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.

Understanding the Seven Eastern Religions

October 3, 2018

hinduThe religious traditions that we now know as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, all originated on the South Asian peninsula where they have developed a stunning array of religious ideas and practices over the course of the last 3,500 years.

In her upcoming class, “The Silk Road: Seven Religions Of The East,” Sravana Borkataky-Varma introduces us to religious traditions that we now know as Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Buddhism, which all originated on the South Asian peninsula. We visited with her to find out more.



WIH Reporter: What are the mistaken impressions about Eastern religions and why a course on religions?

Borkataky-Varma: Let me begin with few personal situations I deal with, often. At Starbucks, when I say “Varma” on my order, I often get a cup saying “Cakra.” How and why does Varma translate into “Cakra?” Since Starbucks gets my name wrong every single time, I like to go order “Tea Tea.” The teller invariably looks at me confused. So I explain “Chai” means tea in Hindi. So, technically, you are selling Tea Tea, which of course makes no sense. And we usually laugh.

WIH Reporter: Do you have more instances that you can tell us about?

Borkataky-Varma: At the end of a yoga class, the instructor says Namaste. Namaste in the Indian social context means “Hello.” Why do we say Hello at the end of a class? People assume that Hindus and Buddhists are vegetarians. So I go on a teaching mode. Sixty percent of 1.2 billion people in India eat meat. I add some humor at the end of my teaching moment by saying Indian holy cow is not the American cow. So, technically eating beef in the USA should be acceptable and justified. After all filet mignon is delicious.

WIH Reporter: What else would surprise us about the view from the Eastern perspective?

Borkataky-Varma: In India, Buddhism and Jainism were counter-culture, counter-religious movements that began in response to Hinduism in late 6th century BCE—approximately around the same time Confucianism and Taoism  originated in China. So, why does history define timelines around BC and AD. Is it a true representation? What are the inherent biases embedded with a BC and AD understanding? Also, India produced four World Religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism.

WIH Reporter: Why is it important for us to know about the seven Eastern religions?

Borkataky-Varma: A course on Eastern religions fosters conversations. At a fundamental level, the course provides an introduction to seven different religions and the basic tenets of each of the religions. But at a deeper personal level, it leads to participants asking and or exploring some myths and biases that are embedded deep within each one of us.

WIH Reporter: What is the format of your class?

Borkataky-Varma: I will use a PowerPoint presentation as a lead into meaningful conversation paired with assigned light reading.

WIH Reporter: We like to ask the following question. What books are on your night table?

Borkataky-Varma: “Rainbow Body” by Kurt Leland and “The Flavors of Nationalism” by Nandita Haskar.

Dr. Sravana Borkataky-Varma’s 7-week class begins on Monday, October 22, 2018 at 10:00 am-12:00 pm. For more information or to register, click here.

Dr. Anna Tahinci Speaks: On “Seeing Ourselves:” The Art of Self-Portraiture from Dürer to the Selfie

August 16, 2018

Rembrant, self portrait, 1660

In 2013, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “selfie” was their word of the year and defined it as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” As an art historian, I immediately started thinking about the kinds of self-portraits art’s greatest masters may have created if they had access to smartphones. In 2018, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston acquired a photograph titled “Monkey Selfie,” a selfie taken by a crested macaque in Indonesia using equipment belonging to British photographer David Slater, raising complex legal questions about art and copyright. I immediately started working on a series of lectures that I titled “Seeing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Portraiture from Dürer to the Selfie,” offering a panoramic overview of drawn, painted, sculpted and photographed self-portraits in Art History from Dürer and Rembrandt to the Post-Modern and Contemporary period. What do artists see when they are looking at themselves in the mirror? Self-portraits are not innocent depictions of reflections or distortions in the mirror. They are a complex visual language that involves a series of choices, from the simple “this is what I look like” to the multi-layered “this is who I am, or who I am not.” The artist’s ego as his or her own model raises a series of fascinating questions on self-representation and self-image, likeness, status, identity, role, story-telling and narcissism. As with any exercise in art appreciation, it becomes even more complex when self-portraits are examined from the viewpoint of both the artist and the viewer. Self-portrayal by artists may reflect their desire to record individualized features and appearance, to become self-important and famous, to stage likeness with self-esteem and self-confidence, alone or in company, for the present moment and for posterity. It is a very relevant and meaningful topic to explore in light of our 21st century’s obsession with selfies and the self. Dr. Anna Tahinci’s class, “Seeing Ourselves: The Art of Self-Portraiture from Dürer to the Selfie”, begins September 11th, 2018, at 10:00 a.m.

How Much Do You Know About…The Lesser-Known Gems of the Art Museum World?

August 14, 2018


In anticipation of Barry Greenlaw’s upcoming class, “Beyond the Louvre: Art Museums for the Connoisseur,” we are offering a fun and informative quiz about lesser-known art museums and their holdings. See how much you know about the gems of the art museum world!


1. Which museum is home to the ONLY Michelangelo painting held in an American collection?

A. The Museum of Fine Arts, TX.
B. The Kimbell Museum, TX.
C. Crystal Bridges Museum, TN.

2. Who is planning to open the Musée Jacqueline et Pablo Picasso in the south of France featuring Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and more?

A. Paloma Picasso.
B. Catherine Hutin-Blay.
C. Claude Picasso.

3. What is the best museum to view more than 100 Van Gogh paintings and features one of the largest sculpture gardens in Europe?

A. Musee d’Orsay, France.
B. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
C. Kroller-Muller Museum, Netherlands.

4. Which smaller museum was endowed with a private art collection assembled over a 30-year period by an industrialist and contains European art from the Renaissance to the 20th century, including Southeast Asian art spanning 2,000 years?

A. The Broad Museum, CA.
B. The Norton Simon Museum, CA.
C. The Frick Museum, NY.

5. Which small museum is located in a house designed by a famous 19th century architect that is crammed with marble sculptures and paintings, including those by Hogarth and Turner?

A. Sir John Soane Museum, UK.
B. Sir Charles Barry Museum, UK.
C. Frederick Law Olmstead Museum, USA.

6. Which museum has the design of a 15th century Venetian-style palace that contains a peaceful courtyard surrounded by three stories of galleries, that include art by Titian, Raphael, Rembrandt, Matisse, and more? Hint: It was also the location of the biggest art heist in history!

A. The National Art Museum, Norway.
B. The Whitworth Art Gallery, UK.
C. The Isabelle Gardner Museum, USA.

7. Which museum in Philadelphia has one of the best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections in the world?

A. The Barnes Foundation.
B. Brandywine River Museum.
C. The Palmer Museum of Art.


1. B. The Kimbell Museum of Fort Worth, Texas contains a small copy of a painting that Michelangelo created when he was only 12 or 13. Although it is not representative of his later work, it does show his early talent. The permanent collection of the Kimbell  is home to works by Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Goya, Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Titian, and more. In comparison to other museums in Texas (and around the country), the smaller-sized Kimbell Museum has been regularly spotlighted for focusing on quality over quantity.

2. B. Picasso’s stepdaughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay, is planning to open a museum dedicated to Picasso and his second (and final) wife, Jacqueline Roque. Aptly named Musée Jacqueline et Pablo Picasso, the venue will hold over 1,000 paintings (in addition to drawings, sculptures, ceramics, painted plates, and photographs) that are dated between 1952 and 1973—the years the couple were together, until Picasso’s death in April 1973.

3. C. One of the most overlooked museums in Europe is the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands (about an hour outside of Amsterdam). This museum houses over 100 Van Gogh paintings  along with Seurats, Mondrians, and Picassos. In addition, it contains one of the largest sculpture gardens in Europe.

4. B. The Norton Simon Museum is known around the world as one of the most remarkable private art collections ever assembled. Over a 30-year period, industrialist Norton Simon (1907–1993) amassed an astonishing collection of European art from the Renaissance to the 20th century and a stellar collection of South and Southeast Asian art spanning 2,000 years. Modern and Contemporary Art from Europe and the United States, acquired by the former Pasadena Art Museum, also occupies an important place in the Museum’s collections.

5. A. The Sir John Soane Museum is a small, historic house which features a surprising art collection including paintings by Hogarth and Turner. The house was designed by Sir John Soane, one of England’s most famous and unique 19th century architects.

6. C.  The Isabelle Gardner Museum is located in Boston, and features a courtyard surrounded by three stories of galleries. This museum was also home to the biggest art heist in history; the thieves stole works by Degas, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Empty frames still mark the places where the paintings were stolen. However, this museum is still considered to have one of the best art collections in the world.

7. A. The Barnes Foundation was originally created to show paintings in the context of a home, rather than a museum, and its forced move into a more public structure in 2012 caused much controversy at the time. However, this museum  that includes works by Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and others is considered to hold one of the best Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections in the world.


Genesis 1-11: Understanding the Bible’s Most Memorable Stories

August 14, 2018

Sacrifice of Isaac, Caravaggio, 1603

In Professor Jesse Rainbow’s upcoming class, “The Bible’s Primeval Story: Genesis 1-11,” we will learn about the original meanings and enduring legacies of some of the Bible’s most memorable stories—the creation of the world, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the great flood and Noah’s ark, and the tower of Babel. We checked in with Rainbow to find out more.
WIH Reporter: What is important for us to know about your class?

Rainbow: We’ll cover a relatively limited but densely filled portion of Genesis—just eleven chapters. Each session, I will lecture on one or two chapters, and each presentation will include interpretations of the stories in art history. I think it’s important to consider not only the history of interpretation that is represented in literary sources—the New Testament, rabbinic literature, the Qur’an—but also in visual art. The vast majority of people who encountered the stories of Genesis prior to the advent of printing in the 15th century did so not as readers but as hearers and as viewers of visual art. Art history can show us how people understood the stories in ways that are sometimes strikingly different than we find in contemporary and sometimes rarefied scholarly discussions.

WIH Reporter: What mistaken impressions do we have about your class topic?

Rainbow: I think that since the modernist vs. fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s, many people assume that the only interesting questions about Genesis 1-11 have to do with religion versus science, or history versus myth. And consequently, that modern scientific discoveries about the origins of humanity and the universe have rendered Genesis 1-11 irrelevant and uninteresting to everyone but religious fundamentalists. From my perspective as an academic biblical scholar, I find these stories to be—like Gilgamesh, the Greek myths, etc.—beautiful and intriguing, encapsulating a particular set of answers to some of the enduring questions of human existence.

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

Rainbow: As prominent as figures like Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah are in the Western imagination, they barely appear in the rest of the Hebrew Bible after the opening chapters of Genesis. They become huge in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, but in the Bible itself, these stories exist in the margins, occupying just 2% of the Bible. In some cases, other parts of the Bible offer radically different stories of the creation of the world, for instance. One of the intriguing puzzles of biblical scholarship is figuring out what the opening chapters of Genesis might have meant to the people who wrote and compiled the Hebrew Bible—people who opened their Bible with a set of unforgettable tales and then proceeded to say almost nothing more about them!

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

Rainbow: I will lecture and present slideshows of relevant images.

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

Rainbow: The Iliad, the Zhuangzi, stories of Agnon, James Scott’s Against the Grain.

Jesse Rainbow’s upcoming class, “The Bible’s Primeval Story: Genesis 1 – 11,”  starts on September 11th at 1:30. For more information, or to register, click here.



Art Museums for the Connoisseur

August 14, 2018

Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Art lovers around the world know the many pleasures of the Louvre, the Prado, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other famous art museums, but some of the most exciting art can be found in smaller museums with unique collections. In his upcoming class, “Beyond the Louvre: Art Museums for the Connoisseur,” Barry Greenlaw takes us on a tour of the larger museums, but also some lesser known institutions in this country and abroad. We visited with him to find out more.

WIH Reporter: What strikes you most about art museums in today’s world?

Greenlaw: Art museums have never been more popular or more visible. For instance, in spite of raising the price of admission recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art just announced record attendance for the last fiscal year, and the Met continues to be New York’s most visited tourist attraction. Every day there are long lines for admission to the Louvre that snake around the Pyramid entrance and if you want to visit the new Broad Museum in Los Angeles, you either need to make advance reservations, or wait in long queues for standby admission.

It’s not just art but also architecture. Enormous new museums, designed by “starchitects” like Frank Gehry or Renzo Piano have became a necessary signature for the status of rising cities
all over the world, from China, the Middle East, and Latin America.

WIH Reporter: It sounds like larger museums and big names are the trend in today’s art world.

Greenlaw: Here’s an example. A single painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci sold at auction for $450 million, and will soon be put on display as the focal point of the new mega-museum in Abu
Dhabi, and next year will make its debut at the Louvre itself (almost certainly increasing the length of the lines around the Pyramid).

WIH Reporter: In this context, it sounds easy to miss some smaller and more unique art collections. What should we know about the smaller venues you are covering in your upcoming class.

Greenlaw: The famous art museums in the great cities of the world will be considered in this course, but will be seen in the context of a large number of small, less visible and less well-known institutions, in this country and abroad.

These can be found in the lesser cities, towns, countrysides and universities and colleges, where their often remarkable and surprising collections make an even greater impact to their visitors than the world-famous works of art in the great blockbuster museums.

WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about these art collections?

Greenlaw: Instead of visiting London or Madrid, Chicago or Boston; Tokyo or Mexico City, you can visit Barnard Castle in England, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Colmar, France or Waterville, Maine, and I’m not forgetting Louisiana (but the museum I’m referring to is not the museum that comes to mind!).

WIH Reporter: Is there anything else we should know about your upcoming class?

Greenlaw: Each week of this 10-week course will be a surprise to you, and probably to me as well.

Barry Greenlaw’s class, “Beyond the Louvre: Art Museums for the Connoisseur” begins on Sept 10th at 1:00 p.m. For more information, or to register, click here.

How Much Do You Know About…Music in the Movies

April 18, 2018



In anticipation of Dominque Royem’s class, “Music in the Movies,” we created a quiz to test your knowledge about music in the movies.



1. Who is the only person to win Oscars for both acting and song-writing?

A. Cher.
B. Barbra Streisand.
C. Anna Paquin.
D. Jennifer Hudson.

2. What was the first movie in film history to have a soundtrack?

A. Snow White.
B. The Wizard of Oz.
C. The Adventures of Robin Hood.
D. A Fistful of Dollars.

3. Who was nominated for Best Score of a Musical Picture in 1961 but lost to the arrangers of “West Side Story”?

A. Duke Ellington.
B. Dmitri Shostakovich.
C. Elmer Bernstein.

4. Who is the only person to win an Oscar for Best Original Song as well as a Nobel Prize?

A. Rabindranath Tagore.
B. Bob Dylan.
C. George Bernard Shaw.

5. In the 50s and 60s, Elvis Presley made many movies with soundtrack albums. Which was the one that sold the most?

A. G.I. Blues.
B. Roustabout.
C. Blue Hawaii.

6. What are the two bestselling soundtracks of all time?

A. Dirty Dancing.
B. Saturday Night Fever.
C. The Bodyguard.
D. Purple Rain.


1. B. Barbra Streisand is the only entertainer to be awarded an Oscar for Best Actress: for Funny Girl (1968), and for Best Original Song, for the Love Theme (Evergreen) from “A Star is Born.” (1976).

2. A. The first movie soundtrack album commercially available was from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. It was such a new concept in music that the album had the title, “Songs from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (with the Same Characters and Sound Effects as in the Film of That Title)“.

3. A. and B. Dmitri Shostakovich and Duke Ellington were both nominated the same year at the height of their careers, but their scores were beaten out by the popular hit musical “West Side Story.”

4. B. Dylan won the Oscar in 2000 for the song Things Have Changed in the movie “Wonder Boys,” and also  won the Nobel Prize for Literature just last year making him the first person to ever hold both awards. The only other person to win both an Oscar (in any category) and a Nobel Prize is the author George Bernard Shaw who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his 1938 film “Pygmalion.”

5. C. “Blue Hawaii” sold three million copies and is also the bestselling studio album of Elvis’s career.

6. B. and C.  The Bee Gees “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and the Whitney Houston’s “The Bodyguard” (1992) have sold more than 14 million copies in the U.S.


Ruth Chow-Kneese Speaks: On Shopping

April 18, 2018

shoppingMany women shop for clothes unaware of what they want or need. To make the items in your closet work for you and to make everyday dressing easier, it is important to shop with awareness. Really looking at an item, and thinking about what it can be worn with is the most important question to ask yourself before purchasing an item. Can you create several different outfits with this item? Shopping with a clothing stylist will bring these important questions into focus. Learning the tricks of the trade will make dressing so much easier and in the long run, save you time and money. Have the closet and wardrobe that work for you and your lifestyle.

Chow-Kneese’s 4-week class, “Shopping Wisely” starts on May 2. For more information, or to register, click here.