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Sunday, May 05, 2024

How to Effectively Design Good Generative AI-Using Student Assignments: Steps, Strategy, and an Example

If it were not bad enough to combat essays purchased from Course Hero, GradeSaver, or one of the other paper mills that purchase student essays, now one has to worry about papers generated by large language models such as ChatGPT, Scribe, Google Gemini, CoPilot or others.  Generative AI tools are being developed for specific topics or domains, and the assumption is, at least from a student’s perspective, that the product will be well written and accurate, or at least well written and accurate enough to merit a passing grade. 

As an instructor who develops, teaches, and grades courses and coursework for online courses hosted on Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard, or even Google Classroom, this is a challenge you can’t afford to ignore, and an opportunity that can transform your entire teaching philosophy. 


What data sets are used to train the generative AI algorithms?  Let’s take the case of American literature. I would automatically assume that the first repositories to be ingested would be open access repositories such as Project Gutenberg and  Those would be primary texts for the most part. Then, secondary texts would be incorporated, which would consist of journal articles. Tertiary texts would also be used, which would include encyclopedias. While there may be some question about intellectual property and the right to use the materials, there would be few questions about the integrity of such materials, gleaned as it were, from peer-reviewed and quality assured primary sources, peer-reviewed journals and monographs, and peer-reviewed encyclopedias. 

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to materials about American literature that one can access through the Internet. There are blog posts, online magazines, repositories of articles from study guide providers such as, Sophia Learning,, and many more. These resources may be a bit repetitive and not particularly original, but perhaps harmless in the overall scheme of things.  If anything, they may skew the results to bland and formulaic papers. 


What happens, however, when these AI bots ingest the massive repositories of essays which have been compiled by companies such as Course Hero, Grade Saver, and others?  Is there any quality control at all? Some of the sites encourage students to sell their term papers for $5 each. Is there any quality control?  Would the evaluator or screener check for accuracy, bias, originality, and innovative thinking? Would the screener be able to differentiate between a tired, flat, biased, inaccurate paper and a fresh, innovative, and accurate one? 

It is quite possible that the sheer volume of low-quality term papers, biased or error-riddled blog posts, student-shared material, unrefereed conference proceedings and “gray” literature could exceed the high-quality, peer-reviewed material by many orders of magnitude. 


Learning how to use generative AI as a helpful tool and understanding its limitations and pitfalls is probably a more pragmatic and useful approach than trying to ban it altogether. Further, if students learn how to use AI tools in their coursework where they receive feedback and guidance, it is likely that they will be able to more effectively use the tool in their professional lives. 

Instructional designers and instructors who understand how results are likely to be generated can design assignments that require students to incorporate their own unique vantage points, prior knowledge, experience, and insights rather than simply producing a bland summary or compendium of the blandest, least thought-provoking or original material that responds to the prompt. 


Instructors can develop assignments that actually require students to use a generative AI tool, and then they can ask them to critique the response.  

Here’s a sample assignment: 

Please write an essay that identifies the possible themes in Emerson’s essay, “Circles,” and explains how they relate to American Transcendentalism. 

When I fed the prompt to ChatGPT, it churned out a six-paragraph essay in about 3 seconds. It sported a nice, clear thesis statement, a clear definition of American Transcendentalism, and then proposed several themes, and provided evidence, including quotes. On first glance, it seemed to be a very serviceable essay. 

However, upon closer examination, it was clear that the essay was pretty facile, and felt very derivative. It did not provide citations for the quotes, and the explanations around each of the quotes and the themes did not go into any depth and tended to repeat each other. There was no deeper probing of American Transcendentalism, nor was there any historical context. 

One could argue that the prompt should have asked for historical context, and could even be interesting and ask for connections to a darker, more ominous underbelly of what seemed, on the face of it, to be an expansive, all-encompassing dream of harmony and unity. However, there is no investigation of the philosophical or ideological underpinnings, nor any sense of how American Transcendentalism was popular because it uniquely reinforced and even expanded the authority of those who already possessed it.  

The students could be asked to identify the weaknesses of the Chat GPT essay, and to explain when and how the responses were cliché, facile, or derivative of what one would expect to see in an encyclopedia or generic study guide, and they do not encourage critical thinking or a look at “Circles” through a new and innovative vantage point. 

It would be very nice for students to work on the critique in a collaborative workspace – for example, in a shared document, where each could highlight and comment on the ChatGPT-generated essay. 


It is possible to write assignments and paper prompts that encourage students to incorporate their unique views, experiences, and prior knowledge.  While some may think that this subjectivity would make it difficult to assess the work, in reality, just the opposite is the case. 

For example, for an essay on American literature, a rubric would require the student to accurately describe what the text is about and also the main themes and characters as required by the prompt.  The prompt should also, however, require the student to think critically and ask questions that would relate to their own experiences and perceptions. They could also be asked to apply the concepts to a current situation. The students would be evaluated on their creativity and problem-solving skills as well as critical thinking. 

To apply this to the case of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Circles,” a prompt could look something like this: 

Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of Emerson’s ideas about agency as expressed in his essay, “Circles,” and describe how you’ve seen examples of the thinking expressed in your own life or the world at large.  Describe mid 19th-century American Transcendentalism and how it must have sounded to different groups of Americans: wealthy land owners, men wanting to move West for wealth and adventure, women in America, Native Americans, African-American slaves and freedmen, Irish indentured servants, Mexicans living in parts of Texas that were a part of Mexico before the War of 1848, and children. 

Granted, the new prompt is much, much more complex, but you probably get the picture, and can see how writing prompts to outwit the  AI bot is fun and engaging, while also encouraging collaborative activities and deeper learning. 


Colleges and universities are grappling with ChatGPT, Scribe, Google Gemini, CoPilot, and other generative AI platforms and tools.  While there is the chance of rampant violations of academic integrity, we are in the early stages of development and now is the time to envision new and productive pedagogical approaches that are ideal for adult learners and can help develop creativity, critical thinking skills and confidence.  

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Exploring Ian Wild's Moodle 4 Security (Packt Publications, 2024)

Ian Wild’s new book, Moodle 4 Security (Packt Publications, 2024), equips the Moodle administrator and the IT team to protect all aspects of Moodle, from Moodle server security to Moodle application security, including Moodle infrastructure modeling, and strategies for educating the weakest security links – the individual users. 


Link to the text: 

 The book begins by describing the depth and the scope of the problem, while providing a short history of hacking, understanding the nature of cybersecurity risk with Moodle, and the consequences of doing nothing. It moves to a section that explains how to identify threats, and how to use programs such as STRIDE and other Open Web Application Security projects that can be used to defend against many types of cybersecurity threats. 


A large section of the book is devoted to Moodle server security.  Wild guides the reader through a step-by-step process of building a secure Linux server which includes enabling TTS/SSL to have a secure SSL certificate, selecting the best firewalls, and exploring server immutability.  The process of assuring Moodle server security also involves endpoint protection, denial of service protection, and also making sure to have a backup and disaster recovery. Wild clearly presents options for each level of protection and gives clear, easy-to-implement selections. 


Another important section of the book deals with Moodle Application security. This aspect has to do with privacy concerns, a data integrity plan, and a review of the various types and functionalities of Moodle applications with an end to helping the user avoid fall into any pitfalls. 


Ian Wild, a technologist and developer of simulations for AVEVA, has many years of experience with Moodle and thoroughly understands the reasons why having a good security solution for the organization’s Moodle installation is imperative in today’s world.  The information and solutions presented in this book could not have come out at a better time. 



Sunday, April 21, 2024

A 2024 Video Performance of Chucky’s Hunch by Rochelle Owens

When Rochelle Owens’s play, Chucky’s Hunch, was first performed Off-Broadway in 1981, critics lauded what they expressed as a tour-de-force performance by the actor playing Chucky, and they took the plot at face value.  The play, which is a long dramatic monologue by an aging man triggered by the news that the second of his three ex-wives has won the lottery, takes the audience into a fascinating psychological odyssey.  On the face of it, the play is simply about the embittered rantings of a failed Abstract Expressionist artist whose grandiose plans took him nowhere except into penury and bad health, as he lives with his 85-year-old mother somewhere in upstate New York.  He reads his letters to Elly, his ex-wife, to the audience, and in doing so, expresses a range of thoughts and feelings, ranging from rageful recriminations to sentimental recounting of the times that he and Elly spent together, and his observations of her behavior. The narrative is a straightforward epistolary one, punctuated by a framed tale (The Snake and the Porcupine).  

Chucky's Hunch is featured in this anthology.

However, when looking more closely at the structure of the play, and then relating it to her other works, particularly her long poems, it becomes clear that the structure is one of repetition and interweaving, just as she has done in her brilliant “Black Chalk,” “Patterns of Animus” and “The Aardvark Venus.”  As in those poems and others, there is an apocalyptic intensity that envelopes the reader with a sense of creeping horror at observing the protagonist’s existential nihilism that insists on destructive behavior and an ineluctable journey toward self-erasure. It is good to note that one can read the play for free via the Internet Archive ( although it is necessary to create an account and borrow it online.

The release of a video version in 2024, with Charles Berliner as Chucky, music by Marcia Kravis, video editing by Ellen Reynolds, and produced by Rochelle Owens, enables the audience to see a darker and more intimate version (  As a narrator, Chucky could not possibly be more unreliable.  He flings words like the Abstract Expressionist flings paint, and it is necessary for the reader to find the patterns that make the deeper meaning, which is not really about Elly and her perceived slights to Chucky, but more about fatal “dances” (like the fabled Tarantella) of those who fall in love with each other, and in their dance of love, they toy with the parallels between love and death. Eros is held up as a life force in popular culture, but for Owens, Eros gives way to Thanatos, and the death-drive animates the various love dances / erotic tarantellas that weave in and out of the play. 

Love-Death Dance 1:  Chucky and Elly.  Chucky reminisces about his time with Elly and the items of clothing he purchased for her. Their life together was something he now views with a combination of sweetness and bitterness, a relatable pain for anyone reflecting on failed relationships of the past.  Images of a bright-white smile framed by carmine-red lipsticked lips further eroticize the narrative. 

Love-Death Dance 2:  Characterized as an impecunious and unmotivated bum, Chucky mooches off his 85-year-old mother, who horrifies him with the relations she has with Chester, her 82-year-old boyfriend.  Depicted in graphic terms, the discordant notion of a couple approaching death carrying on as though they were teenagers is deeply unsettling to Chucky. 

Love-Death Dance 3:  Mother and son have a close relationship, one fraught with contradictions. Chucky describes how he chews his mother’s food for her as an Eskimo mother would chew food for her baby, which may seem potentially kind-hearted except that she lost her teeth because he hit her. 

Love-Death Dance 4:  Chucky’s only friend is his dog.  The dog was killed, however, because it came between the amorous and deadly contortions of a porcupine and a snake.  Their passion killed not only Chucky’s only living friend, but also each other.  As a female voice narrates the frame-tale, images of a snake about to strike and a young porcupine fill the screen. 

Love-Death Dance 5:  Chucky’s tarantella with his own mind starts at the beginning of the play, and it weaves in and out of a kaleidoscope of emotions.  They take him around in colorful, expressive effusions of emotion and reminiscences, but ultimately, the audience sees him as on a path to madness.  When he disappears without a trace, the tarantella takes its final frenzied spin.  The impressions are emphasized by the juxtaposition of images of seagulls feeding on trash piles. 

Chucky complains that Elly never answers his letters, and he resents the fact that she is not only surviving, but is prospering, thanks to winning the lottery. She has gone on to live and thrive in the modern, changing world.  Chucky’s world is one that resonates with medieval times – with echoes of the earthiness of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the resignation of Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, and the aleatory movements of the Wheel of Fortune. The still photos and collages in the film form a backdrop behind the performer, and they resonate with the words, not so much depictions but visual metaphors. The soundtrack, featuring sombre music, seagull cries, and more. 

In the end, Chucky psychologically juxtaposes himself in a final dance with the memory of the successful Elly, and in that final dance, he generates more self-destructive energy and pathos, leaving the audience staring into the “filthy maw” of an oblivion of one’s own devising, forged from the dances of “love-death” which left him with little more than shame and regret about his life. And thus Chucky hits home.  Chucky is Everyman. 

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D. 

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Kim Lonzo on Two Poems by Carlos Hiraldo and Susan Smith Nash

 The two poems that I have chosen deal with the basic question, does our technological progress represent true human progress. Susan Smith Nash’s poem, “The Nature of Poetics,” ( explores the subjects of modern work aided by technology, traditional work aided by tools, and our possible disconnection as a society as the nature of work becomes more ephemeral. Nash uses Aristotelian analysis to search for her answers. This is a much different approach than the second poem. Carlos Hiraldo, in his work, “The Revolution Will Not Be Facebooked,” cleverly creates a sequel poem which updates and brilliantly plays off Gil Scott Heron’s seminal spoken word piece set to music, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Hiraldo mirrors Heron’s meter and style to call attention to how our modern life holds similar ills as the latter’s poem illustrates. The consensus of Nash’s and Hiraldo’s poems are that technology has not improved the human condition and has possibly added to the disconnections between us.

Nash immediately sets the mood by easing us into a state of relaxation. She opens: “No Zoom meetings this morning / so taking advantage / laptop on lap / leaning back in rocking chair.”  By contrasting the images of the laptop positioned on her lap and the recumbent rocking chair, she foreshadows the theme of her poem. Not only is she reflecting on the nature of work but also the implications of technology on the quality of our lives. She continues: “feet propped up / sipping coffee.”  Already in a position of relaxation, Nash adds an extra layer of cozy with the added action of the propping up of the feet. This coupled with the sipping of coffee conjures a sense that a moment of introspection is about to begin. She is at peace in this moment save for a repetitive sound that calls her attention. She continues: “thoughts punctuated by the sound of roofers pounding away the uncertainty of leaky surfaces.” This seemingly, clumsy sentence breaks from the gentle scene she has crafted. Suddenly, an uncertainty creeps into this idyllic setting. She uses evocative words like “punctuated” and “pounding” because this distraction is significant. She must investigate her own uncertainty. She acknowledges this here: “we dread getting wet / whether by water or fear / I respect the sheathed decking, nails, and composition shingles.” Now the uncertainty begins to take shape. She uses the word “dread” to express that the task before her will be difficult. She is afraid. She references safety when she speaks of the sheathed deck or a protected structure. She deconstructs what makes it safe almost as if to say that she must deconstruct or analyze her fear. In the next part, she muses: “where plans meet hands / the work is real / Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.” Finally, she arrives at the point where the soul searching begins. She acknowledges that roofing is real work and references Aristotle’s most well-known book about discovering the meaning of life, “Nicomachean Ethics.” She asks the reader to go on a journey with her to determine if what she contributes to society is work.

Nash continues,

What is the reality of work in a world of coordinated communication? This is the work of developing documents, tasks, programs                     meetings, conventions, projects ,plans, maps ,diagrams—                         infinite conversations and archived files;

And then there are the invoices, accounting, the back office-

And yet, I sit here imagining                                                                          since I’m not perched on a roof                                                                            I have no nail gun in my hand,                                                                         no risk of slipping off onto a hard pavement;

I’m not really working;                                                                                         all my efforts are ephemeral. (Nash)

Now Nash begins to do a classical analytical dissection of the elements of the argument she is attempting to make. She defines the parameters. What is work in the setting she exists within and how does it compare to the traditional concepts of work? She proposes since she has no tangible risks like say a workman on a roof and her efforts are fleeting that it is possible her work is something other. 

She concludes,

At least back when we printed and piled our paper files there was tangible evidence of work;                                                                      External validation that mind and words had an objective correlative

And we could comfort ourselves that reality and life could be empirically affirmed.

But in my heart of hearts                                                                                       I don’t believe it, and I doubt myself just as I doubt this set of lines on paper is anything                                                                              approximating a poem (Nash)

As Nash reaches her resolution, we similarly reach a catharsis. Her self-doubt about her own work throughout the poem countered with her admission that she believes tangible output with some element of real risks equals true work illustrates the objective correlative she references. In choosing her title, Nash calls to mind Aristotle’s “Poetics”, which first delves into defining poetry as an art and posits that art imitates life. Here the artist attempts to define the nature of a poem by comparing elements of the work of one who uses their hands versus one who uses words and ideas. Whether she considers her work a poem or not though is ultimately up to the reader. An artist’s intentions aside, the nature of any work of art is evident in its effect on its audience and not in its creators vision.

Hiraldo introduces the reader to his work by referencing the source inspiration which is the powerfully poignant, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” by Gil Scott-Heron. It is my opinion that Hiraldo wants his reader to be familiar with this piece to fully understand his message. He is tacitly teasing the point that if you are ignorant of the past, you may repeat it. This poem uses repetition and emulation of Scott-Heron’s master work to interplay themes of “old and new,” “mundane and absurd” in a very sharp, satirical tone.

He opens,

You will not be able to man your posts from the comfort of your offices or homes. You will not be able to sign in, rant, and log out.                           You will not be able to friend and unfriend your way into community, share your way to the communist utopia,                                                     like your way to power, brothers and sisters, because the revolution will not be facebooked. (Hiraldo)

By simulating Scott-Heron’s opening and updating from television to Facebook, Hiraldo introduces us to wonderful wordplay and humor, he will be using throughout. The puns on the words “posts”, “friend”, “unfriend”, “share”, and “like” force the reader to interpret at every twist and turn. The brilliant use of the oxymoron “communist utopia”(Hiraldo) illustrates this will be a fun journey into an intellectual discourse on how our technology has improved or possibly impeded us. When he hits his rallying cry, “The revolution will not be facebooked” (Hiraldo), which he will repeat throughout, he is attempting to show us that a new medium reigns and his emphasis attempts to refocus us on the fact that it is a medium.

He continues, 

The revolution will not be brought to you by book length, newsfeed articles telling you everything you already know                                         The revolution will not show you videos of cowardly officers shooting brothers at point blank range because they move too fast or they move too slow

The revolution will be no Onion repost                                                            The revolution will be front page news, brothers and sisters. The revolution will not be facebooked

There will be no smiley selfies of you and colleagues you never talk to at the Global Warming march,                                                                         CNN will not be able to file an entire report based on your social media posts of events because the revolution will not be facebooked (Hiraldo)

Here Hiraldo departs from Scott-Heron who takes a strong political tone. His message rooted in the Black Liberation Movement informed all his work. Hiraldo continues to have echoes of the former’s poem and acknowledges that violence against Black men by law enforcement is still newsworthy in the social media world. He then pivots to question what news in our new digital landscape is. He mentions the satirical website “The Onion” which is a well-known news parody site that is widely shared and often mistaken for real news. He uses the expression “front page news”, an old-fashioned way of saying something was particularly important, to show that our social media advancements aren’t themselves the agents of our change. Further, Hiraldo slyly takes aim at the state of protests by pointing out the vanity aspects of modern activism and the rise of news network coverage of citizen journalists.

He continues,

There will be no soft-porn pictures of meals to be shared                          There will be no soft-porn pictures of meals to be shared                         There will be no kooky anti-government conspiracy theory discrediting all opposition because the conspiracy to be attacked will be what they call reality                                                                                                                  The revolution will not be facebooked.

The revolution will not be brought to you by an old closeted celebrity or a nubile brainy hot thing giving brilliantly obvious quips 

The revolution will not sell you Doc Martens boots                                       The revolution will not give you flattering easy IQ tests (Hiraldo)

Interestingly, Hiraldo launches into an unflattering critique of two major uses of social media which are the sharing of food pictures and the dissemination of conspiracy theories. The tropes of “soft-porn pictures of meals” and “anti-government conspiracies” are used to show the prevalence of and importance placed on indifference and ignorance. Moreover, he juxtaposes the tropes of “an old closeted celebrity” and “a nubile brainy hot thing” to address that fact that our information is packaged in the form of entertainment or infotainment. With a wink, Hiraldo teases the rise of consumerism by mentioning the preferred boot of the anti-capitalist punk movement of the 1970’s. He drives his point even further with a nod to the “flattering easy IQ tests” which is an oxymoron laying bare how little we value integrity and intelligence.

Hiraldo concludes,

The revolution will not tell you what country you should have been born in because the revolution will make the country you were born in the country you should have been born in                                                           The revolution will not be facebooked.

The revolution will not be facebooked                                                           The revolution will not be facebooked                                                          The revolution will not be facebooked                                                          The revolution will be no parody, brothers and sisters, The revolution will be an original work of art. (Hiraldo)

The metaphor of “The Revolution” that Hiraldo has repeated throughout finally takes form here. He has been alluding to the meaning with examples of elements that are not endemic to this revolution. By defining what it is not, Hiraldo has been implying what it is all along this journey. His strongest statement is telling the reader the ultimate result of the revolution will be universal equity. Instead of going to a “promised land” somewhere else , the revolution will have made this unnecessary and no one will question if the grass is greener. For me as the reader, my absolute favorite line is the last. The wit is on full display as Hiraldo takes us home by subtly poking fun at his own work which is a parody. He does this because he is ingeniously showing us that his work like Facebook is a medium for a message and not itself the agent of change. The revolution after all is the movement towards universal equity and this requires active participation not passive acknowledgment.

Our technology has led to fascinating advances in our world. The benefits of which seem to have made our daily lives more comfortable even simpler. We now have a shared digital space that has ushered in a new era of virtual citizenship. Both Nash and Hiraldo question whether our advances in tech have advanced us as people in this modern landscape. Nash embraces her unease at creating a product or work that feels fugacious. She contrasts elements of the new (Zoom Meetings and laptops) versus the old (nail gun or rocking chairs) and decides to use Aristotelian analysis (literally old school thinking) to determine if “work” in an increasingly more digital world remains relevant. By embracing this trope of “new vs old,” she ultimately concludes that minus a tangible or real element, work, like her poem, may not be what it seems anymore. 

Hiraldo too echoes this as he shows us that Facebook as a medium, like television in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (Scott-Heron) has not been an agent of change but merely mistaken as one.  By mimicking the structure and meter of Scott-Heron’s poem and comparing similar relevant issues in an update to this work, Hiraldo shows that the new medium of Facebook has merely replaced television and this time we are creating the soulless content. His novel approach with a nod to the “Old School” of critical analysis seems to arrive at the same destination as Nash with her traditional reasoning. The measure of our true progress is in how much or how little the individual physically contributes to the real world and not the virtual one. 

Works Cited

Nash, Susan Smith. “The Nature of Poetics.” Marsh Hawk Review, Spring, 2021

Hiraldo, Carlos. “The Revolution Will Not Be Facebooked.” Marsh Hawk Review, Fall/Winter,2019

Scott-Heron, Gil. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Pieces of a Man, Flying Dutchman, 1971

Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York; Hill and Wang, 1961.

Wednesday, October 04, 2023

Revisiting “Black Chalk” (1994) by Rochelle Owens

It’s hard to believe it has been almost 30 years since the long poem, “Black Chalk,” was published as a chapbook by Texture Press in Norman, Oklahoma. A companion video was filmed and produced in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, to be debuted at the Fred Jones Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Oklahoma.  


The text: 

The poem consists of three interwoven threads. The first consists of the arrival of the Spaniards in North America and the brutality and mass death. The second thread ties to the work of Leonardo da Vinci, not only his works of art the studio, but also his anatomical investigations. The third interwoven thread is one of societal malaise, where there is a great gulf between social classes, privilege vs homelessness, and consumer culture.  The interweavings and the repetition had an incantatory effect which generates levels of meaning as discordant sounds and disparate concepts are juxtaposed. 

Black Chalk (1994) by Rochelle Owens

In the video, the layering, interweaving of dialogue is manifestly powerful and the visual narrative adds levels of gallows humor, horror, and bourgeois creature comfort stripped bare. The experience of watching the video “Black Chalk” is both disconcerting and enlightening as the inescapable realization dawns on one that the discomfort is evidence of a deep connection with the text. 


Greedy devouring insatiable hunger.

The scene where a curly headed young man who could well have been a model in Leonardo 's studio devours a Peach. The extreme close up continues and lingers almost excruciatingly and is repeated a number of times just after lines about the Spaniards and the conquest are intoned which graphically illustrates the relentless, munching, finger licking horror of the Europeans rapacious destruction and ingestion of all that had pulp, which is to say, living value.

Gleeful celebrations of death.

Evoking the idea of an ecstatic dance macabre four privileged wealthy summer residents in a convertible luxury car echo medieval images from Bruegel or Hieronymus Bosch gleefully chatting blankets infected with plague which invokes the smallpox outbreaks in Mexico and North America which killed indigenous on a genocidal scale and also the ship of fools plague infested ship refused quarter in all ports of call until a fateful “yes” with devastating consequences. The actors shriek with carnivalesque glee which invokes horror. The “hungry bum” refers to an existential state. 

The hungry bum played by George Economou picks up a fanny pack containing an empty wallet and then he repeats the act many times as the camera encircles him creating a dizzying vertiginous journey into a disruption of the boundary between self and other. The bum’s hands rip through the wallet and the emptiness of that very wallet reflects the bankrupt morality of 20th century Americans who are comfortable in their neat New England town and expensive cars and studios but the search for self ultimately yields empty seams and compulsively repetitive digging and searching.

The Studio: The “Chalk” of Art

A black chalk dirtied hand moves over ink and chalk sketches of hands, bodies, and fingers but all are fragmentary and none are fully formed. The scene suggests process, the work in progress, and the ultimate goal, perhaps Leonardo’s Vitruvian man from 1490. The only fully formed complete images in the studio are those the artist and young man who could be the artist’s model or an angel coming to give the gift of artistic creation. In the scene, a slender, aged but attractive woman, the artist, contemplates work in her studio. Her art elicits ideas of fragmentation or even dissection. The angel touches the artist’s withered hand and arm. The lines and the body parts on the canvas are smudged which gives an idea of creation, but also that there is an essential horror at the core of creation. It is simply not possible to have creation without contact with dissection, disruption, and a canvas smudged black and gray with cremains, which could be the “chalk” of art. 

There are many other repeated scenes, repeated snippets of dialogue and behaviors, all which build to a climax of vulnerability, invasion by the other, and profound grief. Some elicit visceral revulsion such as when we are confronted with the lusty munching of a peach, which represents the way the Europeans devoured the civilizations of the Americas.

The Artist

At the end, the artist’s chair is empty. This means, at the end of the day, the artist is obliged to depart. The artist’s white plastic beach chair is empty.  In the world of Black Chalk, the artists is not a god or even Shiva. It is important to consider that the artist could even represent nothingness. The responsibility of meaning is in the consciousness of the viewer.

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

"Oklahoma Too" - A Rare Video Gem by Rochelle Owens: Humor, Disruptions of Language, and a Question of What Is Real

The short film, Oklahoma Too, written and directed by Rochelle Owens in 1987, is filled with wry humor and social commentary. In addition, it is an exploration of the capacity of language to classify, represent truth, human desire and behavior, and ultimately to contain the seeds of its own disruption of meaning(s). 

In the gift store, Voila, in Oklahoma Too


How Much Paint Does the Painting Need 


Filmed in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1987 during the depths of the oil bust, Oklahoma Too takes place in a gift store across the street from Norman Public Library on Gray St. and also in the nicely appointed living room in a private home. 

(Personal note: There was a used bookstore in the same shopping center. I used to ride my bicycle to it after visiting the library in the mid 1970s, when the library was very new. I think it is possible that the used bookstore is still there. I used to buy and sell Regency romances as well as Jane Austen novels. The first Jane Austen novel I read or attempted to read was Sense and Sensibility, purchased in paperback form in Vermont).

The name of the store is Voila and it features jewelry in locked glass cases, plus gifts and lovely collectible decorative pieces for the home including cloisonné and China figurines such as a whimsical ornamental rabbit dressed in a jacket, reminiscent of the rabbit in Alice In Wonderland.

Gold nugget jewelry, fashionable in the 1980s, plays a prominent role in the film. Contrary to what one might think, based on the appearance of the nuggets, they were not mined by bearded prospectors panning for gold in streams in Nevada or California.  Instead, the chunks of gold were 14 karat confections fashioned to look like nuggets and worked into pendants, rings, and earrings, and often considered investment pieces. Such an investment was a good one in the 1980s when gold and silver skyrocketed in price. In the video, the inauthenticity of the “gold nuggets” introduces a tension between appearance and reality, and the way that language convinces one of “the real.”


The video has several key characters. They include three upper middle class professional women eager to purchase something novel to reinforce their social status. Next is Mr. Markup, the owner of a line of nugget jewelry. He recruits a graduate student from Greece to sell the nugget jewelry to pay tuition. Finally, there is a local man who sits behind a jewelry case and reads excerpts from a poem by Owens, “Anthropologist at a Dinner Party” that later appeared in the collection, How Much Paint Does the Painting Need. 


The poem, “Anthropologists at a Dinner Party” was inspired by an actual dinner party with professors from the University of Oklahoma which included George Economou, chair of the English department, and professors from the anthropology department. 

Although one of the anthropology professors ostensibly specializes in Native American culture, he brings the history of the peoples of northern Europe to the conversation. Despite his specialty, he himself is of European origin, and not Native American. He talks about Picts in Northern Europe and then mentions Aryans and intermarriage. The professor’s narrative is subverted by subtexts of eugenics, a theme that underscores a later work by Owens, “Black Chalk.” The history of Oklahoma informs Oklahoma Too, which includes the removal of Native Americans, the Trail of Tears, and a history of cultural destruction and the many attempts to subjugate, exploit, and potentially eradicate Native American peoples.


The film commences as three women dressed as the elite of a small college town appear in the opening scene. The cast of men consists of the entrepreneur and an impecunious graduate student along with a diffident potential customer of gold nuggets or other trinkets. 

Owens has said that she typecasts to facilitate and energize improvisation.  In Oklahoma Too improvisations occur in the jewelry store and then later in the scene when the graduate student is attempting to sell the gold nugget jewelry. He's in the living room of a home of one of two women and the more insistent he becomes the more they resist. They even counter his sales pitch with one of their own: Why not contribute funds to save the Arctic seals being clubbed to death by hunters? There is an element of the absurd in not only the lively and humorous dialogue, but also in the exaggerated Western wear that the foreign student from Greece wears. He is a Greek cowboy wholeheartedly embracing the accoutrements of local culture, and thus potentially equipping himself to be more convincing in the heart of Oklahoma. 

Whether the Greek graduate student’s pitch succeeds, or if the women succeed in convincing him to donate to their cause, is part of the negotiation of text and textual space that marks Oklahoma Too. In fact, one could consider the improvisations as ultimate language play.  One can further suggest the dialogue, with its many levels of ambiguity, and the three voices speaking over each other, are, by their very indeterminacy, a part of the world of art.  Reality is a series of complex negotiations. Signification is just one of those negotiations. Another language negotiation is the right to deconstruct, which embodies the right to collapse and implode language itself the ultimate liberation from oneself and impositions of identity and thus fate.


“Foreign” vs. “Local:” The film toys with the notion of “foreign,” and suggests that all are constructed identities. In fact, when the “foreigner” (the Greek graduate student) dons the apparel of the Western cowboy, he reinforces the notion that appearances always deceive. 

“Faux” vs. “Authentic” nature:  The “gold nuggets” are shaped to look like they came straight from a prospector’s gold-panning operations, with his donkey observing from the edge of the stream. In reality, they are simply lumps of 14K gold (or even just coated with a veneer of gold to be “gold filled”). At any rate, gold is melted and fashioned into a shape that mimics authentic nuggets. 

Con the Con: Mr. Markup is telling the graduate student that he can sell nuggets and earn enough for tuition. In a flash, the Greek graduate student becomes an accomplished sales rep, with a stunning repertoire of sales pitches.  The bourgeois women are likewise cons – except what they “sell” is participation in a high-status philanthropical “cause.” They try to convince the graduate student to contribute to their fund to “save the seals.”


The poem by Owens satirizes university faculty and the conversations they have at dinner parties, which are almost always remembered in retrospect as a platform for one or two dominating, bloviating know-it-alls, who, despite their seeming commitment to liberal perspectives (human rights, civil rights, etc.), reveal their internalization and unconscious espousal of normative forces.  In this case, there is a subtext of eugenics. 

Owens’s vision and direction create an energetic scene In the living room as all three actors speak over each other, creating “noise” rather than clear dialogue. Their attempts to con the others into giving money to their own cause or self-interest explore the way that the audience tries to make sense – which voice dominates? Which one can you follow? The fact that all three voices are of equal valence is critical:  at the end of the day, cacophony prevails. Art is what happens when clarity comes from the cacophony. The artist provides the clarity.

It is also worth noting that the Voila gift store was a charming oasis. The University was likewise an intellectual and spiritual oasis, which fostered creativity and self-expression during the mid to late 1980s, when Oklahoma suffered through the devastating “Oil Bust” and farm crisis. 

---Susan Smith Nash, Ph.D.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

O Jaw Bone: The Experience of the Two Choctaw Removals in Poetry and Biography

In the winter of 1831, the Choctaw Indians were forced out at gunpoint to walk barefoot and in thin clothing from their homelands, 11 million acres in what is now Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, to the Indian Territory in what is now southeast Oklahoma.  There are historical accounts of the privation, suffering, and extreme cruelty, but I did not realize that anyone who made the terrible journey had written a song or a poem.  

The Gilcrease Museum (located in Tulsa, Oklahoma), actually has a document written by an unnamed author about the removal. It appears on the Choctaw Nation website: 


1. Jackson send the Secretary War
To the Indians of the law
Walk o jaw bone walk I say
Walk o jaw bone walk away.

2. Eaton tells us go away
Here no longer you can stay
Walk o jaw bone walk I say
Walk o jaw bone walk away

3. On my way to the Arkansas
G_d d__n the white man’s laws
O come and go along with me
O come and go along with me

The manuscript of the poem by an unnamed Choctaw author

 The website contains the poem along with a guide to understanding the people mentioned in the poem.  Reading the poem and imagining the cruelty of the suffering, especially to the elderly and the young, gives me chills. 


Until today, I did not realize that there was a second Choctaw Removal.  It took place in 1903, and coincided with the dissolution of the Choctaw Nation. In it, Choctaws were sent by train to Ardmore, Oklahoma, which was in the Choctaw Nation.  The way they were transported was brutal – they were loaded like cattle onto box cars, and when they arrived in Ardmore, they were imprisoned in a warehouse, where there was no ventilation, sanitation, heat, or adequate food (  Some were then shipped out to different farms and locations where they had to work for a place to sleep. Others were given allotments of land that had no water or arable land. Some stayed in Ardmore, living in abject destitution. 


My mother was born in Ardmore in 1932.  My grandmother had lived in that town, staring in the late 1920s, and I remember her telling me that the way the Choctaw Indians had to live was worse than criminal. In addition to a lack of food and water, the Mississippi Choctaws suffered from outbreaks of disease. Despite the desperate poverty, the Choctaws pulled together the best they could and preserved their dress, songs, beliefs and culture. Here is a link to Choctaw tribal members wearing traditional outfits: 


Lesa Phillips Roberts (1889 – 1994) was a very Choctaw girl who survived the Second Removal from Mississippi to Oklahoma. She ended up in Atoka, Oklahoma, where life was very precarious. The Mississippi Choctaws were given allotments of land, but they were often in undesirable areas, and the Choctaws already in Oklahoma were often placed in conflict with them.  Her life story was captured by her son, Charles Roberts, near the end of her life. It was published in The American Indian Quarterly in 1990 in an article entitled “A Choctaw Odyssey, The Life of Lesa Phillip Roberts.” 

The Choctaw Nation Cultural Center is located in Calera, Oklahoma, near the town of Durant.  Durant is a regional center with a four-year university (Southeast Oklahoma State University), Choctaw business enterprises (casino, food products), and the Choctaw Nation Tribal Complex.    

Friday, May 12, 2023

History of Oil-Finders Friday: South Texas Serpentine Plugs

 The 1915 headlines read, ‘Oil in an Igneous Rock,” which certainly piqued the curiosity of oil finders, used to displaying their porous sandstone and limestone cores, stained with oil, in their office display cases.

But, in South Texas, they had done it. They had found oil in a green igneous rock they dubbed “serpentine,” even though it was actually an altered tuff resulting from underwater volcanic eruptions.

Udden, J. A., and Bybee, H. P., and others, 1916

The adventure had started a year earlier. In 1914, Fritz Fuchs, a rancher deep in south Texas near the small town of Thrall, decided to drill a water well for his cattle. He did not encounter water, but at about 300 feet, he brought up a strange mix of oil, salt water, and what appeared to be weathered igneous rock, green in color. Mystified, he called the University of Texas geology department to see if they could shed light. The result was a well drilled in February 1915, which was the discovery well for the Thrall field, and the first of many so-called “serpentine plugs.”

At least one study has pointed out that the deposition of the tuffaceous mounds occurred in conjunction with submarine volcanic vents which emitted volcanic ash which then was deposited in the form of mounds, which subsequently altered to palagonite. The volcanic activity occurred with the deposition of chalk and marl of the upper Austin and lower Taylor Groups, which served as both source and seal. 

Interaction between the submarine volcanic system and carbonates

It turns out that all along a belt of volcanic activity, there were similar submarine volcanic eruptions and they became perfect reservoirs for oil generated in the adjacent source rocks. The stratigraphic traps were found in the porous zones of tuff, and also in porous zones in the surrounding carbonates, and in traps in sands draping over the serpentine plug, and in fracture porosity in the carbonates near the plugs (Loucks, 2022).

The wells could be incredibly prolific, with a feature covering less than 10 acres producing 100,000 barrels. Others were not as prolific. However, by 1986, more than 47 million barrels had been produced (Matthews, 1986).

The serpentine plugs are found associated with the volcanic centers that align with the pre-Tertiary Balcones and Luling regional fault and fracture systems. Some of the minerals in the tuffaceous mounds are magnetic, resulting in magnetic anomalies. 

Some of the minerals in the tuffaceous mounds are magnetic, resulting in magnetic anomalies. While the first oil-rich serpentine plug was discovered by accident, science was used to discover dozens of the features scattered along the belt of pre-Tertiary-age submarine volcanic activity. The fact that the features tended to be shallow and of dramatically different lithology than the surrounding carbonates, and that were often oil seeps, made it possible to use new methods, which included surface geochemistry, in which soil samples were taken, and plants observed to see if they were affected by hydrocarbons in the soil. Second, newly developed magnetometers were used. Most were truck-mounted, and they were able to detect anomalies by means of differences in the magnetic field.

Source: Loucks, 2022

The features were small, and it took a lot of patience to find them, but when they did, the wells could be extremely prolific. Ranging from just a few feet deep, to 5,000 feet deep, the wells were inexpensive to drill.

Today, with high-resolution drone-mounted magnetometers, and highly accurate surface geochemistry, it’s possible to revisit a fascinating play, which to this day is one of the few areas of the world where oil is found in igneous rocks.

I love this play, and I’m thrilled to have an original copy of the November 25, 1916 Bulletin of the University of Texas published by the Bureau of Economic Geology and Technology which is dedicated to the Thrall Oil Field. 


Loucks, R. G., R. R. Reed (15 April 2022) Implications for carbonate mass-wasting complexes induced by volcanism from Upper Cretaceous Austin Chalk strata in the Maverick Basin and San Marcos Arch areas of south-central Texas, USA. Sedimentary Geology. Vol 432. 

Matthews, T. F. (1986) The Petroleum Potential of "Serpentine Plugs" and Associated Rocks, Central and South Texas. Baylor Geological Studies Bulletin, Spring 1986.  

Udden, J. A., and Bybee, H. P., and others, 1916, The Thrall Oil Field, by J. A. Udden and H. P. Bybee [and] Ozokerite from the Thrall Oil Field, by E. P. Schoch [and] The Chemical Composition of the Petroleums Obtained at Thrall, Texas, by E. P. Schoch and W. T. Read: University of Texas, Austin, Bureau of Economic Geology and Technology, Bulletin 66, 93 p.

Friday, May 05, 2023

History of Oil Finders Friday: Dunkirk Black Shale Gas Well, 1825, in Fredonia, New York

In the 1820s in Fredonia, New York, William Aaron Hart, a local gunsmith long curious about the gas seeps emanating from the nearby Canadaway Creek, decided to investigate. According to a historical report, he first tested the gas by collecting it in a flipped-over washtub, inserting a gun barrel in a hole, and then lighting the gas as it flowed through the gun barrel.  

Encouraged, Hart started to investigate the origin of the gas seeps, and soon found that they were coming from what he referred to as “slaty rock,” which was later classified as the Dunkirk shale, an upper Devonian black shale, typified by prominent and numerous joints and fracture networks. Early geologists such as Lewis Caleb Beck (1798-1853) studied not only the geology and mineralogy, but the surrounding vegetation as well. 

The Dunkirk shale is a very low-permeability source rock which reached the oil window for hydrocarbon generation during the Permian.  Heat flow occurred at the same time that the tectonic events were propagating the joints throughout the Devonian section in the Finger Lakes District (Lash, 2014). In other words, Gary Lash and his fellow researchers found that petroleum generation was a joint-driving mechanism, due to thermally-driven phase change.

Randy Blood, who studied under Gary Lash, has continued to do extensive fieldwork and to make further connections between thermal maturation and the development of massive joint systems which create a robust and persistent gas reservoir and migration pathway. The exploration implications are significant. 

Gas generation from the upper Devonian black shales resulted from the desorption of methane from the surface of residual organic material (kerogen and bitumen) and clay minerals, principally illite. Production, however, depends the size, frequency, and interconnectedness of natural jointing.  

After continuing to investigate and experiment, in 1825 Hart drilled a 27-foot hole into the rock, and encountered gas that would flow at a rate sufficient for him to invent and implement a small pipeline (first made of bamboo) and to use the gas in gas lamps, first in farms, a mill, and later in a hotel and a lighthouse. 

Several years later, Preston Barmore, a creative engineer unfazed by what might happen as one ramped up the production volumes of natural gas, decided to drill a well to 127 feet in depth, and, when frustrated by the low volume of gas, decided to ignite the gas, causing downhole explosions (Martin, etal, 2008). This early version of fracing was highly effective. 

Within a few years, hundreds of wells were drilled in the shallow Dunkirk shale, and pipelines were constructed to distribute the gas to street lamps, making Fredonia one of the first towns in the world to have gas street lamps (Martin, et al, 2008). Other pipelines were built in western and upstate New York, including ones constructed of hollowed-out tree logs, used for transporting produced salt water to evaporation ponds.

Whether or not the shallow, low-volume gas reservoirs of the Dunkirk shale might still have economic potential given current regulatory frameworks is something to be pursued. Because there were so many active gas seeps in the past, it might be worthwhile to conduct airborne surveys to detect methane and to see if there are any concentrations around natural seeps. There could be local uses for low-volume gas for innovative geologists and engineers today as well as almost 200 years ago. 


Blood, R., and Lash, G. (2019). Horizontal Targeting Strategies and Challenges: Examples from the Marcellus Shale, Appalachian Basin, USA. Conference: Unconventional Resources Technology Conference (URTeC),2019 - Denver, CO. 

Lash, G., Loewy, St., and T. Engelder (2004). Preferential jointing of Upper Devonian black shale, Appalachian Plateau, USA: evidence supporting hydrocarbon generation as a joint-driving mechanism. Geological Society of London. Special Publications. Vol. 231:1, p 129-161. 

Lash, G. G., and E. P. Lash (2014) Early History of the Natural Gas Industry, Fredonia, New York. Search and Discovery Article. August 29, 2014.  

Lash, G., and E. Lash (May 2015) The Unsung “Father of the Natural Gas Industry” AAPG Explorer. May 2015. 

MacDonald, Ronald (2002) Application of Innovative Technologies to Fractured Devonian Shale Reservoir Exploration and Development Activities, Proceedings of the Forty-First Annual OPI Conference, Ontario Petroleum Institute, November 4-6. 

Martin, J P., Hill, D. G., Lombardi, T. E., Nyahay, R. (2008). A Primer on New York’s Gas Shales. New York State Geological Association: NYSGA Online.

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