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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  • Anonymous Comments Can't Be Taken Seriously

    • Posted on Dec 27, 1980 by Scott Cawelti

    12/27/1980.

    Have you read any good graffitti lately? There's something liberating about graffitti, from the funny little swirls on outhouse walls to the philosophical treatises on coffeehouse tables.

    They're written or scrawled with obvious zest, snorted and grinned at by readers, and usually forgotten. Graffitti can't be signed, for then they would become official; they would announce that some scrawler actually takes responsibility for them. The leap from anonymity to accountability, though, can be wide indeed.

     It's the difference between childhood and adulthood.

    Children can do practically anything, and it's cute: call Uncle John fat, spit up on the floor, wet the bed. Children are anonymous in that sense. We don't hold them accountable for their actions since they're not grownups, and not responsible. Children can even murder people and get out of prison or reform school in time to lead normal lives. Especially if their victims are mean mommies and daddies.

    This anonymity carries over into adulthood in large crowded areas:  shopping centers, big city streets and alleys. All allow for the childlike condition of remaining unknown, creating the anonymity that lets people get by with acts they wouldn't or couldn't do if they were known.  Anonymity can even be a release so normally stifled people can let go (they're too well known at home) and behave like children without their parents around.

    This the mayhem that passes for most conventions. And it may explain the wild and wicked costumes that get paraded about in the cities. It also explains why newspaper editors usually won't print unsigned letters.

    Now the problem: every semester I dutifully ask my students to evaluate my teaching. Every semester I pore over my scores to see whether my own sense of the classes matches that of my students. And every semester I'm astounded by their added comments. There is no obligation to add comments, but they are encouraged to do so.

    With those comments, they have a chance to say anything they like: they don't sign the evaluations, even though the comments cannot be read until after grades are turned in. So they get to write graffitti that will be read and taken seriously by both me and my department head. The nice comments I read say "He is a SUPER TEACH — GIVE HIM A RAISE." And I think isn't that nice. I wonder what they meant? Or "What a lot of BORING old movies. But I did learn a lot" Huh, I think, I wonder what they meant. Or "He wears funny-looking hats." OK, I know what that one means.

    But sometimes they make charges: "He tests over material we didn't have in class and that wasn't covered in the reading." Now that's a serious accusation and I really would like to know what they meant. Or someone might say "I'm tired of seeing all movies by men. Dr. Cawelti is a sexist." Now that makes me truly wonder what they had in mind.

    But what can I do but continue to wonder — were they in class the day we talked about women in film and Leni Riefenstahl, the woman who made "Triumph of the Will," a film we studied? Or are they just full of sour grape juice from a low test score? There are many comments: complimentary, angry, gossipy, and silly. All anonymous, meaning all potentially done with the same joyful abandon of the anonymous reveller at a convention, far from home.

    If anyone should sign those comments, I would and should listen. Then I respect the writer, and I'm free to ask them what they meant, if necessary. But we don't ask them, and they don't do it. I suppose it's asking too much of people to stand behind their opinions by signing them. And maybe it's too important to give the students a feeling of having an outlet to simply disregard unsigned comments as not worthy of attention.

    Yet I can't help but think that we should treat students as adults. Newspaper editors do, should a student or anyone else write an anonymous letter. Yet the faculty and administration dutifully read those unsigned comments as if their anonymity somehow made them more honest.

    They may as well read desks and bathroom walls.


    Go comment!
    Posted in
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    • Education
    • Hot Button Issues
  • All-Purpose Gifts--A Desperately Needed List

    • Posted on Dec 23, 1980 by Scott Cawelti

    12/23/1980

    This may well be the last Christmas where finding gifts for those who have everything is a problem. With inflation creating poor people at a record rate, Christmases to come will likely be easier for givers.

    Until then, we're still stuck with people for whom we want to buy a gift, but they simply have everything.

     Or they at least have the time and money to buy themselves everything, and they don't hesitate when they need something. Worst of all, they may be the kind of people who only want a certain item, and nothing else will do.

    They may need gloves, but only Isotoners with leather racing stripes and brass grommets make them feel right. So we end up mechanically and dutifully buying the exact item on their lists, aware that we are nothing more than servants bringing home the ordered merchandise. 

    For such people, and just in time I hope, here is a list of 10 all-purpose gifts. These are the gifts that almost no one has even heard about, or if they have they would never think of buying or themselves. Even if they could. 
    1. A jar of Iowa topsoil. It's ten times more useful than a jar of Mt. St. Helens ash—if grows stuff, after all—and in 50 years it'll be even more valuable. At least at the rate it's disappearing. 

    2. A mood T-shirt. These T-shirts respond with changing colors to body temperature and moisture, turning a blazing yellow when the wearer is happy, red when he-she's excited, blue when thoughtful, gray when depressed. Note: they unravel rapidly when the wearer tells lies. Not recommended for politicians or lawyers, unless worn as an undershirt only. 

    3. Electric belts. These run on nickel-cadmium batteries and are designed to adjust automatically for changing waistlines. No more embarrassing loosening of the belt after that big holiday feast; the belt automatically lets go an inch or two. 

    4. A LIBERAL. Some of the better places still have them, and I suggest you pick one up right away, before they're all picked over. Or sold out. 

    5. A parts-catcher for American cars. These are nothing more than a steel shelf that bolts under the car to catch falling mufflers, alternators, nuts, bolts—things that the newer American cars especially are prone to lose. The owner just periodically cleans out the parts-catcher and puts the stuff back on.  Or throws them away. 

    6. Bread sawdust. For home bakers who want to put that extra roughage into their loaves, just like the commercial bakers do. Comes in 50-pound, bags, and is cheaper by far than the cheapest laxative. Makes the bread chewy, and leftover crusts can be used for kindling.

    7. Meatless meat. For those vegetarian eaters, this is real meat protein and texture without that annoying problem of having to kill animals to get it. Or soybeans or any other plants either. Made from compressed air, No. 2 fuel oil, and cow saliva. Not recommended for children under 12. 

    8. ELECTRIC LICENSE plate warmers. For that annual task of changing license plates in sub-zero cold, these little electric sleeves warm the coldest plates almost immediately so they can be removed without freezing the fingers and cracking the neighbors' windows with hurled invectives. A must for Iowans.

    9. An in-the-head brain scrambler. This is for super-smart people (MENSA members, for example) who feel that their brains make them social out-casts. Similar to the Ronco in-the-egg scrambler, the smart person puts their head on a pedestal, and a vibrating needle shoots up and scrambles their brains, right in their heads. Guaranteed to lower the IQ by a minimum of 50 points immediately, thereby enhancing social acceptance of eggheads.

    10. Finally, and most useful of all, an electric bun warmer, for those bun-chilling Iowa days and nights. It hooks over the belt and straps onto each thigh, and fits under the tightest designer jeans with a minimum of discomfort. Guaranteed to warm the coldest buns.

    There; only 48 shopping hours left to Christmas. Hurry before they go on sale.

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Humor
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
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