Living History

Professors Need Exam Breaks Too!


Today the “Hernia Club”—the informal gathering of professors who sit outside on the benches during lunch, whenever the weather permits, held a picnic.  For several years the Club has grilled hot dogs in celebration of the end of the semester or other special occasions (such as Charles Darwin’s birthday).  Today a handful of senior students joined in, stating that they wanted to cross ‘eating outside with that group of professors’ off their Wofford bucket list.  Everyone agreed the atmosphere improved when they showed up!

The Club was also delighted to have Dr. Jack Seitz, Professor Emeritus (or De-meritus, as one wit tagged him!) back with the crew.

This group is one of the aspects of Wofford that makes us unique as a faculty.  At Wofford, faculty members don’t divide up by solely by disciplines, by rank, by gender, or by age.  We tend to hang out with people we find interesting, or challenging, or funny.  Our conversations are multi-disciplinary, and we learn a lot from each other.  Arts hang out with sciences; today the club included biologists, a French and Spanish professor, a sociologist, a historian, an art historian, and a political scientist.  We also have chemists and IT specialists.  While we certainly enjoy the time we spend with members of our own departments—the History Department celebrated the end of the semester with a Mexican food luncheon and the party with our senior majors was epic, as always—we can’t imagine a world in which we as professors would be isolated, far apart in buildings and hallways where the interactions were strictly among our ‘own kind.’

And fortunately, the only real requirement for this ‘Club’ is laughter and fellowship.

(Back row, left to right: Drs. G.R. Davis, Dave Kusher, Jhon Akers, Peter Schmuck, Doug Rayner.  Front row, left to right, Drs. Tracy Revels, John Moeller, Jack Seitz, Gerald Thurmond.)

Members of the Club



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The Honors We Don’t Give Out


Today was Honors Convocation at Wofford.  It’s always a happy day, when awards are given to the most distinguished students in each discipline, as well as recognitions for service and leadership.  We have so many young people to salute that if each presenter could say everything he or she would like to, we’d probably be in Leonard Auditorium for several hours.  We’d make the Academy Awards show look  brief if we could recount every fond story and mention every classroom achievement.  And I wonder what we will do in the upcoming years, as the senior classes and the faculty grow ever larger.  Right now the faculty seems to take up half the seating—what will happen when we have over 400 graduates and so many more moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, and friends?  Too bad our auditorium isn’t like the TARDIS, a device on a science fiction show that is bigger on the inside than the outside.  Maybe we should get our physics department to work on that one.

We are very proud of our young people.  Honors Convocation marks, for me at least, the beginning of sniffle season, as I start to tear up regularly.  It will get worse at the History party, when students and faculty have our last time to be together casually to eat, drink, and tell funny stories about each other.  Baccalaureate is always difficult, and I don’t even want to think about graduation yet. Endings are hard and beginnings are hard; graduation is both together, and that’s just an emotional punch in the gut for me.

But in thinking about the awards today, it struck me that there are a lot of honors we can’t give to the students.  We don’t know who tells the funniest jokes on campus.  We don’t know who is the best person to call when you need help studying for a test, or you’ve been sick for a week and really need a good set of notes to borrow.  We don’t know which one of our students will yell “Hey, I’m going to Wal-Mart, does anybody need anything?” to the entire dorm hall or which one most regularly makes time to listen to his roommate’s problems.  We have no way of knowing who offered to host a friend for Thanksgiving because that friend didn’t have the money to go home for the break.  We’ll never be sure of who was the kindest, who was the most concerned, who was the most willing to help.  These are the things that aren’t marked with trophies and certificates.  But I’m betting that our seniors know these people, and in years to come, while they may have to go and look at the plaques on the walls to remember who won what academic honor,  they’ll remember certain persons who were unselfish, funny, and true Terriers.  And sometimes the names on the wall will match the ones in memory; academic excellence and humanity often go together at Wofford. 

To all Wofford students deserving of honors, congratulations!

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College is Expensive–So Make It Worthwhile


The leading story on the CBS Sunday Morning news program today was on the skyrocketing cost of college and the arguments over how to finance student loans.  There is no debate that college costs are risings.  Wofford students, like college students across the nation, know this fact all too well.  Looking at the graphs the news feature presented, I realized how incredibly fortunate I was to go to Florida State University in the 1980s.  I had scholarships and a family that was willing to help me.  My mother saw a college education as an indispensable part of my life.  There was never any question of whether college was “worth it” to me.


I know young people and their families are sailing rough financial waters.  It has become even more necessary for students to concentrate on getting good grades and winning scholarships or taking out loans and working part-time jobs to ease the burden of their college expenses.  But I would still join the many who argue that whatever the cost, the payoff over a lifetime is well worth it.  And I promise that I stand in this camp for more than just selfish (i.e. I am a college professor and would like to keep my job!) reasons.


In thinking about the cost, I would also ask studens: what are you getting for your money?  Are you squeezing out every last cent of benefit from your college education?  By this I don’t mean are you going back for second helpings in the cafeteria, but are you showing up for the things that add value to your education beyond the classes, labs, and field trips?


Wofford offers so many opportunities outside of the classroom, things that don’t come with admission tickets attached.  Concerts, sporting events, films, lectures, galleries, and religious services are open to all.  The events that pop up every day on Wofford’s calendar go far beyond the cost factored into student fees.  A Wofford student is offered a return on his or her investment that vastly exceeds what he has paid in; the experiences available are rich and diverse.  Plus, every Wofford student has access to professors, those experts in many fields who have open doors and lengthy office hours.  Yet how often do we professors sit alone, the halls empty, wondering where students are?  How many times do we look out and see an auditorium that is only a quarter or half filled?  In those moments, we know our students aren’t getting their ‘money’s worth’ from Wofford.


Nobody expects a student to attend every event.  (You have to do homework sometimes!)  But playing video games, gossiping, checking Facebook, skipping class,and getting drunk are not ways that contribute positively to one’s educational experience.  Neither, quite frankly, is going home every weekend.  When I look back on my college days, what I regret is not taking more advantage of the extracurricular activities that FSU offered.   I was so focused on getting ready for a ‘career’ that I didn’t think about how this was the best time in my life for checking out new things, for investigation, for curiosity.  I don’t want Wofford students, for whom the cost in dollars is even higher, to make the same mistake.


College is expensive.  Your wouldn’t buy a pricy car and simply park it out back, would you?  Or plunk down a fortune for a diamond ring and never slip it on your finger?  So why let a vast part of your college cost go to waste by doing things you could do if you had chosen to stay home and live in your parents’ basement?  Get out there—attend some events, ask some questions, talk with your professors—and get all the education you can.



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Mystery Bag!


So I hurry to the Wofford post office after lunch, all excited because I know my cover for my new iphone (yes, I have finally joined the modern world!) has arrived.  But along with the amazon box and a couple of freebie textbooks was a very strange bag.


Now why, I wondered, would Florida’s Marco Rubio send me a Hardee’s bag?  And why would it be covered on both sides with images of Sherlock Holmes?  This was most puzzling to me.  Surely Senator Rubio would know that I couldn’t vote for him, considering my deeply Democratic roots (and especially considering that I am no longer a Florida resident!).



This was very strange indeed.  And the mystery deepened when I opened the bag and saw what was inside!  It was not, as one might expect, a double thickburger or a super-sized serving of fries.  Instead it was a coffee mug, one with a logo that I could really appreciate, considering my research interests and my most recent historical publication!


How very odd!  Who would have sent me such a thing?  Immediately, I decided I would put on my Sherlockian deerstalker at do my best to deduce the ‘culprit’!


One suspect was very easy to eliminate because he was standing beside me when I got the package.  My boyfriend Dr. Moeller instantly claimed innocence.


What about a student?  It did seem like the kind of joke a student might pull, especially if he or she knew about my love of Sherlock (and quite frankly I doubt there is anyone at Wofford who doesn’t know my love of Sherlock!  I am a bit obnoxious about it, I’ll confess…)  But would a student be this organized?  Especially at this time of year, when they’re all starting to finally get serious about writing papers and doing their work?  Hmmm.  The more I mused on it, the more I thought it unlikely that a student would be responsible.


When I got back to the office, I looked more closely at my gift.  I noted a few scratches on the bottom of the cup—barely noticeable to the naked eye, but they showed up under my lens.  (Yes, I have one.  Doesn’t everyone?)  That made me think the cup was not brand new, but perhaps was something that could have been purchased in an almost new condition from a yard sale.


So who did I know who (1) frequented yard sales (2)knew that I liked Sherlock Holmes (3) knew I was from Florida (4) knew I wrote a book on tourism (5) is playful enough to make this a game for me and (6) likes me enough to give me a present?


Aha, I had the answer!  Or at least, I had a sound deduction, so I dashed off an e-mail and got a confession!!!!


It was Mr. Bill Grice, the head of Wofford’s Physical Plant, who has been my friend for many years now.  He is a super gentleman who always answers my pleas for help when the AC doesn’t work or when my office windows go to rattling.  We have a long-running conversation about history, and he sends me lots of fun e-mails.  He keeps me on my toes, always asking me trivia questions and making sure that I’m up to date on current events!


It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to know that one of the things that makes Wofford a very special place to work is that we have friendships with all kinds of interesting people.  I doubt that professors at huge universities get to know the people who keep their institutions functioning on the brick and mortar level.  But at Wofford we have that opportunity, to learn about each other, to have pals across not only the disciplines, but at all levels of service in the college.  And ultimately, the people who keep the campus beautiful, who fix things and tidy up and keep us fed, have great stories to tell and lives to share and wonderful things to offer, to students and faculty alike.  They make this school a rich place indeed.


So thank you Mr. Grice, for both the mug and the mystery!  I had fun unravelling the secret—and you have collected yet another MOB (Mention in Blog!)


Things I Can’t Control


Today was the last day of class before Spring Break.  I think everyone is very excited to finally be at this point.  The unusually warm weather has made the break seem even later this year, and my students were certainly ‘chomping at the bit’ to get away from Wofford.


Unfortunately, it was also time to take the third of five exams in my Western Civilization course.  I told my students that I felt they would do better on the test if they took it before leaving for the break, rather than putting it off until after the break.  This was met with general approval; better to have it over with than feel the pressure to study while at the beach or hanging out at home.


But what some of the students failed to do, apparently, was listen to the rest of my advice.  “Study ahead of time,” I warned, “by Thursday night your mind will be on your upcoming travels, so don’t put off your review until the last minute.”  I also reminded them that this part of the material is assuredly the hardest, for while they may have heard of World Wars I and II, many students are unfamiliar with the Revolutions of 1848, not to mention the unification of Italy and Germany.


But tell that to an freshman girl, who is dreaming of going to Myrtle Beach with her friends.  Try to get that through the brain of a fraternity boy who plans to spend a week in a Daytona Beach condo with his pals.


Some students will do just fine on this test, but others will be grateful that they have two more yet to take.  I can say that based on just grading the objective half of the exam.


Whenever students do poorly on an exam, I spend time soul-searching, wondering if I’m a bad professor or if I haven’t given them enough material to work with, or perhaps been unclear in my expectations.  But, after twenty years of this, I’ve also had to accept that there are certain things I can’t control.  The timing of Spring Break—and the immature assumption many students have, that they shouldn’t be expected to work hard immediately before or just after the break—is one thing I can not change.  I have to make the best of it and so do they.


I just hope they’ll come back rested and ready to tackle the twentieth century!

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Mummy Meditations


On Saturday, I went to see the “Mummies of the World” exhibit at Discovery Place in Charlotte.  It was a fascinating exhibition which brought together mummies and artifacts associated with mummification from Egypt, South America, the Pacific Islands, and Europe.  Combining interactive displays with traditional ‘stuff in boxes,’ it was a bit spooky, a little edgy, and totally mesmerizing.


At the entrance, a short video asked patrons to remember that the mummies in the exhibit were once human beings and should be treated with respect.  As I stared down into the face of someone who lived almost 3,000 years ago, I wondered just where we draw the line—when do we turn a human being into a ‘specimen’ for study rather than an ancestor to (literally or figuratively) worship.  How much time has to pass before we feel no qualms about ‘digging someone up’?  At the end of the exhibit, mummies from the 1600s (from a German castle) and the early 1800s (a church in a small Hungarian village) were displayed.  Unlike the Egyptians in their bandages, or the Native American peoples wrapped in woven rugs, these mummies were dressed in clothing close enough to our own garb to be identifiable even by those who are not fashion historians.  I wondered if the people around me found these more recent bodies more disturbing because they could also examine the folds of a long gown, the lace of a bonnet, or the heels of fine riding boots, objects that have more context for the modern viewer than loincloths or tribal robes.


Walking through the cases made me think about the responsibilities of historians, archeologists, anthropologists, and forensic scientists.  We wouldn’t want people to be digging up the dead willy-nilly, but we do want to learn everything we can from those who have died. Books, art, stories and songs can only teach us so much.  Sometimes we need to go to the most basic text of all, the human body.  But we should go there with respect, seeking understanding rather than gory thrills.


We who deal with the past are, in a way, the guardians of and the speakers for the dead.  We serve as interpreters, constantly in conversation with the past while relaying messages back to the living.  Those who have gone on have no protection other than what historians and those in related fields can provide.  I sometimes joke with my students and say that I prefer studying dead people to the living because dead people ‘don’t talk back.’  In reality, I would hope not to misspeak, not to distort their words.  We view the past through the lens of our own era; we cannot escape the bias of living in the 21st century.  But to willfully and purposefully take words out of context, to try to use the past strictly for our own benefit and to make our political, economic, or social points, is to commit a desecration.


From ‘Mummies of the World’ I took away more than a new understanding of how a basic process works.  While examining the mummies, I realized we must accept the dead on their own terms.  We do not have to agree with what they said or did—we do not have to admire their actions, or embrace their beliefs—but we must recognize a common humanity. History flows from humanity and the bodies and stories we all will leave behind.

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Technology Makes You (Look) Stupid


Believe it or not, I can remember a day before cell phones ruled the planet.  I can recall a time when Wofford students talked to each other between classes, when a professor who walked in a minute late would find her class engaged in vigorous conversation and laughter.  Today, when I walk into classes, I usually find most of my students with their heads down, eyes locked to their cell phones and fingers busily scrolling or texting.  I sometimes fear that they aren’t messaging roommates or friends at other schools, or even their parents, but someone in the seat behind them.  It does seem like many young people would rather type than talk.


I’m gradually making my peace with cell phones.  In fact, I’ve resolved to get an iphone in another month and to finally learn how to text message.  I’m looking forward to giving ‘Siri’ orders.  So I don’t HATE cell phones (though I still say those of us who got to go through our teenage years without this technology were the lucky ones!  When we were out on a date or with our friends, we were out, and our parental units had to wait until we got home to pry into our affairs!).


What I do hate is how cell phones have made rudeness more acceptable.  It’s annoying enough to have to listen to people have loud conversations in restaurants and theaters, but as an educator it’s infuriating to have to compete with phones for attention.  I’ve banned their use in class.  Fortunately, most students have found that they can survive a 50 minute class without answering the siren call of the cell.


A few nights ago, however, I was at a presentation.  All around me were students who were intrigued by the topic, as well as those who clearly were only there for extra credit.  During the talk, I watched as two students pulled out their phones and spent the entire hour texting.


I debated saying something.  But these weren’t my students; I didn’t know them and I wasn’t sure I really had the right to discipline them.  I don’t like being ‘hall monitor’—part of the reason I wanted to teach at the college level was because I didn’t want to have to deal with all the rules and regulations, demerits and brownie points that are part of grade school teaching.  I wanted to be around young adults, not ‘children.’   Looking back, however, I’m really wishing that I’d given them a piece of my mind.


Texting during a presentation is rude behavior.  This is not how Wofford young men and women should present themselves to the world.  A Wofford education is first-rate and very expensive.  Being at a talk is, in a way, an investment.  By sitting there and disregarding the speaker, a texting student is showing contempt not only for the speaker, but for Wofford College and whoever is paying for his or her education.  This behavior isn’t cool, or cute, or acceptable because ‘everybody does it.’


Texting instead of paying attention makes a student look disconnected from his education.  Clearly, such a student is ‘failing to profit.’  He or she—let me be brutally frank here—just looks stupid.


I know Wofford students aren’t stupid.  I know most of them don’t intend to be offensive; we’ve always been proud of our young people for their good manners.  And I know that being young means students have lots of things on their minds, including social lives that go on 24-7.  But the next time I see this behavior, I’m going to be tempted to slide a note over to the student with these words–‘Do you know how dumb this makes you look?’

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First Day Optimism


I’ll own up to it—I’ve always been the geeky kid who liked the first day of school.  You know that overly motivated, bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed girl who was sitting in the front row of class, ten minutes before it started?  Yeph, that was me.


And sadly, it still is.


Though I regret the end of a vacation as much as the next person, there’s always been something about the start of a new year or semester that made me happy.  Maybe it is the new challenges, the fresh faces, the resolutions that whatever I didn’t do last time, I will do this time.  Maybe I’m just a dork.  I’m such a hopeless case that I even dress up a bit on the first day.  Sad, really, I know.  Yet there’s something about a beginning—of a book, a movie, a song, or  a semester—that makes me hopeful.  This time will be better, or at least different.  There are classes to look forward to and new names to learn.  For every day that seems like a burden, there will be two when working here, with these young people, feels like a privilege.  On the first day, at least, I’m an optimist.


And I’m a geek who makes everyone roll their eyes.  But that’s OK.  Everyone has to be good at something.



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Resolutions And Revelations


Happy New Year!  I hope everyone is off to a great start.  It’s the interim season at Wofford, which means that many of our students are leaving for exotic ports of call, traveling all around the world.  Others will be on campus, pursuing interests and activities that don’t fall into the ‘traditional’ courses of study.  Students are critiquing films, learning to knit, and pretending to be spies.  While the campus always has a sleepy look in January, behind the scenes a lot of exciting things are going on.


I don’t know how many Wofford students make New Years Resolutions, but I decided to take the pledge for two.  My first one is to write a little every day, and so far I have managed to be religious about keeping it.  The other one, which I am very proud of myself for holding onto for, what, nine days now, is to not drink any sodas.  Which leads me to something that I knew, but needed confirmed through a bit of research.  If experimentation is part of the spirit of the interim, then I have had my moment of revelation.


The reason I’ve sworn off soda is I want to lose some weight.  I confess that wanting to drop a few pounds is nothing more than vanity on my part; I have some lovely dresses that I can no longer wear and it breaks my heart to see them hanging forlorn in the closet.  So eliminating soda is a first step.  I’m cutting calories in other aspects as well, and trying to eat both less and better.  Yesterday, I spent well over an hour in the grocery store doing something I’ve rarely done in the past—reading labels for calorie content, sodium, protein, and carbs.  I also gazed very diligently at the prices, as saving money is always important to me. (I’m a bit of a Scrooge in some regards.)


And that’s when it hit me how true it is that eating healthy means eating expensive.  Items that are low calorie or sodium free are so much pricier than the fat-laden, much tastier fare.  This is something I’ve known—I’ve certainly read about it and heard it on the news—but because I haven’t tried to take more rigorous control of my diet, it has never really ‘come home’ to me.  Just something as simple as substituting fruit juice for soda proved the point; roughly the same amount of liquid was twice the price.  This is one thing for me to deal with since I’m single, with no constantly-hungry kids to cook for. I can feed (or starve) my vanity as I choose.  But if I were trying to feed a family on just one income, there would be no way we could truly eat healthy.  And if just one person in the group had special dietary needs, figuring out out to stretch a budget would be a great challenge.  The idea that ‘poor people’ should be ‘skinny’ is insensitive and ridiculous; in our country, obesity is much more likely to be a sign of poverty.


Yes, I’ve known this—but I’ve been blessed to never have to think about it in any detail.  Standing in Ingles yesterday was a humbling experience.


And I hope it’s an experience that Wofford students will have, especially those who are traveling in the developing world.  I don’t meant reading labels in grocery stores, but coming face to face with things they’ve seen on the news, yet never absorbed for more than thirty second sound bites.  I hope Wofford students confront poverty and illness and lack of education head on.  I hope it makes them appreciate the things they are blessed with, and inspires them to think about ways they can be active in making changes that will positively impact the world.  With only one class to take, interim should be a time of reflection, a month to think on a deeper level.  I hope students will internalize more, and see the need for resolutions and revelations.


A good friend recently scoffed at my insistence on resolutions, stating that I would not keep them for more than a week.  Let’s hope I can prove him wrong, and that Wofford students will prove me right and return from their adventures with knowledge that sits in the heart as well as the head.

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The Week We Hate


I’m sure my students won’t believe me, but I swear this is true—many professors hate finals week as much as students do!  Oh, sure, we’re glad to see another semester come to an end and we’re looking forward to the holiday break, but I suspect that every professor on campus is dreading the rush of papers, projects, and final exams that come pouring in.  It’s a lot of work and it all has to be done in a very short time. Our young people must think we possess superpowers, because I have had students send me an e-mail or knock on my door within an hour of finishing an exam to ask “Do you have the grades posted yet?”


Sorry, I’m not Wonder Woman.  Or the Flash.  I try to have everything tallied up so that it doesn’t take an excessive amount of time (I’m much too old to pull an undergraduate-style all-nighter) but I am not the Bionic Professor.  Some years ago I finally started threatening to fail any student that I saw within 24 hours of the exam.  I wouldn’t really do that, of course, but freshmen will believe anything!!!!


Another reason so many of us dislike finals week is because we have our own bad memories of it.  We were in college for many years before fancy cap and gowns were donned, so we’ve had plenty of experience with exams and the suffering that the last week of a semester brings.  My suspicion is that every professor has his/her own nightmare tale. Something along the lines of “Back in my day, we had to take our finals on sheepskin and make the elderberry ink ourselves, pluck a goose to get quills for our pens, and then walk uphill both ways in the snow to submit our scrolls to the council elders!”


OK, maybe it wasn’t quite THAT bad, but it was tough.  My first semester at FSU, I had a final on each day of the week.  That might not seem too bad, except that we had five final exam periods, beginning at 7:30 in the morning and lasting until nearly 9 at night.  I not only had a test a day, I had one in every available period, with the last one at Friday at the crack of dawn.  By Thursday night I was so studied out, stressed out and freaked out that sleep was impossible.  I have vague memories of helping some of my dorm-mates compose a vulgar rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, decorating a door to make it difficult for a group of revelers to return to their room, and lying on my bed thinking that if I wrote complete gibberish on my ‘Age of Washington and Jefferson’ final I would have to spend my life in Madison, folding statements at the tractor business where my mother worked, because I had flunked out of college.  I took the final and then spent the next couple of hours loading my car, as we had been advised to leave nothing of value in our rooms.  I’m still not sure how that tiny vehicle held all my stuff, but somehow it did and I staggered onto my grandmother’s porch to try to get a moment’s breather—where a visiting relative immediately began to berate me for not being in the kitchen, working instead of ‘goofing off.’


So students—I hope it’s not so bad for you.  And remember that at least Wofford only has two exam periods a day, with a very long lunch break.  No matter how stressful it is right now, someday you’ll have bragging rights.  It’s all part of the college experience, right?


And parents, when they get home, give them some space.  Let them rest.  And please hug them and tell them that you love them no matter how their finals went or what grades they made.  For some young people, taking exams is no big deal, but for others it may be a painful lesson learned, about the need to study more consistently and the perils of procrastination.


Speaking of which, I should probably go grade some papers now….


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