Bridge Burning : Confessions from a Former Evangelical Conservative

Dickens was onto something when he suggested that the best and worst of times might coincide. Awakening the morning of my husband’s birthday, I discover that the Roberts court overturned Roe v. Wade, with an ebullient Clarence Thomas pronouncing that Griswold, Obergefell, and other SCOTUS decisions handing a crumb of dignity to the gay community, and even to those wanting access to contraception, all were now at risk. Thomas’s genius rationale per a recent biopic: Americans should get off their iPhones to defend their own liberties. Wow. We’ll pause to consider that. OK, I’m guessing you’re as confused as I am, so let’s just recognize that happy days are here again for the man who would’ve been enslaved in the 1700 and 1800s, but he’d hand victory to his own oppressors. He must derive his moral authority the same way tyrants have in the past: sexual harassment of women, cruelty towards the most vulnerable, and in his case, flagrantly protecting his hysterical wife’s illegal interventions on behalf of Trump in the violent overthrow of the United States government. Even if one could agree to the fantasy that these lifetime justices swim in a sea of logic and sanity somehow a cut above the rest, how does one ignore Thomas’s ridiculous participation in Gini’s tomfoolery, together with his utter inability to recuse himself in a case featuring her cultish meddling in Trump’s “stop-the-steal” campaign to, well, “steal-then-stop?”

I pick on Thomas in particular, but he is in no way the beginning and end of the problem. Susan Collins and Joe Manchin “believed” rapist-Kavanaugh and the understated danger of Gorsuch when they said that Roe was settled? Well bless their hearts, as we say in Texas.

The world in which we find ourselves carries with it tremendous risk and upheaval, coupled with opportunity to, borrowing from Tom Steyer, save the world and have an awesome time doing it. But something key that I feel we’re missing remains to be the inner world of evangelicalism. It’s a world with which I’m familiar, though I didn’t used to think about it much. But Roe v. Wade facing a searingly opposed annihilation, along with the outrageous constitutional maximalism undergirding it, has left me thinking more about my past. It isn’t a place I visit often, but it might help others understand why so many Americans align themselves with the GOP, what Noam Chomsky calls the most “dangerous organization in human history”. It’s taken time to work my way back to the blog, given a recurrence of illness that leaves me limited in capacity. But this is a tale needing telling. Whether you want to read it or not, the existential threat I describe herein is very real; it’s easy to discount them as kooks, alloyed by some sort of madness. One might think inexplicable, but years’-worth of reflection leads me to something my high school American literature teacher Candy Zangoei used as a prompt for our daily journals: “we hate our victims the most.” It’s funny that I didn’t understand it at the time, but living amongst a people gripped by fear, afraid of blacks, gays, baby-murderers, I understand now. Nothing says esteem like believing others covet what you have. We had little in the way of worldly wealth, but how much more it becomes when you believe others covet your pennies.

Farmers’ Four Paths to Faith and Divorce

My four grandparents and their respective journeys would be a good place to start. All four began their lives in farming families. My mother’s parents differed a little less than thirteen years in age. My maternal grandfather, Dow Slagle, had been twice divorced, lost contact with two daughters, both his parents died early, and a car accident in 1936 claimed his left arm. He met my grandmother Connie in 1942 at a restaurant where she worked. Her mother had already been married and divorced three times, so his having been divorced wouldn’t be a dealbreaker, as it often was in those days. Her grandparents raised her for the most part, so she always held the elderly near her heart. Neither were obsessive on religion, though that changed when they bore their first child, brain-damaged and permanently retarded. With this and other stressors, they turned to the faith-healing circles like the entourage surrounding Oral Roberts. They weren’t looking for judgment, cruelty, or rejection; rather, they sought a cure for their son, increasingly a burden on and hazard for their second son and first daughter. As they enmeshed themselves within the church, the church punished them for his having been married earlier. In fact, they told my grandparents that their sinful marriage was the reason God chose to retard their son. They relegated my grandparents to the back pew, all-too-eager to take their tithes, but intending to make a holy stand. My uncle recently recounted my grandmother sobbing, prone on the floor, pleading with the invisible man to spare her and my grandfather from hell. Their spiritual leaders abused them, tormented them, as though my grandfather’s missing arm and their retarded son weren’t hell enough for them. My grandfather couldn’t even join the freemasons, their policy to exclude those incomplete in body. Jesus, I’m not sure why they stuck with the whole thing, but bearing abuse from evangelicals continues, a point to which I’ll return. In any case, their second son became an evangelist, traveling the world with his wife for a few decades. Their flavor of faith differed starkly from many of their peers, and the worldview they bear these days is incompatible with established evangelicalism.

My father’s parents were second and third generation Americans, whose Norwegian forebearers settled parts of what would become North Dakota under federal land grants. My grandfather suffered from crippling depression in his early life, a travail leading him to the charismatic renewal of the same ilk my mom’s folks found. It did, frankly, radicalize him, isolating him from the churches dotting the landscape, for their ministrations couldn’t accommodate his personal piety.

My parents bitterly divorced in 1987, leading our pastor at the Gainesville Assembly of God to revoke their memberships. This would be the first of two times the church shunned my mother, sister, and myself, the latter happening maybe eight years later; but it wasn’t the first time the church elders inflicted pain on them. One of my brothers developed type one diabetes when we were young, leading our pastor’s wife to tell my mother that she had somehow angered God. This theme of God’s war on children to punish the parents isn’t all that uncommon among the professedly pious.

I digress. Following my parents’ separation, my father’s folks dropped from our radar, though the geographic separation left us with infrequent visits. The story we heard was that they couldn’t bear to have a divorced son, and thus they wanted nothing to do with us. We learned only near the end of their lives that they had been told they wouldn’t be permitted to see us.

My mother and her second husband, for their part, persisted in seeking a church amenable to their professed faith, albeit with somewhat less judgment. I learned from the beginning to ask for the forgiveness only Jesus can bestow every Sunday when asked by the pastor to do so. We were told every Sunday where unforgiven sinners would be spending eternity, and that the worst self-deception for any of us was believing we already possessed this elusive salvation. I prayed every night for my own soul and the soul of others. It wasn’t until my uncle the minister introduced us in 1994 to universal salvation that the fear around this buckled. My maternal grandmother found it a comfort in her final years. Of course, my own identity would forever separate me from the world of my youth, and I’ve since surrendered any notion of faith, beyond a fancy that there’s more to the universe than we may think.

I rehash this dimension of my past to consider some of the things we learned within the world of the evangelicals, with a bent on the goings-on behind the promotional posturing. What did we believe about abortion? Feminism? Race? Gun violence? Atheism and prayer in schools? Environmentalism? Evolution and Creationism? Science? The military? Homosexuality? Liberalism? If you don’t know anyone from this world, and you’ve always wanted to know from a former insider why the Trumpers, moderately fascist, and the crucifix-as-cudgel crowd do what they do, read on.

What We Believed About Abortion and Feminism

Abortion wasn’t something we talked about at home, aside from the dominant opposition to it. Conception was the beginning of life, and my mother often talked about the miscarriage she had between the births of my two older brothers. She tended to be more progressive than my stepfather, if for no other reason, she struggled to continue her higher education, despite obstacles, both at home and in the antifeminine world we inhabited. We were barely middle class, even when my father was still paying child support. Another degree for her would have led to a better outcome, but she confronted misogyny, spousal abuse, and more. In any case, the most she could offer on the issue was that the women she’d known who’d had abortions regretted them. Almost every Republican presidential candidate after Roe promised at least tacitly what our pastors and faith leaders kept telling us: abortion is murder, no matter the context. But I need context to explain what really was said behind the scenes, namely feminism and race.

Feminism found little favor among the faithful that I knew, for the men convinced themselves that the Bible’s duty assignment among husband and wife was clear: the boys were in charge, with the girls there to support. It’s funny that some of the greatest natural predators in the world, the lions, operate with a similar system. The maned men fight off other men and mate with their many women, and the women hunt, bear the cubs, and raise them. Somewhere there’s an art-imitates-life comment. My first stepdad tried the part as best he could, remaining unemployed, siphoning away money that ought to have gone for our care. My mom worked almost nonstop during that period, facing sexual harassment both at work and at church, while he slovenly watched the boob tube in his tacky cut sweatpants, munching popcorn and inhaling groceries. If my Facebook research is correct, this man now squats on his daughter’s property, draping his largesse in mega-sized MAGA shirts. He complained that women were too uppity, and that abortion somehow would lead to more lesbian couples. Race was an even more terrible can of worms. My father proudly sported a confederate flag on his shirt, complete with the words, “it’s a white thing. You wouldn’t understand…” I daresay even he didn’t understand. He hated black people, much like my stepfather, both concerned that interbreeding would drain the purity from the white folks. Funny that I now know from a genetic profile that north African ancestry is in our lineage! My father was (and still is) a violent, reactionary alcoholic who dwells alone in the desert. He had little reluctance in assaulting women and children, though he’s a coward when confronted by anyone else. I read a ghastly series of comments following a rant by Jordan Peterson in which he bemoans that he can’t hit a woman who criticizes him. One comment following his post read, “I think women deserve rights. And lefts.” I was speechless, but I can see my father blurting something like that.

To be clear, I’ve seen neither of these men for over twenty years, and maybe they’ve changed. I doubt it, though. In any case, the cultural narrative insisted that women belong in skirts and in the kitchen. Walter Matthau’s obnoxious rendition of “It Takes a Woman” from the film Hello Dolly! comes to mind. It might be unfair to emphasize the noisy rambles of two dysfunctional neocons, but their personal views mirrored much of what we heard at church, and even, to some extent, school. But their views were echoed elsewhere in the family. To be clear, there are very few functional males in any part of my family. My father had four brothers and one sister, three of whom found some normalcy. Divorce and abandonment are a theme, leaving grandmothers and mothers doing the work. It makes me think that people often create the world they already believe exists. Men can carouse, flirt, rob, cheat, and assault. Women find themselves cleaning up the mess.

With Roe v. Wade destroyed, the stern and spirited self-congratulations can commence, for the unborn were the only category within the issue for which they could muster advocacy. Once the unborn become the born, these would-be advocates can abandon these children to the underfunded and bullet-ridden schools, minimal healthcare, prison, and murderous cops. The conservatives of my family would seek abortion when convenient (such as reversing one’s position once they determine the unborn child to be free of Down’s syndrome), deciding afterwards to shield them from the murderers. Now, women face a not-so-new enemy, one that punishes them for carelessness and promiscuity, while men skate free.

What We Believed About Blacks and the Indigenous

Race remains a key to this. In my hometown, there was the colored section, near the interstate and state highway intersection. Readers, pardon the word choice, but to lay the cancer bare, we called this nigger town. Moffit Park was the vestigial colored park, tiny and dilapidated, compared to the more robust Leonard Park and Frank Buck Zoo. Black people simultaneously amused and terrified, for we saw them parodied on television and film, and their poverty and purported criminality frightened us. As our family grew, so did the despicable racism grow. I could go on, but there really isn’t any point. The more dovish perspective was that blacks needed to leave this country, for America just wasn’t their cup of tea. Affirmative action was a touchstone for fanaticism, faculty in my public school journey wagging tongues and fingers with rants about how hard life is for the white man. I remember a racist cousin claiming that if a ‘kickass’ black guy wants a high-paying job, he should get it, the implication being that he needs to be ‘kickass’ in order to outperform the very deserved white privilege. Nothing enraged my family more than welfare, even though we received AFDC help soon after my parents’ divorce. I remember standing in line with my mom, among many white and brown people, including handicapped, all of us awaiting the government cheese wheel. One insanely miserly relative couldn’t let it go that she saw a black woman with well-manicured nails pull out her Lone Star card at Walmart; willing to cheat her in-laws into providing years-long free childcare for her, she obsessed on these things, complaining that “too many people in this world think someone owes them somethin’.” Indeed, there are. I remember finally pointing out to some that welfare fraud was so rare, one might as well complain about dirty pennies under the couch cushions. Corporate welfare and tax breaks for the wealthy far outstrip anything happening in the bottom sector of the economy, per excellent analysis by Dean Baker. For one of the biggest recipients of public monies in our family, a sheepish and bashful smile presaged the confession, “it’s just the principle of it.” Children are at stake, but one has a principled commitment to austerity, so long as it’s those “other people.”

My grandmother parroted certain racial slurs she’d learned from her grandfather, a man named Thomas Jefferson Davis Knight. I remember in college history learning that the pseudo-intellectuals trying to justify the confederate secession and slavery would claim that they were the true Jeffersonians, to the north’s Hamiltonians, I suppose. Who was Burr, I wonder? In any case, I didn’t even connect the two until later, looking at my late great-great-grandfather. Irony was that they were so poor, they hired the black doctor when Grandpa Knight fought and lost a battle with lymphoma in the late 1930s. My grandmother always remembered that, and would tell us what a wonderful man that physician was. I should try to find his descendants, if any are living. None of this stopped my first stepfather from dissing blacks with frequency. He may’ve been a total deadbeat, perennially unemployed, and a thief who extorted from my grandmother while he worked for her, but he felt he was better than them “niggers.” A stone could fall on any human being anywhere on Earth, and that person would be, by ninety-percent, better than he was. But I heard this for years, that blacks were lazy criminals; even later, evangelical friends confided that it wasn’t the skin color, but rather the culture they abhorred. Hell, even a manager I had at one of the big firms where I’ve worked said to me that it wasn’t skin color that bothered him, but rather things correlated with it. Guh? That person is another story for another day. But the new bogeyman of the religious right is “critical race theory,” the omission of which would result in an almost perfect cancel culture. But they don’t like cancel culture when it means James Woods and Roseanne can’t broadcast whatever batshit drug-induced fantasies they imagine free of consequence. Admittedly, I don’t like them, but they’re free to spray regurgitated manure as they see fit. But deleting an overwhelming consensus of historians everywhere, reducing the black man’s travail to a footnote, works out well for the young evangelical white man seeking atonement through denial. You see, the Bible didn’t account for the cruelty and wickedness that the organized Christian church was to visit upon slaves, natives, and countless others. This is why I only remember learning in Bible school about the suffering of the Hebrews, with the history of Christianity left out. My cousin’s copy of American History: A Christian’s Perspective said it best: Lee and Grant were both good Christian men, and those who preserved slavery, namely Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, were the “wiser, older” Christian men who preached temperance in their appetites for slavery, a civil war postponed. Nevermind Jefferson and Washington screwing their slaves. It’s so insane, I felt crazy when I studied American history in college.

Native Americans presented their own problem to the narrative. On the one hand, America was a divinely-engineered freedom factory, per the jingo jingle, yet my white ancestors murdered the people already living here. At home, we played cowboys and Indians, and among our friends and family, the talk of natives scared me to death, for who would want to be scalped, dissected, and eaten? Then again, that’s what my white ancestors did to them. I learned the word “crybully” today, a perfect description. We accuse our victims of doing what we do. I could picture a similar sentiment ensconced in a tacky gilded frame hanging above Trump’s office desk. There really is no sufficient discussion on the indigenous travail; the extirpation and extermination led to, probably conservatively, 56 million dead, and a “cancellation” of vast civilized culture. We learned as kids that the natives were not Christian, so those that died probably just resisted dedicating their souls and hearts to a white god capable of reversing their sinful tendencies. Of course, this was the public position, the dovish position, if you will. The reality is that we learned that the natives were inferior, likely incapable of thought rational enough to seek forgiveness through the cross. It was interesting, though, that we also heard about native blood in our ancestry, though my genes, according to state-of-the-art analysis, don’t touch any indigenous peoples in this hemisphere. It presents a difficulty, for why would any of my ancestors fabricate connection to peoples deemed inferior? Looking at my trace North African ancestry, my best guess, worth probably not a lot, is that neighbors could accept the native wife better than the African one, so they lied about her ancestry.

In any case, one of the most sinister of secrets among the evangelicals I knew is that they believed eternal torment awaited virtually all human beings. The free will crowd at least think people can find their way to heaven with a chance, but, as a former member of that gaggle, I can say that we didn’t really believe it. We thought, by contrast, that almost no one would ever find salvation, no matter the chances afforded by God. You can consider it similar to the LDS “mark of Cain” dogma, or, more appropriately, the predestination of Calvinism. We believed that dark skinned people mostly could not get to heaven, because eternity is segregated, even if liberals, guided by satan himself, tried to force us to mingle. It’s horrific, a cultural myopia that I don’t think is specific just to the evangelical crowd. It’s tough to imagine, so the answer is cancel culture on a scale hard to imagine. If you don’t like the history you’ve been taught, then fight to have it erased. We can vote on what happened in the past! I hate slavery, so I’ll just vote to have all history books whitewashed. Done and done. What slavery? What problem?


Brown Bess Musket circa 1780
State-of-the-art killing machine

Another topic of frustrating fever would be gun control, given the holocaust of shootings happening year after year, depicted starkly by The Guardian in 2021. The two most recent shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, Texas are just tips of an ocean-spanning iceberg. I can’t even finish this paragraph before another mass shooting surfaces in the news, this time a lunatic who killed at least two physicians, reported by MSN. A man didn’t like the outcome of his surgery, so he killed the surgeon. Why not? That’s the American way, to settle our differences like men, meaning one man with a gun, and several others, women and children included, without them? Though it may seem unfair to way life against life, it’s worth remembering that physicians train for years and years to become healers (I’m married to one, in full disclosure.) I may vomit, not just because gastroparesis plagues me. As I’ve written elsewhere, when I was in the second grade, my friend and classmate Jay Wilson and her older brother Kevin were murdered by their deranged mother, ostensibly revenge on their father for divorcing her. After coercing them to write their own suicide notes, she killed them, then herself with a pistol she obtained at a local pawn shop, placing her wedding ring in hock. It was devastating, and I remember our teacher Mrs. Proffer weeping hard. That was 1988, one of many thousands of murders by gun that have gripped a population already clutched hard with fear.

My mother’s parents owned at least one gun, a small pistol my great-grandmother left to her younger daughter, my grandmother. It was unregistered, and happened to be a very painful artifact in my family’s troubled history; I’ll not delve into the details, but suffice it to say the gun never did a bit of good, and plenty of evil. My father’s parents owned several guns, my grandfather becoming something of a collector. They were farmers in a time and place in which one could plausibly argue that guns would keep one’s family safe from wild animals and maybe the occasional violent trespasser. I would guess my grandfather really believed that Clinton, Obama, and pretty much any other democrat intended to take his entire way of life from him, not just his guns. So he card-carry-supported the NRA, and he boasted an autographed tin-painting of Charlton Heston. I never discussed gun violence with him, so I don’t know what he would’ve said about the shootings we see one after the other. But this was a man who would open his wallet to strangers if they had a disabled child among them; I can’t believe he’d place unrestricted access to guns above the safety of school children.

I wish I had a more satisfactory answer as to why evangelicals love guns. It ultimately has to come back to something one might love in a world where nefarious forces covet that thing one loves. Thus, the one doing the loving becomes important, a victim by definition. Just like Christ and the disciples and the Prophets and the Hebrews, the persecuted, tortured, sought by satan and his myriad groundtroops. Truly, this was what I heard growing up. If someone wants what you have, doesn’t that make you important? If satan wants to steal something, that means that something is what God wants me to have, right? I think it’s psychology, and my guess is that the science of public relations has helped political leadership figure out, at least since the late 1970s, how to stir my old crowd. Stuart Stevens’ It Was All A Lie, remains a pretty damned good expose on that part.

I’ll repeat here an argument I’ve made before about “constitutionality:” like the Bible, bumper-stickers, and flags, the U.S. Constitution often becomes the means to affirm oneself in whatever way one deems good. Chomsky often referred to the belief, at least in the 1990s, that universal healthcare guarantees were in the framer’s intent, for it was more or less self-evident. Of course, it wasn’t, but a majority of Americans, by a particular poll, believed it. The point is simple, almost a perverse divine command theory: it makes me feel good, so it is good. All of us are subject to this, whether we like it or not. It doesn’t mean we can’t strive for something approaching objectivity, but even that pursuit usually happens because it feels good to pursue it. It helps explain the social media-fueled dystopia in which Sandy Hook moms receive death threats for purportedly fabricating the very existence of their slain children, to say nothing of the shooting itself. Alex Jones would be proud, if he managed to peek out of the rubber room that is his head. Returning to the argument, even if we discard the meeting minutes of the Constitutional Convention, and we discard Scalia’s judicial activism in reinterpreting the Second Amendment to cover individual ownership instead of “regulated militias” per the amendment’s wording, and we discard centuries of careful regulation around weapons, the point screaming for attention here is that an “arm” in 1787 was NOTHING ANYWHERE APPROACHING even the smallest pistol of today. A musket of yore couldn’t be fired more than once a minute, even if the gunman were at the top of his game. The range was poor, and misfires were common. They were dangerous, but a wacko with a .22 pistol can do way more damage than one with the older counterparts. The fact is, today’s guns are NOT “arms” referenced by the aging document. It’s equivocation, but I never hear it said anywhere within the debate. A gun is not a gun, by any other name. Why can’t I own a bazooka and conceal it while I roam the countryside? The Constitution PROMISES me such a right, for it’s just as much a “gun” as is a musket, right? It’s bullshit. Since the blood of thousands of victims doesn’t mean anything to those who deify the Second Amendment, maybe the Commandments’ stringent warning about idolatry might. It makes me sick. Hearing Ted Cruz blather on about the slippery slope of “they’ll start with guns, then take everything else,” he need not worry, unless the government outlaws being ugly with a pound of creepy. Would these politicians care more if they lost their children to a deranged gunman?

My best friend’s father was a policeman when we were growing up. Robin recently reminded me that one year during field day, his on-duty dad appeared in his uniform to watch us play. Kids asked Robin why his dad didn’t have his gun with him, and it was a fair question, considering almost all the boys and some of the girls were accustomed to toy guns and violent movies; Robin couldn’t recall what he told them, but he did remember what his dad said when he asked him later: a paraphrase would be that guns and schools have no place together. He was a policeman and a Reagan Republican, and the unfettered access to firearms for all was just bananas to him.

The truth is that I don’t remember being around too many gun-lovers when I was a kid; some family in my own generation loved guns in secret, so it wasn’t a topic discussed. When I was a child, we traveled in circles of people with too little money to own such an extravagant toy with so little utility. In fact, I’ve never experienced a single moment in my life in which I was or felt safer with a gun nearby. It made no difference to my drunken father that my grandmother had a gun; he broke into the house and roughed up my mother all the same. My grandmother would’ve argued that letting insane people have guns was insane. She kept her mother’s gun more out of sentimentality, before it was stolen from her. I can only say now that the gun-obsessed in my family either enjoy using them on animals or live in a perpetual terror that they’ll have to have them. Both fall under delusion. And I don’t think millions of school children dying would change their minds.

Atheism and Prayer in Schools

I remember very starkly the disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair back in 1995. I had just started the tenth grade, and though I didn’t take history that year (it conflicted with precalculus and trigonometry), my stepfather and mother talked about it quite a bit, hot on the heels of the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City. I now consider the irony that we didn’t call McVeigh a terrorist; rather, he was a criminal. Terrorists were brown, whites could only be terrorists. I digress. In any case, O’Hair was an atheist who had sued on behalf of her young son to stay mandatory Bible readings in public schools, in Murray v. Curlett. The Supreme Court later ruled in 1963 that such readings are unconstitutional. It struck me as a kid a little funny that we heard about this woman at church with ominous prognostications of assured demonic victory, yet we always prayed at school assemblies, even at my high school graduation in 1998. I didn’t pay much attention to our sports events, but I’m sure they prayed there. We had a few Jehovah’s witnesses, and since they were barred from saying the pledge of allegiance, no one forced them to do it. It remains a comedy to me that banshee wails and tooth gnashes followed O’Hair’s SCOTUS suit, yet nobody showed up to tell my principals and teachers not to lead the student body in prayer. It’s true, they broke the law, but no one cared. The First Baptist Church’s youth minister made a habit of roaming the high school campus, aiming to support the students from his congregation. I don’t recall anyone complaining, yet I could imagine some parents would’ve found this distressing. My niece’s high school graduation in 2017 was held in a gigantic Baptist Church, and prayers ran aplenty. No one cared.

Atheists were frightening to me when I was a child. Think Rosemary’s Baby: one might believe the devil had connived them into believing we were a grand accident, but often we assumed atheism to be a veil for satanism. These zombified agents aimed to rob us of our faith; they were as alien as anything out of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We learned that before the rapture and tribulation, (eschatological events by which the faithful rise to heaven), we would face either branding with the mark of the beast or beheading. That is, we forfeit our eternal soul or suffer a grisly execution. Mind you, church leaders told us children that this was inescapable. Theories ran amok with respect to the mark’s nature; some said it was a tattoo, others claimed it was a microchip embedded in one’s flesh, capable of killing us remotely. Others still insisted that the VISA credit card was the mark itself, VI being Roman numerals for six, S for six in the Greek alphabet, and A six in the Babylonian counterpart. You read that right: owning a VISA card meant the devil-controlled government could spy on you through the hologram in the corner of the card. Nothing so well depicted this ingrained fear than the play Heaven’s Gate & Hell’s Flames, a dramatization of the eternal divide, separated into several vignettes about death. Some went to hell, others to heaven. Those attaining salvation received horned fanfare, white light, and a stern but loving Jesus Christ. Those falling among the goats were treated to disco strobe lights and a sneering, reptilian Satan, heavy metal roaring as his minions carried the hapless unsaved screaming. It was terrifying, all the more so because we believed it was real. The final vignette featured a mother and her young daughter dying together in a car accident; the girl tried to persuade her mother to accept Jesus before it was forever too late, but she remained unconvinced. Satan tore them apart, Jesus shielding the saved child while her mother fell to the minions. Christ cried with the daughter, and the show ended. Of course, we were asked, as was the course every Sunday, to rededicate our lives to this Savior. I never felt as though I was saved and asked every time it was offered. To me, atheists were terrifying, for in my small brain, I thought that they surely could see the truth for themselves, that hell was real, and Satan wanted their souls. It was insane. But I’m reminded once more that when one believes others covet what is his, it brings an empowerment, a quickening.


When I was in elementary school during the 1980s, I don’t remember ever being told that global warming was a hoax. In the fifth grade, the final chapter of our science textbook covered pollution, acid rain, and the cultural imperative my generation was to inherit with respect to Mother Earth. My teacher proudly described the chapter as a rite of passage for we fifth graders, soon to embark on the long journey that is middle school. Even then, we discussed the ozone layer, depleting with the outgassing of chloroflouracarbons, on routine. No one disputed that this was happening, nor do I remember NASA being accused of manipulating us to justify promotion of ungodly science. Then again, it wouldn’t take long for the fossil fuel lobby to mobilize evangelicals, but their public relations campaigns hadn’t hit paydirt yet, despite Exxon already distancing itself from its own research. The reapportionment of propaganda in the late 1970s took time to spread, but by the time I was in college, more and more folks in the Bible belt were drawing from the brain mushing drivel Rush Limbaugh broadcast. So it wouldn’t be so surprising to learn that a computer science teacher I had in junior college said that he hated environmentalists because they “didn’t want anyone else to be able to work.” He also decried women as “illogical,” all from a high-level reading of I Love Lucy. Even Christians dislike pollution and big pollutors, but the public relations firms have had decades to police thought among evangelicals, and more than ever does it show. For my own tribe, opponents to environmentalism without education quote generously from critical analyses funded by fossil fuel giants, decrying the topic as too ‘politicized’ to deserve serious consideration; but they do jump at voter fraud shadows, a perfect reversal of screaming at gnats while gulping camels hump over hoof. Those with more education or worldly experience brook their heads, self-describing as “not reactionary.” Discounting the overwhelming scientific consensus is, by definition, reactionary. But channeling Inhofe, God won’t allow us to destroy ourselves, right? Actually, the evangelicals don’t agree: we should hasten the end times so that the wicked can perish in eternal hell, and the wrongs are righted. This was what I heard–the sooner we can reach the apocalypse, the better. But certainly, they think the Bible is the authority, so we heard almost nothing about church history. The role the Vatican played in Hitler’s ascent, the promotion of and opposition to slavery, and so on.

Evangelicals who stump for Christ but live in terror aren’t that much of a contradiction. Most who endorse both do so because conspiracy theories, per Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World, appeal to people in a vacuum of scientific literacy. His interview on Charlie Rose, one of his final, is worth a listen. The terror comes with the belief that wickedness triumphs in claiming almost all people in the final war, the Gog and Magog lunacy I learned that even W. Bush believed.

Evolution and Creationism

Between Tucson and Phoenix, I’ve spied a handful of creationism billboards, all triumphantly pronouncing that we could not have evolved from an ancestor of the apes, namely because one book tells a different story, a story beginning with two humans from whom we all descend. But they ate a fruit, leading to widespread suffering and horror. Next, their creator drowned the whole of the earth when they displeased him. With the flimsiest of proof, we believed this. The Bible couldn’t be wrong, but the sum total of scientific expertise on geology, archaeology, anthropology, and genetics had to be in error. It may sound ridiculous, but we were frightened of this expertise, hearing that its plausibility was the devil’s temptation, and therefore its source, the scientists and their promoters, all derived their power from satan. I was afraid of eternal hell, and thus I could hear only the repeated mantra of a stepfather and the hilariously transparent faith leaders we sought.

The Reagan Raptor (unknown brilliant artist)

Creationism became the buzzword for the determination that a deity created us as we are now, perhaps only six thousand years ago. Carbon dating had to be wrong, and we continue to be the center of the universe, once mingling with the dinosaurs. Perhaps we tamed and rode the triceratops, one of my personal favorites of the reptiles. Darwin and his Origin of Species had to be wrong. Of course, he didn’t suggest that life arose all by itself; rather, he explained that all life evolves over time. But he was an agent of satan, perhaps more than Karl Marx. Nevermind hip joints in whales and snakes, or a whole host of other oddities one might discover when analyzing the animal kingdom. Everything now is how everything was, species by species, when god created the heavens and the earth. Teachers and professors feared promoting evolution. My high school chemistry teacher laughed that “evolution is a faith.” Believing hokey and demeaning tales somehow made more sense than paying attention to a scientific theory among the most heavily tested and invulnerable to rejection. I’d wager that the debate surrounding it dwarfs the importance of the issue itself; enemies abound who’d remove science from education if it ever says anything that we don’t want to believe. Christian conservacana remains at the heart of the difficulty: not only is it demonic to believe the theory, satan deems a victory even our attempt to understand the evidence for it. It’s insane, and it bears repeating: believing what’s wrong will land you in hell, but even considering it demonstrates a lack of faith in one’s everlasting poise. I remember my high school calculus teacher bringing a hardback copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos to his Sunday school class, only to find himself spurned by his fellow Christians.


Science presents a challenge; throughout my time with evangelical Christians, I discovered an emergent theme when we discussed the expertise of others: if one can find someone who claims wisdom transcending that of an educated sect, then that person becomes super cool. For instance, charlatans claiming medical knowledge with no degree screams that the whole of medicine is a conspiracy theory. Better yet, that person holds the answers the educated just can’t nab, no matter how many years they devote to learning. This opens the door for chiropractors, nutritionists, and massage therapists to assert their superiority. It may seem ridiculous to depend upon quacks in the face of genuine experiential knowledge, but the impersonal, cold medical establishment would not want to forfeit their reputation and salaries, or so the bullshit goes. It comes back to the ‘distant centralized government’ ruling us rather than democratizing highly prized skills. You want to be a doctor? No problem! Write a book about how your special medical knowledge hidden from the monolithic order can cure every sort of ailment.

Unfortunately, this extends to pretty much everything else. If schools won’t teach your kids all the Alex Jones style hysterics, then defund education. I could write for days about the fear of science, but it’s pretty simple: if I feel threatened because of others’ specialized capabilities, I must pretend to know something they don’t, then point out how they’ve failed.

This brings me back to another point here, namely that of the fraudulent American libertarian. We boasted of being apolitical, or moderate, or whatever the hell it was in those days. We bragged that we opposed cold, undemocratic governments who crushed us with regulation. We were saints, capable of standing apart. But the reality is more complex: we would have no road on which to stand, no car with which to schlep ourselves, no internet to spout worthless drivel, and little medical care of any value, if it weren’t for massive state spending. This remains one of the best kept secrets in America, for not even the so-called liberal journals discuss this with regularity. We didn’t hear anything about federal investments when I was a child. Instead, faith leaders bombarded us with the white straight business owner’s travail: he pays taxes only to have them stolen for the lazy poor. Science becomes a literal smash-and-grab; grab everything of value and derive its benefit, but fight to make its application impossible for others, smashing its foundations in education and funding dispersion from the government. Perhaps the most striking counterexample would be the military.

The Military

Worship of the military and all its efforts would be a core to evangelical Christianity as I knew it. God wanted us to destroy the brown people in the middle east, and his hand guided us when we scalped the continent here of its native presence. The constant attack of the big bad guvmint extended to the coveting of our freedoms by outsiders, especially the non-Christian ones. Pouring money into a machine of global violence didn’t really strike my faith leaders as strange, despite Christ’s consistent pacifist stance. We feared dispensing with it, so instead we’ve deified it. God wanted us to have the biggest tanks, airplanes, and weapons, so that’s why we have them. We’re under constant attack from everyone everywhere all the time, to quote the recent film title. So therefore, we should attack others first. Gog, Magog, and so on. I’d go on, but so much of what one should say, one has already said.


Clarence the Self-Loathing Thomas proclaimed in triumph that the SCOTUS decision legalizing gay marriage would be invalid, paving the road to “letting” states decide for themselves. Of course, he’d decide the opposite were it unrestricted gun access to everyone on every street corner in jeopardy–states can’t be trusted to apply his flavor of judicial activism. But we can utter “hypocrite” only so many times, before it leaves every hint of erudition nonsense. The evangelical Christians hate gays, and I know they do–I did, too. They’ll claim their love for the sinner, but it’s a lie. Exodus international provides a splendid example–humiliation and cruelty rather than compassion and healing. This of all the sociopathic pieces of the conservative platform leaves me the most wounded: I considered suicide when I was a teenager, because I couldn’t reconcile being gay with the world I inhabited. I was bullied endlessly in middle school and some in high school, and I’ve known of other gays from my high school years who’ve died in the twenty-four years since we graduated. I think about my archconservative family, and I can’t accept them or their viciously cruel, blind adherence to their platform.

We learned when I was a kid that gays were pedophiles, aiming to molest and convert all the rest of us. We knew of a few gays, and there was concern when we were around them. My first stepfather loved to parody “fags and niggers,” with a paltry comprehension of the genuine suffering of others. Gays were dangerous moral degenerates, to say nothing of deserving no protection. Cops beat a gay uncle of mine on more than one occasion. Kids bullied me, verbally and physically with teachers present, and it stood. I told an archconservative in my family that I’d fight for his right to marry. But it doesn’t matter. None of it. I remember an openly gay student a year or so ahead of me printing his essay on homosexuality in the computer science teacher’s room. He asked her what she thought, and she told him that she hated the sin but loved the sinner. And that god felt the same way. My brothers ridiculed gays. Then they wonder why I didn’t tell them.

The cost to trans and other vulnerable populations leaves me in tears. The last few years have been difficult, a chronic illness draining most of my wherewithal. My husband has cared for me, and I’ll be damned if someone tells me what we have is wrong. The only family members who cared for my elderly grandmother were gay. I spent time with my grandmother, caring for her rather than living independently, selfishly, and stupidly, like my heterosexual contemporaries. Now I’m tired.

Where We Go Next?

I started this post some weeks ago, deciding that the sneak peek into evangelical conservacana would be important for most outsiders understand. I’ve blogged in the past for several reasons, namely to promote and encourage methodical and well-documented analyses for technologists and other interested parties, to vent, to educate, and to leave behind a record of thought, however imperfect. Venting might be the chief category of this post, considering the personal and anecdotal nature of what I’ve written. But I didn’t start it that way. But I confess a weariness, a pain, an outrage with my own beautiful personal victory of marriage equality hanging by a thread. I started this article in the hopes of striking common ground with the people of my origin, but I don’t know whether it will be possible before the world ends. How does one reason with unreason? I don’t know that I could have learned what I’ve learned until the time was right. There must be a way forward together. But how? We inhabit worlds so divergent that we lose what little common history and culture we shared. I’m open to suggestions.

Update : Bernie, Trumponavirus, Chomsky, Arizona, Back Home, Teaching Troubles, Research Rewards, and a Nice Note

It has been some time since my last article on either Algo-Stats or its companion activist site Scire Populum et Potentiam.  Since leaving Microsoft last August, I’ve relocated to Tucson, Arizona to reduce the proximity to family and to return to graduate school, hopefully for the last time this century.  I’ve been extraordinarily busy with teaching and coursework, along with qualifying exams, so much so that I’ve neglected a few book reviews I’ve intended, as well as a more critical analysis of the Democratic primaries, debates, and caucuses.  I would, however, highly recommend Democracy Now, David Swanson’s continued exceptional critical work, and the ongoing articles and tweets from Dean Baker on the Center for Economic Policy.

Democratic Races : Burying the Hatchet… Deeply in Bernie’s Back

I very much would like to comment more on the coalescing of Democratic candidates to defeat Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that Pete Buttigieg was performing decently leading up to Super Tuesday, only to resign the night before, joining Beto O’Rourke in an astonishing about-face, both candidates celebrated for following Bernie’s campaign strategy in accepting no PAC nor corporate donations.  My best friend back from my hometown, like many Beto supporters, was heartbroken, scraping bumper stickers off of his and his wife’s vehicles.   Buttigieg made a decision, the likes of which analysts such as Michael Moore quoted in Newsweek, decry as fear-mongering and unheard of in primary politics.  As Bernie has repeated, he has won the ideological debate, yet two now unemployed young Democratic politics, Mayor Pete and Congressman Beto seem to have betrayed the grassroots movements propelling them into their positions.  What did the DNC say to coerce Buttigieg, who claimed on NBC how he loved Bernie before “it was cool“, to about-face claim that Bernie wanted to “burn down the system.”  Salon labels the logical fallacy we can associate with Buttigieg’s absurd claims, the straw man argument.   The majority of Americans have a desire for a return to New Deal government (anti-socialists need take note that democratic socialism is nowhere near the cartoonish totalitarianism advertised in circa 1950s McCarthy brochures.)  But Democrats voting in the primaries fear Biden is the better candidate–yes, a misleading sounding sentence.  If you’re interested in misleading coverage, search for Bernie on Google, and all so-called “liberal” media, excepting a few genuinely progressive journals, all are dripping with “get the hell out of the way of the big man on campus”,

and so on and on and on.  When the reverse was true, and Bernie seemed like he could form a coalition, the best we could get was constant attacks (and attacks) on Medicare for All by CNN, with very little attention to where we could find endless money, namely, runaway military spending and endless war, described in a piece by Common Dreams.  The Physicians for a National Health Plan have long described all the relevant numbers one consider, and if we had such a plan in place now, we could expect a smaller death toll from COVID, a topic to which we’ll return.  The paucity of pro-Bernie articles such as Columbia Journalism Review’s “Coverage of Bernie Suffers from a Lack of Imagination require some internet digging.  Speaking of Common Dreams, they appear to be the only journal I’ve found so far which asserts a simple argument that CNN and NYT, for all their fantasy liberalism, seem utterly incapable of speaking this central truth: Bernie performs much better with independents and progressive-independents.  And as a strong and long-time supporter of Bernie’s, I receive a good deal of communication from the campaign arm, and as of a week ago, Bernie began asking for contributions NOT for his campaign, but for COVID relief.  That’s class.  Bernie’s fireside chats and speeches of late channel Franklin Delano Roosevelt, easily most important president in American history, with the obvious neck-in-neck Abraham Lincoln; we need Bernie’s socialism (or just New Deal policies) now more than ever.  I could go on and on about Bernie’s monumental role in reshaping the Democratic platform (Biden suddenly seems to be embracing everything Bernie embraces, but with the wink and nod that he’ll fold unnecessarily  to “scorch-the-earth” Republicans (even Paul Krugman agrees) once he steps back into the White House.)  Don’t get me wrong–a Biden administration, or an administration of any suit-wearing primate one might choose perhaps, would be better than the nest of oozing, craven, ignorant, festering, collusive cronies.  (And no, I’m actually holding back on my words here.)

Trump : He Knew He Was Right In Being Wrong, or Something Like That…

We can slacken blame on Herbert Hoover for policy ineptitude–he was a brilliant engineer, but a without a wonkish grasp of economics, say after the brands of John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, he was only minimally able to mitigate the crisis of the Great Depression, his .  Trump, by contrast, loathes studies and knowledge.  He believes he knows everything, and that his actions have created the stock market gains since he assumed office.  And in the space of a few weeks, this one metric is  I saw in a gone.  Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes, wrote in The Atlantic that “the Trump presidency is officially over“, as COVID leaves him badly unprepared after a gutted several agencies specifically in place to manage disaster and needed relief.  But never fear, I noticed a ticker on CNN last week or so that Jared Kushner, magical expert in all policy things, was “advising President Trump,” a president who wanted the world to know that coronavirus is the fault of the Chinese, not of the Americans.  Phew–for a moment there I was worried what we ought place on our headstones.  Trump, along with his enablers in Congress and the disgraceful far right organizations masquerading as media, has consistently downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, with references numbering too far to recite here.  A decent rundown appears in Rolling Stone, leading to his recent claim that he always knew it was a “pandemic.”  If the consequences weren’t so dire, I’d insist on laughter at Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz mocking the outbreak by wearing a military gas mask during the relevant House votes, only to contract the virus a few days later.  These corrupt government officials ought be in jail.  How about global warming is a Chinese hoaxScientists are evil, per terminally ill hatemonger medal of freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh.  I read a copy of his book The Way Things Ought to Be several years ago, and his siding with the infinitesimal minority of scientists in denial was a retread of his debate with Al Gore that atmospheric chlorine released in a volcanic eruption dwarfed all possible chlorine since the industrial revolution.  Of course, the whole book read like talking points, mostly false.  I doubt he surrenders that he dodged the Vietnam War draft with an in-grown hair on his wide rear-end.  He never corrected that volcanic chlorine is water soluble, yet chlorine released through factory processes is not.  Rain won’t help us, it would appear, as weather is now much more extreme thanks to catastrophic climate change, but at least he’ll get out early.  I daresay when he passes, I’ll feel the urge to channel Gore Vidal, or maybe with more gentility, Noam Chomsky on the passing of William F. Buckley.

University of Arizona : The Home of Noam

Speaking of Noam, I’ve had the unique and special privilege of sitting in two of his courses at the University of Arizona, and, for reasons too inexplicably wonderful to imagine, I had my first sitdown discussion with him on a research aim near to his heart.  I won’t offer any details now, as he and I don’t want the let the cat out of the bag yet, but it’s a dream I couldn’t have ever envisioned.  Unfortunately, due to the outbreak, he is rightly quarantined, as the nonagenarian is robust, but nonetheless a nonagenarian.   I’ll have more to offer in the days ahead, depending on how the work goes.noam_neil One can note the large image of Bertrand Russell, a leading antiwar and progressive intellectual and activist in the United Kingdom, jailed for his iron opposition to the so-called “Great War,” later renamed, much like Star Wars IV: A New Hope, to World War I.  Speaking of Star Wars, I recall Yoda admonishing Luke that “wars don’t make one great.”  In any case, I’m seated next to the man in whose very large image I’ll have in my office, academic or otherwise, in the future.  A half-century of life experience sits between us, and I’m honored beyond words.


I certainly have lost clarity around faith over the past several years, not, strictly speaking, because the evangelical tradition in which I was raised obviously would ostracize or mutilate me for my homosexuality, but rather because I simply could not reconcile a good-willed deity who would permit the ghastly, overwhelming third world suffering most of us in the western, or first, world will never know.  The story of Job offers nothing but confusion, as God and Satan bet on Job’s faithfulness, the story resolving with Job beckoning and thus foretelling the coming of the Intercessor, or Christ.  My aunt and uncle are (sort-of post)-evangelists who traveled about the world for many years.  I accompanied them on many spiritual meetings, and I’ll confess I’ve seen many, many things leading me to conclude that there’s much more to the human mind than we can imagine.  I’m in the process of helping them prepare a semi-exhaustive list of what you might think of as miracles, mind-reading, and the like, which I can promise you very well could be an extension of what little we understand about the warm goop between our ears.  John Cleese, a steadfast agnostic such as myself, discussed a series of studies during his fascinating interview at Google which demonstrate that the brain has predictive power over certain randomized experiments as conducted by Dean Rabin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and other researchers at Cornell.  Whatever the case is to extrasensory perception, my aunt and uncle are the honest kind of ministers–they have only the long list of friendships they’ve cultivated, but no golden toilets or other Robert Tilton-styled frivolity (though sometime I’ll tell an interesting story involving their past interactions with him.)  I say all of this to point out that moving to Arizona to improve health conditions, return to school, volunteer music work with and be supportive of my aunt and uncle, be closer to my husband’s family in Scottsdale, and actually have this opportunity to work with Noam is incredible.  And in light of COVID, this is exactly where we should be.  But university work isn’t without its share of pitfalls, a topic to which we’ll return below.

Back Home for Tragedy

It’s rare I would delve into so much personal material in this venue, as I would rather keep to the title, the power and the people, but this is a time of personal challenge for us all, and the stories are common.  I returned home  to north Texas following the passing of my Uncle Allan, a successful businessman in Boston, Chicago, and Texas.  I brought my Uncle Charles along to surprise his sister Dowleen, Allan’s now widow, as I figured she would need some emotional support.  It was a grueling and terrible month of waiting and watching after Allan underwent emergency surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, an operation from which he didn’t recover.  It gave me the opportunity to see my mother, her husband Tony Shotwell (a red town Democratic council member so beloved they named a center in his honor), sister, and my best friend Robin, his wife Molly, and my godchild Samantha.   Below from right counter-clockwise: sweetest of sweet little red-headed Sam (grinning with new teeth!), Molly, me, Uncle Charles, my sister Lindsey, Tony, my mother Tisha, her sister my aunt Dowleen, and Robin.)

Gainesville_Dowleen (2)Further, I had the blessed opportunity to see some of my favorite schoolteachers, my calculus teacher from high school E. Clyde Yeatts, and my college US history professor Pat Ledbetter.  Sadly, my other notable teachers from that region are retired and relocated (Candy, I’m thinking of you) or have passed on.  See below for our reunion picture–I reminded my former professors  that they are the good guys, and we need to stick together through this mess of political recklessness.  Both Clyde and Pat are amazing folks, so generous with their time and stewardship, and Pat is still teaching at North Central Texas College, where she helped to utterly transform my world-view.  Clyde has fully retired after an incredible career of teaching high school and college courses. Gainesville (2)

Teaching Again : The Migration Online, Shock and Reshock with Neither Awe Nor Aww

I had planned originally to do a more in-depth post on my return to the teaching clique after a five year mission to tech in the northwest, but other issues came up.  It seems like a good time to bring it up now, as the COVID pandemic leaves university leaders scrambling to relocate academia into cyberspace.  My teaching philosophy is actually relevant here, though I haven’t posted it before.  Before considering the current mess, I should pause to comment on my initial impressions in returning to teaching last semester.

To give a little context, I’ve worked in mathematics instruction either as a tutor, a teaching assistant, a teacher, a supervisor, or mentor since 1994.  I tutored my mother when she took elementary statistics from Clyde in the photograph above back in 1995.  I’ve very much enjoyed most of my teaching and mentoring experience, and coworkers know I’m happy to explain, perhaps in excruciating detail, artifacts of some oddball mathematical model.  And it’s something I do well.  A student of mine from Georgia Tech told me I was the best teaching assistant he’d known in all his four years of undergraduate study.  It was very, very touching to hear that.

Bear with me, as I should point out that most of what I’ll say here is pretty negative.  But if you’ve already read my political commentary earlier, this might not even surprise you.  And I probably wouldn’t have bothered to post about it had it not impacted me personally; I was, I suppose, expecting something of a song and a dance, as it was an opportunity for them to have a teacher return from the “real world” of industry to impart wisdom.  Ha.  What a narcissist I’m becoming.  On the contrary, I’ve come away feeling quite dissatisfied with the monolithic bureaucratization in the twenty-first century.

But it is worth mentioning a couple upgrades since I last dabbled in instruction.  On the side of light, the powers that be (or one single power, it would seem) here in the University of Arizona Department of Mathematics have (has) evolved the more basic classes into mostly participatory labs.  Students discuss problems and try to reach solutions.  It’s a cool idea with much promise, but it slows progress a bit.  One might think an extra credit hour is needed.  There also is an online tool the students must use something called ALEKS, though this part of the grading occurs outside of instructor or teaching assistant oversight.  Now on to what isn’t working.

It is apparent now that one person largely controls all teaching assignments, and chairs of the sub-departments aren’t willing, at least not to me, to asking for exceptions.  This is a conscious decision on the part of academic faculty to cede power to non-academic administration.  I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced this, nor did I know it was a thing.  I do recall when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington that professors were quite unhappy with departmental proceedings on uniformity across classes.  And in those cases, it was faculty and some academic oversight.  I find this new norm to be curious, as I was permitted, as a TA, to teach my own classes any way I saw fit, including managing graders and crafting homework, lesson plans, and exams.  It’s the extreme opposite here–despite years of experience, one must do as one is told, and that includes other faculty who have much more on-hands teaching experience than myself–literally, when I asked to teach my own class, the explanation I was given was that, “you need to learn about our student population.”  I still don’t know what that means.  Perhaps I should have asked for clarification.  Instead, I accepted the beginning role, expecting things to change after they observed my work with my students.  What happened instead I won’t say explicitly here, but human resources is now involved.  It’s hard not to think that expressing my opinions, generally in a nicer version than you’ll see them here, is the culprit behind any difficulties I have with administration.

Returning to my rant, coordinators are very insistent about grading policies, requiring 2000 (!) fall students to take tests at exactly the same time on exactly the same day, with a logistical nightmare to assign rooms, proctors, and an essential guarantee of a late evening exam time.  And why?  They’re certain the students will cheat.  Smart phones and email and yada yada make it so easy to cheat on a twenty question multiple choice test.

Now I just listened to Carl Sagan mention in Cosmos that the human genome perhaps could express more individuated humans than can ever live in the history of our civilization.  But we can’t randomly permute questions on a multiple choice test so that answers don’t line up, nor are they the same on corresponding questions?  With twenty questions and four answer choices each, even if you had exactly the same questions, there are simply too lazy (they admitted this to me themselves) to generate different tests, or, heaven forbid, take the extra step of trusting students not to cheat, or for that matter trust instructors to run and grade their own classes the way they see fit.  These tests are unavailable to the instructor of record, as though even he/she is considered untrustworthy.  Hmm, we’ll return to that word later.  And the histrionics around student dishonesty is quite ingrained–the coordinators require a sitdown meeting preceding every midterm to repeat the same drivel about correct proctoring.  It seems like more thinking goes into preventing cheating than into nurturing learning.

From a game theoretic perspective, there are easy answers that don’t require factory solutions : I read an interesting experiment in which students were permitted to take tests unsupervised, and of course it’s immediately obvious which students cheated.  A similar strategy could work here.  Or perhaps simply have several versions, maybe individualized to each student but with essentially the same concepts.  Again, we can randomly generate these tests.  If they cheat with outside help, does it really matter?  The onus on extremely large classes to catch cheaters seems unfair, as it’s much easier to notice in smaller classes.

Further, they require the students stay in the room until half-way through the exam, and when I queried whether they understood that we probably couldn’t legally require they remain, I was told that these students are used to doing what they’re told, so threatening them was fine.  Other policies are shockingly broken–we were advised during teaching training that if a student expresses suicidality, we ought more-or-less personally take them into custody ourselves to take them to student health services.  I put my foot down in the orientation, explaining my opinion the very real danger in coercing kids, mostly 22-26 years-old with no psychiatric or counseling training, to assess the risk in attempting something so stupid.  I insisted that you call the police, period.  My husband is a psychiatrist, and that is his strong warning.   On the altruistic front, you don’t permit this suicidal student the opportunity to harm oneself or others, and purely from the perspective of protecting the university, you let professionals immediately take over the situation.  The half-hearted response was that students’ records could be tarnished if you require a police escort, so the risk is worth it.  Sigh.

Moving on, technologically, they’re required to buy a TI-83 calculator, evidently because anything with symbolic manipulation is a bridge too far, while graphing and performing mild-to-moderate calculations are too hard but symbolic manipulation isn’t.  I’ve reminded them that I have worked extensively in math and science since buying my TI-89 some years ago, and I never used it after school.  Because of path dependency, they compel the students to use the same technology I used a quarter century ago in high school algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.  Wow, am I really that old?   In any case, this would have been akin to my having to use a slide rule while in those courses, as one could argue that button mashing somehow left more to the machine than to the man.

Perhaps it’s better to ask what the goal is in requiring all the students to learn college algebra, when they’ll forget the material in the months to follow?  A class in logic would be far more useful for many if not most of the students required to take this class, as it is the last math signpost in the road.  Fact is I couldn’t even get a straight answer from what the coordinators believe the students should be learning and retaining.

I suppose the reader can sense me baring my own frustrated narcissism, but I can report that the lecturers to which I’ve been assigned very much have appreciated my jumping in to help them teach.  Yet the powers that be don’t bother to observe this interaction.  And I’ve received praise from my students for teaching them concepts in a uniquely clarifying style. Can you imagine my frustration when someone young enough to have been in grade school when I managed these very classes myself telling me that I was not trustworthy to the department?  Furthermore, to my knowledge, no one has taken complaints I’ve flagged seriously.  My cynicism tells me that my offering advice on how to run the ship better was very poorly received.  I get that–it’s human nature, as is my reviling against unfair criticism.

My sincere hope is that if anything positive comes out of COVID, it forces most business and classwork to more easily migrate online; this is the future.  Rich corporate executives might think otherwise, but work-from-home is a very good idea, and admits less stress.  We’re very much unprepared for this scenario, so it’s no time like the present to invest resources centrally into solving all of these problems across the board.  And it seems that may be happening.  I’m discovering that the powers that be are having to adopt suggestions  I made during orientation, as students may or may not have access to printers or their TI machines.  So we migrate to a paperless, online experience with exams proctored through the Zoom tool.   (Incidentally, Zoom stock has ballooned at the time of this writing.  Another missed opportunity to get rich, I suppose.)  And I’m helping students edit PDFs using online opensource tools since the department has no obvious solution, and their expectation in the past was that students would print out worksheets, write in their answers, then scan them into PDFs.  This, of course, was another component for which I had suggested we provide an end-to-end digital solution.  Can you imagine, even before this crisis, how badly that had gone with every assignment?  Badly.

So what’s the lowdown on all of this?  Is it that I feel insulted and not heard?  Or is it the overall risk to and effects on my students?  And they are my students, are they not?  Education is less and less what I recognize.  A university course is a sacred trust, a bond between the teacher and the taught, the scholar and the students.  You and your teacher work together to succeed.  I think the answer is both and all.  I feel insulted, and I don’t mind commenting publicly when the effects are deleterious to my students.

It is a deep shame, and many other educators, current and retired, have shared similar stories with me.  Junior college and university level instruction, to say nothing of that of secondary and below, seems to be fraying, and though I’ve always cared about teaching a great deal, as my teaching_philosophy clearly indicates, hope is waning, as we have many, many other battles to win in the days ahead.  So let’s now turn to the rest of the good news about returning to school.

Research Opportunities Everywhere

I’ve joined the department at a good time, certainly.  In the department of statistics, we confront the immense growth and demand for statistics.  My chair Joseph Watkins recently netted the university an immense grant for a data science foundation, an operation which will transcend the many research departments across the campus, including astronomy, biology, epidemiology, genomics, optical sciences, engineering, computer science, applied mathematics, and so on and on.  It’s an incredible grant he, Helen Zhang, and many others had quite a hand in creating.  I’m very honored to have the rare opportunity to offer a little bit of input here and there, and I plan to put my industry experience to good use.  I’ve noted how data science, statistics, and machine learning finds application across logistics, operations research, technological performance, market and ads testing, and community operations.  This is indeed exciting.

And another incredibly important piller here is the newly-appointed chair of applied mathematics, one Dr. Misha Chertkov, a faculty member from Los Alamos with an impressively varied research pedigree and an inslakable thirst for ground in the most fertile and forward reaches of applied mathematics, statistics, computer science, engineering, machine learning, and the like.  I think it’s safe to say I may have discovered my advisor.  Other interesting possibilities include astrophysics research, and of course, the project I mentioned earlier with Noam.

So I would argue, obviously, that returning to school was the correct decision for me.  And I’m incredibly blessed to be here.  So I’ll end on some more inspirational themes.

“Look for the Helpers”

As the late great Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers”, and you’ll know there is hope.  There are many good people out there doing good work to help each other.  This is a time through which we can demonstrate our resolve, both as Americans and as a species.  We can join together with countless others to look for the new political narrative, perhaps one like that described by George Monbiot, to ease our passage through this critical junction in our history.  COVID demonstrates how much alike we all really are, and, like the more ominous catastrophic climate change, how little discrimination and division makes any sense in today’s world.  Looking for something gentle to watch last  night, we returned to the original Cosmos series, and I was actually quite surprised at how moved I found myself in listening to Carl Sagan’s gentle words in the opening and closing pieces of the episode.  In closing to said series, he offered the following inspiration, and I’d invite you to listen.  I genuinely believe our species is worth saving, and maybe this is our opportunity to move forward.  With that, please, please be safe.  Here’s a beautiful sunset in Tucson right outside my door–enjoy.