Is Arming Teachers a Good Idea?

On February 14, 2018, at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, 17 people were killed at the hands of Nikolas Cruz and his AR-15 style rifle. Although Donald Trump was not the first voice in the conversation on arming teachers to solve the problem of school shootings, his comments endorsing the NRA’s position on arming teachers following the February 14 shooting has given rise to widespread debate.

To anyone supporting arming teachers in schools as a reasonable and rational measure in preventing or mitigating mass shootings at schools, I challenge you to read this post (and the links…ALL of them) before continuing to respond to this conversation. When so many lives are at stake, how willing are you to listen carefully to perspectives and arguments that do not align with your own preexisting beliefs?

Placing the Burden

After the shooting rampage in Dallas in 2016, police chief David Brown said that overall, the police force is asked to take on too much, and too much responsibility is affecting their ability to do any aspect of their job well. Being overburdened and over-stressed does not lead to good job performance. Perhaps this is why law enforcement failed to respond to several early warning signs that Nikolas Cruz had plans to massacre his high school. This is a problem in our police forces, and we cannot do the same to teachers.

Teachers are already overburdened with responsibility. Is it seriously reasonable and rational to put even more responsibility on teachers’ plates when they’re already responsible for providing our children with a 21st century education (not to mention being underfunded in this endeavor to begin with)?

Firsthand Accounts

Guns + Schools: It Doesn't Add UpEven a variety of veterans think it’s a bad idea to have firearms in classrooms (see James Fallows’ article at The Atlantic and Matt Martin’s narrative at Charlotte Five). People who actually teach don’t think it’s a good idea. And mental health care professionals suggest that having firearms in the classroom likely wouldn’t decrease and could actually INCREASE the incidents of mass shootings in schools (link #6).

A Light Literature Review

So to those of you supporting firearms in classrooms, how do you respond to these narratives and arguments? (which I’ve briefly annotated for your convenience):

  1. Teaching is more than “teaching” (so how can we ask teachers to do even more and have a chance at being successful?):
  2. Police weren’t meant to solve every societal problem [and neither are teachers]:
  3. Personal narrative from a vet who reveals that you can never know how people will handle a live fire situation no matter how much training they have (if some military personnel with LOADS of training freeze in live fire situations, what can we expect of teachers?):
  4. Personal narrative from a then-vet and now-teacher who challenges the notion of becoming a once-again infantryman in the classroom:
  5. Personal narrative and argument from a college teacher, pointing to a variety of problems and valid concerns about having firearms in the classroom:
  6. From a psychological perspective, Peter Langman reveals how most school shooters—particularly psychopathic shooters—fully intend to either commit suicide after or be killed during or after the shooting (suggesting to me that arming teachers gives psychopaths the idea that they’ll more likely be killed which could actually INCREASE the number of school shootings rather than decrease):

The 2017 Solar Eclipse, Beliefs, and Science

When I really sit down and think about it, I’m amazed at how such a thing can be so accurately predicted. 38 years ago, scientists said with absolute certainty that August 21, 2017 would be the next solar eclipse visible from the continental United States. We take science for granted with such things. “Oh, science says there’s going to be a total eclipse and here’s the exact day, time, and path of it; you can see it best from these cities,” and we trust that. 38 years in the making and we trust it without question.

1979 Solar Eclipse Coverage

So many of us are travelling around the country to get the best views or perhaps planning to make pinhole cameras so we can observe it safely (we trust science to teach us how to make pinhole cameras). Even if 15 years ago scientists were to have said “Oy! We forgot to take in to account the moon’s declining orbit around Earth over a 38 year period, so now taking that in to account the next eclipse will come two days sooner than previously thought,” we’d probably say to ourselves, “Oh, alright. Well done, science! Thanks! We’ll be sure to mark our calendars. Keep up the good work.”

Yet when it comes to things like climate change and evolution—where these theories have been and are revised and expanded in light of new evidence—suddenly everyone with an opinion or a belief is smarter than science.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we don’t question everything. As it is, science operates chiefly on the principal of questioning everything. In fact it’s so good at questioning everything that it can accurately predict total solar eclipses decades into the future. The particular brilliance of science is that it’s indifferent about being right or wrong: if science is right about something, we learn something new; if science is wrong about something, we (still) learn something new. Questioning beliefs, however, is an entirely different matter, for the human equations of ego-centrism and narcissism are most insecure at the notion of being “wrong.” We go to war with science and each other over that.

Just like rhetoric—its ethical use moving us along a spectrum away from misunderstanding, conflict, and war—science moves us toward identification, understanding, and peace.

So, Dear Moonshadow, until next time… we’ll keep working on it.

Concerning the Shooting Threat [Against Women] at California State University, Fresno

Language Surrounding Reports of Fresno State Shooting Threat Makes Targets Invisible

By now news has widely circulated that a student at California State University, Fresno, later identified as Robert Malik Pryor, posted a threat of gun violence at Fresno State on the pseudo-anonymous social media service “Yik Yak.” My response is motivated for two reasons: on the one hand, I feel compelled to share contexts from the perspective of the classroom as the day unfolded, and on the more serious other hand, I want to draw attention to rather dangerous problems concerning the language that has been used to narrate this event, for the language both denigrates the spirit of the university and the women who were the target of this threat.

The threat was posted a little before noon on Monday, November 2, 2015. Shortly after my 1:00PM class began, a couple of my students brought the post to my attention. I asked them to forward screenshots of the post to my email so I could forward them to the campus police department with a follow-up phone call (a call that went unanswered as their lines were likely inundated with traffic). During this process, I noticed emails from several of my students from my next class at 2:00PM concerning the threat. I immediately invited any of my students who were not feeling safe to excuse themselves from class and sent a similar notice to my students from my 2:00PM class. About half of the students from my 1:00PM class decided to leave, some commenting that they were receiving texts from their mothers saying “Please come home now”; I remained to facilitate our learning plan for students who chose to stay. Only one student came to my 2:00PM class. Incidentally, a day later, an email was sent from “University Communications” stating that “Authority to grant Paid Administrative Leave is limited to the campus President” and that “…as such, non-exempt employees who left campus in advance of their normal work hours will be allowed to ‘make up’ any lost work time over the remaining work days in November.” As an aside, it is great to know that non-exempt employees who left campus because of terrorist threats have the opportunity to make up for what would otherwise be considered lost wages by the university administration. Meanwhile, as the email also reveals, “exempt” employees are not subject to the same rules and face no potential loss in wages nor were they invited or required to “make up” work time. I invite you, dear readers, to make of that what you will.

Although I was unable to attend in person the press conference held by University Police Chief David Huerta and Provost Lynnette Zelezny, I did watch several of the streams of the conference via Periscope. During Chief Huerta’s Q&A session, I was struck by how interested the reporters were in digging out whether the student was an athlete and where on campus the student had been arrested. Seeing as though it was later revealed that the student was an athlete and was arrested in the Duncan Building which is located near the football stadium, it wouldn’t surprise me that some of these reporters had leads that they were trying to confirm. Still, I wondered why this detail was so important to them. Then it hit me.

Journalists are trained to tell the most interesting story—the one that will keep people watching and listening—and the most interesting story is the fall from grace of an athlete (particularly the fall of a football player). As of the time of this posting, the headline on The Fresno Bee’s article covering this story resonates with my assertion as it reads “Fresno State football player arrested, linked to threat on social media of campus gunfire.” The story that gets more clicks is not about a student from California State University, Fresno: it’s about a Fresno State football player. In an early version of the same article, the word student was not even mentioned until the 9th paragraph where Jim Guy was summarizing pieces of Chief Huerta’s statement. Even after revision and extension, Guy only uses the word “student” when summarizing statements from university officials; he himself continues to refer to the suspect as a “football player.” In a follow-up article, Rory Appleton of The Fresno Bee also neglects to refer to Pryor as a student, and one of the article’s highlights at the top of the page read “Suspect Christian Malik Pryor, a Fresno State football player, posted bail.”

This emphasis on “Fresno State football player” is problematic in my view because it continues to present to the public that the university is really about the Fresno State Bulldogs and not the students of California State University, Fresno which incidentally perpetuates a value-system that is often at academic and budgetary odds with universities around the country; it’s also not in the best interests of the students (including the student-athletes): The Fresno Bee reported last year that Fresno State football coach Tim DeRuyter’s five year contract is worth $7.5 million, roughly 18 times that which fully tenured professors earn at CSU Fresno according to the CSU Fresno Salary & Schedule Charts; and, on the other side of the same coin, it usurps the labor of student athletes—for which they are not compensated in the first place—in order to generate more clicks and ad revenue for agencies that are not even a part of the university while making invisible the targets of this threat—the student population.

The language used to edit the events of the day also skirt around what is most at stake with this situation where yet another confused young man with a sense of sexual entitlement served death threats to women who rejected him. Through its editing processes, the media has made it difficult to make this connection. Jim Guy (and/or his editor(s)) engages in such practices, for example, when he directly quotes the entire post except for the most threatening bit at the end:

The post read in part (original spelling retained): ‘the time is here. @3PM I will release my frustrations. Tired of dirty looks, get rejected, nd being talked about bc how I dress. My choice of weapon M4 Carbine…’ (Guy).

CSU Fresno Gun Violence ThreatHere’s the part he left out: “My choice of weapon M4 Carbine (sic) and I will take a headshot at a hot blonde (emphasis added).” Now I understand one motive in leaving the latter part of the post out is to save the Bee’s audience from what might be considered grotesque, and the “hot blonde” aspect coming from a mixed-race individual introduces racial tensions that the Bee is clearly trying to avoid; however, the grotesqueness is what’s most at stake in this situation! The Fresno Bee even went so far as to characterize Pryor’s [symbolic] action as “not a pure act of terrorism” which was later revised to “not a deadly plan,” presumably because officials did not find an M4 Carbine with which he had threatened to “headshot [a] hot blonde”; how that language could not be a “deadly plan” or a “pure act of terrorism” in the eyes of media outlets like The Fresno Bee further illustrates how hard they work to screen out the misogyny of the situation. I submit that “terrorism”—the use of violence or intimidation through action or symbolic action for some gain—is the more accurate word to describe the entirety of Pryor’s action. Here I am reminded of Stony Brook Professor Michael S. Kimmel’s 2005 essay, “Gender, Class, and Terrorism,” where he points out that the most infamous terrorists are culturally, socially, and/or sexually emasculated men (who can only be emasculated because of their perceived failure to live up to the cultural scripts of masculinity that are forced upon them). To be clear, I am not equating Pryor to the likes of Timothy McVeigh or Mohammed Atta, but the cultural structures that authenticate violent action in the minds of these men are the same, and this is a conversation we must continue having else we risk continuing to stand on the sidelines while watching this pattern repeat.

In my view, it is a moral and ethical outrage that the media so water-down a death threat toward women for merely rejecting a man. This editing process clumsily and mistakenly focuses the conversation on the fall of a football player rather than what’s really at stake. Value systems that make men feel a sense of entitlement toward women’s bodies that then authenticates violence toward women is an ongoing problem, and this should be the stasis of this conversation; unfortunately, the media’s editing processes make this conversation a difficult one to have because, according to them, it’s not even a part of the conversation. In this edited conversation, the victims are made invisible. This was just a “young man’s horrible mistake” (poor guy) and, since no one was head-shot, it was not even a “pure act of terrorism” anyway.

Disclaimer: As with all content on The Snow of the Universe, what’s expressed herein are strictly my own personal views and analyses which are in no way intended to reflect those of any of my employers or their related agencies or entities.

Faraway Fields and the Emotions in Professional Sports

I’ve lately been thinking about why there is so much emotion wrapped up in sports teams, prompted particularly by the 2014 NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. I have not followed sports closely for quite a few years, and even in my most ardent of sports-watching seasons, you probably wouldn’t catch me watching more than a handful of entire football or soccer games. So I’ve never really had that sense of emotional engagement with the performance of my favored teams. I don’t really favor any teams. I used to self-identify as a Rams fan, and the Kurt Warner years were absolutely fantastic especially having just come away from the 49er dynasty, but that’s also the point in time when the Rams moved to St. Louis, thus removing any sense of local-ish attachment I may have had (Fresno, my home town, being pretty much the middle-point between Los Angeles and San Francisco). Anyway, all of this is to say that for the most part, if you catch me watching a sporting event of any sort, I’m not generally rooting for any particular teams. If I’m in the mood for a game, I watch it simply to enjoy watching the competition and athleticism. The clear exception to this trend is of course my university’s football team where I do experience a very tangible sense of pride because, hey, that’s my university and my football team. Here, I do not feel odd using personal and possessive pronouns when I refer to the Fresno State Bulldogs: I have a clear and tangible connection to them. But why do so many of us use personal pronouns for teams in professional leagues? Why do we say “We gave that game to you guys— you did not earn it” or “We are making it to the Super Bowl this year”? These teams are somehow “our” teams.

It’s as though at the level of language itself, sports teams become extensions of ourselves, and I think that happens—at least in part—through the mechanism in which we choose our sports teams, and that’s primarily through no choice at all but through inheritance. I am/was a Rams fan simply because that’s what I grew up with. My dad wore blue and yellow on plenty of Sundays. I remember my first wind-breaker was Rams-branded (and I got teased plenty for wearing it—recall that the Rams didn’t do so well when I was a kid in the 80s). A large chunk of my extended family are ardent San Francisco fans, and though I may be mistaken, I’m fairly certain that that’s a product of inheritance from my grandfather who was the San Francisco fan of San Francisco fans. So I wonder how much of our emotional attachment to “our” teams is connected to the collection of personal narratives that somehow link far away fields and family. When I consider how sports become representative of family narratives, it makes perfect sense why we use personal and possessive pronouns to refer to those teams and why we have such an emotional attachment to our teams. So while many of us might be tempted to respond by saying, “Don’t be so upset – it’s just a game,” well, no, it’s not just a game.

Reading and Writing are Processes of Self Discovery

Holistic Learning

I like to think about an approach to learning that is holistic—that is to say, true learning takes place when several of our minds’ component parts work together in unison. Recent research in neurology suggests that our brains are composed of many component parts. For example, different areas of our brain control different senses and motor functions. In fact, the area of the brain that deals with speech is not even relatively close to the area that deals with reading and language (this is one reason why reading our own writing out loud is an effective proof reading strategy—your “speech” area will notice things that your “language,” “reading,” or “vision” areas overlooked). This also suggests that the more centers in our brain we can get to resonate at once, the more likely we are to acquire and retain information, so be fully engaged while you read and write.

It’s a Workout for your Mind

I see physical exercise and mental exercise as analogous to each other. Just as you want to fully engage your body when you’re working out in order to achieve the best results, you ought to fully engage your mind when you’re learning. I know thinking is difficult. So is working out when you’re out of shape like I am. I can tell you from experience though that working out—both physically and mentally—gets easier the more you do it.

White Privilege and International Taco Day on Fox News

Fox News' International Taco Day Feast
“Fox Friends” Spread for International Taco Day

So this recently happened on Fox News. Airing on Friday, October 04, 2013, Fox News celebrated “International Taco Day” with what would have been an innocent segment of Taco Shenanigans with an awesome spread of delicious taco ingredients including both corn and flour tortillas, a variety of meats including mariscos, y, naturalmente, arroz y frijoles. Other than blaring the most cliche piece of music imaginable—”Tequila”—this segment could have been nothing more than a bit of harmless fun (along with an opportunity to actually learn something). And some people have been content to leave it at just that. One YouTube commenter writes, “Eh, I’m as liberal as they come and hate fox news [sic], but this just comes off as some innocent joking among 2 [sic] colleagues” and later, “To me it came off like the guy was playing ignorant to be the butt of the joke, not to sincerely trying to be offensive towards the lady.” Another commenter writes, “Actually she is white and actually his words have nothing to do with her skin color but with her country of origin. Yes, maybe he was wrong about tacos being national food in Nicaragua, I don’t know, but it’s not racist at all.” But is this really so benign?

Have a look.

After watching this segment, I am reminded of Peggy McIntosh’s landmark essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In this essay, McIntosh likens the unacknowledged privileges that come with the genetic inheritance of being white with the privileges that come with the genetic inheritance of being male. Focusing on white privilege itself, she lists some 50 items that she experiences in day-to-day life—items that she gets to enjoy through no merit of who she is but what she is. As I re-read this list, I saw a variety of privileges that come up in this video:

  • #10: I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • #11: I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
  • #19: I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • #20: I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • #21: I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • #22: I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • #50: I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

I hope that some of these are more obvious than others, and I’m sure that these are not the only privileges from the list of 50 that resonate in this Fox News clip; regardless, I want briefly touch on one of these at a time.

#10, #11, & #19 – Maria Malina, the elected representative of her culture (which turns out to not even be her culture, see #21 and #22), consistently struggles to maintain control of the conversation over the two white males (with a nod to the fact that the white female quietly eats her taco in the background). Even when she attempts to inform us on the etymology of the word “taco,” she is interrupted by Brian Kilmeade’s commentary several times. His voice is the dominant voice in this conversation. Not hers.

#20 – When Malina—after a moment of awkward silence—calmly corrects her “colleagues” misconceptions about her nationality and cultural identity, I even caught myself thinking, “Wow—she did a good job not getting angry at them for mistaking her nationality and assuming that all Hispanic-looking people grew up eating tacos.”

#21 – I think this is the most obvious invocation of white privilege in the entire segment. Malina is clearly called to be the spokesperson for her (mistaken) culture by both Brian Kilmeade and Elisabeth Hasselbeck. Kilmeade calls on her by asking for her assistance in constructing a taco “correctly,” and Hasselbeck calls on her by forcing her to answer the hypothetical question, “…but if you did grow up on tacos…” Of course the bitter irony here is that all three of her “colleagues” get her cultural identity wrong.

#22 – Look at Twitter and YouTube for an endless array of responses that invoke this privilege, let alone Brian Kilmeade’s demonstration of this when he clearly does not know that 1) tacos are primarily a cuisine of Mexico and 2) his “colleague” is not Mexican: she’s Nicaraguan. Steve Doocy invokes this privilege as well when he attempts to correct Kilmeade’s ignorance by saying, in the foreground, “She’s Colombian.” Wrong again. So not only are the principal actors invoking this privilege: their supporters on social media are as well.

#50 – As an elected representative of a certain culture (I maintain that Kilmeade elects Malina as a cultural representative when he asserts, “You grew up on tacos”) Malina is clearly marginalized in the public sphere where “whiteness” is established as morally neutral, average, and normal, and anything outside of that culture—whatever “white” culture actually is—is set apart as an exotic “other”

Now. I am not interested, nor is Peggy McIntosh, in pointing fingers and playing the racist card. Rather, I will defer to McIntosh who has already said it best:

In unpacking this invisible knapsack of white privilege, I have listed conditions of daily experience that I once took for granted. Nor did I think of any of these perquisites as bad for the holder. I now think that we need a more finely differentiated taxonomy of privilege, for some of these varieties are only what one would want for everyone in a just society, and others give license to be ignorant, oblivious, arrogant, and destructive. (emphasis added)

What we must do is begin recognizing white privilege for what it is. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to take inventory of genetically inherited, unearned privileges so that we can dismantle those that give license for destructive behavior and make available those that are constructive for everyone to enjoy. This is uncomfortable for us to face, for us to acknowledge, because it forces us to come to terms with what McIntosh coins as the “myth of meritocracy,” that the American Dream is obtainable by anyone as long as you’re honest and work hard every day. The trouble is that while we’re all running the same race, not everyone gets to start at the same place.

A Constitutional Response to the “Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Assocation”

The Fresno Bee recently published an editorial response to Margaret Mims’ involvement in the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA): “Constitutional Sheriffs’ in Calif. Abuse their Positions.” There are, as of the publishing of this blog, over 150 comments on The Bee’s editorial ranging from “more power to them [the Sheriffs]” to “anti-gun laws are violating my civil rights” to a slough of slippery-slope, strawman, and ad hominem, argumentative responses that typically pervade “comments” sections on the Internet (which is why I’ve decided to publish my personal response on my own blog). If any of those commentators happen to make their way to The Snow of the Universe, I hope one thing they’ll take away from this response is that calling someone a “liberal” or a “conservative” does not automatically and intrinsically invalidate their argument (assuming they made an argument, of course).

I agree that there are a variety of problematic issues going on here; in addition, I think the point of the article is a bit more subtle than problems with “upholding the Constitution” and the patriotism of law enforcement and peace officers—the author points out that the danger of the “Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association,” an association of which Sheriff Mims is a member, is that Sheriffs are spouting out rhetoric saying that they are going to begin upholding laws that fit their ideology (and not upholding laws that conflict with their ideology). The is problematic because it is actually contrary to upholding the Constitution. Regardless of what that ideology is, our three-branch government prohibits law enforcement and peace offers from interpreting and applying laws as THEY see fit. That’s the judicial branch’s job. I’d be endlessly apprehensive about a state in which law enforcement officers get to interpret the laws and apply them however they want based on their own ideologies, and as a former police academy cadet and proactive citizen, I feel quite strongly about this point while continuing to have the utmost respect for all peace officers and law enforcement agents. But if we don’t a police state, we definitely don’t want to go here.

I know that many of us—as a gun owner, myself included—are sensitive about gun control / gun freedom policy, so I’m reticent to continue using the article’s example, but it is a prudent example: so say, for example, stricter gun laws at either the state or federal level are put in to place, and there’s growing sentiment among certain segments of the people and peace officers that those laws are “unconstitutional” for whatever reason. That’s all well and fine, but it is not at the privilege of law enforcement agencies to do what they please with those laws according to their personal ideologies and how they interpret the Constitution. It would be an endlessly more serious breach of constitutional law for one branch of government appropriating the tasks of another branch (in this case, the executive branch appropriating the responsibilities of the judicial branch).

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution

It would, in fact, undermine the entire checks and balances system. I believe what the article fails to clearly articulate is that the “abuse” of “[Sheriff’s] position[s]” is that the rhetoric is damaging and undermining to the checks and balances system that is hard-coded into the Constitution.

This isn’t to say that the people have to wait on the judicial branch though. If the people have a problem with policy, then they need to interact with Congress or the State Legislature—the lawmakers—by writing, calling, and voting.

Human Interest in Jackson’s Adaptation of The Hobbit

I recently glanced over a review of The Hobbit written by someone either from the LA Times or NY Times. I didn’t pay close attention to it because I hadn’t yet seen the movie and wanted to go in to it with fresh, unbiased eyes. I would find the source again but for some reason, Google is not cooperating with me. I know this reflects poor citing on my part, but it is what it is. I’m only taking one thing from this review anyway (Don’t worry. No spoilers here): The reviewer had much praise for Andy Serkis’ reprisal of Gollum saying that his performance completely captures the essence of one of Tolkien’s most memorable characters. He then went on to say that this was a good thing since Jackson’s Hobbit has only that going for it in terms of “human interest.”

Gollum, The Hobbit

I would completely agree on the point that Serkis’ performance embodies everything that is Gollum, and everything that has brought this character to life including makeup, special effects, acting, voicing, writing, and more, is worthy of nothing but the highest praise. I do take issue with what the reviewer said concerning Gollum (and Serkis’ performance thereof) being the only substance of real “human interest” in Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit.

A response saying that Gollum represents the only point of human interest Jackson’s Hobbit is simply short-sighted, absent of any reflection on who Bilbo Baggins is and what he represents in Middle Earth and to humanity. We saw it with all of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings—that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.” I’m not saying that Jackson’s Hobbit is more of the same in this regard, but Bilbo and Martin Freeman’s portrayal of him speak to the same qualities that make Lord of the Rings a grand story filled with human interest, that it’s the common man every bit as much as a king or a wizard that can make a difference. To me, that resonates at the very core of human interest.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Saruman Busted by Treebeard

From Urban Forest to Urban Desert: Deforestation Sends eShockwaves Across California State University’s Faculty and Student Body

Professor Craig Bernthal was right when, earlier this year, he alluded to The Lord of the Rings and the “Entmoot” when chronicling the struggle of California State University, Fresno’s Faculty Senate to wake up and regain its voice in contributing to the campus policy agenda. Yet it comes to little surprise that a week into the break from the regular academic year, the administration continues its shenanigans in circumventing faculty consultation (let alone consulting the student body for whom they paved paradise to put up a parking lot). In this latest clandestine act of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the faculty and the student body, the time for patience grows ever the more thin, “yet hope remains when the company is true.” Indeed, as Professor Madhusudan elegantly expresses his rage below, I am reminded of the following scene from Lord of the Rings: The “Entmoot” is over. Treebeard discovers ravaged is the forest of his friends, and he’s pissed. You all know what happens next.

(The following open letter from Professor Madhusudan Katti to Dr. Welty is reposted courtesy of The Huron County Extract)

Deforestation of an urban ecosystem and failure of campus governance: an open letter to President Welty

Dear President Welty,
I am writing to you today as a tenured faculty member who is deeply disappointed and worried about the direction in which our campus has been heading. While I am sure you are used to hearing complaints of this kind from faculty who may not seem to have the bigger picture you focus on, I would assure you that I think of the role and image of our university in the broadest contexts possible and am acutely concerned about the leadership our campus can (but too often does not) provide in improving the lives and environments of people and nature. I write now in particular to respectfully express my deep sense of rage about the deforestation of a mature urban forest on east campus yesterday morning, to make way for a handful of new parking spaces for students. This deforestation represents a massive failure on the part of our university at multiple levels: in the complete failure of consultation with relevant faculty senate committees (not to mention other interested faculty members) before cutting down over a 100 mature, healthy trees; and in the total lack of any broader vision about how to build a truly sustainable green campus (despite everything we profess on this front) that could be a model for urban landscape development. On a personal academic level, I am also deeply hurt by yesterday’s deforestation because it was the equivalent of ripping up a significant part of my research and teaching laboratory without even the courtesy of any advance warning. Allow me to first provide some background to clarify my perspective, before I address the two main failures I just mentioned above.

I am an Associate Professor in Biology, where I teach various courses in ecology and evolution. Current research in my laboratory focuses on Urban Ecology, where I study, in collaboration with colleagues from multiple other disciplines, the dynamic interactions between ecological and human social components determining biodiversity in human-dominated ecosystems such as cities. I am lead PI of Urban Long-Term Research Area – Fresno And Clovis Ecosocial Study ( a multidisciplinary grant funded by the National Science Foundation to study the interplay between urban water policy, residential water use behaviors, landscaping practices, and urban biodiversity in the Fresno Clovis Metro Area, in the context of the onset of water metering in Fresno. This project is perhaps the largest active interdisciplinary research collaboration on our campus, involving over two dozen faculty members and students from at least eight departments in four different colleges, a co-PI from UC-Davis, and several collaborators from UC-Merced and the USDA Forest Service. It builds upon the Fresno Bird Count (, a volunteer-based citizen science project started by me, and run by graduate students in my lab for the past 5 years, to monitor urban biodiversity in our growing urban area. Our research in both these projects has attracted considerable attention from urban ecologists across the US and worldwide: I’ve been asked to Guest Edit a special issue of Cities and the Environment journal this summer, and have also been invited to present a Keynote Address at the upcoming international Urban Biodiversity and Design Conference (URBIO 2012) in October in Mumbai, India. A year ago, the campus development committee at UC Merced sought my advice on building their campus into a living laboratory for teaching and research where principles of urban ecology could be tested and implemented.

All of my research is situated within a framework of Reconciliation Ecology, a multidisciplinary approach which seeks to develop novel ways to reconcile human development with biodiversity conservation on our overcrowded planet. This reflects my fundamental optimism (in the face of overwhelming reality as my colleagues often point out) about the human capacity to clean up our act and do the right thing towards all life on this pale blue dot we share. While that may sound like a lofty romantic ideal, I actually prefer to take a practical approach by engaging with policy makers, urban planners, and ordinary citizens to explore and develop new ways to soften the impact of our actions on our environment while also improving the quality of life for humans, especially those from underprivileged sectors of our city. While sustainability is a buzzword we often use in promoting our campus, reconciliation ecology offers practical ways to achieve the goals of a sustainable environment.

Thus far, I have enjoyed a great deal of support from my department, college, and higher levels of our university in developing this research program during my way up through the tenure track. You may remember me describing some of this research at various meetings, and perhaps also recall my seeking access to the grounds of your residence at University House as a site for field research on bird behavior by my students. I have also developed new courses in field ecology and reconciliation ecology – which was one of the reasons I was hired here. In my urban research and in these classes, various parts of our campus serve as primary field study sites. Indeed, I am grateful that our campus offers a range of habitats in which to study questions of reconciliation ecology, even though we are rather profligate in our use of water, to maintain many acres of lawn. Many of my students have done interesting original research projects right on campus, including in the now deforested parking lots. We have documented how even these seemingly barren urban spaces (what could seem more devoid of life than a parking lot?) provided valuable habitat to a number of wildlife species including many species of migratory birds protected by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, the Fox Squirrels which have become something of a mascot on our campus being celebrated during Squirrel Week, a number of Great Horned Owls that live on our campus, other birds of prey (including an occasional Peregrine Falcon), and a number of other species. Alas, these habitats now stand barren, bereft of the tree canopy which provided valuable resources for all these species. Apart from habitat for wildlife, those trees also served as valuable pedagogical tools for field lessons taught by me and several other colleagues in the biological sciences. This deforestation therefore presents an existential dilemma for my entire research and teaching program on this campus: how can I teach reconciliation ecology to my students and others if we cannot practice even a modicum of reconciliation on our own campus? What credibility will I have at URBIO 2012 next October when I give that Keynote address to an international audience (of academics, policy makers, and practitioners) trying to convince them that it is indeed possible to preserve and nurture biodiversity within urban habitats, when my own university so blithely cuts down a mature urban forest to make room for cars?

All of this brings me to the two most important failures of our university leadership in how this deforestation was visited upon us:

Lack of transparency in the decision making and failure to communicate with faculty members and students: my colleagues and I were completely taken aback upon arriving on campus yesterday to witness the trees torn down. Several of us serve on high level campus committees charged with overseeing the nationally recognized University Arboretum as well as the broader development of our campus (FACEL). Yet none of these committees were aware that all these trees were to be cut down – until after the fact. Had I heard about this plan earlier, I would have gladly helped devise a much better way to accomplish the goal. This action clearly represents a serious dysfunction in how our campus is governed even in such important matters, and such dysfunction needs to be addressed immediately given how demoralized our faculty already are these days.

Lack of vision for true long-term sustainability: While the ostensible reason for yesterday’s deforestation is to increase parking spaces available to students, the manner in which this is being addressed shows a complete lack of vision or ecological foresight. I know that conventional approaches to construction and land development treat trees as just another physical element on the land to be disposed off at will, but is that really necessary? Was it really necessary to cut down a 100 trees (which fix carbon, provide shade, habitat, and psychological benefits, to name just a few) just to add 600 new parking spots? Did whoever make the decision to go this route on the masterplan consider any creative alternatives that would not require the killing of living, breathing, healthy, mature trees? I am sure my colleagues and I could have come up with alternative plans that would preserve the forested nature of our campus environment (recognized nationally in our Arboretum status) while meeting the needs of students. Were alternatives such as aggressively promoting carpooling, bicycling and other options even considered at all when deciding to cut down trees to make more room for cars? Even as our research on local urban ecology is beginning to attract wider attention, we appear to have failed utterly in bringing any ecological transformation to our own campus. I would love for our campus to serve as a model and a demonstration / experimentation ground for the design of more ecologically sensible landscaping and urban habitat design options for others to adopt. Alas, this appears to be a mere pipe dream as our campus rushes headlong down the unsustainable path. What kind of message are we really sending to our students and future generation of leaders by putting cars above trees, at a time when many people around the world are actively developing and implementing solutions to help us transition into the post-carbon age? Is our university even interested in being a leader in finding solutions to our environmental problems? Or are we content to remain a big part of the problem?

I am afraid that yesterday’s deforestation sends exactly the opposite signal on both these counts: that we don’t really care about sustainability or any elements of Nature on our campus, and that we are willing to ride roughshod over both the environment, and any concepts of democratic shared faculty governance as we hasten to turn our campus into another concrete desert.

As the leader of this campus, who must navigate carefully to sustain our campus through extremely difficult financial times, I urge you to not overlook the ramifications of various decisions being thrust upon a campus academic community that feels increasingly alienated and demoralized. A little more respect for the views of faculty and students who care deeply about this university, a little more compassion towards the environment and other organisms who share our campus, and a little more ecological smarts in finding ways to soften the hard edges of our campus’ physical and psychological footprint, will go a long way towards making the difficult times ahead far more bearable for all of us. It can also turn our adversities into opportunities to show genuine leadership in building a truly sustainable academic community and environment for the long term future of this century old university, and indeed our whole world.

Sincerely, and with the very best of intentions,
Madhusudan Katti
Associate Professor, Biology

Irish Awareness Day

Top o’tha murnin’ to ya. Do ya seek ta kiss the ol’ Blarney stone? Well may the road rise ta meet ya! Watch out for the leprechauns: they’ll be lookin’ to put the mockers on ya, says I. Don’t forget to stop by the pub on yer way out. They be servin’ some o’ the finest green Bud Light these old eyes have evar seen.

…Right. These are the sorts of tropes to which Murphy and O’Dea refer to in their book The Feckin’ Book of Everything Irish: A Gansey-Load of Deadly Craic for Cute Hoors and Bowsies as “Amer-Irish” or “Oirish”; in fact, here it is straight out of their book:

Oirish (n)
(see also ‘Blarney’)
Mythical language and culture used by Americans and British when portraying Irish people (e.g.) “Top o’ de mornin’ te ye, be de hokey. D’ye happen te know, me good sir, where I’d be findin’ a leprechaun dis fine day, at all, at all?” (82).

Of course, this is coming from a book meant to educate and entertain Americans with bits of Irish slang, pop culture, ballads, and even recipes. It was also the 2007 Benjamin Franklin Award Winner for Best Humor Book, and rightly so. There’s no better way to be introduced to Irish culture (beyond wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day) than with humor: humor is how the people have survived under centuries of foreign rule, oppression, famine, and more.

This is why I refuse to get angry with the typical American pseudo-empathy with the Other when St. Patrick’s Day comes around. I don’t yell at people when they go on about drinking green beer on St. Patrick’s Day because they in fact chiefly drink stouts (leann dubh in Irish) more than anything else. Instead, I see St. Patrick’s Day as an opportunity to become aware of Ireland, and every American should be aware of Ireland. According to an article on, at least 12% of the United States (37 million people) have Irish ancestry (which is actually eight times the population of Ireland itself!).

While, sadly, one must dig more deeply beyond what is typically offered in high school history text books, it is not too difficult to find out just how profound of an impact the Irish had on a developing America and, conversely, how deeply the immigrated Irish Irish-Americanwere impacted by the Americans when they landed in droves in mid-19th century New York. But you have to dig for it. You have to see passed the Irish Spring soap commercials and pots of gold at the end of rainbows. For example, a little bit of research and an attentive ear could quickly detect that modern Country music–a genre widely celebrated as American, is actually the grandchild of Irish folk music.

The family tree of this musical line goes something like this: Irish Folk Music > [immigration to America] > Bluegrass and Appalachian Music > Country Western. Granted that Bluegrass is a synthesis from other cultures as well, here is a way that Irish culture underscores something that is a paradigm of the American spirit, yet most Americans are completely unaware of this. If you don’t believe me, listen and see for yourself in the video at the end of this article.

The voices of Ireland had been muted in their own country for centuries–it would be a shame if their voices continued to be muted in America. So by all means, wear green, drink green Bud Light, and tell your friends “Happy St. Patrick’s Day!” I just hope that the pseudo-empathy in doing so awakens the Irish spirit within and inspires you to convert pseudo-empathy into a real interest into a real people, a real culture, a real country, and a real influence on America. I leave you with one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets who didn’t forget about the Irish in America.

Far hence, amid an isle of wondrous beauty,
Crouching over a grave, an ancient, sorrowful mother,
Once a queen—now lean and tatter’d, seated on the ground,
Her old white hair drooping dishevel’d round her shoulders;
At her feet fallen an unused royal harp,
Long silent—she too long silent—mourning her shrouded hope and heir;
Of all the earth her heart most full of sorrow, because most full of love.

Yet a word, ancient mother;
You need crouch there no longer or the cold ground, with forehead between your knees;
O you need not sit there, veil’d in your old white hair, so dishevel’d;
For know you, the one you mourn is not in that grave;
It was an illusion—the heir, the son you love, was not really dead;
The Lord is not dead—he is risen again, young and strong, in another country;
Even while you wept there by your fallen harp, by the grave,
What you wept for, was translated, pass’d from the grave,
The winds favor’d, and the sea sail’d it,
And now with rosy and new blood,
Moves to-day in a new country.

-“Old Ireland” by Walt Whitman

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