Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • Poem With Leslie Mark as Sousaphone Player

    • Posted on Nov 03, 2014 by Scott Cawelti
    Thirty-nine years ago this last weekend, on Halloween, 1975, Jerry Mark murdered his brother Leslie, his wife Jorjean, and their two children, Julie and Jeffrey.  Jerry Mark remains in prison, serving four consecutive life sentences for the murders.  

    I wrote "Brother's Blood," a nonfiction account (Ice Cube Press) of this horrific family murder, and published it in 2011.  

    Since then I've given dozens of talks on the book and the murders, and still hear from people all around the country who remember it because they knew one or more members of the Mark family. 

    Two days ago I heard from John Paul O'Connor, a former high school classmate of Les Mark.  He had written and published (in 2013) a poem about playing sousaphone (tuba) in the Cedar Falls High band, with Leslie--the only other tuba player.  

    I thought it was a wonderful poem, and at least obliquely about Leslie's character and personality.  Though I knew Jerry well in High School, I never met Les.  I was happy to read this thoughtful and powerful poem that evoked some of Les's presence in O'Connor's life.   

    John Paul O’Connor, 2013  
    (Used with permission)  

    I’m sitting in the chair next to Leslie,
    the only other tuba in the high school band,
    who will be killed at the hands of his brother
    three years hence. The crime of the year,
    it’ll be all over the small town papers.
    The band is rehearsing a Sousa march
    as Leslie and I burp our notes fat and low,
    dotting the lines of the melody like ink
    blotches from a leaky pen. Every minute
    or so Mr. Meltzer stops the music to berate
    the band’s lack of skill and attention
    to tempo. He zeros in on the second trumpet,
    the chair I held until I had to relinquish it
    to a stronger lip for this brass python wrapped 
    around me. Leslie helps me insult the second 
    trumpet, hoping the oboist, Sylvia, will think us 
    clever or at least that we exist. It’s easy to forget
    the biggest horns in the band, our music
    hidden beneath the surface like the rumble
    of indigestion. Even our wrong notes go unnoticed. 
    We sit in back on the fourth level exchanging 
    dirty jokes during Mr. Meltzer’s staccato lectures; 
    oompah bears in the back of the toy store, dead 
    hollow trees in the middle of the forest, begotten
    unnecessarily, fourth and fifth children,
    our stories told in short spurts, only hinting
    at our family secrets. Mr. Meltzer lifts his wand
    and I put my flaccid lips inside the ring 
    of the mouthpiece, pursing them together to spit 
    my soul through a long dark twisted tunnel. 
    Sousa needs us to hold up the triumph 
    of the march, failed trumpets as tuba fodder, 
    pushing the band forward from behind 
    where no one can see us, asking the musical 
    question, how can you miss us if we won’t go away?
    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Language & Writing
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • In Praise of Critical Thinking

    • Posted on Oct 26, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Here's today's Courier Column on critical thinking--not exactly an endorsement of a candidate, but I do find that Republicans employ more fallacious thinking and use less evidence for their assertions, at least these days.  

    Critical thinking is like hydrating—everyone says we should do it, but most of us walk around thirsty.  We drink too little water and gulp too many junk liquids, leaving us feeling parched.   Cool, clear water to the rescue.   

    So too with critical thinking, though that activity requires more than finding a faucet.  It’s requires finding an unused brain.  

    Over the years I’ve tried to both teach and practice critical thinking, and though it’s made me cynical and skeptical, I strive to feel mentally hydrated.

    Here’s what works for me:

                1. Always get other opinions.   As conservatives’ beloved hero Ronald Reagan put it “Trust, but verify.”   Take any assertion and triple-check other sources for further proof.  Seems like common sense, but too many of us take one assertion from one source as truth.

    Most assertions from most political commercials cannot be verified, nor can “facts” based on partisan sources, such as “Republicans will bring a balanced budget to government” since that’s demonstrably false.

    Verifiable fact:  the last Republican who balanced the federal budget was Eisenhower, in the 1950s.  All other Republican presidents raised the federal debt—especially the last Bush, who doubled it.  That’s a half-century without balanced budgeting, and some years Republicans controlled both houses. 

     All five budget surpluses during the last forty years occurred under Democratic Presidents: 1969, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2001.  (See


                2.  Watch for fallacies, especially non-sequiturs and “post hoc” thinking.

    A non sequitur is Latin for “it doesn’t follow.”   Ernst, to use a familiar example, asserts that Braley was a bad neighbor because he investigated whether his Holiday Lake neighbors had a legal right to raise chickens.  He never sued, as Ernst falsely asserted.  (   

    The fallacy?  Braley’s reasonable inquiry about a neighborhood association policy makes him less qualified to serve in the U.S. Senate.  It’s a non sequitur, as are most such personal attacks. 

    Personal attacks don’t connect to political leadership qualities.  A great leader can be a personal mess, as any number of great leaders’ lives reveal.  (Examples?  Too numerous to mention.)

    The “post hoc” fallacy, which I see constantly, tries to make a causal connection where there is none.  Because Braley hasn’t shown up for meetings, he’s not an effective representative, implies Ernst.  Wrong, and a causal fallacy.  

    Helping craft important legislation that gets passed is what causes great leaders to emerge.  Just attending meetings causes nothing.  

    3.  Examine premises.  Here’s the hardest challenge because bias seeps in everywhere.   You might have noticed a slight bias in my explanations above; it’s inevitable, since Republicans seem fact-challenged these days more than Democrats.

    “Bias” means, basically, you begin with certain premises and make all further assertions fit those premises, ignoring opposing evidence.

    If you begin with a GOP platform that’s anti-government, then everything else follows—their anti- “socialist” positions, their inability to compromise with Democrats, (who believe in government as an essential component of our lives) their threats to defund everything from environmental safeguards to education, federally mandated health care, their insistence that tax cuts mean job creation.  

    They only support government when it denies abortion rights or opposes gay marriage—in citizens’ private lives, that is.

    If you truly buy into that anti-government basic premise, you probably are impervious to any arguments that question it.  

    Granted, Democrats can suffer from too much faith in government, and need to admit that not all government is good government.

    So, always and forever examine your own biases and premises—that’s what critical thinkers do. Prepare to be frustrated as you clarify what’s really true, and be prepared to admit you’re wrong.  Everyone is off-base at times; few acknowledge it.   

    It’s downright hard work.  It’s also healthy and refreshing, like a cool class of water on a hot day.  

     And your brain will stay hydrated.  


    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Politics
    • Conservatives/Liberals
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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