Tuesday, September 28, 2010


It started out with me showing these two YouTubes in my class:

Cahokia - Mound builders - 500 Nations
KETC - Living St. Louis - Cahokia Archaeologists

A couple of details in them stuck in my craw; in the first, it was the suggestion that legends told by the Caddo, a tribe in Louisiana, would be related to the mound builder culture, and that their leader, a sun god, gave a string of commands that sounded like the ten commandments to the people of Cahokia. In the second, it was the fact that only 1% had actually been uncovered; that they had only been working on it for about 50 years, and that one could, in the shadow of interstates we know well, dig the earth oneself and find relics to connect to this culture.

So I spent some time over the weekend finding more:

Ancient Cahokia: Metropolitan life on the Mississippi, Washington Post
Mound 72: UMW Archaeological Laboratory
Status and gender differences in diet at Mound 72; JAA
Sacrificial virgins of the Mississippi, Salon Magazine
The Kassly Birdman Tablet

There were a number of things here that I couldn't believe. There is plenty written about the Cahokia culture, which flourished at about 1000-1100 but was around much longer; it did apparently have a strong leader, and there were, apparently, human sacrifices. They had contact with peoples as far away as the Rockies, the Gulf, Canada, the Carolinas, and the Great Lakes; they traded for shells and metals that they used ornamentally and for other purposes. Their city, now part of East St. Louis, was the largest in the Americas for over a thousand years, but was unconnected, as far as we know, to great empires in Mexico and South America.

Our unit was on artifacts, so we began talking about the actual things that were found there and nearby. One was the "Birdman tablet" which was found near Valmeyer IL around 2000 and given to a museum. The Bird man became a symbol of Cahokia as it was noticed that it played a role in their theology; while the bird man was good and represented order, light and good, the serpent was bad and represented the earth, chaos and the weeds that join the two. They alledgedly had a dualistic religion and the sun god, presumably, was tight with the bird man figure; they were aligned.

Back when I was in high school I got mad when our history class started with the arrival of Columbus and more or less floated right above the thousands of years of history that preceded it. When I questioned the teacher I found out what they knew: very little. These people still don't really have a name (Cahokia is a misnomer, belonging to a Kaskaskia tribe that came along later), and at the time I was in school, they were just making their first digs. But, when DeSoto came up from the Gulf, the Mississippians who remained (Cahokia was already covered with grass) turned back the Spanish, and other Native Americans came up and down the Mississippi for hundreds of years after their disappearance (they disappeared for unknown reasons between 1200 and 1300) until the first French started coming down the river, and even then didn't see the mounds. St. Louis was known as "Mound City" for years, but how many of these mounds have been studied systematically? How many other "bird man tablets" are out there? There's no way of knowing.

The web is full of speculation about where they came from, how they were connected to other world people, etc. It also has facts about what they've found, in Mound 72 and elsewhere, and some people have gone to lengths to document what they could see, generally by going to the historic center with a camera. It's not like anyone is hiding any of this stuff. But a major US city has been built around their empire, and in the process covered almost everything. In one story a man was building his swimming pool in a tract house in the 40s, and dug right into the main plaza of Cahokia. In another they moved the various interstates to accommodate what they knew, but still built a major intersection, 70 & 255, right over an important part; one archaeologist actually saw a bulldozer encounter one of the prize finds, a woman/serpent combination. You encounter the archaeologists and anthropologists, sometimes disagreeing with the methods of others, decrying the general lack of interest of the people of the area in the civilizations of years past.

A friend here lives down by the river which is known locally as "the bottoms"; in my reading, the area around Cahokia is knows as "the American Bottom." She says arrowheads are quite common in her family's farming experience, and appear every time it rains hard; in addition, there are a number of mounds that people simply farm around, not wanting to disturb an obvious grave area. This brings up a central problem of archaeology, to me: how do you justify rummaging through somebody's grave, even if they are over a thousand years old? Yet, if you don't, how do you learn everything you want to learn?

The second question of archaeology is this: they seem to assume that humans got more complex, more hierarchical, with time, as if egalitarian were the way of the primitive, back-to-nature tribes of the distant past, but only with European conquest did we get social classes, government, and progress. This is nonsense. Some of these things, government, cities, taxes, hierarchy, bureaucracy, etc. seem to be as old as humans themselves. One of the running theories about the decline of Cahokia is that egalitarian prairie life simply became more attractive to people, and they left; if so, it shows that people always will vote with their feet, and any culture will only last as long as it can maintain its attractive appearance. The question remains: what things about people's existence in these cultures are subject to what we know as progress? After all, we now look at human sacrifice as abhorrent, primitive, and barbaric. Yet the state of Virginia just executed a woman, and we still fight wars in which we bomb villages and whole encampments of Taliban, or whoever. I'm not claiming that our wars are the same as the sacrifice of young women in Mound 72; I'm not even sure we know what that was all about. But, another thousand years, somebody might look at Tamms (small-town home of Illinois' "Super-Max") and its highway sign (A Nice Place to Live), along with other archaeological finds from the local cemetery, and wonder, what kind of civilization was this, anyway?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

go salukis!

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Not to point out the obvious, but a lot has been happening on the texting front lately. First, the fact that it's a huge hazard on the road has distracted people from the other aspects of the situation. A wretched accident in town the other day was presumed to be caused by a texter, and it may well be true that a good 20-30% of traffic in a town like this (where 70-80% of drivers are between 18 and 25) are distracted, either by calling or texting; this leads to an enormous amount of bad driving, and it frustrates the remaining minority who do pay attention. But that's not what concerns me; it's obvious, to me, that this is a problem; my only question is, when will technology be able to prevent texting while driving (or reserve it for emergencies, when it is most useful)?

Second, and this to me is more interesting: obviously people are texting more than they're writing. Obviously abbreviations like b/c, s/one, @ and b4 are slipping into more standard venues of ordinary English (for example, teachers writing on blackboards, or people writing memos or notes to each other); this is because, when you write b/c a million times a week, and because only a thousand, and you're in a neutral, or nonjudgmental enviornment where either could be acceptable, you'll tend toward what you come to consider the default...and chat becomes the default in this case. So the language changes slowly but surely.

In addition texting has these emoticons - :P , :-) , ;-) , too numerous to mention, and these have a life of their own and are even quite different from culture to culture; perhaps more amazing is that cultures with their own languages often share these, so that for example, Korean chat and English chat have certain emoticons in common, though there could be shades of meaning-difference from culture to culture. My point is that there is a world of research to be done in sub-languages, language development, etc. and some very interesting generalizations could arise as a result of watching what people do and come up with in a situation where virtually anything goes. It's true, they tend to start with the grammar at least of a common language; they shorten whenever possible and whenever the person at the other end can understand easily; it's true that they make assumptions about the universality of emoticons and such, assumptions that are probably often false; it's true also that, as texting moves from simply a medium for isolated phone encounters, between people who already know each other well, to a generalized medium used by many, among many, for many purposes, it takes on a more generalized character where a large number of symbols and abbreviations are mutually understood.

This may be more apparent in a town that for all intents and purposes has a large university but virtually nothing else; our 18-25 population is almost 90%, or seems that way; people everywhere seem to be texting, while they walk, while they stand around, while they are in line at the post office. Another language develops in our midst. It seems to be a constant preoccupation, as if real-life f2f talking no longer does the trick.

Friday, September 03, 2010

105 arrives

It's a busy time; I'll be the first to say, I'm letting this poor blog rust a little in the fall dew. A lot of personal issues keep me occupied; at work, I'm the new grammar coordinator (see below) which brings an enormous material-shuffling responsibility which I'm not quite caught up on. For a variety of reasons I'm way behind on everything, but I thought I'd comment on the aspects of the world that I see rushing by like rocks in a river that one is rafting on.

Google docs - my first apology is for not putting my writing on google docs better, more clearly, more cleanly; I need a lesson, and haven't had time to get it. I'm a fan of google (this blog remains, years after others have faded or become unavailable)...and I've found no better place to put things. But I haven't had time.

Facebook - CESL Facebook continues to be quite a sleepy spot, with few new pictures and an occasional ungrammatical post. As some students post great pictures on their own sites, I don't even link to them or point them out. Why should I? Would this really help CESL? Or are we better off having a sleepy, but decent, spot?

In the larger picture, Facebook now has a "Places" option and once again makes you part of it whether you're aware of it or not, and you have to be well aware of all the privacy controls on the inside of your account, to change anything. With this "places" option any of your friends can know exactly where you are (and why, again, would I want this?)...and this of course assumes that all our friends have secure accounts, which are not subject to the kind of tampering that makes one of my friends, already, try to sell me some kind of spam junk. No, I'm sure all my friends are ok, and so are theirs, and theirs, although I'm also aware that quite a few accounts have been broken into. But, again, why would I want all these people to know where I am, all the time?

Grammar as a discrete topic - We remain one of a minority of programs which teach grammar as separate from writing, speaking, etc. Our students remain grammar-challenged at the top, whether that be because they were grammar-challenged to begin with, because a discrete class doesn't help them (and even hurts them???)...or because whatever we've been doing, we haven't been doing well. I intend to find out and advocate for the best solution (furthermore, I'm interested in your opinion). I have the chance to put into practice several fundamental aspects of my philosophy: 1) grammar is more about applying principles when making sentences, than about filling in the proper form in a blank; 2) grammar is not rocket science; if the vast majority of American children can understand and learn it, adults can too; 3) when adults learn a complete system, questions about the big picture are inevitable, but answering these questions is basically a distraction from the problem at hand, which is stated in #1; and, finally, 4) every class must keep the big picture in mind, even while rushing through minor grammar points, pressuring the students, getting them to learn single isolated patterns; the big question is, are they taking everything they have learned, and using it successfully? I say, if we haven't applied these principles successfully, then we haven't tested out whether a discrete grammar class can help a program. And I intend to try.

Self-organized system theory - I've done virtually nothing about this, being too busy. Too bad. It's a theory dying to be spelled out. And it may have to wait until I retire!

Google Wave - Came and went, without me even trying it. Too bad! If I had designed it, it would have had more pop art in it, I suppose.

Nings - seem to be out of the picture. Again, I barely knew what they were. My yahoo e-mail address was cancelled, because I didn't log on enough. Free things are taken away, faster than you can sign up for them. My new philosophy is: simplify! Either that, or log on regularly, just as a matter of course.

TESOL 2011 - Love New Orleans, love TESOL, might miss them both. Sorry! I did make proposals. But I always do, and my faith in their innovative character is running a little low.

Weblogs - I still use them. But there is so little interest from the rest of the faculty that I barely keep them current. I am having trouble, in fact, keeping them presentable, when students more often post on the wrong ones than the right ones; when students confuse it with the moodle, etc. To me there is still great benefit in making work public. The light and the air hit it. People see it and read it. It becomes part of the scenery; it shows what we do, what we read and what we write. I'm proud of that. But I apparently am a voice in the wilderness here. And even with the advent of mass spamming (which plagues the blogspot system), it's still worth it.

Moodle - a great system here has spared me from whining and moaning about Blackboard and its monopolistic byzantine system. Instead, full professors are whining and moaning about Blackboard, and we are using a system called Moodle which is working well, downloaded for free. It's kind of like the way the university switched over from a private e-mail server that cost tens of thousands, to g-mail, which was free, and wondered for years how that was even possible. But it was, and they did it. This system also is plagued with some spamming; people need to figure out how to get these porn junkies off of the interstate. But in every other way, it seems to be a huge, and wonderful, innovation in the world of education. It's a system, a meeting place, a glass window showing everyone everything. Both enlightening, and dangerous.

Labels: , , , ,