The Blog @
Southern Virginia University
  1. Loving the Constitution

    September 19, 2016

    The following is a post by Dr. Jeremiah John, associate professor of politics and interim associate provost, to commemorate the United States Constitution on Constitution Day.

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    One of my favorite aphorists — Heraclitus — said, “The people should fight for their law, as they do for their city wall.” I agree, but I would add that fighting for our law is a more complicated matter — and not an easier one — than fighting for our city wall. This is even truer for Americans, and their most basic, oldest “wall” of all: the U.S. Constitution.

    Americans love the Constitution. That’s how it seems, anyway, listening to politicians, opinion columnists and activists of various persuasions. The cry of “Defend the Constitution!”— from the left and from the right — is often heard, while the cry of “Reform the Constitution!”or “A new Constitution!” is more rarely heard. A 2007 Rasmussen Report poll reported that 63 percent of Americans rate the U.S. Constitution “great” or “good,” even while dissatisfaction with “the political system in Washington” has more recently risen to over 80 percent.

    But if the Constitution is loved, it does not seem to be well-known. Whenever some call us to rally around it, others are quick to observe that Americans aren’t very familiar with it. Civic literacy surveys regularly report on the dismal state of knowledge of the Constitution. For example, the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a poll in 2013 which showed that only 36 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government, and over half get it confused with the Declaration of Independence. If we admire the Constitution, perhaps we do so from a distance. To capture the style of our dedication, the satirical newspaper The Onion told of an “area man” who is a “passionate defender of what he imagines the Constitution to be.”

    But what does it really mean to love and defend the Constitution? Does it mean that someone agrees with and endorses all its provisions? For example, was the Constitution worthy of love in 1787 when it included protections for slavery? Was it worthy of love after the Civil War Amendments — which guaranteed, among other things, “equal protection of the laws”— but before the 19th, which prohibited discrimination in voting rights based on sex? Are there some essential elements we can support with enthusiasm, discounting, for example, its number of strange rules for picking the president?

    Do we love the Constitution less, the more we are willing to change it? My home state of Virginia has had, by my count, 6 different constitutions. The 1902 Constitution, which lasted longer than any other in Virginia history, was written in order to disenfranchise African-Americans and to entrench racial segregation in the state. That constitution was superseded by the current one, which was itself drafted before I was born, in 1971. But the Virginia Constitution of 1902, I will easily admit, I do not love.

    As for the U.S. Constitution, it has many things I find to be wise: its distinct kind of federalism, its design of Congress as a true legislating body — not merely a parliament — and its provisions for judicial independence. Other parts seem wise to me but have been abolished, or diverted from their original purpose over time, such as the appointment of Senators by state legislatures, or the war power of Congress. And in other places, by omission or error, I think the U.S. Constitution is wrong. While many state constitutions are too easy to change, the federal Constitution is too hard to change. And I’d say the Mexican Constitution, in its single six-year term for presidents, or the German Constitution, in its special protections for marriage and family — to give two examples — get it right where our Constitution gets it wrong.

    But I don’t love those other constitutions in the way I love the United States Constitution. I don’t pledge “true faith and allegiance” to them, because, after all, I am an American citizen. This “true faith” does not spring from a well-considered judgment about what system is best, comparing what we have with all the others that are available. Good thing, too, as almost no citizen knows their own constitution, let alone all the others, well enough to make this kind of judgment. Rather, the Constitution deserves the allegiance of Americans first because it is the only possible focus on our patriotism. Only through it did the United States as a political community come into being. Without it, it may yet cease to exist. The Constitution is, for Americans, our “koinon,” as the ancient Greeks put it: our common thing, the thing all citizens share in. If we also love the land and people of the United States along with its traditions and culture, its institutions and achievements, we must, by extension, love the Constitution of the United States. But love is compatible with correction, even major reform. Allegiance is compatible with criticism if it is measured. Like sailors who are repairing the boat they are currently floating in, we will have to adopt the care of people who appreciate what is keeping their heads above water.

    So in one way, I like the attitude of the man who is a “passionate defender of what he imagines the Constitution to be.” He knows on a deep level that he has something valuable, even if he wouldn’t know what to do with it, and is unaware of its limitations. Perhaps he could be spurred by his passion to learn more. Perhaps he has ideas for his Constitution, and perhaps those ideas could themselves be perfected into a proposal for improvement. But as with the man fighting for his city wall, ignorant enthusiasm in defense of the Constitution is not likely to succeed.  As Lincoln put it in a speech early in his career, defense of the Constitution must be, in the first place a “political religion,” a “state of feeling” taught to the “lisping babe” on the mother’s lap. But it must also make use of “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason,” the kind that dispels partisan illusions, like the one that tells us that the Constitution guarantees all our favorite policies, or prohibits all the ones we dislike. In short, our allegiance to the Constitution should, I believe, be both warm and wise. It should be affectionate enough to feel that the Constitution is essential to American political identity, but smart enough to see it clearly for what it is, from its flaws to its profound genius and enduring worth.

    (Post by Dr. Jeremiah John, Associate Professor of Politics and Interim Associate Provost)

  2. The Constitution, Madison & Montpelier

    September 16, 2016
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    James Madison by Gilbert Stuart

    This past semester I took a course called “The Legal and Intellectual History of the Constitution.” This course was engaging and powerful, and I learned not only about the Constitution as a document of history, but also about its absolute relevance in today’s political climate. Conversations in this course about constitutional interpretations and how those interpretations should be implemented in modern America were often fierce, and more than once — as should happen in a great course — my confidence in my own ideas slipped away long enough for me to appreciate, learn from, and even adopt some of the clever points of view of my classmates.

    I also gained a greater respect and admiration for the sacrifice and scholarship of America’s Founding Fathers (especially James Madison), who, in my mind, serve as history’s high points in political thought. Learning about these men and their lives inspired my own opinions and beliefs, and I often found myself, when deciding my position on an in-class conversation about the constitutionality of modern laws surrounding religious freedom, gay marriage, healthcare, or economic regulation, asking the question, “What would James Madison think about this?”

    As fantastic as the course was, however, the class meetings and conversations themselves were only one part — and perhaps even a lesser part — of the influence this course had in my life and education. What really moved the course to the forefront of my academic experience here at Southern Virginia were the extracurricular opportunities I had the privilege of participating in.

    One of those opportunities was to join an optional field trip to James Madison’s home at Montpelier (thanks to Professor Rachel Wilcox for organizing such an amazing event), only a short drive from Southern Virginia. While there, our class toured the very room in which Madison wrote the Virginia Plan, the document that served as the basis for the heated debates around congressional representation, among other things. In the classroom we often discussed the Virginia Plan at length, and even put on an imitative Constitutional Convention. We debated the same issues the Founding Fathers had, and argued over the achievements and shortcomings of Madison’s Virginia Plan. But I feel comfortable in saying that no one in the class truly understood the Virginia Plan’s importance or brilliance until we were able to put ourselves in the atmosphere of Madison’s home.

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    Another opportunity, after the semester was over, and this time just with my family, was to see the Constitution in the National Archives in Washington D.C. Because of my course with Professor Wilcox, I had analyzed the Constitution, debated over its place in modern society, written papers about my interpretations of certain sections of it — but I hardly realized its gravity and import until I took advantage of the opportunity to see it, a deceptively simple piece of parchment by looks, but by content one of the world’s most profound documents.

    Charters of Freedom Hall, National Archives, Washington

    Both of these trips, only short distances away from Southern Virginia, allowed me to to turn abstract education into tangible life experience. The classroom knowledge I received from Professor Wilcox, as is usual at our university, was incredible — coupled with the ability to enrich my studies through access to some of the amazing opportunities located near our university, it was life-changing.

    (Post by Braxton Boyer ’16. Photos courtesy of Philippa Hawker ’16 and Library of Congress.)

  3. Why Dress Nice at Southern Virginia: An Open Letter to First Year Students

    August 30, 2016

    Dear First-Year Student,

    In the following weeks and perhaps months, you’re going to hear many messages about the dress and grooming standards at Southern Virginia University. If you just groaned in anticipation of that prospect, I understand. Most likely, you grew up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during which time your adult leaders regularly talked to you about the importance of dressing modestly. Given such a background, you might feel like we here at Southern Virginia are just doing more of the same—giving you that same message you’ve heard countless times before.

    That’s not what we’re doing.

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    Don’t get me wrong: we think that modesty is important. We value modesty. But we want to build on that message about your dress and grooming standards. To the modesty standard of your church upbringing we want to add a certain level of professionalism.  A professional standard. Not modest vs. immodest. Rather, formal vs. casual. Or perhaps, appropriate for the occasion vs. inappropriate for the occasion.   As a professor here at Southern Virginia, I really want you to understand this new standard. I want you to buy into it. Make it a part of who you are. Live it. If you do, it will make a difference for you, for your peers in the classroom we share, and for the Southern Virginia community as a whole.

    So let me share with you why dressing nice for class is a good idea. But before I do, I need to share two very basic ideas.

    Early in my high school career, the other kids started dressing in odd ways. Goth became a thing, along with Disco and other dress codes I’ve worked hard to forget. So all these kids started dressing differently, and they all gave the same reason.   “I’m just expressing who I am.”  In their minds, they were expressing their individuality by being different from the crowd. They were not sheep like the rest of us. They were individuals. They were unique.

    But developmental psychologists know better. They have shown that adolescents use dress to express their identity not by being different but by signaling their affiliation with (or desire to be affiliated with) a particular social group. For example, at my high school, I could tell who the jocks were by the clothes they wore—just like I could tell the preppies, the stoners, the surfers, the low-riders, and other groups. It wasn’t rocket science. Each group had their own dress code.   I’m guessing it was the same at your high school, right?  Consequently, scientific studies of the relationship between clothes and identity suggest that we dress to identify with a particular social group. Anyone who tells you different is probably still working out his or her identity issues—which is OK.

    Putting this into perspective, the Southern Virginia community is a social group with a particular dress code. You came here on purpose—knowing about that dress code. You electronically signed a document indicating that you were OK with our dress and grooming standards. And I trust you will hold to these standards with vigor. This doesn’t make you any less an individual. You’re not following the crowd. You’re not a mindless zombie. Instead, you’re someone who has intentionally chosen to adopt the identity of a Southern Virginia Knight, in the same way that you’ve chosen to be a Mormon, a Catholic, a soccer player, a thespian, a Marvel movies fanboy or whatever else makes you you.  To be a Knight and adopt the dress and grooming standards doesn’t mean you can’t be all those other things. We don’t want to take anything away from who you are, we want to add to who you are.

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    The second basic idea: the Southern Virginia dress and grooming standard includes the idea that context determines what is appropriate. So if you’re participating in 6:00 a.m. soccer practice, warmups would be appropriate clothing. No one is suggesting that you wear a button down dress shirt or blouse to play soccer. We all dress differently for different occasions: church, school, athletic competitions, dates, job interviews…. A typical wardrobe includes items specific to many different dress codes.  Putting this fact in context, the Southern Virginia standard isn’t, strictly speaking, one dress code as much as it is the idea that your dress is appropriate to the context and associated dress code (i.e. warm ups for soccer practice, nicer clothes for class).

    Now, why dress nice for class?  In a nutshell, what you wear affects you and the people around you in important ways. For example, cognitive psychologists have discovered that some cognitive processes are causally influenced by features of the physical body—including the clothes we wear. In one experiment[i], researchers had participants wear a white coat. Some participants were told the coat belonged to a doctor, while others were told the coat belonged to a painter. The participants were then given a tests of attention. Participants who thought they were wearing a doctor’s coat performed significantly better on the tests—they were better able to focus and maintain attention without being distracted by spurious details—compared to those who thought they were wearing a painter’s coat. In the study, wearing the coat seemed to be important. Simply seeing the coat hanging on the wall nearby didn’t impact that result. Weird, huh?

    There are many more studies addressing the way in which clothes affect us, and I’d love to share all the details of those studies—because I’m obsessed with social science research—but you’d probably get bored, so let me just cut to the chase. The more formal you dress, the more perceived social distance you create between yourself and others[ii]. Remember how I said we’re striving for a professional standard?  Well, such a standard necessarily involves a certain degree of social distance. But with that social distance comes: increased attention (the white lab coat study), an increased propensity to process information abstractly instead of concretely (which has implications for critical thinking and learning)[iii], and a greater perception of yourself as competent, productive, trustworthy, and authoritative[iv]. Alternatively, dressing more casually creates less social distance which has been associated with less attention, an increased propensity to process information in concrete terms, and a decreased perception of yourself as competent, productive, trustworthy, and authoritative. There’s more research documenting the connection between clothes and learning (i.e. students learn more and behave better when graduate student instructors dress more formally[v]), but you get the idea.

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    The big picture: good things will happen as you dress and groom yourself just a little more professionally in the classroom this semester. You’ll have more confidence, you’ll be able to focus better, and you’ll favor an abstract cognitive processing style which will predispose you to critical thinking.

    You don’t have to dress for a job interview every day. But “dressing for class” is a thing. Or at least it should be. And it should mean more to you than rolling out of bed and coming to class in the sweats you slept in. A little effort is all it takes. Modest. Clean. No extremes in style. Appropriate for the occasion. By small and simple things, great things are brought to pass, right?  And as the research shows, a little more effort beyond the minimum standard will lead to even greater gains.

    I hope you can understand and accept the invitation we’re offering here at Southern Virginia. We’re not simply restating the moral standards of your adolescence. We’re hoping to draw you into a more professional standard of dress and grooming that will enhance your classroom experience and prepare you for future work in professional settings. Here at Southern Virginia, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to continue your practice of casual dress in many appropriate settings, but don’t miss out on this new opportunity to expand your collegiate and professional identity via the adoption of a more professional dress and grooming standard.

    Respectfully,
    Dr. Rodriguez
    Associate Professor of Family and Child Development


    [i] Adam, H., & Galinsky, A. D. (2012). Enclothed cognition. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 918–925.

    [ii] Michael L. Slepian, Simon N. Ferber, Joshua M. Gold, and Abraham M. Rutchick (2015) The cognitive consequences of formal clothing, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(6) 661-668.

    [iii] Ibid

    [iv] Peluchette, J. V. E., & Karl, K. (2007). The impact of workplace attire on employee self-perceptions. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 18, 345–360.

    [v] Roach, K. D. (1997). Effects of graduate teaching assistant attire on student learning, misbehaviors, and ratings of instruction, Communication Quarterly, 45,(3), 125-141

  4. Relief Efforts in White Sulphur Springs

    June 28, 2016

    Meet Sonya. She’s a nurse. She helps people for a living. She was on her way to work on Thursday when floods hit her hometown of White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Sonya’s home is one of more than five hundred to take heavy damage or to be destroyed during last week’s flood.Sonya

    Here’s what it looks like now.

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    I met Sonya when I traveled to White Sulphur Springs with a group of relief-effort volunteers. My experiences in church service, my community involvement and my education at Southern Virginia University had all prepared me to serve — sometimes with only a moment’s notice — so I went to White Sulphur Springs prepared to work. Still, I’m not sure I was mentally ready for what I found there.

    Several streets were caked with dried mud, sending yellow clouds of dust up with each passing car. Fallen tree limbs, silt, broken chunks of asphalt and planks of rotted wood filled the rest of the gutters and roads. Rust-colored watermarks showed where the floods had lapped two, four or even six feet above ground-level. In some parts of town, entire buildings had been submerged. In others, homes were washed away, leaving nothing but gravel-covered foundations. The skeletons of flood-crushed structures, appliances and vehicles littered the sidewalks.IMG_20160626_143323476_HDR

    Sonya’s house still had an inch or two of wet mud beneath her scattered belongings, so it was difficult to maneuver through her house. She directed four friends from Southern Virginia and me for a chunk of Sunday afternoon, making decisions on what to salvage and what to leave behind. Working conditions were hot and muggy. The surrounding wreckage made it hard to detect our own progress.

    But at the end of the day, Sonya smiled, and so did I. Maybe it was because of her acknowledged gratitude to have survived the flood. Maybe it was because of the unifying nature of service — something Sonya deals with every day as a nurse.

    Whatever the reason, it was a privilege to work alongside her, and I’m deeply grateful for the emphasis my upbringing and education placed on serving my neighbor.

    (Post and photos by Stephen Taylor ’15.)

  5. 7 Reasons to Try Summer Courses

    June 2, 2016

    SVU091815_0182To all who take the occasional college course: If you like to learn all year long, if short-term, concentrated courses fit your learning style, if you have too much free time in the summer and if you just want to hurry up and graduate, you could do worse than to take some summer courses. Here are a few reasons to consider it for future summers.

    1. Summer classes offer better chances of fitting a work schedule. It’s a lot easier to juggle a part-time job with a summer class or two than with a handful of fall/spring classes scattered throughout the day. Summer courses allow you to keep a fairly consistent schedule Monday through Friday, where fall/spring terms might require something different every day of the week. Participating in Southern Virginia’s new online classes makes this even more manageable.

    2. Summer classes speed things up. Because both required and elective courses are available during the summer, you could shave a semester or two off your graduation timeline. This could mean that you earn an entire year to live your post-graduation dreams while your peers are studying for final exams. Think about it. But don’t rub it in your friends’ faces, because that would be mean.

    3. Summer classes speed things up. Yes, these are the same words I used before, but summer classes have a shorter duration than fall/spring courses. If you’re the kind of learner who thrives on focused, short-term study, these courses will fit you like a glove. Maybe that’s a bad simile for summer. Summer classes will fit you like a whitewater rafting life-jacket.

    4. Some courses are only offered in summer terms. Take Dr. Cluff’s “How to Read a Film” course as an example. A typical day in this class includes watching, analyzing and discussing an entire film in the same sitting. A course like this could only meet once a week without barring students from other important courses during a regular semester. During the summer, on the other hand, it can meet several times a week for 2-3 hours at a time.

    5. “Topics: World of Harry Potter.” You can literally get credit to study and write about your favorite character in Harry Potter.

    6. Campus is beautiful in the summer. Yes, it’s also beautiful in autumn and spring, but if you want to watch the fireflies illuminate all of Chandler Field on a June evening, you have to be here in June.

    7. Summer classes don’t stop summer from happening. The same year that I took my first two summer classes, I went on a 5000 mile road trip, worked two new jobs, performed in a musical theatre production, made several close new friends, went on a first-date with the woman who would later marry me, AND still got to sleep in.

    Long story short? Even with summer classes, it can still feel like summer.

    A summer Book Arts class at Southern Virginia. #svuedu #books #bookmaking #summerschool #artist

    A video posted by Southern Virginia University (@svuedu) on

    (Post by Stephen Taylor ’15. Video by Bronwyn Himes ’17. Photo by Jonathan McBride.)