Utah State University

Thoughts from the Bullpen

Academic Silos – Jenessa Blotter

They wake up. They train. They go to sleep.  This is the life of an Olympian.  Do you want to be the best in the world at what you do?  Or, do you prefer the comfort of believing that you are well rounded?  This false pretense is what we promote in the US education system. Academic silos (an educational strategy where academic diversity is limited) are generally frowned upon, but truthfully, where they are used they provide academic “Olympians.”  There are two main reasons you should accept this argument: primarily, it’s irrational to ignore the costs of trying to appear academically well rounded, in addition academic silos produce successful people.

Time is really all we have.  There is only so much time in a day.  To develop a skill, or obtain information, is often expensive and time consuming.  Simply being informed to the point where a good political decision can be made is irrational.  Imagine trying to keep up on every political issue.  Sure, you could read every press release, spend hours online, and do extensive research to become educated on politics, but is that really a rational thing for every American to do all day? Taken even moderately seriously, this would be absurd. Similarly, it is irrational to attempt to prove you are well rounded academically when that deception takes up valuable time.  No lone person can master math, science, English, business, art, history, music, and social science at a functional level.  What is the point of getting beyond a functional level in statistics or learning how to paint if you are never going to use these skills?  A biologist’s time is better spent studying the life cycle of an ascomycete, not studying musical theory.

But won’t this focus result in narrow minded students? This is by far the most common argument made against academic silos.  I don’t really understand how this is even a problem.  Eventually students are going to end up in one career.  At this point, they won’t need much information outside of their field.  Imagine you have a heart condition and need open heart surgery.  Would you rather have a doctor that really knows how to perform heart surgery, having been performing them for years?  Or one who is decent, having done one or two, but also played the tuba in college? Call me crazy, but I would prefer the less rounded doctor. How serious are students about the subjects they are forced to take outside of their major anyhow?  Students in core classes that don’t apply to them aren’t even trying to learn.  They are on their phones, or doodling in their notebooks.  In classes of 300 people who do not care about the subject, it would be surprising if even 10 people got something out of it.

Metal sharpens metal. Mental silos create successful people. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat in my core classes listening to professors answering questions that would have been clear if students had read the first paragraph of the textbook chapter.  What if Beethoven rather than being given time to play the piano was forced to sit through remedial lectures in German and math?  We wouldn’t have his beautiful classical music and he wouldn’t have carved his name into history.  Thomas Edison, who famously did poorly in school, would be discouraged from spending all of his time inventing things, and we would have literally remained in the dark for much longer.

Can we revive the concept of academic silos?  I think there is much to be gained by focusing on building academic “Olympians.”  Specifically, a country full of excellent scientists, businessmen, musicians, doctors, teachers, you name it.  If the colleges that adopt these changes exceed the performance in the rest of the country, then they become an example for reform.  Taking classes that in no way pertain to your career can be fun, but one class is not enough to be “well rounded” on a subject.  Just like voters are ignorant because it is irrational to be politically informed, it is irrational to be educationally well rounded.  It’s not feasible, let alone rational.  So, would you rather jump into an academic silo like history’s heroes and become successful at what you want to do, or pretend to be well rounded, and consequently be mediocre at your actual career?

Academic Silos – Jenessa Blotter

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It’s not difficult to convince people of the moral case for veganism because it rests on assumptions that everyone already believes. A vegan is someone who does not eat, wear or otherwise consume animal products. Veganism is the rejection of animal exploitation in one’s own life. It is an integral principle of non-violence and non-harm, which I consider to be the foundation of all morality and ethics.

I doubt that there is a person reading this that disagrees with the idea that we should not inflict unnecessary or frivolous pain, suffering, or death on animals. But even if there is, it makes no difference to you, the reader, because you do not share that view. We all feel outrage when we see people harming cats or dogs as evidenced by the Michael Vick dog-fighting debacle a few years ago. A recent documentary, Blackfish, has brought attention to cruelty against orcas at Sea-World. Many people are greatly concerned about poaching elephants or the slaughter of dolphins. But our focus on these marginal issues hides a glaring contradiction between our own personal beliefs and behavior.

All of us are involved in the use of animals everyday. So if we really take our belief seriously then we ought to examine our use of animals and ask ourselves whether our use of them constitutes a necessity or not. And whatever we may say qualifies as a “necessity”, our pleasure, amusement, or convenience certainly do not. Let’s begin with an easy illustration of this—what we wear.

Most shoes today are made of leather—the skin of animals. Yet there are a number of widely available alternative materials that do not necessitate killing. Fur is another clothing material we do not need to wear today because there are plenty of alternatives that do not involve inflicting pain, suffering, or death. So, we have easily established that if we take seriously the idea that we ought not to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on animals then some purchases, such as buying leather or fur, contradict that belief. But by far our largest and most frivolous use of animals is for food.

Annually we kill about 56 billion animals worldwide for food, excluding fish and other water-dwelling animals. But the dogs, cats, and other animals that we may share our lives with, are no different than the animals whom we routinely kill and whose bodies we eat. Cows, pigs, chickens, just like cats and dogs, are someone not something. They too can feel pain and suffering. And just as we would think it wrong to inflict pain or death on a dog or cat for no good reason, it is as wrong to do likewise to other animals.

Many people can understand why someone would avoid meat to avoid killing but what’s wrong with dairy and eggs? The truth is that no coherent moral distinction can be made between meat, milk, or eggs because all animals used for food production end up at the same place: the slaughterhouse.

For example, a cow will live about 25 years naturally. But most cows used for dairy are slaughtered after about five. Why? Because after that period of time the amount of milk the cow produces begins to decline and it is more profitable to sell her for slaughter (most spent dairy cows are used for ground beef) than to continue to feed and take care of her without earning the same amount of return. Additionally, because she is a mammal, she must be impregnated in order for her to produce milk at all; it isn’t automatic. A dairy cow is typically impregnated every year during her lifetime. The milk she produces is for her young. But to ensure the maximum amount of milk for human consumption, the resulting calf is taken away soon after birth. A female calf will be sold to another dairy farmer or will replace her mother after her production declines. If a male is born, he is obviously of no use to the dairy producer. Most male dairy cows are sold to veal farmers whose industry could not exist without a ready supply of these unwanted male calves.

A similar situation exists for egg producers. The laying hens are killed after a certain number of egg-laying cycles and replaced with another younger, more productive hen. At hatcheries which supply producers, hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed by suffocation or being ground alive every year because they are useless to egg producers because they cannot lay eggs and are unsuitable for use as meat because of the characteristics that make their mothers useful for egg production.

Many well-meaning, sincere people, recognizing the horror of modern, industrial animal agriculture seek to buy “humanely raised” or “free range” meat, eggs, or dairy. But every “free range” producer faces the same economic realities that govern their more industrial counterparts and could not profitably operate without engaging in the same practices described above. Moreover, what can ever be humane about raising and killing any animal when we do not need to? If we claim to care about animals and then try to justify unnecessarily harming or killing them, we need to rethink what we mean by “care.” The best way to help these animals is by not consuming them in the first place.

We do not need to eat ice cream. We do not need to eat cheeseburgers. We do not need to eat chicken. We do not need to eat bacon. We do not need to eat eggs. In fact, we do not need to eat any animal products at all. Indeed, the American Dietetic Association’s position on vegan diets is that they are not only “healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may [help] in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases” but “are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.” Moreover, eating animal products has been linked to a variety of health problems. But even if that were not the case, it’s still perfectly possible to live healthfully without them.

Thus, if we take seriously our belief that we ought not to inflict suffering or pain or death on animals for unnecessary, frivolous reasons then it does not matter how good animal products may taste—the pleasure we derive from eating them cannot be a sufficient justification.

For those interested in finding more about how to become vegan or answers to their questions I recommend the work and podcasts of Prof. Gary Francione to whom I am greatly indebted for clarifying these issues for me and influencing my thinking on animals. His website www.abolitionistapproach.com has great resources as well as his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/abolitionistapproach. A great primer on veganism can be found at www.vegankit.com.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the writer and in no way represent those of Strata itself.


Academic Silos – Jenessa Blotter

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I’ve only been here at Strata for two weeks. To say it’s been a little overwhelming is an understatement. When Ian asked me to write a blog post I was a little shocked. I asked him what I should write about, and without even thinking about it he said “write about how you got your job here”. I have a bit of a reputation here, not for anything spectacular I’ve achieved, but for the way I got a job here without any background in policy research, personal connections, or even a relevant major (I’m a biological engineering major). To understand the story better let me first tell you a little bit about myself.

At the age of fourteen I caught a bug. I watched my dad ride and race bicycles for most of my childhood and decided to go out with him for a ride. I was hooked. It quickly became obvious though, that I was much better than my dad. He would have to work extremely hard up every hill just to stay with me, and it wasn’t long before he couldn’t even do that. He suggested that I ride with the TNR, a fast group of racers who would get out and ride every Tuesday night as hard as they could. I agreed and went out the next week.

When I arrived at the parking lot where all the riders meet, I realized what I had agreed to. I was surrounded by men between the ages of 25-35, men in their prime. I felt small. Actually, I WAS small, but I wasn’t about to back down. It didn’t take long though. After only ten or fifteen minutes of riding I found myself watching them speed away from me. They were too fast, too strong. I couldn’t stay with them. I turned around and rode home.

When I got back I told my dad all about my experience. I probably should have been discouraged, but I was either too stupid, or too stubborn. Instead I rambled on and on about my ten whole minutes with the group. The next week I was back, and I again got dropped not long after they started, but I kept coming back. People told me I could ride with what they called the “B” group, which left from the same place, but was a slower ride which they said “wouldn’t be so discouraging”. I refused. I wanted to play with the big kids, I wanted to go fast, and I wanted to get left behind if I wasn’t fast enough. I played sports in school where everyone was a winner, and I wasn’t fond of it. I never felt like I had earned it.

It took me almost a whole year just to be able to stay with the group for the full two hours. That day was one of the proudest moments of my young life. What does this have to do with getting a job at Strata?

One month ago I was working at Jimmy John’s, a sub sandwich delivery chain, and made a delivery to a place called Strata. I had been working at “JJ’s” for 7 months and didn’t like it from day one, but I needed a job. I walked into Strata’s office and the first thing I noticed was that everyone working there was young, energetic, and seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I was confused. I quickly made my delivery and got back to work, but my mind was still at this office I had visited. I couldn’t get it out of my head. I spent the whole day thinking about it.

At the end of my shift, I went by and explained that I had delivered them a sandwich earlier, and that I wanted to know what it was that they did. They explained their mission and I got a tour of the office. I left the building a little discouraged, because I thought to myself “I don’t have the qualifications or even the background to work there”.

Not long after getting home I was still thinking about Strata. I remembered one of my favorite stories that my dad tells: As a young married couple living near Ventura, California, my mom saw a job opening as a seamstress at a small outdoors apparel company she wanted to work for called Patagonia (yes, that Patagonia). She thought it’d be a great place to work but she told my dad “I don’t know the first thing about outdoor equipment or sewing”. My dad looked at her, incredulous, and said “Well they don’t know that!” I decided I would send in an application and let them decide whether I was qualified or not. Mostly I wanted to give them an application as an act of defiance, showing that even a sandwich delivery guy can dream of having cool jobs (in other words: I was sticking it to “The Man”).

This was at about 4:30pm and I knew that they closed up at 5:00. I wanted to give them my resume that same day, but I didn’t have one. I scrambled and typed one up as quick as I could (turns out the first thing Ryan would do is point out a typo on it), and then sped down to the office and turned it in. I was quite pleased with myself for showing “The Man” that I didn’t care about his rules and I honestly expected them to never get back to me, but a few days later I received an email informing me I had an interview. Now I was extra pleased with myself.

After a few weeks I went to what I now dub “the most terrifying conversation of my life”. As I walked in the doors of the office it dawned on me that I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. I started sweating. Then I started shaking. Eventually I wanted to just curl up and cry, but that wasn’t until the interview started. Within ten seconds of my interview Ryan said “Tanner, you look terrified.” Yeah, I was. I managed to squeak out a weak response. Over the course of the next ten minutes I probably said more “umms” and “uhhs” than I had in my life. At one point I just wished that it could be over so I could go home and forget this bad dream. Then Ryan asked me “Tanner, tell me why you don’t suck.” At that point I wished I was dead. The cool answer would have been to tell him how I once modeled for an Italian magazine (when I was five), or how I love to take on big things and play out of my league, but instead, I said “I don’t know.” Somehow I made it through without puking.

To quickly sum things up (because I’ve gone way over the suggested word count for these things): if you want something, don’t let anyone (including yourself) tell you to settle for less, and if you just keep a bangin’ on that door maybe they’ll get tired of the pounding and let you in, even if you’re the Jimmy Johns guy. Oh, and always remember to stick it to “The Man”

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The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the writer and in no way represent those of Strata itself.


Academic Silos – Jenessa Blotter

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My experience with religious patriotism is not a representation of every American upbringing, however similar experiences are not unheard of in parts of the rural United States.

American culture is filled with a variety of things: hot dogs at baseball games, family dinners followed by apple pie, and God. The Judeo-Christian God that is. I was taught at a young age that the founders of the United States were God-fearing Christians, divinely inspired to break away from the tyrannical British Empire. The United States stood on a moral high ground, where we simply did things right, and God blessed us for it.

This line of thinking made sense. We sang patriotic songs in church, placed God’s name on our currency, and even declared ourselves as “one nation” under Him. In fact, this part of our culture was the most prominent piece of what I deemed to be American. I belonged to a “God culture”, where God himself supported American exceptionalism.

Over time I eventually began to question this idea of an infallible United States. What moral high ground did our Founding Fathers actually stand on? After all, before they came to America they too had been British citizens that supported the subjugation of people all over the globe. Colonies in India and Africa weren’t equally represented in the British parliament. Where were the ideas of equality and consent of the governed then? Were those people not entitled to the “unalienable Rights” called for in the Declaration of Independence? It seemed that the American colonists simply wanted to be treated as they were before, as British citizens with basic rights, while giving little thought to those they subjected in the past and would continue to suppress in the future.

I became increasingly aware of the God culture I had participated in, but had never actually been aware of. The alleged “Christian founding” of our country was cited as a means to maintain status quo’s, and justify American actions. We needed to act as a world police force, spread democracy, and defend Christian principles at home and abroad. I began to notice how over-zealous people became in justifying their hateful words or actions with the argument that they were Christian-based and therefore purely American. In the eyes of these radicals, anyone who thought differently should simply go somewhere else.

Many of my friends and family hailed the Founding Fathers as Christians, which somehow legitimized Christian ideology over all others. This bias and exclusion of diversity was disturbing, so I was pleased to learn of the role that Deism played in the lives of prominent founders such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. While there are many arguments both for and against the idea of a Christian founding, exploring the diversity that shaped the opinions of these prominent figures provided me with the assurance I needed that Christianity was not the primary element to influence our country’s early beginnings.

Additionally, the Three-Fifths Compromise really upset me. If the Founding Fathers were quasi-holy individuals who were entrusted to create this God given political system, what was so holy about the Three-Fifths Compromise? Counting African-Americans as three-fifths of a person was completely immoral, so if God is the source of moral behavior, then how could he also be the source of this twisted morality in the American political system?

When confronted with these and similar arguments, many contenders of this God culture argue that our Pledge of Allegiance and currency stand as examples of our early Christian heritage. Surprising to many however, the Founding Fathers never recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Francis Bellamy wrote what later became the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892, and even then, the words “under God” were not added until 1954. Similarly, the use of the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” on our currency didn’t begin until after the Civil War.

My reason for sharing these ideas is simple: I believe that living in a God culture is dangerous. Whether or not you believe in the existence of a God is irrelevant to this conversation, because all rational people should be able to see the damage that has been inflicted in the name of divinity throughout history. Take a look at the Christian crusades, where thousands of people were murdered for their differing opinions as crusaders marched to claim Jerusalem; or the reign of Queen Mary I, where Protestants were burned at the stake in an attempt to restore Catholicism to England. Even today, in the wake of 9/11, the United States is all too familiar with Islamic extremists who carry out devastating attacks in the name of God.

There is a loss of accountability when God is added to the equation. Actions are easily justified in the name of divinity- even actions that are morally reprehensible. It is much easier to hide behind faith, or a group of believers, than it is to own our own behavior. Ironically, the lines between right and wrong are often blurred due to the presence of a belief in God.

Many political debates, both on television and at dinner tables, revolve around this God culture we have created. Pulling the Christianity or “traditional principles” card in an argument is often seen as the final word, the bottom line, the Alpha and the Omega in a sense. Nothing can stray from what is perceived as the traditional beliefs of the founders. It is in this sense, that we suppress different ideas and stifle our overall growth.

The God culture present in some parts of the country definitely has an emotional appeal. As a young boy, I proudly sang Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to be an American” and did my best to match pitch when those final words of “God bless the USA” came over the radio. I too spoke in church meetings about the divine inspiration received by our Founding Fathers. I found a sense of community in the religious patriotism around me. I was so enveloped in this God culture that I didn’t even realize it existed. It is here that the danger arises. People blindly follow and lack critical eyes when it comes to arguments for “traditional principles”. Instead of questioning why our country is taking specific actions, we are inclined to find some kind of religious justification rather than own up to our behavior.

I have no doubts as to the political achievements made by the early American colonists; but I believe they were just that: political achievements. And even then, not all of them can be counted as achievements. There is a reason that we did away with the Three-Fifths Compromise. It was wrong. Yes, the Founding Fathers were wrong to some degree. The world was not suddenly graced by the United States as a “city on a hill” in 1789 when our current constitution was put into practice. We still have a lot of progress to make, and the sooner we stop inhibiting ourselves with this God culture, and let religion be a private matter, the better. Call me a heretic, but I think that’s a policy even God Himself could get on board with.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are solely the opinions of the writer and in no way represent those of Strata itself.