Our Favorite Novels, Our Favorite Films with Laura Richardson

February 20, 2019

PopcornWIH Reporter: Hello, Dr. Richardson! We are really excited to have you back at WIH this semester. In fact, everyone who was in your “Roaring Twenties” and “Romancing the 20th Century” classes has really raved about you and your teaching style! The last time we spoke about your upcoming class “Our Favorite Novels, Our Favorite Films” you were debating on the selections. Can you share with us what you have decided?

Richardson: Unfortunately, one of my original choices, Where’d You Go Bernadette, was set to be released in March but has now been delayed until August. I would still encourage everyone to read the novel and to see the film when it comes out, which is directed by Richard Linklater and stars Cate Blanchett. I still want to include a new film, so we’ll be reading The Aftermath (2014), by Rhidian Brook, and I’ll organize an outing to see the film, which comes out in mid-March. Due to the timing of the film release, we’ll read this novel and discuss this film first. Everything else on the syllabus will remain the same. I’m particularly excited about Austenland, which we’ll read/watch last.

WIH Reporter: Would you suggest that we read the novel and watch the movie before each class? Or, if we don’t have enough time which should we do—read or view?

Richardson: If you don’t have time to read the book, watch the movie! I understand that everyone won’t always have a chance to read the book or watch the film before class. That’s okay! Come to class anyway! I’ll provide a brief synopsis at the beginning of each session. One nice thing about the two-week, book/movie structure is that it gives you a little more time to read the novels; if you start right after we finish talking about the previous book, you’ll have two weeks. Since most of the novels are around 300 pages, if you can make the time to read 20 pages a day, keeping up will be easy. I recommend that everyone start reading The Aftermath now since we’ll talk about it during our first class.

WIH Reporter: Out of curiosity, by the end of the class will we have an idea of what your favorite novel and film adaptation are?

Richardson: Oh boy—there are so many good ones! I’ve included some of my favorites on our syllabus, and I will definitely give you some hints about which ones I like best. Beyond our syllabus, some of my other favorite adaptations include Tolkein/Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series. I watch all 12-hours of the extended editions at least once a year (nerd alert!). Amazon will be releasing a Lord of the Rings TV series, and I’m beyond excited to see what they do with Tolkein’s deep mythology. I also love The Never-Ending Story, To Kill a Mockingbird, the BBC mini-series version of Pride and Prejudice (which I own and also watch every year—devoted Janeite!), Stardust, Adaptation, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Jumanji (if, given the great creative license, this still counts as an adaptation). Can’t wait to start talking about our favorite novels and our favorite films!

Our Favorite Novels, Our Favorite Films” meets on Tuesdays beginning March 26 at 1:00.

Miraculous Migrations with Glenn Olsen

February 20, 2019

Red-Knot_(Calidris_canutus)_RWD4We are very excited to welcome new professor, Glenn Olsen, a certified Master Naturalist and owner of GOBirding Ecotours, to WIH! His class “Miraculous Migrations” is part of our new Science and Nature Category and will meet Thursdays, starting March 21. We recently caught up with Glenn to find out more about his devotion to animals and conservation.

WIH Reporter: You have dedicated your career to sharing your passion with others about the natural world. What will you bring to your class to spark that same excitement.

Olsen: I enjoy sharing my passion for plants, bird, and pollinators. My approach is to guide someone in the direction of and simply open the door to exploring the beauty and magnificence of nature and let them discover on their own the amazing beauty and intricacy of the natural world that exists all around us.

WIH Reporter: Which migratory animal that passes through Texas do you find the most fascinating?

Olsen: There are many birds that make an astounding migration but I am especially fond of the shorebird know as the Red Knot (pictured above).

WIH Reporter: How do animals know where to go when migrating long distances? Will you discuss the “guiding systems” that animals use to make these great journeys in your class?

Olsen: Researchers are learning new information about migration with the advent of tiny electronic devices. Some of this information supports existing theories and some of the data contains new details that were not known. We will discuss these theories in great detail in class.

WIH Reporter: What do you want your students to take away from this class?

Olsen: A passionate desire to get involved and connected with nature.

WIH Reporter: As a world traveler of ecotours, what has been your favorite place to visit?

Olsen: A difficult question as each location has its own beauty and uniqueness. But, up until now, I would say Ecuador.

“Miraculous Migrations” meets for 6 weeks on Thursdays at 10:00, beginning March 21. Click here to learn more.

How Much Do You Know About….Masterpieces of Ancient Greece and Rome?

February 18, 2019


1. C. Livy. Titus Livius Patavius wrote a monumental history of Rome and the Roman people—Books from the Foundation of the City—covering the period from the earliest legends of Rome before the traditional foundation in 753 BC through the reign of Augustus in Livy’s own lifetime.

2. B. Virgil. The Aeneid has been considered the national epic of ancient Rome since the time of its composition. The Aeneid follows the Trojan refugee Aeneas as he struggles to fulfill his destiny and reach Italy, where his descendants Romulus and Remus were to found the city of Rome.

3. C. The Odyssey of Homer, the most famous poet of ancient Greece, depicted Penelope as the ideal female character based on her commitment, modesty, purity, and respect during her marriage with Odysseus. The Coen brothers movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” is loosely based on The Odyssey.

4. A. Heraclitus. He was considered the most important pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He was born in Ephesus (circa 535-475 BCE). Little is known of his life and we only have a few sentences of his work.

5. B. Publius Ovidius Naso, known as Ovid, was the author of the Metamorphoses. Ovid lived during the reign of Augustus. He was enormously popular but for some reason Augustus sent him into exile on the Black Sea. Speculation was that his exile was due to “carmen et error”, “a poem and a mistake.”

Register for “Masterpieces of Ancient Greek and Rome” today.


Masterpieces of Ancient Greece and Rome

February 18, 2019

Ancient GreeceDr. Scott McGill is professor of Classical Studies at Rice University. We welcome him to WIH in his upcoming class “Masterpieces of Ancient Greece and Rome” that begins Monday, March 25. We spoke with Professor McGill to learn why it’s important to study what people did and said 2000 years ago or more.

WIH Reporter: We all know that Ancient Greece and Rome are foundational to western civilization. But, why? What does this really mean?

McGill: Ancient Greece and Rome are foundational because the literature, politics, and art of antiquity have had an incalculable influence on western culture over the past two millennia.  To take one notable example, the American system of divided government and of checks and balances is designed on the ancient model.  In literature, figures like Oedipus, Ulysses, and Achilles, and events like the Trojan War, have been a central part of the west’s collective imagination really since antiquity.  And in art, well, you can’t have the neoclassical without the classical!  And so much subject matter in art comes from antiquity.

WIH Reporter: The speed of today’s technology means that we’re used to things becoming obsolete within a few years, if not months or days. In this context, why is it all the more important to step back and take a wider perspective through the study of these lasting influences?

McGill: To understand where we are in history, it is absolutely crucial to know our history.  This includes knowing the classical roots of our civilization and the ways that the classical past anticipates our history. To give an example: wealth inequality is a major issue in America and Europe today.  This is not just a modern problem.  Ancient Rome struggled with the issue, and the historian Livy writes about it in his monumental history of Rome.  To see how the matter played out in Rome can give us perspective on our own situation.  I also think that the study of the past creates good habits of mind – it inculcates a certain humility, because one sees that one’s own historical moment is not necessarily unique or central in the span of history.

WIH Reporter: What will be the emphasis of your class? Will the main focus be on literature?

McGill: The class will focus on literature.  Specifically, we will read excerpts from Homer, Sophocles’ Oedipus tragedies, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and more.  It’s really a greatest hits of Greco-Roman antiquity.

WIH Reporter: Who of these greats is your favorite author and why?

McGill: Well, my favorite remains Virgil, whose Aeneid has been central to my research.  Virgil has such a finely tuned sense of the human struggle for meaning and community, and his poetry is filled with exquisite melancholy.  Virgil also understands capital “H” History in human terms and sensitively registers how that history affects the humans that make it and are a part of it. But really, you can’t go wrong with any of the authors we will read.  Homer and Sophocles are incredibly profound and moving authors, and Ovid is one of the most clever and witty poets the West has known.

Masterpieces of Ancient Greece and Rome” meets on Mondays for 6 weeks beginning March 25.

David Ferris Speaks On…Mozart

February 18, 2019

MozartIn 1792, a year after Mozart’s death, his older sister Nannerl wrote of him: “Apart from his music he was almost always a child, and thus he remained.” The idea that Mozart was musically brilliant, but emotionally and intellectually immature only gathered strength over the next two centuries. In a 1982 biography, Wolfgang Hildesheimer wrote that Mozart “was as great a stranger to the world of reason as to the sphere of human relations.”

The reasons why this image of the composer has proven so compelling and persistent are complex. It is partly because Mozart was a child when his fame was at its height. As the most famous prodigy in the history of music, he traveled throughout Europe and astonished the people of his day with his miraculous musical talent. When he returned to Paris as a young man in 1778, he complained that “these stupid Frenchman seem to think I am still seven years old, because that was my age when they first saw me.”

But the next sentence in Nannerl’s reminiscence of her brother hints at another reason for Mozart’s reputation as a perpetual child: “He married a girl quite unsuited to him, and against the will of his father, and thus the great domestic chaos at and after his death.” Nannerl never forgave Mozart for leaving the family home in Salzburg and striking out on his own, and she insisted that he was incapable of navigating the world without their father’s guidance.

Fortunately, Mozart wrote letters as prolifically as he wrote music, and these not only tell his side of the story, but also reveal his sophistication and wit. When he moved to Vienna in 1781, Mozart finally freed himself from his controlling and overbearing father, and met with great success in his personal and professional life. He had a loving wife and a large circle of friends, who included some of the wealthiest and most influential people in the city. He composed music of great intellectual complexity and created some of the most compelling and lifelike characters in the history of opera. This is his musical legacy, the legacy of a man who was completely at home in the world of reason and in the sphere of human relations.

WIH is pleased to introduce Dr. David Ferris, associate professor of music history at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. His upcoming class,The Most Amazing Genius: Wolfgang Amade Mozartwill meet for 8 weeks beginning Monday, March 18 at 10:00.

Chris Schaefer Speaks On…Progress in the Middle East

February 18, 2019

Middle EastIt’s true—despite what we see on our news, there is actually progress in the Middle East. Cultural and economic progress, and progress in the growing influence of young people. The isolated events that appear in our U.S. news reports vary from bad to terrible, but beneath that surface there exists a tide of change and modernization which predicts an eventual positive outcome.

Today, young Arab women attend and graduate from engineering programs in Qatar’s Education City in higher percentages than young American women in the U.S. and they are also recruited by Arab companies into good jobs at the same pay rates as the young men. Smart, patriotic young men and women employed modern technology to drive the Arab Spring, and even though the goals of that particular effort may not have been fully met, that same technology continues to undermine the dictators who haven’t (yet) recognized what is happening around them. In Saudi Arabia, Salafists embrace modernity and reconcile ancient religious beliefs with soaring new, glass and steel cities. Even religious blocks like the Muslim Brotherhood have put country first and religion second in places like Tunisia, not unlike the shaky transition of the Irish Republican Army in Europe. Tourism and economic growth thrive in “safe” areas like Dubai—a fact not lost on the leaders of other Arab countries who know that oil will not sustain them forever. Tourism and economic prosperity will return to less affluent places like Egypt, Iraq and perhaps even torn-apart Syria on the heels of political stability, and many of those tourists will bring rubles, euros and yuen, not U.S. dollars.

Here in the U.S., signs of progress in the Middle East are masked by our necessary focus on radical extremists and the territorial competition of diverse ideologies. But remember that this is a region that threw off British colonialism, rebelled against Western-backed dictators and is moving into a new era, while preserving its own cultural heritage. That heritage cuts much deeper than the fundamentalist religious excesses we see on Fox News and CNN. Think of the great food you eat at Fadi’s and Café Caspian, camel breeding and racing that exceed our own Texas quarter horse industry, a historic desert culture, and incredible modern and ancient architecture.

Learning the history of the area and the events which have transpired there helps us sort out what is really going on in the Middle East. Through the lens of history we can see that the Middle East today is not a stagnant or backwards area at all, but a region in transition. It is an area with great promise for the future once the right leaders come forward—and step up to make the right decisions.

“The Middle East: Paths to Conflict” meets Tuesdays at 10:00 beginning March 19. To register click here.

Insights into the Jerusalem Temple and the Sabbath with Rabbi Rossel

February 18, 2019

JerusalemWIH Reporter: Rabbi Rossel, we are really happy that you are making it to WIH for these two, one-day classes. You have one that is on Wednesday, April 3 about “The Jerusalem Temple: In the Time of Jesus” and then another class on Wednesday, May 15 about “From Saturday to Sunday: How the Sabbath Jumped from Day 7 to Day 1.” Both of these classes sound really intriguing! How do both of these topics merge the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament? Or is this even relevant?

Rabbi Rossel: Let’s take the Temple first. The Second Temple is the closing scene in the Hebrew Bible. It is just being built as prophecy comes to an end. It’s altogether different when we look at the New Testament. In this remarkable collection of books and letters, the Second Temple is one of two principal landscapes. Ironically, it is the last landscape for the story of Jesus. And, still, many years would pass before Christianity and Judaism would go their separate ways. For a long and complex moment in history, what would become what we today recognize as Judaism and what would become what we today recognize as Christianity were like Siamese twins intricately involved in dissecting themselves from one another. What held them together and what was most difficult to leave behind was what to believe about the future of the Temple! If that sounds mysterious, you need to attend our session on April 3.

The story of the jumping Sabbath—why the vast majority of Christians celebrate Sabbath on Sunday while Jews continue to celebrate on Saturday—really has little or nothing to do with either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. What we need to examine in our session on May 15 is the capacity of calendars to shape our lives. After all, making and breaking calendars has been the prerogative of power since the human conception of time was invented. But the competing and cooperating calendars of Judaism and Christianity are fascinating to contemplate.

WIH Reporter: What is something that you could tell us about each of these courses that would surprise us to know?

Rabbi Rossel: I try to keep my best surprises for the actual sessions, but here’s an appetizer from each feast:

The part played by the Second Temple in both religions would not have been possible without the unwitting help of Rome and the Roman legions. Years before Jesus was born, if Rome had not stepped in, the Temple would probably have died a quiet death caused by its own corruption. Rome’s part in saving Judaism also created the necessary conditions for the beginnings of Christianity.

The calendar adopted Christianity and not vice versa. When Christianity became the national religion of the Roman Empire, its earlier calendar gave way to the Julian Calendar (instituted by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE). According to that calendar, January 1 was the first day of the year. Slowly, though, European countries adopted days with greater religious significance. December 25 as Jesus’ reputed birthday and March 25 as the Feast of the Annunciation were popular. In fact, March 25, also called Lady Day because it celebrates the Virgin Mary, was the first day of the year in Britain until January 1, 1752!

WIH Reporter: As you like to say, “Nothing changes as fast as ancient history.” Will these classes be examples of this?

Rabbi Rossel: I try to keep up with my field—which would be simpler if my field was not quite so broad. As it is, there is always something new being unearthed, always a scholar making new inroads and having new insights into what the past means. By the time new knowledge is solidified in Wikipedia or the Encyclopaedia Britannica or any other authoritative publication, it’s already dated. In the past, getting new and reliable scholarship to people who are interested and who have an open mind used to take ten or fifteen years. Today, it takes almost no time. The problem is sifting through all that is available for what is actually authoritative. That’s the last reason that a popularizing scholar like me is relevant. My plan is to keep on being relevant as long as God is willing. And I hope y’all will enjoy the effort just as much as I do.

WIH Reporter: What is it that you hope students will learn?

Rabbi Rossel: I had the privilege of studying with Dr. Joseph Campbell and came away from that association with a deep belief in the power of what we believe to shape how we live (as he put it, the power of “the myths we live by”). Whatever I teach is always to explain why we shape our lives the way we do in our time and just how much our lives are influenced by beliefs imbued in us by parents, family, friends, religions, societies, and the broad history of humanity. You might say that I am very ambitious … I want to bring us all a broader view of what we share and why we share it.

What excites me most about teaching at WIH is the wonderful admixture of thoughtful people from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of beliefs sharing thoughtful moments together. It enriches me and broadens my thinking, just as I hope that it does the same for everyone in attendance. It makes those shared moments precious.

“The Jerusalem Temple: In the Time of Jesus” meets on Wednesday, April 3 at 1:00. Register today.

“From Saturday to Sunday: How the Sabbath Jumped from Day 7 to Day 1″ meets on Wednesday, May 15 at 1:00. Learn more.

A Sneak Peek at….The Crusades with Melanie Urban

February 14, 2019

Hussitenkriege.tif“The history of the Crusades, and its aftermath is filled with larger than life characters. Saladin, famous to us as the Muslim leader who conquered Jerusalem, fought against Richard I of England during the Third Crusade. Though they never met they respected one another, and when Richard left the Levant, Saladin sent an Arabian horse to Richard as a token of that respect. Or consider the case of Henry II Hohenstaufen, Holy Roman Emperor. He recovered Jerusalem during the Sixth Crusade, but by treaty not by battle. And he did so while under a bull of excommunication. We will meet these and other fascinating figures during the lecture series: popes and kings, monks and warriors, saints and those who sought expiation of their sins. Some of their personal stories have been preserved – stories that make them human, not simply objects in history.” The Crusades meets on Thursdays at 10:00, beginning April 4. Click here to learn more.


Discover MORE Spring Classes

January 24, 2019

DiscoverStarting Monday, February 4:

  • “Vincent Van Gogh: His Life in Art” with Dr. Helga Aurisch coincides with the exhibition on view at MFAH.
  • Join art gallery owner and fine art appraiser, Sarah Foltz, in this rare opportunity to visit some of Houston’s most remarkable galleries—a unique—“Exploring the Galleries of Houston.”
  • Award-winning educator, Houston radio personality and Moth story slam champion, Dr. Hank Roubicek will lead students in the art of “Storytelling: The Best Human Connection.”
  • “Great Game Redux: Power Rivalry in the 21st Century with former U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer, Eric C. Botts (this class will also meet on Wednesdays beginning February 6).

On Tuesday, February 5:

  • “Writing Your Life and Times” is a limited enrollment class with Susan Wright. Memoir anyone?

Beginning Wednesday, February 6:

  • In his second semester at WIH, psychologist, Dr. Michael Winters will delve into “Life Transitions” in this limited enrollment class.
  • “Let’s Write: A Creative Writing Workshop” with award winning author and poet, Sarah Cortez.
  • THE Jill Carroll is back and ready to explore “Topics in Ethics.” While the 1:00 – 3:00 class is sold out, we still have availability in our new time slot—4:00 – 6:00. This is a great way to experience an afternoon of learning and then go and have dinner with your friends. Dr. Carroll will have supplied the material for your dinner conversation!

On Thursday, February 7:

  • Liz Weiman will lead students to “The Way to Harmony: Finding Balance in a Stressful World” followed by her ever popular, “iWorkshop for iPhones, iPads, and Apps.” It could be your all-day-with-Liz Thursday, which is sure to leave you in charge of your world!
  • We must have the ‘60s on the brain this semester (we have the music covered with Vicky Gresik’s folk music class)! Dr. Terry Doody will be immersing his students in the “Fiction of the Sixties,” NOT just a calendar decade but a STATE OF MIND!
  • David Brauer’s Fall class on Pop Art was so popular that he is going to keep going with the genre in his upcoming class “Post Pop to Post Modernism: 1968 – 1982.” You won’t want to miss this!

Starting, Friday, February 8:

  • A few years ago, interior designer, Susan Fruit did a fantastic class on the popular TV series, “Downton Abbey.” She is back this semester with a class that will use the Netflix series, “The Crown” as a guide to explore the lifestyles of the British Royal Family, in particular her majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Genetics: Unlock Your Code!

January 23, 2019

genetics copyDr. Maia Larios is Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of St. Thomas. She is a part of the new “Science and Nature” category being offered here at WIH. In her upcoming class, “Genetics: Unlock Your Code!” Dr. Larios will guide students through the world of genomics—how it works as well as its indications for humans. We caught up with her to learn about the fascinating discoveries that are being made in the field of genetics at amazing rates.

WIH Reporter: Welcome to WIH, Dr. Larios! In your opinion, what do you think is the most exciting, recent breakthrough in genetics?

Larios: Although not terribly recent, I think that the sequencing of the human genome in 2001 really changed the way we understand human genetics and this has some really promising applications in many different aspects of society – perhaps most importantly, the fact that it makes personalized medicine possible. Imagine being able to get the best therapy for a particular ailment based on your genetic background (which informs how well you might tolerate a drug, or how fast you might metabolize it, or if the drug will actually work in the first place), rather than waiting to determine what the best course of action is by trial and error.
WIH Reporter: Personalized medicine, that is exciting! What other surprises are in store for us in learning about this subject?

Larios: I am so excited about this class because there are many interesting current interest topics regarding genetics. We will start by going over the fundamentals of the genetic code – how our genetic instructions are interpreted by our cells, and how physical traits are passed on from parents to offspring. We will also spend time talking about topics currently in the news, like cloning, genetically modified foods and gene editing.

WIH Reporter: What is the most common, mistaken impression that we have about the field of genetics or about genes?

Larios: I think a lot of people attribute too much to genetic factors and forget that environmental factors are also important to shaping organisms. This is the nature vs. nurture debate, and the more we learn, the more it becomes evident that we are actually much more than our genes. Another common misconception about genetics is that it has many nefarious applications, like cloning humans for example, so many people are scared of genetic research. I think that there are many incredibly beneficial applications to genetic techniques, and there are many good people working to make sure that the scientific community works within ethical and moral frameworks.

WIH Reporter: We are hearing a lot about genetic editing, or CRISPR. What exactly is this? And, what are the potential benefits? Are there any ethical concerns?

Larios: We will definitely talk about this in the class! CRISPR is a gene editing tool that allows researchers to change the genetic instructions of a cell. It is like surgery at the molecular level. Pieces of defective DNA can be cut out of the chromosome and replaced by the correct version of the gene. This of course opens up amazing opportunities, especially relating to human health. There are of course ethical concerns, because we don’t yet know enough about the global effects of the change – you might correct something but inadvertently cause a new problem in the process. There are also genuine concerns about the possibility of not only changing individuals, but also future generations.
WIH Reporter: What do you think about DNA kits? And, how do these ancestry tests work?

Larios: Ancestry kits are a fun and non-invasive way to figure out general information about your family history. The user provides a sample – usually spit or a mouth swab – which contains many of your cells, from which DNA is isolated. Computer algorithms are used to look for patterns of similarity in the order of bases in your DNA compared to reference sequences that are associated with specific populations (such as West African or Northwest European, for example). Some companies now offer additional services relating to health, and will give you information about specific health risks by looking at whether you carry genetic sequences associated with a particular disease. We will talk much more about these kits in the class!

WIH Reporter: What will be the format of your class?

Larios: The format of the class will be mostly lecture and Q&A but I know many of the topics will foster a lot of discussion, so I look forward to thoughtful conversation with the participants.

WIH Reporter: If someone wanted to read about genetics for fun – what book would you recommend?

Larios: Genome by Matt Ridley is a great introduction to human genetics. The book is divided into 23 chapters, one for each of the chromosomes that makes up our genome. Ridley picks great examples of newly discovered genes at the time and does so in an engaging and informative way, without being overly technical.

Jim Blackburn Speaks On: Houston and Ecology

January 23, 2019

I am spiritually, ethically and scientifically connected to nature, and Houston has some of the best “nature” surrounding it of any city in the world – perhaps our best kept secret. Over the years, as I have tried to talk to Houstonians about ecology – about the way that our natural system functions, about our local diversity and its uniqueness  – I have learned a valuable lesson. In Houston – if I can bring money into the conversation about ecology, I can be heard by many people who otherwise were deaf to my words. And believe it or not, in the future, there will be money in ecology, and that future is here. Today, there is a non-profit in Houston called the Texas Coastal Exchange,, that is setting up a system for buying and selling ecological services – the work that nature does for us. There are many potential sales items in our “nature store” but none is more important or exciting than the ability of the natural system to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in our prairies, our coastal marshes and our forests. Why carbon dioxide? Well, it’s because our climate is changing and human emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are the primary cause of these changes that are implicated in huge storms like Harvey, Irma, and Maria as well as record droughts and the wildfires in the West. Market pressures are causing some companies to begin to act now, and ethical or stewardship concerns are causing others to act. But what can a person do? Well, we all can evaluate and understand our footprint and then pay a landowner to remove our carbon emissions from the atmosphere and store them. Imagine – there is a solution to this problem right in front of our eyes and yet we remain blinded by fear. Yes, fear. Fear for the future of the oil and gas industry that so many of us rely upon – fear of the unknown. Yet, our natural bounty – the coastal marshes, East Texas forests, the great central prairie of Texas, and the midwestern United States – is there to help us move forward. And in the long term, the future of Houston and the oil and gas industry may well depend upon all of us “loving” nature by buying carbon storage rights. How ironic! But it does keep an audience’s attention.


How Much Do You Know About…Genetics?

January 23, 2019

DNA_Overview21. Genes are made up of building blocks called

A. Amino acids.
B. Nucleotides.
C. Proteins.
D. Carbohydrates.

2. Other than the chimpanzee, what surprising species do we share the most genetic similarities?

A. Fruit fly.
B. E. Coli.
C. Mice.

3. Humans may not be programmed to live longer than 120 years. True or False?

4. How many genes are in the human genome?

A. Millions
B. Hundreds of thousands
C. About 20,000

5. Individual people will find that their genomes

A. Are Identical to other people’s genomes.
B. Differ by less than 1%.
C. Differ significantly, by more than 10%.
D. Are completely unique to them, unless they have an identical twin.


1. B. Nucleotides. A nucleotide is an organic molecule that is the building block of DNA and RNA. Nucleotides are carbon-based molecules rich in phosphorus and nitrogen and are the information molecules of all living creatures.

2. C. Mice. Humans share 98% of the same genetic material with chimpanzees,and we share over 80% with other mammals, like mice and pigs, which is why both are used as genetic model systems. This means that if something works in a pig or a mouse, it has a higher possibility of working in a human. Humans share more than 60% of their genes with fruit flies and banana plants too! We even share genes with bacteria like E. coli, although the percentage is much lower because the genome sizes are vastly different.

3. True. In theory, scientists think that humans have the genetic coding that prevents us from getting older than 120 years of age. This is due to a limited amount of time that cells can divide.

4. C. A surprising find of the human genome sequencing effort was that humans carry about 20,000 protein-coding genes, which is not much more than those carried by a fruit fly (about 15,000) and less than those carried by maize plants (about 32,000).

5. B. By most current estimates, humans vary by less than 0.1%. In other words, two people can share as much as 99.9% of the same genetic material. A mind blowing fact—the person sitting next to you could be made up almost the same genetics as you.

Roberta Diddel Speaks On: Families

January 23, 2019

Families for NewsletterRarely in American history has so much change occurred so quickly. The pace of life—speed of information and expectations at work and in relationships—is overwhelming. The trade-off is that survival and living a good, long life is rarely in doubt today. Just over a century ago, survival was uncertain, and family members were bound together and dependent on one another, whether they liked it or not. Attachments were fostered within families and among groups of families who shared the same geographical district, food, art, culture and religious beliefs. Communities were often homogeneous and shared norms that everyone understood.

As a psychologist, I am asked if I think that contemporary life might be eroding some of the traditional characteristics of family life that made families safe and dependable. My answer is, “It depends.” If a family is something that keeps old ways going, protects its members from the changing social world, and assures the next generation that they will be better off than their parents were, then that kind of family has little relevance, now or in the future.

Over the past 150 years, technology has changed the nature of our society. People are moving from farm to city, from small groups to large ones, and from homogeneous populations to diverse communities. Globalization brings others into our circles who don’t look, dress or act like us; and while “they” move next door, our own family members are moving across the country and around the world. Social media is replacing our person-to-person connections with devices that tempt us to present ourselves inauthentically and allow us to express our fear, anger and depression, while hiding behind the anonymity of a cell phone screen. Where has the comfort of familial similarity gone?

Despite the challenges of contemporary life, I think there are signs of hope for the family. If you think of “family” as a creative, encouraging, flexible force, that embraces and supports us in our life beyond the fort, then those same devices and little screens can be used to cultivate a full and meaningful life. The little screen can bring grandma into the bedroom to read a bedtime story, even though she lives 1,000 miles away. The screen helps us envision others’ lives and the internet brings people of all kinds into our lives. The popularity of on-line genealogy is proof that the family is still a living, breathing entity, where our own family tree connects us to relatives who lived 200 or 300 years ago.

If we chose to see it so, the family is not disintegrating under contemporary pressures; it is just evolving. From hand-written letters to email and texts, from carriages to airplanes, modern life looks and feels different. Why should the family be an exception? If we look at family life with curiosity and optimism, our newly redefined families will still provide that little fort in the wilderness, but one with open gates and no walls. The new family must use the love we share to help us form new rules and rituals. I think the new family, whether made up of people with shared genes or deep communal ties, will be there to keep us from flying off this spinning globe, until we turn it over to the next generation to do the same.

Roberta Diddel’s class “Our Familes, Ourselves: The Family System and its Impact on its Members” meets Wednesdays beginning February 6 at 1:00.

From Germany to America: The Immigration of German Jews Prior to World War I 

January 23, 2019

Germany to America

What caused German Jews to leave their native country for America, and achieve prominence so rapidly in their new country proportionally higher than any other immigrant group? In her upcoming class, “FROM GERMANY TO AMERICA: The Immigration of German Jews Prior to World War I” Dr. Ursula Muenzel will be answering this question and so much more. We caught up with her to find out more.





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

Muenzel: I will emphasize on the “push and pull” factor – the causes which pushed the Jewish immigrants out of their homeland and what was it that attracted them to the USA. I will also illuminate in which respect the German-Jewish immigration differed from following Jewish and non-Jewish immigration waves and what made these first and second generation German-Jewish immigrants so successful.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions do we have about this exodus from Germany?
Muenzel: Most people in the US – Jewish and non-Jewish – have the incorrect belief, that most German Jews arrived in this country during and after the Nazi period whereas they predated the immigration wave from Eastern Europe.

What would surprise us to know about your class topic?

The disproportion between the small number of these immigrants and their enormous influence in shaping modern American Jewry.

WIH Reporter: Can you give us an idea of the numbers of people that emigrated to this country?

Muenzel: About 250,000 German-speaking Jews left for the United States in the 1800s. This was a very small number compared to their more than two million co-religionists from Eastern Europe who flocked to America at the end of the 19th century.

WIH Reporter: What will be the format of your class?

Muenzel: It will be a mix of lecture, power point presentation and discussion.

WIH Reporter: We like to ask this question. What books are on your night table  right now?

Muenzel: J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”, inspired by an article by Roger Cohen in the NY Times a few weeks ago where he applies the frightening message of this book to the current political situation in this country.




Music and Cultural Revolution

October 9, 2018

This semester our professor, Dominique Royem—one of the few female conductors in the nation—will be exploring the significance and power of music as a cultural force that has throughout history brought about change. This class will trace this trend through Western history and discuss why music is revolutionary and so influential in changing attitudes. Join her on Tuesdays beginning October 23.

Spiritual Insight: A Psychology of Religious Experience

October 9, 2018

In his upcoming class, Dr. Mark Ryan will be answering the question “Is there a place for spirit in the human psyche?” Ryan’s intent is for students to “come away with a sense that life is bigger than we know, and that there is a strong philosophical and psychological defense for a more spiritual orientation in their lives.” This 8-week class meets on Thursdays from 1:00 – 3:00 beginning October 18.

The Silk Road

October 9, 2018

The religious traditions that we now know as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, all originated in the South Asian peninsula where they developed a stunning array of religious ideas and practices over the course of the last 3,500 years. Dr. Borkataky-Varma will explore these rich traditions and their often radically different views than those embraced within European thought and cultures. This 7-week class meets on Mondays beginning October 22.

How Much Do You Know About…Eastern Religions?

October 3, 2018

buddhaHow Much Do You Know About…Eastern Religions? In anticipation of Sravana Borkataky-Varma’s upcoming class, “The Silk Road: Seven Religions Of The East” we are offering a fun and informative quiz about Eastern religions.





1. Which country originated four of the great Eastern religions (Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Hinduism)?

A. China.
B. Pakistan.
C. India.

2. What is the oldest-known and 3rd largest religion in the world?

A. Buddhism.
B. Hinduism.
C. Sikhism.

3. Who was the founder of Hinduism?

A. Krishna.
B. No one.
C. Siddhartha Gautama.

4. The fat, laughing Buddha represents the real Buddha. True or False?

A. True.
B. False.

5. The Buddha was probably a vegetarian. True or False?

A. True.
B. False.

6. Which is the oldest-known book in the world from one of the seven Eastern religions?

A. Dao de Jing.
B. Bhagavad Gita.
C. The Rig Veda.


1. C. India

2. B. Hinduism is the oldest known religion in the world. In fact, it goes back as far as 5,000-10,000 B.C. It is also the 3rd largest religion with over a billion followers.

3. B. There is no known founder or governing body of Hinduism.

4. B. False. There are more than one Buddha. The “fat” Buddha began as a character from Chinese folk tales, and from China his legend spread throughout east Asia. He is called Budai in China and Hotei in Japan.

5. B. False. Many Buddhists are vegetarian because a major precept involves abstaining from taking life, including animal life. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all Buddhists must become vegetarians. In the Pali Canon, a major Buddhist text, it was said that the Buddha would not eat meat from an animal killed for him, but didn’t have a problem eating meat bought from the marketplace and already dead.

6. C. The Rig Veda is the oldest known book in the world. It is an ancient Indo-Aryan Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns along with associated commentaries on liturgy, ritual, and mystical exegesis. The Vedas were preserved for over 5,000 years without the use of printing. Instead, the texts were memorized!

Dominique Royem Speaks On: Music and Cultural Revolution

October 3, 2018


Music hasroyem guitar been on the forefront of every major cultural revolution for the last 300 years. Each time society begins to change, music changes right along with it—giving a shape and a force to the cultural forces at work. Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro, opens to a new dawning of thought across the continent— enlightenment—just as the opera pokes fun of the dichotomy between the nobility and the peasantry. Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony is premiered with a new dedication after he tore out the one to Napoleon, who had just named himself emperor. Examples abound in the modern day, as well. Jazz was ushered in right along with a major change in the fabric of the US around the turn of the century. The sounds of the 60’s are an iconic part of that cultural revolution. Music acts as a hallmark and engine for the larger social changes, and you can trace the history of the changes by following the music.

Dominique Royem’s 8-week class “Music and Cultural Revolution” begins October 23rd from 10:00 am to 12;00 pm. For more information or to register, click here.


The Psychology of Religious Experience

October 3, 2018

Dr. Mark Ryan is new to The Women’s Institute this semester. In his upcoming class, “Spiritual Insight: A Psychology of Religious Experience.” Dr. Ryan will be answering the question “Is there a place for spirit in the human psyche?” We caught up with him to find out more.


WIH Reporter: As a professor of American Studies and History at Yale University for more than twenty years, what redirected your interests to studying the ideas of human consciousness and insight?

Ryan: There may be more continuity to that trajectory than meets the eye. My primary academic field has been American intellectual history—the history of ideas. Studies of religion have been part of that, going back to, say, the theology of the early New England Puritans. I’ve long had an interest in the American Transcendentalists—figures such as Emerson, especially—who might be considered forerunners of the view of human consciousness that is the focus of my current writing. For me personally, the most inspirational figure that I encountered in my academic studies was the psychologist and philosopher William James. I wrote a Master’s thesis on James back in the late 1960’s; different aspects of his work have drawn me at different points in my career. I now see him as laying the foundations of what, in my recent book, I refer to as “transpersonal thought,” a branch of psychology that honors spiritual experience. Apart from my academic studies, I’ve long pursued what we might refer to as personal growth or an expansion of consciousness—a passion, I suppose, that forever brands me as a child of the ‘60s.

WIH Reporter: In your book, “A Different Dimension: Reflections on the History of Transpersonal Thought“, you point out that 18 – 33% of American adults identify as “spiritual but not religious.” What will you be delving into in your course that would perhaps explain this?

Ryan: An opening to spiritual experience, I would argue, is a perennial aspect of human life. Historically, we’ve relegated the articulation and regulation of that experience to traditional religions. But many in today’s world have had personal experiences with religious establishments that make them wary. They see the inevitable weaknesses in those very human organizations—the limitations of their popular theologies, the struggles of their power relationships, their internal and external conflicts, even their hypocrisies. As different cultures mix in our ever more globalized world, the claims to absolute truth of different religions are more and more called into question. The social trend now known as “spiritual but not religious” is criticized, often legitimately, as shallow, mindlessly eclectic, and lacking philosophical depth. But a purpose of my book is to demonstrate to a lay audience that this trend, which embraces spiritual experience but rejects the dogmas and hierarchies of organized religions, is subject to a robust and profound defense, with a significant literature behind it. Transpersonal thought, as I’m portraying it, can provide intellectual support to a spiritual but not religious stance.

WIH Reporter: Talk about this view of psychology that makes room for the spiritual experience. What does this mean? Is this something outside our five senses?

Ryan: The short answer to your last question is, yes. The dominant view in Western intellectual life is materialism—the notion that matter, usually conceived of as solid substance, is at the basis of all existence. A corollary is that all consciousness is produced by the human brain, through chemical and electromagnetic processes, out of impulses that travel to the brain through neural pathways initiated with our five senses. There are other corollaries as well, of course—that materially based explanations of any phenomenon have primacy over other forms of explanation; and that when the brain disintegrates there can be no ongoing persistence of life, no survival of a spirit.

In this course, we’ll be looking at thinkers, primarily psychologists, who resisted this materialistic consensus. They were interested in psychological phenomena that could not be explained, or at least not easily explained, in materialistic terms—phenomena such as telepathy, out-of-body experiences, clairvoyance, past life regressions, near death experiences, mystical visions. They wanted to investigate these experiences as empirically and scientifically as possible, eliminating consideration of those that could not be corroborated. For well over a century now, beginning in the later 19th century, they have built up a massive trove of evidence that remains ignored by more established thinkers. Throughout the course we’ll be asking how such phenomena can be explained—and, more broadly, what the explanations might imply about both human consciousness and the reality in which we live. William James put it this way: “The further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world.” That other dimension—which by James’s reckoning is part of ourselves—we call “mystical,” or “supernatural” or “spiritual.”

WIH Reporter: What will the format of your class be?

Ryan: Assuming that we have a relatively small group, I’d like the class be a discussion seminar, with lively participation by all. I will certainly do some lecturing, but my deeper interest is in the experience and perspectives of the students as we all encounter the class’s central ideas. The course will be structured around my recent book, with expectations of short readings—a chapter of no more than 20 pages—each week. Ideally, I would hope that our discussions would help to draw out of the students discoveries that they might make about themselves and/or their own thinking. That, you know, is the etymological meaning of “education,” which is from the Latin educare, “to draw out.” To be frank, I always viewed myself more as an educator than a scholar. That preference drove me into my work as a dean of students, interested in the impact on the students of their individual encounters with the liberal education that each would make his or her own. I’m eagerly looking forward to in-depth discussions with the people of The Women’s Institute, with all their varied experiences and points of view.

WIH Reporter: You refer to transpersonal experiences, how do these help us answer some of the fundamental questions of our lives?

Ryan: By “transpersonal experiences,” I mean the kind of experiences I’ve just referred to. We have the freedom, of course, to ignore the questions that they raise, focusing on “the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world,” gaining a living, advancing in a profession, pursuing pleasures, warding off pain, perhaps striving to better the welfare of those around us. Those are all worthy pursuits, to be sure. But for a certain kind of temperament—call it a “spiritual” temperament—they are not sufficient for a satisfactory life. People of a spiritual temperament want a greater sense of meaning in their lives. If we find hints—felt intuitively, perhaps demonstrated experientially—that there is indeed an “altogether other dimension of existence,” we find that sense of meaning by putting ourselves, in some way, in relationship to it. We search for ways to put ourselves in contact with it, or better, in harmony with it. Transpersonal experiences may not answer the fundamental questions of our lives, but they help, in the first place, to raise those questions. They prompt us to delve more deeply into our own subjective experience, and thereby to pursue a richer and more meaningful life.

WIH Reporter: What do you expect your students to take away from this course?

Ryan: Despite the materialistic outlook dominant in our intellectual world, I’d like them to come away with a sense that life is bigger than we know, and that there is a strong philosophical and psychological defense for a more spiritual orientation in their lives. Secondly, I’d like them to be reinforced in their own spiritual orientation, perhaps with a little more self-awareness of how it is tailored to their deeper individual needs and proclivities. Put another way, I’d like them to be one small step closer to realizing their true selves. And finally, I’d hope they would leave with a sense of respect for the outlooks of their classmates, and for how those outlooks respond to those classmates’ own unique experience.

Mark Ryan’s 8-week class starts on October 18th, from 10:00 am – 12:00 pm. For more information or to register, click here.