier.”

This sounds good. But it is an assertion without proof. It requires that Powers knew that a solid majority of faculty members last February were very keen on the massive online course offerings. But he could not know that without a well-constructed anonymous survey taken after meaningful discussions with the general faculty in the many schools and programs across campus about the many pros and equally many cons of using MOOCs in higher education. It is savvier to claim faculty enthusiasm about a frontier. People used to braindead megaphones will believe it.

One reason to push ahead is that enthusiasts think there is lots of money to be made by developing and offering the MOOCs. Raising revenues is good, but only if we do not cause serious collateral harm to education.

No matter. The Institute for Transformational Learning was authorized by the UT System in August 2011 and established in 2012 “to leapfrog our current efforts” at blended and online learning. In other words, we are leaping right over wise broad-based deliberation.

The institute’s executive director Steven Mintz told the faculty council in March that the use of MOOCs “is the golden goose, and I want to support that goose.” But no one knows whether online courses will be the money-generator that Mintz imagines or the very fairy tale to which Mintz refers.

“The Golden Goose” is tale 64 in the Brothers Grimm collection. In it, all who greedily and without forethought try to pluck golden feathers from the golden goose become stuck to it and to each other. In the end they are thoroughly discomfited.

On MOOCs and other matters our university leaders should think carefully and make haste slowly. They should invite thought from the united faculty of experienced scholar-educators whose work is largely responsible for our ranking 25th among world universities in the latest “Times Higher Education” survey. They surely should know how to tell a golden goose from a goose that will lay a golden egg or no egg at all.

Palaima is a classics professor at the Univeristy of Texas at Austin.

Longhorn Football: Hubris, Counterfactual History and Mythological Lessons

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Longhorn football could learn a thing or two from Greek myth

The Daily Texan Published on-line September 18, 2013 Print edition September 19, 2013

http://www.dailytexanonline.com/opinion/2013/09/18/longhorn-football-could-learn-a-thing-or-two-from-greek-myth

By Tom Palaima

In my many years of teaching ancient mythology, I have absorbed, as I hope my students have, the important lessons about life that the original myth-makers embedded in their stories.

One lesson is to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. A variant is to make sure you follow through on your side of whatever bargain you strike. A third is not to get too big for your britches — the Greeks called this hubris.

The immortal and ageless goddess Dawn falls in love with a handsome prince of Troy named Tithonus. She steals him away and asks Zeus to make him immortal. Zeus asks her, “Do you want anything else?” She says no.

Zeus makes Tithonus deathless, but not ageless. He grows older and older, shrivels up and finally turns into a chirping cicada—not what Dawn had in mind.

A similar fate befalls the Cumaean Sibyl. According to Ovid, Apollo loves the Sibyl so much that he offers to grant her one wish if she will make love with him. She asks to live as many years as the grains of sand she holds. When she later refuses to give up her virginity, Apollo gives her long life, but lets her, too, grow old.

Counterfactual history, like Winston Churchill’s famous 1931 essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” focuses on key moments and their consequences by wondering “What if?” What if Dawn had thought through her request? What if the Sibyl had followed through on her promise?

Given the major distraction that the poor performance of the Longhorns football team has become lately at our university, it is worth posing a big counterfactual historical question. What if Vince Young had not scored the winning touchdown with nineteen seconds left in the 2006 Rose Bowl, considered by ESPN the fifth greatest play in the history of NCAA football?

The touchdown won the national title for the UT Longhorns, just weeks after William C. Powers, then dean of the UT Law School and long a sports enthusiast, was officially named the 28th president of UT Austin.

Winning the national championship was for head coach Mack Brown the NCAA sports equivalent of being head of a team of researchers awarded the Nobel Prize. As national champions, the football program brought in a bonanza in revenues from marketing souvenirs and our UT trademark.

The chief financial officer of the self-operating UT athletics program Ed Gobles has proclaimed, “We eat what we kill.” Translation: whatever monies athletics raises, it spends. Athletics director DeLoss Dodds has crowed, “We are the Joneses.”

The die was cast. From the Vince Young Rose Bowl onward, there has been no restraining athletics. Hubris has prevailed.

Stadium expansions, large salary increases coaches — not only in football, and a $1 million annuity for the athletics director were approved by the cronies within the UT sports silo, the regents who attend football games in the president’s skybox or their own, and the wealthy donors who, according to a local sportswriter, really decide whether head coaches are hired and fired.

The sense was that we would win another national title.

And we almost did. The Longhorns lost to Alabama 37-21 in the national title game following the 2009 season. Trouble was, right before that loss, Mack Brown was given, over the strong protest of a core of faculty leaders, a $2-million raise. That set in motion the decamping of his heir apparent Will Muschamp.

Without Muschamp’s defensive coaching genius, the Longhorns fortunes have faded. Talk now is of winning Big XII titles. But this hope is almost counterfactual, given that teams coached by Mack Brown have only been Big XII champions twice in his fifteen years at UT (2005 and 2009).

One more counterfactual thought. If UT had lost the 2006 Rose Bowl, perhaps Vince Young would have played another year of college football, reined in his hubris about his own abilities, and faced the transition to the fame and fortune of professional football with more maturity.

One positive fact: Young has now earned his degree in Youth and Community Studies and has a loving wife and child. He can do some real good in the world before old age overtakes him, as it overtook Tithonus, and overtakes us all, even our greatest athletes.

Palaima is the Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics. 

Austin American-Statesman 09/13/2013 Palaima: If Mack Brown Were On the Tenure Track

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Palaima: If Mack Brown were on the tenure track

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:55 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013  Print Edition September 13, 2013 
http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-if-mack-brown-were-on-the-tenure-track/nZtsw/

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

The big questions in Austin right now are what grade do we give Mack Brown for his performance as head coach of the University of Texas football team, and who gives him his grade?

Sportswriters are giving out C’s, D’ and F’s for play on the field. Here let me propose that it would be much better if decisions about coaches, expenditures, admissions and academic standards were made with a wider range of voices, perspectives and values.

Athletics decision-making has long operated in a silo. Regents, a sports-enthusiast president, other insiders and a few carefully chosen and easily outvoted outsiders decide on hiring and firing and set spending priorities in a self-operating sports enterprise.

What if decision-making in athletics at UT was modeled on the university’s system for promotion and tenure ? The promotion and tenure system obtains broad perspectives from inside and outside the university. It involves the tenured faculty and university administration at many levels of authority. It virtually eliminates decisions based on cronyism, except at the highest levels, where such decisions are at least transparent. It allows at every stage for fact-finding and debate.

Before you say it just can’t work, hear me out. And imagine your own analogies to UT big-time sports.

Assistant professors apply for tenure and promotion generally in their sixth active year at the university. During their first five years, committees and chairpersons or directors within their units have assessed their annual reports and given them specific advice on how to improve in the year ahead.

In the promotion and tenure year, full dossiers relating to research, teaching and service are compiled and closely reviewed. Five or more evaluations of research are sought from distinguished scholars worldwide, chosen to be knowledgeable about a candidate’s areas of specialization but unbiased. Long gone are the days, for the most part, of the good-old-boy system, when going to the finest schools and knowing the right people assured tenure.

Chairpersons or directors and committees of tenured professors judge each case separately within units. Everyone knows the stakes are high for the candidates and for the future of their units. Budgets are tight. Investing in the right person is crucial.

The two departmental decisions are scrutinized by a college-wide committee of professors and by the dean within each college. Their two college-level decisions then go to the provost and president. Not much gets missed or overlooked, but appeal safeguards are in place in case the process is flawed.

We complain about decision-making by large committees. Yet UT has made real progress every 25 years because of broad-based committees like the Commission of 125. In the promotion and tenure process, stacking committees upon committees and including the independent opinions of chairpersons, program directors and deans really does work.

It was recently reported to professors that the prevailing philosophy in the provost’s and president’s offices is that UT is not in the business of awarding tenure and promotion to B+ professors. We were also told that research productivity is the bottom line. Mentoring, advising, award-winning teaching, university, professional and community service won’t get assistant professors tenure if they have not gotten an A in research now and for the predictable future.

These are hard standards. I have seen them used. The assistant professors who received the Texas Exes Jean Holloway Teaching Award the year before and after I received it in 2004 were denied tenure. One was a brilliant linguist in Germanic Studies, the other a government professor.

Imagine a similar process and standards applied to Mack Brown. We would discount academic matters like six-year graduation rates of players and the heavy use of tutors. We would discount as outreach service his fundraising and recruiting skills and Longhorn Network appearances. The bottom line would be productivity on game days.

What grade would a broad-based system of evaluators outside the sports silo give a coach who recruits A+ athletes and coaches them in A++ facilities to play against mostly B and lower-grade teams? He chooses his own assistants who are paid A+ salaries.

Right now the problem is defense. But in 2008, 2009, 2010 under Will Muschamp, then-anointed successor to Brown, the Longhorns had the top defense in the Big 12.

The silo did not offer tenure to A+ Muschamp. Instead, they gave a $2 million raise to Brown, who has only coached two teams in his entire career to conference titles.

Would a promotion and tenure-style committee make and stand by the same decision?

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Commentary August 9, 2013 on Information Age, Writing as Therapy, Douglass Parker, Tutto Theatre, James Pennebaker and “Zeus in Therapy”

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Douglass Parker’s Zeus in Therapy is being performed August 16-25 at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center for Performing Arts 701 W. Riverside Drive in Austin, TX.

See:  http://thelongcenter.org/events/venue/rollins-theatre/
http://www.TuttoTheatre.org

Others Say: Information Age

Palaima: Zeus Poem’s Revealed a Great Soul’s Inner Life

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 Austin American-Statesman print edition Friday August 9

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-opening-the-door-to-our-inner-selves/nZHdZ/

 By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

It seems like a long-forgotten age, but it was only yesterday, relatively speaking, when most of us lived our lives as closed books. Now we spontaneously twitter, offer ready opinions on blogs, reveal facts about our lives and our loved ones on Facebook. We need to be LinkedIn. We use online dating services to weed through prospective significant others. We risk our lives and the lives of others texting while driving. We even get our souls straight with God via online church worship and counseling services.

It is hard to remember when a cartoon or newspaper clipping taped to an office door was a rare portal into the heart and mind of its occupant. Affixing personal handwritten or typewritten thoughts to a door was a radical act of revelation.

What is the cut-off age for feeling uneasy about the openness that our electronic information technology has introduced? The source code for World Wide Web was released into the public domain in 1991. By 2001, our National Security Agency began warrantless collection of our already voluminous email and Internet usage records, a practice the NSA continues in modified ways. Yet most of us are not concerned.

When was the sea change in how we feel about protecting what we think and say? How old do we have to be to worry about how we now communicate? Even setting aside whether privacy of communication protects who we are and whether monitoring inhibits how we relate to others, the new openness seems to diminish the personal pleasure of discovering what is unique in other people. We now tell all to everyone. We used to tell little to a precious few. But that little was a precious little.

These concerns come together when we use writing as therapy, as a way of probing and uncovering our deepest feelings and innermost thoughts, as a means of getting things off our chests once we identify, through introspection, what is on our chests. The power of psychiatric therapy stems from confiding in a trustworthy, sympathetic, informed and expert other or small group of others. We once singled out and confided in friends, loved ones, fellow workers using the same criteria.

My colleague at the University of Texas at Austin James Pennebaker pioneered 30 years ago a therapy now known as expressive writing. It encourages individuals to recall, explore, bring together, and write about their deepest positive and negative emotions and later to process what they have written. Pennebaker affirms that an important factor is that “participants believe that their writing is taken seriously, is held in confidence, and will have no adverse social effects on them.”

In the old paradigm, the colleagues who placed thoughts on their doors were revealing their inner selves in a guarded way. Their doors protected them from thoughtless spontaneous responses. But the thoughts on their doors made us aware of who they were and what issues of the day interested, worried or delighted them.

I have been brought to these thoughts of mine by memories of a dearly departed colleague, Douglass S. Parker, who taught at UT-Austin for nearly 40 years. Douglass died at age 83, early in 2011. He was a brilliant and influential translator of Greek and Roman comedy and the one professor on our distinguished faculty whom I long advised students to take a course from before they graduated.

Douglass himself said he was a “jazz improvisationalist trapped in a classicist’s body,” “an itinerant trombonist who took a wrong turn in 1946,” when he began serious study of Greek and Latin literature. He taught students about imaginary worlds conceived by great minds from Homer and Dante to Tolkien. His own imaginative powers were prodigious. Austin’s stellar jazz trombonist Jon Blondell, himself now ill, recalled Douglass to me as “that UT prof who really had chops.” Douglass also had a humane and sympathetic soul.

From 1979 to 1993, Douglass posted poems on his door that record what the supreme Greek god Zeus said about his life in imagined therapy sessions. At the time, I was too young and career-focused to grasp that Douglass was revealing his soul to us. Such profound insight into the human condition often comes from going through troubles in life.

Douglass’s 52 poems of inventive genius have been lovingly collected and edited. They will be performed by Tutto Theatre Company at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, August 16-25. Sit at Douglass’s door. His words will open doors in your own hearts.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Margalit Fox’s Book and NY Times article on Alice E. Kober and the Deciperment of Linear B: Uses of the PASP archives

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Margalit Fox’s new book The Riddle of the Labyrinth (Ecco Press) will be released on May 14.      http://www.harpercollins.com/books/The-Riddle-of-the-Labyrinth-Margalit-Fox?isbn=9780062228833&HCHP=TB_The+Riddle+of+the+Labyrinth

The Times Sunday Review for May 12, 2013 has a biographical essay about Kober by Fox:   http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/sunday-review/alice-e-kober-43-lost-to-history-no-more.html?pagewanted=all

Margalit used the PASP archives and the School of Information resources at UT Austin in order to tell the story of the decipherment of Linear B. She places the the work of Alice Elizabeth Kober in the context of the research done on the Aegean linear scripts from 1900 through the decipherment of Linear B in 1952.  As Margalit quotes:

“Kober was ‘the person on whom an astute bettor with full insider information would have placed a wager’ to decipher the script.” —Thomas Palaima

Margalit also gives us a way of grasping Kober’s sense that work on the scripts was what we might call ‘a sacred duty’. For her working with other serious scholars like Johannes Sundwall and Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., and John Franklin Daniel was a life calling (alongside her full-time obligations as a professor with major teaching obligations). But it was also  deeply satisfying, worth all the painstaking effort, and fun.

In short, Margalit gives us  Kober as a full human being.

I have read every page of the manuscript in draft and proof stages. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a fine book, well-documented, fascinating and humanly engaging.  It makes clear how Kober’s work was related to the work of Sir Arthur Evans, Michael Ventris, Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., Johannes Sundwall, Sir John Myres and others.

I just met today with Sue Trombley, director of consulting at Iron Mountain, a digital records management company. In 2003-2005, Sue preserved and organized the Kober archives, writing the first finding aid for the materials. Sue did the Kober-like work of going through each and every one of the cigarette-carton and other files (over 180,000 items) making sure each one was not in a destructive environment (removing all sorts of intrusive matter) and housing all assemblages of items in archivally sound environments.

Here is the commentary piece Sue and I wrote in 2003 about Alice Kober and her archives. It gives some sense of the human side of Alice that going through her records gave to Sue (and vicariously to me):

http://www.utexas.edu/research/pasp/publications/editorials/27oct03.html

Margalit thanks Zachary Fischer, who put the Kober and Ventris letters up on-line in summer of 2012. He and Sue are happy to see Alice’s story told primarily from the materials they worked hard to preserve and make available.

Zachary reports that as of May 2013, UTDR (University of Texas Digital Resources) usage statistics are that the collections have good use by visitors. In the last nine months or so, SMID has had ca. 1155 views and the main Kober page has had ca. 1245 views!

https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/16096

Christy Costlow Moilanen has done the complete finding aid to the PASP Kober, Ventris and Bennett materials (mainly in 2007-2008).

http://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/16210

Many PASP assistants have helped in keeping the Kober materials well-organized and fully accessible to visiting scholars.  Margalit Fox, in her acknowledgements (pp. 347-349), explicitly thanks Dygo Tosa. Dygo has worked with these materials for three years now. Dygo has finished his M.A. degree and is now finishing his certification in the University of Texas at Austin’s UTeach Program. Dygo is a mainstay of PASP, a bright young mind and an inspiring teacher. He has written and given papers on Minoan language and linear scripts.

Margalit also thanks, as do I, Alison Fell, whose engrossing novel, The Element -inth in Greek  (Sandstone Press 2012) tells in a fully human way some of the Kober story.

Alison investigated the life of Kober and provided PASP with documents pertaining to Kober’s life, for example, her birth and death certificates, photographs, and the ship’s manifest marking the arrival of Alice’s mother and father in the new world. Alice’s mother was already in her first trimester of pregnancy with Alice. Alison also provided us with census reports showing where the Kobers lived after they arrived in the new world.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-element-inth-Greek-ebook/dp/B0086742OO

The Kober archives were in the possession of the late Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., since soon after Alice’s death (May 16, 1950) until the late 1980’s when he entrusted them to my personal care.  I have made them available to PASP and have supplemented them with the kinds of materials I have mentioned above. Here are links to materials.

http://www.utexas.edu/research/pasp/venkoba.html

https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/15875

Thanks to everyone involved. In a few days Alice will step into the spotlight at last, something she was ever reluctant to do when she was alive and when work took priority over any concern for any kind of fame connected with her work.

The late Robert Graves said, “I write poems for poets…. For people in general I write prose, and I am content that they should be unaware that I do anything else.  To write poems for other than poets is wasteful.”

Mutadis mutandis, this describes Alice E. Kober’s mindset, spirit and work. She wrote beautiful, exacting, sound and serious scholarship for serious scholars.

Tom Palaima May 10, 2013

ALSO OF INTEREST TO STUDENTS OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION BY  MARGALIT FOX:

Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Welcome to the new PASP blog!

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This is the updated main website of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory, previously located at http://www.utexas.edu/research/pasp/.

All the material on the previous website is intact and can still be accessed. The majority of content has been converted to this new site. This updated site features better search capability and stable links to articles.

Feel free to leave comments on this post about the new format!

Helping musicians helps keep the music alive in Austin (HAAM)

lhs-Haam-benefit-day-04Palaima: Helping musicians helps keep the music alive in Austin

Posted: 6:00 p.m. Saturday, March 21, 2015 Print edition Sunday March 22, 2015

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

Can you imagine your life without music?

Really think about it, and not just about right now.

Think back through all the different stages of your life, your treasured memories, the rough seas and the stretches of smooth sailing, lonesome thoughts and spontaneous joys shared with friends and loved ones. Chances are you’ll remember songs and tunes along with them.

Rather than where were you when you first heard a song or a musician, think of the performers and their music and remember who you were then and who was with you in your life. To paraphrase lines from Austinite James McMurtry’s recent CD “Complicated Game,” songs write our lives. They remind us of our common humanity, in big ways and small.

This is no new development. In the period that is the focus of my research at the University of Texas at Austin, the late Greek Bronze Age (1600-1200 BCE), the oral songs that defined the culture most people think of as the golden age of Greece were already being sung.

On a wall painting to the right of the royal throne in the sacred hearth room of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos (1200 BCE), a colorfully robed male singer, lyre in hand, sits outdoors on a well-worn rock outcropping. He sings and plays to banqueters sharing drink. A mythical bird flies off toward the throne, symbolizing the “winged lyrics,” the phrase Homer uses to describe the magical way inspired music reaches our ears.

Three centuries later, as Professor Joann Hackett reminded us in a recent presentation to our UT Institute for Scripts and Decipherment, from excavations of a shrine at an Israelite-Judean caravan stop in the eastern Sinai, we have large storage jars with painted “Hebrew blessing formulae and cultic scenes” referring to Yahweh and his potential companion goddess Asherah. Prominently depicted is a seated woman lyre player, perhaps singing out the blessing.

And the Rev. Will Rambo of Tupelo, Miss. — fittingly the birthplace of Elvis Presley — recently observed, after watching shepherds at work during a trip to the Holy Land, that the image of Jesus as a good shepherd derives partly from the fact that at herd collecting stations where shepherds brought their flocks for protection at night, there were no problems in the morning separating out whose sheep were whose. The sheep really do know their shepherds’ voices from hearing them sing their pastoral songs, just as I instantly recognize a Denny Freeman, Richard Jessee or John Inmon guitar riff or a line sung by Carl Hutchens, Jesse Gregg or Jimmy LaFave.

Pope Francis recently took aim at the “disastrous” homilies his flock of faithful hear from their priests, words that “do not reach the heart.” You know you cannot say that about the Austin musicians you regularly go to hear. They reach your heart.

Now try to imagine Austin without live music. A frightening thought, isn’t it? It will never become a reality so long as we continue to be good shepherds to the 9,000 musicians who, according to Chris Alberts, director of development for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, now live and perform in the Austin area.

History also proves unfortunately that being a musician, literally one of those dedicated to the arts of memory goddesses known as the Muses, generally involves an itinerant lifestyle and getting by on the kindness of strangers. Few Homeric or Judaeic bards, medieval minstrels, Appalachian folk singers, blues artists on the chitlin circuit or British shoegazers were free of troubles with money. Few of their descendants who perform at the Cactus Café, Poodies Roadhouse, the Saxon Pub, the Mohawk, the Gallery or the Skylark Lounge have large investment portfolios to manage.

HAAM got started in 2005 because the late Robin Ratliff Shivers was contagiously passionate about the music in her life and had the crazy idea that musicians should have access to regular medical, dental, vision, hearing and psychiatric care. She went about making that happen. Austin foundations, businesses and individual donors, too many to mention, have made it possible for the 60 percent of Austin musicians who do not qualify for subsidized medical plans and the 40 percent who have gaps in coverage to protect their health before crises develop.

If you enjoy the sounds you hear Austin’s talented musicians, young and old, making, go to www.myhaam.org. And remember Austin’s ever more challenging cost of living the next time the tip jar is passed.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.
– See more at: http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-helping-musicians-helps-keep-the-music-ali/nkbb4/#05de1d51.3469532.735775

Chancellor McRaven and the Myth of Texas: Dose of Reality Needed

Palaima: Myth of Texas needs dose of reality
Austin American-Statesman
Posted: 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015
Print edition January 22, 2015
By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman
http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-myth-of-texas-needs-dose-of-reality/njsc2/

I have lived in Texas full time for almost 30 years. For the past 16 years I have written regular opinion pieces in the Austin American-Statesman. In my first piece I responded critically to the vision William “Bill” Cunningham, then chancellor of the University of Texas System, put forward in January 1999 of what UT-Austin would become in the new millennium, essentially a corporation-like economic engine for the state.

I have learned four things from writing my first piece and almost 300 others. First, even distinguished faculty and administrators do not feel free to speak their minds publicly when they disagree with the regents, chancellor, president and deans above them. Second, my own public views and reasoning have the same effect as the remarks of the proverbial gnat upon the elephant. Third, many Texans believe in their own positive illusions about the greatness of their state, its institutions and the Texas way of life. Fourth, the University of Texas at Austin now is what Cunningham set it on the road to becoming: a corporately managed business-focused institution with an affiliated Godzillatron-sized sports entertainment industry and television sports network.

I have thought about all this after reading the message our new chancellor, former Adm. Bill McRaven, sent on Jan. 6, his first day of office. McRaven’s starry-eyed visions about Texas exceptionalism take American exceptionalism to the third power.

McRaven tells us that in his wide travels “everyone I encountered, from the youngest Afghan girl to the oldest African villager, had a common view of Texas and Texans. They understood that Texans were men and women of character and integrity — strong-willed, independent, bold, risk-takers, who helped the weak and downtrodden, who got up when they were knocked down, and who never complained about their struggles. Texans wore boots and big hats and sat tall in the saddle because there was a grandness in their manner. They understood that being a Texan was something special.”

Such jingoistic cream-puffery hardly needs chocolate topping, but McRaven ladles on a dollop nonetheless: “This image of Texans was universal, and we have rightly earned that reputation through generations of men and women who came to this great land and made it what it is today.”

All this proves that one thing has not changed in my 30 years in Texas: the grip that the myth of Texas has on the minds of our cultural, political and educational leaders.

Some 50 years ago Larry McMurtry published a collection of essays about Texas titled In a Narrow Grave. As Texas writer and memoirist Alvin Carl Greene Jr. put it, McMurtry “(took) apart Texas with all the skill and sadness of a master surgeon performing a postmortem on his mother.” McMurtry laid out in plain-spoken language the “megalomaniacal boosterism which afflicts almost all our cities.” He singled out Austin as a “yet greater megalomaniac to be considered,” adding, “what I have said about Houston and Houston’s pretensions could simply be repeated for Dallas.”

Unfortunately, as thinkers and writers know, thoughts and paper and blogs are ephemeral, but group cultural traits and dispositions, sometimes called prejudices, are fixed and long lasting. So despite McMurtry’s insights that “a Quality-Quantity confusion is something most Texans have come by naturally” and that prominent Texans view things Texan as “biggest” and “best,” the disease and its symptoms still persist.

Here’s the medicine I would prescribe: tincture of reality. The poor people I met in Madagascar in 2007 had no idea what a Texas even was. But when outsiders know something about Texas, many think of a long, dark road in Jasper, the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, the Branch Davidian Mount Carmel Center outside Waco, Charles Whitman and the UT Tower, Fort Hood in November 2009 and April 2014, Lyndon Johnson and the War in Vietnam, George W. Bush and our missions unaccomplished in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They think of Enron and its financially ruined employees. They note that in 2012-13 Texas ranked 47th in expenditure for public schools K-12 while the city of Allen spent $60 million on a structurally unusable high school football stadium. They may also recall the July 2012 Associated Press story that “Texas ranked worst in the nation for health care” of its citizens.

Texas is a nice state for a chosen few. It can become great for all of us if we look at its problems with a realistic state of mind.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.
tpalaima@austin.utexas.edu

The Forever War on Terror and Thanking Our Veterans

http://www.statesman.com/photo/news/opinion/palaima-this-season-put-ourselves-in-the-shoes-of-/pCWWMg/

Palaima: This season, put ourselves in the shoes of others
6:00 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014 | Print December 25, 2014

Story Highlights:
—Dr. Ronald Glasser’s classic book “365 Days” is distilled from his service as a surgeon during the Vietnam War.
—Palaima: We do not know how to see veterans as individuals, often with deep personal wounds.

Palaima: This season, put ourselves in the shoes of others
Posted: 6:00 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

There are 365 days in our non-leaping years. Let us hope we have spent our days in 2014 well, because we are never getting them back.

In the days from Thanksgiving through the seasons of Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanzaa, we naturally focus on our own families. But a discussion I have been having with someone to whom 365 days were so meaningful that he wrote a book of that title, published way back in 1971, invites us to think about others in a broader sense.

His name is Dr. Ronald J. Glasser. His classic book “365 Days” is distilled from his service as a surgeon to the most critically wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War. “365 Days” should be read and reread alongside other books containing the truths about war by those who have experienced war firsthand. But there is more to be done than reading and developing the classic feelings of sympathy and fear.

Dr. Glasser recommended to me Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” about Iraq, being there and coming back. I read it.

He then told me that it and other books written by and about soldiers and veterans of our prolonged military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how powerful, felt to him like “individual efforts unconnected to anything else,” more or less about “our French Foreign Legion rather than our country,” where the things that happen are “all just kind of individual bad luck.”

This put into words some of my own feelings about how we have been invited to look at our ongoing “war on terror,” our “forever war,” to use the title of Dexter Filkins’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on the subject. When do we question publicly or privately whether we should support the loss of American and non-American lives in distant lands?

In “Redeployment,” a veteran meets up with a chaplain he knew over in Iraq. He is still seeking, almost unknowingly, help for his anger, sorrow, guilt and moral confusion. The chaplain points to the small cross on his collar, calls the cross on which Jesus died “a torture device” and declares that Jesus “only promised that we don’t suffer alone,” so long as we believe in Him. What the chaplain’s words imply about the isolation from all of us felt by many soldiers and veterans every single day is almost too terrible to contemplate.

Ron’s words made me hear again the invocation before a Texas A&M football game in College Station in November. We, over 100,000 strong, were invited to pray in thanks for the men and women “defending our country every day in foreign lands.” We were not invited to pray for peace or to ask God that our leaders might find a better way to use the lives of all those men and women for the good of our society and the world.

I have other new words to ponder, spoken by a new friend, Joseph A. Costello. Costello is 33 years old, the age scholars hypothesize Jesus was when he was tortured and died upon the cross. Joseph served in the U.S. Army in Iraq during the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is finishing a master’s in information science at the University of Texas at Austin as a prelude to doing graduate studies, he hopes, in social work. His goal is “to work with traumatized populations to help alleviate burdens of trauma related to issues such as combat experience.”

Joseph told me that, like many veterans, he has had trouble processing the guilt and shame about what we are doing with our soldiers and contractors in the Middle East. He finds it especially troubling when as a veteran he is thanked for his service by people who do not know, or even seem to want to know, what effects the chaos and violence and amorality and senselessness of fighting a “war on terror” have on the men and women who are doing the fighting and on the men, women and children in foreign countries who are in the way of our shocking and awful military power.

We do not know how to see veterans as individuals, often with deep personal wounds. We take the easy way out. We thank them all and ask God to bless them and us.

Let us all resolve to look at and think about war, soldiers and veterans and our own relatively peaceful lives differently on each of the 365 days we are given in the year ahead.

Tom Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas.

“No intermissions or applause in real stages of war” AAS October 26, 2009

COMMENTARY
Palaima: “No intermissions or applause in real stages of war”

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/opinion/palaima-no-intermissions-or-applause-in-real-stage/nRQ3q/

Thomas G. Palaima, REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR
Austin American-Statesman Monday, October 26, 2009

At the Red River Rivalry, 92,000 fans packed into the Cotton Bowl for an hour of football. Later in Austin, a few dozen veterans of America’s larger-scale shootouts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and their families crowded into a small theater space on Congress Avenue appropriately called the Hideout.

We were there because of VFW Post 856, the ZACH Theatre and Humanities Texas. We were there because of psychologist and documentary film-maker Ricardo Ainslie, because of Daphny Dominguez and Sharon Willis of the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, and Don Dorsey, president of the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans, Austin Chapter. The veterans were there for their own very special reasons.

All these veterans sought further healing. They wanted to share with others, veterans and non-veterans, what they had learned during their long struggles to recover their lives after what psychiatrist, veterans counselor (and champion of veterans issues), and post-traumatic stress expert Jonathan Shay calls the ruin of their good characters. Shay came down, too, from Boston to talk with them.

They were there because playwright Nick Schweitzer of Wisconsin cared enough about these former soldiers to convert Shay’s famous book “Achilles in Vietnam” into a powerful 90-minute play. They were there because director Dante Dominguez crafted the talents of 13 actors who lent their time and skills to two performances.

Michael Amendola played with formidable empathy a young veteran named Achilles, haunted by his memories of what Shay calls “betrayal of what is right” in Vietnam. Other lives intersect with Achilles’ and are affected by the human being he has become.

His wife Brenda’s parents are well-meaning. His father-in-law is a World War II vet who never saw action. His mother-in-law believes that the more enemies Achilles killed, the greater hero he was. They offer church and manly platitudes. But Achilles has lost his faith in God, and he knows he is not a hero as she uses the word. The soldiers with him in Vietnam were ‘just doing their jobs’ and trying to keep themselves and their buddies alive.

Jaime Keener made us feel the near-futility in Brenda’s patient, cautious and persevering love, as she tries to take herself and the virtual stranger her husband has become back home from Vietnam. We see the group therapy counselor and her veterans who talk truthfully and listen and start to heal.

But most of all we heard the vets themselves afterwards. “I came home after 12 months in ’68-’69 and had 30 days to get ready again. Thirty days is not enough. It’s not enough now in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Two years ago I went to see a counselor. It took me almost 40 years.”

“I know what that Afghanistan vet is saying. They are 18-19 years old. Still babies.”

“I put my wife through a hell. Why she married me and stayed with me I don’t know.” His wife stared stoically straight ahead.

“We were infantry men, incredibly skilled at a narrow part of life, at keeping people alive. Then we come back and they say we are only qualified for menial jobs.”

A whole society can betray what’s right by not listening and not caring. Get in touch with any of the people and organizations I named above. Tell them Achilles in America sent you.

tpalaima@sbcglobal.net