Not the traditional selfie

From Facebook on January 21, 2017. I have a long-standing tradition of taking selfies with the teams that win tournament champion and runner-up hardware at the {Clinch Mountain District | Conference 40 | Mountain 7 District} (select one, based on when you played) Tournament. In recent years, that’s been Central High School of Wise County and Gate City High School, in order. I dub them “the traditional selfies”.

I felt compelled to post this one outside of that tradition, because it represents the best of what my beloved buzzer game can be.


I met Alex Tabor when he was a junior at Virginia High School in Bristol. I THINK – don’t hold me to this – that I met Breanna Stokes when she was a sophomore at Gate City High School, but I really remember starting to get to know her (and the other Bree’s playing for Gate City – three of them in all!) when she was a junior. Both of them were great quiz players, players that would be a credit to any team.

So much of the joy I take from this game is the opportunity to get to know these students and have the opportunity to listen to them, to play even a small role in their lives. They study and learn in this game, and test their knowledge in public. Sometimes it goes well. Sometimes it doesn’t. I try not to miss a chance to tell them that they are doing great things from playing this wonderful game, that I’m proud of them.

Today, at 730 AM at Central, I was meeting with these two students, now finishing their education at ETSU, and we were preparing to read this tournament that they had played just a few short years ago. And just as I was proud of their play then, I am proud of the leadership they provide in this region now, even as college students, and I know they have more to contribute to this game – to education – in Southwest Virginia in the years ahead.

Alex, Bree: I love you. Thank you for sharing in this with me. I’m so happy for the chance to work alongside you.

Facebook status gratitude, February 27, 2016

The original, posted the day after I got a Twitter DM that made me weep real, actual tears. 


So here’s what you need to know about this photo.

If I have my calendar right, this photo was taken on January 18 of last year. It was the last time I read a match at Virginia High School, VHS’ last tournament as members of Conference 40 (although the Clinch Mountain Conference teams will likely reunite with the next VHSL reorganization). It was the first time I’d read VHSL matches since Virginia Intermont closed. I had exactly zero sense about what to expect, except that Central had been strong in 2013-2014, and they’d been absolutely dominant in the conference that season. I knew I’d see some good friends again (always know Virginia will want to see me, always will have love for friends at Gate City and John Battle), but Central had been new to the conference, and I didn’t know them that well, and…

…and I’m very certain all my nervousness and emotions about the day evaporated when Jack shouted to his teammates “YOU GUYS! CHUCK’S HERE!”

And I got MOBBED by these guys who I barely knew.

I have said it before, and I will surely say it until I die. I’ve read a lot of quizbowl, and I have had a lot of fun in this game, and I’ve seen guys from high school to graduate school and at all points in between. But the thing in my life I never expected, and that I will always savor, is the fact that a few small high schools in Southwest Virginia took to me so quickly, and called me their own, and that they have cheered for me and embraced me as completely as I have them – and that embrace continues, even as I’ve landed in middle Tennessee.

Even as I go to read Tennessee Science Bowl at Pellissippi State yesterday, and Central High School of Wise, Virginia knocks off, by the most conservative standard, a top-40 team in the NATION, the two-time defending state 2A champion, and what’s consistently one of the top three teams in the state of Virginia across all classifications.

Central will take their 2A state championship and start work on their national reputation at the PACE National Scholastic Championship in Chicago on June 4 and 5, where they will compete as a platinum qualifier – the highest level of qualification.

And these guys will be giving it their very best go.

Luke – that chill guy in the back – tweeted that his freshman year, his team went 0-14 in their conference. I’d never have believed it. They’ve all been so good for as long as I’ve known them. And they’ve progressively gotten better. And they got their payoff yesterday.

To Jack Huguenin, Luke Basham, Jared Lentchner, Ali Qureshi, and the rest of the Central crew: even as I try, there are no words to my pride, in all of you. Thanks for winning this for the Clinch Mountain Conference, and for showing your state what Southwest Virginia can do.

On Virginia Intermont, accreditation, and not going anywhere

Originally posted on Facebook on June 20, 2013.

For some of you, this is (already!) old news; for others, this is the first you will know.

The first thing you need to know: Virginia Intermont College is open for 2013/2014, and is full speed ahead. I am in the same preparations that I have been in for fall semester, and nothing will change about that.

Obviously, that framing implies that something bad has happened that could affect time beyond 2013/2014, and it has, I’m not going to lie.

The official word on what’s happend from the college can be found here, at the college’s website. There is also a link available for students to engage in a forum and to get their questions answered. Go there for the official word, and if you read nothing more, make sure you read that.

In summary: The faculty, staff and students of Virginia Intermont received word around 1:00 PM today that SACS has acted on Virginia Intermont’s accreditation, intending to remove VI from SACS membership and ending our accreditation.

Virginia Intermont obviously disagrees with SACS’ conclusions, and is going to move aggressively to reverse the decision AND to approach an appeals process (and, potentially, an injunction against SACS) in a fashion that continues accreditation of the college for the benefit of the students for as long as possible. Financial aid will remain secure for VI as long as that accreditation remains, and that accreditation will remain for 2013/2014 at the VERY least.

That’s a bit of party line, I know, but I’m going to stick to it. The one element that I will add that’s personal is this: I have believed in the work of the teaching-centered liberal arts college for pretty much my whole academic life. I benefitted from a teaching-centered undergraduate institution at Rose-Hulman, and the eight years I grew the most as a professional were spent at a teaching-centered undergraduate institution, Shorter College. Virginia Intermont occupies that same space, and I believe the work it performs is critical in American higher education now and going forward.

I linked to the Now Is The Time fundraising campaign on Facebook back in May, and I’m bringing that link back now. If you’re outside the community: the institution still can use donations in moving forward to help further its mission. You are investing in students’ futures when you give to an institution like Virginia Intermont College. Even in this difficult time, please consider doing so.

I’m here. I’m preparing for August. I’m not going anywhere.

In the case of Kiera Wilmot

Originally posted on Facebook on May 2, 2013.

Okay. I’m going to write this up and try to be even-handed with it, both from the perspective of being something of a science advocate and from the perspective for someone who’s essentially responsible for chemical safety and has been educated far better than he wants to be on what the lawyers can do given a little space.

What I’m providing a link to is a police report, published in The Ledger of Lakeland, Florida on April 23rd, concerning a small “explosion” and arrest of a student on the grounds of Bartow High School:

No one was hurt in the morning explosion, nor was school property damaged, said Principal Ron Pritchard.

Kiera Roslyn Wilmot, of *address redacted*, was charged with making, possessing or discharging a destructive device and with possessing or discharging weapons on school grounds. Both charges are felonies.

The girl told authorities she was conducting a science experiment, according to Bartow police, but science teachers at the school said they knew nothing about it. She also said she thought the materials would produce only smoke, not an explosion, police said.

Pritchard said he was standing nearby when the student left the drink bottle behind the cafeteria, near the lake on the school’s east side.

“It was next to the gazebo by the lake,” he said. “I wasn’t standing too far away when it happened. I just heard the pop, and I turned around. I thought it was a firecracker at first.”

Household materials were used to create the explosion, said Bartow police Lt. Gary McLin. He declined to say what those materials were, but said the information is available through the Internet.

Pritchard said the girl didn’t leave the area after the bottle exploded.

“She left it on the ground, and she stayed there,” he said. “We went over to where she was. She saw that we saw her, so she didn’t take off.”

He said she was taken to the school’s office, where police took her into custody.

Now, let’s be plain: it was published as a police report, so that’s why an address appears in the piece in the newspaper; that’s standard operating procedure, and we can bicker about how proper that procedure is another time. This also bears noting: no further articles were published about this event in either the local Lakeland paper immediately, or in the three major newspapers in the cities surrounding Bartow (the Orlando Sentinel, the Tampa Tribune, and the Tampa Bay Times).

As near as I can tell, the thing that actually moved the story was a news report on WTSP-TV yesterday at the midday (the publish time is 12:32 PM, May 1), where the principal was almost concilatory about the circumstances (“she has never been in trouble before, ever”) but where the school district made very clear that it was holding the line on calling for discipline (“Anytime a student makes a bad choice it is disappointing to us. Unfortunately, the incident that occurred at Bartow High School yesterday was a serious breach of conduct. In order to maintain a safe and orderly learning environment, we simply must uphold our code of conduct rules”). A blogger at CNET got a hold of the story with appropriately snarky commentary, and congratulations, we’re off to the viral-story races, with most of the commentary coming from scientific and liberal media of the “America hates science” variety (not hyperbole, the actual headline slapped on a Scientific American reprint).

After the fact, the Miami New Times got feedback from the district and the Bartow police on the event, and pretty much gets a standard party line along with the full details of the police report. Clearly the kid wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. But the “common household chemicals” she mixed, and sealing off the plastic bottle, created an explosive device. It’s a clear violation of the district’s student code of conduct. There is only one penalty for that violation, and that’s expulsion.

Now, given my position (the sole guy responsible for chemistry laboratories at a small college, who was quite happy to be a grunt teacher/theory jock and ignore all the reality about being responsible for laboratories in a previous existence), I am probably just a bit more sensitive to the reality of Bartow High School’s situation than the average bear, and I am CERTAINLY more sensitive than I was two years ago. And I just went to hideous pains above this to make sure I had the facts – both of the event AND of the reporting – so that I was certain I wasn’t coming out of left field with this take.

But: given the realities of 2013, I cannot blame anybody at Bartow High School or the police for doing what they have done thus far.

I have to say up front that not only am I not a lawyer, actual lawyers laugh up-front at anything I say. But put yourself in the principal’s shoes. Loud “POP” goes off on school grounds. Your first thought is “oh, dear God, it’s happened here, and now I have to find out how many student casualties I have.” When you find the explosive, you find it’s a classic metal-and-acid experiment, and the student confesses “I only thought it would smoke, I didn’t know it would explode” – she wasn’t aware of the risk of the “experiment” she had done.

Oh, what she’s done – only make hydrogen gas, in a closed container, under high pressure. There was pretty clear risk of somebody, most likely that student, getting hurt.

So that relief that you felt when you discovered it wasn’t malicious turns into “oh crap – if anybody had been hurt, this was done on school grounds – we’re the liable party.” That’s why ANY proper laboratory agreement a student enters into when that student starts taking ANY chemistry laboratory at ANY school forbids them from doing experiments that the instructor doesn’t know about – if something goes wrong, even if it’s a rogue experiment, the instructor STILL takes on duty of care, and the instructor (and the institution – that means you, Mr. Principal) see the lawyers first.

Therefore the moment this happens, not only to be fair and evenhanded, but to ACTIVELY play defense against any lawsuit that somebody might file in the future if something goes wrong, you have to demonstrate that you’re following your policies concerning possession and discharge of a destructive device on school property, and you have to do that now. What do the policies say? Explusion. Oh, and we have to refer this to the police to ensure they take action. That’s it. That’s all you can do. Sorry, Ms. Wilmot. I know it was just a bad decision. But rules are rules.

This is how a litigious society turns completely stupid. Again: Ron Pritchard, the principal of Bartow High School, did his job, and I would daresay he did his job well. He has done what is necessary to protect his school and the Polk County School District from future liability. That does not change the fact that the task he had to carry out was absolutely moronic, that the moment he saw the circumstances and the individual impacted he should have had the capacity to administer mercy, and that given the substantial social obstacles already facing a black woman with any curiosity whatsoever, to slap the words “felony charges” next to the name of Kiera Wilmot for this is a caliber of injustice I just can’t quite deal with.

(Yeah, the racial angle. The moment you actually read any of the stories about this, the fact that this is a young black woman smacks you upside the head. It sucks beyond belief that in 2013, a person even needs to mention this. However, please understand that the moment I read this story, I got this little knot in my stomach and it will not go away – and I can’t imagine that I don’t have more than a few colleagues for whom the same thing happened. I love all my students, and I want them all to succeed – but I also see the track records, and I see too few minority students get through ANY science major, and I see too few of THEM actually pursue science as a vocation. And I’ve also heard too many tales of the confident white guys who blow things up for fun, and too few consequences from far more dangerous behavior than this. For the central character of this story to be a young black woman DEVASTATES ME. Seeing the video of her young friends being so confused and upset by the response is HORRIBLE. I hope there aren’t a ton of black kids who take this as confirmation that the people in charge don’t want them to learn stuff. But I worry.)

This is what I believe: We don’t live in a society that hates science, or education, or anything of that sort. We live in a society that hates risk, of any sort, and will ruthlessly punish anyone who creates risk for anyone else, and if science and education are collateral damage then so be it but please understand it’s the risk we oppose – especially if that risk even raises half a chance of lawyers on our tail chasing after millions of dollars from us that we don’t have anyway.

Rage against the stupidity of Bartow High School and the Polk County School District (and the whole stinkin’ state of Florida while you’re at it – I was raised there, I give you permission) if you must. But rage also at policies upon policies, inspired by decades of lawsuits upon lawsuits, that force educators to cover their rears at every last turn. And understand why so many of us in education hear a certain line Shakespeare wrote in Henry VI, about the first thing the revolutionaries must do, and we take sad pleasure from its speaking.

Birthday gratitude

I wrote this on December 7, 2005, back in the days when your college had to get added to Facebook in order to get a page and my “social networking” was just a month into transitioning to Facebook from Xanga (yes, Xanga) and you couldn’t put a note or a long-form status update on FB.  It was the first time my wall got bombed with “happy birthday” wishes, and I was blown away with the power of this medium to spread good cheer.

As I had a little bit more time than usual to reflect yesterday (trying to rest your backside so it doesn’t go from “sprained” to “locked up and unable to move” will do that to you), I found myself getting blown away all over again.  So, seven years later, I repeat myself.

Okay, let’s recap.

When I set up the Facebook thing, I made the ill-considered decision to post my birthday on it, not thinking that my birthday would actually be noticed by people (who could then do the math and figure out my age, oh goody).

Between Monday night and now, I have received over 50 birthday greetings in various electronic forms, some of which have come from people in other places who really haven’t had a reason to want to think of me in three or four years.

Every now and again I just feel really loved.

So thanks.  A ton.  You guys don’t know how much I appreciate it.

Because, if I honestly could, I’d find things to moan about getting older, getting farther and farther away from my youth, having to deal with adulthood and responsibility and all that rot.

I said, if I honestly could.

You know what?

With people like you around, I honestly can’t.

So, about this OpenStax thing.

Originally a Facebook note on July 18, 2012. It pointed originally to a Virginia Intermont post, so obvious linkrot is obvious and obvious links have been deleted.


First, thanks to the Facebook nerds for all the kind comments today concerning a press release that I apparently earned for editing two chapters of some new physics textbook over spring break. It WAS an intense spring break, not gonna lie, and in my employer’s infinite wisdom it’s something to be praised, so I will take it and work it up in the professional development materials that I need to submit at the end of the month. There’s no need to complain about this.

But it’s incredibly important to me that I emphasize the larger point. I didn’t edit a textbook in order to get the brownie points at work or so people can pat me on the back and tell me I’m smart. The cost of textbooks is a MASSIVE problem across education right now, one that the major publishers have not handled responsibly, one that those of us in higher education have helped create by not paying attention to how little quality we were getting for the rapidly rising prices.

I still remember being in the bookstore at Middle Georgia College when a group of young black women were purchasing their texts – one of them for my class – and were getting soaked for upwards of $200 or $300 – not for rigorous science and engineering texts, but for one general science text and English grammar guides and history readers. This was in 2001. I had a sense of how much money that was to at least one of those students, and I was horrified.

It’s not gotten any better in the past eleven years, to say the least.

There have been other efforts to bring free textbooks in front of the populace. I have been a long-time supporter of Benjamin Crowell’s Light and Matter project, which I’m pretty sure was the first Physics text to be published under the Creative Commons ShareAlike license. I am actively following the progress of efforts from FlatWorld Knowledge and the CK12 Foundation, and I am contemplating how I might use material from both projects.

But I am most excited about OpenStax by far, for a host of reasons. The backing that OpenStax has received is oustanding; it’s a project of Rice University, using an open education platform that is already well-established (that would be Connexions), and has already won the trust of some big wheels in higher ed funding (you may have heard of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – but I hadn’t heard of either the Twenty Million Minds Foundation or the Maxfield Foundation, and now I want to know more). The textbook I wound up working on was previously College Physics by Paul Peter Urone, published by Brooks-Cole – not a lightweight text, and – given that I teach for biology majors, and Urone was a text laden with health applications – one that I’ve had on my bookshelf for a decade. And the editing staff was small, but top-notch professionals. Jesse LaBuff was wonderful about bringing a newbie editor on board and bringing him up to speed, and I can’t say enough about how accessible the project’s editor-in-chief, David Harris, has been – from my first contact with him all the way to now.

The text that has been produced – OpenStax College Physics – is first-rate in every way, a text that is genuinely competitive with the best algebra/trig-based textbooks on the market. I will use it next year in my physics sequence at Virginia Intermont. And the text is free. If you really want to, you can actually purchase a hard copy of the text for the cost of printing – but if you wanted to get a .pdf file or an e-reader ready file, or if you just wanted to read the text on the web, you can do that right now. (Don’t click that unless you mean it. It’s big.)

The physics and sociology texts that OpenStax released at the beginning of the month are only the start. Three new texts – spanning biology (for majors and nonmajors) and anatomy and physiology – are due before this year’s end. There will be more to come. (I hope for the chance to work on an OpenStax College Chemistry text.)

Ultimately, those of us who say so much about the importance of the free exchange of knowledge have a responsibility to maintain the free exchange of knowledge, and to not contribute to a system that keeps knowledge out of the hands of those who can’t afford it. We need to help break this vicious cycle that drives the cost of books up. It’s not broken yet (and those of you taking Organic from me this semester, God bless you) but there are cracks. To have played this tiny little role in getting us to this point, to have edited the first text published by OpenStax, to be one of the first adopters of this text…it’s an honor, but it’s also a responsibility, and one I don’t take lightly.

And now you know why I don’t write press releases.

But you also know why this is such a big deal to me.

Thank you, Shorter

Originally posted 8 July, 2011 on Facebook, to get the word out to as many people as quickly as possible – but with all the standard drawbacks of a Facebook note, i.e. lack of propagation if you don’t log in.

I had hoped I’d put off posting this message for a little bit longer, but there are text messages starting to come in, and I’d rather have people hear this in my words than through the Shorter Grapevine.

I have been offered a position at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, VA, to teach chemistry and physics and play a key role in building that school’s natural science department.  The position and the surrounding professional development is nothing short of the perfect job for this point in my career.  I will move in August.

I was well into my preparations for the fall when this possibility started to develop, and it took on a life of its own and developed far faster than I thought it possibly could.  Those of you who have known me best know that one of the things I have looked for for the past several years has been an opportunity to step into academic leadership, and I was convinced all those opportunities for Fall 2011 had passed me by; I honestly did not want to make a parallel move at this point in my career, even though my CV has all the teaching experience on it and none of the leadership experience.

So when I first talked to Mark Roberts, VI’s provost, I was simply blown away by how much what he was looking for in a chemistry/physics professor fit with what I needed.  I’m going to be teaching like mad to start.  (The way it’ll get described on the CV is “I will continue to develop the breadth of my teaching experience.”  What that means is “DEAR GOD I’M TEACHING ORGANIC CHEMISTRY IN THE FALL WHAT HAVE I DONE?”  If you were at Rose-Hulman during my senior year, you will understand – this means you, Jerry “DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT THING?” Benson-Montgomery.)  But I will also start planning for what a chemistry major at VI will look like, and there is every prospect that I will take leadership of such an enterprise very, very quickly.

Literally:  I have no choice.  The position is everything I need right now.  I honestly did not think I’d find another place as sold out to teaching as Shorter University is.  I have.  I think that’s what I’m most excited about of all.

But to go to one great place, you have to leave.  And I am leaving a great place.

Understand this:  There are so few places in America that are as committed to undergraduate education as Shorter University is.  And in 2003, there was literally nowhere else in the country that fit me as well as Shorter fit me then.  I have not become who I am, I am not half the teacher I am now, and I am not even remotely prepared to even THINK about academic leadership without having spent these eight wonderful years at Shorter.

Whatever transitions are going on right now, I firmly – FIRMLY – believe that there are very few institutions in this country who fill this role that Shorter fills, this commitment to superior undergraduate education, and particularly for modern evangelical Christians.  Even among the traditional liberal arts colleges, the applications for faculty are less about quality teaching and more about how many publications you have and how you’re going to get funding for research.  It may be frustrating to some that Shorter has never gone down that road, but for the undergraduate, it is far, far better.  I believe that with all my heart.

I am forever grateful for what this institution has provided me, and I’m serious in my prayer that this work continues for years and years to come.  Please keep praying with me for Shorter, and for my family as we start this new experience as well.

I wish I could have told all of you individually before seeing it impersonally on Facebook, and I will try to talk to as many of you as I can over the days and weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, I have a class to finish, and we start waves today, and I hope you guys are ready to go…

Blessings to you all,