Botzman to Leave SMCM

Tom Botzman, Vice President for Business and Finance for nine years at St. Mary’s, is leaving his position in July to become the 13th President of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pennsylvania.

“I am very excited and honored to be selected as the next president of Misericordia University, which has an impressive reputation for linking the liberal arts and sciences to a career-oriented education,” Botzman said in a press release on the College’s website.

Botzman graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio with a B.S. in engineering. He earned his M.A. in economics and his Ph.D. in business administration from Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

At St. Mary’s, Botzman has helped with the college’s institutional expansion, aiding in the construction of such complexes as the River Center, Glendenning, Goodpaster Hall, and the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center.

Botzman was also integral in keeping the College afloat during the financial collapse in 2008. “I’m really proud that when the world fell apart and everybody else had difficulty getting through it…we found ways to keep everybody working.”

President Urgo  expressed his congratulations to Botzman, though he said he is unsurprised that another college would want to hire him. “We’re all very excited for Tom, very proud of him. It doesn’t surprise me that someone would see the talent in him and know that he’s really ready to take the reins of an institution and be the leader of all things.”

Botzman has enjoyed his time at St. Mary’s, expressing particular pleasure at working with the students, staff, and faculty at the College. “I think I’m proudest most just of being able to work with really good people,” Botzman said. “And for the students and for all the things you get to do here, and being a part of that through good times and no good times for the world – and being able to keep that going.” The study abroad program has also thrived under Botzman, jumping from single digit percentages to around 50 percent, and over half of the students attend graduate school. “That’s the best part of it. That’s why I like being in higher ed.”

SMC Recognized with Grand Award by the Professional Grounds Management Society

In an email to the campus on Nov. 5, President Urgo informed the community that St. Mary’s had been recognized by the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) with the Grand Award indicating that the campus has “one of the best maintained landscapes in the colleges and universities category.”

According to Superintendent of Grounds Kevin Mercer, St. Mary’s award-winning landscaping began with the students’ concerns for our effect on the environment. “The way we were doing our normal day-to-day operation from a textbook grounds maintenance program back in 2005 had to be adjusted,” Mercer said. In doing so, they reduced both our stormwater pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

Under the direction of Associate Vice President of Planning and Facilities Chip Jackson, Mercer explained that the goal became to value function and practical maintenance over aesthetics, which could require pesticides and fertilizers to maintain.

Mercer explained that the College won the award for two reasons: the students made him aware of the important issues the grounds facilities face today, “and the grounds staff working through all kinds of challenges to make the grounds look impressionable.”

Mercer also gave credit to Lesley Urgo, founding member of the arboretum. “All her work goes on unnoticed at times, but she has made [significant] changes to our landscape in regards to trees, rain gardens and green spaces.”

Winning the Grand Award places St. Mary’s in the company of other past award-winners including the Disneyland Resort, the Smithsonian Gardens, the National Zoo and Penn State University. This year, St. Mary’s was up against other universities and programs with large endowments and much larger grounds budgets with which we can’t compare. “So for us to win the Grand Award not only says a lot for the College grounds staff,” Mercer said, “but for everyone at our college in general for making the grounds what they are,” noting that students, staff, and faculty often volunteer to help beautify the campus by planting trees and flowers or picking up trash.

Urgo also praised the grounds crew and College staff, explaining that he considers the grounds crew to be “landscape faculty,” in that they “[demonstrate] in the laboratory of our natural setting how one cares for and enhances the natural beauty of the found world around us.

“The award is significant and important because it provides external validation for a core value at St. Mary’s College,” Urgo said. “We are stewards of this beautiful landscape, and as an educational institution we are [committed] to imparting the value of stewardship to our students.”

Mercer is pleased with winning the award, noting what an achievement it is for a small college like St. Mary’s and how it demonstrates that the College is somewhat ahead of the times. “Right now [winning this award] means we are leading the way in our grounds maintenance program,” Mercer said, “and showcasing it every day.”

Hurricane Sandy Blows Through St. Mary's

A little more than a year after Hurricane Irene disrupted orientation, downed power lines, and started a seemingly endless mold fiasco, Hurricane Sandy made landfall slightly north of St. Mary’s, causing billions of dollars of damage and dozens of lives along the east coast, but leaving a surprisingly small effect on the College campus.

As President Urgo said, Sandy did come through and the storm did shut down campus for two days. However, it proved to be not much more than a “48-hour distraction,” Urgo said. “It didn’t cause a lot of damage but it stopped us from doing anything else except keeping an eye on it.”

As for the damage to the campus, the impact was relatively low. One tree on the historic side of campus blew over, but Urgo said they believed it was old and ready to go soon anyway. The rainfall was significantly less than Irene’s, and there was no flooding, though places which were prone to leaks did experience a bit. Additionally, though the College did lose power, it was restored after only 20 minutes or so, which Urgo attributes in part to upgrades that Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative (SMECO) has made around campus.
 Sandy wasn’t insignificant though; the rain and wind were both enough to eventually institute a campus lockdown, meaning students had to remain inside their residences on Oct. 29 from 4 p.m. until 9 a.m. the next morning. According to Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life Joanne Goldwater, the lock down policy, sent out in an email by Interim Dean of Students Bert Ifill, was instituted because Goldwater saw students outside in the hurricane in swimsuits near St. John’s Pond.

“That really worried me,” Goldwater said, “so I contacted Dr. Ifill and in consultation from [Officer] Brooks at Public Safety, we determined that in order to ensure student safety, it would be wise to institute the lockdown.”

Because Bon Appetit had shut down dining services and students were confined to their residences, Residence Life distributed meals to students on Sunday night and Monday morning. Goldwater said that the decision to bring the food to the residences was made the week prior to the hurricane, as part of the standard operating procedure for the College’s hurricane plan. Before Sandy hit, Bon Appetit had arranged to have extra non-perishable food delivered to the campus, and the student staff distributed the food during the storm itself, when it was determined safe.

Goldwater explained that Residence Life worked intensely before and during the storm to remain fully operational and ready. Office Associate Monica Armstrong spend much of Thursday and Friday preparing for the storm, “by stocking up on extra batteries, buying additional flashlights for staff, ensuring that our walkie-talkies were operational, preparing our “to-go” bag (which contains important documents that we would need in the event that the computer system was not working and/or Glendening Hall was damaged), and preparing rosters for all of the RHCs [Residence Hall Coordinators].”

Additionally, much of the campus staff was on-campus through the storm to “ensure the safety of students and student staff, provide assistance and support, answer questions, allay fears, provide timely information, check on leaks [and] damages, and assist with the management of the emergency situation.” Goldwater was on campus for 36 hours straight, from Monday at 5 a.m. to Tuesday at 5 p.m.

Goldwater also praised the student staff. “[They] were the front-line folks. They distributed food, determined who was here and who left campus, ensured the safety of the residents and the buildings, kept students occupied, helped us manage the lockdown,” among other things, she noted.

Both Goldwater and Urgo were pleased with the emergency response by professionals and students alike. “I thought the emergency response was on target entirely,” Urgo said of the emergency response team. “They showed how well-prepared they were [and the] communication strategy was effective; we always knew what was going on and what was happening next.”
Goldwater agreed. “I think this is the best response we’ve had to a hurricane in my 19 years here.  We all worked really well together, the students were cooperative and helpful, there was a great deal of support, essential staff were available.  It all came together beautifully…In my 19 years here, I have found that during any crisis, our sense of community is absolutely amazing. So many people worked really hard before, during, and after the storm. We are so fortunate to have a close-knit community.”

College Reexamines Slogans and Logos to Retain Campus Image

The College is currently in a phase of examining its public image, including reexamining the logo, the stationary, some slogans, and other SMCM images according to President Urgo and Assistant Vice President of External Relations Keisha Reynolds, ’96.

“The effort is called Public Awarness,” Reynolds explained, “which means we are taking a look at the College’s public image. We are going through a process to [validate] who we are as an institution and then we are going to ensure the College’s outward image matches that.”

Once every couple of years or so, the College examines the image it puts out, according to Urgo, to make sure everything still resonates with the campus and our philosophies.  Little things are looked at, like the stationary, the web page, and the logo to confirm that “we’re all still happy with that, [and that] it still speaks to us in terms of who we are,” Urgo said.

One issue that consistently arises, Urgo noted, is the name of the College. “That’s always seen as an issue with our so-called brand because it sounds like a Catholic school, and [we’re] not Catholic. Not only that, [we’ve] never been Catholic and we’re not private.” Urgo noted that often at fairs, the admissions staff will report that people will walk by and mention that they’re not interested in a Catholic institution, and it can make for an “awkward” discussion when it’s explained that we’re not.

For better or worse, the name of the College is sticking with us. “‘St. Mary’s College’ is our major identifier, obviously; it’s our name,” Urgo said. “No one is looking at a name change.”

But we will look at “the stories we tell about ourselves,” he explained. The slogans like “public liberal arts college,” “public honors college,” and “at Historic St. Mary’s City,” as well as things like the sailboat logo and the stationary, will be closely considered to see if they “are still fresh and relevant. And if [they’re] not, we’ll make changes. ”

The College is working with Marketpoint, a consulting firm, which conducts focus groups with the College community including students, faculty, staff, and trustees, “in order to take a deeper look at who we are,” Reynolds said.

“After the public awareness initiative is complete, we will have refined messages and possibly tweaks to our logo to be used in the external materials like admissions materials, articles and advertisements.”

Urgo explained that at Hawktoberfest, community members including students, faculty, staff, alumni, and visitors were asked a series of questions about these issues to gauge public opinion, questions like, “What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of St. Mary’s College?”

Urgo also said that he didn’t believe any changes of serious consequence would be made to our image. “I don’t foresee any drastic changes. No one is looking at a name change,” Urgo said. “But I would expect we’ll see some subtle updates in visuals.”


Volunteering: It's More Worthwhile Than Honey Boo Boo

Now that I’m in my fourth week of my final semester of college (which is something I can’t even begin to wrap my head around), I’m starting to look back on my almost four years of higher education with a kind of nostalgia that’s usually reserved for people much older than I, and who usually have a greater reason to be nostalgic. But I’m also examining my time here carefully to determine where I feel I succeeded, and where I know I came short. There’s not much that I regret about my time here, fortunately, but there are definitely paths I wish I’d pursued at St. Mary’s. I specifically say “at St. Mary’s” because I’m a transfer student which, at the time of my transfer, put me in kind of a unique position: I had the ability effectively to begin college again.

Since I knew I was transferring around the middle of my first semester I had already made close friends and had gotten involved in a few activities around my old campus. But when I first began college I figured that I’d have more time, and I was having a hard time adjusting to college life, so I procrastinated joining clubs or other groups. Then, I transferred to St. Mary’s and I had the opportunity to start fresh and become as active in campus life as I wanted, and I wanted to become active.

Personally, I’m pleased with what I’ve done here. I’m graduating a semester early, of which I’m proud, and I still feel like I’ve gotten involved in, or at least sampled, a nice variety of clubs and organizations.

But there’s one thing I wish I’d done more, and though it’s kind of a trite topic, if it weren’t so important to me I promise I wouldn’t write about it: I honestly wish I’d been able to devote more of my time to volunteering, both on and off campus.

I started tutoring adult GED students at Great Mills High School on Wednesday nights the first semester of my sophomore year here and I quickly realized the impact that I could make if I exerted even a little effort. Two hours a week I tried to help adults get their high-school equivalency; the students had myriad reasons for striving for their GED but their motivations, while often inspiring and humbling, were irrelevant to me. All I knew were the subjects with which they were having trouble and any information they felt they wanted me to know. It’s rewarding to watch a student who’s struggling with ratios or fractions finally understand their function and purpose. I hope I made a small difference.

I say this because I derived satisfaction from my volunteering work, but I wish I’d been able to volunteer more frequently. It’s easy to get caught up in school work (which is admittedly very important, professors who are reading this), or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (which is very, very important, as I will freely confess), or your precious few hours of free time (and there is nothing more important than free time). But it’s also so easy to volunteer, especially at St. Mary’s. There are countless organizations on campus solely devoted to volunteer work, from For Goodness Sake to Habitat for Humanity to Circle K to Rotaract Club. Last year, The Point News spotlighted a club called Knits for the Needy, which is exactly what it sounds: they knit or crochet for those in need. There’s a place for all talents to be of service.

I won’t be a geezer and grouchily grumble how our generation is selfishly attached to the small glowing screens of our computers and cell phones and the whositwhatsits the kids are using these days, because I genuinely don’t believe that to be true. I know far too many wonderful, selfless, involved students to even begin to justify that silly and unfounded claim. All I believe is that it’s so simple to volunteer, and that everyone, everywhere is looking for some kind of help. If you have anything to offer, please try it and see if it fits with you. And anyway, TLC always has reruns of Honey Boo Boo.

Summer Sees Staff Changes

As always with the commencement of a new academic year, St. Mary’s has undergone cuts, hirings, and changes to the faculty and staff on campus. Among those who have left the College are Rich Edgar, former Director of Admissions, Office Administrator Lisa Crowe, and Director of Public Safety David Zylak.

Edgar who was also the President of the Staff Senate, joined SMCM in 1986 and was recently named an honorary alumnus of the College. In an email to the campus community President Urgo explained that the College’s new strategy to restructure the admissions office to unite admissions and financial aid, “has necessitated a reorganization of positions, which included the departure of colleagues who have contributed a great deal to the College over the years.”

Also included in the restructuring was Crowe, office administrator to the Office of the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid; Crowe was with the College for 37 years. In his email, Urgo also said, “We will miss Rich Edgar and Lisa Crowe. I want to thank them for their hard work over many years in the service of St. Mary’s and wish them the best in their future endeavors.” Other than a change in restructuring admissions and financial aid, no other reason was given for Edgar or Crowe’s departure.

Zylak was the Director of Public Safety for the 2011-2012 school year, after serving as the interim director following the departure of Christopher Santiago at the end of 2011. Santiago had been the director for only a year before he was replaced by Zylak, who was formerly the St. Mary’s County Director of Public Safety and before that, the County Sheriff. No reason was given for his departure, and in an email to the campus, Interim Dean of Students Roberto Ifill said that the new interim director would be Melvin A. (Mac) McClintock. McClintock “has provided strong leadership as Assistant Director of Human Resources and as Affirmative Action/EEO Officer in the five years he has been at St. Mary’s, following a distinguished 20-year career in the military,” Ifill said. Ifill also said the College hopes to appoint a new director “as soon as possible.”

Also in Public Safety staff changes, Officer Mary Johnston, frequently referred to by students as “Officer Mary,” was announced to have transitioned to the Physical Plant, with the new title “Operations and Customer Service Coordinator.” Assistant Vice President for Campus Operations Derek Thornton sent an email alerting the community of her change, and explaining that her duties will now include “ processing daily work orders and data input into [the Physical Plant’s] computer maintenance management system, fleet support, events management system coordination and oversight of mailroom operations.” Previously, Johnston has been a part of Public Safety for seven years.

The office of Residence Life also experience staff restructuring, beginning with Kelly Smolinsky’s move from Assistant Director of Residence Life to Student Conduct Officer. The position was previously called Judicial Affairs Officer and was formerly held by Regina Curran. In an email to the campus, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Beth Rushing listed Smolinsky’s experience, saying, “Kelly has been at St. Mary’s College since 2006, first as an Area Coordinator for Alcohol and Other Drug Education, and then as Assistant Director of Residence Life for Housing Operations. She has served as our interim Student Conduct Officer for the past few weeks, following Regina Curran’s departure.”

In addition to the position changing hands, the name of the office has been changed from Judicial Affairs to Student Conduct. According to Smolinsky, the name reflects a change in attitude to the office. “‘Judicial Affairs’ makes the office sound like it’s more oriented toward a court system, and that’s not what we want,” Smolinsky said in an email. “Student Conduct is largely a peer-to-peer based system that seeks to educate, as opposed to a criminal system that seeks to punish.” Smolinsky explained that the position of Student Conduct Officer won’t change, but she does intend to “expand the services of the office to include more approaches to conflict resolution,” like mediation. Additionally, Smolinsky is reviewing the College’s policies and procedures and the minimum expected sanctions, so she’s “looking for a lot of student feedback during that process.”

Taking of Smolinsky’s position as Assistant Director of Residence Life working with Housing Operations is Derek Young, ‘02. In an email to the College, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life Joanne Goldwater said that Young graduated from St. Mary’s with a B.A. in psychology and returned in 2007 to serve as an Area Coordinator. In 2010, Young became the Assistant Director for Staff Recruitment and Development. Now, as Assistant Director working with Housing Operations, Young “will be responsible for managing room selection/assignment process, break housing, and room inspections, coordinating openings and closings, key distribution, working with enrollment management, and working with the Physical Plant to facilitate maintenance concerns in the residences.” He will also continue to serve as an adjunct instructor for the psychology department.

Finally, filling the position of Assistant Director of Residence Life for Staff Recruitment and Development is Clinton Gilbert ‘07. Gilbert graduated from St. Mary’s with a B.A. in economics and anthropology/sociology, according to the same email sent by Goldwater, and returned in 2010 to work as the area coordinator for multicultural initiatives. In addition to continuing to supervise the Multicultural Achievement Peer Program (MAPP) and the MAPP mentors, Gilbert will now be responsible for selecting “training, and [evaluating] the RHCs and RAs, creating study groups within the residences, coordinating recognition and appreciation efforts for the department, and developing and implementing the Academic Improvement and Management program for academically at-risk student staff members within the Office of Residence Life.” A search is underway for area coordinators to fill the vacancies left by Young and Gilbert.

FTCD: Opinions on Opinions

Hello everyone and happy new year (as in new school year, not “happy 2013,” because that’s jumping the gun a bit).

Welcome back to our thankfully still weird community, or if you’re either a first-year or, like myself two years ago, a transfer student, welcome to the river for the first time. Welcome back to the hot and sticky sauna that is our part-time home in southern Maryland, welcome to the campus that just lives for Halloween, and welcome to what could very well be our last semester on Earth, if the Mayans are right. In short, welcome.

This is my very first opinions piece as the editor-in-chief of The Point News (and technically, my very first article as the editor-in-chief) and that’s exactly what I’d like to address: opinions.

As the opinions section editor of a very opinionated staff, I am overjoyed each time we receive a student-submitted opinion because it means that our paper won’t be dominated by our very vocal writers. But it also pleases me because it’s so important to combat apathy. Every opinion is a valid opinion, and every time someone makes an effort to voice their opinion in a public forum is both a positive step for the activist, the cause, and the progression of humanity in general.

However, while every opinion is valid, not every opinion is a well-constructed, researched, debated, and thoughtful opinion which carefully considers as many relevant points of view as possible. Opinions can be based in empty rhetoric and unfounded faith, and even well-intentioned people can fall prey to misinformation and half-truths. Often, opinions can cause rancor and volatility among those on opposite sides of the issue.

Facebook is an easy example of this. Photographs with attention-grabbing captions that seem unbelievably shocking usually are. Statistics can and are twisted to prove points. The same exact internet which allows us to access hundreds of millions of invaluable raw facts is also the place where downright falsehoods thrive and supposed “friends” fight nasty-worded political battles.

Anonymous commenting can be even worse. If you visit our site, you’ll notice we don’t require anything but a name (for which “Anonymous,” “Student,” or “None of Your Damn Business” works) and an email address. We keep it that way because we want to make sure that anyone can add a constructive comment without pressure.

But anonymous commenting also frees people to say things they might not normally say if they were held responsible for it. It’s virtually untraceable to the common user and it’s easier to accuse someone of being fascist, communist, or stupid if your name isn’t attached to your comment. Fortunately, The Point News has relatively little name-calling; the vast majority of our comments are thoughtful and worthwhile.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: we adore it when we get unsolicited opinions pieces. We want so badly to publish what you have to say, as long as it’s researched, factual, and accurate. Nothing makes us happier than when we get comments on our articles because it demonstrates that our community is utilizing our newspaper as the public forum we intend and want it to be. Please, please use our newspaper as an outlet for you and your well-researched opinions, and please craft them with respect. Honestly, you’re better served when you present yourself peacefully and intellectually than when you attack with vitriol and hate.]

Finally, if you’d like to submit an opinion, please feel free to drop it off at our office or email either myself at, my deputy editor at, or my managing editor at Or if you think you’d be more fulfilled working on the newspaper, we’d love to see you at our meetings Mondays at 8 PM in the club room.

Thank you for reading my opinion, which I hope was both respectful and somewhat convincing, and again, welcome home.

Trustee and Maryland State Senator J. Frank Raley Dies at 85

On Tuesday, Aug. 18, former St. Mary’s College trustee and former Maryland senator J. Frank Raley passed away at age 85.
According to his obituary at the Brinsfield Funeral Home in Leonardtown, Maryland, Raley attended St. Mary’s County parochial schools, Charlotte Hall Military Academy, and Georgetown University. He also never lived further than 10 miles from his birthplace.

From 1955 to 1959, Raley continued his family’s political legacy as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates; from 1963 to 1966 he served as a senator. After his years as a senator, Raley became a delegate to the 1967 Constitutional Convention in Maryland. During those three years in the Senate, Raley is credited with having initialized the building of much of the infrastructure needed to develop St. Mary’s County, including building schools, roads, and bridges to the county.

St. Mary’s College also felt Senator Raley’s assistance when in 1966, he helped develop St. Mary’s into a four-year liberal arts institution. From 1967 to 1991, Raley served on the Board of Trustees and in March of 2010, he was awarded St. Mary’s highest honor: the Order of the Ark and the Dove. At that time, the College also renamed the dining hall to be the J. Frank Raley Great Room. His portrait currently hangs in the Great Room.

The former trustee emeritus made contributions to all areas of the college, including the construction of residence halls and other campus buildings. Raley also helped create the Center for the Study of Democracy as part of his lifelong interest in democratic relations and education. His interest in the county also led him to assist in the SlackWater Project, a journal which documents the county through oral histories and scholarly articles.

In addition to his devotion to the College, Raley also served on the St. Mary’s City Commission and on the Task Force on Affiliation between Historic St. Mary’s City and the College. In 1999, he was awarded the Cross Bottony award in recognition for his accomplishments and contributions.

In an email to the College, President Urgo said, “J. Frank was a visionary leader. He not only laid the foundation for St. Mary’s College of Maryland as a premier public liberal arts college, he was a chief supporter of the College’s mission and goals throughout his lifetime…We will always be grateful for J. Frank’s vision and leadership.”

Urgo also said that the College will work with the family to plan “our own remembrance and recognition of the significant role J. Frank played with the College” and will update the community when plans are more solid.

Raley is survived by his stepson, John P. Cook Jr.; granddaughter, Julia P.C. Dobson; sister, Ruth D. “Peaches” Raley; nieces and nephews.

Community Dialogue Features Open Discussions

Thursdays will now be Community Dialogue nights at The Pub, where, according to an email sent by Associate Professor of Philosophy Sybol Cook Anderson,  students, faculty, staff, and other community members will now have, “a space for free and easy discussion of campus community issues.”

The inaugural dialogue was held on April 5, when the topic of discussion, facilitated by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was, “Is a living wage right for St. Mary’s?” Then on April 26, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Beth Rushing, along with Facilities Planner and Sustainability Coordinator Luke Mowbray, facilitated a discussion titled, “How can the campus live more sustainably?

At the April 5 discussion, SDS hung up poster paper in The Pub; at the top were written “What are your budget priorities?” “What do you think the administration’s priorities are?” and “Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Write them down!” The discussion revolved around the figures about living wage, explanations of block grants, details about raises at the school, and attempts to brainstorm ways to support the staff without achieving a living wage.

The discussion went back and forth between SDS students and other community members, asking questions, answering them, and sharing opinions and thoughts. The April 26 talk revolved more around sustainability on campus, though the arrangement of seating was more closed, allowing for better hearing and easier discussion in the often noisy pub.

According to Anderson, starting the dialogue was “astonishingly easy.” She said she emailed Rushing and a few other administrators and then the process was done. Anderson expressed interest in having people “come together and talk about issues hanging in the air.”  The discussions are to be open-ended, according to Anderson, and will keep going until they naturally end. “Everybody takes over in a really organic way,” Anderson said. The discussions will continue next fall semester Thursdays at 5 p.m., though they will be under a new name decided by a campus-wide contest.

Rakoff Gives Honest, Candid Twain Lecture

David Rakoff is very anxious. As a defensive pessimist, he’s always expecting and preparing for the worst. For example, as he joked in the writer’s craft talk he gave Friday, April 27 as part of the Twain Lecture Series, he always knows where the fire exits in the room are and how much oxygen per person the area can withstand. “Defensive pessimism [is] a presentiment of doom,” Rakoff explained. If you lower your expectations and believe everything is going to be a disaster, you can effectively manage your anxiety. Despite Rakoff’s lowered expectations, he spoke eloquently and at-length about the writing process, his pessimism and anxiety, and humor at the writer’s craft talk and later in the evening, when he read insightful and witty essays from his books as part of his main lecture.

The Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture was started in 2007 by Ben Click, professor and head of the English Department. Since its beginning, there have been over 40 Twain Lecture Series events, with speakers like comedians Mo Rocca and Larry Wilmore and authors Firoozeh Dumas and Peter Sagal.

This year, the featured speaker was David Rakoff, a critically acclaimed humor writer. He is a winner of the Thurber Prize for Humor for his book of essays Half Empty, a two-time recipient of the Lambda Book Award for Humor, and he has been shortlisted for the Whiting Award as well as the Stephen Leacock Medal. He is a regular contributer to Public Radio International’s “This American Life” and his writing has also appeared in “The New York Times Magazine” and numerous collections including The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Non-Required Reading, and Outside 25: The Best of Outside Magazine’s 25 Years.

 His work will also appear in the forthcoming The Fifty Funniest American Writers from the Library of America. He is also an actor who has worked in theater with humorists David and Amy Sedaris on their plays “Stitches,” “The Little Freida Mysteries,” “The Book of Liz,” and “One Woman Shoe.” He adapted the screenplay and starred in the 2010 Academy Award-winning “The New Tenants.”

At the writer’s craft talk, Click introduced Rakoff as the “best writer we’ve had so far,” explaining that “you can see the craft in his work.” Beginning first by briefly discussing his thoughts on writing and humor, Rakoff explained that writing “never gets easier–it only gets harder.” Writing, Rakoff said, is a dreadful experience for him in the most literal way. He dreads sitting down and writing anything and explained that his writing always starts out badly and he just hopes for the confidence to improve what he’s written.

Rakoff believes that humor writing especially is contingent upon an ineherent feeling of outsider-hood since, according to Rakoff, “you have to feel somewhat out of the mainstream.” Other than that characteristic of humor-writing, however, Rakoff insisted that being comical is a value-neutral trait. Having a sense of humor is vital, because without it “you’re kind of a bad person,” but even though being funny can be socially helpful, it’s neither a positive or negative characteristic.

But Rakoff is funny–bitingly so–and he derives his humor mostly from his melancholy and his frustrations.  “You don’t make stuff up,” Rakoff explained. “You take things that you have witnessed… and the hope is that [you can write] something that is pretty, vivid, specific, and true.”

Rakoff had no shortage of melancholy material to use, he said, during the Reagan and the elder Bush years, but the younger Bush years were especially “bruising” for him. When asked about his desire to effect change, however, Rakoff has no illusions. “I’d be surprised if I could change a mind; things seem so intractable [that] those Augustine moments of deep conversion seem entirely random – as random as lighting strikes…There are scented candles that contribute more to society than me.”

Similarly, Rakoff described his feelings on offending people: he tries to be extremely careful as to whom he’s offending. For example, he warned against offending or attacking someone because they lack privilege. “If you’re very careful about why you’re saying something–if you tell the truth–you never have to worry about what you said…similarly, be vigilant about your target.” He cited referring to Barbara Bush as an “[expletive] cow” and feeling the insult was warranted because she’d said something that was, according to his standards, equally offensive. However, Rakoff said he mostly takes a “[politically correct] and NPR” approach to humor, and tries not to offend.

After discussing his belief in delayed gratification as an indispensable convention in humor and revealing that he simply pushes through his dread to keep writing, hoping that the revisions will be better than the usually disappointing first drafts, Rakoff attempted to explain how he believes he can be both anxious and happy at the same time. “Anxiety and happiness can coexist–you’re just sort of keyed up,” Rakoff explained.

Anxiety, he said, is often misattributed in a national sense as a lack of patriotism or as unwarranted pessimism (though Rakoff is admittedly a pessimist). But this concept is flawed, Rakoff explained. “People who are anxious really aren’t ruining it for anybody – it’s just the way they are,” as value-neutral as having a sense of humor. Though he briefly discussed this during the talk, he expanded upon this opinion later at the lecture.

The audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy Rakoff, even giving him a standing ovation as he finished. “I thought it was really helpful [and] funny,” said junior Katie Brown. “He gave a lot of really good advice but in a casually funny way.”

Tobias Franzen, a junior, agreed with Brown, saying, “He sure likes to swear. It was good – it was wonderful.”

Then, before his wildly popular talk at 7:00 p.m. later that day in the gym of the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center, the first 150 students with a student I.D. received a free t-shirt starting at 6:30. The t-shirts ran out in less than 15 minutes, with a completely full gym by the time the talk started with another introduction by Click, describing Rakoff’s work as “the best comment on humor I’ve read in a long time.”

Rakoff took the stage by bringing in some of his own local humor, saying, “Sorry I’m late. I was trying to get my sneakers into the shoe tree.” He didn’t have a planned program; instead he flipped through his books at random to choose what he would read. His first essay was from his most recent work, Half Empty. It was written in 1999 in response to a new column in the New York Times called “Writers on Writing” that is a scathing tongue-in-cheek commentary on the pretension associated with writing.

Rakoff’s next essay was his reaction to the “unwarranted optimism” in the post-9/11 world from his most recent book Half Empty that explained his policy of defensive pessimism to manage his anxiety when the Bush administration decided to invade the Middle East. He ended by explaining his pessimism by saying, “I am a kill-joy in many many ways.”

His third piece was from State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America about Utah and “The Insane Optimism of Westward Expansion.” He said that the goal of the book was to send 50 writers to 50 states and have them write about the state, but they ran out of good states by the time he got to Rakoff so he was matched with Utah, whose beauty he likened to bologna.

As he stood at the “squat commemorative obelisk” at the Golden Spike where the transcontinental railroad was first formed in 1869, he tried to get into the mindset of the early settlers, but he couldn’t do it. “How does one take all of this in and still think,” Rakoff read, “Yes, I will go ever gaily forward…How did they do it?…it seems frankly remarkable that anyone anywhere ever attempted anything.”

At this point in the talk, Rakoff admitted that he brought the wrong folder, but he would try to read a different copy of the text than he had planned, although it was dangerous for the enjoyment of the audience. “Writing in page and in performance is so different; you can be more boring on the page,” he said. “I’m leading you on a string in the dark and if I get too tangential, I am lost to you and you are lost to me and then we’re both in the soup.”

Despite the unforeseen difficulty, his subsequent essay was the most successful of the evening. “Isn’t It Romantic” is a criticism of the musical Rent, making the argument that the characters are not the true artists that they claim to be. He said, “You can [perform an unprintable sexual act], but it won’t turn you into Oscar Wilde.”

The only thing that makes you an artist, he continued to explain, is making art. After apologizing for making a quip about the quality of Rent’s undergraduate work, he rhetorically asked, “Were others left leaving the theater rooting for the landlords?” He told a hilarious story about his living situation in the beginnings of his career, ending with “Lying against a tile floor listening to someone else having sex is basically my early 20s…but I still paid my damn rent!”

His final essay of the night was called “Shrimp,” about his childhood growing up as a 47-52 year-old child in Canada who was “worryingly diminutive, [and] freakishly small.” Rakoff’s childhood self thought he was just like Stuart Little, but scared of everything. “It dawned on me recently,” he read, “that I must have been very unpleasant to be around.”

The essay described his difficulty with his size through adolescence and how a cruel drama teacher once forbade him from auditioning for a play because she was looking for actors that were “more substantial,” but he eventually overcame his insecurity because “after all, I had grown.”

After Rakoff answered a few questions about his favorite works, his writing, and his defensive pessimism philosophy, Dr. Click announced the winners of the “Assault of Laughter” writing contest. First place went to junior Julie Durbin for her essay “The Defecation of the Reputation of the Great Blue Heron,” second place went to junior Thor Peterson for his piece, “The All Student Email,” and third place went to St. Mary’s ’03 alumnus Benjamin Stoehr for his essay, “You Buy?” All three essays are available online at