Monthly Archives: September 2010

Back to old ways: Guest leading the New Media Faculty Seminar

Yesterday was, in a word, great.  I know it’s a simple word, but it accurately describes how it felt to be back in the New Media Faculty Seminar at Baylor.  This is a semester-long seminar that is taught at Baylor (and a variety of other universities who are linked into the conversation online and having one at their own universities) engaging faculty in readings and questions about new media.  You can visit their blog to see what they are learning.

Because Gardner, the leader of the seminar, was out of town I guest taught it yesterday in his steps.  It was daunting, especially since Gardner brings so much charisma and spice to the conversation about new media.  In so many ways, I felt inept to facilitate a conversation in a room full of brilliant faculty, but I was encouraged by the way they engaged on the topic of if machines can augment the human intellect, as Engelbart suggested.

We discussed early work done by Doug Engelbart in his “the mother of all demos.”   One question that was brought was whether machines are making us smarter or dumber.  As we quickly learned, the answer is not so simple.  In many ways, user interfaces for technology have become so easy that they are nearly intuitive and can be utilized by most novices.  But is this getting away from the point originally intended by Engelbart and his colleagues?  Do you think they envisioned the future we live in now?  A world full of iPhones, iPads, and Kindles?  In some ways, I do not think so.  But I wonder if they would be amazed by today’s technological society or disappointed?

Knowing more about what you don’t believe: Atheists and agnostics outperform religious individuals on basic world religions test

A recent article in the New York times discusses survey research that demonstrated that atheists and agnostics (as well as Jews and Mormons) outperformed all other religious groups (e.g., evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics)  on a religious test.  The test, given by Pew Survey Research, asked questions about the Bible, Christianity, and other world religions.  Questions included items such as: Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation?  On average out of 32 questions, atheists/agnostics answered 20.9 questions correctly, Jews answered 20, and Mormons answered 20.3 correctly, while white evangelical Protestants answered 17.6 and White Catholics answered 16 questions correctly.  Other religions are included in the survey (see article).

As a researcher of religion, I am perplexed yet not surprised by these findings.  As expected, evangelical Protestants answered the most questions correctly on questions regarding the Bible and Christianity.  However, when it came to knowing about world religions as well, they fell short.  Perhaps it is because an enormous amount of time is spent trying to become knowledgeable about one’s own faith.  Perhaps it is because evangelicals openly reject other world religions and so do not study them.  However, I suspect that cognitive complexity and intelligence levels may play a role as well.

Evangelicals tend to be more fundamentalist about their religion.  Religious fundamentalism is linked with thinking less complexly about issues (Pancer, Jackson, Hunsberger, Pratt, & Lea, 1995) as well representing resistance to change (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003).  Thus, the differences in these results could be tied to the broader implication that highly religious individuals engage in less cognitive processing about other religions.  But it becomes difficult to explain the results for religions like Catholicism, which are not traditionally fundamentalist yet performed more poorly on the test.

On a related but different note, I am also curious what would happen to the results if you controlled for education level or intelligence level.  Although controlling for racial and age differences did not affect the results, I would expect that controlling for an education or intelligence variable might.  Atheists/agnostics may simply represent a more intellectual elite, especially considering the idea that there are a higher number of non-believers in higher education.  I think the confound of intelligence and belief needs to be addressed before fully concluding that atheism is the reason people know more about world religions.

Nevertheless, this article sheds light on a timely and interesting topic.  I am now left to ponder if atheists’ knowledge of these world religions influences their behavior in any way.  That is another study for me to do to find out.


Jost, J.J., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition.  Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339-375.

Pancer, S. M., Jackson, L. M., Hunsberger, B., Pratt, M. W., & Lea, J. (1995). Religious orthodoxy and the complexity of thought about religious and nonreligious issues. Journal of Personality, 63, 213–232.

Injustice in my backyard

Documentaries.  Normally, a powerful form of media to pull me into another worldview effectively and quickly.  In search for a different point of view this weekend, I watched Very Young Girls.  This is a striking documentary that chronicles the tails of a few young girls who entered into prostitution, or as they termed it “the life.”  Now I realize I’m not a very normal person when my “roommate night” includes watching a tragic documentary over a bowl of popcorn.  And I’m stilled by this thought.  The closest I may ever come to knowing anything about their lives is by watching them speak out on film.  I immediately felt spoiled and ungrateful at the same time as I heard them talk about their days.  Beaten. Abused.  Wanting love.  Not finding it.  Thinking they found it in their pimps.  Nope – not finding it.  It was an endless cycle of hopelessness which started and nearly ended with hopelessness.  Thankfully, that was not the end of some of their stories.  I’ll let you watch the documentary yourself to find out how one woman is changing a lot of prostitutes lives for the best.

Very Young Girls notes that the average age of a girl entering into prostitution is only 13 years old.  Tragic.  Truly tragic.  I nearly wept as I thought about these girls as daughters.  More excruciating, perhaps, was imagining them for what they are – children.  I found the image below which reminded me of the documentary.  It’s a disturbing image, but isn’t that the point?  Shouldn’t we be disturbed?  I think so often in my comfortable American life I forget about the injustices occurring in my own backyard.

Sure – people in Cambodia, Thailand, Rwanda, and other third world countries are suffering, so I buy my Toms shoes and send some of my resources to help with micro-financing upstarting businesses in third world countries to create stable, self-supporting economies.  All the while I’m sipping on my Starbucks latte and engaging in philosophical discussions about higher education and what it means to be impoverished (which of course, is to not be educated or free I’ve decided since clearly I’m the definition of not being impoverished).  When I say “I,” I fully mean me.  Impoverished?  I don’t know if I really know the meaning of the word.  Not like these girls know it.  In French, there are two forms of “to know”: one refers to knowing that (savoir; e.g., I know that George Washington was the first president of the United States) and knowing well or intimately (connaitre; e.g., I know my friend or the city of Waco).  I only know about impoverishment in the savoir way.  These girls know it in the connaitre way.

But back to my point.  I think we focus so much on third world countries partially because they are so impoverished but mostly because we can keep the reality of impoverishment existing all around us at arm’s length.  If injustice is taking place in my own backyard, don’t I begin to feel more responsible for it?

The interesting thing is that many of these girls have a striking grip on what matters in life, even if they have lost their way in some aspect.  For instance, one girl in discussing her education (which she presumably stopped around age 13 or 14 when she began prostituting herself) argued that she didn’t want to get a GED but that she wanted to go to classes.  Her emphatic need to be educated rather than just get the piece of paper she needed to get the job she wanted or meet some end goal astounded me.  How many times have I and many like me complained about school?  We wish for it to be over with so that we can get our B.A. or our M.A. or Ph.D. or whatever the degree may be so that we can move on to the next step in life.  This girl just wanted to learn.  I’m struck by that difference.  In some ways, because she knew the lack of education, perhaps she wanted more.

As an educator myself, I longed to provide these girls with what they sought – education, freedom, a shot at life.  Hearing them talk about all of their dead dreams moved me.  One girl expressed extreme frustration that one of her relatives was in school getting a law degree and she was just making it out of prostitution.  But what an accomplishment that was!  And what a journey she was on.  I want these girls to know that just because someone used them does not render them useless.  Instead, those dreams can be realized with proper training.  It is as I heard the other day becoming more clear to me that being educated without the ability to express one’s ideas is useless.  If I have all of these ideas and knowledge in my head but no ability to execute them into real change in society, what good is it?  So I sit, back to my point in my prior post.  I can only change society by changing it life on life.  And so that is what I hope to do.

The humanness of teaching

Today was a good day.  I just finished my qualifying exam and successfully defended my dissertation prospectus.  Whew.  A sigh of relief literally left my body yesterday as soon as it was all over, and now I can begin moving forward in the process of getting my Ph.D.  The process was unpleasant but good, and I am glad to say that I have survived.

Stamina.  It seems to be one of the strongest traits necessary to surviving graduate school.  I like that the definition of stamina is “the capability of sustaining prolonged stressful effort.”  Despite the difficulty of the many hurdles I have faced, it seems that just merely surviving the criticism and nerve-wracking presentations amongst seas of bright intellectuals is what helps you make it or break it.

But despite all of my focus on research the past several months, I turned inward a little bit and outward as well today as I reflected on my role as a teacher.  To me, research defines who I am and in many ways I both prefer researching over teaching and see myself as a better researcher than teacher.  I’ve often wondered why this is the case?  In some ways, I just love researching.  In other ways, it feels more prestigious, more rewarding.  This is ironic considering that my harshest amount of criticism comes from fellow researchers in the world of academia toward both the manuscripts I write and the presentations I give.  But today was one of those days where I sat down and contemplated how important the role is of teaching someone else.  And I was reminded that I love teaching.

I have many, albeit scattered, thoughts on the subject: what is the purpose of higher education?  Just the other day, my colleagues and I at the Academy for Teaching and Learning got into a passionate discussion on what the purpose of a liberal arts education is.  Coincidentally, my students just wrote journal reflection questions on this very topic.  I was moved by their responses and reminded that my role here is to broaden the worldviews of these young, bright individuals.  Most of them discussed how a liberal education was designed to develop critical thinking, help them know how to problem solve in any situation, and broaden their worldviews by seeing others’ points of views.  Stunned.  Astounded.  Such young, bright minds ready and hungry to learn.  In many ways, I have forgotten about that hunger to just learn.  Amongst all of the various roles I am asked to play and all the publications I seek, I have forgotten about the valuable and privileged role I play both as a learner and an educator.

One student made me stop still in my tracks as I read his response to the question about liberal education.  He stated, “I have experienced poverty and so I know that the most valuable asset one can have is an education.”  Wow.  Bravo.  To live so deeply and appreciate so much is moving and almost unheard of in this culture that has all but taken higher education for granted.  I see this student in the classroom, so eager to learn and embrace every opportunity handed to him, and my spirit is encouraged.

Other students discussed their vulnerable feelings of emotions during their first few weeks in college: nervous, overwhelmed, scared they won’t make friends, excited for the opportunities awaiting them.  I could not believe the number of students who stated that they were here to just learn and take in everything they were passionate about.  They stated that they were not just here to get a degree and move on, but they were here to be changed.  Imagine that – education changing you.  Education changing you and you changing the world.  And I get to be a part of that change!  I get to be a catalyst that helps kindle their passions.  But only if I allow myself to.  If I continue to just show up and do a “good lesson,” I’ll miss my opportunity and more importantly, the entire purpose of higher education.  What a privilege it is to be entrusted with young minds.  Like Socrates, I hope to corrupt these youth while I inform them of the possibilities and other worlds out there.  My hope is to cheer them on along the sidelines as I shout, “go, go go!”  But part of me worries that this passionate dream is dying because of, sadly, people like myself.  People who get so caught up in their research careers that they forget the importance of teaching.  You see, it is when I’m teaching that I feel most human.  Life on life connection.  This is real stuff.  Real change.  And I forge onward in this quest of learning with my students.  Because, education is after all, “the most valuable asset one can have…”

On trial

So today is the day.  The day I defend my dissertation prospectus and take my qualifying exam.  I have been preparing for this day for years, but in many ways it feels like no preparation has occurred at all.  In my mind, it will be a cartoonish catastrophe where I, the ultimate caricature of unintelligent, will stand dumbfounded in front of my committee.  In reality, it’s not likely to play out quite this awkwardly, but I still think about it.  More importantly, it’s not like I’m trying to defend an idea to solve world hunger, end war, or bring lasting peace.  Clearly, I am not cut out to be president of the United States.  Either way, I will be on “trial” so to speak at 3pm today.

It’s an odd tradition that completely makes sense.  Although it is your dissertation defense, what you are essentially defending is your intelligence and competence as a scholar.  No big deal, right?  So I guess today is the day we will find out if I can hack it.  In all honesty, I’m less nervous about the results and more nervous about the process.  I fear the experience of being pushed against a wall until you feel trapped in your own stupidity.  This seems to be a common theme in academia.  “Let’s ask you so many questions that eventually you feel stupid about your idea.”  But I still love academia.  Sometimes I wonder if my career is like being in an abusive relationship.  Despite all of the terrible things said to me, I stick with it.  But, just like an abusive relationship, it feels so good when I finally get praised for my work.  More importantly, I love the work I do.  It’s just that awesome.  So here’s to a great presentation and painless questioning session!  Oh yeah, and I will be sure to use the hints found below:

Why do we mimic each other?

Whenever I think of human mimicry, I am hearkened back to the Office episode where Andy Bernard mentions that among other things he is going to win people over through imitation.  He then proceeds to become a near replica of Michael Scott (Steve Carell).  Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael starts to warm to him a bit.  This reality has probably struck us in our own daily life.  I often find myself morphing into my own friends, taking on their tonal inflections and gestures.  We often find ourselves engaging in mild mimicry of those around us either to endear them to us or out of pure instinct.

Humans are not the only animals that engage in mimicry as a form of survival.  A recent New York Times article by Natalie Angier discusses how multiple species, not just humans, engage in mimicry.  For instance, margays mimic the sounds of a crying tamarin pup in order to lure their prey toward them.  The mimic octupus of Indonesia mimics a wide array of marine life to ward off predators.  These accounts of animals displaying mimicry are fascinating, but they all have one thing in common: they are mimicking other species.  Thus, it appears that humans might be the only species that engages in within species mimicry.  Why?  Mimicry affords individuals the opportunity to strengthen social bonds.  Bottom line – we like being imitated.  Apparently, waiters who display mild forms of mimicry to customers earn higher tips than those who do not.  There is a plethora of research in social psychology examining the social and psychological benefits of mimicry.  Furthermore, psychologists have demonstrated that humans mimic others without awareness.

So why do humans differ?  I can only speculate on this point.  And as we all know, speculation without data is only one thing: a hypothesis that must be tested, nothing more.  But I wonder if it has to do with what behaviors promote the survival of species.  For wild animals, catching prey and warding off predators are essential to surviving.  However, one of the best ways to enhance chances of survival among humans is to form social bonds.  We are social creatures in need of social bonds to survive.  With larger tribes, humans are more likely to ward off predators, increase skill set available to them, and to be protected or taken care of in times of need (whether physical or psychological need).  Thus, it makes sense that our form of mimicry would take place within our own species.  So I will continue to “morph into my friends” as they will do the same because it is what we are hard-wired to do.  And let’s face it, we like people like ourselves.

Faux pas

“Je suis excitée!” I unknowingly exclaimed in French class one day.  The blush of embarrassment that followed only came due to my sudden revelation of my linguistic faux pasFaux pas, which in French translates directly as “wrong step,” was the only way to describe my mistake that day.  Although the literal translation of excitée is excited, that is not what it means to the French.  Rather, it translates roughly as “I am sexually aroused.”  That is certainly not what I meant to say about my upcoming Christmas vacation to my professor and classmates.  Fortunately for me, I made this mistake in the confines of my American classroom.  But imagine if I had made such a linguistic error during my time abroad in France.  Ah…j’imagine que les hommes voudraient aimer ça!  This could have been the difference between me returning unscathed by French men versus the alternative.

Although perhaps a silly example, it nevertheless makes the point.  As we learn new languages, it takes much time and devotion to master the true meanings of words, sentences, and especially analogies and sayings.  For instance, the first time someone said to me “On ne peut pas avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre,” which translates as “You can’t have the butter and the money from the butter,” I kept thinking, “Why are we talking about butter?”  Well, as you have probably figured out, it simply means the same as our popular phrase, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”  Leave it to the French to use butter in their analogies.  And as for the cake, if you have ever tasted French cake, you know why they do not use our analogy.  Nobody wants to have that cake or eat it.  But I digress.

I was encouraged to find a recent featured story on NPR about a woman with her Ph.D. in linguistics, Deborah Fallows, discussing the painstaking process of learning Chinese.  Fallows discussing her hilarious yet frustrating journey of learning the various tones in Chinese.  As one who has attempted to learn a few Chinese words from her boyfriend, I can attest to the difficulty of this task.  Although he may be differentiating sounds, I cannot audibly detect them.  The psychologist in me is both discouraged and encouraged to know that I will never be able to hear these tonal differences but I can train myself to say them.  Why is this the case?  Well, during the cooing stage (first several months of life), infants can discriminate between all phonemes (smallest unit of sound), not just those of their own language (Sternberg, 2009).  For instance, during the cooing stage both Japanese and American infants can distinguish between the sounds of /l/ and /r/ phonemes.  However, by one year of age, Japanese infants can no longer distinguish these sounds because they are not used in their native language (Eimas, 1985; Tsushima et al., 1994).  Despite my best attempts, I will never be able to fully distinguish certain sounds.

So we are, in essence, culturally limited by our biological limitations.  It is an interesting play between biology, environment, and culture.  How do we deal with a biological inability to fully overcome our environment?  We adapt.  It is still amazing to me that you can train yourself to make certain sounds, even if you cannot distinguish them yourself.  So it seems it is not as the French say, “Impossible n’est pas français,” or “Impossible is not French.”  This means the same as our phrase, “There is no such word as ‘can’t’ .”  In other words, there are in fact some limitations to what our minds can do.  There are fewer limits, however, to how we mentally adapt to these situations.  Or, maybe it truly is as the French say, “Impossible is not French.”  The rest of us humans, well, we aren’t French and therefore must be the limiting factor.


Eimas, P.D. (1985). The perception of speech in early infancy. Scientific American, 252, 46-52.

Sternberg, R.J. (2009). Cognitive psychology. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.

Tsushima, T., Takizawa, O., Saski, M., Siraki, S., Nishi, S., Kohno, M., et al. (1994). Discrimination of English /r-l/ and /w-y/ by Japanese infants at 6-12 months: Language specific developmental changes in speech perception abilities. Paper presented at International Conference on Spoken Language Processing, 4. Yokohama, Japan.