Seeing Is Believing, Or Is It?

Prisma-lightSpectrum-goetheWith my grandparents living in Missouri, the “Show Me State” motto was always familiar to me as a child. The notion from that motto that seeing the world is how you know the world became more complicated when I met my wife. She sees the world differently from me, noticing differences in colors that look the same to me, differences that I have neither perception of nor words to describe. If seeing is believing, whose vision (perception) should I believe?

The issue of perception of color has come into the foreground after the sensation that was Dressgate. In one segment of a Radiolab podcast on color from several years ago (embedded below) that suddenly became popular, they compared the number of different color perceiving cones in the eyes of different animals (beginning about 9:30 in the podcast). Dogs have two, humans three, butterflies five, and mantis shrimp top the list with sixteen. Continue reading

When the Sledgehammers Come Out

Picture 9I keep seeing laments online for what the members of the Islamic State are doing in museums — laments that easily slide into virulent critiques of their humanity since they obviously have no civilized respect for our collective human past.

I’ve written about this before, but what I wish to highlight here is how quickly otherwise nuanced people forget their own understanding of such things as the ideology of the museum, the politics of world history and discourse on civilization/barbarity, as well as the constructed nature of the past — quickly, that is, when their own taken-for-granted narratives of progressive development, value, cultural authority, and historical interconnection/lineage are called into question by those who, presumably, subscribe to a rather different narrative. Continue reading

Holy Matrimony! Polygamy in the Wild

Brown family

If you watch the polygamy-themed TLC show Sister Wives (starring Kody Brown and his four wives, pictured above, along with their collective 17 children), you may have heard the news that Brown and the wife to whom he was legally married (second from the left) have divorced, with Brown since legally marrying another one of the four (center). Brown refers to his non-legal wives as his “spiritual wives.”

The news of the divorce may seem a somewhat cryptic move, seeing how there’s been no actual rift in their family, according to Brown, although rumors abound that the situation is far from marital bliss. Nevertheless, Brown insists that the only thing that has changed is the manner in which the state regards their relationships: since one of his wives is now legally his ex-wife, she and her children remain eligible for certain rights and protections (such as insurance) at the same time that his current legal wife and her children are due the same. Rather than call this a divorce, in fact, Brown has referred to it as a “legal restructuring” of their family. Continue reading

Speaking Strategically About Religion

Large_chess_setOver the last week, many have written about the labeling of ISIS as religious or not, as Islamic or not, both in response to last week’s summit on violent extremism and the recent Atlantic article on ISIS. Defending his administration’s refusal to label ISIS/ISIL as Islamic radicalism or extremism or a religious terrorist group, Obama asserted that he wanted to avoid connecting Islam with groups such as ISIS for strategic reasons, because he does not want to reinforce their self-descriptions that frame the conflict as religious and their ideology as true Islam. Rather than rehashing arguments about ISIS, the question that interests me is the role of strategic notions embedded in all discussions employing labels (really any words) to describe oneself or some other. In many respects, any description reflects particular moves in the chess game that is human society. Continue reading

A Lesson in Listening

Picture 5While driving back from a rainy Sunday morning walk with my dog I recently caught an interview on the radio with Lisa-Kainde Diaz and Naomi Diaz, twin sisters who were born in Cuba and who have just released their debut album.

Heard of them? Continue reading

The Most Disgusting Picture Ever

True confession:  As I am prone to do every semester, I have once again tarnished the innocence of young adults by forcing a group of students to look at this particular photo.  It is, I am told, “the most disgusting picture ever.”  If you can stand it, here it is:


It turns out that my student’s near ubiquitous sense of disgust with this image is not unique, for scholar Breanne Fahs has recently shown that despite many women’s nonchalant attitudes towards underarm and other body hair as mere “personal choice” when discussed hypothetically, a diverse group of her female students who opted to forego hair removal as part of an in-class experiment reported almost universal feelings of social pressure, helplessness, disgust, and anger, not only in the way that they felt about themselves, but also in the way that their families and peers treated them. Continue reading

You Are What You Read, with Russell McCutcheon (Part 5)

For a new Culture on the Edge series “You Are What You Read” we’re asking each member to answer a series of questions about books—either academic or non-academic—that have been important or influential on us.

5. What’s a book that you love but which isn’t widely read?

Anything by Sara10708056_10102579064556025_1136587271_nh Vowell.

While enjoying her dry wit and occasional sarcasm, what I love so much about Sarah Vowell’s writing is that it is widely accessible yet incredibly well researched, making her the ideal example of what some of us aspire to do (perhaps on a blog such as this even?): reach wide audiences with our scholarship. While not thinking that this is the sole audience, or even a required audience, to reach, for anyone wanting to write for wider audiences than just other scholars or other scholars-in-the-making (regardless what level they are in school), Vowell’s books present the model for how to do this. She strikes me as a poster-child for the relevance of the Humanities, in fact—a much discussed topic these days—for her 1993 B.A. from Montana State University in Modern Languages and Literature and her M.A., earned at The School of the Chicago Art Institute in 1996, in Art History are both in areas that, at least according to some, have little direct relevance for employability. Yet here she is, a widely selling author (even the voice of the daughter, Violet, in the animated film The Incredibles!) whose engaging books dive deeply into terribly complicated and, at times, controversial historical material—I think back to a sad, funny, troubling, and, ultimately, incredibly engaging story she did in 1998 on her and her twin sister’s summer travels along the Trail of Tears or her 2003 dissection of the tangled history of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, each remarkable pieces of history writing—but doing so in a way that makes the storyteller’s (or, in the case of the latter, the singer’s) own conflicted positioning part of the narrative as well.

So pick up one of her books, and see what you think—you may find them to be far more relevant for scholars and students that you might at first think, either as an example of how to write for wider publics or as an example of the skills that we in the liberal arts daily teach to our students (sometimes without even knowing it).

Informed Dissent


In the ongoing debate about whether or not vaccinations should be mandatory (a debate between so-called “anti-vaxxers” and…well, the people who use that label, the latter of which enjoys majority status to a degree that allows them to forego caricature), the ol’ individual-liberty-versus-public-good rhetoric reared its head really quickly. And perhaps that should come as no surprise. After all, people engaged in the debate are talking about where personal/parental rights stop and the good of the larger public start and vice versa…aren’t they? That’s certainly the nominal subject of the controversy. But “individual liberty” and “public good” certainly live on an ever-sliding scale and are employed by different groups with different politics depending on the context. Continue reading

The Social in Social Media

social mediaSometimes social media is a great source for learning things, and sometimes it is not. Since my friends on Facebook range across a wide ideological spectrum, sometimes the references to the same event are so contradictory that I have no clue what “really” happened. Last month, when Joni Ernst presented one of the Republican rebuttals to Obama’s State of the Union, the disparity in responses was fascinating. Some friends made comments and posted articles that lampooned her performance, especially making light of her story about wearing bread bags to keep her shoes dry as a child. Posts from other friends described her exceptional performance, with links to articles that emphasized her success in giving a “fresh face” to the GOP. Continue reading

About That Knife


Recently, I had a student come by during my office hours. Upon entering, one of the first things he said was something like “Whoa, Dr. Smith – I wouldn’t have thought that you’d have a knife!”

To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what he was talking about. Then I remembered that I have an old knife hanging in a shadowbox frame on my office wall that I use as an art piece (it’s got some very interesting markings). Frankly, I’d never made much of it, except that it didn’t make the aesthetic cut at my house.  In the hierarchy of interior design to which I ascribe, that means that my office became its new home. Continue reading