Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Writing Life: Overcoming Creative Blocks 

April 17, 2017

The Passion of Creation by Leonid Pasternak, wikipedia

The writing life can be stunningly solitary, and characterized by frequent creative blocks, but it doesn’t have to be that way. According to Carol Munn, WIH’s award-winning, full-time creative writing professor, there are many ways to get around the “wall” that obstructs the flow. To this end, Munn has innovative plans for her upcoming class, “Breakthrough to Creativity“, (starting on June 7th at 10 a.m), and we spoke with her to to get all the details!

WIH Reporter: What do we need to know about your upcoming creative writing class?

Munn: Everyone who wants to write can write because everyone has an importantly unique story to tell. This course works well for those anywhere on the spectrum from novice to experienced writers. Writing is akin to yoga in that the goal is never competition but to improve the act.

WIH Reporter: People have all kinds of issues around writing. What would surprise us to know about the art of writing?

Munn: The complete accessibility of the writing activities may surprise those who are uncomfortable with the idea of writing. Another surprise might be that no one must follow the directions on the activities and prompts. They serve only as an impetus to write, and the goal of this course is to gain improvement in one’s writing. A final surprise may be the sense of community that the course inspires in the participants.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions do people have about writing classes in general?

Munn:  Some may feel they need more experience before taking a creative writing course. Often, that feeling stems from their undervaluing their own creative potential. Others may assume that they must have a great deal of time to devote to their writing outside of class. While writing is the essence of this course, participants will develop and learn just from attending the sessions.

WIH Reporter: What format are you using in your class?

MunnThe format will focus on universal experiences combined with necessary elements of writing. I will create a packet of materials for each session which will provide opportunities for rich discussion, writing activities, writing prompts, and selected published writing from a variety of genres. We will write, have time to share our writing, read, and discuss new topics related to writing. 

WIH Reporter: What books would we find on your night table?

Munn: I keep a stack on the antique school desk that serves as my night table. Right now the books include: When I Was A Child I Read by Marilynne Robinson; Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver; Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner; and a scientific book explaining cloud formations. 

Breakthrough to Creativity” starts on June 7th at 10 a.m. For more information , or to register, click here.

WIH Goes To Hollywood

April 16, 2017

Moonlight: Best Film Oscar Winner, via Wikipedia

In Hannah Bigg’s upcoming class, And The Oscar Goes To…” students will have the opportunity to screen this year’s Academy-Award-nominated films as though they were actual members of the American Motion Picture of Arts and Sciences. Starting on Monday, May 1st, this class will apply the stringent parameters while screening Moonlight, Lion, Manchester by the Sea and more. Hannah had some very interesting things to say in describing her unique class.

WIH Reporter: What do we need to know about your upcoming class?

Biggs: We will not be able to cover every nominated picture during this 6-week course. Nine films were nominated for best picture at the 2017 Oscars, so we will have in-depth conversations on five to six of them. Don’t you fret though; we will touch on the themes and topics of the remaining three films throughout the term. Many of these nominated films deal with sensitive conversations and topics, so be ready for some heart-wrenching, difficult, but wonderfully enlightening conversations on many of these R-rated films.
I also love to bake, and I’m sure to surprise my students with ‘Oscar statue-shortbread men’ during one class session!

WIH Reporter: Are there any surprises coming in your class that you can tell us about?

Biggs: Not only will we screen the films in class and discuss the films in detail, but we will also study the history of the Academy Awards, including its scandals, triumphs, and multitude of hosting personalities.

WIH Reporter: Can you tell us more about the screening process you plan to implement in your class?

Biggs: Although all of these films are Oscar-nominated, this class would not do the films justice if we just sang the movies’ praises! We will critique the movies as if we too were judges for The Academy. Pros and cons. Praises and faults. Why were some films snubbed and others awarded? And finally, one of the most pressing questions facing The Academy today: are the judges out of touch with what consumers today look for in a movie?

 WIH Reporter:  What format do you plan to use in the class?

Biggs: My classes usually begin with an introductory lecture and announcements. We then screen selections of the film in class and pause at critical moments and intervals in the course of the movie to discuss certain aspects, historical references and facts, and pivotal junctures in the film.

WIH Reporter: What books are on your night table right now?

Biggs: I’m very lucky that my second-hand store find of a night stand has a whole bookshelf under its tabletop! It was a $15 steal! Of the ten or so books stacked haphazardly on it, the two I’m working through right now are Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food and The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey.

 WIH Reporter: Is there anything else we should know about your Oscar’s class?

 Biggs:  I hope to offer this course every summer term with each new summer session discussing the new year’s Best Picture nominees! That’s a lot of OscarMen, shortbread cookies!

Hannah Biggs’ class begins on May 1st at 10:00 a.m. For more information, or to register, click here.

Whitman & Dickinson: Lives, Times, & Poetry

April 16, 2017

whitmanpostageThe two most famous American poets, who changed the landscape of American poetry, are featured in new Professor Scott Pett’s upcoming class “Whitman and Dickinson.” According to Pett, both poets have been mistyped and misunderstood over the ages. We checked with Pett to find out more. 

WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about your upcoming class?

Pett: In this class, students will become more familiar with the poems and lives of (in my opinion) America’s two greatest writers, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Admittedly, this is a bit ambitious for a four-week class! We’re going to cover what we can. But I think the true goal of the class is for students to learn to read and hear all poems in a more conscious way. Ultimately, this class will familiarize students with America’s most masterful poets and help elevate their love of poetry in general.

After all, poetry is one of the few ways we can give our souls a bath. As William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about your class?

Pett: The Whitman and Dickinson we were taught in high school and college surveys reside on opposite ends of the eccentricity spectrum. On one side is Whitman, the show-off; on the other is Dickinson, the recluse. There is truth to these portrayals, of course; but they are also misleading and superficial. Whitman celebrates himself as “the poetic voice” of the United States, sounding his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world;” but he also quietly wonders “in perfect silence at the stars” and ponders a “noiseless, patient spider.”

Dickinson is perhaps even more mistyped as a kind of white-dress wearing New England nun.

WIH Reporter: Can you elaborate more about Dickinson?

Pett:  Though certainly a private person, her home life was complex, even at times explosive. Many poems and letters are marked for their linguistic and emotional “white heat”: social defiance, religious skepticism, sexual euphoria, psychological distress, and natural adulation. The volcano, for instance – simultaneously “reticent” and “torrid” – was one of her favorite images.

WIH Reporter:  What other mistaken impressions might folks have about poetry in general?

Pett: Poetry intimidates some people! Compared to prose writing, which provides a familiar structure that helps the reader feel situated and comfortable, poetry can seem baffling. Its possibilities seem endless; its “meanings” elusive. But in fact, poems share a lot in common with prose. Most poems have sentences, as well as plot. Many have characters and dialogue. Contrary to popular belief, poems cannot mean whatever one wants them to mean. There are concrete strategies for unpacking them. That isn’t to say there is one “correct” reading of any poem; only thoughtful readings that require attentiveness to detail.

Lastly, we tend to focus on poems as textual objects for hushed, self-possessed study. But poems are as much about sound as they are language. That means we need to read them aloud; in doing so, poetry becomes not only an intellectual art, but also a bodily one. Poetry is physical, which means it is intimate, personal, and vulnerable. And poetry is one of the few ways we can give our souls a bath. As William Carlos Williams says, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

WIH Reporter: What format do you plan to use in the class?

Pett: A large portion of the class will be lecture with PowerPoint, but we will have class discussions as well. In my experience, poems are more likely to come alive in a group setting than an individual one. If we can have lively, productive conversations, the poems themselves will to some extent be the teacher of this course!

WIH Reporter:  What books are on your night table right now?

Pett: My night table is always covered with books that help me relax after the craziness of the day. Right now, I’m reading the poet Joy Harjo’s memoir Crazy Brave (2012), Ada Limón’s latest collection of poems Bright Dead Things (2015), Justin Cronin’s epic dystopian thriller The Passage (2012), Naomi Shihab Nye’s collection of very short stories There Is No Long Distance Now (2011), and Barbara Neely’s detective novel Blanche on the Lam (1992). And before putting my kids to bed, I always read them a poem or two by Robert Frost or Maya Angelou.

WIH Reporter: Anything else we should know?

Pett: This is my first class at the Women’s Institute, and I am very excited. I expect to learn as much from the students as I hope they will learn from me.

Professor Pett’s class begins on Tuesday, May 9th at 1:00 p.m. For more information, or to register, click here.


Introducing Our New Music Professor – Dominique Royem

April 17, 2017

Music is a powerful force illuminating the inner struggles of characters on stage and allowing the audience to engage with the story on a deeper level. As  the Music Director of the Fort Bend Symphony Orchestra, Royem is an active guest conductor and has worked with ensembles around the world. In her upcoming class, How Music Makes the Musical: Broadway’s Top Tunes Examined,” she will explore some of the top musicals in the last 100 years and let us know why and how music makes the audience care.  We visited with her to find out more.

WIH Reporter: What is important to know about your class?

Royem: Musical Theatre is a visual art as much as a dramatic or musical art so I use a lot of video clips in my lectures. Also, effective Musical Theatre depends on the audience’s reaction to create emotion and drama. However, each person can react to the same music in different ways. We will be investigating this phenomenon through sharing experiences to music in class.

WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about the topic of your class?

Royem: The world of Musical Theatre and the world of Opera are not that far apart! Famous Musical Theatre composers stole a lot of their techniques from the opera stage.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions do folks have about Musical Theatre?

Royem: That Musical Theatre is not serious enough to be called “art” or “art music!” I am a firm believer that Beethoven and Brahms did not take musical genius to the grave with them and that musical masterpieces can be found in every musical genre!

WIH Reporter: What format do you plan on using in the class?

Royem: The best way to learn about Musical Theatre is to experience it so we will be watching and listening to a lot of excerpts from the shows that are the topic of discussion. After experiencing the works we will examine the intersection between music and drama through discussion.

WIH Reporter: What books are on your night table right now?
Books on my night table include: Fear and the Muse Kept Watch by Andy McSmith, A Look into Music and Art in Russia under StalinThe Artist’s Guide by Jackie Battenfield, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Lives of Artists by Kay Larson, Ticker by Lisa Mantchev.
Royem’s class beings on May 4th at 10:00 am. For more information, or to register, click here.

The Big Lie: Extravagent Exaggeration and Outright Prevarication in Ancient Times

April 17, 2017

Rabbi Rossel is back for a two-session class on Friday, May 5 (10:00-12:00) and Sunday, May 7 (4:00-5:30) with a class about how both archaeology and critical study show how priests and rulers in ancient times massaged the truth, exaggerated here and there and at times relied on what has recently been dubbed “alternative facts.”  The class will go back in time to explore the age-old tendency of those in power to stretch the truth for their own purposes. We checked in with Rabbi Rossel to find out more.

WIH Reporter: What is essential to know about your upcoming class?

Rossel: We have seen how handy the use of extravagant exaggeration and outright prevarication can be in modern politics. Those of us who specialize in ancient politics, watching developments in the study of ancient nations, are aware of many instances of how “The Big Lie” was used to shape beliefs.

We might say, “History is shaped by myth.” Or, we might say, “History can be shaped by mythmakers.” Marie Antoinette probably never said, “Let them eat cake,” but the characterization and the quotation echo from generation to generation. On the other hand, almost everyone quotes Lincoln as saying, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” There is no evidence that he ever spoke these words. In fact, the quote was popularized in the early twentieth century by leaders of the Prohibition movement and the speakers who used it attributed the words to Lincoln to add weight to their message.

Of course, that just demonstrates that you can fool nearly all of the people nearly all of the time. “Alternative facts” and the beliefs they represent are as much a part of our modern vocabulary as “Let them eat cake.” And so they were in ancient times.

WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about the topic of your class?

Rossel: The source of news then and now was the official spokesperson. It might immediately be surprising to know, for example, that “Pharaoh” was not a title. The king of Egypt was the “King;” his residence was “the Pharaoh.” Saying “the Pharaoh announced…” in ancient Egypt was the equivalent to saying “the White House announced…” today. It would probably be equally surprising to learn that Moses was far from being the first baby floated downriver in a basket in anticipation of a royal future.

In fact, I think most of the “alternative facts” expounded in ancient kingdoms by rulers and priests will be surprising to the class. I plan to show how these “innovative” facts were presented and engineered to influence and control ancient opinion (and how many continue to influence and control opinion even now).

WIH Reporter:  What mistaken impressions might folks have about the  subject of your class?

Rossel: Folks who study with me often remark that ancient history is remarkably “relevant” to what is happening daily. The only possible mistaken impression people could have is that looking back does not help us in going forward. At the very least, it provides us with perspective, keeping us from treating today’s news as unique or overwhelming. Every “Big Lie” has a purpose. But not every purpose is either corrosive or nefarious.

WIH Reporter: What format do you plan to use in the class?

Rossel: I will be showing artifacts (whenever available) through PowerPoint presentations and providing notes and access to these PowerPoints online through Dropbox. Of course, no computer skills are necessary. In class, we will discuss one example after another and, importantly, each of the two sessions stands on its own.

WIH Reporter: What books are on your night table right now?

Rossel: I am slowly making my way through The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I love reading American history. It’s a relief from the stresses of ancient times.

WIH Reporter: Anything else we should know?

Rossel: I am living in Dallas now, but I am eagerly looking forward to this extraordinary opportunity for us to visit at WIH again. I hope to see many familiar faces and I would be pleased to see many new faces, too. May the Force (or Source) be with us!

Rabbi Rossel’s class, “The Big Lie: Extravagant Exaggeration And Outright Prevarication In Ancient Times“, begins on Friday, May 5 (10:00-12:00) and continuing on Sunday, May 7 (4:00-5:30). For more information, or to register, click here.


How Much   Do You Know About…  The Civil War?

April 17, 2017

civilwarimageBoth Whitman and Dickinson, subjects of Scott Pett’s upcoming class “Whitman and Dickinson”, were profoundly affected by the Civil War, so we put together a quiz on that time period!

1. One-third of the soldiers who fought for the Union Army were:

A. African Americans.
B. Immigrants.
C. From the South.

2. In the 1860′s, the custom was that a woman should spend a minimum of how much time in mourning?

A. 2 Years.
B. 3 Months.
C. 5 Years.

3. During the same time period, the custom was that a man should spend a minimum of how much time in mourning?

A. 2 Years.
B. 1 Year.
C. 3 Months.

4. Surgeons never washed their hands after operating. Why?

A. They believed all blood was the same.
B. They were worried about water cleanliness.
C. Blood was considered an antiseptic.

5. Most of the battles and wars of the Civil War were fought in what state?

A. Virginia.
B. Tennessee.
C. Missouri.

6. More men died in the Civil War from:

A. Disease.
B. Battlefield Fighting.
C. Friendly Fire.

7. Who was fifty percent more likely to die on  Civil War battlefields?

A. African American soldiers.
B. Privates.
C. Generals.

8. What was used routinely during the Civil War to fight illnesses and disorders?

A. Maggots.
B. Leeches.
C. Glasses with colored lenses.


1. B.  The Union Army was a multicultural force—even a multinational one. We often hear about Irish soldiers (7.5 percent of the army), but the Union’s ranks included even more Germans (10 percent), who marched off in regiments such as the Steuben Volunteers. Other immigrant soldiers were French, Italian, Polish, English and Scottish. In fact, one in four regiments contained a majority of foreigners.

2. A. When a woman mourned for her husband in the 1860’s, she spent a minimum of two-and-a-half years in mourning.  That meant few social activities: no parties, no outings, no visitors, and having to wear only black clothes.

3. C. The husband, when mourning for his wife, however, spent three months in a black suit.

4. A. Surgeons never washed their hands after an operation, because all of the blood was assumed to be the same.

5. C.  Of all the battles and skirmishes fought during the American Civil War, 11% were fought in the state of Missouri. During 1861, there were more battles and skirmishes in Missouri than in any other state, and throughout the entire war only Virginia and Tennessee saw more action than the state of Missouri.

6. A. More men died in the Civil War than any other American conflict, and two-thirds of the dead perished from disease. Approximately 625,000 men died in the Civil War, more Americans than in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. If the names of the Civil War dead were arranged like the names on the Vietnam Memorial, it would stretch over 10 times the wall’s length. Two percent of the population died, the equivalent of 6 million men today. Rifles were by far the war’s deadliest weapons, but deadlier still was disease. In 1861, as armies massed, men once protected from contagion by isolation marched shoulder to shoulder and slept side by side in unventilated tents. Camps became breeding grounds for childhood diseases such as mumps, chicken pox and measles. One million Union soldiers contracted malaria, and epidemics were common.

7. C. Robert E. Lee’s impulse to personally lead a counterattack during the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864 (his troops held him back) would not have surprised his men if he were a bit lower in rank. That’s because many top officers, including generals, literally led their troops into battle, a rare occurrence in modern wars. For this reason, generals were 50 percent more likely to die in combat than privates. At the Battle of Antietam alone, three generals were killed and six wounded—on each side.

8. C. During the Civil War, glasses with colored lenses were used to treat disorders and illnesses. Glasses with yellow lenses were used to treat syphilis, blue lenses were used to treat insanity, and pink lenses were used to treat depression. This is where the expression “see the world through rose-colored glasses” comes from.