One of those weeks…





Photo of Tip Top Cleaners on 3rd St. in Chickasha, OK, taken in 1979 by John Margolies, available with no known copyright restrictions courtesy of the Library of Congress Flickr Stream. Slight bit of weakly meme-ish vandalism of same by Yours Truly.

Posted in Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, photography, random stuff | Tagged , , , , , ,

New Construction, Part II: Framing It In

In the previous post in this series, I laid out a blueprint for my Introduction to Philosophy course, using the Information Creation as a Process frame to structure my objectives and the general approach I might take to assessing how students meet those objectives. In this post, I’m going to frame in the class by talking about the syllabus and providing a description of the tasks I’ve assigned my students. Then I’ll say a bit about how the work I’ve assigned addresses my objectives and rules for assessment purposes.

The Syllabus

Here we go! Click on over and have a look at the syllabus outline. Give it a quick read! Enjoy!

The first thing you may notice when you look at the syllabus is that I’ve changed the statement of my objectives a bit. I edited the language in order to set my work up for informative assessment. Good course objectives (or program objectives, etc.) ought to be phrased so that it facilitates evaluation, which means requiring action (“students will demonstrate…”) rather than describing the internal states leading to action (“students will learn…”).

There are a few other things to which I’d like to draw attention here:

  • The required use of Zotero for an assignment in which students generate a collection of scholarly articles in philosophy for particular reading days in the course, supplementing the assigned reading in Nigel Warburton’s Basics and Classics books.
  • The change from several short essays in my original version of the course (as described in the preface to this series of posts) to two 7-8 page essays with a more involved paper development process, complemented by two essay-based exams (midterm and final).
  • The Reading Quizzes, which are mostly written to require students to apply what they’ve understood from the reading by filling in missing pieces in arguments or by making appropriate use of specialist terminology or concepts.

I have deliberately lightened the reading load (when compared to what I used to do, anyway) in order to make more room to focus on helping students learn how to read and construct arguments. This is (as my own rules require) how I’m narrowing the way for my students — I’ve chosen to remove or minimize the obstacle posed to comprehension for them by the very difficult prose of the major historical figures I used to assign. I use the Warburton readings to get the students into the ideas and give them a chance to figure out how to form arguments for themselves. Only then do we turn to the work of puzzling out the complicated writing of recent/contemporary scholars in the discipline, with the expectation that practicing the work of reconstructing arguments from Warburton’s clear and straightforward presentation will eventually transfer to the harder task of parsing something written by and for professionals.

The two longer essays, which my students will build on a template I provide after some weeks of topic development, writing, and revision, shifts the emphasis of writing work in the course away from argument and analysis practice (which is what I used them for in prior designs) and toward process (again, as my rules require).

The Work

In my previous post, I laid out the kinds of work that I believed my stated objectives and rules ought to require my students to do:

  1. Discussion work (for brainstorming, for practice, for building the conversation in the company of others, for hitting the analysis and comprehension elements of the course)
  2. Knowledge/information reinforcement work (information read once doesn’t stick nearly as well as information used and reused and remembered)
  3. Creation work (we get better at building things — arguments included — when we practice actually building them)

The essay assignments are intended to be creation work, and for assessment purposes the papers my students submit will (I hope) demonstrate their understanding of how to select and develop a philosophical topic, how to analyze and build arguments of their own, and how to make the best use of critical responses to their writing. The peer review piece of the essay process is also a part of the discussion work I expect, most of which will occur in our class meetings. I typically use class time to assign students in small groups the task of developing and analyzing their own versions of the classic arguments that they read about in the Warburton books, with additional brainstorming and shared reading on article days. The reading quizzes and exams are knowledge/information reinforcement tasks, as are the research elements of the article assignment.

Ideally, the combination of the final exam and the two essays will provide the most useful information about how well my students have taken up and internalized the lessons practiced in the reading, the quizzes, their article research, and our discussions in class. That meets my argument/analysis objective as well as demonstrating understanding. The quizzes allow me to reinforce the reading and give me a way to check understanding as we go along. The research work needed to find relevant articles encourages the students to pay attention to keywords (finding them, using them, putting them in context). Taken together, the participation components do a lot of heavy lifting for the demonstration of understanding of course content.

Of course, there are a number of questions that remain here. For my final post — my Epilogue — I’m going to talk about whether or not this syllabus-building is up to code. That is, I’m going to take a look at likely problems and issues worth taking seriously in consideration of this course as a model for applying the Framework. Luckily (for the sake of Epilogue-writing inspiration), the semester has started, so I’ve already got some things to work on, having once again confirmed that no plan for the term survives its first engagement with a room full of students!

* Both images in this post come from Safe and Permanent Frame Construction, a pamphlet put out by the Southern Pine Association in 1927.

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Library Business, Philosophical Mess-making, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

New Construction, Part I: Blueprint

Last week, I laid out my plan and the basic details for an Introduction to Philosophy course that I’m building using the ACRL Information Literacy Framework. This week, I’m going to sketch a sort of blueprint for that course-building process, laying out my rules and my requirements. My main challenge, this time around, is figuring out exactly which frame I’d like to use to guide my choice of objectives and tasks — unlike my earlier example of a more advanced course, this time I’m working on an intro-level design for a class in which I do not actually want my students writing a “research” paper.

To draft my blueprint, I’m going to lay out my (revised) design rules, describe my requirements, and select the objectives that will structure the class I have in mind. This remains a backward design process, in which what I end up doing will be determined by what my outcomes demand.

Apartment builing photo with floor plan

Time to draft this thing…**

Rewriting the Rules

In my earlier course design posts, I made two basic rules for myself:

  1. Enter by the narrow gate
  2. Curation is the name of the game; collaboration is how we play

Of the two, the curation/collaboration rule is the one most specifically tied to the Scholarship as Conversation frame; it speaks to how course design and instructor behavior ought to get students involved in the conversation, making the work done for the class function (more or less) as a form of socialization to the norms of a scholarly discipline. For this reason, however, it is also the rule I have to change for a course in which my goal is focused more on basic skills development rather than disciplinary socialization. I stand by the narrow gate rule — this is just good design, a kind of pedagogical parsimony that makes it more likely that students will get out of the course what I want them to get without being derailed by unrelated concerns.*

So: What frame best suits the general-audience skills class I have in mind, and how might that change the second rule?

For this class (a writing-intensive general education offering in the Humanities with no ties to a major or minor), instead of trying to build my objectives around the Conversation, I’ve decided that a better frame is to be found in the notion of Information Creation as a Process. For my purpose here, the knowledge practices and dispositions in which I am most interested (for building objectives, anyway) involve using the study of philosophical arguments and concepts to make the work of effective reasoning and clear communication about that reasoning transparent and useful for my students. Accordingly, my revised second rule now looks like this:

Rule 2a: Process is the name of the game; revision is how we play

When I say “process” here, I’m not just talking about the usual brainstorming/drafting business. Rather, what I have in mind goes all the way down to the more basic level of studying argument itself. The revisions I have in mind aren’t just editorial in nature (in the most technical sense) — they require understanding and addressing objections, and changing one’s view when an objection is deemed decisive or convincing. The information creation process is as much about making, analyzing, and adjusting our judgments as it is about the mechanics of creation and revision for written work. Put another way: It’s as much about how we ask good questions as it is about how we refine or improve the expression of our answers to those questions.

Of course, I’m not entirely abandoning the Conversation here. What makes this a philosophy class and not just a composition or literature class in which I happen to mention the occasional dead Greek or two is the fact that the course will focus on a fairly narrow range of questions and arguments addressed specifically in the context of their development over time as a part of what makes the discipline of philosophy in the Western tradition what it is. I still maintain that, if you’re really dedicated to a comprehensive application of the Framework, you can probably hang all of it from Scholarship as Conversation. That said, in this case I find it’s a lot easier to come up with appropriate objectives using the Process frame, and other frames remain implicitly present (some of the elements of Research as Inquiry, for example, also live here).


The simple course description for the old version of my Introduction to Philosophy class looked a bit like this (I’ve boiled it down a bit):

This class is intended to be a basic introduction to some of the major issues, important authors, and relevant skills fundamental to the discipline of philosophy.

In the past, I treated this description as a sort of abbreviated statement of my objectives for the course. As written, it still more or less fits what I’m doing, but I think some closer attention to the knowledge practices and dispositions associated with the Process frame offers a way to enrich my very simple course description and cast it more explicitly in the form of a set of actionable objectives. The general themes here are analysis (derived from the Process frame’s list of dispositions) and application (as derived from the Process frame’s list of knowledge practices).

To the original brief description, then, I’ll add a short list of objectives, like so:


Students in this class will:

  • Learn about some of the central arguments, concepts, and terms in Western philosophy, as represented by material drawn from a selection of major figures in the history of the discipline
  • Exercise and improve their writing and critical reading skills by analyzing and responding to the arguments of others and by developing and defending arguments of their own

This shifts the description of the class from a sort of “here’s what I’d like to have happen” statement to a slightly narrower account of what students should come out of the course having learned.


In order to determine whether or not students have achieved these objectives (noting that the second one is admittedly vague), I need to assign readings and create assignments that match what they demand. Because this is a writing class, one or more papers (definitely MORE) turns out to be necessary, but that doesn’t mean that essay work is the only or the best way to get my students to do what I want them to do (or for me to tell whether or not they’re doing it).

Having thought about it a bit, I’ve decided that I need three different kinds of tasks for my students to perform in order to achieve and assess the achievement of my course objectives.

  1. Discussion work (for brainstorming, for practice, for building the conversation in the company of others, for hitting the analysis and comprehension elements of the course)
  2. Knowledge/information reinforcement work (information read once doesn’t stick nearly as well as information used and reused and remembered)
  3. Creation work (we get better at building things — arguments included — when we practice actually building them)

In my next post, I’ll use this general blueprint to frame in the course by describing the work students will actually be doing and talk a bit about how I think that work will achieve my identified objectives.


*Alliteration amuses me. Silly? Yes. Spectacularly so.

**Image above courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images Flickr Stream, originally found on p. 27 of Home Plan Suggestions by William A. Radford (1921)

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Philosophical Mess-making, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

New Construction: Preface

A few months back, I wrote a short series of blog posts about building a model for an intermediate-to-advanced topics course in philosophy using the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework and figuring out how I might scale it for one-shot library instruction. My main agenda in those posts was to suggest a way to work with the Framework as a tool for thinking about how to set up course objectives of a certain kind and let them structure how a course or instruction session is built.

For this next short series of posts, I’m going to document the process of creating a different sort of class — an Introduction to Philosophy course — from the ground up, using the Framework as a guide so that the course serves the ends of information literacy as a part of its service to philosophical thinking. My purpose in doing so is twofold:

  1. I want to provide a potentially useful example of the step-by-step process of developing a class in this way, in the hope that it might be useful to other instructors and the librarians who work with them as they try to make use of the Framework.
  2. I have to get this class ready for Fall anyway, and writing about the process seems to me like a good way to help me to think about it more clearly! Full disclosure: I may be writing about it now, but most of the initial prep and planning work — text selection, etc. — was done months ago. This is more a reflection on the process than an in-the-now documentary piece about it.

This is an entirely new class design for me, so I can’t vouch for its effectiveness up front; I suspect I’ll be back in December or January with a follow-up post or two about how well the whole business actually went. It’s entirely possible that this will turn out to be more cautionary tale than helpful guide, which is fine by me — we learn as much (or more) from our failures as we do from our successes.

Let’s start this show off with some background information.

Tool time!

Time to get my tools together…

The Course

The syllabus I’m going to build in these posts is for an Introduction to Philosophy class serving a general education audience — there is no philosophy major or minor at my institution anymore, and the course exists in isolation from other classes (it neither has prerequisites nor constitutes a prerequisite for something else). As is regrettably common in service courses of this kind, roughly half of the class is 1Y/2Y (the ideal audience for intro-level work), the other half 3Y/4Y. The older students are usually looking for a course that’s not terribly hard in order to finish their Humanities requirements, and the 1Ys are likely in the class because their advisors (bless them for remembering philosophy!) suggested it. Only one is a student I’ve taught before (a senior in a humanities major who took Logic a few years ago). Majors (or intended majors) run the gamut from accounting to art, a bit heavier on the business end. Because the course satisfies a Humanities writing requirement for general education, I will need to build some specific writing instruction into the plan.

The Instructor

While I’ve been teaching some version or other of Intro to Philosophy since at least the mid-1990s, this is (as I mentioned above) going to be an entirely new prep. When I served majors, my goal was to build a course around central texts in the history of philosophy (Plato, Descartes, that sort of thing). I did it this way because I wanted my students to have a grounding in those texts and because I wanted them to take on the challenge of learning how to read difficult work. In my experience, I often deal with students who are not good critical readers — they know how to read textbooks (which are designed to do all of the work for you when it comes to figuring out what the important bits are), but they are seldom required to make decisions about relevance or importance in a text themselves. I’m a great believer in the idea that one acquires that kind of skill by doing, so I wanted to give them opportunities to practice. I selected four or five relatively short works, we read them carefully and discussed them, I supplemented the reading with a little lecture as needed, and then students wrote a brief argument essay for each thinker. The goal of the short essays was also practice — I wanted them to work on solving problems and making arguments, usually by giving them a fairly narrow problem closely connected to the text they read and requiring them to make their own argument about it with reference to the source material. These were not research papers — they could be written (and ought to have been written) using nothing but the assigned text. I wanted to build the close-reading and text usage skills alongside the writing skills they needed to do good work. The final project, building on all of that practice, was entirely original; students used class time to think about what their own philosophical commitments were on some assigned range of issues and had to come up with a way to support those commitments in writing, with at least some reference to the material they had read and worked on for the term.

While I still think students need to work on critical reading and good writing, when I decided to redesign the course I also also decided (with some sadness) to abandon the close reading of historical texts. As I no longer feel the need to ground majors in the history of the discipline, I’ve chosen to focus more purely on skill development for non-majors. Accordingly, I’ve changed books (adieu, beloved Hackett editions…). The course you’ll see developed in the next few posts here uses two assigned texts, both by Nigel Warburton: Philosophy: The Basics (5th ed., 2013) and Philosophy: The Classics (4th ed., 2014). With these books, I’m shifting from an emphasis on history and textual analysis to an emphasis on argument and structure, with the idea that I’m going to be providing my students with a set of skills to take elsewhere (everywhere!) rather than developing a disciplinary foundation for the study of academic philosophy (this is more or less Warburton’s schtick, with which I am entirely and enthusiastically in agreement). In addition to the assigned reading, students in this class will also be seeking out other materials, although their writing assignments will still be meant primarily for argument practice rather than research practice.

The Plan

So: For the next three posts in the series, I’m going to document the process of building this Intro to Philosophy class (with its required emphasis on writing for general education) using the ACRL’s Information Literacy Framework. The series will look like this:

Part I: Blueprint

In this post, I’ll quickly review my approach to the Framework, develop my course objectives, and sketch a plan for implementing those objectives

Part II: Framing It In

In this post, I’ll take up the blueprint from the previous week and lay out the structure of the syllabus, as well as setting up some assignment descriptions and explaining what I want these assignments to accomplish

Epilogue: Is It Up To Code?

Finally, I’ll consider the difficulties likely to arise as the course moves forward. Think of this as a pre-assessment list of “what to look out for” — it should inform how the course is taught going forward this first time. This post will also give me some room to address likely questions about the building process.

OK — time to start building!


[Don’t worry — I’ll probably also post something silly in between posts in the series. All work and no play…]

Posted in Adventures in Teaching with the ACRL Information Literacy Framework, Philosophical Mess-making, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Art for Life

It is very easy to think of a house (or any dwelling space, really) as an expression of its builder/designer and/or its residents. The house as a sign (just like one’s car, or the sort of clothing one wears) comes to represent status, culture, class, and a host of other things. For the very wealthy, a house is often a venue in which to display one’s taste and accomplishment, an advertisement for superiority of class and the presence of abundant resources. A house like the Great House on the Crane Estate at Castle Hill, for example, exists as much for display as for living, surrounded by elegantly manicured grounds, doubling at times as a showcase for its owner’s own plumbing and fixture products (the home belonged to Richard Teller Crane of Chicago’s Crane Co.). The Stuart-styled 59-room mansion (designed by Chicago architect David Adler) was completed in 1928; it was meant to be a summer retreat, although the Depression slowed the festivities there down rather a lot. It is a beautiful house in the way that a large-ish mansion competently executed in a 17th-century English style ought to be — lofty, well-appointed and expensively furnished. Its design creates an above-stairs world and a below-stairs world, so that the ones served are spared the appearance of effort and the effort of service makes almost no appearance whatsoever. The industrialist could live here like an aristocrat (including the use of an aristocrat’s actual library, bought and imported in its entirety from an estate in Britain).

A house can be more than a sign, though — a house can also be made to govern the behavior of its residents. This is one of the most fascinating things about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses, one of which sits on a bluff above the Wapsinicon River near rural Quasqueton, Iowa.

Photo of the Lowell and Agnes Walter House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

View of the Lowell and Agnes Walter House at Cedar Rock, looking up the trail from the boathouse on the Wapsinicon River. Note the characteristic brickwork, the windows, and the almost invisibly flat roof of Wright’s Usonian design.

The Usonian Ideal

In the 1954 edition of The Natural House, Frank Lloyd Wright identified moderate-cost housing as “America’s major architectural problem,” and suggested that the main thing preventing us from solving it “is the fact that our people do not really know how to live. They imagine their idiosyncrasies to be their ‘tastes,’ their prejudices to be their predilections, and their ignorance to be virtue — where any beauty of living is concerned” (79). He railed against small houses that were merely cheap knockoffs of their grander cousins; “such houses are stupid makeshifts, putting on some style or other, really having no integrity” (80). He was looking for a uniquely local or indigenous style of house, a building that suited the life to be lived in it and reflected a particularly American (his preferred word: “Usonian”) sensibility. “Style is important,” he wrote, but “style is not. There is all the difference when we work with style and not for a style” (80).

With that in mind, Wright created a design approach in the 1930s for a “sensible” house that could be built on a budget, with modular components either factory-built or assembled from local elements on-site. Instead of creating a cheap imitation of something grand by seeking economies in the scale of the property or in the materials used to create it, Wright looked elsewhere for efficiencies in his Usonian vision:

It is only necessary to get rid of all unnecessary complications in construction, necessary to use work in the mill to good advantage, necessary to eliminate, so far as possible, field labor which is always expensive; it is necessary to consolidate and simplify the three appurtenance systems — heating, lighting, and sanitation. At least this must be our economy if we are to achieve the sense of spaciousness and vista we desire in order to liberate the people living in the house (81, emphasis mine).

Note that last bit — a house designed and built to liberate the people who live in it. This is what we see in the Lowell and Agnes Walter House, where an industrialist could live like…well, like anyone else, if Wright had his way.

Interior, Lowell and Agnes Walter House (Frank Lloyd Wright)

Looking in toward the main living space of the Lowell and Agnes Walter House from the foyer. Notice how mirror and window placement are designed to draw anyone who enters the small, dark foyer into the light of the living space (which the mirrors seem to make larger). The plant climbing on the left is the same one reaching around the upper windows, and it’s planted directly in the ground (the floor slabs go around it). The entire design is meant to give a visitor the impression of sitting in nature rather than observing it or shutting it out.


The Usonian Irony

When Lowell and Agnes Walter commissioned Wright to create a home for them on their property at Cedar Rock (near Quasqueton, IA) in 1942 (it was completed in the period from 1948-1950), they gave him a blank check that he spent with abandon and complete creative control over the design and construction of the house. He didn’t just see to the building of the main house and the boathouse (as well as other changes to the property)  — he created unique furniture scaled to the Walters (they were quite short, and all seating and bedding in the house fit them perfectly), he selected all of the decor, and he chose everything from the dishes to the linens. No piece of the Walter house was too small for his careful attention; he would show up at random, years after the house was completed, to move a glass piece back to its original position on a shelf. There are no pictures on the walls and very few unique personal decorative items; “Furniture, pictures, and bric-a-brac are unnecessary because the walls can be made to include them or be them” (83).

The “tadpole” Usonian floor plan of the house features “a central module—containing the living, dining, and kitchen corner—and then a long corridored wing containing, as in a railroad car, a line of bedrooms.”  The entire point of the design is to draw residents and visitors into the main living space; the bedrooms are cozy enough, but they are small and simple, and the kitchen and laundry spaces are tucked away from casual view and too small for congregation. The real action is always in that central module, surrounded in glass and green, growing things. There is no garage, no attic, and no basement — Wright loathed them all, and he deliberately minimized and hid other sorts of storage space in order to discourage the accumulation of clutter. There is no plaster and very little paint — wall surfaces are all brick and wood and glass. Heat comes from the floor (“hypocaust” heating); there are two fireplaces in the house, but neither ever drew properly, so they saw little use. While the Walter House does feature a maid’s quarters (basically a small bed-and-bath suite that anchors the far side of the house’s carport), that space was never really used for any resident servant; it was more of a guest space than a servant space, and was furnished just like the bedrooms in the rest of the house.

Corridor, Lowell and Agnes Walter House (Frank Lloyd Wright)

Looking back down the bedroom corridor toward the main living space. The brick wall on the left is the front exterior wall of the house — Wright put the BIG windows on the other side, overlooking the yard/garden spaces from the bedrooms. The small bedroom on the right is built along the lines of a Pullman car room, with simple board-and-batten wood walls. The cabinets along the outside wall of the corridor constitute most of the storage in the building, and lighting for the corridor is almost exclusively provided by the windows at the top of the wall.

If it was at least part of the architect’s intent to create spaces that encourage residents to live in a certain way — to “liberate” them from the effects of a borrowed taste, among other things — then the design of the Walter House is an excellent lesson in how to do it. While labor is just as hidden here as it is in the Great House on the Crane Estate, its hiddenness is not a matter of hiding the servers from the served — the careful closing off of the kitchen as workspace is meant to encourage its user to think of it as a site of craft rather than service. Things are tucked away here in tidy, utilitarian ways — there is no backstage mess, only a neatly modular set of spaces meant to be grounded in the central module, constantly drawing everyone into the light of nature. This is not a space for audiences appreciating a display; it is a space in which visitors and residents are supposed to be immersed.

Garden Room, Lowell and Agnes Walter House (Frank Lloyd Wright)

Another view of the main living space of the Walter House. The Wapsinicon River is visible in through the window. Notice the built-in, moveable modular seating, scaled to the Walters’ proportions. The upholstery has been restored (it was purchased from the original vendor).

While the Usonian ideal was an affordable house for working-class people in more rural (or at least suburban) environments, the wealthy Walters family paid a princely sum to Wright for a “liberating” house that came with some unforeseen costs and limitations (above and beyond the wildly excessive price of construction). While ostensibly designed to be inhabited year-round, the house was really only comfortably livable for three seasons; without working fireplaces and more serious insulation, it wasn’t an especially pleasant place to be in an Iowa winter on the river. Like many of Wright’s flat-roofed houses, the Walter property suffered from water damage and leakage — when the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources took it over, they installed a membrane to correct the roof problem and protect the structure from further harm. The most intrusive cost of all, however, was the unpredictable presence of Wright himself, who visited in order to tend his creation and forbid the introduction of decorative elements without his approval. The Walters had purchased beauty, and Wright meant to see that beauty maintained — what the house’s own design didn’t train its residents to do, the house’s designer would reinforce or correct himself. Buying the house apparently meant buying the right to live in an artwork, under careful supervision. For the Walters, who wanted their home “to be a symbol of how big dreams can be attained when they are fueled by hard work,” the Usonian ideal offered a strangely expensive liberation under artistic constraint.

Frank Lloyd Wright Signature Tile

Frank Lloyd Wright’s red signature tile from the Lowell and Agnes Walter House. The artist should, after all, sign his work so that people know it is his.


[For a full set of pictures from the Walter House, click here!]

Posted in aesthetics, Iowa, Philosophical Mess-making, Scenes From The Road, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Exeunt, Riding on a Lion

One of my favorite recent additions to the Library of Congress Flickr Stream is this charming image from around 1915 of Antipodean operatic soprano Frances Alda:

Alda (LOC)

The lion (according to some clever research in the comments on the photo at Flickr) may or may not be in Central Park in New York City. Wherever it is, Alda rides it like a woman who has clearly dealt with lions before and knows what they are about. She was, after all, married to Metropolitan Opera general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza for a while, and often sang at the Met with Enrico Caruso.

Alda was, like many of her fellow singers of the time, a very colorful character, both as a private person and as a figure on the public stage. As she said of herself in her 1937 autobiography, “I refuse to know bores. My world is active and amusing; sometimes exciting; never dull.”

To get a sense of her voice, have a listen to her singing with Caruso in 1909:

Caruso himself was one of the great popularizers of opera music and popular song on the phonograph, at a time when other important singers were apparently wary of the sound (and he made a LOT of money doing it, which was one of the things that eventually drew some of his more reluctant peers into the world of recording). Alda, of course, was not at all reluctant to hear her voice on the ol’ gramophone — she, like Caruso, recorded steadily for Victor from 1909-1928, and was a fairly reliable seller.

As we saddle up our lions for a fine Sunday morning ride, let’s have Alda sing us out with one of her recordings of “The Last Rose of Summer”:



Posted in aesthetics, Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, music, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Another Summer, Another Summer Job

Once upon a time, I had a summer job (extending a bit beyond summer) tending bar at a local establishment that remains near and dear to my heart. It was a fascinating gig, and I’m grateful that I was able to have the experience of doing it (even if, on the whole, I was probably not an especially good bartender).


I did not learn to do most of this (which is probably for the best), and there was no flare in my bar game (an excellent thing, for safety purposes). Mostly, I just tried desperately to remember how much to charge for a given bit of boozery and what the regulars wanted to drink when they came in. I served a lot of beer. I secretly loathed people who wanted random complicated cocktails that they didn’t even know how to describe. I became moderately skilled at pouring Guinness properly. I got to meet and talk to a lot of delightful people, got hit on by the occasional drunk, and otherwise had a lovely time. I cleaned a lot. It was fun!

This summer, I’ve been fortunate enough to take on a very different kind of task — I am a (Part-Time, Temporary) Archivist in the library at the institution that employs me to do program admin (with a side of adjunct teaching) during the regular school year. It’s a really great opportunity — my non-Philosophy education is in Library and Information Science, but not in archives or archival records management, so moving into archives work is an adventure in a world just next door (so to speak) to the one I’m mainly trained for. It’s a bit like the way I felt when I picked up the viola, after a lifetime on the violin.

It is SO cool.


Seriously, I could do this FOREVER. Park me in a windowless, climate-controlled room with things that need to be understood in order to be organized and described properly, and I am THERE for it.

Records in the University Archives

[Obviously I’m not working at UIUC, but I love this picture!]

The job in this case involves processing, describing, and organizing the contents of a set of filing cabinets belonging to (and donated by) a previous President of the institution whose tenure in the position was formative for what the place has become. There are letters, reports, newspaper clippings, photos, published and unpublished papers — a whole range of objects and documents that, taken all together, tell a story (indeed, several stories) about both the person who owned them and the institution he served.

I’m still in an early part of the process — the material in the cabinets has been through an initial round of processing (performed by others last year), so most of what I’m doing right now is round two of the processing-and-describing business. I’ve spent the last few weeks just figuring out exactly what I have to work with and thinking about what ought to be done with it. It’s been the most delicious treasure hunt of a job, as I read and identify and connect and name…so many little details and little stories! It’s a bit like picking up a rich, complicated historical novel (or just a really well-written history) — I can’t wait to go back to work on Monday and dig back in to the chapter I was “reading” when I left on Friday.

It’s not just the content that I adore, though. It’s all of the things I have to think about in order to interact with that content. I am (like many people who do library work, I suspect) a great lover of organizing things.* As I study the various papers and objects in the cabinets, I’m busily identifying and describing and tagging them (in my own notes, obviously — not marking the materials themselves), trying to determine some rational scheme for selecting the series in which they will ultimately be placed. Who will the users of this archival collection be? What set of series will best facilitate ease of use for them? There are ethical concerns about privacy and the law (Is this something we can share appropriately, or not? What about copyright?). There are value judgments to be made (Is this something we ought to keep or not? Why?). So many things to think about!

This summer is shaping up to be SO MUCH FUN, and I am infinitely grateful to my colleagues in the library who very kindly offered me the gig and are teaching me how it ought to be done.



*That sound you hear is both of my parents laughing VERY loudly, along with anyone who has ever visited either my house or my office. My claim to love organizing things may make more sense if you imagine that I, like the philosopher Berkeley, may be playing a bit fast and loose on occasion with the use of the word “things” relative to the word “ideas”.

Or, you know, it might not. Carry on laughing, then.


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