Tag Archives: Mount Mercy University

First Fall Series Presentation is a Feast for the Mind


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Dr. Anna Waterman, associate professor of biology, Mount Mercy University, talking about food.

Food changes everything. The way we live, where we live, how we live and the fact that we have “the man” to please and to defy—it all starts with food.

For the first several million years that our species walked on this planet, we foraged and hunted. We gathered the leaves and seeds and roots that we wanted to consume, and killed our fellow creatures and ate them.

It wasn’t an ideal life, but it was a life we were suited to. We already had fire—cooking predates our species and, along with the ability to make and use tools and weapons, is part of the legacy we get from our related hominid ancestors.

Then, about 12,000 years ago, starting in the fertile crescent of the Middle East but also independently developing in South America and China, humans began to fundamentally change the way we had lived.

logoThat fascinating history—how we are creatures of food and how our relationship to food changed everything about our lives—was the topic of Dr. Anna Waterman’s presentation “How the Agricultural Revolution Transformed Human Diet, Culture, and Society” that she gave Aug. 22 at Mount Mercy University. It was the first event in the 2019 Fall Faculty Series.

It is a bit weird to think that for most of the time we homo sapiens have been around, we shared this globe with other kinds of humans—literally other homo species besides ourselves. No more. Our spread worldwide happened before agriculture and “civilization,” and we either out-competed or eliminated our nearest relatives. (Dr. Waterman didn’t go into this point, but we also incorporated some of their DNA into ours—Neanderthal and Devonians, for example, didn’t all die out, some joined our clan).

People some 12,000 years ago began slowly to tend the plants that they like, and in what was wetter grasslands of the Middle East at that time, some of those grasses became selectively bred into cultivated grains. Those grains fueled dramatic changes in our diet—the invention of bread and beer as staples of what we eat and drink.

And with cultivated grains came larger populations, villages, hierarchies—eventually, nation states. Bosses. Work. Specialization. Organized religion. And, as formerly nomadic, now fixed peoples, we started to find that tending animals was more convenient than hunting them—chickens, pigs, cows, goats were bred from wild animals into the domestic creatures we care for and consume today.

Suddenly land wasn’t something you moved over and foraged on, it was property that was owned by some rich people. The concept of “stuff” was invented as we had fixed residences to store valued objects in.

In the blink of an eye, in the grand scheme of things, the globe was transformed. Today, there are still nomadic hunter gatherers in our human family, but they are rare, located in isolated pockets of land that typically are not that good for raising crops.

Where we can farm, we farm. Thus Iowa is carpeted with corn and soybeans from river to river, a dramatic change in the landscape from what it was 200 years ago. Our immigrant ancestors conquered the New World because residents already here did not have immunity to European diseases—caused, partly, by Europeans living in such proximity to their domesticated animal sources of protein.

Family size was dramatically changed. Nomads carry what they can, and usually can’t have more than one “carry” child at a time, so their norm was to breastfeed for three or four years, which was a form of birth control. With grain, you can make soft food that an 18-month-old can slurp down, so you can wean her and make another baby sooner. And if you’re farming, you tend to want more babies because those kids are farm labor.

The vast, varied ways that agriculture has shifted our environment, our social structures and our ways of life were interesting to hear Dr. Waterman speak about. The changes have had plusses and minuses. I’m not against having a computer to type this blog post on, nor being able to microwave my lunch.

But Dr. Waterman played an interesting game. “How many of you,” she noted, “could go out into your back yard and find stuff to eat?”

There are edible plants there, probably. If we were hunter-gatherers, we would know which roots to dig and which leaves to pluck. Today, our lives are divorced from our sources of food.

Not that I want to trade places with my great, great, great nomadic ancestor. They had cookies with this presentation Thursday night—something those ancestors never saw.

And afterwards, pizza with some brews. Beer and bread, man. They changed everything.

There are eight presentations in the fall series this year, come on down. The next presentation on Sept. 4, by Dr. Normal Linda Mattingly, will cover the history of school lunch programs.

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Can the Earth Run a Marathon?


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Me speaking at Mount Mercy University Oct. 11 on “Hot Story: How the Media Struggles to Cover Climate Change.” Photo by Audrey Sheller.

Earlier in October, I presented a lecture during the Fall Faculty Series at Mount Mercy University.

It was about how the media struggle to cover climate change, and it was an odd week to do the presentation because the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released a report that made headlines—stating, in effect, that the severe impacts of climate change are closer than we thought.

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For most of us, we don’t need to combat climate change to save the Earth for future generations. Even at age 60, it’s likely I’m in the generation that will experience rising seas, droughts, storms and other Mother Nature induced “fun.”

Anyway, even if the nations of the Earth agree on the urgency of the problem and work hard to reduce carbon emissions, there will still be plenty of human-caused climate change with it attendant problems.

I used a line from a tweet by 538, the Nate Silver site: “So This Is It. We’re All Going to Die.” That dire tweet was on a link to a blog entry that wasn’t quite that dark—it basically stated that it’s possible to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, but the number analyst and poll wonks at 538 think it’s unlikely that we will do that.

We don’t want the short-term pain for the long-term gain. We’ll take the short-term easy path, and deal with the tragedies of the future in the future. Considering how we’re dealing with the tragedies of today today, I’m thinking this is a bad idea.

In my presentation, I think there were two humans noted whose names ought to be more recognized:

In 1896, Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrheius wrote a paper that earned him the Nobel Prize. He proposed that human burning of fossil fuels would release carbon dioxide that would eventually cause the Earth to warm. That’s right, global warming has only been a valid scientific concept for 122 years—no wonder so many still doubt.

In 1988, James Edward Hansen, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, testified before a Senate committee. He was brave to speak out on the topic—and in the ensuring years, the NASA funding for the institute became more of an issue as Republican administrations made it a deliberate strategy to deny global warming and question the science.

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Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrheius.

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James Edward Hansen, who was head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. His 1988 Senate testimony established global warning as a bit news story.

I noted lots of reasons why journalists struggle to cover this story—it’s a slow, big trend that doesn’t’ cause daily headlines, and daily headlines are what the media tune into. If a person is great at math and science, journalism may not be their first choice for a major. And even when journalists do cover global warming, there is an increasing anti-science cultural thread that can dominate our political debate.

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Side on why it’s such a hard news story to cover well.

Think of President Trump and his boneheaded response to the IPCC report: Scientists have a “political agenda” and he would have to see who “drew” the report. Well, saving Earth is a political point of view, I suppose, and science is political—but scientific consensus is built over time with careful, rational observation. Clearly President Trump’s head for science is a lot like his head for counting inaugural crowds—largely imaginary.

Here is a link to a playist I used of songs that made me think of my topic. And here is a link to some more images from my presentation on a Facebook gallery.

So, in effect, the IPCC reports, it makes headlines for a day, and now we’re off worried about migrants in Central America who honestly pose almost no threat to our welfare rather than thinking about how we could save our own butts and the butts of our children and grandchildren from the very real catastrophe of human-caused climate change.

My children and grandchildren’s butts may not be their best features, but they are still worth saving. As Sam Gamgee said in Lord of the Rings, “there’s still some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.” In full disclosure, I didn’t bother to Google that quote, so it’s a loose paraphrase, but I still agree with the point.

So, is there hope?

Sure.

Think of what your life was like when your baby was 4-weeks old. I’m sure they were a bundle of joy, but you were a bundle of jangled nerves, living on 4 hours or less of sleep at night, praying that junior would please, please, please just stop crying and take a friggin’ nap.

And yet, you survived and fought through. And it changed. It got better. President Trump and I agree on one thing, climate change is not a constant. Of course, I put some faith in science, and personally I don’t see the huge conflict between science and God, but that’s another post. And I believe we need to act, and need to elect politicians who will act.

Maybe we will. Sometimes, people surprise you in a good way.

On Sunday, I went to Des Moines Iowa with my wife and two young grandsons. Their mother was busy becoming something I don’t think anybody in my family had done up to this point—she is a marathoner. She ran 26.2 miles (she says her favorite sign she saw along the way said “26.2, because 26.3 would be ridiculous”).

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She did it? Could I? Probably not, but it’s nice to see what’s possible.

Wow. I was watching people cross the finish line hours after they had started, and I couldn’t help but feel an odd sense of how cool that would be.

Run more than 26 miles? I’m 60, I am overweight and have arthritis in my knees. I gave up running years ago, and bike for my exercise because it’s easier on the joints. But, is it possible? Could I?

I doubt it and I’m not making any commitment here. But I also wouldn’t say it’s impossible. Lots of things are possible.

Well, congratulations, daughter. You may not have thought of yourself that way, but I think of the smile you had on your face as you crossed that finish line, and I am not only unbearably proud as your father, but also inspired and filled with another reaction.

There is hope. It’s possible work for a long, long time on a future goal that involves pain today. That’s what she had to do. I doubt I could do it, but I am happy that running a marathon seems like something a human can accomplish.

Maybe the species can save the Earth from the species. I hope so. Let’s lace up our sustainability sneakers and start training.

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Living in Harmony, Recognizing Dignity


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Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of religious studies at Mount Mercy University, speaks Sept. 18, 2018.

At the end of a sometimes discouraging presentation that had multiple examples of the damage humans have done to the Earth and ways in which people take advantage of each other, Dr. Bryan Cross, assistant professor of religious studies, offered a brighter view.

“If we think it’s too late, it will definitely be too late,” he said. “You have to do what you can. And I still have hope.”

Cross, a professor at Mount Mercy University, spoke during the Fall Faculty Series called “Sustanability: Human/Nature and the Future of the Earth.” His Sept. 18 forum, the second in the series, also happened during Mercy Week at MMU, when the university celebrates its Sisters of Mercy heritage—and the week this year is dedicated to concern for the Earth. The presentation was called “Pope Francis’ Laudato Sí: Harmony with the Natural Order and the Dignity of Creatures.”

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Shadow of Dr. Bryan Cross.

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Dr. Bryan Cross explains a slide.

The presentation, using ideas from a book written by Pope Francis, began with some religious perspective on why it’s important to care for our planet. Partly, it’s recognition that nature has intrinsic value. And it’s also showing respect to other humans, too, including those who will come after us.

“I am my future generation’s keeper,” Cross said. Exploitation of other humans, viewing them only as utility, is part of the mindset that allows exploitation of other living things and the Earth itself—so the antidote is a recognition of dignity of others—other people, but other parts and pieces of this reality, too.

About 60 people attended, which is a pretty good turnout. The audience seemed caught up in the presentation, and there was lots of good discussion at the end. I thought I spoke a bit too much—a bad habit I tend to have—but it was still an enjoyable evening, if a little discomforting, too.

And I also felt that it set the bar pretty high for me. I speak next in the series, on Oct. 11 I will give a presentation called: “Hot Story: How the Media Struggles to Cover Climate Change.” Hope to see you there!

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#RadicalModeratesUnite! Protest 101


Dr. Taylor Houston

Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology at Mount Mercy University.

I’m not sure I’m cut out for this protest business. Sure, I marched for science. I am also the proud brother of sisters, many of who sport “those” pink hats. And yet, I don’t want to divide the world into “us” and “them.” That may be a necessary step, however, if I aspire to run a successful “movement” to enact social change.

And I do. I’m so concerned about the doughnut shape of our current politics—about the hollowing out of the middle and our migration into like-minded, competing, hostile camps farther on the left and right that I want to close the cap, bridge the divide, put the hole back in the doughnut.

I want a middle, darn it. I don’t want to act so surprised that former President Bush has some intelligent things to say. I don’t want to associate with folks who find the Obamas—surely one of the strongest, healthiest, most traditional and respectable nuclear families to inhabit the White House since, I don’t know, ever—so objectionable on a personal level that only invective can describe them.

I want to be able to respect a President, Democrat or Republican. The present President has exempted himself from that instinct, by the way, due to gross incompetence, rampant narcissism, corrosive ignorance and pervasive use of racist dog whistles—I can only respect a Republican who wants to serve America and serve as president to all of her citizens. If the last nine months have taught us anything, it’s that, left or right, GOP or Democrats, we should acknowledge that the crazy old man who temporary resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not that President. He needs the apprentice treatment—to be told “you’re fired”—ASAP.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

Yeah, I know, I’m deviating from my core message. Trump bashing is not helpful while I am trying to say “up the middle!” I say it because there will be a U.S beyond the Trump era, and I do want an America where there is a hint of compromise and competence among our political elites.

#Makepoliticsworkagain. #ItsnotthenewsthatsfakeDon.

Anyway, Dr. Taylor Houston, assistant professor of sociology, gave an interesting talk tonight at Mount Mercy University Oct. 24 as part of our 2017 Fall Faculty Series. His speech was called: “Protest 101: How to be an Effective Activist.”

He noted early that he wasn’t really going to give any complete recipe, but rather some sociological perspective on what makes movement successful, and some advice for would-be activists. I can’t fault the content of what he said—he seemed to base his remarks clearly on good social science—but some aspects of his talk were disconcerting.

For example, to have a successful social change movement, it’s very helpful early on to define an enemy, so you can court cohesion among “your” allies by having a “them” to attack.

 

Bah, humbug. I wish it weren’t so—more divisiveness seems to be just what we don’t need—but as a communication tactic, I have to concede the advice is completely valid.

Other points Dr. Houston made included:

  • Watch for your WUNC. “The strength of a movement is determined by its WUNC,” Houston noted. That is, a movement needs to have Worthiness (from the point of view of the people who support it), Unity, Numbers and Commitment. Those interplay in interesting ways, he noted. For example, “numbers” doesn’t have to be a majority—the TEA Party movement has successfully reshaped the Republican Party with relatively small numbers, but enough commitment and key strength in primary races to make its mark. WUNC. Get some. A lot, actually.
  • Start local. If you want media attention, you’re more likely to get it from local journalists. If you want to influence conditions in Cedar Rapids, Mayor Ron Corbett is a much easier to influence than President Tangerine Hair Nightmare (sorry, slipping again. Mr. Drumpf does that to me).
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    Man at the speech handed me this. An invite! I’m invited to protest!

    Send an invite. The most important step to get fellow travelers to sign on to your movement is to do something and ask others who are like minded to join in. “People who care the most are the most likely to get involved,” Houston noted. “Those mostly likely to be involved are those who have been asked.”

Houston had much more to say—about framing a message, for example. About how starting a movement is a lot easier than actually accomplishing a goal—and we seem to excel at making noise but fall short at knowing what to do next.

So, what movements do I want to start? As I noted, I’m ready for some radical compromisers. For people who are willing to “make it work.”

And, secondly, I still want to start the Pollinator Garden Movement at MMU.

Join me, friends. Let’s try to talk and find common ground. And let’s also grab our rakes and plant some Milkweed seeds!

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Went for a bike ride around Cedar Lake before tonight’s speech. And saw this. Milkweed! We need more of it. So say “us.” Not “them.” Darn them, anyhow.

OK, as I said, I don’t see this protest thing as coming naturally to me. Still, I found Dr. Houston’s talk fascinating, especially when he complimented the crowd for filling Betty Cherry on “the start of winter.”

Oh, you poor southern sociologist, from the Texas city of your family name. Winter is coming.

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Forget Friday the 13th—Thursday the 12th!


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Dr. Eden Wales Freedman and Scarlett O’Hara–two strong feminist icons.

Of course, the superstition is that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, so any comparison to Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017, isn’t totally apt. It wasn’t, for me, a particularly unlucky day, although it did wear me out.

I had to give a mid-term exam that afternoon, and it was a bit dicey getting everything ready and printed. I am behind in grading for that class, too—and how I have an exam to add to the pile. After hustling to the exam, I had a newspaper meeting. There may have been cookies.

Anyway, the meeting broke up early because there were three big events that students needed to cover that night. First, at 6 p.m., the MMU Law and Politics Club was sponsoring a visit by Ronald K. McMullen, former U.S. ambassador to Eritrea. He shared many interesting stories about his career as a U.S. diplomat.

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Ronald K. McMullen, former U.S. ambassador, speaks Oct. 12 at MMU.

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MMU Times reporter covers the ambassador’s visit.

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2017 Fall Faculty Series Logo by MMU.

He also noted that he had wanted to study geology, and admired the many geodes in MMU’s Grotto. The state rock, he said the geode “is rough on the outside, like many Iowans, but inside we are all gems.”

But I had to rush off. At 7, Dr. Eden Wales Freedman, assistant professor of English, was speaking as part of our Fall Faculty Series, “Divided we Fall.” Her topic was “Feminism is for Everyone.” The theme was that the feminist movement in this country has often been focused on the needs of affluent white women, to the detriment of others.

Despite the many competing events on this crazy Thursday, Dr. Wales Freedman attracted yet another full house to Flaherty Community Room.

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Dr. Eden Wales Freedman, demonstrating the face we’ve come to call the “Robertson eye roll.”

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Dr. Wales Freedman with Dr. Joy Ochs, professor of English. Dr. Ochs coordinates the Fall Faculty Series at MMU.

On the way in, I had been greeted with the thump of Latin music. The Latin Club was doing some Zumba on the plaza. Because, you know, Thursday the 12th.

I noticed my sister and sister-in-law attending, but felt bad I could not linger and chat with them. Because at 8, Jason Sole was visiting to describe his personal journey from prison to earning a PhD.

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Jason Sole speaks in the Chapel of Mercy to the third sizeable crowd drawn to an interesting Thursday night lecture at MMU.

Sole’s speech was compelling, but I didn’t quite make it to the end. I had to finish grading an exam I needed to get back to a Friday class, so about 8:30 I packed it in and headed home. To work until about 11 p.m. or so.

That’s what Thursday was like. MMU is an exciting, vibrant place, and was, especially on this Thursday. To cap it all, right before the 6 p.m. speech I had spotted a pair of hawks hanging out on Warde Hall. Honestly, birds of prey on that high perch are not that unusual, but I’ve not seen two together before.

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Iowa hawks at MMU–on top of Warde Hall, framed by pine trees.

I’m cheating a bit on the hawk image—they were back on Friday and I shot this image that day. But here are links to more images from Thursday: the ambassador’s visit, the feminism speech and the student-organized prison to Phd presentation.

Thursday the 12th—it was a day that we’ll remember for a long time. Honestly, I hope it’s not repeated—I liked all of the events, but may have liked them even more spread out just a bit.

But it was still my best day this week.

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Memories of the Class of 2017


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Dr. Ron Feldt, retiring professor of psychology. See you at Half Price Books, Ron.

Commencement weekend at Mount Mercy University has come and gone. The class of 2017 has graduated, even as I still struggle with a mountain of grading for the classes of ’18, ’19 and ’20.

At Commencement, it was a good year for the newspaper staff. The top two honors given at Commencement—the Mary Frances Warde and Mary Catherine McAuley Awards, given respectively to the top transfer student and the top student who started at MMU—both went to MMU “Times” staff members.

Capria Davis, photo editor of the “Times,” won the Warde prize for a whole host of activities, including helping to found the Black Student Union at MMU. Bianca Kesselring, who wrote an entertainment column for the “Times,” won the McAuley honor. She was active many things, including choir and student ambassadors.

The paper also saw the graduation of Anna Bohr, a key staff member. For the past two years, her title—web editor and then multimedia producer—implied work on the paper’s internet presence, which is accurate, but she was always an important and reliable staff member who made important contributions to the print newspaper. Capria was recognized as this year’s outstanding Communication Program student; Anna was the outstanding journalist of 2017.

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Capria Davis, outstanding Communication graduate of 2017, and Anna Bohr, outstanding graduating student journalist, after Friday’s Honors Convocation.

Graduation this year had many highlights, but in particular two other items stand out to me.

On May 19, at the Honors Convocation, the President’s Award was given to Gabriel Acosta. The other two top student graduation honors are voted on by faculty and staff—but this award comes straight from MMU’s president. And Laurie Hamen got a bit choked up when she spoke of Gabby. His life journey put him squarely, if innocently, in one of the hot political debates of the day. As a young child, Gabby was brought, undocumented, from Mexico to Iowa by his undocumented immigrant parents.

And his family is being separated today by the stiffening of American immigration policy.

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Gabriel Acosta, 2017 President’s Award winner.

Throughout it all, Gabby has been open and honest and willing to share his story to help others understand. Sadly, it’s not been enough to turn back the tide of nationalism that trumps any sense on immigration, but I can’t think of a more deserving graduate of MMU for the honor President Hamen bestowed.

Another poignant moment for me was seeing Professor Ron Feldt lead the procession of faculty at commencement today. He is now an emeritus professor, retiring from the full-time faculty this year.

Others also retired, and will also be missed, but Ron was special to me. He was part of my tenure review group. I valued his feedback. He and I have both served as chairs of the faculty, and I think there’s a bond between those of us who have tried to lead this group of independent souls we call a faculty.

More images from the weekend are in my galleries of the Honors Convocation, Commencement Mass and Commencement Ceremony. MMU’s news release about the event is here.

At graduation today, Bianca gave a good speech, Ron and two other retiring faculty members were applauded and many students walked the stage. Monday will be anticlimactic for me; it will be a day spent tying up thousands of loose ends so the spring semester and school year can officially be called “over.”

But it’s over now for the class of 2017. Good luck, and let us know what shenanigans you get in to.

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When a Student Teaches the Teacher


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Jennifer Perrine speaks April 6 at Mount Mercy.

When writing professor Jennifer Perrine read some of her poetry tonight at Mount Mercy University, one student surprised her a little with some discerning observations—about, for example, how two of Perrine’s poems seem connected, one being a bit of a sequel to the other.

It was a connection the poet had not intended, but recognized when the student asked about it.

“You’re teaching me things,” Perrine said. “I enjoy that.”

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Detail of cover of Perrine’s book, “No Confession, No Mass.”

I enjoyed Perrine teaching us some new things in her poetry reading. I like clever use of language, and I felt many of her poems contained interesting and provocative verbal juxtapositions.

She noted that she when she began writing poetry, it was often about love, and one of her poems was written to a lover who was a tooth grinder. She called that act a “meditation on the erosion of the body” and noted how “we learned to sleep with that hum of friction.”

In years of writing love poems, she noted some themes echo—one being the lover as a magician or con artist. In one poem, she said: “I trade my bones for your balm.” That’s a neat line.

One form of poetry she has explored is the “aubade,” the morning love song. “If we can’t hold back the morning, we will lean into it,” she wrote. Also, because when a lover has to face the separation of another work day there is always some regret: “We invent new languages where every word means ‘night.’”

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Author’s hands holding her book as she reads.

These are just snippets of poems, I know, but I appreciate the way in which the words are layered, sounding and working together to create lyrical, interesting thoughts. I’m a strictly prose writer, so a poet has some challenge in holding my interest, but by that narrow standard, Perrine was a winner.

She also noted how, early in her writing career, she absorbed what she said was the wrong message: That a poet should not write about politics. She read from a poignant poem that spoke of her celebration of her 21st birthday in a gay bar the same day that Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming. Shepard, targeted for the killing because he was a homosexual, was himself only 21 when he died.

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Perrine signs books.

The poem, she noted, was partly fictional, because while she did celebrate her 21st birthday in a gay bar the day he died, she did not learn of the murder until the next day. Still, she captured the kind of shock a crowd can suffer when unexpected bad news spreads. In her imaging of a bar crowd’s reaction to the murder, a TV is turned up and the crowd falls silent: “A chorus of coughs trudges uncomfortably around the room.”

It was an interesting, enlightening night. And at the end of it, when students were asking questions, one asked her what she likes to do when she is not writing—a question that took her a little aback. “That is a good question,” she said. “Nobody ever asks me that.”

She hikes and she gardens. Well, those sound like good things, noted the man whose blog is partly called “garden.”

After the program, I returned to my office to pack some things for the ride home. As I headed outside to unlock my bike, I turned on my bike helmet headlight to see. As I was standing in the shadowy spot where the bike rack is located next to Warde Hall, I heard furtive, slightly nervous laughter.

“We thought you were a ghost,” said Mary Vermillion, English professor who was returning to Warde Hall with Perrine. “We were just talking about the paranormal.”

I’m not a ghost yet. But I would gladly play one in a Perrine poem, if it came to that. And I don’t aspire to always be normal, so I’ll take the “para” as a compliment. Somehow, it seemed like the right note to end the night on, so I hopped on my bike, partly packed with petite fours I had absconded with for my wife and daugher. I pedaled off into the night.

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