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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  • Why Academic Administrators Don't Last Long

    • Posted on Dec 17, 1995 by Scott Cawelti

    12-17-95

    A semester never ends that I don’t consider how much greener the grass looks on the other side.

    Every year about now, piles of final papers, pages of grades to figure, hours of meetings to attend, and early preparations for next semester weigh me down. For just a few moments I consider seeking some cushy administrative post somewhere. They seem to have it made.

    High salaries, occasional year-long vacations with pay, travel, control of the purse strings, prestige, status, and no papers to grade. Why don’t we all seek to become superintendents, college presidents, deans?

    Then I remember: oh, yes, that grass over there only looks green. In fact, it’s not even grass: it’s astro turf, thrown over a concrete slab. Only a hardy few dare tumble on it.

    Over the years I’ve observed enough administrators to wonder how anyone but the crazed or the numb could take on such work.

    The very term “administrator” comes from a term that means “to serve,” and connects directly with “minister,” meaning to give aid or service.

    Yet they really can’t just serve; they also must lead. In fact, administrators must lead while seeming to serve, and anyone who can manage that messy mix deserves something more than praise. Worship, perhaps.

    These folks are highly paid, there’s no doubt, but for good reason. They struggle with problems that most of us rarely imagine, much less solve. And each problem-solving decision makes them as many enemies as friends.

    Then there’s the boredom quotient. Educational administrators must sit through dozens of meetings weekly, looking at least vaguely interested.

    Just a few yawns, a couple of nods toward blessed sleep during a meeting and they’re in trouble.

     If they don’t have a high tolerance for boredom, they can’t do the job. Many quit just because they can’t face another year of meetings while remaining reasonably awake.

    And that’s the easiest part. Having to make decisions that please everyone, or that don’t displease the wrong people, become the real challenge.

    Suppose you have a group of angry legislators, or parents, or regents, anxious about a problem. They’ve been hearing complaints from constituents about, say, some satirical articles in the student newspaper that make merciless, semi-obscene fun of local and statewide politicians.

    They’re mightily offended, and they insist that you fix it NOW.

    You think those articles are harmless, even funny, but the legislators/parents/regents aren’t laughing. They’re worried about the next article, which is rumored to take on the state’s most popular – and powerful – politician.

    What do you do? You set up a meeting with all concerned, go and listen, and then decide who you have to please the most: the legislators, etc., who ultimately control you position, or the students, who control your reputation as a defender of their rights.

    Oh yes, and there’s the First Amendment to consider, not to mention the faculty, all of whom have taken sides and await your decision.

    If you please one side, you might lose your job. If you please the other, you’ve lost faculty and student support.

    While you ponder that, you get a call from a group of faculty who think they can’t teach without still more upgraded computers. They desperately want you approval for more spending on technology.

    You promise to meet with them sometime next week.

    Now it’s time to meet with an angry group of faculty who have been let go. Since you’re responsible for the final hiring and firing decisions, you could probably save their jobs if you could find more money, but the money’s long gone for this fiscal year.

    They’re upset and want you to rehire them. You explain that there’s no money, but they don’t believe you. “What about all those new computers you’re buying? Aren’t we more important than machines?” You don’t have a ready answer, and they look at you with contempt.

    Meanwhile, reporters have been calling you about a rumor that you football coach was arrested for drunken driving in another state. What comments do you have about that?

    And it’s only Monday.

    In other words, if you’re a good administrator, you’re a counselor, mediator, politician, parent, judge, and role model.

    How many people can wear all those hats well? And if they do, how long can they keep it up?

    I’ve known administrators who did well for a few years. About five seems to be the outer limit. They had to quit or start taking serious medications.

    The smart ones quit.

    Meanwhile, I have to remember: Compared to any administrator’s lawn, my own is plenty green, even in winter. 

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Education
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Lawmakers Approve Death Sentence on Nation’s Highways

    • Posted on Dec 10, 1995 by Scott Cawelti

    12-10-95

    America has just embarked on a program to rid highways of bad drivers. And in 10 years, it will have succeeded.  Mark my words.

    I know, because I lived for a year in Germany, a country with no bad drivers. What happened to them all? They were all killed years ago on German autobahns.

    Of course, no one will say that’s the hidden agenda behind abolishing federal speed limits, but if I were a bad driver in America, I’d be worried.

    No more leisurely trips across the country. No more mindlessly pulling out to pass. No more cruising in the left lane. No more daydreaming. No more Germans coming here and exclaiming how relaxing American driving can be. (That’s what my German friends insisted after driving to Chicago a couple of years ago.)

    German highways, incidentally, never sport potholes or rough shoulders, and their cars either pass as rigid, expensive inspection, or they’re off the road.

    The result? Germany has become a country of cities connected by networks of racetracks, not highways. During my first few weeks in Germany, a friend drove me form Regensburg to Munich on the autobahn for Octoberfest.

    Both coming and going, the Bavarian scenery blurred by, and strings of trucks fell behind us like they were parked. I tried not to, but occasionally I glanced at his speedometer. It read 170 kph, or roughly 105 mph.

    That was our cruising speed. When he kicked it, we rolled up to 120 or 130 mph. Even at those speeds, a Porsche and a couple of Mercedes passed us, probably making 140 or more.

    That’s fast, and it’s a task for which only the best drivers are suited. Naturally even the best drivers lapse, and the result in Germany is spectacular pile-ups, death on a scale that makes highways at times resemble battlefields.

    When I finally took to the autobahns, I drove an ancient Renault station wagon and later on VW Jetta. Both of these little automotive understatements would labor to reach a respectable cruising speed of 85 or so, and I drove that fast to avoid holding up traffic.

    Even at those speeds, cars passed as mere blurs of color and light. It was surreal, and I realized that driving on German’s public racetracks takes serious concentration.

    How often I pulled out to pass a truck lumbering up a hill, with no one behind me, only to get halfway around with a BMW or Mercedes climbing up my tailpipe, flashing his/her lights, shaking a fist as they roared past.

    I learned never to pass without being able to see back for miles, and to get the hell back in the “slow” lane as soon as possible.

    Driving in a land of no speed limits left me exhausted, terrified, and occasionally exhilarated, especially when I could manage to pass a truck or two without getting flashing high beams and rude gestures from some Porsche or BMW pilot.

    America has far more highways in serious disrepair, far more lazy, daydreaming drivers, and far more junkers on the highway than Germany.

    So with the new higher speed limits (none in Montana), casualties will mount: car cowboys out to prove their prowess as race drivers, kids just learning, poor folks driving decrepit scrap metal, and of course innocent passengers and drivers in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Last week, thanks to our government’s abolishing the federal speed limit, America’s highways became more deadly than ever.

    Teachers: Lowest of the low?

    An old friend, who taught for years at a Wyoming community college, has spent the last year in Poland teaching English for the Peace Corps. He just sent a letter from Poland with this poignant comment on teachers:

    “I never understood why people think education is fat, and that teachers can be ignored. Because we teachers live rather sheltered lives, I don’t think we ever fully understood how little we were seen as people who did real, demanding work, or how much people actively dislike what we were and what we valued.”

    He’s speaking of people in Wyoming, or course, but there is plenty of the same anti-teacher sentiment in Iowa. He then went on to discuss how his Polish students felt: “Here, of course, we are so well regarded that I don’t trust it. We get students who want to learn, who believe in us and in the fact that we have something important to give them. This makes me nervous when during my whole lifetime I was given just the opposite message.”

    What my friend sensed from his Polish students, I also sensed from my German students: a strong sense of appreciation and respect for people who take education seriously.

    So much so, they repeatedly warned me about driving on the autobahns.

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Education
    • Travel
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