Palaima: Take time to heed stories of war

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 10:41 a.m. Tuesday, March 18, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

We owe it to the shrinking percentages of American men and women who now fight our wars to practice what Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq, preaches in a recent commentary. Klay encourages nonveteran civilians to use our sympathetic imaginations and our own experiences of trauma to take in what those who have been through war have to say about it, despite the widely acknowledged “divide” between soldiers and civilians.

In World War I, 23,000 Australian soldiers were killed in six weeks during the Somme Offensive. One Aussie soldier cries out to us still, “For Christ’s sake, write a book on the life of an infantryman and by doing so you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.”

You might reply cynically that plenty of books have been written about the war to end all wars, yet wars continue. But ask yourself what stories get told? And how many of us listen in the right way?

We have a great chance right now to experience a war and the telling of a war start to finish. Set aside about three hours. Go to the exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. It runs free and open to the public until August 3, 2014 at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Meditate upon the items that curators Jean Cannon and Elizabeth Garver have put on display.

Notice what is there and what is missing in the newspaper clippings, manuscripts, photographs, recruiting and movie posters, official leaflets, letters, and books. Listen to the audio readings by members of Actors from the London Stage. The Great War is laid out, from the prophetic words of Otto von Bismarck circa 1897 that “the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans” to facts about operations on facial disfigurement performed in Kent, England on 5,000 patients between 1917 and 1925. One photo shows us what mechanized warfare did to human faces.

The exhibition helps us see how the war was “marketed” in official propaganda. The British relied on an all-volunteer army until May 1916. A recruiting poster from 1915 proclaims “Step Into Your Place.” Its drawing shows a long line of men snaking off into the distance. At its front, healthy soldiers march in crisp uniforms and helmets, rifles on their shoulders. At the rear, stepping into line and blending with soldiers are civilians with different attire and accessories: top hat and tails, barrister’s wig and robe, briefcase, pickax, farming fork, a miner’s tool kit, even a golf club. Nowhere are we told that 1 out of 3 of those who joined the line were killed or wounded, about 3 million total.

If you have read the poems of British officer Wilfred Owen or his letters, you will never forget that these once healthy men a short time later cursed through a sucking octopus of mud, moved like old beggars under sacks, drowned in water-filled shell holes, and coughed to death like hags from poison gas. A German poster from 1917 encouraging book donations shows jolly, clean-shaven, clean-dressed soldiers lazily reading in a tidy trench with books stacked neatly on a crate as if by a librarian. The newspaper photos of the dry trenches look like they were taken at a Boy Scout camp. That’s what the people back home saw of the war.

Only one photo in the exhibition shows what might be a dead soldier. But the Allied and Central Powers, by the war’s end, produced more than 13 1/2 million corpses. The war also produced 21 million wounded. Yet a photo of the wounded from the “New York Journal American” shows fifteen soldiers relaxed and smoking on an open hillside. Three have neat head bandages. Three have arms in slings. None is an amputee.

A counter-balance to this public face of war is offered by Hugh Walpole’s letters of June 1915, written while he served in the Russian Red Cross in the Balkans: “Every kind of horror. Wounded on both sides of the road in the wood crying and screaming. … Day before yesterday eight hundred wounded in twelve hours. I cut off fingers with a pair of scissors easy as nothing!’

Ernest Hemingway, if he were alive today, might advise you to read the letter of Henri de Lallemand at the Ransom Center. Then go home and read Hemingway’s poem “Champs d’Honneur.”

And think.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Guthrie’s legacy: How to face the hard path


Guthrie’s legacy: How to face the hard path

Posted: 11:31 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014  PRINT VERSION February 20, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

Show me how, how to fight my battle in life /Show me how to fight / And I’ll run away with you.

Teach me how, how to fight my hard times in life /Teach me how to fight and / I’ll run away with you.

And I will never dread the day I will die / ’Cause my sunset is somebody’s morning sky.

—Woody Guthrie, “My Battle”

These profound words were written by American folk music genius Woody Guthrie. We never heard them until Jonatha Brooke recently set them to music. I heard Brooke’s version sung with extraordinary meaning by Eliza Gilkyson in the “Walking Woody’s Road” show she performed with her fellow Austinites Jimmy LaFave, Slaid Cleaves, Sam Baker, Bobby Kallus, Glenn Schuetz, Phil Hurley and Chip Dolan.

Guthrie spent his too short lifetime looking at and feeling with ordinary people. He did his utmost to make all Americans see the neediest among us. One could say that Woody was a one-man national version of the Austin American-Statesman’s Season for Caring program.

He began his adult life during the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl. He lived and fought alongside farm families forced off their land, seeking desperately anywhere for basic living wages.

Woody fought against fascism in World War II. He wrote his poignant song “Deportees” in 1948 when he read in a newspaper that a planeload of migrant workers died in a plane crash and were treated as a nameless and worthless mass who, to quote from his “Pastures of Plenty,” silently “come with the dust and go with the wind.” To Woody, every human being had dignity.

The ancient Greeks believed that we learn who we are and how to treat others through our own suffering. Modern American culture promotes the illusion that a life of perpetual enjoyment is our birthright. But we all learn eventually that the Greeks were right. We all confront what another American musical giant sang out, “I’ll never get out of this world alive.”

Woody wrote “My Battle” when he faced something worse than Hank Williams’ realization of our mortality. In 1952, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s chorea, a degenerative disorder that would rob him of his mind and leave him alive, but somehow dead. He was permanently involuntarily institutionalized in 1956.

Eliza’s evocation of what she calls Woody’s “dark night of the soul” in singing “My Battle” was so moving that I asked her where her inspiration came from. I asked other soulful people what they thought of the song.

Eliza said she could feel starkly Woody confronting “one of those archetypical pivotal moments in the life of someone who serves and suffers on the world stage.” She could empathize with Woody “looking left and right for a way out and ultimately accepting his fate,” much like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And she knew the power of seeking someone with whom to share life’s inevitable tragic moments with strength and dignity. She found her life partner, University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen, a committed activist for social justice, at an antiwar rally.

Recently retired Statesman feature writer Brad Buchholz, a longtime friend, feels Woody’s words partly through his own battle with cancer. He says, “Eliza inhabits the song. She makes Woody’s words and experience real to us. She is sensitive and understands.” He hears Eliza saying, “I’ve been there. I know what that means. I know that trial. I know that longing.”

Brad’s partner, Margaret Slovak, a beautiful and humanly caring jazz guitarist, was robbed of her full creative powers by a sudden motor vehicle accident. She performs for patients battling with cancer and other life-changing injuries and losses. When she heard Eliza sing Woody’s and Jonatha’s song, she thought, “Each one of us faces life-changing physical and emotional challenges through accidents, diseases, loss of loved ones. We come out the other side stronger with an increased awareness of what really matters in life. Most importantly, we learn how to give and receive love in the purest sense.”

Lucinda Alwa, a Methodist minister in an economically challenged community in Wisconsin, knows the despair of losing a loved one suddenly. She writes, “Woody’s song gives a striking sense of peace. Whatever Woody meant by the line, ‘I’ll run away with you,’ I find myself running away with the song. It melts the dread, soothes the soul, lights the sky.”

Thank you, Woody, Jonatha and Eliza, for reminding us that we are all hard travelers through life together.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Palaima: Pope Francis & Karl Marlantes Tell Us We Need to Feel & See Need


Palaima: Comforts of society make it difficult properly to see need

Austin American-Statesman  Posted: 11:53 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014

By Thomas Palaima – Regular Contributor

Pope Francis, Time magazine’s person of the year for 2013, enjoined us in his Christmas message to “place ourselves at the service of the poor.” His message took me back 50 years to my Jesuit high school days when the Catholic Church and our country were trying to put into action the radical religious and political message of Jesus Christ found in Matthew 25:35-46.

Roman Catholics then were instructed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and Pope John XXIII to “recognize the essential dignity of every human being.” Governments worldwide were charged with “protecting the rights and equality of all citizens as part of their essential role in promoting the public good.” In response to the courageous actions of Americans in the civil rights movement and the realities brought home by race-related urban riots in Los Angeles (1965), Cleveland (1966), Detroit and Newark (1967), Washington (1968) and elsewhere, our own government developed the Great Society programs.

The Gospel passage that Pope Francis uses begins, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” The Gospel writer and the pontiff both make clear how easy it is for us not to see those in need.

In fact, we have to go beyond seeing need. We have to internalize the feeling of need and act upon it. We all belong to groups, organizations and institutions within society, including our own families. Most of these only have the moral conscience we infuse into them.

We need to reach the stage of “consciousness and spiritual maturity” about how we contribute to and tolerate the human suffering of others that United States Marine Corps veteran Karl Marlantes writes about in his recent book, What It is Like to Go to War. Marlantes write profoundly about the debilitating effects that war experiences will continue to have on young men and women unless we all change our ways of thinking.

He makes two key points that we can apply to our civilian lives. The first is that “our young warriors are raised in possibly the only culture on the planet that thinks death is an option.” Indeed, we shy away from looking not only at death, but at the realities of poverty, income disparity and lack of access to essential services like health care.

Marlantes’ second point is that in American culture, we no longer have initiatory rites of a “spiritual nature” that make us aware of hunger, of how easy it is to die, of how small and vulnerable we are. He points out that “we mostly undergo a series of partial initiations and we undergo them unconsciously and without guidance.”

Pope Francis calls for us to place ourselves at the service of fellow human beings who are poor, hungry, homeless and marginalized. I think he means more than writing out a check to Meals on Wheels or working a few weekends a year for Habitat for the Homeless or doing one Eagle Scout project. These are all good and important acts. But the pope means something very akin to what Marlantes understands from his service in the U.S. Marine Corps and his own resulting life problems. We need to initiate or re-initiate ourselves to feel the needs of others in ways that re-focus our own appetites, desires and actions on others.

When I was young, we Catholics fasted during the Lenten season before Easter. We ate no meat on Fridays. We fasted until after we received the Eucharist on Sundays. My father recalled in his teenage years during the Great Depression calling out and claiming “core” when a buddy was lucky enough to have an apple to eat. We reminded ourselves regularly of hunger.

In the last year of the Great Depression, Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” captured the spirit of the times when she declared, “I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.” Pope Francis asks us to do more than look to ourselves. He asks us to be so committed to tending to the needy around us that eventually no one will go needy. He asks us to remember that Jesus was a social activist.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Austin American-Statesman 120713 A slow erosion of core government services


Palaima: A slow erosion of core government services

Austin American-Statesman

Posted: 7:00 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6, 2013  Print edition December 7, 2013

By Tom Palaima

“Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / Till it’s gone.”

It took a trip to Hawaii in 1970 for Joni Mitchell to realize that we let important things slip away without noticing until it is too late. She wrote these lines after looking out from her hotel room window at “beautiful green mountains in the distance.” She then looked down on “a parking lot as far as the eye could see, this blight on paradise.”

Sometimes a long view helps, like Mitchell’s out across natural distance and then down upon the impervious pavement made by and for human machines. In other cases, a view through time helps.

Since the 1980s, I have been watching the dismantling of public services motivated mainly by the idea that government is inefficient or worse. In most cases that I am aware of, the process has been gradual.

Budgets are cut a little at a time or frozen below yearly cost increases. Regulations are changed; legal safeguards removed; institutional structures modified. All this is done in the name of free enterprise. The effects are felt down the line, and they are generally felt by those who had little say in the decisions being made or little grasp of the consequences of those decisions.

You can think of your own examples. In my mind are the steady cutbacks in state funding of public higher education, insufficient appropriations for the long-term maintenance of highway infrastructure, removal of controls over savings and loan institutions, budget cuts for National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting System and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the undoing of the safeguards of the Glass-Steagall Act (Banking Act of 1933) through the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (the Financial Services Modernization Act) of 1999.

Front and center in my mind right now is the United States Postal Service, an independent agency of the federal government that was viewed as so important by our founding fathers that the United States Constitution mandates that Congress “establish Post Offices and post Roads.”

Note that the USPS is a vital national “service,” just like our armed services. It is part of a worldwide postal system that is arguably one of the greatest feats of international cooperation the world has ever seen.

In 2006, Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. It mandates that the USPS uniquely set aside from its revenues $5.5 billion per year for 10 years in order to cover retiree health care 75 years into the future.

So when you read the headlines this last month: “Postal Service crisis persists: The agency has lost $41 billion since 2007” (Nov. 11) and “U.S. Postal Service cites $5 billion loss” (Nov. 16), do look at the fine print, do the math and think of the bottom line.

Consider also that in the United Kingdom standard-service first-class letters up to 3.5 ounces cost 96 cents. In Sweden, first class mail up to 0.7 ounces costs 90 cents and then up to 3.5 ounces $1.80. U.S. postal rates are kept well below such rates: up to one ounce 46 cents; two ounces 66 cents; three ounces 86 cents; 3.5 ounces $1.06.

Think also of the human beings throughout our country who depend on postal service, like the widow of my late cousin Paul. In 2000, at age 57, Paul, a mechanical engineering grad of Cleveland State University and a Vietnam vet, was laid off from his long-time job as a computer numerical control programmer when the once vibrant industry-based economy of Cleveland was just about finished rusting away. He died in September 2005, feeling thrown away.

Paul’s widow, Elizabeth Palaima, mother of their three now grown children, is a high school graduate who admits that she barely made it through her math courses. She writes me simple letters about the daily joys and problems faced by her children and grandchildren in economically blighted Cleveland. She encloses clippings from the newspapers, occasional snapshots and drawings her grandchildren have made. Since May 15, 2011, I have received and kept 198 letters, each mailed from the front porch of her small house and safely delivered to my Austin mailbox for 46 cents each. It is what she can afford and how she stays humanly in touch.

Elizabeth, like many Americans, cannot pay the entrance fee and high toll charges on our electronic information highway. She depends on a service from our government that Abraham Lincoln declared was “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin

MOOCs, Braindead Megaphones, the Golden Goose & the Artzt of Public Discussion



Talk loud and say something  (on-line title) Dopey Discourse Is All Too Prevalent (print title)

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:49 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

Recently I heard Karen Artzt, Ashbel Smith Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at the University of Texas at Austin, give a talk about some of her life’s work. She explained the process of searching for coding sequences in mammalian genomes and how the results help prevent physical defects from developing in young children.

Artzt was asked what new discoveries lie ahead. She took time to think and then said, “Progress in this field of research is saltatory.” She traced in the air with her index finger a research timeline marked by sudden steps upward.

In that moment, Artzt’s thoughtful command of language matched her mastery of science. Even those of us who abide by George Orwell’s rule to use plain English words whenever possible knew that the Latin-derived word saltatory — proceeding by leaps rather than gradually — was perfect.

Later, I wondered why Artzt’s reply struck us as so special. I think I now know why, and it is no trivial matter.

We are used to listening to what George Saunders calls “braindead megaphones,” presenters of information who, as the late godfather of soul and plain-speaker of many social and political truths, James Brown put it, practice the art of “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing.”

Artzt gave a direct answer. She did not pretend to know what she could not know. She did not preen as an expert in the spotlight. She told us the truth.

The truth is what James Brown learned growing up in the soul-destroying Jim Crow poverty of Barnwell, S.C. and Augusta, Ga. In his autobiography, Brown said that “Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothing” was “aimed at the politicians who were running their mouths but had no knowledge of what life was like for a lot of people.”

Instead of straight talk and meaningful discussion, we get in the media and from our political, cultural and institutional leaders what Saunders calls “dopey communication.” Leaders have agenda to push and push fast. They short-circuit discussion and truly democratic deliberation. They speak to wide audiences who have little time to think over what is said and no opportunity to pose questions or counter arguments. Their language is vague, unclear, filled with jargon phrases and assertions unsupported by facts.

For example, UT Austin and the UT System have been mobilizing quickly to be major players in producing massive open online courses (MOOCs) that can be taken electronically by tens of thousands of students worldwide. UT President Bill Powers made a public statement in February, “Our faculty is enthusiastic about this frontier.”

This sounds good. But it is an assertion without proof. It requires that Powers knew that a solid majority of faculty members last February were very keen on the massive online course offerings. But he could not know that without a well-constructed anonymous survey taken after meaningful discussions with the general faculty in the many schools and programs across campus about the many pros and equally many cons of using MOOCs in higher education. It is savvier to claim faculty enthusiasm about a frontier. People used to braindead megaphones will believe it.

One reason to push ahead is that enthusiasts think there is lots of money to be made by developing and offering the MOOCs. Raising revenues is good, but only if we do not cause serious collateral harm to education.

No matter. The Institute for Transformational Learning was authorized by the UT System in August 2011 and established in 2012 “to leapfrog our current efforts” at blended and online learning. In other words, we are leaping right over wise broad-based deliberation.

The institute’s executive director Steven Mintz told the faculty council in March that the use of MOOCs “is the golden goose, and I want to support that goose.” But no one knows whether online courses will be the money-generator that Mintz imagines or the very fairy tale to which Mintz refers.

“The Golden Goose” is tale 64 in the Brothers Grimm collection. In it, all who greedily and without forethought try to pluck golden feathers from the golden goose become stuck to it and to each other. In the end they are thoroughly discomfited.

On MOOCs and other matters our university leaders should think carefully and make haste slowly. They should invite thought from the united faculty of experienced scholar-educators whose work is largely responsible for our ranking 25th among world universities in the latest “Times Higher Education” survey. They surely should know how to tell a golden goose from a goose that will lay a golden egg or no egg at all.

Palaima is a classics professor at the Univeristy of Texas at Austin.

Longhorn Football: Hubris, Counterfactual History and Mythological Lessons


Longhorn football could learn a thing or two from Greek myth

The Daily Texan Published on-line September 18, 2013 Print edition September 19, 2013

By Tom Palaima

In my many years of teaching ancient mythology, I have absorbed, as I hope my students have, the important lessons about life that the original myth-makers embedded in their stories.

One lesson is to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. A variant is to make sure you follow through on your side of whatever bargain you strike. A third is not to get too big for your britches — the Greeks called this hubris.

The immortal and ageless goddess Dawn falls in love with a handsome prince of Troy named Tithonus. She steals him away and asks Zeus to make him immortal. Zeus asks her, “Do you want anything else?” She says no.

Zeus makes Tithonus deathless, but not ageless. He grows older and older, shrivels up and finally turns into a chirping cicada—not what Dawn had in mind.

A similar fate befalls the Cumaean Sibyl. According to Ovid, Apollo loves the Sibyl so much that he offers to grant her one wish if she will make love with him. She asks to live as many years as the grains of sand she holds. When she later refuses to give up her virginity, Apollo gives her long life, but lets her, too, grow old.

Counterfactual history, like Winston Churchill’s famous 1931 essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” focuses on key moments and their consequences by wondering “What if?” What if Dawn had thought through her request? What if the Sibyl had followed through on her promise?

Given the major distraction that the poor performance of the Longhorns football team has become lately at our university, it is worth posing a big counterfactual historical question. What if Vince Young had not scored the winning touchdown with nineteen seconds left in the 2006 Rose Bowl, considered by ESPN the fifth greatest play in the history of NCAA football?

The touchdown won the national title for the UT Longhorns, just weeks after William C. Powers, then dean of the UT Law School and long a sports enthusiast, was officially named the 28th president of UT Austin.

Winning the national championship was for head coach Mack Brown the NCAA sports equivalent of being head of a team of researchers awarded the Nobel Prize. As national champions, the football program brought in a bonanza in revenues from marketing souvenirs and our UT trademark.

The chief financial officer of the self-operating UT athletics program Ed Gobles has proclaimed, “We eat what we kill.” Translation: whatever monies athletics raises, it spends. Athletics director DeLoss Dodds has crowed, “We are the Joneses.”

The die was cast. From the Vince Young Rose Bowl onward, there has been no restraining athletics. Hubris has prevailed.

Stadium expansions, large salary increases coaches — not only in football, and a $1 million annuity for the athletics director were approved by the cronies within the UT sports silo, the regents who attend football games in the president’s skybox or their own, and the wealthy donors who, according to a local sportswriter, really decide whether head coaches are hired and fired.

The sense was that we would win another national title.

And we almost did. The Longhorns lost to Alabama 37-21 in the national title game following the 2009 season. Trouble was, right before that loss, Mack Brown was given, over the strong protest of a core of faculty leaders, a $2-million raise. That set in motion the decamping of his heir apparent Will Muschamp.

Without Muschamp’s defensive coaching genius, the Longhorns fortunes have faded. Talk now is of winning Big XII titles. But this hope is almost counterfactual, given that teams coached by Mack Brown have only been Big XII champions twice in his fifteen years at UT (2005 and 2009).

One more counterfactual thought. If UT had lost the 2006 Rose Bowl, perhaps Vince Young would have played another year of college football, reined in his hubris about his own abilities, and faced the transition to the fame and fortune of professional football with more maturity.

One positive fact: Young has now earned his degree in Youth and Community Studies and has a loving wife and child. He can do some real good in the world before old age overtakes him, as it overtook Tithonus, and overtakes us all, even our greatest athletes.

Palaima is the Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics. 

Austin American-Statesman 09/13/2013 Palaima: If Mack Brown Were On the Tenure Track


Palaima: If Mack Brown were on the tenure track

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:55 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013  Print Edition September 13, 2013

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

The big questions in Austin right now are what grade do we give Mack Brown for his performance as head coach of the University of Texas football team, and who gives him his grade?

Sportswriters are giving out C’s, D’ and F’s for play on the field. Here let me propose that it would be much better if decisions about coaches, expenditures, admissions and academic standards were made with a wider range of voices, perspectives and values.

Athletics decision-making has long operated in a silo. Regents, a sports-enthusiast president, other insiders and a few carefully chosen and easily outvoted outsiders decide on hiring and firing and set spending priorities in a self-operating sports enterprise.

What if decision-making in athletics at UT was modeled on the university’s system for promotion and tenure ? The promotion and tenure system obtains broad perspectives from inside and outside the university. It involves the tenured faculty and university administration at many levels of authority. It virtually eliminates decisions based on cronyism, except at the highest levels, where such decisions are at least transparent. It allows at every stage for fact-finding and debate.

Before you say it just can’t work, hear me out. And imagine your own analogies to UT big-time sports.

Assistant professors apply for tenure and promotion generally in their sixth active year at the university. During their first five years, committees and chairpersons or directors within their units have assessed their annual reports and given them specific advice on how to improve in the year ahead.

In the promotion and tenure year, full dossiers relating to research, teaching and service are compiled and closely reviewed. Five or more evaluations of research are sought from distinguished scholars worldwide, chosen to be knowledgeable about a candidate’s areas of specialization but unbiased. Long gone are the days, for the most part, of the good-old-boy system, when going to the finest schools and knowing the right people assured tenure.

Chairpersons or directors and committees of tenured professors judge each case separately within units. Everyone knows the stakes are high for the candidates and for the future of their units. Budgets are tight. Investing in the right person is crucial.

The two departmental decisions are scrutinized by a college-wide committee of professors and by the dean within each college. Their two college-level decisions then go to the provost and president. Not much gets missed or overlooked, but appeal safeguards are in place in case the process is flawed.

We complain about decision-making by large committees. Yet UT has made real progress every 25 years because of broad-based committees like the Commission of 125. In the promotion and tenure process, stacking committees upon committees and including the independent opinions of chairpersons, program directors and deans really does work.

It was recently reported to professors that the prevailing philosophy in the provost’s and president’s offices is that UT is not in the business of awarding tenure and promotion to B+ professors. We were also told that research productivity is the bottom line. Mentoring, advising, award-winning teaching, university, professional and community service won’t get assistant professors tenure if they have not gotten an A in research now and for the predictable future.

These are hard standards. I have seen them used. The assistant professors who received the Texas Exes Jean Holloway Teaching Award the year before and after I received it in 2004 were denied tenure. One was a brilliant linguist in Germanic Studies, the other a government professor.

Imagine a similar process and standards applied to Mack Brown. We would discount academic matters like six-year graduation rates of players and the heavy use of tutors. We would discount as outreach service his fundraising and recruiting skills and Longhorn Network appearances. The bottom line would be productivity on game days.

What grade would a broad-based system of evaluators outside the sports silo give a coach who recruits A+ athletes and coaches them in A++ facilities to play against mostly B and lower-grade teams? He chooses his own assistants who are paid A+ salaries.

Right now the problem is defense. But in 2008, 2009, 2010 under Will Muschamp, then-anointed successor to Brown, the Longhorns had the top defense in the Big 12.

The silo did not offer tenure to A+ Muschamp. Instead, they gave a $2 million raise to Brown, who has only coached two teams in his entire career to conference titles.

Would a promotion and tenure-style committee make and stand by the same decision?

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Commentary August 9, 2013 on Information Age, Writing as Therapy, Douglass Parker, Tutto Theatre, James Pennebaker and “Zeus in Therapy”


Douglass Parker’s Zeus in Therapy is being performed August 16-25 at the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center for Performing Arts 701 W. Riverside Drive in Austin, TX.


Others Say: Information Age

Palaima: Zeus Poem’s Revealed a Great Soul’s Inner Life

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013 Austin American-Statesman print edition Friday August 9

 By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

It seems like a long-forgotten age, but it was only yesterday, relatively speaking, when most of us lived our lives as closed books. Now we spontaneously twitter, offer ready opinions on blogs, reveal facts about our lives and our loved ones on Facebook. We need to be LinkedIn. We use online dating services to weed through prospective significant others. We risk our lives and the lives of others texting while driving. We even get our souls straight with God via online church worship and counseling services.

It is hard to remember when a cartoon or newspaper clipping taped to an office door was a rare portal into the heart and mind of its occupant. Affixing personal handwritten or typewritten thoughts to a door was a radical act of revelation.

What is the cut-off age for feeling uneasy about the openness that our electronic information technology has introduced? The source code for World Wide Web was released into the public domain in 1991. By 2001, our National Security Agency began warrantless collection of our already voluminous email and Internet usage records, a practice the NSA continues in modified ways. Yet most of us are not concerned.

When was the sea change in how we feel about protecting what we think and say? How old do we have to be to worry about how we now communicate? Even setting aside whether privacy of communication protects who we are and whether monitoring inhibits how we relate to others, the new openness seems to diminish the personal pleasure of discovering what is unique in other people. We now tell all to everyone. We used to tell little to a precious few. But that little was a precious little.

These concerns come together when we use writing as therapy, as a way of probing and uncovering our deepest feelings and innermost thoughts, as a means of getting things off our chests once we identify, through introspection, what is on our chests. The power of psychiatric therapy stems from confiding in a trustworthy, sympathetic, informed and expert other or small group of others. We once singled out and confided in friends, loved ones, fellow workers using the same criteria.

My colleague at the University of Texas at Austin James Pennebaker pioneered 30 years ago a therapy now known as expressive writing. It encourages individuals to recall, explore, bring together, and write about their deepest positive and negative emotions and later to process what they have written. Pennebaker affirms that an important factor is that “participants believe that their writing is taken seriously, is held in confidence, and will have no adverse social effects on them.”

In the old paradigm, the colleagues who placed thoughts on their doors were revealing their inner selves in a guarded way. Their doors protected them from thoughtless spontaneous responses. But the thoughts on their doors made us aware of who they were and what issues of the day interested, worried or delighted them.

I have been brought to these thoughts of mine by memories of a dearly departed colleague, Douglass S. Parker, who taught at UT-Austin for nearly 40 years. Douglass died at age 83, early in 2011. He was a brilliant and influential translator of Greek and Roman comedy and the one professor on our distinguished faculty whom I long advised students to take a course from before they graduated.

Douglass himself said he was a “jazz improvisationalist trapped in a classicist’s body,” “an itinerant trombonist who took a wrong turn in 1946,” when he began serious study of Greek and Latin literature. He taught students about imaginary worlds conceived by great minds from Homer and Dante to Tolkien. His own imaginative powers were prodigious. Austin’s stellar jazz trombonist Jon Blondell, himself now ill, recalled Douglass to me as “that UT prof who really had chops.” Douglass also had a humane and sympathetic soul.

From 1979 to 1993, Douglass posted poems on his door that record what the supreme Greek god Zeus said about his life in imagined therapy sessions. At the time, I was too young and career-focused to grasp that Douglass was revealing his soul to us. Such profound insight into the human condition often comes from going through troubles in life.

Douglass’s 52 poems of inventive genius have been lovingly collected and edited. They will be performed by Tutto Theatre Company at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, August 16-25. Sit at Douglass’s door. His words will open doors in your own hearts.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Margalit Fox’s Book and NY Times article on Alice E. Kober and the Deciperment of Linear B: Uses of the PASP archives


Margalit Fox’s new book The Riddle of the Labyrinth (Ecco Press) will be released on May 14.

The Times Sunday Review for May 12, 2013 has a biographical essay about Kober by Fox:

Margalit used the PASP archives and the School of Information resources at UT Austin in order to tell the story of the decipherment of Linear B. She places the the work of Alice Elizabeth Kober in the context of the research done on the Aegean linear scripts from 1900 through the decipherment of Linear B in 1952.  As Margalit quotes:

“Kober was ‘the person on whom an astute bettor with full insider information would have placed a wager’ to decipher the script.” —Thomas Palaima

Margalit also gives us a way of grasping Kober’s sense that work on the scripts was what we might call ‘a sacred duty’. For her working with other serious scholars like Johannes Sundwall and Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., and John Franklin Daniel was a life calling (alongside her full-time obligations as a professor with major teaching obligations). But it was also  deeply satisfying, worth all the painstaking effort, and fun.

In short, Margalit gives us  Kober as a full human being.

I have read every page of the manuscript in draft and proof stages. The Riddle of the Labyrinth is a fine book, well-documented, fascinating and humanly engaging.  It makes clear how Kober’s work was related to the work of Sir Arthur Evans, Michael Ventris, Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., Johannes Sundwall, Sir John Myres and others.

I just met today with Sue Trombley, director of consulting at Iron Mountain, a digital records management company. In 2003-2005, Sue preserved and organized the Kober archives, writing the first finding aid for the materials. Sue did the Kober-like work of going through each and every one of the cigarette-carton and other files (over 180,000 items) making sure each one was not in a destructive environment (removing all sorts of intrusive matter) and housing all assemblages of items in archivally sound environments.

Here is the commentary piece Sue and I wrote in 2003 about Alice Kober and her archives. It gives some sense of the human side of Alice that going through her records gave to Sue (and vicariously to me):

Margalit thanks Zachary Fischer, who put the Kober and Ventris letters up on-line in summer of 2012. He and Sue are happy to see Alice’s story told primarily from the materials they worked hard to preserve and make available.

Zachary reports that as of May 2013, UTDR (University of Texas Digital Resources) usage statistics are that the collections have good use by visitors. In the last nine months or so, SMID has had ca. 1155 views and the main Kober page has had ca. 1245 views!

Christy Costlow Moilanen has done the complete finding aid to the PASP Kober, Ventris and Bennett materials (mainly in 2007-2008).

Many PASP assistants have helped in keeping the Kober materials well-organized and fully accessible to visiting scholars.  Margalit Fox, in her acknowledgements (pp. 347-349), explicitly thanks Dygo Tosa. Dygo has worked with these materials for three years now. Dygo has finished his M.A. degree and is now finishing his certification in the University of Texas at Austin’s UTeach Program. Dygo is a mainstay of PASP, a bright young mind and an inspiring teacher. He has written and given papers on Minoan language and linear scripts.

Margalit also thanks, as do I, Alison Fell, whose engrossing novel, The Element -inth in Greek  (Sandstone Press 2012) tells in a fully human way some of the Kober story.

Alison investigated the life of Kober and provided PASP with documents pertaining to Kober’s life, for example, her birth and death certificates, photographs, and the ship’s manifest marking the arrival of Alice’s mother and father in the new world. Alice’s mother was already in her first trimester of pregnancy with Alice. Alison also provided us with census reports showing where the Kobers lived after they arrived in the new world.

The Kober archives were in the possession of the late Emmett L. Bennett, Jr., since soon after Alice’s death (May 16, 1950) until the late 1980′s when he entrusted them to my personal care.  I have made them available to PASP and have supplemented them with the kinds of materials I have mentioned above. Here are links to materials.

Thanks to everyone involved. In a few days Alice will step into the spotlight at last, something she was ever reluctant to do when she was alive and when work took priority over any concern for any kind of fame connected with her work.

The late Robert Graves said, “I write poems for poets…. For people in general I write prose, and I am content that they should be unaware that I do anything else.  To write poems for other than poets is wasteful.”

Mutadis mutandis, this describes Alice E. Kober’s mindset, spirit and work. She wrote beautiful, exacting, sound and serious scholarship for serious scholars.

Tom Palaima May 10, 2013


Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007)

Welcome to the new PASP blog!


This is the updated main website of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory, previously located at

All the material on the previous website is intact and can still be accessed. The majority of content has been converted to this new site. This updated site features better search capability and stable links to articles.

Feel free to leave comments on this post about the new format!

Ventris Letters Now Available Online

Back in 2007, the University of Texas Libraries staff digitized and transcribed many of Michael Ventris’ letters held in the archives here at the Program of Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (PASP). They were never fully released and archived onto tape.

This summer (2013) I contacted the UT Libraries staff to see if they still had the files. Colleen Lyon, the Digital Repository Librarian, contacted Wendy Martin in Digitization Services, who managed to restore the six-year-old data from tape. Thanks to UT Libraries, I was able to compile 59 documents from 129 high resolution images and submit them to the UT Digital Repository.

The Michael Ventris Correspondence Collection is available here.

The Collection mainly contains correspondence between Michael Ventris and Alice E. Kober (until her untimely death in 1950) and Emmett L. Bennett from 1948 through 1955. In these letters we see these great minds grappling with Linear B and its decipherment. We see their humor, their acuity, and the way Linear B brought them together in conquering a common challenge.

For example, in this letter in 1954 from Ventris to Bennett, Ventris grapples with putting a grid together based on Kober’s work with inflection.


Not more than five months later, Ventris excitedly reported to Bennett that he has deciphered Linear B as Greek.


One wonders whether in his excitement Ventris has handwritten the letter in his clean architect’s handwriting. This was a major surprise for Ventris who had insisted in earlier letters that Linear B might be Pelasgian or Etruscan.

A year later, Ventris sends Bennett a transcription of a tablet from Blegen where they recognize that “tripods” are written out as ti-ri-po-de.


Other letters detail the work of transcribing and publishing the tablets. These letters truly provide us with a look into the not-so-distant past when Linear B was just being deciphered. Please take your time and read through many of them- you can almost hear the conversations between these great minds.

For more information, you may also be interested in the Alice E. Kober papers. Back in 2012, Zachary Fischer and I worked to digitize Alice E. Kober’s paper correspondence. Her work was essential in the decipherment of Linear B, especially with Ventris’ understanding of inflection. That Digital Repository Collection is available here.

Posted July 26, 2013 by Dygo Tosa, Research Assistant – PASP

UT commencement: A sliver of idiocracy

UT commencement: A sliver of idiocracy
Austin American-Statesman July 5, 2013


Have you ever seen the movie “Idiocracy”? The comedy came out in 2006, directed by Mike Judge, creator of “Beavis & Butt-Head” and “King of the Hill.” In “Idiocracy,” a completely average (in intelligence, talent, ambition, personal appeal) Army clerk (Luke Wilson) and a prostitute (Maya Rudolph), who has bargained her way out of charges, are guinea pigs in an experiment to send human beings a year into the future.

Instead this odd couple is sent 500 years into a broken-down future. In the year 2505, consumerism and know-nothingism have brought society to ruins after five centuries of satirically depicted “reverse Darwinism.”

People with lower IQs, talents and personal motivation have out-bred people who have natural abilities to serve society. However, the future is also in ruins because the so-called high-IQ educated class cares for no one but themselves.

“Idiocracy” is a horror film, too, if you are worried about where our hyper-materialistic culture is heading with our problems in government, education, health care, public services, political leadership and neglect of the common good.

What scared me, when I watched a recorded version, was fast-forwarding on mute through commercial breaks. The commercials blend seamlessly with scenes in the movie. It was hard to tell when today’s valueless, mind-numbing commercials ended and the movie about our whole society become terminally bored, self-centered and addicted to mindless consumerism started again.

Returning to the here and now offers little comfort. Let me give one recent example of idiocracy writ large and put up in lights.

This May, I was part of the high faculty turnout for the general spring commencement ceremony at the University of Texas at Austin. While graduates at other universities were being addressed by J.K. Rowling, Bill Cosby, Stephen Colbert, President Barack Obama and Denzel Washington, we listened to Olympic sprint champion and Texas Ex Sanya Richards-Ross, who attended UT for two years a decade ago, talk about herself for 23 of the 25›½ minutes her commencement address lasted.

Richards-Ross congratulated graduating students for “fighting the urge to go to Sixth Street every night.” We were told that other schools are pretty cool, but the 40 Acres has “one of the best business schools, a national champion football team and the mascot with the most swag.” Graduates learned, “It’s all about you. The world is your oyster. Failure is temporary. Giving up is permanent.” And for 23 minutes, we were given examples of this me-centered, succeed-at-all-costs philosophy. We heard about her training habits, health problems and a few setbacks from grade school onward. She thanked briefly her father, her husband, her family and a nameless ninth- grade teacher, but did not talk about a single coach, teacher or teammate who helped or inspired her along the way.

As for intellectual or cultural content, besides Bevo, the night life on Sixth Street and the 2005 national champion, naturally, version of Longhorns football, we heard one online quote from Aristotle about practicing making perfect and another from Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, about never giving up.

One person, besides President Bill Powers, was mentioned by name, but only by first name. Both Powers and Richards-Ross made reference to “Vince,” as if everyone in the world should know who Vince is.

Powers explicitly congratulated Vince at the start of the evening for completing his degree. This turned out to be Vince Young, a poster child for lots that is wrong with NCAA and professional sports in our country.

It is good that Young, like other student athletes who get far off track, has persevered to get his degree. But I also thought of all the graduating seniors who struggled unsung to get their degrees on-time in education or social work or engineering, those with UTeach degrees who are already giving back or those headed for Teach for America to give back. I thought of graduates who admire the beauties of calculus, a Faulkner short story, a Maya Angelou poem, a speech by Martin Luther King, a rap song by Lil Wayne.

Our flagship institution of higher education should single out those who will never know fame and fortune, but will win many successes working with people who need what they have worked hard to learn.

True idiocracy may be 500 years away, but a sample was right here, up close, looking at itself in the mirror, at UT commencement this year.

And we politely applauded.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

(Posted for Palaima by dygo)