Thursday, December 19, 2013

Genevieve Oneth's Bohemian Coffee Cake recipe

Bohemian Coffee Cake –
Genevieve Oneth’s recipe (El Reno, Oklahoma), which she copied down from the radio in 1950 and which is now a family Christmas tradition for all her descendents:

8 cups of flour
5 eggs (well beaten)
1 cup of cream (heated)
1 ounce of yeast (dissolved in 1/4 cup of water)
1 cup of butter
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of milk (scalded; cool)
1/8 teaspoon of mace
1 tablespoon of grated lemon rind
2 teaspoons of salt
1 cup of raisins
1 cup of nuts (preferably almonds)

Blend flour and butter (as for pie crust), add eggs, add sugar to cream (heated). Soak yeast in 1/4 cup cold water then add to cool milk. Add balance of ingredients except raisins, nuts, and lemon rind. Let rise 1 and 1/2 hours, punch down. Add remaining ingredients and let rise again. Then roll dough 1/2 thick, cut into nine strings. Twist four together, braid three, and twist two. Plat on top of each other. Let rise a little while, brush with egg beaten with cream added. Put on a baking sheet and bake 1 1/4 hours (75 minutes) at 300 degrees. Glaze while still warm with a thin icing of powdered sugar and cream. Decorate with candied fruit if desired. Yields two large or four small cakes.

Oh, and if you need a gift for a student, try OUTWITTING COLLEGE PROFESSORS, 4th Ed, from createspace, kindle, smashwords, or nook, or other Janovy books on those sites.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Response to a Facebook post by a whiney instructor complaining about student writing.

Okay, I’m not an English prof, and especially not an adjunct trying to make a living by teaching three or four sections of beginning comp and getting paid peanuts at some institution trying to be the next MIT or Cal Tech. But if I were in that situation, and if my idealism was under serious assault by all those factors that can make college teaching such a frustrating occupation (smart phones, MOOC, the Internet in general, Google, etc.), and if I really wanted to try to produce semi-literate kids who, after all, may well get elected Attorney General, Governor or President decades hence, here is what I would do:

(1) Set a standard grade for every paper. Let’s choose 100 points.
(2) Provide a set of writing guidelines at the beginning of the semester (the contract).
(3) Budget one class day a week for in-class extemporaneous writing, a full class period on some really challenging subject with students not really knowing in advance what that subject will be (but maybe having a little bit of a hint). At least three full pages of longhand gets students the first 25 points out of the 100. I’d probably start this activity the second Monday of the semester.
(4) Depending on the size of the class, one could either take up these papers and give them up to 20 points based only on the amount of writing, or do that as students left. That same paper, the hand-written version, is due the next week along with a typed, double-spaced, version. The combination is now worth the next 25 points.
(5) I’d budget about 10-15 minutes of class for self-correction: “Okay, take off 4 points for every place you’ve used ‘it’s’ when you should have used ‘its’ . . .” etc.—going through some common grammatical issues and having students deduct points from their own grade for each violation.
(6) The last 50 points is awarded when you get (a) the original hand-written version, (b) the version corrected/graded in class by students following your guidance, (c) a completely clean and corrected, typed, version, and (d) a one-page, typed, double-spaced, self assessment of this whole exercise.
(7) I would also do all this activity on a contract basis, so that grading, points, and expectations are spelled out. According to the contract, any grammatical errors in the self-assessment, or mistakes that you would have marked had you “graded” it yourself, will automatically cost the student 25 points. So if you screw up the self-assessment, the most you can get on a paper is 75.
(8) I would offer some bonus points at the end of the semester for a portfolio that includes all these writings along with a three-page self assessment of what the student believes he/she has accomplished by doing this work.
(9) If I found something truly wonderful, I’d give some bonus points on a paper. You don’t have to say anything about these bonus points; the students will talk about these points among themselves so that before the semester is over you may get a chance to deal with the finer points of writing, and thinking, that produced the extra points.

I know, this approach to writing and grading student papers seems like a complicated one, but it’s not, really. You’re using class time instead of your own time, which on an adjunct’s salary is a legitimate approach. This approach also puts students into the role of instructor, although they are teaching themselves. Instructor “grading” actually consists of determining whether the students did what they were supposed to do, to the extent expected, according to the contract. What are you accomplishing through the use of such an approach? I predict that by the end of the semester, at least a certain (hopefully satisfying!) fraction of your class will be looking at their own work in a far more critical way than when they started trying to fulfill the contract.

I used the contract plus done/do over approach in large general biology classes for decades until the Internet got up and functional. At that point, those papers got so boring that I stopped the practice for a couple of years. After that, I went to a Friday extemporaneous writing (15 minutes on a prompt) plus the kind of follow-up as described above. I was very happy with the results; the handling of those papers consumed about 6 hours a week (~250 students) although I had an assistant who handled the hand-written versions and gave that preliminary grade based only on the amount of writing.

If anyone wants a copy of a portfolio from one of these classes, send an e-mail to If you go to and click on the educational resources link, you’ll find quite a bit of information about field-tested assignments intended to fulfill the intent of our general liberal education requirements.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Botswana Notes chapter

5. Hammerhead
What the hammer?
—William Blake (Songs of Experience; The Tiger)
There is a bird in Africa, and only in Africa, called the hammerkopf; that is a German word, meaning “hammer head,” a name based on the bird’s profile. Since 1926, there have been only twenty-three scientific papers published about this species, a number so low that it typically reveals lack of interest in, importance of, or access to, some species, at least in the minds of scientists. That number also reflects what most biologists know well, namely, that our supposed understanding of life on Earth is based on a remarkably small number of organisms, and that the vast majority of known species have rarely been studied beyond their original discovery. And that’s just the ones we know about; based on the rate, and in some cases the ease, of discovery, scientists estimate there are massive numbers of species from bacteria to beetles yet to be found. The hammerkopf thus becomes a symbol of how amazingly ignorant we are of Planet Earth, an ignorance sustained by lack of interest, lack of perceived importance, or lack of access. But like Karen with her lions and fourth grade dreams, I have a personal reason for wanting to see a hammerkopf alive: half a century ago, I was handed a dead one and given a chance to draw its picture.
Lack of interest in the natural world is a relatively modern phenomenon, brought about largely by urbanization and technology. Post-industrial changes in developed nations have diminished our collective concerns for nature by separating us from it, and such separation continues at an accelerating rate during humanity’s so-called Information Age. Admittedly, there are active conservationist movements throughout much of the world, but in 2013, a stroll across almost any college campus provides a glimpse into our future. That kid with ear plugs, his eyes locked on the tiny screen, will run right into you unless you move aside, so don’t expect him to stop by that magnificent linden tree next to the humanities building where he’s headed this morning, read the label, and give even one second’s thought to the origin of that scientific name on the label or the person who described and named Tilia americana back in 1758, or the rich cultural history, going back centuries, associated with this genus—Tilia. And if you tried to talk to him about a hammerkopf, he’d look at you with a blank expression then, maybe, after checking out your clothing and briefcase, ask if it would be on the next exam.
Perhaps if that tree had a hammerkopf nest in it, however, and this young man had to walk around that nest in order to get to class, he might be forced to notice something relatively large, convoluted, and of seemingly inexplicable origin standing between him and his goal, rather like some of the most knotty social and economic problems he’ll face in the next decades, instead of being quite so consumed with whatever is happening at the moment on that little instrument in his hand. If he were on his way to English class, where he knew the assignment for today would be to write, extemporaneously, a highly metaphorical narrative, then the construction of this particular nest, an architectural monstrosity, from commonly found items, would be his ticket to an A+. Or maybe if, instead of seeing a digital image of a hammerkopf on that three inch screen, he’d been handed a dead one, and encouraged to draw its picture, he’d be even more inclined to stop and study that mass of sticks blocking his path to this morning’s calculus quiz. Physical encounters with the real thing affect a mind in ways that computer screens cannot, and the reverse is probably true, too.
In his landmark book, noted biologist E. O. Wilson reminds us that Homo sapiens—the human being—is an extraordinarily social species. Other writers tell us in many different ways that we are also perhaps the most narcissistic of all those organisms that occupy this planet. Information technology promotes that narcissism, pushing it at an accelerating pace to higher and higher levels. If we could actually measure our interest in ourselves, converting that self-fascination into numbers, a graph showing an exponentially increasing narcissism over time would look fairly similar to that showing human population numbers. In other words, we’re shooting upwards faster and faster with no apparent limit in sight. Does this feature of my world make me feel isolated, alone, and abnormal in some way? No, it makes me exceedingly curious about this day’s trip into the Botswana bush, and very privileged, to have spent thousands on the chance that I’ll see a particular kind of bird, a species that lives only in Africa.
Perceived importance is a strictly human trait, one that drives so many of our actions, both individually and socially. It is important to know, for example, how a hammerkopf nest is constructed? The answer depends entirely on the people involved. To the few scientists who actually went to Africa, spent their time and energy trying  to discover the origin of this large, mysterious, phenomenon, such knowledge was obviously important although we don’t know, and can’t discover, why. Was it simple curiosity that sustained them in this work? My guess is: probably. So was it important to them simply to satisfy their curiosity? I hope so. Or did they have access to the birds and nests for some secondary reason, rather like mine, out on a tourist safari watching for lions and elephants but suddenly, as our driver emerges from tangled trees into a floodplain, confronted with this massive ball of vegetation lodged up in a tree? Possibly. Then their study of a hammerkopf nest becomes serendipity, something every scientist knows well.
Sometime during our morning drive, I make a mental note to find out what humanity, actually knows about hammerkopf nests, once I return home half a world away and am able to pull up the past century of scientific reports with a few key strokes. At the time I know only what Joseph Molekoa, our driver-guide, is telling us, and that is plenty: he knows about the inner architecture of these nests, he knows that other birds, including owls and spur-winged geese, also sometimes appropriate them; he knows that both sexes participate in the construction; and, he knows that it often, if not regularly, takes thousands of collecting trips before the nest is complete. I think about that bird-work for a while, watching the nest, taking my pictures, as we negotiate the soggy ground to our Sundowner site and my late afternoon vodka on ice. A pair of crow-sized birds searches six, or eight, or maybe ten, thousand times, through the African vegetation for exactly the right kind and size of sticks, picks them up, carries them to the selected tree, and pokes them in to the growing structure according to some unknown, and perhaps unknowable, set of inherited instructions.
Karen might have her fourth grade dreams and her lions, but I’m saddled with, actually blessed with, that long-ago encounter with George M. Sutton at the University of Oklahoma, the man who handed me the hammerkopf specimen and sat watching, patiently, with a gentle smile, while I drew its picture and made notes of the feather shapes (pointed, on the head). Sutton was a person who knew no bounds when it came to the study of birds, and consequently of all other subjects. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being taught transferable skills, as well as transferable attitudes. For example, in a course entitled “History and Literature of Zoology,” Sutton started his first class with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Wind Hover, and in so doing, instantly validated any effort to make similar kinds of associations regardless of what my future colleagues in the Ivory Tower might think about such teaching techniques. Then came that day when Sutton said, in essence, “now you’re going to learn about taxonomy, nomenclature, evolution, and the geographic distribution of various species.” Instead of lecturing, or assigning a section of some textbook on these topics, he handed me a hammerkopf, one that’s he’d borrowed, for that express purpose, from the Field Museum in Chicago.
So I had access to a dead hammerkopf because of a teacher, a museum, and someone long ago who’d shot it and converted it into a “specimen.” My pencil was well-sharpened, 4H, wooden, and yellow, just like the ones John Steinbeck used to write Grapes of Wrath. The paper was plain white, the kind you’d use in a mimeograph machine. The specimen lay on that large, beautifully-finished, oak table in the Bird Range, a WWI-era stables converted to museum research space at the University of Oklahoma. I reached for the bird, held it in my left hand, measured the proportions with my pencil, then marked dots on the page: tip of bill, rictus, depth of bill, placement of the eye, distance from the bill tip to the back of its head. I laid the bird back on the table and began filling in the lines. An hour later, finished with the profile portrait, I made another small drawing—a detailed sketch of some pointed feathers on the head; I made a note about those feathers then wrote more notes below the larger drawing. Later that day I trimmed off one edge of the paper, glued it to another sheet, this one punched for a three-ring binger, and put the page in my Birds of the World notebook. It would be fifty years before I looked at that page again.
At some time during that semester, Sutton obviously examined the picture because he studied everything his students produced, down to the smallest detail. On other pages of this two-inch thick loose-leaf notebook are subtle comments in his tiny script, comments about tiny things only a careful reader would discover. The words themselves were not all that important; I could easily correct small mistakes and misspellings. The fact that he’d caught those little slip-ups told me more about the life of a professional scientist than he could have told me directly. Like all his students, I was allowed to study his paintings, including the unpublished ones, and expected to read his books, especially those in which the paintings were reproduced. Every one of these exquisite watercolors also had notes—small, straight lines of cursive, in pencil—Sutton’s reminders of what he saw and thought at the time he handled a bird. Thus that day, sitting in his Bird Range, hammerkopf on the table in front of my drawing, I did the same:
“bill black
Crown above eye brownish black,
or light chocolate brown (no reddish)
feathers somewhat pointed, smaller
on forehead.
Crest similar color to crown, slightly lighter
Cheek patch & area below eye, distinctly
Lighter, with buff streaks (individual feathers long,
with darker centers and buff edges,)
Throat & lower head, & neck about color of
dark portion of cheek patch.
feathers of cheek, lower crest & back of neck
very loose webbed, neck & throat less so.”
The note directly below the sketch reads
“Scopus umbretta hammerkopf – life size
from specimen on loan from Chicago Mus. Nat. Hist., to GMS.”
The last line of those notes reminds me again what one individual did for the express purpose of giving another person access to a particular kind of animal. Now, half a century after being introduced to an endemic African bird, one that lives only on that continent, I have one regret: at the time I was making that drawing, I was so taken with the privilege of handling the specimen, and so keenly aware of why I’d been given that privilege, that I forgot to write down the information on its foot tag, or even if there was a tag. Now, in the early morning darkness of Lincoln, Nebraska, in an attempt to rectify that mistake made half a century earlier, I join my hypothetical college student by calling on Information Age technology to solve some nagging internal need. I open my computer’s browser, pull up Google®, and type “Field Museum Chicago” into the text window. Exactly fifty seconds later, a second per year, I think, after three more clicks, and the word “Scopus” typed into a dialog box, I get a list of all the hammerkopf specimens in the Field Museum’s research collections. There are exactly fifty such specimens; one specimen per year since I made that sketch. Fifty: seconds, years, specimens. I remind myself that I don’t believe in ghosts, especially ones that live in machines.
With the museum’s spreadsheet right there in front of my eyes, the temptation is simply too great to resist: I wonder if I can figure out which of these specimens was the one I actually handled. By checking collection dates, I immediately narrow the search down to twenty-nine out of the fifty, namely, those collected prior to the time I drew the picture. The latest such specimen, the skin of a male from eastern Kenya, was collected on February 5, 1959. Whomever shot it recorded the weight at the time, 494.6 grams, the color of the iris, brown, and the size of its testes, 3 x 6 mm. Its upper bill, lower bill, and lower leg (tarsus) were all black. The body had “much” fat. This one could not have been the bird I handled; there is too much information about it on record. Such information makes a specimen valuable; a valuable specimen doesn’t get shipped to Oklahoma just so some grad student can draw its picture.
I suggest that whatever you might be thinking, at this very moment, about the relative value of iris color and testes size from a bird shot in eastern Kenya, should be considered a privileged look inside the arcane world of classical biology. That specimen and the notes associated with it are tangible evidence for what the world was like on February 5, 1959. Regardless of what elected officials and the entertainment industry are telling you about what the world is like, or should be like, a specimen—be it bird, insect, or fossil dinosaur—provide irrefutable proof that something lived somewhere when, and that proof can be touched, studied, and confirmed year after year, if necessary. Thus one dead bird has a quality that simply cannot be duplicated by someone designing tiny computers and writing apps to infect the brain of that hypothetical kid we mentioned earlier.
There are three hammerkopf specimens in the Field Museum that have no record of where they were collected. These three are prime suspects for the one I handled. Of those three, two were collected after I drew the picture, so could not have been the one Sutton borrowed. The remaining one, number 378637, has no collection date listed in the database, thus is most likely to be used in teaching. We have no information about its weight, its bill and leg colors, its sex, or the amount of fat in its body. In the database, the subspecies of 378637 is listed as Scopus umbretta umbretta, the trinomial indicating it was likely collected somewhere in southern Africa, instead of west Africa or Madagascar, a conclusion probably based on bill size. In a land mass larger than the combined areas of China, India, western Europe, England, Argentina, and the United States, a single bird died, perhaps, if not probably, as a result of gun shot, ended up being skinned, stuffed with cotton, laid on its back to dry, and delivered by some unknown means, and unknown reason, to Chicago, where is probably still lies in a wooden tray within a tightly-sealed, white, steel cabinet.
In my mind, this bird becomes the one George Sutton borrowed so that I could hold it in my own two hands and draw its picture. I can envision its current resting place, following its return to the Field Museum, because I’ve worked in museum research collections before, opening those same kinds of cases, smelling the chemicals used to keep insects out, and handling other specimens. But in 1963 a man gave me access to a dead hammerkopf, and by doing so he also provided me with a world of knowledge about the distribution of life on Earth and our efforts to understand how life exists on the only planet known to support it. That world of knowledge was not written on the bird’s foot tag, and didn’t even exist in my mind at the time. Instead, it was implanted in my brain as a desire, a desire to learn whatever I could about Scopus umbretta, a desire to be a teacher of the sort that would borrow an unusual specimen “simply” to let some student handle it.
The lack of collection data meant that although the bird was of no scientific value, so could be borrowed for teaching purposes by an established faculty member at some university, it was nevertheless enormously valuable to one individual, a person who would, years later, also be a teacher looking for unusual tricks to combat those infectious little hand-held devices capturing the minds of young humans, turning them—I sometimes imagined—into intellectual zombies. Next to the bed, in our tent-cabin deep in the heart of the Okavango Delta, is a lamp decorated with rows of cowry shells. These marine shells used as currency for millennia, shipped like some hammerkopf specimen for thousands of miles, buried in tombs analogous to those white steel cabinets, have been replaced by real money—printed, minted, and electronically transferred when used to by a souvenir at a tourist safari camp. What once might have purchased a slave or a wife now makes a pattern glued on a lamp beside a tourist’s bed.
But cowry shells are, like number 378637 lying in its wooden tray beside elite specimens, or a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem in the hands of the right person, powerful weapons in my war against all those forces competing for the minds of young Americans. And so I would use that Sutton teaching technique many times over the next forty years, passing out not birds, but shells, to literally thousands of students, asking them to draw pictures and write essays about those specimens, compare their structures to paintings and sculptures seen in an art gallery, then return them to me, like Sutton must have returned that hammerkopf to the Field Museum. Access to dead animals is not so difficult for those of us in the business. It’s the live ones that are a problem.
But access to a live hammerkopf is not such a big problem after all so long as you have a nice place to stay in Botswana, a Land Rover, and Joseph Molekoa as your driver. Seba Camp is the nice place; our tent is, like those at Banoka, a beautifully constructed canvas home with front porch, king-sized bed, electricity, a shower, sink and toilet, clean, fluffy, towels, insect repellant and an emergency air horn, and large pictures of Kalahari aborigines across the headboard. The men in these pictures are smoking something, not typical cigarettes or cigars, but something that looks like a dark twisted root, although one of them has a pipe. The Land Rover is a given. And Joseph is, like Chris Nyame, an expert guide. So when he sees a hammerkopf busy poking in a tire track puddle twenty yards ahead, he stops.
“Hammerkopf,” he says, pointing. I aim the camera, zooming in for the exact photograph I want to see back home in a couple of weeks: the whole bird in profile, or perhaps facing us but with its head turned to the right, and its body reflected in the puddle. I take picture after picture, zooming in, zooming out, cursing the autofocus that seems to believe a grass seed head is more important to me than Scopus umbretta, and in the process demonstrating once again how technology takes control of one’s life, if you let it.
I didn’t expect it to be this easy, nor did I expect a hammerkopf to be quite so disdainful of our presence. From that ornithological homework done fifty years earlier, under the tutelage of George Sutton, I’d come to think of certain species as exotic rarities, things you read about, and see pictures of, maybe in National Geographic, but never, in your entire life, expect to encounter. Yet here we are, sitting patiently, with some kind of feeling that I cannot explain, watching this bird with so little concern for either me or my interest in it. Evidently, in my mind, the species’ taxonomic singularity also implied the probability of ever seeing one, namely, near or at zero. Thus I sit there in the Land Rover, taking pictures like a regular tourist, but mentally I’m the quintessential, off-the-scale, nerd: here, I’m thinking, is a member of a monotypic family, endemic to sub-Saharan Africa. C’mon, bird, now turn just a little more so your reflection makes a nice composition.
The scientific name is Scopus umbretta, but at various times and places, this crow-sized, heron-like, species has been called not only hammerkopf, but also hamerkop, hammer head, umbrette, anvil head, umber bird, tufted umber, and hammer-headed stork. Hamerkop is the Afrikaans name, but the various African language names are far more colorful: Zulus call it uThekwane; Tsongas know it as Mandonzwana; to the Swazi it’s Tsekwane, and in Tswana, the lingua franca of Botswana, it’s Mmamasiloanok√™. If we’d had Google when I was a student in the 1960s, I’d have memorized those African tribal names and used them instead of the German, just out of orneriness. And out in the bush with Joseph fifty years later, I’d have used Mmamasiloanok√™, assuming I could pronounce it, although given my total ignorance of whatever he speaks on the radio to other driver-guides, I might have insulted him terribly. Yes, in the minds of scientists, that brown bird poking in the tire track puddle twenty yards ahead can indeed bring forth this train of thoughts about language, history, culture, and communication.
The hammerhead belongs to a monotypic family, which means that it is the only member of the bird family Scopidae. In lay terms, that phrase “monotypic family” means that ornithologists were never able to find enough structural similarity between the hammerkopf and other birds to warrant inclusion in an existing family, for example Ardeidae, containing all the world’s herons, or Ciconiidae, which includes species of storks. In other words, this strange beast has no obvious close relatives, at least in an evolutionary sense. Nor, evidently, does it have clearly-defined distant relatives. Some scientists place this family among the herons and storks, in a group named the Order Ciconiiformes; others place it in with the pelicans and their relatives, in the Order Pelicaniformes. Scientists argue over data; that’s what we do; any disagreement over classification of Mmamasiloanok√™ is as natural to us as conflicting opinions on when human life actually begins during a reproductive event commonly known as “unprotected sex.”
However, molecular techniques have empowered biological scientists in ways never imagined by Darwin. The net result, and not just with hammerkopf classification, is an admission that appearance can easily hide one’s history, although most of us knew that already from reading fiction that had nothing whatsoever to do with birds, or any other non-human living creatures. But the scientific literature tells me that the molecular wizards have yet to answer the ornithological question about Scopus umbretta: are its closest relatives herons, or storks, or even pelicans? All it would take is a cotton swab inside the mouth of that one out there in the tire track puddle, swabs just like ones taken from alleged criminals, or innocent men protesting their convictions, swabs sent to some lab that we all assume does its work correctly. Back would come the results: a long list of letters that spell “hammerkopf genetic makeup.” We would compare that list with similar ones from herons, storks, and pelicans. The answer would be clear: the hammerkopf is really a __________.
“What is it?” is still the most persistent of all questions about nature. We believe we can answer that question correctly with DNA, the very genes some creature carries deep inside its cells, the evidence of its ancestors. Ancestors make us who we are, and that assertion applies not only to African birds but every other living organism, including those getting their massage from a Land Rover seat. But the DNA answer deludes us, no less than one correct multiple choice test answer deludes both a teacher and a student, into thinking we’ve solved a puzzle. The puzzle we seem to have solved with this molecular answer is similar to ones presumably solved by some college kid walking across campus locked into his smart phone, ignoring landscape vegetation and bird calls. There is no context to a strand of chemical compounds: no rain puddle, no thirty or forty digital images of a single bird, no massive nest, no museum specimen locked away in Chicago, no biologist looking for a drawing he made half a century ago, and no pointed feathers on the head.
What’s the “take home” from an African hammerkopf in a tire track rain puddle? The answer is simple if you’re an ornithology student, but my hope is to make that answer simple for everyone and every species—large, small, plant, animal, fungus—added to the list, and here it is: as is the case with most of what we see in nature, the specific leads to the general; like in a novel, the life and times of one becomes the experience of us all. The fact that Scopus umbretta occurs only in sub-Saharan Africa immediately makes you wonder what else is restricted to this continent that’s so often embroiled in indescribable violence yet retains a kind of beauty that must be seen to be understood.
©John Janovy, Jr.

Monday, December 2, 2013

So what should we do about Bo Pelini?

John Janovy, Jr.
The short answer to this question is: nothing; let him be himself and do the best he can in this high pressure job. The long answer is: let him work through his current contract then replace him with someone who is not such an embarrassment to the UNL athletic program and to the university itself, especially to those faculty members who, for a variety of legitimate reasons, need to act like dignified professionals in front of an audience. Getting rid of an embarrassment is not worth whatever it costs to buy out Pelini, perhaps along with his staff (estimates range up to $20 million). If you’ve ever tried your hand at creative writing—or, for that matter, anything else involving artistic efforts be it music, painting, or dance—then you know that embarrassment is simply part of the game. After all, even world class figure skaters fall on their butts periodically and college football is probably the one activity where it’s really easy to embarrass not only yourself, but rabid fans under the illusion that a coach’s record on the field is a direct reflection of those fans’ self-worth.
We all want Huskers to win regardless of the contest and the venue. That desire applies to programs other than football, of course. So what do we fans do when those desires are frustrated, as they must always be, eventually, regardless of the competition? Again, there are two answers, a short and a long one. The short is: nothing, shrug it off; the sun will come up tomorrow, even if hidden by clouds. The long is: get really mad, rant and rave over every social medium available, pretend you know more about some sport than a coach making obscene amounts of money, surround yourself with a bunch of like-minded buddies, and thank God for something fun to talk about so that you don’t have to lose friends by discussing those subjects forbidden in polite company, namely evolution, politics, and religion.
Now, however, let’s admit that the guy really doesn’t have much of what we’d normally call “class.” He doesn’t handle press conferences very well, does not come across on television as being particularly smart and articulate, he does not appear comfortable in front of a camera, and he tends to drop four-letter words in places where they get picked up by listeners with electronic ears. If all those expletives were aimed at the opposing team, officials, NCAA rules, and the weather then we’d be right there with him; but not a few of those bombs were aimed at Nebraska fans. In other words, he’s telling us that he doesn’t care about us, lumping the pathologically faithful with fair-weather folks who actually have to search for their red underwear on Saturdays. So let’s live with Bo Pelini for the next few years. If, after that, university officials have not learned enough about human nature to hire the right person for this highest of high-profile positions then we probably don’t have much choice but to be proud of a 9-3, or 8-4, season and a trip to the Rural Kansas Bowl.
The one thing Bo does have going for him is player admiration. As far as we can tell from quotes in the media, the boys who participate in this exceedingly violent game love their head coach and even tolerate the proselytizer Ron Brown. This observation is important, a lesson for anyone in a leadership position: stand up for, and stand behind, those who are working as hard as they can, using all their time and talents, to make you rich and famous. You’ll never hear Pelini use an expletive to describe one of his players, one of his assistant coaches, or even a fake punt call on fourth and three when you’ve had second and three two downs before and Imani Cross on your team.
But it’s also important to remember just how cloistered is a major football program. We fans are separated from the gladiators in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that we’re in the stands instead of on the field. We are not a party to Bo’s teaching techniques, his insider analysis of games past, his decision-making processes, his worries, and his personal life. Instead, we summarize that entire program by the use of his name, routinely tie our sense of what it means to be a Nebraska resident to the Husker football win-loss record and national rankings, and assume that our impression of a team’s performance is indeed a true reflection of coaching skills. None of those three behaviors can be justified by the facts: a major college program is exceedingly large and complex, your personal mental well-being has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with football unless you’re part of the team and staff, and nobody can completely control a game played by a bunch of college kids.
I’m not excusing Bo Pelini for an 8-4 record in 2013; he’s evidently doing what he’s been hired to do about as well as he can, although maybe not up to everyone’s expectations and hopes. I am saying that no matter how public his job is on a few fall Saturdays, most, indeed perhaps 98%, of what he does or does not do is hidden from the public simply because that’s not only the way these programs operate, it’s probably also the way these programs must operate in order to be even 67% successful (8/12 = 0.6666). And let’s be honest: he has had a slew of injuries to deal with. When a senior lineman who’s been on the practice squad sees duty in the last game of the season, and not because he’s a senior being done a favor for his parents but because he’s needed, then you know the coach has human resource management problems, not all of them a result of his decisions behind closed doors.
But the cloister has its dark side, as we’ve learned from the Joe Paterno et al. story. The rarest of all revelations in college football may indeed be discovery that some Division 1 coach actually reads serious non-fiction, can talk intelligently about art, is more scientifically literate than his state’s elected officials, listens to opera in his new Nissan Armada (supplied via tax deductible donations from a booster), and is just as sensitive to non-football compliance issues as some assistant professor in biology who’s filled out a 17-page form in order to dissect a frog and knows enough to keep his office door open when a student is in there crying about a grade. So given that Mr. Pelini is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln employee, if not the UNL employee, if not the public face of the institution, I have a couple of answers to the question: what should we do about Bo Pelini?
First, send him to sit in some adjunct English prof’s freshman class for three hours every time he loses a game in which he calls a fake punt. Actually, send him to such a class for three hours every time he loses a game, period. Three hours is about the length of time fans are patient with what they interpret as poor coaching, whether it is poor coaching or not. After the second hour over in Andrews Hall basement, students will get over the fact that it’s Pelini in the room and he’ll start getting some perspective on the difference between his salary and that of the other person who’s also expected to be a superior teacher and is worrying about his/her students just as much as Bo worries about his players.
Second, either send him to charm school or make him take a speech class where he’s up in front of a couple of dozen students who evaluate his performance—posture, clothing, choice of words, rationale, etc. When Bo apologizes for some on-field outburst he actually sounds reasonably civilized, at least as quoted in the newspaper; we give him the benefit of the doubt by concluding that he delivered those words without a script prepared by a staff member. So maybe he can do it after all. And tell him to ditch the hat after the game; I know, we see hats even in nice restaurants in Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean your mother, or your date, approves of them. In other words, if Bo is the face of UNL for half the year, then we want him to at least look and talk in a way that would make him seem like part of the crowd in a room full of well-educated professionals.
Third, pay some faculty members a bonus to go over to the cloister and spend an hour a week educating Bo and his staff on current events, economics, media, advertising, military mis-adventure, pop music, information technology, organization of the university, what the ACE program (Achievement Centered Education, the UNL liberal arts curriculum) is supposed to accomplish, and UNL assets such a Morrill Hall, the Sheldon Gallery and sculpture garden, and Ross Film Theater. In other words, get him out of the cloister and bring him into the fold. If he’s being paid an ungodly sum to be the symbol of our institution, then expect him to actually be a part of it. If he’s being paid an ungodly sum to be the face of American higher education, then let’s help him act the part. Who knows, by the time his current contract is up, a miracle may have occurred.
Speaking of miracles, it’s entirely possible that by the time Pelini’s contract is up, Nebraska will have won a Big Ten championship, if not a national one. For newly hired regular faculty members, six years is tenure time; that’s the year your department colleagues decide whether to award you a lifetime’s job, along with annual evaluations, minimal pay increases, access to group health insurance, and contributions to your TIAA/CREF retirement fund. At UNL, you also get the opportunity to buy football tickets. Has Bo done well enough to warrant the D 1 version of tenure, namely a contract extension? The question is not relevant; he’s already been given one. He has a winning record; if bowl games can somehow be equated to publications, he has enough; his players love and respect him; a few of his students are now professionals. By loose analogy, that’s more than I can say for some current tenured faculty members.
Finally, so get off his case. Nobody except the players and coaches truly know whether he’s doing the best job possible at the University of Nebraska. The vast majority of us has never played college football and never will, and even those who have played are usually years past the experience. College athletics are neither immune to nor isolated from the cultural and technological changes that are sweeping through our nation and the world, but college coaches often act like that is the case. It’s not. Grow up, coach; pick a couple of role models and start trying to behave the way they do. If she’s still alive, your mother will be happy that finally, by middle age, you’ve developed into the kind of child she dreamed about having when you were born. And in the best of all worlds, you end up being one of those deities in the same Heavenly realm as Devaney and Osborne.
Now, for those of you who want a peek into the future of Nebraska football, order TUSKERS as an e-book from kindle, nook,, or as a nice paperback from The movie script for TUSKERS is also available as an e-book from