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24 hours in Chi-town

13 Feb

Ice on the Chicago River

When you agree to be a speaker at a mid-February conference in Chicago, you can’t be surprised (and I wasn’t) when the weather forecast turns menacing. With a quick change of my return flight to beat the snowstorm—and with thanks to University Park airport’s new direct flights to Chicago—I was able to arrive on Tuesday afternoon, speak on Wednesday morning, and get back to State College by Wednesday night, a few hours before the snow started to fall.

The conference was the International Public Science Events meeting, the third annual gathering of public engagement professionals from all over the world. I spoke at the group’s inaugural meeting two years ago and it was exciting to see how much they’ve grown since then.


The keynote address was called “Science Events and the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement” and explored the ways in which the lines between science and popular culture are blurring, changing the practice of science outreach nationally and internationally. This really set a thought-provoking tone for the meeting! The speakers were Peter Linett, the “Chief Thought Officer” at an audience research consulting firm, and M.I.T.’s John Durant, founder of the Cambridge Science Festival. One comment I jotted down and will continue to think about: “Science events are part of a larger cultural change towards the informal, playful and subjective.”  Linett, Durant and attendees had a good discussion of how these changes are reflected in public science events today and debated the wider implications of this changing landscape.

The hour-long session I co-presented with Theresa Yu Huan Liao, from the University of British Columbia was titled “Building on Success: Expanding Your Outreach Programming” and was both well-attended and well-received. It always pleases me most when there is a lively Q&A session and, in this case, there certainly was. People are eager for both practical tips and conceptual frameworks that will enhance the success of their research/science programming. It was exciting to continue chatting after my session ended with many attendees from all over the country and the world. I made many great new contacts and felt recharged about my work promoting Penn State research through creative and accessible public engagement events.

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A “selfie” on Michigan Avenue, wearing my mother’s warm woolen knitwear. Thanks Mom!

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A detail of the ornate entrance to the Chicago Tower building.

There was just enough time that afternoon to stretch my legs with a brief walk across the river to the famous neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, home of the Chicago Tribune and one of my longtime favorite buildings in Chicago or anywhere! (Sadly, I discovered they recently closed their Tribune gift shop in the lobby which always was a great source for journalism-geek type gifts. It still exists, but only online. Another sign of the times.)

Then it was back to the airport–where I enjoyed their current light-show installation for the second time in 24 hours!–and hopped on my flight home.

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A snowy view of campus from my office window today.

International Science Events colleagues: I hope to see you at next February’s meeting. Though I love Chicago, might I suggest…San Diego?

St. Augustine, Thanksgiving here first En Español

22 Nov

St. Augustine Lighthouse

Thanksgiving is coming.  A holiday enjoyed by nearly everyone in the country and perhaps my favorite secular holiday.  And yes, unlike in other places, Thanksgiving in the U.S. is secular although everyone of every faith celebrates in their own way.  A truly diverse holiday.

The first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 in Plymouth Plantation is usually what we think of when we think of the origins of the holiday, but is that true?  How Northern European centric are we being with that celebration?

A few weeks back I was in Gainesville, Florida, for a meeting and had the opportunity to go to St. Augustine with an archaeologist as a guide — at least for part of the day.  St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish crown in 1565 as a military installation, is still the oldest European-based settlement in the U.S.  When the Spanish landed, they immediately fortified an area, offloaded their ships and had a mass of thanksgiving and a feast.  The first Thanksgiving.  Probably, but not important really.  The settlement site was attacked, burned down a number of times and rebuilt, and while it moved from Spanish to English to Spanish to English hands, there were always people in the area.

What is important is that nearly everyone outside of Florida who is not an American history teacher of some kind thinks of the Plymouth colony, or Jamestown settlement.  The first European child born in what would become the U.S. was not Virginia Dare, but Martín de Argūelles, born in 1566.  St. Augustine was also an unusual place in that while it had slaves, they weren’t all from Africa and there were many African freemen as well.  Why? Because if you pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown and converted to Catholicism you could be a resident and protected.  Slavery, as ugly as it is, was of a different sort.  A Spanish slave could buy his or her freedom and many did.


Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, FL

Some of the early 17th century town still exists and has been conserved.  The 17th century fort, the oldest in the continental U.S., still stands on the water’s edge facing the bay.  The chapel, living areas and the “necessary” are still there.

These men and women, whether Spanish soldiers, their wives, native Americans from the Saturiwa or Africans undoubtedly spoke Spanish as their common language.  They attended church together, and while excluding other faiths, they embraced other differences.

It is only because England won the wars against Spain and France and Florida was a prize passed back and forth that St. Augustine is not what we look to at Thanksgiving.  I suppose it is a case of to the victors go not only the spoils but the place in history.

Archaeologically, we know a lot about the St. Augustine settlement and its original location in what is now Fountain of Youth Park.  A new exhibit, “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins,” curated by Kathleen Deagan of the University of Florida at the Florida Museum of Natural History, opened last week and we had a preview at Old Colony House in St. Augustine, where the exhibit will remain until 2016.  Eventually, this exhibit will travel across the country, bringing the Spanish origins of many of our citizens to light.

Remembering Professor Daniel Walden

21 Nov

Earlier this month, Penn State University lost a true legend. Daniel Walden, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, died Friday, November 8, 2013 at Mount Nittany Medical Center at age 91, after a brief illness. 2319566Arriving on campus in 1966 — the same year Joe Paterno became Penn State’s head football coach—Walden was a faculty member at Penn State until 1988. Whether he ever really retired is a matter of some debate though. Writer Cynthia Ozick paid tribute to Walden at the time in an article fittingly titled “Remarks on Dan Walden’s Retirement (Even Though He Is Tireless and Didn’t Retire and Never Will!)”

Walden remained a familiar and beloved presence on campus, as he continued to teach one course each semester, alternating between the departments of English and Comparative Literature. He was able to teach for two weeks  this semester (a course on ethnicity and literature)  before his ailing health prevented him from continuing.

When someone has lived a long and productive life, it is impossible to summarize them. The task takes many years and many people, many conversations and recollections, all adding up to a rich kaleidoscopic perspective. The abundance of articles on, interviews with and tributes to Dan Walden are a testament to the multifaceted life he lived.

Some pieces touch on his Philadelphia childhood and family; some on his Army experiences and his pre-academia career as a Broadway singer (including a 1949 role in the chorus of Annie Get Your Gun with Mary Martin) while others focus on his degrees from the City College of New York, Columbia University and New York University. Almost always mentioned prominently are his pioneering works such as On Being Black: African American Literature from Douglass to the Present (1970), with Charles Davis, and On Being Jewish: Jewish American Literature from Cahan to Bellow (1974.)


Earl Merritt (left), director of multicultural equity programs, College of the Liberal Arts, and the late Daniel Walden, professor emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature.

No article on Walden’s career would be complete without noting that he founded the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature in 1975 and served continuously as its editor from then into 2011. SAJL was published by Purdue University but as of 2012 will be published by Penn State University Press.


In 1984 Walden published “The World of Chaim Potok,” a whole issue of SAJL. The following year, he published Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writers (Greenwood Press), DLB 28. Conversations with Chaim Potok came out in 2002 (University Press of Mississippi).

While these academic achievements are impressive,  they don’t begin to capture the full impact of Dan Walden’s life on the people who knew him. The outpouring of online condolences are filled with remarks such as these:

“Professor Walden, your life was a model for what I hope mine to be: one of curiosity, generosity, and love. Thank you.”

“He achieved so incredibly much but managed to remain one of the most generous and sweet human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”

“He was a good and kind man, and his smile lit up the whole world.”

“He served as an inspiration to us on how to lead a good life.”

“What a life; what a legacy. Many of us who were graduate students in the Department of English in the 1980s considered the Walden residence to be our home. Some of us were international students, thousands of miles away from home and family, and had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. My friends and I knew that when money was short (which was most of the time) and we could not return to Europe or to India, we had a seat at the Waldens’ Thanksgiving table.”

Many of these comments pay tribute to Dan’s beloved wife Bea Walden, who passed away exactly two years ago today  and who is remembered with great fondness by so many. The warmth and devotion of their marriage and generosity of their home comes through so many of the remembrances.

Professor Willa Silverman shared with me this poignant and telling recollection of Dan and Bea:

“Dan and Bea Walden were among the first people I met when I came to Penn State in 1988. I contacted Dan when I came to look for a place to live…He took me under his wing, driving me around wherever I needed to go, bringing me to his home for meals (which I remember as being lively, busy, warm, with people bustling in and out). He showed me extraordinary kindness as a new colleague and newcomer to Penn State. As many others know, Dan was an exemplary, generous, supportive colleague, who would always write a note of congratulations and encouragement on any ‘milestone’ (promotion, book published etc.). A pillar of our Jewish community, he always tried to attend milestone events of other members of our congregation. He was instrumental in the developing the Jewish Studies Program at Penn State, contributing his vision, time, energy, human qualities (his commitment to social justice and to the equal treatment of ethnic and religious minorities), and scholarly expertise. That the program is a thriving unit today is in good part a testament to Dan’s commitment to it.”

My own connection with Dan was as a friend of his family. I’ll always treasure the chats we had, and I can only imagine how much those closest to him will miss him. I hope they’ll take solace in knowing that, as associate professor of journalism Russell Frank recently wrote, a university is made truly great by luminaries such as Daniel Walden whose brilliance–not only as a scholar but as someone with true empathy and devotion to his fellow human beings— gives us all cause for “Penn State pride” in that slogan’s truest sense.

A Big Texas Welcome for Penn State Laureate Ken Womack

23 Oct

Texas is a blue and white place, from its famous bluebonnet meadows and its vast azure skies dotted with white clouds, to the blue and white on the Lone Star state’s flag.  But for three days in late October, Texas was extra blue and white, when Research On The Road rolled into town with Penn State laureate for the 2013-14 academic year, Kenneth Womack, associate dean for Academic Affairs and professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack with books he has authored.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack with books he has authored.

Research On The Road is a Penn State program that brings our faculty members to locations around the country with active Penn State alumni chapters for lively public talks on timely topics.


The topic this fall couldn’t have been more timely, a celebration of the Beatles on the 50th anniversary of the iconic band. Fortunately for us, Penn State’s laureate happens to be both an internationally recognized Beatles scholar as well as a native son of Texas. (Did you know that Texas is home to some of our largest and most active–and rapidly expanding–alumni chapters?)


Lake Lewisville, outside of Dallas, the location for our North Texas event.

Craig and Judy Micklow, North Texas chapter leadership.

Craig and Judy Micklow, North Texas chapter leadership.

Each of the three alumni chapters (all equally spirited and each locale turning out in large numbers for the events) would show us what makes them unique. The Penn State alumni in and around Dallas were organized go-getters and had the largest age range of the three chapters. Ask any member for the secret of their chapter’s success and they’ll tell you in two words: The Micklows. Craig and Judy Micklow have been running a tight ship for years as chapter president and treasurer, and do a phenomenal job. Our Research On The Road evening was a heartwarming mix of very young and very young-at-heart Penn Staters! The North Texas alumni also win the award for the most rousing Penn State team spirit, with a “We Are” chant led by Craig that shook the room! After folks mixed, mingled and enjoyed light refreshments, Ken took the stage for his entertaining and informative talk about the Beatles, little-known facts about their rise to fame and musical techniques, and the lasting impact of their legacy.

North Dallas alumni chapter members

North Dallas alumni chapter members


Alumni and future alumni sample the appetizers.

The youngest Penn Stater in the room.

A Beatles cover band played after the talk and inspired many to get up and shake a tail feather or two. People lingered until the very last note…what a great night!



The next morning we headed down the road a piece, 250 miles of road, to be exact. Our Houston event couldn’t have happened without help from the fine folks from the Penn State Chapter of Greater Houston, headed up by chapter presidents Jen Lemanski and treasurer Greg Kelley, and the Woodlands Area Chapter president Robina Radar. Thanks to all of them!


Melissa Beattie Moss (left) with Houston chapter president Jen Lemanski.

Houston is Ken Womack’s hometown and fittingly was our largest event, with about 150 people attending the evening talk. An article about our Research On The Road event in the Houston Chronicle (the largest newspaper in Texas and the sixth largest in the nation) didn’t hurt either.

The indoor/outdoor venue was perfect for our full house.




In addition to being our largest crowd, the Houston chapter distinguished itself by having perhaps the liveliest Question & Answer session of the three events. The other cities held their own, make no mistake, but Houston attendees included some really hardcore Beatles experts who tested—and fully appreciated—the depth of Ken’s scholarship on the topic.


It was a “standing room only” crowd, including some folks lined up outside the establishment to hear Ken’s talk.


Ken’s voice was put to the test; he talked for hours!


The leadership of PSUCenTex!

Last but by no means least on our Research On The Road trip: Austin! The PSU Central Texas chapter is in the very capable hands of president Sam Thomas, treasurer Steve Burke, and a whole team of active and energetic board members who helped make our Austin evening such a success.

The venue for our final Research On The Road event was Threadgill’s, an Austin institution steeped in music history. Janis Joplin got her start there, among others.  The room was packed with over about 115 Central Texas area Penn State alumni and friends, all in the mood to listen, learn, celebrate Penn State scholarship—oh, and to dance too!



We were especially honored to have Penn State Altoona Chancellor and Dean Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry in attendance. Many thanks for the tremendous support!


Chancellor Bechtel-Wherry showing that Penn State lives in Austin!


Melissa Beattie Moss, left, with Chancellor Bechtel-Wherry, in the Janis Joplin Memorabilia Room at Threadgill’s.

Even after hearing Ken’s talk on the Beatles several times, I still learned new things each time. What an inspired teacher he is!  The Austin crowd was fascinated by his insights into such things as the band’s relationship with George Martin and their experiments with techniques like the “wind up piano” which relies on recording a song’s piano part at half-speed and then doubling it to normal speed to produce a harpsichord-like effect.

Our event in Austin was made even more special by the presence of Ken’s family and friends in the audience.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack, native Texan, with his parents.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack, native Texan, with his parents.


The Womack family enjoyed a front-row seat for Ken’s talk.

A personal highlight for me, throughout the week, was meeting Penn State alumni who rarely participated in their chapter’s events, but were inspired to connect with their alma mater because of Research On The Road! This is the kind of thing that makes the months of advance planning extra meaningful.


Mr. Wicker graduated from Penn State in 1969 and this was his first-ever event with the alumni chapter. Great to have you with us, sir!

It was sad to say “so long” to our Texan Penn Staters but it feels good to know that so many people were able to meet and learn from laureate Ken Womack and take pride in our University’s broad array of research strengths and deep commitment to teaching—including bringing life-long learning opportunities directly to our alumni chapters! Look for more adventures from Research On The Road this spring, y’all!


The Last Word on the First Grad Degree

4 Sep

The start of an academic year is traditionally a time to look forward. In this blog entry, I choose to look back. Maybe it’s the historian in me.

In 2012-13 Penn State observed the 150th anniversary of the awarding of its first graduate degree.


C. Alfred Smith

One hundred fifty years ago, the academic year began in February and ran until early December, so the college was not even in session when, on January 3, 1863, President Evan Pugh penned a kind of “to whom it may concern” note of 202 words certifying that C. Alfred Smith “possesses a very good general knowledge of practical, analytical, and pharmaceutical chemistry and will be able to work successfully at any ordinary chemical work.”

Below his signature, as if an afterthought, Pugh wrote: “In view of Mr. Smith’s year spent as a resident graduate, he receives the degree of Master of Scientific and Practical Agriculture.” It was the first such degree ever awarded by an American institution, although no formalities marked the occasion.

The University created a graphic to commemorate the anniversary. It’s no longer used, I’m told, since we’ve moved on to a new academic year. I’m including it here, along with a photo of C., for old time’s sake. Pugh’s note may be seen in the University Archives in Paterno Library.GradSchoolButtonVert

Today we think of research and graduate education going hand in hand. That wasn’t quite the case in 1863. Penn State had opened its doors only four years earlier and was an academic unknown. The college catalog offered grad students only a vague promise to establish “private laboratories . . . in which to pursue prolonged scientific investigations.”  C., who was a member of the institution’s very first undergraduate class, simply remained on campus for another year, studying under the tutelage of Pugh, who was an internationally recognized agricultural chemist and held a Ph.D. from Germany’s University of Goettingen.

Some confusion surrounds the first graduate degree(s), and I must confess that I contributed to it when writing my Penn State: An Illustrated History. When that book was published in 1985, I was among those who maintained (on page 49) that two students received the master of scientific agriculture in 1863.

The confusion may stem from the fact that another student, Augustus King, was indeed enrolled for graduate work. But in August 1862, he went home to New York to visit his father, Charles King, who was president of Columbia University. Within a few days Augustus contracted typhoid and died.

The King connection with Penn State is noteworthy. Augustus had a pedigree: his grandfather, Rufus King, was a signer of the Constitution; his father was a nationally known educator who had presided over Columbia since 1849; and his brother, also Rufus, was a general in the Army of the Potomac. What was Augustus doing at an upstart agricultural college in the Pennsylvania hinterland? At a college so reluctant to be known as a college that it called itself the Farmers’ High School when it first opened its doors?

Even more curiously, in 1863-64, three more Columbia students enrolled for grad work. Why? Was there a Pugh-King connection of some kind? Did the two presidents even know each other? The historical record seems to be silent on this subject.

If there was a Pugh-King connection, it ended in 1864 when Pugh himself succumbed to typhoid. The spigot closed on the Columbia pipeline, so to speak.

Penn State’s foray into graduate education subsequently languished for want of strong, visionary leadership. Only one student enrolled between 1864 and 1867. In desperation, the institution offered graduate work for free, representing a savings of at least $250! From the 1867-68 catalog:

“To students who shall hereafter graduate at the College . . . having a high standard for scholarship and conduct throughout the last two years of their undergraduate course, the privilege will be accorded of pursuing a resident graduate course in their respective specialties, occupying two years, free of all charges for tuition, board, room rent, washing, and fuel.”

“Washing” meant laundry, of course. But even the notion of an unlimited supply of clean clothes got few takers. (Note to Interim Dean of the Graduate School Regina Vasilatos-Younken: Just because the idea didn’t catch fire then doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work now. You might want to include free laundry among the perks offered by today’s University Graduate Fellowships.) Most of the advanced degrees Penn State conferred in the late 19th century were done so on the basis of professional achievement and went to engineers. Degrees such as Civil Engineer (C.E.), Mechanical Engineer (M.E.), and E.M. (Engineer of Mines) did not even require resident enrollment, let alone a research paper or project.

Research-based graduate study did eventually come about, and started to become rigorous and systematic after the Graduate School was founded in 1922. Research Communications has been running a series of feature stories this year that sample the research of Penn State grad students. Watch our research news site for more stories this fall.

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