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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  • Aaron Podolefsky: An Appreciation

    • Posted on Sep 29, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

    This piece appeared today (Sunday) in the Waterloo Courier.  

    Word came last month that UNI’s former Provost, Aaron Podolefsky, died of prostate cancer. He left UNI in 2005 to become President at Central Missouri, then President of Buffalo State in 2010, where he remained until his death.  He was 67.   

    He loved administrating, particularly at the college presidential level.   And he generated admiration and goodwill among faculty and students wherever he served.  

    Academic administrators herd cats, as they say, and college presidents herd cats,

    grasshoppers, squirrels, sparrows, and all other unruly campus creatures.

    Anyone who’s actually good at it deserves a few medals and long life.  

    Podolefsky made his mark on UNI from 1990 to 2005.  

    When UNI was searching for a Provost in 1998 I co-chaired the search committee.  Aaron was doing fine as Dean of the College of Social and Behaviorial Sciences, but wanted more, so he applied.  

    We were impressed, and eventually recommended him for the position.

    He was highly respected as Dean, insisting that all voices be heard, and revealing an all-purpose generosity of spirit, as well as an ability to make hard but defensible decisions. Rare traits each, and unheard of together.  

    He became an excellent UNI provost.    

    I sat on a couple of committees with him, and always counted on him to make sense of complex issues. Even when I disagreed with him, I respected and eventually appreciated his decisions. 

    In 2001, he made a decision in a controversy that put him in rare company indeed.  

    Here was the situation:  Theater UNI students had decided they wanted to produce and perform Terence McNally’s “Corpus Christi,” a play that, to put it mildly, raised hackles.

     I first heard about it when friends of friends at a cocktail party were complaining, rather loudly, that UNI was going to stage a play in which Christ and his apostles were portrayed as gay.  They shook their heads knowingly, as if to say ‘typical university nonsense.”  

    Those shaking heads turned into angry protests.  The faculty director, Steve Taft, worried that the play’s very idea was too controversial, and that potential theatergoers would dismiss it as rabble-rousing blasphemy. 

    Though blasphemy is still legal in this country, hard-core believers still go apoplectic.  

    Once word got out, protests went directly to the Provost.  Outraged citizens inundated Podolefsky with calls to shut the production down.  Alumni threatened to withhold their support for the university forever unless he cancelled it.

    Some students protested as well, insisting that their freedom of religion was being curtailed because the play attacked their beliefs.    

    Provosts at other universities had caved when faced with outrage over “Corpus Christi.”  They cited security concerns or just fear that it was too offensive to most citizens, especially donor alumni.  

    What did Aaron do?  He answered the protestors, calmly and deliberately, saying.  as he later explained, “When people wrote me copious emails about values, I wrote back that I also have values — American values, and that sometimes people died protecting those values.” 

    He sat on a 2003 panel on the “Corpus Christi” controversy, asserting that his own values held that everyone be heard, even when their expressions contradicted or offended values of other groups.  He seemed to condone blasphemy, which put him on the firing line.  Actually he was supporting academic freedom. 

    So he held firm, “Corpus Christi” went on, the university survived, and we now appreciate his ability to withstand pressures that other administrators at other universities could not.

    But it wasn’t easy.     

    Jim Lubker, the interim provost who followed Aaron, mentioned Aaron’s flaw, if any:  he was too sensitive.  The Provost regularly endured stinging criticism and abuse from angry citizens over “Corpus Christi” and other less controversial decisions.  “He took it personally sometimes,” Lubker said, “And suffered from it.” 

    Few people I’ve known can avoid that flaw.  Most of us recoil at criticism, go into defense mode, then sink into self-pity.

    If Aaron Podolefsky did that, it never showed.  He carried on, cheerful, affable, putting criticism and rebuffs behind him, and making decisions for the good of most, all of the time.

    UNI will be holding a memorial service for him in the near future.  

    That’s only fitting; Aaron Podolefsky deserves not just remembering, but emulating.




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  • Graduates! You're Not Ready

    • Posted on May 12, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

    Published this morning in the Waterloo Courier.  Graduation season 
    provokes long, long thoughts.   

    Finally it’s May, graduation month.   Time for ending and beginning. 

    Ending, meaning getting certified with a degree. That’s the first half.   

    Hearty congratulations to certified graduates.   If you’re renting a robe and flat hat this month, you’ve completed half of your graduation. 

    The other half?  Beginning the rest of your life.  That’s what “commencement” means, after all. 

    Graduates, you’re now supposedly ready to begin.  And if you’re not a tad 

    terrified, you’re not paying attention.  

    Truth is, your formal schooling cannot have made you ready.  Not even close.  

    Nothing that formal education offers, and I mean from Ivy Leagues to taxpayer-supported all-purpose schools—has given you enough knowledge and skills for the churning world you now enter.  

    This is not due to grade inflation, rewarding mediocrity with high grades for little work.  Nor because states have cut back radically on financial support for academics, downgrading education in favor of sports for entertainment.   

    The problem lies deeper and is more insidious.   

    The fact is, our lives and times no longer can be prepared for.  We’re living in an evolving world of utter unpredictability.  A world of black swans, to quote from Nassim Taleb’s book of that title.   

    Events erupt for which no one could have prepared or predicted. 

    Make no mistake: More black swans wing their way toward us.  

    Examples:  Superbugs capable of inflicting pandemics that make past plagues look like rehearsals.  Weather gone wild, with climate change creating challenges beyond our capacity to accept. Widespread “Colony collapse” of honeybees that pollinate a third of the world’s crops. 

    A major religion hijacked by fringe elements ready to die and kill for their beliefs.  Nuclear weapons and other WMDs likely to fall into the hands of fanatics/lunatics.  North Korea’s there now.   

    More positively, breakthroughs in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology that will create or clone humans who live virtually forever, if they can afford and endure it.  Humans who are more machine than human, as Ray Kurzweil explores in his book “The Singularity is Near.”  

    Machines that outthink, outlive, and outmaneuver us at every turn.  Siri, anyone?

    And other events too bizarre to even imagine, but that will cause us all to rethink everything.   

    That’s the world you inherit, graduates, and must somehow negotiate.   

    You will wake up any number of mornings and face calamities and/or breakthroughs that not even sci-fi writers have conjured, at least in any accurate detail. 

    You think I jest?  Imagine a columnist writing in 1961, the year I graduated, and 

    offering some version of what actually happened from then to now. 

    Instant fingertip knowledge, 500-channel media, digitization of media, Facebook and Twitter with billions (yes, billions) caught up in seeking and finding their 15 seconds of fame for capturing anything bizarre enough. Passenger jets turned into missiles by fanatics.   Bottomless oceans of self-expression that engulf us all in shameless narcissism. 

    Were 1961 grads  “ready” for any of this?  Writers from that era who foresaw what actually did occur would have been reviled or ignored.  Of course none did. 

    I was no more ready for those shattering decades than sleepers are ready for a sinkhole to swallow them whole.  

    I would have chosen to stay in my little early sixties comfort zone of electric typewriters, secretaries who did the paperwork, women who stayed home and cooked and cleaned.  Tiny televisions broadcasting three channels. Three-chord pop music with great melodies and nonsense lyrics.  

    Most of what my classmates and I thought and did before our commencement 

    no longer makes sense.  I had to reinvent my worldview and myself several times, and only partially succeeded. 

    The times are not just a-changin’. They’re exploding—in every field, in all directions, at speeds beyond comprehension. Compared to the last fifty years, the next fifty will be on steroids.  

    So forget about being “ready.”   Rather, be teachable.  Malleable.  Flexible.  Curious.  Humble.  

    In short, become a human learning center, ready to be taught by anything and everything as it occurs.   

    That’s the beginning—commencement—of real readiness. 





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    • Graduation
    • Education
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