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Cactus Pryor

Yesterday, Austin lost a local icon and legend. Richard “Cactus” Pryor died Tuesday (August 30) at age 88. He worked in local broadcast media for sixty years, mostly at the radio station once owned by the LBJ family. Rather than rehash what others are saying about him, I’ll just offer links.

So why talk about him here? I always admired him, and want to honor him on my stage. The one time we met, we talked Longhorn football and his favorite word. He always signed off saying, “Cactus Pryor, Thermostrockermortimer.” Everyone, including everyone at the station, longed to know what it meant. Of course, he refused to reveal it to me, a stranger. He once said somewhere, "The phrase is in the Bible; if you don't find it, keep reading."

I’m not sure if anyone really knows even now, although, a former coworker of his called in to the station today claiming he told her recently that “It doesn’t mean a #%$@%$ ^#@#$  $^%$^%&* thing.” Fair enough.

Agnus Dei

A friend linked this video on facebook. This kid on a Brazillian young talent show belts out one of my most favorite songs. I’ve been posting a lot recently on heavy policy stuff and other denser fare. Here is a pleasant, inspiring break from that to remind us why we do all that we do. I hope you will take four minutes to quietly enjoy this.

I first remember hearing this song in the summer of 1991. I was studying abroad in Siberia, and our group was on a bus riding through the Altai Mountains in south central Siberia. I was borrowing a friend’s Michael W. Smith cassette and had the earphones on as I watched the scenery go by, and this song came on.

It is hard to describe the jumble of feelings that I had—a sense of both home and homesickness, joy, awe, and I don’t know what else. I was carried to a special place and listened to it over and over. I can’t hear it today without remembering that day.

I pray there are songs or sights or smells that carry you to a special time or place. They are true spiritual treasures.


Faculty Mindset

In the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education is an article entitled, “The 2011 Mind-Set of Faculty (Born Before 1980).” The author, Professor Bruce Krajewski is playing off of an annual list published by Benoit College describing the current mindset of entering freshmen for the benefit of faculty and administrators. Krajewski responds by describing twenty-two aspects of the academic worldview of current faculty. Most of them apply, as the title indicates, to the generations of faculty born before 1980, though some apply to generations pre-1970.

My first response upon reading it was “A-MEN.” I said so in replying to the friend who forwarded the article to me. Krajewski  accurately describes many of my thoughts on education and the role of faculty and their interactions and expectations of students. I found myself wishing that students (and administrators) understood that better and that the administrators would support and back us in these things better.

Then I started thinking, rather than reacting emotionally.

Keys to Student Success

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry”                                                                                             James 1:19

Today, Pastor preached on the passage introduced by this verse and two of his points stood out to me as keys to student success:  listening, and persevering.

Virtue in Education

I came across this story today with the picture to the left about how the “Old Guard” patrols, maintains and honors Arlington National Cemetery. In particular, it tells of how the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is guarded every second of every day and has for over 63 years, including through this weekend’s hurricane Irene.

The soldiers in the Old Guard view this assignment as the very highest honor they could ever have. They are fallen human beings like the rest of us, and I have no idea what their personal lives are like. But at the very least, in this area, they display some of the highest virtues humanity can express.

Teaching Encounters of the First Kind

It is widely acknowledged that true Christianity is not a Sunday morning religion but a 24/7 relationship and way of life. Similarly teaching is not limited to the classroom or even the campus.

Tonight I was hand watering some planters on my front porch when one of the neighbor kids walked by. We said hi to each other and he commented about a snake he’d been looking at. He went to his buddy’s house to take him to see the snake. They are normal boys after all. After I finished watering, I decided to wander over to see the excitement.

Wanted: Community

Several years ago, a group of new faculty from across UT decided to intentionally stay in touch after new faculty orientation. I somehow managed to join them even though I’d been there two years already. The group still gets together infrequently. Tonight was a ‘newer faculty happy hour’ at a popular watering hole near campus.

It was good to see some of the old crowd and meet some of the new. I seem to be the only Christian in the group, so I don’t always feel like I fit in. However, I was talking with a Chinese faculty member there from the Accounting department. She has been at UT for two years, and this group are her only friends in Austin outside her department. But she doesn’t come often because she doesn’t drink.

A Good Staff

There are times when you are blessed to be surrounded by good people. A great leader can be surrounded by mediocre people (or worse) and still lead them to success, and conversely, even a bad leader can look great when surrounded by great people.

An example of the first is Christ and His disciples—a great leader with a dysfunctional tribe. Yet through them, He revolutionized a planet, and in fact, is a hallmark of the way He does things—His signature on events. (I Corinthians 1)

Nearly all of us can think of examples of the second—an incompetent manager who somehow has a good team and they are able to function as a unit without leadership to do extraordinary work.


Tonight, I finally started something I’ve been meaning to for a couple of years now. I tend to work late, so my building on campus is pretty quiet when I leave, usually just the custodial staff and a few grad students working on their chemical reactions. Tonight, I began prayerwalking my building. I started on the top (5th) floor and walked the entire hallway and dropped to the 4th floor below, praying all along.

What did I pray about?

GPA versus Income

A while back, I wrote about an exercise I did with my 2006 freshman chemistry class where I suggested that those who do well in the class “donate” part of their grade to those doing poorly in the class. Well, a student who just graduated from UC Merced actually polled students on camera to see the response, four and a half years after I first proposed it.  The sound quality of the video isn’t great, so turn up the speakers.

Going the Distance

Christ’s Great Commission is to “Go into the world, making disciples of all nations…” Many Christians rightly take this commission with all the seriousness and passion it deserves…yet not all of the discernment.

They are right to see the eternal ramifications of people’s choice about Christ. They are right to love them enough to engage them on the most important question they can ever address. The problem arises when they try for an instant conversion.

It’s like meeting a girl on the street, saying, “Hi, my name is Frank. Here’s a church. Let’s get married.” Tends to frighten the poor gal off, and rightfully so.

Old School

Think back to the time when you first decided you wanted to be a professor. What did you imagine it would be like?

Hours in the lab or library finding either new cutting-edge or ancient discoveries?
Drawing new conclusions from apparently tired out data?
Teaching starry-eyed students waiting to hear wisdom pour forth like a refreshing mountain stream from your mouth?
Shaping the careers of future scholars in your research group like fresh clay in the hands of a master potter?
Writing monographs that revolutionize your field, drawing accolades from your academic idols?
Sitting in a richly furnished study talking over deep things with colleagues that have become close friends?

Yeah, me too.

The New Old

As a new semester arrives like an oncoming bullet freight train, I am praying for great patience. One of the things I have to remind myself continually is no matter how old the mistakes and the immaturity may be, it is a new crop of students and so I can’t get frustrated with them because this is the thousandth time I’ve had to deal with this. I hope by reminding myself of this already, I will achieve a new level of patience, so that even if it is the tenth time for a particular student, I can respond (rather than react) to them with the serenity and mentoring attitude I had the first time I ever heard their issue from a different mouth as a TA 18 years ago.

I am also trying to remind myself to watch for the good students, to let the problem students fade into the background rather than dominating my attention, coloring my perception of the class as a whole.

The squeaky wheel may and should get the grease, but the others deserve attention also, and praise. There is a forest of students out there, and only a few thornbushes. I need to enjoy the forest even as I prune the thorns.

My attitude makes the difference, for all.


Saving Students Money

As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, higher education is undergoing much greater scrutiny these days, especially in Texas. One of the key areas of contention is the cost of going to college. This is actually a large umbrella for many related issues:  tuition, cost of books, educational value, overall debt upon graduation, and so on. Today, I offer some perspectives on these.

The Church and Sex

A friend posted the following link on the ubiquitous facebook:  $28-Billion-Crime: New film shows the dark connection between sex addiction and sex trafficking.” I had to really think through whether and how to cover this deep of a subject without diluting it by overhype or platitudes. The topic of sex and sexual sin is both over- and under-exposed in the Church. Because the topic seems so private, it can be hard to realize the global implications of one’s personal choices.

C.S. Lewis put the topic of lust and pornography in his typically unique way by comparing it to gluttony. He described both hunger and the sex drive as natural God-given aspects of being corporeally human, yet, we would think it quite odd for someone to drop a coin in a machine to have pictures of a roast turkey or ice cream or pizza pop up in a titillating fashion for a few seconds before disappearing until the arrival of the next coin. Such a person would rightly be viewed as mentally unstable or not quite right in the head, needing professional help. Why would we consider porn any different?

The Zone

When an athlete is making every move count and no one seems able to stop them, we say they are “in the Zone.” They are focused, all cylinders are firing perfectly, distractions don’t, and productivity is at a max. What is most interesting about ‘the Zone’ is that it is usually temporary, often in both time and space. The better and more a person can keep themselves in the Zone, the more rewarding it is.

Training and discipline seem to be two keys for maximizing that, but there are factors unique to each person that affect where and when and how they get into the Zone. I have discovered that for me, I tend to need a set of fairly well defined tasks whose progress is easily measured. I tend to find the Zone most easily in my office on campus after 5 or 6 p.m. When in the Zone, I can keep the pace up often for 6-8 hours or more. The downside is that it is rather late when I call it quits and I’m rather tuckered out at the end, but I got a lot done in that time.

Often is the time I wish that my Zone occurred after 5 or 6 am and still continued for 6-8 hours. I don’t know why I focus better in the evening. If I’m at home at that time, I want to unwind and kick back. It needs to be in my office. But knowing this about myself, I can plan accordingly.

When and where is your Zone? How have you been able to expand or change it to suit your needs?


“Subvert The Dominant Paradigm”

A friend posted a link to this video on facebook. I don’t agree 100% with the speaker, but close. Sir Ken Robinson explains the fundamental flaws in our current educational system and why these things don't work. It runs 11 minutes, and is worth the time, and the animation is pretty good. Now to figure out what the new paradigm looks like in practice...


Inflation of the Educational Kind

Today, I came across a couple of articles on grade inflation, and they resonated with me for several reasons:  I’ve noticed the increased pressures and tendencies to do it, the authors identified the same causes I did independently, and I believe some of the current political controversies about higher ed have the potential to make the problem worse.

The first article talks about the causes, listing pressure from students, administration, colleagues, and even ourselves.

Fresh Minds, Waiting to be Molded Awakened

Colleagues, the new academic year is upon us. The freshmen are here. For us, it’s the same old drill. For them, it’s a brand, brave, new world. Some are scared spitless, others excited at the scent of new freedom, others have wild oats waiting to be felt and seized, and still others believe themselves ready to take on the establishment and conquer old paradigms with the wisdom of youth.

And we, the old paradigms, are laughing behind our wizened beards.

Each of these is about to undergo probably the greatest intellectual rite of passage in their lives. Their bodies are fully developed, but their minds are about to have the greatest growth spurt since the acquisition of language.

The question that lies before us then, colleagues, is will we try to shape these minds, to force them into some mold, conform them to the image of society, prepare them to be good little worker bees with our droning?

Or will we give them tools and train them in their usage so that they will engage their assumptions and perceptions, challenge to seek what is truth, to keep that and reject the rest, to be able to pierce the veils of mere rhetoric to examine for meaning and clear thought?

One is the easy way out. The other is our job, and duty.



Sometimes (often) we humans are humourously pathetic. How often have you seen a child or a pet act good in front of you, but you can tell there is mischief in their mind that they plan to jump into as soon as your back is turned?

We adults are no different.

It came to mind tonight about how recently, I had in mind to do something I knew I shouldn’t, but wanted God’s help for something else, so put the first out of mind long enough to pray for the help and get that task done, then went back to entertaining the original thought, as if God could be tricked.

You just want to laugh at the foolishness of it—not so much the choices themselves, but the sheer transparency of it. Ridiculous. We adults may be more sophisticated than kids, but we play the same juvenile games. The worst of it is how we lie to ourselves that we aren’t doing it.

The dirty little secret is that we all do it. No one is innocent of playing these mind games. And all of us think we can get away with it at least sometimes. Fortunately, like a good and loving parent, God forgives both insults (and make no mistake, they are grave insults against His character)—the sin and the hubris.

Thanks be to Christ for the grace that daily redeems us from our own conceit.